Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls
2.5 miles round trip, 850 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

620-foot tall Multnomah Falls is the highest waterfall in Oregon and one of the most stunning falls in the Pacific Northwest; it's also astonishingly easy to access, as it's less than an hour east of Portland directly off I-84. This beautiful double-tiered waterfall drops down the basalt walls of the Columbia River Gorge and can be seen without having to do any real hiking; the hike detailed here climbs from the base of the falls to a viewpoint at the top of the upper falls. As the falls are one of the most popular locations in the Columbia River Gorge, this hike offers a good way to see the falls while escaping the crowds at the base and at the bridge above the lower falls.

I hiked this trail in December after a rare low-elevation snowstorm paralyzed Portland and the Columbia River Gorge. My initial plan was to hike the Wakheena Falls Loop, but I-84 was closed due to snow and ice on the morning of the day of my hike, as was the Columbia River Highway, so I found myself just east of Portland, stuck in traffic with a line of tractor-trailers, with no way to head east. My backup plan of exploring Fort Vancouver National Historic Site fell apart once I discovered that the park's visitor facilities were closed on Sundays. I instead decided to take a day drive east along the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, which had stayed open despite the buildup of ice and snow in the gorge. After spending much of my afternoon touring the Bonneville Dam- the furthest downstream of the many hydroelectric projects along the Columbia River- I looked across the river and saw that traffic had resumed on I-84, so I decided that I would spend some time on the Oregon side of the gorge after all. I crossed the Bridge of the Gods into Oregon and then took I-84 west until reaching the Multnomah Falls parking area, which is sandwiched between the eastbound and westbound lanes of I-84. It's also possible to access the lodge at the base of the falls by driving the Columbia River Highway. Parking at Multnomah Falls can be very difficult on weekends and throughout the summer- in fact, it's a good idea to avoid this hike during peak tourist times as traffic jams can snarl the Columbia River Highway near the falls.

From the parking lot in the middle of I-84, I followed the underpass below the eastbound lanes of the interstate over to Multnomah Falls Lodge, where the hike started. From the lodge, a wide, paved, and flat path led about 50 meters to a clear viewpoint of this towering waterfall. The upper falls was the more impressive drop here, plunging 540 feet in a single go down a massive basalt cliff. The lower falls were much smaller, at just 70 feet tall, but still made a pretty drop down to a pool at the base of the cliffs. A pretty, arched footbridge spanned the gorge directly above the lower falls. The high basalt cliffs here were adorned with moss and on the winter day when I visited there was snow clinging to nooks in the cliff. The lower viewpoint is usually very crowded, as this is one of the most popular viewpoints in the state of Oregon.

From the lower viewpoint, a paved path led uphill to the right, making some switchbacks as it climbed steadily uphill to reach the footbridge over the lower falls in 0.2 miles. From the bridge, there was a view back down to the Multnomah Falls Lodge and the viewpoint at the base of the falls, as well as a close-up view of the towering upper falls, which were too tall to fit into a single camera frame. This is truly an impressive waterfall- in the contiguous United States, only the waterfalls of Yosemite have have combined such height with robust flow. During my visit, a wispy minor waterfall also tumbled off the cliffs to the right of the main Multnomah Falls.

Upper drop of Multnomah Falls
Most casual visitors to Multnomah Falls don't bother to go any further than the footbridge; hikers who choose to go further can experience the falls with just a fraction of the crowds. The paved path continued up the mountainside from the bridge, reaching a junction with the Gorge Trail at 0.4 miles; here, I stayed on the main paved path, making a sharp switchback and continuing uphill through forested slopes. The trail was paved but steep as it ascended through a series of switchbacks over the next 0.6 miles.

In September 2017, the forest around Multnomah Falls was badly damaged by the Eagle Creek Fire. The fire started when teenagers hiking the Eagle Creek Trail a bit to the east in the Columbia River Gorge set off fireworks in the forest, igniting an intense blaze that ripped through the Oregon side of the gorge. Hikers enjoying their Labor Day weekend were trapped by the flames and the Multnomah Falls Lodge was threatened but ultimately saved; ash rained from the sky as far away as Seattle, where I lived at the time. While the forest here was badly damaged by that fire and many of the trees that once grew on this slope are gone, the landscape is now in the process of recovering and the greenery will return. 

When I hiked here, the landscape was coated in fresh snow. This trailhead is generally accessible in winter, but hikers who come when there is snow or ice should bring traction devices like microspikes or Yaktrax, especially as the trail is quite steep.

Snow-covered trail
While ascending up the 11 switchbacks on this stretch of the hike, there were some good views out into the Columbia River Gorge. Cloud cover was low on the day of my visit, limiting the extent of views, but I was still impressed by the cliffs of Hamilton Mountain rising across the river and Beacon Rock, a large basalt outcrop rising directly above the Columbia. The Columbia River's near sea level crossing of the Cascades makes for steep terrain changes where the mountains meet the Columbia, which is responsible for the many impressive waterfalls found in the gorge, including Multnomah Falls.

Columbia River Gorge
A mile from the trailhead, I reached and then crossed a small saddle that marked the high point of the hike. From here, the trail descended slightly to a junction, just uphill from Multnomah Creek. The left fork headed off towards Larch Mountain, a local high point and the headwaters of Multnomah Creek. The right fork- which I took- was a short spur trail leading out to the Multnomah Falls Viewpoint. The trail was probably paved through here, but it was a bit difficult for me to tell due to the thick snow cover. The spur descended gently over the next 1/5 of a mile until it ended at a viewpoint at the very lip of the falls. There was a nice view at this observation platform of a very pretty cascade on Multnomah Creek just above the upper falls. After passing through this small cascade, Multnomah Creek then rushed downstream until it leaped into the air, its water droplets almost hanging in the air before wafting down to the basin far below. While I couldn't see the lower falls at all, Multnomah Falls Lodge, the viewpoint at the base, I-84, and the Columbia River Gorge were all visible. 

Cascade just above Multnomah Falls
The top of Multnomah Falls
Columbia River Gorge from the top of Multnomah Falls
On a snowy December day with just minutes of daylight left, I had the viewing platform at the top of the falls all to myself. If you come on a weekend or in the summer you'll undoubtedly have company as this Multnomah Falls is an extraordinary popular spot. Still, the top of the falls will be much less crowded than the base and the nice views of the Columbia River and the chance to see the waterfall from above make it a rewarding way to experience Oregon's tallest waterfall.

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