Today my friend Kelly and I had a little early birthday celebration for her, and we chose to spend it in the Gorge. Growing up here, I traveled through the Gorge a lot – my grandparents lived in northern Idaho, and that’s the route – but I didn’t really realize how special a place it is. The Columbia River, which cuts through the Gorge and forms the Oregon-Washington border down in our area, is the second longest river in the US (or somewhere else I read the 4th largest…). In any case, it goes for 1,200 miles! The Columbia River Gorge has the second highest continuous running waterfall in the US, Multnomah Falls, walls that rise as high as 4,000 feet, and is a National Scenic Area. There are actually about forty waterfalls on the Oregon side, and thirteen waterfalls on the Washington side. We are so very lucky to live in this incredibly beautiful part of the country!
Getting to the Gorge from Portland is easy – you just head east on I-84. And if you drive just 35 miles you’ll find a parking lot at John B. Yeon State Park. It’s the trailhead to hike to Elowah Falls. Luckily, no parking permit is needed because we didn’t think of that until we got out there! We had a lot planned for our day, so we didn’t want a long hike, but we wanted a good hike where we could see a waterfall and some pretty fall leaves. The lower falls hike sounded like it would fill the bill, and it was perfect. There is also a longer upper falls trail with more elevation gain.
You never know what weather you’re going to get when you plan a hike in November out there, but we lucked out. It was crisp and cool and there was no rain. The trail had a lot of leaves on it, but it wasn’t muddy. There were some rocks on the trail, too, but it wasn’t at all difficult to walk on. We even found a heart rock!
The trail climbs for the first half, but gently, then descends for the second half, also pretty gently, with a few switchbacks. The one thing I didn’t like was that for the first half the trail pretty much follows I-84, and there’s a lot of road noise, but once we made the turn, all we could hear was river and waterfall! It was rushing – guess all that rain we’ve had the past few weeks was good for the waterfalls.
The leaves on the maples were (a) gigantic and (b) nearly all turning bright, bright yellow. Most of the rest of the forest was bright green and/or moss covered, so it the gold really stood out. It wasn’t bright sunshine above, but there was beautiful light filtering through that made some of the leaves just seem to glow.
We met three people coming up as we were going down, and they mentioned that it was pretty misty down there. We could feel it getting cooler as we descended, and then when we got close to the little wooden bridge at the bottom, we really understood what they meant. They meant it was like a rainstorm down there! The falls are 289 feet high, and they fall wide and fast with a huge splash.
With the little breeze down there, we were fully soaked in about two minutes, but it was so fun to be down there that it was worth it. If you’ve never stood in a waterfall’s splash pattern, you are really missing out on one of life’s great natural experiences, and I highly recommend it. This one was especially wet, however, and might be better with a raincoat or on a warm day. Luckily, like I said, the trail wasn’t too long, so we didn’t really mind being wet.
The trail is an out and back trail, but what I very often notice on out and backs (as opposed to loop trails) is that it really is usually more like two completely different hikes. On the way out you notice some things, and on the way back, you notice others. For example, on the way out, we noticed the sweet licorice ferns (Kel’s favorite fern), but on the way back we noticed hundreds of baby sword ferns just unfurling.
We hadn’t seen them at all on the way to the falls, even though they were there. We saw the river differently, and we noticed the yellow leaf path (sung to the Wizard of Oz, “Follow the yellow brick road” tune, and you’re welcome for having that stuck in your head now, too) that we hadn’t noticed before.
It was a perfect little hike to start our day, and I’d recommend it for kids and adults. Do you have a favorite hike in the Gorge? Leave us a note in the comments. Enjoy your next hike, whether it’s during a week or a weekend!