A spring weekend is the perfect time to see famed ‘waterfall alley.’
STEVENSON, Skamania County — The weather forecast called for a 100 percent chance of rain. Normally, this would be an excuse to hang up the hiking boots and sit by a fire. But on this day, I couldn’t have been happier.
My wife and I were staying near Stevenson along the Columbia River Gorge in a region affectionately known as “Waterfall Alley.” The blustery weather and early-season snowmelt were promising to swell the area’s best cataracts beyond their normal grandeur, which would make for a heck of an outing.
In the summer, viewpoints for these same waterfalls are choked with visitors. But when it pours — and you can tolerate wet feet — you can practically have the most popular hikes to yourself.
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“The Columbia River is the only sea-level route through the Cascades,” says Melissa Braaten, who works for the nonprofit organization Discover Your Northwest. With 78 inches of rain annually, much of that runoff finds its way into the Gorge where it plummets dramatically from the sheer cliffs on both sides of the river, she says.
Not only do the waterfalls increase in volume, but liquid sunshine seems to squirt out of every crack and crevice along the sheer walls – something you don’t get to see in the dry season.
There are roughly 50 waterfall hikes within 30 minutes of Stevenson, says Braaten, and here are some of the best places to spend a rainy spring weekend.
Hike distance: 2.4 miles round-trip to the top
On the Oregon shore just off Interstate 84, perhaps no waterfall in the Northwest is more iconic than the 611-foot Multnomah Falls – one of the tallest in the country. For sheer height, awe and accessibility, it’s a favorite.
The footbridge near the base screams postcard quaint, and you can see the entire falls from the bottom, so it’s a must-stop for any visitor to the Gorge. This can be a problem in the summer (I’ve left several times without getting out of the car because I couldn’t find parking), but when the rain pours, you’ll have no trouble.
It’s possible to hike to the top of the upper falls, but it’s the biggest disappointment in the region, says Portland native and frequent visitor Chris Tinker. After 45 minutes of switchbacks, you reach the top, and the water just rolls over the cliff. You don’t see anything. Save your legs for another hike, he advises, and just walk to the footbridge.
Access: Exit 31 from I-84 to falls parking lot, or via the Historic Columbia River Highway (Highway 30), reached via Exit 28 from eastbound I-84.
Biggest bang for your buck:
Horsetail Falls / Ponytail Falls / Oneonta Falls
Hike distance: Ponytail Falls, 1 mile round trip; Oneonta Falls 3.2 miles round- trip.
Like Multnomah, Oregon’s Horsetail Falls can be seen from the parking area, but spend some time hiking the steep trail and you’ll be rewarded by two additional falls that are equally impressive.
About half a mile from the base, you’ll encounter Ponytail Falls, a large cascade that spits out over a tremendous cavern, allowing you to walk behind the falls.
This feature is sure to bring smiles to the faces of soaked hikers because it gives a respite from the rain, and a unique angle from which to view a waterfall.
Another 1.1 miles up the trail and you’ll encounter viewpoints of the gorge, and then the much smaller Oneonta Falls. The view from the rickety footbridge is nice, but look behind you, to witness the incredibly steep-walled Oneonta Canyon that is cut so perfectly into stone that it looks a lot like a human-forged channel.
Access: Trailhead 2.75 miles east of Multnomah Falls, on the Historic Columbia River Highway.
Best hike for kids:
Hike distance: 1.8 miles round-trip
Also on the Oregon side, this is a nice, short, flat route that’s a good option for tykes and those who have trouble with uneven trails. Start near the Bonneville Dam and pass a small intake for the fish hatchery, then wander by house-sized boulders left behind by a 1973 landslide, before entering a narrow canyon.
At the first footbridge, you’ll see a dramatic waterfall, but that’s just a preamble for the 350-foot, two-tiered waterfall, which is one of the best in the Gorge.
After the hike, I highly recommend a stop at the free-admission Bonneville Fish Hatchery, where you can buy pellets to feed juvenile salmon and rainbow trout in the rearing ponds.
For a sight that’s sure to make your jaw drop, don’t miss the sturgeon holding tank. The viewing area is below the water level, and you may not believe your eyes when “Herman the Sturgeon” cruises by. At more than 10 feet long and 450 pounds, you might swear he’s a shark or small whale when he emerges from shadows and drifts by the window.
Access: From I-84 take Exit 40, Bonneville Dam. Turn south and drive about 100 feet. Stay to the right, taking you to Wahclella Falls trailhead. Northwest Forest Pass required.
Falls Creek Falls
Distance: 3 miles round- trip
During most years, this trail on the Washington side of the river is inaccessible in spring until a gated access road opens April 1, but it’s well worth the wait. It’s an easy and flat hike that leads to a wide misty falls described by locals as “Amazonian.”
As you approach the falls and begin to hear rushing water, look up into the treetops. You can see the first stage of the three-tiered falls that seems to spring out of the canopy.
The second stage gives off a powerful roar, and the third is a spout leading to a 100-foot drop into a punchbowl.
Access: From Carson, drive 15 miles north on Wind River Hwy. (County Road 30) to Forest Road 3062. Turn right (east), and drive 1.8 miles to the trailhead.
For more information
• For up-to-date trail information, or when it’s time to warm up with a mug of hot chocolate, stop by the U.S. Forest Service office at Stevenson’s Skamania Lodge.
The staff can provide you with detailed maps of the area, give advice on activities, warn you about trail closures and customize your visit based on the group you’re traveling with.
• Friends of the Columbia Gorge has online details on waterfalls and other hikes: trails.gorgefriends.org/plan-your-own-hike.