Hidden hikes in the Columbia River Gorge
Vertical rock walls and a wide, windy river create perfect terrain for outdoor pursuits in the Columbia River Gorge. (Danny Warren/Getty)
The mighty Columbia River draws the border between Oregon and Washington states, creating the roof of the former and the floor of the latter, in the United States’ Pacific Northwest. And stretching from the edge of Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, to east of the Cascade mountain range is the 85 mile-long Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, a 4,000ft deep gorge that slices through the extreme topography.
Massive vertical rock walls, a wide, windy river and the mountain range create perfect terrain for outdoor pursuits such as windsurfing, mountain biking and hiking, making the recreational wonder a popular day trip for city residents. And although there are more than 100 established trails to choose from, you can have the wilderness almost all to yourself with these four lesser-known hikes.
Multnomah Falls to Wahkeena Falls Loop
Multnomah Falls, the tallest falls in Oregon at 620ft, is one of the top tourist attractions in the state thanks to a combination of natural drama and accessibility. While the crowds can sometimes be overwhelming, you can leave them far below you on a five-mile trail that connects Multnomah with Wahkeena Falls, passing seven waterfalls on the way. Start at Multnomah, 15 miles east of Troutdale, Oregon, climbing the one-mile paved trail to the top of the falls, where the crowds usually stop. But you can keep going, following the falls’ source stream and passing two perfect little waterfalls surrounded by ferns and moss and plunging into deep pools along the way. When the trail forks, take the right turn towards Wahkeena. After a couple of miles, you will emerge from Multnomah’s densely foliaged valley to a drier landscape full of massive Douglas Firs. The trail follows the contours of the mountain, and after one mile you will reach another fork. The sign instructs you to head downhill for Wahkeena Falls, but in fact you should head up about a half a mile to view Wahkeena Springs, where the headwaters of the namesake falls rush from the ground a few hundred feet above where the waterfall begins its drop. To get back, head back down the way you came, passing misty little Fairy Falls as you go. Once you reach the Wahkeena Falls parking lot, a mile and a half down, it is only another half mile of hiking east to get back to your car at Multnomah Falls.
Though technically out of the jurisdiction of the Gorge Scenic Area, Falls Creek always comes up when discussing lesser-known hikes and amazing waterfalls. On the Washington side of the Gorge and in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the trailhead is inland about 15 miles past the small town of Carson up Forest Road 057. The trail itself is a gentle, 3.4-mile there-and-back walk to a stunning, 220ft, three-tiered waterfall, deep in a mossy forest. On a sunny day, steam rises from the pine needle-covered floor and light filters through the cathedral ceiling of old growth firs. You can only see the first two waterfalls from the bottom; to see the third you will need to scramble along a very steep, unofficial trail (look for the well-used but unmaintained path to the left of the waterfall) to the top of the third falls. This final part of the route is not for novices and adds another 1.5 miles to the hike.
Cape Horn opened to the public in 2004 and is the newest trail in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area in Washington, closest to Vancouver. Before the trail was constructed, Cape Horn Falls was only viewable from across the Gorge at Oregon’s Bridal Veil Falls. Now, hikers can follow this trail behind the base of the waterfall. The eight-mile loop is divided into upper and lower sections, bisected by Highway 14, with the trailhead at the intersection of the highway and Salmon Falls Road. Though you can travel the loop in either direction, most hikers head northeast along a slope that provides plenty of views of the gorge below.
The trail showcases all the best that the gorge has to offer: waterfalls, wildflowers and grand views of the river below. The trail is excellent for wildflowers in May, and in October it is best for fall foliage.