Often searching for enchanting waterfalls and spectacular views requires a huge amount of planning, dedication, back country gear, and miles of strenuous hiking. Fortunately, just 30 minutes East of Portland, Oregon are some of the most photogenic and breathtaking waterfalls the PNW has to offer, located in the Columbia River Gorge. The kicker, they are all accessible by car or a short hike, making them an amazing experience for explorers of all abilities.
Start/ Finish: Portland, OR
- Vista House
- Latourell Falls
- Bridal Veil Falls
- Wahkeena Falls
- Multnomah Falls
- Bonneville Dam
- Bridge of the Gods
- Beacon Rock State Park
- Cape Horn Overlook
- Camas, WA
Taking Highway 84 East to exit 22 from Portland will bring you to the Historic Columbia River Highway, the trailhead to this epic day road trip. The windy scenic drive will take you to the best the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge has to offer. While slowly working your way up in elevation you will come to an iconic lookout at Vista House. Built in 1918 by Edgar Lazarus, this art deco museum sits perched 733 feet above the gorge, offering stunning views of the Columbia River. A great place to start or end your trip, offering the best sunrise/sunset views on the Oregon side.
Continuing East on the Historic Columbia River Highway, you will come to the Latourell Falls trailhead. Although visible from the road, a short 2.1 mile loop will offer an unforgettable experience to this 250 ft basalt cliff waterfall.
A short 3 mile drive will take you to the Bridal Veil Falls trailhead. A very easy paved 1 mile loop will bring you to the base of this double cascade waterfall. Regardless of the season, Bridal Veil Falls will always exceed expectations.
Further down the highway sits Oregon’s number 1 waterfall: Multnomah Falls. Iconic for its viewing bridge, Multnomah falls attracts over 2 million visitors per year, and is a must see for anyone in the greater Portland area. Formed 15,000 years ago by the Missoula Floods, Multnomah Falls consists of two cascades, totaling 620 feet. Be sure to grab a quick coffee and snack at the Multnomah Falls Lodge, before continuing down the scenic Columbia River Gorge.
Unfortunately, the Eagle Creek Fires of 2017 have left much of the explorable terrain along this scenic corridor closed, however, every season more and more of Oregon’s beauty reopens. Be sure to check local conditions at: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/crgnsa/recreation/hiking/recarea/?recid=29912&actid=50
Driving east towards Cascade Locks you will pass by Bonneville Dam. Built in the 1930’s \, the dam acts as both a lock and source of hydroelectricity for the city of Portland. What makes this spot special, are the 70 pairs of nested Bald Eagles who rely on the fresh salmon around the dam as a food source. Towards the end of winter/early spring, you can often view these incredible Birds of Prey fishing the Columbia River around the dam.
A few miles past the dam is the Bridge of Gods, a $2 toll bridge which will have you cross onto the Washington side of the gorge. Opening in 1926, the Bridge of the Gods is a steel truss cantilever bridge, whose architectural beauty parallels the natural beauty of the river below.
Crossing the Bridge of the Gods, head West on Highway 14 back towards Portland. Unlike the Oregon side, the Washington side was spared by the 2017 fires, and its vast trail system is still open to hikers and adventurers alike. One of my favorite hiking spots is Beacon Rock State Park, home to both Beacon Rock and Rodney Falls. Beacon Rock is a Basalt Volcanic Plug that towers 848 feet over the Columbia River Gorge. This monolith is accessible by an intermediate 1.8 mile hike that traverses the basalt cliff side. Offering amazing views of the Gorge, the hike is very rewarding, and a great place to have a quick trail sandwich or beer. Be sure to spend the $10 on a Washington Discover Pass at the Ranger Station to avoid any parking tickets. If you plan on being in Washington for more than the day, invest in an annual pass for only $40, which offers access to every state and national park in Washington.
On the north side of the park is another great 2.5 mile hike which takes you to the Pool of the Winds at Rodney Falls. If you have time, this unique hike offers access to 3 different waterfall views.
Now tired from your busy day exploring, continue west to the Cape Horn Overlook for sunset. One of my personal favorite spots, the overlook offers amazing views of Beacon Rock and the Gorge. Be sure to drive slow, because you can easily miss this side of the road pull off. As you head back towards Portland, stop in the small town of Camas, WA and enjoy a refreshing beer at GOW Brewery, or a nice evening coffee at Café Piccolos. A fast 15 minute drive from Camas, and you’ll be back home to Portland, rewarded with the experience of an amazing day of hiking and waterfalls.