Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Multnomah-Wahkeena Falls Loop - Columbia River Gorge

Multnomah-Wahkeena Falls Loop
5.5 mile loop | 1,600 ft elevation gain

Multnomah Falls - Columbia River Gorge - taken in January 2012

I love Multnomah Falls. It is thunderous, violent, beautiful, magnificent, intimidating, and iconic. To those of us who worship nature, the sheer power and size of this waterfall is breathtaking. I'll never forget the first time I experienced Multnomah Falls. I had just accomplished a dream come true by moving to Portland; and my first trip out into the Gorge and seeing the Falls really made it sink in that I had achieved this dream of mine. When you're here at the Falls there is no mistaking that you are in the Pacific Northwest; and Multnomah remains one of the prominent symbols of the Northwest.


Multnomah Falls @ 10 am on a Saturday
Whenever someone mentions the words "Multnomah Falls" to me, I wish the first thing that popped into my head was something like "most magnificent waterfall in the Pacific Northwest" or "one of the most iconic waterfalls in the US a mere 20 minute drive from Portland" or "second tallest year-round waterfall in the US at 620 feet" or even my very first experience of it, discussed in the paragraph above. Those things certainly do pop into my head, but they aren't the first thing that pops into mind. The first thing? the crowd.

To say that Multnomah Falls can get crowded is a bit of an understatement. No, It's not Disneyland on a summer weekend in August crowded, not Manhattan on New Years Eve crowded, not Los Angeles freeway at rush hour crowded, but crowded, especially in terms of Oregon standards. Sadly, it has become one of the Falls' defining characteristics to Portlanders; and I would hardly be painting you an accurate portrait of Multnomah Falls if I didn't mention the crowds. It used to be the most visited tourist destination in Oregon until recently, when the coastal casino Spirit Mountain wrestled for the title and won. Needless to say, unless you arrive really early in the morning or visit on a cold, rainy winter day, you're probably going to encounter a crowd.

Multnomah Falls on a Spring Saturday Afternoon
Another reason why Multnomah Falls gets so crowded is because of ease of accessibility- it is literally located right off the interstate (as in, it doubles as a rest-stop area). To get from your car to the bottom of the falls requires little to no effort whatsoever. The ease of accessibility, however, is both a blessing and a curse.

The crowds are really only to be found in and around the foot of the falls, clustered together on the Benson bridge, lodge, and parking areas. If you take the steep, paved trail leading up to a view from the top of the falls you will start to feel the crowds thinning out. There is an old scenic footbridge way up there near the viewpoint from the top that crosses Multnomah Creek. This trail continues on to both Larch Mountain and the junction with the trail that brings you to Wahkeena Falls. After this footbridge the crowds, finally and thankfully, stop. (more on this below)

Multnomah Falls - Columbia River Gorge
Overall, I love Nature for the peaceful solitude and quiet it offers. Even a roaring waterfall is in a way quiet. To enter Nature is a chance to escape the white noise of our everyday lives in the city, to think clearly and introspectively, to replace the often chaotic sounds of modern society with the more soothing and primordial sound of babbling creeks, wind through the trees, and bird singing. Not to sound misanthropic, but when I am out in Nature I want to be away from people. This being said, I can assure you that I try to avoid Multnomah's crowds as much as possible (and I can also assure you that I am not alone). The best way to avoid crowds anywhere is to arrive during more obscure times: winter months, rainy days, or (if Spring through Fall) weekdays if possible or early mornings on weekends.

Now that I'm done rambling on about crowds, let's finally talk about the Multnomah-Wahkeena Falls loop trail itself.

Photo taken from (Thanks, Mr. Sullivan)
There are two popular ways to hike the Multnomah-Wahkeena Falls loop:
1)  Park at the less-crowded Wahkeena Falls trailhead and start the hike there.
2)  Park at the much larger and crowded Multnomah Falls and walk over to the Wahkeena Falls trailhead via a short 0.8 mile trail called "Return Trail."

I chose to go with option #2, mainly because Paul Gerald, author of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland, suggested that option in his book. Why does he suggest this option? Mainly because once you've finally completed the steep descent from the top of Multnomah Falls you'll end the hike right there at the Lodge, where you can treat yourself to coffee, food, something from the gift shop, etc, before jumping into your car and heading home. I for one find myself craving a cold local India Pale Ale after a long hike, so I made straight for my car with dreams of an outdoor seating area at a pub somewhere in Portland! I've never actually had the food at Multnomah Falls, usually because once I see the prices I decide against it. Like any tourist destination, the prices for food and drink items can be rather steep, though thankfully not as steep as the last mile of that hike you just descended.

I started my day at about 10 a.m. on Saturday April 21, 2012 at the Multnomah Falls Lodge. The photo below however (my favorite photo of the lodge, hence my re-using it) was taken in January of 2012. Hence, of course, the patches of snow.

Multnomah Falls Lodge with the fall behind - taken in January 2012
Multnomah Falls has been a tourist destination since 1915, when the Columbia River Highway opened to allow tourists and weekenders access into the Columbia River Gorge. In 1925, a stone lodge designed in the fashion of traditional national park lodges was erected at the foot of the falls. Today, that lodge contains a restaurant, a gift shop, a visitors center, a snack bar, and facilities for visitors. In typical Pacific Northwest fashion, there is also an espresso bar "hut" located right outside of the lodge.

At the west end of the parking area by the lodge you'll see a trail rise up into the woods just off the Historic Columbia River Highway. This is the short "Return Trail" that will bring you to the Wahkeena Falls trailhead in a little less than a mile. The scenery here might not be spectacular, but it is here that I noticed the smorgasbord of green plant life that you'll encounter in this very wet area of the gorge. There are so many different types of beautiful, bright-green plant life that I couldn't help but stop and take some photos.

Flora along the Multnomah-Wahkeena Falls Loop - Columbia River Gorge

"Return Trail" connecting Multnomah and Wahkeena Falls
Flora along the Multnomah-Wahkeena Falls Loop - Columbia River Gorge
The first thing you might think to yourself upon arriving at Wahkeena Falls is that it is definitely not as exciting as Multnomah Falls. True as that may be, it is still a beautiful cascade in the Columbia River Gorge. Right at the trailhead you'll be standing at the bottom of Wahkeena Falls watching it slowly cascade downhill. It is more of a peaceful "stair-step" falls than a roaring straight drop-off like Multnomah.

After a quick half-mile walk up a paved path you'll find yourself standing on a historic bridge looking up at (and getting misted by) the most scenic section of Wahkeena falls. Here are some snapshots from this very short first leg of the hike, from Wahkeena Falls trailhead up to the bridge via a paved path.

Wahkeena Falls in its entirety, as viewed from the trailhead at the bottom
Along the half-mile path from the trailhead to the bridge - Wahkeena Falls
Wahkeena Falls - Columbia River Gorge
It is here, just past the bridge and falls, that the mildly gradual path truly becomes hike. For the next 1.5 miles, you will steeply climb over 1,500 feet. It's not the steepest hike in the Gorge, but it's steep. 1,600 feet elevation gain in 1.5 miles is no walk in the park. After a very steep series of switchbacks you will emerge at a viewpoint of the Gorge. The climb from here gets easier but you're still going to be climbing for a while. Shortly after the viewpoint you'll begin following the Wahkeena Creek (which, by the way, is entirely spring-fed) through a beautiful mini gorge. You'll cross the creek a few times on footbridges and often find yourself stopping for a moment to soak in your surroundings, which are quintessentially Pacific Northwestern: cascading creek, old-growth trees, ferns and moss everywhere. You'll also hike past the foot of a smaller waterfall named Fairy Falls on your way up the gorge.

Here are some photos from this strenuous but scenic leg of the hike, up the switchbacks and through the Wahkeena Creek gorge.

Multnomah Falls - Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail - Columbia River Gorge
Multnomah Falls - Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail - Columbia River Gorge

Fairy Falls along the Multnomah Falls - Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail - Columbia River Gorge
Multnomah Falls - Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail - Columbia River Gorge
Finally, about a mile and a half past the Wahkeena Falls bridge (where you falsely assumed this would be an easy hike!) the trail will even out and the steep climb will stop at an elevation of 1,600 feet. At the top of the climb you'll reach an intersection of the trail your on with another that leads to Angel's Rest (you can't miss it). The climb stops here (trust me, you'll feel it!). There is beautiful forest up here that is nicely shaded, which you're going to need because even on a cold day you're probably going to be hot and sweaty after that climb.

From the Angel's Rest trail intersection you have about one mile until you hit Multnomah Creek, which you'll ultimately follow downstream, past Multnomah Falls, and back to your car. At one point you will start to feel the beginning of your descent in your legs. It was at this point that the hikers hiking in the opposite direction, huffing and puffing during the final leg of their ascent, asked me how much further until the trail stopped climbing steeply. How much farther to the top? You, like me, will probably take pleasure in being the bearer of good news when you reply to them you're almost there! 

Here is what to expect of the hike up at the top.

Multnomah Falls - Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail - Columbia River Gorge
Multnomah Falls - Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail - Columbia River Gorge
Multnomah Falls - Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail - Columbia River Gorge

At the end of the Wahkeena Falls trail you'll descend down to the large and beautiful Multnomah Creek and encounter a T intersection. Turn left here and follow the creek downstream through its gorge, past Multnomah Falls, and back to your car. From this intersection, you have a little less than 2 miles to go until you've reached the end of the trail at Multnomah Falls Lodge; and for the first one mile of that hike you will be more than amazed. The hike here becomes rough, wild, and beautiful as it narrowly follows alongside the creek past two smaller (but by no means small) waterfalls.

The hiking along the Multnomah Creek gorge can be a little perilous, so exercise caution. The trail surface is primarily uneven rock for this first mile, and when wet (which it almost always is) it can get slick. At the first of the "smaller" waterfalls you get to there is a straight drop-off that comes up on you quickly when rounding a bend. The scenery in here is gorgeous, easily tempting your attention away from the path directly in front of you. If you have slippery-soled shoes and/or children with you, just pay a little closer attention and you'll be fine.

The hike down along Multnomah Creek gorge and the hike up the Wahkeena Creek gorge are the most scenic and awe-some legs of this loop trail. Here are some snapshots from the former, the Multnomah Creek Gorge.

Multnomah Falls - Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail - Columbia River Gorge
Falls upstream from Multnomah Falls - Columbia River Gorge
Multnomah Falls - Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail - Columbia River Gorge
Falls upstream from Multnomah Falls - Columbia River Gorge

Once you hit this bridge....

Bridge at the top of Multnomah Falls - Columbia River Gorge
....the crowds will resume.

If hiking up to this point from the lodge, then the bridge seen above marks the "end of the line" for most hikers. Few venture beyond it up the Larch Mountain trail and even fewer head over to Wahkeena Falls from here. But if you, like me, end the loop at Multnomah Falls, then this is the last leg of your hike.

From here it is all downhill, and steeply so. The 1.1 mile paved pathway that leads from the Multnomah Lodge up to roughly this point is steeper than you'd expect. On the way down to the lodge you will encounter countless folks out of shape/breath, barely making it up the hill, a few who turn around mid-way, and you may, sadly, even encounter a smoker (yes, on my way down I crossed paths with a dude smoking a menthol cigarette. Really?)

You can relish in the fact that you're almost done and all those folks huffin-n-puffin in the opposite direction are just beginning. You've been there! You'll see signs on the way back down that count the number of remaining switchbacks for the people climbing up. Reading "switchback 7 of 11" gives them to motivation to continue as they think I'm almost there... (panting) almost there... (panting)

Once you've reached the bottom you have a few options including, but not limited to, the following: 1) stay awhile, grab a burger and an espresso, share the experience of Multnomah Falls with the band of tourists that surround you, or 2) get out of dodge and go grab a cold IPA.

I chose to do the latter....

Here are a couple glimpses into the final leg of the Multnomah Falls - Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail, leading from the top of Multnomah, down to the lodge and your car.

The 1.1 mile trail from the bottom of Multnomah Falls up to the top - Columbia River Gorge
The 1.1 mile trail from the bottom of Multnomah Falls up to the top - Columbia River Gorge
*** I want to make one important side note***

Being an 80 degree Spring day, and due to a generous amount of snow melt, Multnomah Falls was even more "wet" and violent than usual. I did not take photos of the Falls close-by because of how much moisture was in the air (just standing on the Benson bridge for a few minutes and your clothing and hair were saturated. I love this, don't get me wrong, but I'm not going to bust out the camera in the thick of it.

If you'd like to see some closer photos of Multnomah Falls, please click HERE and visit my earlier blog entry from January 2012, when I was able to snap photos much closer than I was able to today.

In closing,
Unless you like to mix large crowds of people with Nature, do not visit Multnomah Falls during the prime tourist season on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. That being said, you must see Multnomah Falls. It is one of our country's greatest natural sights. I, for one, just recommend that you pick a time to come when the crowds are at a minimum. Only then can you experience Multnomah Falls the way it ought to be experienced. It is, first and foremost, a work of earthly art. You would not want to stand in front of your favorite painting or sculpture, nor listen to your favorite piece of music, while surrounded by the white noise of people conversing. You enter an art gallery or concert hall expecting respectful silence from your fellow patrons so that you might all experience and interpret in your own ways. So too with Nature's masterpieces. So too with Multnomah Falls. That is why you should visit when few others are around.

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