Sunday, September 2, 2012

Oneonta Gorge - Columbia River Gorge

Oneonta Gorge
the Horsetail, Ponytail, and Triple Falls Loop
4.5 miles round trip | 550 feet elevation gain

Oneonta Gorge
Oneonta Gorge

The cold, wet, refreshing trek deep into mossy Oneonta Gorge to the hidden waterfall is not only my favorite activity to do in the Columbia River Gorge, but arguably one of my favorite outdoor activities of all time. I am obsessed with Oneonta Gorge. As a kid I had two favorite outdoor activities: climbing obstacles and getting wet. This is exactly what you will do if you follow Oneonta to its end at the falls. But as if the whole scaling obstacles and getting your feet wet thing weren't enough to excite me, there is a cherry-on-top: the sheer beauty of Oneonta.

Hikers at the log jam - Oneonta GorgeNow I love deep, dark old-growth forests, panoramic mountain views, vast oceanscapes, etc- but there is something about wading through cold calf-deep water through a narrow, mossy, rocky slit in the earth with huge boulders and old fell trees to climb over that makes those other things seem slightly inferior. Maybe it's the kid in me that is so attached to Oneonta Gorge; and, undeniably, you will feel like a kid again when you're here. Even though the distance you scramble and splash back into the gorge isn't great, there is a sense that you are on a great adventure. Something about Oneonta makes me feel.... really, really happy and very, very nostalgic.

To come to Oneonta properly prepared, and to get the fullest experience possible, expect the following:

1. To climb up and over 2 large boulders
2. To tip-toe, balancing-beam-style, over several large old growth tree trunks.
3. To get wet, at the very least, up to your knees.
4. To get wet, at the very most, over your head if you're shorter, up to your chest if you're taller.
5. To wear some sort of footwear that you don't mind getting soaked. I would not recommend bare feet or flip-flops.
6. To wear clothing you don't mind getting soaked.
7. To have a dry pair of shoes to change into if you plan on doing the Horsetail Falls hike afterwards.
8. To not be in a hurry, because your inner-child is not going to want to leave, but, rather, splash around for an hour or more.
9. To see one of the greatest sights of your life.
10. To have some of the most fun of your life.

Treking upstream through Oneonta GorgeOkay, so experiencing Oneonta Gorge does require some physical activity. Climbing up and over the boulders and scaling the log-jam isn't something everybody can do. But rest assured, I've seen my 58 year old mother, as well as countless children, do it with ease.

Oneonta Gorge also requires you to get wet. Unless you're standing on the shoulders of a giant, you're going to get wet. So expect it and dress appropriately. But trust me, you're going to have the time of your life. And don't be a wuss! Jump in! Yes it's cold, but once you're in there you will have a smile plastered on your face! Even the crustiest, grumpiest curmudgeon will feel like a kid again while wading through Oneonta Gorge.

Here are photos from the trek into Oneonta Gorge, quite possibly the most fun you'll have in the wilderness surrounding Portland, Oregon!

Historic Columbia River Hwy at Oneonta Gorge

Old Columbia River Highway tunnel now pedestrian only - Oneonta Gorge

at the entry into Oneonta Gorge

down this way from the bridge to get into Oneonta Gorge

Hikers coming over the log jam at Oneonta Gorge

a hiker contemplating the best way over the log jam - Oneonta Gorge

a hiker carefully navigates the log jam at Oneonta Gorge

At the Oneonta Gorge log jam

the log jam - Oneonta Gorge

The start of Oneonta Gorge just after crossing the log jam

Oneonta Gorge

Oneonta Gorge

Crystal Clear Waters in the Oneonta Gorge

Oneonta Gorge

Rock Wall in Oneonta Gorge

Oneonta Gorge

Oneonta Gorge

"The Deep Part" just before the waterfall at Oneonta Gorge

The Studly way to do Oneonta Gorge vs. the Wussy way to do it

a brave hiker ferrying dry hikers across "the deep part"

Crystal clear water at Oneonta Gorge

The waterfall at the end of Oneonta Gorge

A young hiker at the waterfall at the end of Oneonta Gorge

A hiker about to take a cold plunge at the waterfall at the end of Oneonta Gorge

a Cold Plunge at the waterfall at the end of Oneonta Gorge

The waterfall at the end of Oneonta Gorge

Once you reach the waterfall you've gone as far as you can go. My suggestion: don't leave right away. Stay a while, wade, splash around, relax, get some sun, take a dip, have a picnic (if it didn't get soaked), talk to a fellow hiker about how f-ing cold the water was back there at "the deep part," etc. Because, in all honesty, this area back here by the waterfall is, in my opinion, quite possibly the perfect place to be on a hot late summer's day.

Next it's on to a hike that includes 3 more waterfalls: Horsetail, Ponytail, and Triple Falls. All three are accessed via the Horsetail Falls trail.

A short walk from Oneonta Gorge is the Horsetail Falls trailhead, which just so happens to start right at Horsetail Falls itself. Horesetail Falls pales in comparison to Multnomah Falls, but it is a pleasant (and less crowded!) waterfall right off the Historic Columbia River Highway. There is a miniscule "beach" (if you can call it that) with a chilled pool of water right at the base of the falls. Take a dip if you'd like, but trust me, it's going to be cold. This would be a great place to plop down a lawn chair and read from a good book.

Here are photos of Horsetail Falls and the trailhead area:

Horsetail Falls - Columbia River Gorge

Horsetail Falls - Columbia River Gorge

Horsetail Falls - Columbia River Gorge
Horsetail Falls

at Horsetail Falls - Columbia River Gorge

A short half mile hike from the trailhead will bring you to what I think is the most exciting waterfall of the three: Ponytail Falls. Ponytail Falls is one of those unique waterfalls that you get to walk underneath and behind. The cavernous area underneath the falls is a great, cool spot to have a picnic, take a load off, or people watch (as it can get a little crowded under here on a summer weekend). Also, if you're feeling adventurous, there are rocks you can climb out onto to get a little closer to the action, but doing so will more than likely get you pretty wet. Not soaked (unless you fall in) but wet. Like I said though, Ponytail Falls is by far the greatest waterfall on this hike, so if you make this your final destination, you won't be too sorry.

Here are photos of Ponytail Falls:

Trail from Horsetail Falls to Ponytail Falls - Columbia River Gorge
a view of the trail connecting Horsetail Falls to Ponytail Falls

a glimpse of Beacon Rock and Hamilton Mountain from the Horsetail Falls Trail - Columbia River Gorge
a view across the river of Beacon Rock and Hamilton Mountain from the trail up to Ponytail Falls

Ponytail Falls - Columbia River Gorge
Ponytail Falls

Ponytail Falls - Columbia River Gorge

Ponytail Falls - Columbia River Gorge

Ponytail Falls - Columbia River Gorge

If you're looking for a longer hike you can continue on another mile and a half roughly to Triple Falls. It isn't a difficult hike by any means, but chances are you'll break a sweat doing it. At one point you'll cross a bridge which gives you a view of the top of the hidden falls seen from within Oneonta Gorge. If you listen closely, you'll probably hear the hoots, hollers, and "holy shit that's cold!"'s from those down below in the gorge. And, if you're like me, you'll wish you were back down there in the water instead of up here on the bridge. A short ways past the bridge you'll come to an intersection. Hang a left uphill if you're looking to see Triple Falls.

Triple Falls is really only viewed from a cliff across from it. You'll reach the cliff before you reach the fall itself. Be careful on the ledge, it's practically a straight drop down. It's no mystery why this waterfall is named Triple Falls. Now, chances are you will see people lounging around in the area on top of the waterfall. There are large rocky sections that jut out alongside the creek that are great for picnics, lounging, getting your feet wet, etc. Just exercise caution. You are, after all, just yards away from a slippery drop of 120 feet.

At one point, while sitting out on the rocks about 7 yards from the ledge, a couple of young kids came running up to the ledge to peer down below. In my opinion, they got irrationally close to the ledge, to the point where a slip of the shoe (one was wearing sandals!) would almost certainly have resulted in a fall over the ledge. There is a big, BIG difference between bravery and stupidity, and these two definitely fell into the latter class getting this close to the ledge. If the reward isn't worth the risk, do not do it. And in this case, I doubt the view looking down Triple Falls was worth the risk of death, which almost certainly would've resulted from a 120 foot fall into shallow water below. The top of Triple Falls is a neat place to walk around and relax, but don't stretch your luck by buying into the temptations to get really close to the edge. I doubt it's worth the risk. 

Here are photos of Triple Falls:

Hike to Triple Falls - Columbia River Gorge
Trail connecting Ponytail Falls to Triple Falls

Bridge over upper Oneonta Gorge en route to Triple Falls
Bridge over the upper section of Oneonta Gorge (basically above that waterfall at the end of Oneonta)

to Triple Falls - Columbia River Gorge

Hike to Triple Falls

Triple Falls - Columbia River Gorge
Triple Falls

Triple Falls - Columbia River Gorge

Hikers getting up close and personal with the edge of Triple Falls
Hikers getting up close and personal with the sloped, slippery edge of Triple Falls. Please don't do this.

at Triple Falls - Columbia River Gorge

If you're really looking for some exercise I would recommend walking all the way to Triple Falls. If you're a little worn out from your wet trek up Oneonta Gorge and your hike to Ponytail Falls, then I would recommend saving it for another day. Honestly, Oneonta Gorge is so much fun in and of itself that I would almost suggest just making half a day out of cooling off and splashing about in its crystal clear waters. Save the other three falls for the colder months, when Oneonta Gorge is no longer doable. Something tells me Triple Falls looks even better in the Fall. If it's summer, set your sights on Oneonta Gorge!! You won't regret it!


  1. Killer photos and enjoyable post as per usual. Can't wait to come back and see for myself.

  2. Good grief man! There are photos in here I would order as prints! Great work. It sounds like a helluva lot of fun.

  3. Fantastic blog. I will be doing a Portland trip this Memoral Day weekend, and your pictures and blog have got me chomping at the bits!