Anytime I visit Portland, Oregon, I set aside at least half a day to venture out to Columbia River Gorge. As the largest National Recreation Area in the country, straddling both Oregon and Washington states, the gorge could take years to fully explore with hundreds of miles of scenic roads and trails. But the number one attraction in the gorge is definitely its waterfalls. The Oregon side alone boasts 90 waterfalls.
After years of exploring Columbia River Gorge by car, I discovered an even better way — electric bicycle. During a recent trip, my sister, my brother, our friend, and I all had the opportunity to take a guided bike tour of all the waterfalls hosted by Ebike Multnomah Falls. Bikes allowed us to zip between waterfalls without the hassle of finding parking, while also enjoying the sights and scents of the surrounding forest unobstructed by windows. And our guide, Taylor, was a wealth of information about the history and geology of the gorge. Our tour lasted about 3 hours, but as Taylor describes it, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure experience, so total time could be more or less. If you’d prefer a self-guided tour, that’s also an option.
1. LaTourell Falls
Working our way west to east, we began at LaTourell Falls, a 249-foot waterfall that plunges over a cliff into a rocky amphitheater of tall pillars of columnar basalt. While the falls isn’t the most impressive I’ve ever seen, the entire scene is dramatic with a slender column of water flowing over dark rock partially covered in bright green lichen. It’s a great place for kids (or adults who want to be kids) to play with a small pool of water at the base of the falls.
If your goal is just to view the falls, then follow the short trail downhill from the parking lot. There’s also a 2.4-mile moderate trail called LaTourell Falls Loop that offers great views of both this and the Upper LaTourell Falls.
On the way back to the parking lot, be sure to notice the bridge over the creek, built around 1915. The Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway was an engineering feat for its time and is believed to have inspired some of the infrastructure efforts of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) after the Great Depression.
2. Shepperd’s Dell
It’s still possible to find hidden gems in the world, and Shepperd’s Dell is one of them. Most people driving by on the highway don’t realize that this is actually a waterfall and therefore pass by it. Don’t do that. Take the time to stop, walk down the short path, and admire this scenic falls that you’ll likely have to yourself.
Comprising two falls, upper and lower, the total height of Shepperd’s Dell is 220 feet, both tumbling into Young’s Creek. The trail to the falls is considered easy at .2 miles in length. There are no other trails in this area, so this will be a brief stop along the way.
3. Bridal Veil Falls
Our timing at Bridal Veil Falls was perfect since the leaves were just beginning to change color from green to yellow. This two-part,120-foot waterfall does indeed look like a long, delicate veil worn by a bride.
There are two options for viewing these falls: from above or below. We opted for the lower view and took the .3 mile downhill trail. Needless to say, it’s a steep climb back up, so just be prepared for a bit of cardio. At the bottom, there’s a wooden viewing deck perfect for photos, but it’s also possible to scramble over rocks and reach the banks of Bridal Veil Creek.
4. Wahkeena Falls
Wahkeena Falls is the perfect destination on a hot, summer day. Hike up the short 0.2-mile trail to the stone bridge overlook and you’ll be rewarded with ice-cold spray from these 242-foot cascading falls. After a stretch of riding our bikes in the sun, this was a lovely way to cool off. But if you’re not feeling like the uphill hike, there’s a nice viewing spot from below including benches to relax on.
For those looking for a hike, try the 2.8-mile Wahkeena Trail. About one mile along the trail you can see Fairy Falls, an excellent example of fan falls. To extend your hike, connect with Larch Mountain Trail and Return Trail. This route is considered moderately difficult, so be prepared with the proper shoes and sufficient water.
5. Multnomah Falls
By far, the most recognized waterfall in all of Columbia River Gorge is Multnomah Falls. It’s estimated that 2.5 million people visit these falls each year. At 620 feet, it’s the tallest waterfall in Oregon. The two parts drop steeply over basalt rocks, intersected by Benson Bridge, a stone footbridge. Currently, access to the viewing area, trail, and footbridge is by reservation only.
We arrived at Multnomah, locked our bikes, and headed to the snack shop for some water. This is one of the few places along the scenic highway that offers food, restrooms, and a gift shop. For a sit down meal, head to Multnomah Falls Lodge, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s also an espresso stand if you’re in need of some coffee. Surrounding the shops are plenty of benches and picnic tables, so if you prefer to bring your own food, this would be a lovely spot to enjoy it.
Taylor had already made reservations for us so we headed to the lower viewing area to enjoy the beauty of these falls and take some pictures. Since all four of us had been here before, we opted not to hike the .2-mile path to Benson Bridge, but if this is your first time here, definitely do this.
There are some challenging hikes available around Multnomah Falls, all of which will reward you with beautiful scenery including the chance to gaze down upon the falls from the upper viewing deck. The most popular trail here is the Multnomah Falls Trail, a 2.4-mile loop with 870 feet of elevation. Another option is the Gorge Trail to Oneonta and Triple Falls.
I should mention that only a small portion of the gorge waterfalls can be viewed along the scenic highway. Many require hikes up and into the gorge. If you’re feeling adventurous, head out on some of the trails and enjoy almost private viewings.
6. Horsetail Falls
Our final stop of the day was at Horsetail Falls, one of the most popular stops along the highway since the falls can be viewed from the road. The 176-foot falls plunge into a shallow pool surrounded by a rocky shore. Here you’ll find couples and families relaxing on the rocks or splashing in the water. It’s not the quietest spot in the gorge, but I still found it to be peaceful. We spent time wading in the water and appreciating the beauty of this spot.
For a future trip, Taylor recommended the short, .9-mile hike along Horsetail Falls Trail. While it’s steep, it offers the opportunity to walk behind Upper Horsetail Falls, also known as Ponytail Falls.
After admiring six waterfalls, it was time to return to our starting point, so we hopped on our bikes and rode 7 miles back. The weather was warm with a slight breeze, and the sun was starting to set. I could not have imagined a more perfect setting.
If biking isn’t an option for you, there are other ways to explore the gorge. Driving your own car will give you the freedom to move at your own pace, but in places, you will struggle to find parking. The Sasquatch Shuttle and Waterfall Trolley offer visitors the chance to park once and let someone else drive. Currently, the Waterfall Trolley ticket includes a reservation to see Multnomah Falls.
While waterfalls are clearly the highlight, there are many more things to do in the area. Also located along the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway is Crown Point and Vista House. Inside this octagonal building opened to the public in 1918, you’ll find a small museum along with a gift shop and restrooms, but what I really love is the expansive view of the gorge from the outdoor deck. Winds get pretty strong in this region, and the deck does close at times for safety.
When you’re ready to eat, head to the small town of Hood River and stroll through its historic downtown. You’ll have several restaurants and breweries to choose from to celebrate a successful day of exploration.
In our family, we have a tradition of having a meal at McMenamins Edgefield in nearby Troutdale after any trip to the gorge. This property was once the site of a poor house, but today includes a hotel, pub, restaurant, winery, and shops.
Our trip to the gorge lasted about four hours, so a half-day is ample time to experience this area. But you can also make a day of it by adding in a hike or two. No matter how much or how little time you have, any trip to this part of Oregon should definitely include a visit to Columbia River Gorge National Recreation Area.