If you love waterfalls, hiking, wineries, fruit picking and scenic drives the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon is where you want to visit.
Columbia River Gorge is known to possibly have the largest concentration of high waterfalls in North America.
The Gorge is a river canyon 85 miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep. Carved by volcanic eruptions and Ice Age floods over millions of years, the Gorge is the only sea level route through the Cascade Mountains.
The Columbia River stretches for more than 80 miles in Oregon. It winds westward through the Cascade range into the Pacific Ocean just west of Astoria.
It forms the border between Oregon and Washington.
On the southern side of the river you’ll find scores of waterfalls, eleven over 100 feet high tumbling down the side of the gorge.
The land bordering the river is protected as the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
Lace up your boots hikers, this area is also well known for its trails.
One of the most famous hiking trails in the USA goes through here, The Pacific Crest Trail, or the PCT as those who have gotten to know it affectionately call it.
Columbia River Gorge Waterfalls and Hikes
Never have I seen so many waterfalls in one place as Columbia River Gorge. Well maybe, Yosemite National Park in May!
Thousands of years of geologic events have made the Oregon side of the Columbia the perfect home for waterfalls.
Although Multnomah Falls is probably the best of the Columbia River Gorge waterfalls, and a highlight of your visit to this region, there are so many more Oregon waterfalls for you to see.
And you can see them either by way of a hiking trail or a scenic drive.
Due to its location just 30 minutes east of Portland, it’s a popular place to visit and easy to incorporate into your Oregon road trip.
Be sure to check the forest service for current closures for all hikes and waterfalls in this area.
Many of the waterfalls and Columbia river gorge hikes were closed during our visit due to a fire that raged through the Columbia river gorge national scenic area in 2017.
Multnomah Falls Trail
At 620 ft. high, Multnomah Falls is Oregon’s top tourist attraction.
It’s the second tallest year-round waterfall in the USA, and the most-visited natural recreation site in the Pacific Northwest!
When you see it you’ll understand. The two-drop waterfall is surrounded by lush greenery and cascades down the basalt cliff face into pools.
Legend from the local native Multnomah tribe says the waterfall formed after a young woman jumped over the cliff and sacrificed herself to the Great Spirit to save the Multnomah village from a plague.
After her death, water began to flow from above the cliff, thus creating the waterfalls.
Her bravery created something so beautiful.
Multnomah Falls is fed by rainfall but also by snowmelt and underground springs from Larch Mountain (The Larch Mountain trail also begins at the lodge).
It runs year round, but spring and winter is when you’ll see the highest volume of water.
Multnomah Falls Oregon is one popular spot and if you go early or on weekdays you may escape the crowds.
You can hike to Benson bridge – or to the top of the falls.
The Benson Bridge makes for stunning photos as it spans across the middle of the water as it cascades down from one level to another.
If you want to capture the Upper and Lower Falls and the Benson Bridge, you’ll have to find the right angle from down the bottom near the lodge.
To be honest, I did not find the top of the Multnomah Falls to be overly exciting. You couldn’t really see the water thundering over the top, only its initial roll over the lip.
The views were okay but the crowds were too much!
The Multnomah Falls hike up to the top involves 17 switchbacks and is pretty strenuous if you are not used to hiking. There are several viewpoints to stop at along the way.
If short on time and unfit I’d possibly stop at Benson Bridge.
Multnomah Falls Hike – Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail
We decided to take in more than just the main waterfall attraction by doing the 5 mile Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail.
This trail takes in 5 other Columbia River Gorge waterfalls and plenty of smaller cascades as the Multnomah and Wahkeena Creek makes their way down the canyons.
The waterfall loop walk will help you escape the crowds, appreciate the towering evergreens, get spectacular views, and see several more waterfalls, including the popular Fairy Falls and Wahkeena Falls.
I especially loved walking through the forest at the top that is still recovering from the fire.
The blackened trunks of the trees stood out in contrast with the green shrub, wildflowers and river views.
It was lovely to finish this waterfall loop trail with Multnomah Falls at the end and take those steep switchbacks down.
I felt we could appreciate the views of the waterfall better as we weren’t concentrating on breathing and getting up the hill!
This 5 mile loop hike was much harder than any of us anticipated.
It was a pretty steep climb for half of the hike with plenty of switchbacks. It was a humid day so we were all sweating and in need of several breaks.
I was super super impressed with the kids who kept up a fast pace.
They all enjoyed their ice cream at the end of it – a well deserved reward. You can pick yours up from the Multnomah Falls Lodge – it seems to be the thing to do in this top Oregon attraction.
I enjoyed a cider back at our campground. I was completely wiped out after that hike but so glad we did it. It was a highlight of our time in the Columbia River Gorge Oregon.
It was only back at camp that we learned the Wahkeena Falls Loop Trail was a 1,600 ft elevation gain! No wonder we were wiped out.
There are various side trails you can take off the Multnomah Wahkeena loop trail.
If we weren’t with the kids, we may have considered checking out some of the views:
- Vista Point Trail
- Wahkeena Springs
- Devils’ Rest Trail
Here are the other waterfalls on the trail:
The misty Wahkeena Falls is a good stopping-for-your-breath point after your first steep climb up on the Multnomah-Wahkeena Falls Loop trail.
It can also be visited on a short walk up a paved trail from a small parking lot if you did not want to do the entire trail.
A refreshing spray may be welcome here.
Fairy Falls cascades 20 feet down the side of Wahkeena Canyon upstream from Wahkeena Falls.
It’s right on the edge of the trail and a favorite of those doing this Columbia River Gorge waterfall hike.
The verdant mossy rocks and ferns surrounding it make this a very pretty waterfall.
Ecola Falls is a solid 55-foot fall that drops off a lip just off the side of the trail.
It’s probably best you don’t try to scramble down the steep canyon walls to get to the base of the waterfall. Some hikers have died trying.
This waterfall is quite hidden from the trail and was once called Hidden Falls for this reason.
Your view will be mostly from the top looking down over the lip.
Located just downstream from the mighty Ecola Falls, Wiesendanger Falls is a much more accessible and equally beautiful waterfall.
You can scramble to the bottom of this one.
Don’t miss Lemmon’s Viewpoint
Not too far after Wahkeena Falls, there is a short side trail to Lemmon’s viewpoint, which is offers an outstanding view of Columbia Gorge.
I think the view here is more expansive and better (with way fewer people) then at the top of Multnomah waterfall.
- Check out our hiking gear list here.
- 16 Easy Tips For Hiking with Kids (so you can enjoy it)
The Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Drive
Dubbed as “King of the Roads” this 75 mile highway is the oldest scenic byway in the USA.
You can drive a segment (about 20 miles) of the original Historic Columbia River Highway (US HWY 30) when touring the waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge.
Other parts are open only to hikers and bikers. Some parts are overlapped by the I-84.
There is a section between Corbett and Dodson which will take you to seven of the Columbia Gorge waterfalls (including Multnomah and Wahkeena), as well as scenic viewpoints.
The byway is a windy shaded, ferny oasis, with a series of waterfalls tumbling down from the gorge rim to the roadside.
Sadly, we ran out of time to do the complete waterfall way loop drive.
That hike wiped us out, but proved to be good training for some much longer and harder hikes in Washington and Montana.
The other waterfalls on the Historic Columbia River Scenic Highway in this section are:
- Lower and Upper Latourell Falls: (2.4 miles round trip) Latourell Falls cascades 224 feet and can be accessed easily from a short trail that leads to a viewpoint, as well as slightly longer treks to the base and top of the waterfall.
- Bridal Veil Falls (1.4 miles round trip) a beautiful waterfall that drops 118 feet in two tiers. Only a short 1/3 mile walk to the falls.
- Horsetail Falls: Named for its horsetail shape, this 176 ft. waterfall plunges into a pool right beside the Columbia River Scenic Highway; 1/2 mile hike will take you to the Upper Horsetail Falls.
- Shepperd’s Dell: is a two-tiered fall that cascades through a narrow canyon; the upper falls is about 40 feet and the lower falls plunge down an additional 50 feet. Most noted for its stone, arched bridge. Short walk to the viewpoint of the upper and lower falls and historic bridge.
- Oneonta Falls and Gorge: 1.2 mile round trip hike that involves scrambling over logs and walking through water. It’s a trek for the adventurous but is said to be the hidden gem of the waterfall Way.
Vista House at Crown Point
Hard to believe we did not make it here, even after so many people in our community recommended it.
I tell ya, that waterfall hike we did knocked it out of us and we figured we got a pretty good view of the Columbia River from there.
The Vista House at Crown Point is known to be one of the most beautiful scenic points on the Columbia River Highway. So don’t you miss it!
It was the first destination built (1918) along the new road and Vista House displays information about the highway construction.
The Gorge views are from the rotunda atop Crown Point, 1 mile/1.6 kilometres past the first scenic overlook.
Women’s Forum Overlook is another viewpoint along the Historic Columbia River Highway.
Bridge of the Gods
This 1,868 ft. bridge rises 135 feet above the Columbia River and is an icon of this region.
You can walk (or drive) across it and cross over into Washington. The Bridge of the Gods was the closest river crossing, approximately ten miles east of the waterfall area on I-84.
About 1,000 years ago a giant landslide from the north of the Columbia River blocked the gorge and stopped the river’s flow.
Water eroded the dam and created a natural stone bridge that fell and created the cascade rapids.
Native American legend says that Manito, the Great Spirit, built a stone bridge for the People that had trouble crossing the river.
Fearing it would wash away, The People appealed to the Great Spirit to protect the bridge and they gave it a new name “The Bridge of the Gods,” which is why the modern structure has that name today.
For ‘Wild’ lovers, this is the point where Cheryl Strayed ended her 1,100 mile hike on the Pacific Coast Trail. (it’s a great book, if you haven’t read it. Get it here.)
The Bridge of the Gods is the only bridge crossing the Columbia River between Portland and Mt Hood.
Cascade Locks was a vital stopping point on the Oregon Trail, for passage of the treacherous Cascades.
The Lewis & Clark expedition passed through April 13th 1806.
The city took its name from a set of locks built to improve navigation past the Cascades Rapids of the Columbia River.
It’s now offers another vital stopping point for another iconic passage: The 2,555 mile Pacific Crest Trail. Cascade Locks is the only incorporated city situated on the PCT.
It’s also the PCT’s lowest elevation point as it drops into the Columbia River Gorge and crosses the Bridge of the Gods.
Cascade Locks is where we stayed during our visit to the Columbia River National Scenic Area and we loved its tranquil vibe and stunning scenery.
It’s only a small town, but offers local food and beverages and is a great base or stopping point for your waterfall explorations.
You can take a tour on the Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge, paddle boat that hosts daily and nightly cruises through this dramatic stretch of the Gorge, where the river cuts through the Cascade Range.
Thunder Island is a small island carved out of the mainland in 1890 to build the Cascade Locks and canal which provided a safe passage around the rapids for ships traveling the Columbia River.
This was right on the doorstep of our RV park so I loved to walk over here for beautiful views of the mountain peaks across the river, forested Gorge cliffs, and the Bridge of the Gods.
Interpretive information boards tell of the geology of the Gorge and history of the locks.
It’s a good spot for short strolls, picnics, watching sailing regattas, and weddings.
Thunder Island Brewery
A 5 minute walk from our RV campsite was the awesome Thunder Island Brewery.
Whether you are staying at Cascade Locks or not, I highly recommend you add this to your Columbia River Gorge experience.
You’ll find delicious food, awesome local craft beer and cider (try the rhubarb cider!) and beautiful views of the river.
They even had trivia night when we visited which was fun to play with our friends.
Recommended Cascade Locks Hike: Dry Creek Falls
A local recommended Dry Creek Falls as one of her favorite Columbia River Gorge hikes.
It’s a 4.4 mile return hike from the Bridge of the Gods trailhead through vine maple and scattered fir to dense strands of old-growth.
Dry Creek Falls plunges 74 feet over a basalt wall in a secluded amphitheater. It’s a popular destination for those interested in a short, woodsy hike with plenty of Gorge ambience.
It’s one for us to do next time!
Hood River Territory
Hood River is the place where outdoor adventures, water lovers, and foodies come to play.
A natural wind tunnel has been created here which attracts windsurfers and kiteboarders from around the country.
We didn’t get time to explore much of Hood River town, but I loved the look of it.
It’s an eclectic mix of cafes, distilleries, breweries and independent gift shops.
That’s one thing I love so much about Oregon – it’s filled with so many independent local businesses. No chains around!
We grabbed a delicious hemp latte from Ground Espresso Bar & Cafe before setting off on the renowned Hood River County Fruit Loop Trail.
Hood River Fruit Loop Trail
The Hood River Fruit Loop trail is a stunning 35-mile self-guided road trip through the fertile Hood River Valley.
There are nearly 30 small, family owned farms, orchards, cideries and wineries you can stop at along the way.
Many of the orchards offer u-pick opportunities including apples, pears. cherries, peaches, and berries.
You can pick up a Hood River Fruit Loop Guide and collect a stamp from each place you visit. If you get 14 stamps you get a free bag!
It was on this trail that we got to experience the grandeur of Mt Hood (11,245 ft.), one of the three dormant volcanoes in this region.
On its opposite side was one of the other volcanoes, Mt Adams (12,276) located across the river in Washington. Mt St Helens (8,358 ft.) is the other volcano.
Don’t ask the locals what mountain Mt Adams is. We were told it was Mt Rainier, Mt St Helens, and MT Hood before we got to the Adams Truth!
We recommend the following stops on the Hood River Fruit Loop Trail
Apple Valley Country Store & Bakery
For a huckleberry or marionberry shake. Fresh fruit pies and pastries are also sold here as well as small-batch jams and hand crafts.
The Old Trunk
This place is so cool. It’s a vintage store with berry picking out the back on the small family vine.
We picked delicious raspberries, blue berries, and my now favorite, marionberries. We learned a marionberry is a type of blackberry grown in Marion County, Oregon.
The picking here was so cheap. They also have an artisanal Soda Fountain that serves sodas made from house made syrups. It as a fun store to browse.
Oh my god! The cherries here were sensational.
Red and dark cherries straight from the tree were absolutely the best I’ve ever had. There were hundreds of trees with gorgeous views of Mt Hood and Mt Adam.
It only cost us $5 for a huge bag of cherries.
I loved the views and the chardonnay from the only new Grateful Vineyard.
The pizza and salad here was really good too so we recommend it as a lunch spot. It was difficult to leave the chairs soaking up the sun and the view.
Draper Girls Country Cider Company
This was a fun stop for kids and adults.
The kids loved swinging on the garden swing and feeding the goats.
We loved sitting in the pretty garden enjoying a peach cider. That was my favorite of the ciders we tasted. I even took home a growler of it as it’s the perfect summer drink.
Fruit used for the ciders is sourced from their forty acre farm and has no nasties. They also have a country farm and u-pick orchards.
Stave and Stone Winery
Oh my the views from this winery were exquisite.
There is a large covered patio and grassy terraced lawn to sit with games for the kids. Although a large sign does say free range children not welcome.
Hood River Lavender Farm
It says it closes at 5pm but the lavender picking actually closes at 4pm. We missed it as we were going by the closing times listed for it so didn’t get to pick any beautiful smelling lavender.
It was pretty with views of both mountains in the background.
Other places we wanted to visit on the Fruit Loop Trail but couldn’t get to were:
- The Gorge White House Fruit Stand & Winery
- Fox-Tail Cider and Distillery – we missed this but our friends said it was awesome with loads of ciders to try. She bought me back a pineapple cider which was delicious.
Video: Multnomah Falls and Hood River Fruit Loop Trail
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Columbia River Gorge Map of Attractions
The map below features the things to do in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon we have mentioned in this post, including driving and hiking directions.
Click the top left icon to toggle between layers!
Where to Stay at Columbia River Gorge
- Columbia River Gorge Hotel & Spa: Located in Hood River among seven lush acres of garden. This is your luxury choice.
- Cascade Ave Classic: Rental home with garden and patio. Sleeps 8.
- Westcliff Lodge: “A great find 5 minutes from center of Hood River/ Excellent Value for money” Guest review.
- Airbnb: See availability for places to rent in the Cascades Lock region
- We camped at the Cascades Lock Marine Park. It was a nice location right on the river and near Bridge of the Gods. It’s a small campground and books out far in advance.
Car & RV Rental
- If you don’t have your own car, check here for rental car options from Portland
- You may wish to rent your own RV, campervan or motorhome. Check out RV share.
Tours of the Columbia River Gorge
No car of your own? No problem.
Thanks to its close proximity to Portland, there are several tours that explore the Columbia River Gorge region.
- Columbia Gorge Wine and Waterfalls Day tour
- Multnomah Falls and Columbia River Gorge half day tour
- Mt Hood and Columbia River Gorge Day tour
Other Places to Visit in the Pacific Northwest
- 18 Cool Things To Do In Portland Oregon
- Cool Kids Guide of Things to Do in Seattle
- 12 Coolest Things To Do in North Cascades National Park
- 20 Don’t Miss Things to do in Bend Oregon
- 20 Amazing Things to Do In Idaho For First Time Visitors!
- 16 Incredible Things to Do in Olympic National Park
Any more tips on the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area? Favorite hikes, waterfalls and viewpoints?[ad_2]