The Columbia River Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area encompasses 292,500 acres, running from the mouth of the Sandy River to the mouth of the Deschutes, It spans southern Washington and northern Oregon.
The Gorge is unique in its natural and cultural history, as well as its designation as a National Scenic Area. This wild and beautiful place has also served as a human corridor for tens of thousands of years, and was explored by Lewis and Clark and traversed by thousands of Oregon Trail pioneers.
The Gorge is a spectacular 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 cataclysmic floods also transformed flowing river tributaries into hanging waterfalls creating the largest concentration of waterfalls in North America.
The Gorge is also host to a unique diversity of plant and animal life, including over 800 species of wildflowers, 15 of which exist nowhere else on earth.
National Scenic Area
Each year, millions of motorists wend their way into the Columbia River Gorge on the border between northern Oregon and southern Washington to take in the stunning beauty of its black basalt cliffs, ribbon-like waterfalls, and lush fir forests. On foggy days, the scenic vistas in the Gorge are reminiscent of Chinese scroll paintings of steep-sided mountains adorned here and there by twisted pines.
In November 1986, Congress recognized the unique beauty of the Gorge when it made it the nation’s first National Scenic Area.
The 80-mile-long Gorge is a testament to the power of flowing water. Over time, the mighty Columbia River has worn this deep gash into the volcanic rock of the Cascade Range nearly down to sea level.
At points, the canyon walls tower 4,000 feet above the river. Frequent rain nourishes a lush rain forest and replenishes the waters that cascade over sheer basalt cliffs into blinding cataracts. There are 77 waterfalls on the Oregon side of the Gorge alone.
The western Gorge is dominated by the dark verdure of conifer, while also sheltering stands of big-leaf maple, cottonwood, Oregon ash, and vine maple. The eastern Gorge is home to Oregon oak and big-leaf maple.
Here are some favorite waterfalls found in the Columbia River Gorge:
Multnomah Falls: Tallest in North America after Yosemite Falls, 620-foot Multnomah is the focal point for a network of trails. There’s also fine dining at Multnomah Falls Lodge. Access is from Interstate 84 or the Columbia River Scenic Highway east of Bridal Veil.
Horsetail Falls: This 176-foot waterfall plunges into a pool right beside the Historic Columbia River Highway; it’s also visible through a corridor cut through vegetation to Interstate 84, 2.5 miles east of Multnomah Falls.
Triple Falls: Not a series of falls, but rather three parallel chutes ranging from 100 to 135 feet tall. The viewpoint is located on Oneonta Trail #424, 1.7 miles from the trailhead, which is just under a mile from Horsetail Falls Trailhead #438. Both are located on the Historic Columbia River Highway east of Multnomah Falls.
Ponytail Falls: Before making the plunge over Horsetail Falls, Horsetail Creek is shot through a narrow crack and exploded out into a pool in front of a deep recess, which allows a trail to pass behind the falls.
Punchbowl Falls: Frequently pictured on Columbia Gorge photographic calendars, Punchbowl is located on Eagle Creek Trail #440 2.1 miles south of the trailhead. Caution: this is a precipitous trail not suitable for young children or dogs. There’s an access trail leading off the main trail to the base of Punchbowl Falls, which plunges 10 to 15 feet into a basin. You reach Eagle Creek by taking Exit 41 eastbound, or Exit 40 westbound and loop back east on the freeway to Exit 41. From Eagle Creek Fish Hatchery, follow the access road south to the trailhead parking area.