It’s no secret that the Columbia Gorge is a great place to hike. Though its undeniable popularity has made some of the most famous trails more crowded as of late (yes, we’re talking about Multnomah Falls!), it’s still more than possible to enjoy an uncrowded day in the Gorge—if you plan ahead.
If you’re looking to beat the summer heat, seeking colorful autumn adventure, or hoping to catch spring’s first glimpse of wildflowers, check out these five Columbia Gorge hikes, all within an hour’s drive from Portland. To start you off, here are some tips to keep in mind before you set off on your hike:
Tips for Hiking in the Columbia Gorge
- Try to visit on a weekday, when the crowds are much more manageable.
- Leave early—you’ll want to get a head start before everyone else wakes up.
- Be willing to drive: The further you get from Portland, the less busy the trails will be.
- Pack snacks, plenty of water, and a hat and sunscreen for hikes above the treeline.
- Make sure to wear comfortable, closed toe shoes that lace up.
1. Eagle Creek Trail
A very popular trail during the summertime for everyone from experienced backpackers to novice day hikers, Eagle Creek Trail is a hallmark of the Columbia River Gorge’s raw beauty. It’s a long, winding hike tracing the side of a basalt rock canyon with jagged outcroppings overhead and uneven ground beneath your boots.
At times the trail opens up to reveal panoramic views that’ll make any jaw drop, but the most beautiful part of the hike is saved for the end at Punchbowl Falls. A hike of two to three hours (six miles one way) rewards those determined enough to make it with a roaring waterfall and natural pool panorama evoking thoughts of an Ansel Adams photograph—except the views are in vivid, mossy green hues. Aptly named, the water cascading over Punchbowl Falls looks like it’s being poured from a giant pitcher, creating the perfect place to get some refreshing, cool relief from high-digit temperatures.
2. Oneonta Gorge, Lower Oneonta Falls Hike
A unique slot canyon that creates its own gorge within the Columbia River Gorge, the trails of Oneonta Gorge are perhaps some of the most adventurous you’ll find on the Oregon side, due, in large measure, to the skills you’ll deploy in getting up, down, and over them. Canyoneering, water travel, and hiking over technical single-track are all part of the experience as you venture deeper into old growth wilderness and past mighty waterfalls and cliffsides with thousand-foot drops.
The half-mile, one-way Oneonta Gorge hike is one such hike with dazzling, off-the-beaten-path features. Not only will you start your hike with a scramble over a tangle of hundred-foot-long trees stacked like Lincoln logs at the opening of the Gorge, but you’ll also wade through chest-level water (depending on the time of the year) as you make your way down. Trudge through the chilly, crystal-clear water and you’ll witness rare flowers and ferns found only in the Gorge, dangling from the basalt edges of the canyon. The payoff for your patience in getting to the end is spectacular Lower Oneonta Falls, which cut a majestic backdrop to moss and lichen-laden basalt canyon walls.
3. Beacon Rock Trail
One of the most city-accessible trails in the Gorge (take Cascade Locks exit off Interstate 84), Beacon Rock Trail is a favorite of Portlanders seeking a good hike near the city. Rising 848 feet above the Columbia River, Beacon Rock towers above nearby spires like the majestic volcano it was once was.
Except for the Rock of Gibraltar, there’s no taller freestanding monolith in the world, so reap the rewards of unmatched views high atop this huge rock on an easy 1.8-mile roundtrip hike. Rampways and railings constructed around 1916 are there as a safety precaution, but be sure to also exercise plenty of caution as you wind around switchbacks leading to the fantastic 360-degree lookout point at the top.
4. Panther Creek Falls Trail
Sometimes you don’t want to contend with huge crowds of people at Multnomah Falls, and that’s understandable. Panther Creek Fall Trail is the Goldilocks of Columbia Gorge waterfall hikes and an excellent alternative; its isolated location, coupled with relatively few visitors, makes it just right for your next hike.
Tucked unassumingly into the hills above the small town of Carson on the Washington side of the Gorge, this lesser-known trail hike of under a mile roundtrip puts you next to cascading falls just minutes from the road. Check them out from a platform slightly off the path, or opt for a close up by scrambling downhill and onto a mossy lower level. Either way, you’ll find peace far from the crowd, allowing for a more intimate experience as you walk on carpet-like moss, feeling invigorating waterfall mist on your skin.
5. Horsetail Falls Loop Hike
If hiking to one waterfall in a day just isn’t enough for you, how about a hike that gives you two? Cascade connoisseurs will rejoice in the payoff from an easy two-and-a-half-mile hike on Horsetail Falls Loop, known equally for its postcard-worthy trailhead at thundering Horsetail Falls and a breathtaking section that winds under a giant rocky outcropping and behind Ponytail Falls.
Switchbacks rise and fall in elevation over the course of the loop until the trail opens up into a small valley. Pause for a photo op while the hypnotic sound of water spewing out of basalt rock at ten thousand gallons per second can be heard in the background. Venture slightly off the trail to get closer to the waterfall, but don’t stand underneath!
And there you have it—five Columbia Gorge hikes for five epic trips to this magnificent scenic area. When the only remedy for scorching heat is the cool, shaded canopy of the forest, head out on any of these hikes for some shade therapy and a much-needed change of pace.
Featured photo courtesy of Bill Devlin
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