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Exploring the Columbia River Gorge

April 15, 2017

 

 

About an hour east of Portland, Oregon lays one of the world's most incredible and photogenic places: the Columbia River Gorge. A handful of the most beautiful waterfalls on the planet are all scattered about in a 35-mileish stretch of road, easily accessible to most people. A few, like Multnomah Falls, Latourell Falls, and Horsetail Falls are no farther than a few hundred yards from the road. Some others require a bit of a walk, but nothing that can't be completed in an hour or two. For those that wish to head deeper into the backcountry, there are no shortage of distant objectives that are worth the extra effort. Eagle Creek comes to mind; a twelve-mile out-and-back that ends at Tunnel Falls, an incredible sight with a trail that is literally dug into the side of a cliff. If you're looking to make the pilgrimage there, I recommend doing so in the off-season because otherwise it will be filled with tourists who will ruin both your shots and the experience of being there altogether. My buddy and I did the trip in early April when it was still moderately cold and rainy. We encountered precisely zero people as we explored the area most of the time, which really added to the feeling of being out in the wilderness (even though we weren't exactly far from civilization). We slept in our Jeep and tried to make the most of our trip, which didn't take long to complete. We arrived on a Tuesday and by Thursday, we were satisfied and headed south.

 

When we landed at PDX, we picked up our rental and got right on the road. After a quick resupply at the grocery store, we got on highway 84 and were in the area soon after.  We actually continued passed the gorge so that we could shoot at the Boardman Tree Farm, about two hours farther east. The large groves of symmetrically planted Poplar trees will soon be gone as the property was sold to a dairy farm! Once that was finished, we headed back to the Gorge and stopped in Hood River (an awesome town) to grab a Forest Pass ($35 for access to just about everything in the state), a beer/dinner at one of the many craft breweries, and some legal weed (sorry, Mom). Next stop was the Rowena Crest overlook, where we shot some more pictures and slept for the night. 

 

 

 

 

 

Side note: I am unfamiliar with the laws regarding car-camping in the gorge, but no one really seemed to care. We encountered no police or people who told us we couldn't sleep in the Jeep on the side of the road over the course of our entire week in the state of Oregon. Again, this was the off-season so I'm sure it's a bit different in the summer when the gorge is packed with people. 

 

The next day, we got up and headed east. After about 15 minutes of driving, we were at the Wahclella Falls trailhead. This one was an easy 2.5 miles round-trip, and it was well worth it. The falls is two levels (I think) and a total of a 60-foot drop. It was breathtaking and ...misty. My buddy Mike was super cool about getting up on the huge rock in front of the lower drop and letting me climb up one of the hills behind the falls to shoot a few pictures. We were both pretty drenched by the end of it because the falls spits out a ton of vapor. Another thing to note: there is a huge fallen tree that is dangling precariously from the cliff over the final bridge right before the falls and I wouldn't recommend that anyone stay on the bridge for too long until that thing comes down. 

 

 

 

Next, we got back in the car and headed further east to Elowah Falls. It is visible from highway 84, but requires about a mile of hiking to get to because it sits above a decent sized ledge that would require just enough climbing to make it not worth it. The trail is a super easy incline; I don't think we even broke a sweat. The waterfall itself is a 120-foot single drop and is absolutely beautiful. There is a trail to take to the upper falls also, but we didn't venture that far. Again, I had my buddy stand on a rock in front of the falls (this time a bit further away so he wasn't getting soaked with water vapor) and I headed downstream a bit to set up a few shots.

 

 

 

 

 

Once we were finished there, we headed back down to the Jeep. Our next stop was the place that I was the most excited to shoot in the area: the Oneonta Gorge. We drove east for a few minutes on highway 30 until we got to the trailhead, which is really just a creek that runs up a narrow slot canyon. The first thing you do when you hike this "trail" is climb over the logjam at the beginning of the canyon. It's kind of sketchy, but if you take your time, you'll be over it in a couple of minutes. Now, you're walking the rest of the way in the creek. In early April, the water is still freezing cold. We both wore normal pants and hiking boots and our feet were so cold that they were hurting pretty bad and eventually numb. You could drop $75 on a pair of neoprene waders if you don't want to deal with it, but you don't NEED to in my opinion unless the weather is too cold. For us, it was an overcast day and about 60 degrees out so I wasn't worried about hypothermia.

 

Anyway, once passed the logjam, you'll be walking upstream for about half a mile until you get to the falls. For the majority of the walk, the water is knee-deep or less. There are a few spots where it gets about chest-deep: about 3/4 of the way through after the second small log jam and just before the falls itself. We were both freezing cold but so excited to be doing the hike that it didn't even really phase us. I had Mike go first so that I could shoot pictures the entire time, and he didn't seem to mind. When we got to the falls at the end, it was like a religious experience. The scenery was just crazy. I came around the final bend to catch Mike in waist deep water looking up at the 50-foot falls from a few feet away with his arms stretched out, yelling at it at the top of his lungs. I completely understood. I think anyone hiking up the canyon for the first time will too. It's truly surreal and for a moment or two, you're on another planet. Luckily, we were the only ones that went that far up the gorge so we had it all to ourselves. It was mid-afternoon on a Wednesday, also. I guess the cold water scared everyone off. 

 

 After experiencing one of the most amazing things we've ever seen and being numb from the waist down, we headed up up the creek and over the log jam so we could get back in the car and warm up. Going over the log jam the second time is a bit easier because you're already desensitized to the freezing water and you aren't thinking about it as much on the way back. Not long after, we were back at the Jeep changing out of our wet clothes. At this point, we were pretty exhausted. The cold water and the nearly ten hours we had spent hiking and shooting had taken a lot out of us. We headed back to the area near the airport to refuel and figure out our next move. We ended up driving back into the River Gorge area that night and crossing one of the bridges across the river so that Mike could say that he'd been to Washington State, then stayed the night in the Multnomah Falls parking lot. Not bad for one day!

 

 

The next morning, we woke up to more rain and fog and immediately headed over to the Multnomah Falls viewing area. After a two-minute walk, we took a few shots and got out of there before the crowd showed up. It's a huge, gorgeous waterfall that drops a total of around 600 feet and attracts millions of visitors each year, so we were lucky enough to be the only ones there for a little while. It was really cool seeing it in the fog, even though the rain was falling hard enough to cover my lens after every few shots. I didn't even bother with the long exposure I was planning on doing. Oh well.

 

We drove around for a bit after to catch the fog hanging low in the trees and eventually worked our way to Latourell Falls. This one is another huge single-drop like Elowah Falls, but a bit taller and stronger with bedrock made of these cool-looking basalt columns. The rain definitely didn't scare anyone away from this one, there were a whole bunch of people on the trail that we had to work around. The hike itself is about 200 yards from the parking lot, so be prepared for a lot of selfie-sticks, tour groups and kids unless you get there early. Mike got absolutely drenched from this one, it's a massive fall that fires off tons of vapor. The blast of it was so strong that it was nearly pushing him off of the rock he was standing on!

 

 I could tell that he was fighting to keep his footing. I can imagine that people who try to walk through the falls get absolutely leveled by it. That water is coming down HARD. 

 

By this point, we were getting pretty tired of waterfalls. In the last 36 hours, we'd seen five of the most gorgeous in the world. We had originally planned on hiking the Eagle Creek trail to Tunnel Falls, looking for Ponytail Falls and crossing the Columbia River to find Spirit Falls on the Washington side (this trail is on private land and requires a sketchy climb down to find), but decided instead to make our way to the coast. Climbing Mt. Hood was also something we had planned on doing, but the ungodly amount of snow that the summit was receiving all week pretty much made that impossible without an insane amount of risk. Heading to the ocean was our plan B. In retrospect, it was the right choice. Some of the coolest stuff we saw on this trip happened along Oregon's haunting and alien coastline which I will write about in another post. 

 

To conclude, the Columbia River Gorge is a totally kick ass photo destination and some of the most circulated shots in the world are taken there. If you're persistent, you can see most of it in two or three days. In the early season or in the winter, it will be fairly deserted so you will be able to do your shooting without worrying about somebody standing in front of your camera and ruining the day. Most of the hikes we did were pretty easy and I would absolutely recommend them to anyone. There are definitely a lot of more challenging things to do in the area, especially the Munra Point hike, the Eagle Creek trail, and Spirit Falls among others. 

 

If you show up later in the season, you'll have to deal with more people but you'll also have warmer, dryer weather and the mountain lakes and trails near Mt. Hood will be thawed. I would recommend Trillium Lake and Mirror lakes for camp, the Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain trail for hiking as well as the hundreds of other trails in the Mt. Hood area. Mt. Hood itself is a great climb but requires a lot of extra gear like crampons, rope, ice axes, etc to successfully and safely summit. 

 

It was an amazing trip that I'll never forget. I'm seriously fungover and dreading going back to my regular job. If I could spend my life on the road shooting, I absolutely would without even thinking about it. I never want to stop exploring. 

 

That actually sounds like a nice tagline.

 

Never stop exploring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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