Falling for Waterfalls
[Hood River, OR]
The Columbia Gorge is famous for all of its waterfalls, and even though we’d covered two on our first afternoon here, including the famous Multnomah, there were plenty left to see.
Our first stop was Elowah Falls. The trailhead was located in what’s called John Yeon Scenic Corridor at the very East end of Columbia River Scenic Highway. The corridor is named after John Yeon, a timber magnate who was one of the principal financiers of the highway. From the trailhead, two easy trails lead to Elowah Falls and Upper McCord Falls, both fed by the McCord creek. We followed the trail to Elowah Falls, which was lush and green and full of fall colors. Our path was littered with leaves of all colors, and the sun was just starting to chase out the shadows between the trees, making for an awesome effect. Less than a mile later, we were at Elowah Falls, marveling at the 200+ ft drop. Big boulders littered the base and the creek just downstream from the falls, letting us know exactly how powerful the falling water can be. What a great start to the day!
Next up was Horestail falls, a couple of miles West from where we were. The lower Horestail Falls were plainly visible from the road. Our innkeeper had told us that we can walk behind the upper portion of this waterfall, so we climbed a short but steep trail to the Upper Horsetail Falls, also sometimes called Ponytail Falls. The trail passed a cavernous area eroded beneath a lava flow, with Ponytail Falls towering right above. It was a completely different world up here, away from the hustle and bustle of the road not too far behind us. Very few of the many visitors to Horsetail Falls made the trek up here, not knowing of the hidden treasure.
Our next stop was the Vista House, an observatory at Crown Point State Park. The building serves as a museum honoring Oregon pioneers and also as a comfort station for travelers on the Columbia River Highway. The Vista house is over 700 ft above the gorge and boasts marvelous views both West and East. We could see Beacon Rock from up there, the second largest monolith in the world after Gibraltar. What better place to have lunch and enjoy the views?
There were two waterfalls left to visit, both not really much of a hike from the road but both among the most beautiful. First up was Latourell falls. One of the tallest in the area, it plunges from over 300ft. What made this one so spectacular, besides the sheer drop, was the rock behind it. There is a very large recess behind the waterfall where the rock shape is of a crystalline nature, with long rectangular shapes stacked against each other. It all looked a giant dark medieval church organ. This was a popular one due to its proximity to the parking area, and many people ventured close to the base for a photo op, only to get drenched by the mist that the powerful drop created. What made Latourell a unique experience for us was that we took a hidden trail to it. Last time Chris was here, the main trial was closed due to construction; however, he saw people down by the falls, and discovered an alternate trail that was even better due to the fact that it passed right under the Columbia River Scenic Highway bridge just below the falls. This route was definitely much more scenic and less congested.
Last but not least was the waterfall Chris dubbed “Ramona Falls’ mother”. Panther Creek Falls was on the other side of the river, on the Washington side in the Gifford Pinchot National Forrest. We first headed back East on the Columbia River Highway, then crossed the river at the Bridge of the Gods, named so after an ancient Native American story. Two Native American tribes were living on each side of the river; a boy and a girl from each tribe took a liking to each other and started meeting up on a natural bridge that had formed on the river when a giant landslide fell. This angered the Gods, who destroyed the natural bridge so that the boy and the girl could no longer see each other. Or so the story goes.
Once on the Washington side, we passed two small towns before getting into the forest. A war ensued between the GPS and the phone yet again, with the phone taking us right up to the gravel parking lot, 6 miles after the GPS unit had given up. If Ramona falls was obscure, the trailhead for it was at least marked. Here, no sign of a trail was to be found. We knew that the waterfall was no more than 500 ft from the parking lot, but the lack of signs made us nervous. By some sheer luck, another couple just walked back in our direction, clearly looking for the same trailhead. The girl turned out to be a former US Forest Service employee, and she pointed us in the right direction. Sure enough, a very short walk from the parking lot, the world’s most obscure trailhead could barely be seen. There were signs, the girl said, but the locals keep taking them down, trying to keep Panther Creek Falls a hidden treasure.
Once we got down to the waterfall, we could tell why. This was a segmented waterfall just like Ramona, but it was much bigger and taller. Two different sections of Panther Creek tumbled down from here – one fast and powerful, the other slower and more gentle.We were in awe. Without meaning to, we had saved the best for last.