Update: As of January 2018, this trail is closed because of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Check the National Forest website for the latest info.
If you’re looking for a kid- and family-friendly hike in the Columbia River Gorge, look no farther than Wachlella Falls.
It isn’t just that the falls itself is beautiful; the trail is also easy to reach, easy to hike, and potentially not too crowded — if you can get an early start.
I snuck out on a Thursday, and got an early start — we hit the trailhead around 8:30, and this is what it looked like.
It was a different kind of hike for me, all around. I don’t have kids, and usually look for a tougher hike when I head for the Gorge, but in this case I was working with Ampersand Productions on a new video project. More on that to come, but meanwhile, here’s just a sample of the gear being hauled up the trail:
Driving to the trailhead couldn’t be easier, and it’s paved all the way. Just take I-84 east from Portland and take the Bonneville Dam exit (#40), make a couple of rights, and there you are. You will need a NW Forest Pass, which is $5 for the day or $30 for the season. You can buy a day pass at the trailhead (cash only), or now, and finally, you can pre-purchase a day pass online from the Forest Service.
It’s a one-mile hike to the falls, with very little elevation gain, and the only suggestion I have is that when you come to this fork in the trail, take it … to the right.
This hike isn’t in my 60 Hikes guidebook, but there are plenty of other great ones in there — get a signed copy of the new 5th edition today!
The hike is simple enough, just walking along the creek, but fairly soon into it, you get a nice little surprise:
This is Munra Falls, and it really pops out at you as you walk around the corner onto that bridge. By the way, that’s Tony and Chris from Ampersand, working on a camera angle or something. U don’t know about this stuff; I just hike and write and occasionally appear on their camera.
Heading up, there’s also a nice view back behind you to the face of Table Mountain, a really tough hike across the Gorge.
After a tiny bit of climbing, you come to the junction shown above, where strangely there is no sign. It’s the beginning of a loop, so you can go either way. But I prefer going to the right, because first you get to cross this cool bridge …
… and then the approach to Wachlella Falls is quite dramatic, along the creek:
These big boulders, by the way, are part of a massive landslide that came down in 1973. It’s pretty daunting to think about, especially from the perspective you get from the return trail, up on the hill across the way. That’s where I shot this video from:
Here is a wide shot that shows it all in one:
Just a couple minutes past this section, the falls start to come into view:
This is where you can actually make out that Wachlella Falls is really two falls, and at times it’s three. That tiny gorge up there hides an upper falls, which you’ll see better in a second, but the one on the left only runs in winter and spring. It’s a whole different fork of the creek. So if you go in May like I did, it’s a waterfall threefer!
When you finally arrive in the cavernous area around the main falls, the trail crosses just below it on that bridge, then there’s a dramatic viewpoint where I shot this video from. Notice how now you can see that upper falls, up in the slot?
To head back, just keep going on the trail beyond the falls. You’ll climb a little, get the view of the landslide and creek, then go back through that junction and head for the car. I stopped on the way to shoot this video of an American Dipper, aka Water Ouzel, which has a little film that comes down over its eye so it can eat bugs underwater. And it does this really cute bouncing thing when it’s standing around.
Nobody really knows why Ouzels bounce, but there are some theories: it helps them see under water, or keep their balance, or communicate to their mates, or scare off predators. Who knows? Who cares? John Muir called it “a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow,” and I quite agree.
I’d say the same about the hike to Wachlella Falls, as well. It’s the perfect little leg-stretcher for adults, a one-hour (or less) break from the highway, or one of the best places in the Gorge to hike with kids. They can act like a dipper, if they want: jump in the water, fly around, or just bounce up and down and be joyous. And you get to see a great waterfall, actually two, and maybe three, for very little effort.
One last reminder, though: This is why you want to start early. When we got back to the trailhead mid-day, it looked like this (and yes, we hiked through about 50 grade-schoolers!):