I got a chance on New Year’s Day 2021 to go and hike some of the Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge for the first time since the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.
The trail reopened around December 31, 2020, and the highway exit on the following day. All of that can change any time, because especially after the fire, landslides will be more common in the area. That’s why the exit was closed, and Eagle Creek Canyon will be even more prone to slides than usual for quite a while.
Update: This trail did, in fact, close again in early January because of landslides. Check with the Columbia Gorge NSA for the latest.
Several other trails have also re-opened (and are still open in January), including Wachlella Falls, Elowah Falls, and the Larch Mountain Trail from Multnomah Falls to the Wahkeena Trail Junction.
How Bad Was the Eagle Creek Fire?
There was much mourning when the Eagle Creek Fire broke out in 2017, and I can’t tell you how many people I heard say things like, “The Gorge is on fire” or “Eagle Creek is gone.” I get that most people aren’t too familiar with the history or patterns of fires in this part of the world. Most of us also grew up in the age of Smoky the Bear telling us all fire is bad. And media coverage that seems to desperately seek out and exaggerate tragedy doesn’t help.
The fact is, the Eagle Creek Fire affected about 50,000 acres — but even today the Gorge Wikipedia page says the fire “consumed 50,000 acres.” This is blatantly untrue; one study of the fire indicated more than 30% of that 50,000 acres did not burn at all. Much of the rest burned in a classic mosaic pattern that — and I’m sorry for the italics — is part of the natural process that created that forest in the first place! (This, of course, is setting aside how the fire started, to which all I can say is that fireworks should be banned.)
Nobody died, little if any property was lost, forest fires are perfectly natural, and this one wasn’t even particularly destructive to the forest anyway — at least not right along the Eagle Creek Trail. Higher areas, especially up Oneonta Creek, got pretty well hammered, and those trails are not open yet.
Hiking Eagle Creek Trail After the Fire
Which brings us to Eagle Creek, where I hiked on New Years Day 2021 to just above Punchbowl Falls, listening to people all the way saying, “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be!” It almost never is.
I have a photo gallery below, but my basic summary of those first 2.5 miles is that about 60% of the trail looks unchanged to me. Another 20% is a mixed burn, already with three years of regrowth and many blackened trees that will survive for years. And another 20%, maybe, is pretty well cooked. But even there, regrowth is well under way, and most trees are still standing.
Bottom line: Eagle Creek was never “destroyed,” and it was never as bad as you may have thought!
The Big Slide at Punchbowl Falls.
The biggest change is at Punchbowl Falls, where a massive slide came down into the creek sometime after the fire, filling up that area where people used to wade and swim out to look through the notch for that classic view of Punchbowl Falls. That you can’t do anymore, unless maybe in lower water you can wade the creek and climb on the slide; but I wouldn’t be doing that!
Here is one video of the slide, taken from the spot where the side trail to the viewpoint arrives at Eagle Creek:
And here is another view, from up on the trail, that gives a great perspective of the size of the boulders in the slide:
There are pictures of the slide, and many others, in the gallery below.
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