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 good Columbia Gorge hike to tackle on a hot day, or just a good get-away walk after a workday, the Triple Falls hike is one of the best options out there.
The drive to the trailhead at Horsetail Falls should take an hour, tops, from the middle of Portland — around 40 minutes without traffic. The hike is only 2.5 miles and gains around 700 feet — a little more than an hour for most people. So, from getting in the car downtown to looking at a triple waterfall in a forested canyon … about two hours. Gotta love living in Portland.
Now, one thing needs to be said: None of the above applies to weekends, especially in summer, when the trailhead — and the whole stretch of the Historic Columbia River Highway — is a complete madhouse that will hang you up in traffic for an hour or more. If you have to hike in the Gorge on weekends, start early or late.
The trail, which for the most part is in a shaded canyon, out of the sun, starts out somewhat steeply, gaining a few hundred feet in a series of switchbacks before leveling out and, after half a mile, arriving at Upper Horsetail Falls. Also known as Ponytail Falls, this is an opportunity to (A) walk behind a waterfall, which is always cool, and (B) turn around if you have little kids. There are cliffs ahead that would make me nervous with a kid.
Right before you get to Ponytail Falls, look for a trail that starts on the left next to a big tree; it’s unofficial and not maintained, but if you’re curious, it’s called Rock of Ages. It’s a monster, as described in the Filed Guide at OregonHikers.org:
This is a primitive, but well-worn trail along a steep, non-maintained path. Parts of the hike are scrambles with some exposure and hikers should be cautioned in less than optimum weather conditions. At about a 1000ft/mile the first stretch of this hike rivals any in the Gorge in terms of difficulty.
It also offers a side path to the top of Ponytails Falls, but be very careful up there.
Here is a video of Ponytail from my Youtube Channel:
After passing Ponytail Falls, the trail stays flat for another quarter mile to a lookout point marked by a sad note, a memorial to a 14-year-old boy who fell to his death up here. (Remember what I said about turning around with kids?) But the area has great views of the the Columbia:
Also in this section is a nice, cooling “weeping wall” that will be welcome on a hot day:
You will then cross the top of Oneonta Gorge, where you catch a view down it and will probably also hear the sounds of people exploring that area down below. There’s a nice little waterfall just above the bridge, and then you climb, turn left at a junction, and keep climbing.
The next section might make you nervous if you’re afraid of heights, and there is some more climbing to do, but the payoff is worth it: a view of Triple Falls that comes all at once and has a real enter-the-throneroom feel to it. That’s the view at the top of this post. Be sure to take the trail up to, and across, Triple Falls Bridge, where you can sit by the creek or in a flat area just above it, or just have a quiet moment under the bridge:
To think, as you sit under that bridge, by a lovely creek in a forested canyon, that two hours ago you were sitting in the office, and in two or less you’ll be sitting down for dinner … well, this is pretty much what living in Portland and hiking in the Gorge is all about, right?
Here is my Gaia track, which you can see in full here. It’s a little goofy because of poor reception in the canyon — in other words, I didn’t really run around in circles a couple of times — but the overall distance and elevation are right.