Photo: Scenic falls along the trail; by Brad Rasmussen

Scenic falls along the trail; by Brad Rasmussen

It’s a tough decision on where to go and what to see in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic area, or just the “Gorge”, as everyone fondly refers to this section just east of Portland. With 620-foot monster double waterfalls like Multnomah Falls beckoning and drive-up falls dotting the entire length of the Historic Columbia Gorge Highway, sometimes getting away from the madding crowds is just the ticket. You can still serve ‘wow’ to guests (or even yourself) if you are up to venturing off of the beaten path.

Fortunately, there are some waterfalls in the Gorge that offer an intimate portrait of what makes this place special and endearing to all those who visit.

Brad and I had spent most of the winter lounging around and not making much use of our hiking gear (“It’s raining cats and dogs outside!” was our excuse), but this past weekend, the skies dawned clear and bright, and with robins singing away, our spirits were put into high gear.

Photo: Trail following the creek and approaching waterfalls; by Dawn Rasmussen

Trail following the creek and approaching waterfalls; by Dawn Rasmussen

Brad, ever being the hiking spot expert, pinpointed a great hike not far from Portland in the Gorge that was a sure-fire win as far as scenic beauty goes.

We headed out the I-84 freeway, and at exit 40 (Bonneville Dam), we got off the freeway and took an immediate right. We bore left on the first road to the left, and traveled to the Tooth Rock Trailhead parking lot, easily visible from the freeway. We backtracked about ¼ mile up the road to a trail that started by an old water tower, and our trek began.

The trail itself starts out as a road used by the Bonneville Power Administration to access the nearby power lines carrying away the power generated at the nearby dam. This road climbs steadily for the next 2 miles before you reach trail 441 which is the Old Tanner Butte Trailhead. It’s pretty muddy, especially since it looked like a road grader had come by and scraped the lane clear, so boots are not only a good idea but a necessity when it comes to this hike.

Photo: Brad fording the creek with Timmy the dog; by Dawn Rasmussen

Brad fording the creek with Timmy the dog; by Dawn Rasmussen

Peeking through the trees, you can see how the trail climbs and Bonneville Dam can appear suddenly through one of these windows in the trees, far below.

Just before you reach the junction at the Old Tanner Butte Trailhead, you can hear the roar of a waterfall. If you are lucky, you can glimpse it far below in the canyon that you are walking along. At the trailhead itself, an even bigger reward awaits. Two creeks descend from the mountaintops above and merge right here, and there are twin waterfalls as they join. It’s almost like double vision. Both falls are beautiful and cascade down dark black volcanic basalt, trailing their watery tresses across the rocks.

Now the trail climbs up into the further reaches of this canyon as it narrows, and you get intimately familiar with switchbacks. The first section is probably the steepest and the muckiest. Hiking in the winter means lots of water-logged soils that can easily turn slippery, which can either add an element of danger or an adrenaline rush, depending on your viewpoint!

Photo: Twin falls at the Old Tanner Butte Trailhead; by Brad Rasmussen

Twin falls at the Old Tanner Butte Trailhead; by Brad Rasmussen

The rewards are incredible, though, because shortly up this trail, you are forced to ford the stream (no bridges) and the delicate balancing act of zigzagging across stream rocks to avoid dousing your feet is almost like a game of “Frogger”! Keep your camera out because in the middle of this crossing, you’ll want to capture the delicate and beautiful waterfalls above you. It’s an incredible and intimate portrait of the waterfalls of the Columbia Gorge – up-close-and-personal!

The trail continues and you are forced to ford another crossing of the stream, a little easier this time. Just after you cross and start heading up the hill, Brad pointed out an acoustic anomaly: several years ago, a tree had fallen across the trail, and someone took a chainsaw and cut out a section so the path could continue through. However, if you stand in between the upper section and the lower section of the downed log on the trail, suddenly the sounds of the waterfalls are refracted from the log above you, and it sounds like the waterfall is all around you. Very cool!

At this point, the path begins to angle away from the waterfalls and continues upwards until you meet up with yet another power line maintenance road. By crossing the road directly, you can connect with the trail again. For the adventurous, about 2.3 miles from where you started at the Old Tanner Butte Trailhead, there will be a junction. Instead of going right towards Tanner Butte, keep left past a “Trail Not Maintained” sign for .3 miles to another junction. Turn left again and head down a narrow and steep trail that goes underneath a cliff and switchbacks. Be careful in this section, because there is a scramble for about ½ mile (meaning slippery rock and unstable footing) but the reward of the trail is near: Wauna Point. This is a steep cliff overlooking the Gorge and provides an expansive view of the entire area.

One thing to note is that this entire trail (except for the road section) is pretty unused, so you can expect a lot of leaf and branch litter on the trail, and the occasional downed tree. The path is pretty discernable, but it is not as clear as it is on much more well-traveled routes.

For more information on hiking near the Columbia River Gorge, please visit our Outdoor Recreation section.

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