Dropping 620 spectacular feet, Multnomah Falls is the tallest of the Columbia River Gorge’s many waterfalls (77 on the Oregon side, to be exact). It’s also close to Portland and just off Interstate-84, making it one of Oregon’s most visited and photographed natural sites, attracting more than two million sightseers a year.
Because of the falls’ popularity and concerns about crowding during COVID-19, access is currently limited to the viewing area and historic lodge. Visitors can enter the Multnomah Falls area if face coverings and social distancing practices are followed. Parking is only available at the eastbound I-84 parking lot. To curb crowding, a timed reservation system was implemented in August 2020 and could return in spring or summer.
So how do you experience it all like a pro? Here’s what you need to know to consider when visiting Multnomah Falls in 2020.
Quick tips for visiting Multnomah Falls in 2020
- Plan to visit during less popular times such as early morning or late afternoon on weekdays.
- Consider taking a shuttle like the Columbia Gorge Express.
- If you drive, check road conditions before traveling.
- Use the I-84 parking lot, accessible from eastbound exit 31 on the left. There is no Multnomah Falls parking available along the Historic Columbia River Highway.
- Pay attention to road signs and parking lot information. Do not stop on I-84 if the gate is closed.
- Visitors are required to wear face coverings and practice 6-feet social distancing.
- While the Multnomah Falls Recreation Area and the Historic Lodge are open, Benson Bridge and the trail to the top of the falls and to Wahkeena Falls remain closed.
- Restrooms at the recreation area and inside the lodge remain closed due to social distancing guidelines. Portable restrooms will be available in the closed historic highway parking lot.
- The Multnomah Falls Gift Shop is now in two locations, upstairs and downstairs inside the Historic Lodge with separate entrances and exits. All food concessions will be take-out only, to be consumed outside on the plaza.
Multnomah Falls is a special place for so many reasons. Geology is one of them. Yes, Multnomah Falls is fed by rainfall but also by snowmelt and underground springs from Larch Mountain. If you look closely, you can see five flows of Yakima basalt in the falls’ mossy cliff face.
Design is another remarkable feature here. The iconic, postcard-famous Benson Bridge spanning the lower falls (built by Italian stone masons in 1914) was named for Simon Benson, a prominent businessman who owned the falls at the time.
The Multnomah Falls Lodge is a wonder in itself. Built in 1925 and named the nation’s first National Historic Landmark, the lodge structure includes every type of rock found in the Gorge. On the lower level, you’ll find the Multnomah Falls Visitor Center and Gift Shop, as well as a restaurant that offers Northwest fare in a cozy dining room.
When to go
Autumn: There’s a quiet beauty to the falls, as gold maples frame the cascade and the cliffs. There are also fewer crowds when the rush of summer vacation is over and as the waterfall flow is a bit lower (but still scenic). Even still, your best bet for solitude is a weekday.
Winter: Seasonal rains create booming waterfalls, and occasionally, freezing temperatures encase the falls in ice. If roads are safe, make the trip for an unforgettable experience.
Spring: Rain and snowmelt push the waterfall to its maximum volume, and the wildflowers on nearby trails are in full bloom. Larger crowds of visitors start to arrive during the weekends and spring break.
Summer: For the best experience in any season (but especially in the busy summer months), come early, bring water and prepare for an adventure. Visit midweek in the early morning or late evening for fewer crowds, though summer days are almost always busy.
How to get there
The journey to Multnomah Falls is half the adventure when you ride the Columbia Gorge Express — luxury motor coaches operated by Columbia Area Transit featuring huge windows that are ideal for head-swiveling views of cliffs, waterfalls and the river. Traveling by shuttle is also a low-stress way to visit the falls and other Gorge attractions, especially on busy summer days.
Shuttles travel from Portland’s Gateway Transit Center to Multnomah Falls, Cascade Locks, Hood River and The Dalles. Round-trip fares to Multnomah Falls are $10 from Portland, while the fare for other Columbia Gorge Express destinations is $10 one-way or $20 round-trip. Plan ahead and buy tickets online.
You can travel by car to Multnomah Falls via I-84, but note that driving there can be tricky because the falls’ parking lot is frequently at capacity and closes until 10% of spots are open. The parking lot is currently accessed by an unusual left-lane exit (Exit 31) off the highway in the eastbound direction. Watch for congestion around them. When the lot is full, as it often is, an automatic gate bars the freeway exits. Don’t slow or stop in the left lane to wait for the gate to reopen — 65-mile-per-hour traffic is behind you. If you drive, carpool with friends and family to keep one less car on the road.
If the parking lot is full and the gates are closed, continue on I-84 and attempt to revisit once the lot is reopened. Remember you can currently only access the parking lot via eastbound I-84.
What to do at Multnomah Falls
Hikes: As of September 1, 2020, the trail to Benson Bridge and the top of the falls and the loop trail to Wahkeena Falls remain closed.
Dine and fuel up: Enjoy tasty meals at the restaurant in the upper portion of Multnomah Falls Lodge, which is accessible by elevator. Weekend options include a banquet brunch. Or pick up a snack or coffee for the trail at the snack bar on the lower level. Purchase a souvenir or locally made gift to bring back to your family and friends.
Learn and pitch in: Check out the Visitor Center on the lower level of the lodge, where you can learn the history of the lodge as well as the efforts made by Gorge communities and emergency responders to save the Lodge during the 2017 fire. See the ongoing response work, and learn how you can help protect the Gorge through the Friends of the Columbia Gorge Trailhead Ambassadors program, a stewardship work party or other event.
Respect the area: Right now it’s critical to stop the spread of COVID-19 with public health practices that include wearing face coverings, maintaining 6-feet distance from others, and preventing crowding. Wherever you visit the Gorge, follow Leave No Trace practices — pack your trash out with you, stay on trails, and respect wildlife and locals alike. Always check with the Friends of the Gorge before you head out on your adventure to receive up-to-date trail conditions and visitor information.
Support local businesses
Take your visit as an opportunity to support the Columbia River Gorge’s local businesses, outside of the waterfall corridor. Just minutes to the east, sculptural landscapes of cliffs and plateaus offer a fascinating and beautiful counterpoint to the lushness of the Gorge’s west end. Consider taking the Columbia Gorge Express shuttle to see much of the Gorge car-free. Remember to wear face coverings in public places (it’s required) and practice social distancing. Be patient and understanding with others and express gratitude — a “thank you” goes a long way with frontline workers and park rangers who are doing extra right now.
Cascade Locks: In this charming community, fuel up with food and drink at friendly eateries including Cascade Locks Ale House, Thunder Island Brewing, Locks of Dogs & Treats, Eastwind Drive-In, Brigham Fish Market or Locks Waterfront Grill. Find more fascinating Gorge stories at the Port of Cascade Locks Visitor Center and Cascade Locks Historical Museum. Stretch your legs nearby at Dry Creek Falls, a 4.4-mile hike that starts at the famous Bridge of the Gods.
Hood River: You’ll find a dreamscape of abundance here, a city bursting with dining and shopping and outdoor recreation opportunities galore. Great options include pFriem Family Brewers, Solstice Wood Fire Pizza, Café & Bar and the brand new Ferment Brewing Co., with waterfront views from the tasting room and handcrafted kombucha alongside their craft beer and food menu. Visit the History Museum of Hood River County or walk the Hood River Waterfront Trail, which runs 2.8 beautiful miles along the river, with great viewing of kiteboarders and windsurfers.
Mosier: Welcome to the town of Mosier, where you can amble through a pioneer cemetery to the 100-foot Mosier Creek Falls. A 4.5-mile section of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, known as the Mosier Twin Tunnels trail, is closed to car traffic. Take in some of the Gorge’s best views along the 3.3-mile hike at Mosier Plateau, a family-friendly trek on gentle trails, with some incline, that pops with wildflowers in the spring and leads to the iconic Ramona Curves viewpoint. Post hike, head a few blocks downhill to Mosier Company, a newish hot spot (with a large, dog-friendly patio) serving up tasty sandwiches, salads and craft drinks on tap along with their own artisan coffee brewed fresh on site.
The Dalles: Just 16 miles down the road from Mosier, there’s plenty to see and do in The Dalles, the Gorge’s largest city. Tour the Fort Dalles Museum, learn the tribal history of Celilo Falls and Celilo Park, and stop for refreshment at Freebridge Brewing, Sedition Brewing Co., Sunshine Mill Winery or the new Kainos Coffee, which also makes woodfired pizzas. The Dalles isn’t complete without a stop at Klindt’s Booksellers, the oldest bookstore in Oregon.
The 2017 Eagle Creek fire damaged many hiking trails on the Oregon side of the Gorge. If you are interested in hiking, please visit Friends of the Gorge to ensure the hike you want to do is open. For more information about best practices, visit Ready, Set, Gorge!