Waterfalls are alluring in any season. The cascade is transfixing to the eye, but the anticipation that builds when you hear the falls off in the distance — or the pounding of your chest when you stand next to one — heightens the senses and does something pretty special for the soul.
When temperatures dip below freezing, there’s the added bonus of seeing a waterfall transformed into a remarkably photogenic and sometimes icy winter wonderland. Some are less likely to freeze but roar to life with rainfall — which produces a technicolor palette of forest greens. Waterfalls are slightly trickier to visit in the wintry months, but for that reason, you’re more likely to enjoy some solitude on your trek. Here are several waterfalls across the state to explore this winter.
The crown jewel of Oregon’s state parks becomes all but abandoned when the white stuff sticks to the ground. But that’s when Silver Falls State Park is arguably at its most beautiful. Some paths are great for snowshoeing, and a handful of showstopping waterfalls — such as North Falls and the massive, 177-foot South Falls — are viewable or accessible along a half-mile trek even if the park is closed. Here on the trail from behind the cascades, you’ll have the glorious view of the Douglas fir forest cloaked in white. And you can be sure the falls are just as beautiful in winter when it’s not snowy. Pro tip: Be sure to stop at the North Falls Viewpoint along the Silver Falls Highway for one of the most memorable winter waterfall shots anywhere in Oregon. Parking at the park’s day use area is $5 and limited on the weekends; consider a mid-week trip for more a less-crowded experience.
Viewable from a handful of viewpoints on either side of the Willamette River near Oregon City or West Linn, Willamette Falls is the largest waterfall by volume in the Pacific Northwest. The horseshoe-shaped, 40-foot plunge is where most of the Willamette thunders over a basalt ledge. There are a few places to take it in, but the scenic overlook at the marked exit off of northbound Highway 205 in West Linn is your best option in winter. From the overlook parking area, there is an immediate view of the falls, as well as interpretive signage that provides context for one of Oregon’s most historically relevant waterways. Parking is free; no permit required.
Columbia River Gorge
Thirty miles east of Portland, Latourell Falls is the first major waterfall you encounter along the Historic Columbia River Highway. A stunning cascade framed by electric-green lichen and honeycomb-like columnar basalt, the scenery at Latourell is somehow brought to a new level by ice. You can see the main falls from the parking area. But if you want to venture out in the winter, know that the path that leads to the base can get quite slick, so bring shoe-traction devices such as MICROspikes or Yaktrax, and exercise caution. The 2.4-mile loop that visits the upper falls tends not to ice over and is surreal with a light dusting of snow. If time permits, a number of other cascades along the historic highway are readily accessible, including Horsetail Falls. Pro tip: Consider visiting mid-week for fewer crowds, and take as many photos as you want but leave the place cleaner than you found it, for future generations to come. Parking for Latourell Falls at Guy W. Talbot State Park is free; no permit needed.
Just 13 miles west of downtown Bend, Tumalo Falls is one of the premier hikes in Oregon for waterfall lovers. In summer at least three sizable cascades and as many as a dozen smaller falls populate the scenic creeks along the way, and it’s all highlighted by the 90-foot Tumalo. In winter a 5-mile out-and-back snowshoe from the Skyliners Sno-Park is a Central Oregon classic. The adventure culminates with the picture-perfect canyon below Tumalo Falls as the turnaround. From the viewpoint, take in white-capped creek boulders guarded on either side by a winter-dressed forest of ponderosa pines — an extraordinary reward for your efforts. Between Nov. 1 and April 30, a $4 sno-park permit (or $25 for an annual pass) is required to park at Skyliners. In the summer, you can park at Tumalo Falls Day Use Area, where parking is $5 (or included with a $30 annual Northwest Forest Pass).
As the tallest waterfall in Southern Oregon, 293-foot Watson Falls, between Roseburg and Crater Lake, impresses year-round. The quick 0.8-mile round-trip hike sees heavy use in summer but is far less traveled in winter. Since it’s just off of a low-elevation segment of Highway 138 in the Umpqua National Forest, this trail is usually reachable by car. The area doesn’t typically get a lot of snow, but when there’s enough to accumulate, Watson Falls becomes a postcard-worthy image. The typically green canyon washes over white, while the vertical towering rock walls are left stark and exposed. If you’re up to it, there are a handful of other waterfalls less than 5 miles in either direction that are just as easy to reach, including Toketee and Whitehorse falls. Parking at Watson Falls Trailhead is free; no permit needed.
Because of its low elevation and proximity to the Coast, don’t expect Munson Creek Falls to get frosty too often. What you will find on this quick half-mile hike, just 10 miles south of Tillamook, is readily accessible old-growth forest. Winter rain brings the ferns, moss and lichen to life in vibrant and seemingly prehistoric fashion. Look for the boughs of ancient big-leaf maples to be literally dripping with greenery, with the big prize at the end being a three-tier, 319-foot waterfall that is the tallest in the Coast Range, and perhaps the tallest in Oregon west of the Willamette River. Parking at Munson Creek Falls State Natural Area is free; no permit needed.
If You Go:
Before you head out on a winter waterfall hike, make sure to check weather and road conditions. Tire chains or high-clearance, all-wheel-drive vehicles are often a good idea in icy conditions. Also, ensure that you have the proper layers and waterproof clothing for winter adventuring. Wherever you hit the trail, follow Leave No Trace principals, including packing in and out (especially pet waste) and respecting wildlife and other visitors. Be sure when adventuring to carry plenty of water along with your 10 Essentials and know that cell service may be spotty, so download maps and trail directions. For more visiting tips, check out the latest release of “Hiking Waterfalls Oregon: A Guide to the State’s Best Waterfall Hikes,” second edition.