Columbia River Gorge – Portland, Oregon
We were so excited to explore the Columbia River Gorge! This was certainly a selling point to visiting Portland and well under an hour to get to. here are endless number of hiking trails and waterfalls – it was difficult to pick which ones to see. I read that the trail head parking areas are very limited so we rolled out of bed early, hitting the road before 7AM for a scenic drive east.
That was one surprising thing about all of our stops is that the falls were right off of the main road and hiking wasn’t required to get to the waterfall but instead to climb up to the top of it.
Our first stop was the popular Multnomah Falls. Right off of the highway, we were gaping as soon as we got out of the car as it was visible even from a distance.
This two tiered waterfall sits at a majestic 627 feet with a bridge that goes across it which draws people for an iconic photo. Most people walk the three minute trail to the bridge, take the photo, then head back to the car. We decided to complete the 2.4 mile round trip trail that takes travelers to the top of the waterfall.
Since we arrived so early, we had the falls all to ourselves. We stayed at the bottom for awhile, knowing we would not have it this peaceful later. The journey to the bridge was a matter of minutes and while it is not a long journey to cross, it certainly felt that way knowing the plunging water below us. Kevin enjoyed the view as I shuffled quickly across.
Awaiting us were 11 switchbacks over 1.2 miles that leads to a landing the top of the falls. While 1.2 miles is an easy distance, the switchbacks were quite steep. Luckily it was another cloudy, cool day, one perfect for climbing up the side of a waterfall.
Along the way it was hard to stop commenting just how “green” everything. The moisture in the air permits such a lush environment, covering the trees in a thicker layer of moss. The moisture also meant the trail was very slippery. I was so thankful to have packed my Xero hiking shoes for those great grippy bottoms – definitely saved me from slipping off these narrow trails.
After spotting many slugs and completing the switchbacks, there is a short walk through the forest along the river that leads to the Multnomah waterfall. The platform hangs over the edge, allowing for viewers to peek over and down, even spotting the bridge that now shrunk to play house size.
The way down was significantly quicker and by the time we reached the bridge, we could see the mob of people at the bottom of the waterfall. Happy with our early rise accomplishment, we got back into the car and headed onward.
Since we didn’t have a strict plan and our legs could use a break, we drove up to the Bridge of the Gods. This bridge is unique as its crisscross design allows views from every angle – that includes down. There is also a pedestrian walkway as this is the bridge hikers on the PCT use to continue north into Washington. The car park at the base of the bridge requires a $5 fee so after a quick search, we decided instead the drive across into Washington (ended up being a $2 each way – feels a little steep to charge both directions as there is no neighboring bridge around) and head to Beacon Rock State Park.
I had read that climbing Beacon Rock gives an amazing view of the gorge with opportunity to see wildlife, included bald eagles. A few parking spots were available at our 10AM arrival and there is a fee to park of $10. The way it works – there is a kiosk that prints a ticket that you place on your windshield with the date and time. Luckily, this kiosk accepted credit cards but make sure you check ahead of time for which trail heads parking require a fee, especially if you are trying to avoid them or do not have cash (most we passed were cash only, like the one at the bridge).
This rock seems to be a popular place for people to practice their rock climbing as we noticed several brave souls scaling the side. The 848 ft journey to the top consists of 52 switchbacks (theme of hiking the gorge- switchbacks galore!) with a bonus (must be the bonus of a parking fee) of railings the entire way.
It only took a few minutes of turns to see a knee buckling view for miles down the river.
Soon enough, the view expanded 180 degrees for a sweeping panoramic view.
I think we were both surprised how quickly we made it up to the top and it was as much of being atop of a rock as it could be. There was no flat platform so foot placement was very important and it was not a very large area so even when we got there, another group was occupying the space and we had to wait for them to leave to have enough room to enjoy the view. While we did not see bald eagles, the climb was well worth the view. While we only climbed the rock the park itself is enormous and it is easy to explore all day here!
Hunger was starting to creep in but we wanted to squeeze in a few more spots before ending this part of the day at our lunch destination. We crossed back over the Bridge of the Gods (yes, another $2) and since there are falls every couple minutes, we did waterfall hoping on the way back towards Portland.
Our next stop was Horsetail Falls which was once again situated right off the highway. The parking lot was packed by we did a lap and easily grabbed a spot. While it was crowded with people, most people got out, snapped a photo, and got back in the car. We sat at the base of the falls for awhile before making the decision to climb to 0.4 miles to what we presumed was the top of the fall.
Another uphill doozy (at least this one was very short) and we were rewarded with quite a surprise – another waterfall!
We figured out that the falls at the base is actually Ponytail Falls and this fall in the upper level is Horsetail Falls. What made this waterfall unique is there is a cave behind it that allows for people to walk into and then behind the waterfall- even down to the water (rocks are very slippery!).
Not far down the highway (and we would be passing anyway) is Bridal Falls so we agreed that if it was not a long journey to see the falls and there was parking, we would stop before lunch. Arriving to another crowded parking lot but high turn over, it was a half mile loop to reach the base of falls. Onward!
A brief walk through the trees and we started down, an unexpected directional change as we have always gone up first. Through this well groomed and highly trafficked path, we were both curious where this fall would appear. A lovely stream washed over the rocks as we crossed to the other side by still no fall.
Then, the sound of gushing water – we had to be close! A short climb up lead to a viewing platform that revealed Bridal Falls.
Such a short walk but we were both surprised how hidden the fall is until the very end of the trail. This area was the most crowded all day so we didn’t dwell for too long. We both had food on our mind and we were eager to eat.
And to finish off your day of exploring the Columbia River Gorge, I have the perfect place to get lunch!
After a long morning of hiking and climbing, we were starving! I read about a great stop that is conveniently off the highway on our way back to Portland – Sugarpine Drive-In.
Even though we arrived after lunch hours, it was mobbed – guess it was not the secret spot I thought it was! We quickly parked and got our place in line with menus in hand. While we expected hot dogs and hamburgers, Sugarpine offers a more sophisticated approach to drive in food with items such as sandwiches, salads, and daily specials. Not the mention the most perfect soft served ice cream I have ever seen.
Since we had a big dinner ahead, we decided to split a sandwich and each get an ice cream of choice. We didn’t want to wait in this line again for the ice cream so we figured we would order it all together and just eat the ice cream first so it didn’t melt. But upon approaching the ordering counter, Sugarpine offers the most brilliant thing – you can pay for your ice cream now and put it on layaway. Then when you are ready for it, you tell the ice cream window and they will make it for you fresh.
First up was our pulled pork sandwich – slow smoked pork shoulder on a buttery sesame seed roll with summer slaw, Sugarpine BBQ sauce, and whole grain mustard aioli.
I can’t even tell which singular thing made it so flavorful but it worked together so well. The meat was super juicy without being doused in sauce so you really got to taste the meat. The toppings and the slaw sauce used complimented perfectly. I could have definitely had my own sandwich with this one.
The time we were both waiting for – ice cream! I went to the ice cream counter and gave our name to activate our ice cream order and about two minutes later, the ice cream was ready – magic. These were the most perfectly swirled soft served ice cream cones – just look at that goodness!
My chocolate ice cream was topped with a chocolate cookie crumble (which ended up crumbling everywhere) and Kevin’s vanilla chocolate twist was topped with snicker doodle cookie pieces. We sat so content with our day – an early start allowed us to knock out four hikes and now enjoying these victory ice creams.
If you do the the Columbia River Gorge on your trip, you must stop at Sugarpine Drive-In, even if just for a drive through ice cream.