Sometimes you gotta break the routine.
That’s what I did this week when I skipped my usual urban bike and decided to drive east to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and revisit the waterfalls.
What a great decision it was. On a sun-splashed 75-degree day Thursday, I was hardly alone, as I am on my city treks. There were young couples, families, senior citizens, tourist groups and solitary photographers, all drawn to the spectacular beauty of the gorge.
The parking lot at Multnomah Falls was full, as one might expect for the state’s most visited natural attraction. But smaller waterfalls draw significant numbers of visitors, too, and the entrance to the Angel’s Rest Trailhead was absolutely jammed with cars parked on both sides of the road.
Still, I found myself all alone at one point on a trail above Latourell Falls. With soft dirt beneath me, white wildflowers poking out among ferns, the sun streaming through Douglas fir treetops and the sound of a mountain creek splashing its way to the falls, a single word came to mind: serenity.
It’s a word I usually associate with sympathy cards or funeral homes. But in this case, I truly felt serene — imbued with the tranquility of my surroundings and marveling at my good fortune to live about 30 miles away from a national treasure.
(Click on images to view captions.)
In November, it will be 30 years since President Reagan signed the law that created this National Scenic Area, giving federal protection to a spectacular corridor created by volcanoes and floods and named for the mighty Columbia. With nearly 300,000 acres designated for protection in both Oregon and Washington, it’s more than just a national treasure. It’s a world-class attraction for hikers, windsurfers, photographers and day-trippers.
When I set out for the day, I imagined spending time at two or three waterfalls. Instead, I did just one — and I’m glad I did. I could have hopscotched my way from one to another and then another, but I’m sure I would have felt rushed.
There is a paved path to the base of the waterfall, where you can stand just a few yards away from the water as it comes crashing down into a frigid pool. At 249 feet, it’s a little more one-third the size of Multnomah Falls (620 feet) but spectacular in its own right.
There’s also a partially paved path leading to a scenic viewpoint that transitions to a dirt trail leading above and away from the falls. It’s here that the crowd thins out and you can find yourself alone with your thoughts, realizing you’re a speck on the continuum of time in a place where humans have lived for more than 10,000 years. I sat for a while in the shade of a towering Doug Fir, just letting my senses absorb the forested panorama. Pretty humbling.
Though Latourell Falls was the focus, it wasn’t the only place I visited Thursday. Entering the gorge, I made time to stop at Vista House at Crown Point, an observatory and memorial to early pioneers constructed nearly a century ago. With its dazzling views of the Columbia River in both directions, Crown Point is a perfect introduction to what comes next in the gorge.
After Latourell Falls, I had lunch at Multnomah Falls Lodge, a long overdue first-time experience. Built of stone and timber and completed in 1925, the restaurant has soaring windows, a huge fireplace, a patio and a pretty nice selection of Northwest cuisine. A great place to relax.
On the way back, I stopped at Bridal Veil Falls State Scenic Viewpoint, which features two trails as well as a short paved loop leading to picnic tables overlooking the Columbia. I chose the loop and made a mental note to return here with out-of-town visitors to enjoy the views and relaxed ambience.
As I left the gorge and got onto Interstate 84 for the drive home, I told myself I’d done it right. Sometimes less is more. One waterfall was just right. With more than 75 waterfalls on the Oregon side alone, there will be plenty of opportunities for return visits.
We are so, so lucky to live next to this majestic National Scenic Area.