Your family’s favorite hikes in the Gorge may still be closed after the Eagle Creek fire. But there are new adventures in store.
Nearly two years after the devastating Eagle Creek fire swept through the Columbia River Gorge — Portland’s de facto shared backyard — the beautiful, fragile ecosystem there is still recovering.
That means that many family-favorite trails remain off limits. The Wahclella Falls loop has long been beloved as the perfect first hike-it-on-your-own trail for toddlers and preschoolers, but it is closed for the foreseeable future; so is the slightly longer trail to Punchbowl Falls, perhaps the Gorge’s most celebrated spot to cool off on a hot day, and the wade-in trail through magical Oneonta Gorge.
But that doesn’t mean you should stop exploring! In this month’s special Field Trip, we present our kid-friendly guide to a post-fire Gorge hiking trip. Before we start, a few words to the wise.
• Remember that the trail closures have had a bottleneck effect on the rest of the Gorge, making trails that were once merely popular uber-busy on sunny weekends. Try to visit during the week if you can; otherwise, get an early start to ensure that your wilderness experience won’t feel like Grand Central Station at rush hour.
• Don’t forget that to park at many trailheads, you’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass. It’s $30 for a year, which stacks up well next to the $10 day pass permit you’ll have to shell out for if you don’t have one.
• As always, take only pictures, and leave only footprints! Try to discourage little ones from grabbing handfuls of moss or picking wildflowers, tempting though it may be. It’s all part of the Gorge’s ecosystem, and should not be disturbed.
If you love Wahclella Falls, try Latourell Falls
While not quite as low-elevation gain as Wahclella Falls, lovely Latourell Falls, about 3 miles off I-84’s Exit 28, is very doable with small kids. As a bonus, there are actually two falls here, which not every visitor realizes, so while the parking lot might look full, many people are only taking the 5-minute jaunt down to the impressive lower falls, meaning that the .8-mile trail to Upper Latourell Falls gets considerably less foot traffic. Along the way, there are plenty of good stopping points, including fallen logs for snack breaks and bridges that cross over rocky streams. Upper Latourell Falls is breathtaking, and includes the chance to take a scramble trail down to behind the falls, where the cool spray of the misty water will be just the ticket on a hot summer day.
If you love Angels’ Rest, try Beacon Rock
Angels’ Rest, a 5-mile round-trip elevation-gaining burner of a trail that leads to one of the most panoramic views in the entire Gorge, is actually open as of December 2018, but not recommended for families given the risks of loose rocks, falling trees and damaged trails. Instead, take the kids for a comparatively easier switchback up Beacon Rock on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge. It’s 2 miles round trip, with a gain of 600 feet in well-graded elevation, and features engaging information panels at the top about the effects of the Missoula Floods on the Gorge. Sharp eyes will spot the Crown Point Vista house to the west on a clear day.
If you love Punchbowl Falls, try Dry Creek Falls
Lots of people might get put off by descriptions of the start of the Dry Creek Falls trail, which requires that you parallel busy Interstate 84, not exactly a back-to-nature experience. Nevertheless, persist — after starting off at the Bridge of the Gods Trailhead, you and the kids will soon cross under the highway, and hit the Pacific Crest Trail. (This is where Cheryl Strayed famously finished her hike in Wild.) The falls are less crowded than many others in the Gorge, and plunge 74 feet over a scenic basalt background. It’s 4.4 miles round trip, and an elevation gain of 700 feet in total.
If you love Oneonta Gorge, try Gorton Creek Falls
Oneonta Gorge is magical, but even before the Eagle Creek Fire, the area was in danger of being loved to death, trampled by ferocious Instagrammers unable to resist the siren call of its emerald-green cavern and boulder-hopping, stream-wading slosh to a lacy waterfall. It’s also the kind of hike where you need to break out the Keens, and be prepared to carry smaller kids if the water gets deep, since you’re essentially hiking up a streambed. Gorton Creek Falls, which begins at the Wyeth Campground off Exit 51, is accessed via a level trail for the first ½ mile, which parallels a serene creek and leads to a small, 10-foot waterfall. If you and the kids are feeling adventurous, you can continue the scramble up the creek for about 100 yards to Gorton Creek Falls, which boasts an 80-foot tall waterfall.