All of that water makes for roaring waterfalls. It’s amazing to hear the awesome power of Mother Nature as water cascades down a cliff or hits rocks below with a thunderous crash.
I recently drove along the stunning 70-mile Historic Columbia River Highway, which is a tourist destination in itself. I decided to check out Multnomah Falls, the most visited natural site in Oregon with some 2.5 million visitors a year.
The Columbia River Gorge is made for waterfall lovers (see map above), with Multnomah Falls being the most famous of several that are free to visit. Multnomah Falls is the nation’s second highest year-round waterfall at 620 feet tall: The upper fall plunges 542 feet and the lower fall plummets 69 feet with a 9-foot elevation drop in between.
Eons ago, lava and mudflows from volcanoes in the Cascade Mountain Range formed the Columba River Gorge. Remnants of these flows can be seen today in the gorge, including the cliff of Multnomah Falls.
Waterfalls are just part of the Columbia River area’s rich history — from American Indians and explorers Lewis and Clark to French Canadian trappers and missionaries. The Oregon Trail ended at The Dalles at the eastern end of the steep gorge, which was impassable.
Multnomah Falls is a 45-minute drive east of Portland, Ore., on the stunning Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway. It takes about 15 minutes less if you stay on Interstate 84 the whole way.
From I-84, you can see the top part of Multnomah Falls, but it’s worth the 5-minute walk from the parking lot to the base of the falls for a stunning view. Tilt back your head in a vertigo-inducing move to see the clifftop from which the waterfall drops in two tiers. Picturesque Benson Bridge spans the falls in the middle of the two tiers.
Built in 1914, Benson Bridge is named for Simon Benson, a wealthy Portland lumberman who owned the falls in the early 1900s. He gave Multnomah Falls to the City of Portland, which later gave ownership to the U.S. Forest Service.
For a closer view, walk a quarter mile on a paved trail to the 45-foot reinforced-concrete arched bridge 105 feet above the lower Multnomah Falls. As I stood there last month, spray from the falls covered my face.
A U.S. Forest Service ranger told me that Multnomah Falls and other nearby falls were as powerful as she had ever seen them. Unlike many other falls, Multnomah Falls doesn’t dry up in the late summer because it’s fed by an underground spring augmented by spring snowmelt, she said.
If you want to hike further, a steep paved trail leads to a fenced platform above Multnomah Falls. A section of Larch Mountain Trail from Benson Bridge to the top of Multnomah Falls is closed indefinitely because of falling rocks and a dangerous overhang.
Another interesting feature is the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge, a Cascadian style stone-and-wood building built in 1925 and designed by Portland, Ore., architect Albert E. Doyle. Today, it houses the U.S. Forest Service Information Center, a restaurant, café and gift shop.
Continue reading for more waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge and a list of the top 10 national parks with splendid waterfalls.