BRIDAL VEIL (AP) — When my parents arrived from Minnesota for a visit and said they wanted to see Multnomah Falls, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.
No matter how spectacular the 620-foot double tied waterfall might be, or how fascinating the historic lodge is to visit, the place is so consistently crowded I’ve never been able to view it as anything but a tourist trap.
The problem was my parents had seen pictures of Multnomah Falls during their flight into Portland and, once that happens, it’s almost impossible to suppress the urge to view the United States’ second-tallest year-round waterfall in person.
Like the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Multnomah Falls is worth jostling through the camera-wielding multitudes to see with your own eyes.
And so we made the journey 25 miles east of Portland, into the Columbia River Gorge and parked at the state’s second-most popular tourist destination.
By the time we finished what became an all-day adventure, I was sure of two things.
First, to avoid crowds, visit mid-week and go hiking in the pouring rain. If you wear quality rain gear the experience is quite fun, with the waterfall roaring at full bore during the hike and a toasty fireplace in the lodge waiting.
Second, the best experience here isn’t viewing Multnomah Falls. It’s the network of trails that can be reached by hiking to the top of the waterfall and traveling a loop of 5.7 miles to view four more waterfalls. (This does require a steep climb, and may not be suitable for children and older adults.)
It’s difficult to deny that Multnomah Falls is a tourist trap — that’s just what happens when easy access and beauty collide — but with a little effort it is possible to have real adventure beyond the crowds.
ON THE TRAIL
There was no illusion or comfort in the weather report: we were going to get dumped on.
Dressed head to foot in rain gear, we started up the paved trail at Multnomah Falls, keeping our eye on a waterfall that drops 542 feet in one plunge and 69 feet in another (with a gradual 9-foot drop between the two) for a total of 620 feet.
We crossed historic Benson Bridge, which was repaired in May after being smashed by a boulder, and continued uphill along the paved trail. My parents loved the signs pointing out how many switchbacks you have climbed.
Signs lead to the upper viewpoint. At this point, the more interesting part of the hike begins.
From the upper viewpoint, make your way to an inconspicuous culvert and bridge, cross over and follow Larch Mountain Trail #441 up cascading Multnomah Creek.
Everything about this section of trail is excellent, from a dense forest that lights up with gold in autumn, to caves in the layered basalt cliffs and multiple small waterfalls.
The first major landmark is Weisendanger Falls at mile 1.6. According to Northwest Waterfall Survey, this pretty 55-foot falls is named for Albert Wiesendanger, a Forest Service Ranger stationed for many years at Eagle Creek and the driving force behind the Keep Oregon Green initiative.
Just a stone’s throw up the trail is Ecola Falls. You can see the top of this 55-foot falls from the trail, but getting a proper look involves scrambling down an incredibly steep and dangerous trail that is absolutely not recommended.
The trail follows Multnomah Creek just a bit further before reaching a trail junction where you’ll need to make a decision. Turn around here, and it’s a pretty healthy 4 mile hike round-trip.
To continue on a 5.7-mile loop, however, turn right onto Wahkeena Creek Trail #420 as it traverses a flat forested ridge for one mile (ignoring Devil’s Rest and Vista Point trails). The trail then dives into the beautiful canyon of Wahkeena Creek, passes 20-foot Fairy Falls before continuing downhill past spectacular multi-tiered Wahkeena Falls (242 feet).
The trail ends at the Wahkeena Falls Trailhead on the Historic Columbia River Highway. Normally, you would be able to follow Return Trail #442 a total of 0.6 miles back to Multnomah Falls Trailhead. However, due to construction, that section of trail is closed until the end of November.
So, wet and happy, we carefully followed the highway back to Multnomah Falls Lodge, where we enjoyed a late lunch in front of a warming fire.
Granted, we got soaked in a cool, drenching rain.
But it’s worth noting that we only saw a handful of people on the trail. All you need for a solitary experience at this tourist Mecca, it turns out, is the will to tempt hypothermia.