CAREFUL WITH THAT AXE, EUGENE
I left Brian and Jill’s place on Bainbridge Island early on Sunday morning. I was starting a job in Eugene, Oregon, on Monday morning. On the way south, I planned to make a slight diversion and visit the Columbia River Gorge. The gorge is located just east of Portland, where the mighty Columbia River cuts through the Cascades. The area of the gorge combines extreme changes in topography with an exceptionally wet climate. The result is an incredible number of waterfalls. I planned to visit of few of them, including the extremely popular Multnomah Falls. Then I’d hike to several waterfalls on the Eagle Creek Trail.
The drive to Portland took a few hours. Near Bremerton, WA, I passed an interesting sign. It said, “Correctional Facility, Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers”. I must admit, I was a bit alarmed. I mean, how many times do inmates have to escape to warrant a sign like that? I mean, if it happened once or twice, I don’t think that state of Washington would feel the need to order a special sign. So how many prison breaks have there been there?
On the way, I stopped in southern Washington for gas. The exit I chose was right next to a massive sawmill. It’s impossible to visit the Pacific Northwest without noticing the vast logging operations that seem to define large parts of the region. The good news is that a lot of the logging occurs on private land. When timber companies log their own land, they at least have incentive to take care of that land and keep the logging sustainable. Somehow, it never seems to work that way when our public lands are given to those same timber companies.
By the time I reached Multnomah Falls, the area was already swarming with people. You might say that Multnomah Falls is located at one of the most scenic interstate rest areas in the country. Interstate 84 goes right past the falls, and the overlook, complete with a visitor’s center, has its own exit. I joined the hordes of people there, stopping long enough to take a couple of photos and to pick up some trail maps. It was so crowded, I nearly left without getting out of the car. I’m glad I overcame that urge. There is a nice viewpoint near the visitor’s center, and it’s worth battling the crowds to get there. A path continues even closer to the base of the falls, but the waterfall is so high (> 600’), getting closer is unlikely to produce a better view.
From there, I continued east another 10 miles or so to Eagle Park. From there, it was just a short drive to the trailhead. At the parking area, I found about a dozen cars. I parked and left Brian’s parking pass on the dashboard and headed up the trail at 11AM.
The Eagle Creek Trail climbs gradually through an impressive gorge. The trail generally stays well above the creek, which is a beautiful tumbling mountain stream. The trail usually clings to the cliffs that form the gorge. It frequently passes under mossy springs clinging to the cliff walls. Numerous wildflowers line the trail, including Large White Trillium and golden Glacier Lilies. Despite the rugged terrain, most of the gorge is covered in a dense canopy that almost qualifies as rain forest, despite being well inland from the coast.
All of these features add to the experience of hiking the Eagle Creek Trail. However, the route is best known for the many waterfalls it passes. The first waterfall is unnamed, and virtually unseen as it tumbles through the gorge far below the trail. Not far beyond, I reached a sign indicating the overlook for Metlako Falls. A short side trail leads down to the viewpoint. Metlako is the first major waterfall in the gorge, and it very well could be the most spectacular. The falls project off of a cliff into a large pool. Unfortunately, the only view is a distant one. If a closer view were possible, Metlako Falls would be truly spectacular. As it is, it’s still worth a visit.
I returned to the main trail and continued up the gorge. After another mile or so, I reached another side trail with a sign stating Lower Punchbowl Falls. I knew that Punchbowl Falls is one of the highlights of the trail, but I didn’t know anything about the lower falls. I decided to check it out.
This side trail was longer, and a bigger descent. At the bottom, I found myself at a scenic spot deep in the gorge. The lower falls is a small but pretty cascade. Getting a photo of it required traversing a slippery rock face, which was a bit hazardous. I enjoyed the falls for a few minutes before climbing back up to rejoin the main trail.
I continued on, and reached the overlook of Punchbowl Falls a few minutes later. This waterfall also projects out off a cliff into an immense pool. The waterfall isn’t very high, but the entire scene is amazing. The cliffs surrounding the pool are covered with moss, and dozens of fallen trees float at the base of the falls. I wanted to get a better look at the falls, but didn’t see a good way to reach the base. This was frustrating, because I’d seen photos of the falls from that vantage point. I couldn’t see any way down there, short of rappelling or walking up the creek. I did find one side path, but it merely led to an exhilarating point at the brink of the falls. I still had a long way to go, so I gave up on reaching the base and returned to the main trail.
After another mile, I spotted Loowit Falls tumbling down the opposite wall of the gorge and into Eagle Creek. Loowit is a pretty waterfall, highlighted by a small basin just above the base of the falls. I found a rock outcrop with a nice view of the falls, and stopped for lunch. The view was nice, and the area surrounding my lunch spot was crowded with Glacier Lilies. This was a highlight of the hike for me, since Glacier Lilies don’t grow in North Carolina.
After lunch, I continued upstream to the High Bridge. The bridge spans a narrow stretch of the gorge some 150’ above the water. At the far side, I spotted a faint trail heading down towards the creek. I decided to check it out, and descended steeply. Climbing down was a bit hazardous, but there were plenty of roots, rocks, and trees to hold onto. I reached the creek, and found an interesting view of Loowit Falls. I was well upstream from the base, but the vantage was very different from what I’d experienced from the trail.
I returned to the trail again, and continued upstream, this time on the opposite side of the gorge. I passed above Skoonichuk Falls, but there wasn’t a very good view of it from the trail. I spotted one faint path heading down towards it, but it appeared to be heading for a point well downstream from the base. Plus, it was getting late, and I wasn’t making very good time taking so many side trips. I decided to save it for the return hike, if I had time.
After a short distance, I crossed another, less exciting, bridge back across the creek. I continued upstream, and a couple minutes later spotted Tenas Falls. At Tenas Falls, a side stream cascades into Eagle Creek. This was a nice waterfall, but seemed virtually insignificant compared to some of the other waterfalls in the gorge.
I passed a few campsites, a junction with another trail, and an unnamed waterfall on another tributary. I rock hopped the tributary, but decided against trying to hike upstream for a better look at the falls. At this point, rain began to fall. I had enjoyed a partly cloudy day until that point, but clearly the weather was returning to normal. I dug out my gore tex jacket and continued on.
I rounded a curve and spotted a high waterfall through the trees ahead. I assumed I was approaching Tunnel Falls, which is one of the highlights of the gorge. I then rounded another curve, and found myself staring at another waterfall. This was actually Tunnel Falls. Tunnel Falls is formed by a major tributary which drops more than 100’. The trail continues behind the falls, through a tunnel blasted through the rock. Before I continued though, I descended a steep slope to view the falls from the base. From this vantage, Tunnel Falls is probably the most impressive of the many waterfalls along the Eagle Creek Trail. I attempted some photos, but had difficulty thanks to the rain and the heavy spray.
I returned to the trail and headed through the tunnel behind the falls. This was quite an experience. The entire tunnel was shaking from the pounding water falling just beyond the wall. I continued through the tunnel and around another bend in the trail. The falls I’d originally seen were now in front of me. This waterfall is Eagle Creek Falls, and it is also quite impressive. I wasn’t satisfied with the limited view I had from the trail though. Instead, I picked my way slowly down the steep slope to the base of the falls. This took some time and effort, but it was worth it. From the base I had a nice view of Eagle Creek roaring over the falls.
It was almost 4pm when I started heading back. Fortunately, I had almost 3 hours of daylight, and the six miles back was all flat or gradually downhill. Unfortunately, I got distracted on the way. At the overlook of Punchbowl Falls, I noticed a steep side path heading down towards to the river. The path descends the cliffs on the opposite side of the overlook from the falls though. I decided to check it out anyway, in hopes that it would lead to a view from the base.
After a slow, careful descent, I found myself 50 yards upstream from Lower Punchbowl Falls, where I’d been that morning. All of my efforts had left me back where I’d already been. However, at that time, I hadn’t realized how close I was to Punchbowl Falls. The cliff that forms the overlook juts out into the water, preventing any few of the falls. However, the creek is shallow, and it looked like I might be able to walk upstream far enough to get a view.
I crossed to the middle of the creek, but the falls were still out of sight. I knew I was close though, so I continued upstream. This was a mistake, as it wasn’t long before I filled a boot with icewater. At that point, I had no reason not to continue. I splashed my way upstream, and after only a few yards I was rewarded with the view I’d been seeking. From the waterline, I was looking up at the falls projecting out off the cliffs. The bowl below the falls looked even more impressive from below. Unfortunately, a single fallen tree cluttered the photos I took from that point of view.
I floundered around in Eagle Creek before returning to shore. I headed back up the developed trail from the brink of the lower falls, which was much easier than the rough path I had descended. If you visit the gorge below Punchbowl Falls, do yourself (and the hillside) a favor and take the developed trail signed for Lower Punchbowl Falls.
I returned to the main trail and hurried out. The last 2 miles went by in a blur. I reached the car about 30 minutes before sunset, and drove another 2 ½ hours south to Eugene. The 2 ½ days I spent in Eugene were pleasant. I didn’t get much chance to explore, which is a shame since the city is home to the University of Oregon. I did eat one interesting meal, at the Steelhead Brewery in downtown Eugene. While I was eating dinner at the bar, I overheard an interesting “conversation”. Two guys were at the bar, discussing “Star Wars” in great detail. Actually, as the “conversation” progressed, I realized that one of them was doing most of the talking. At one point I looked over, and saw that the talker had has t-shirt pulled over the back of his head, like a hood. Apparently he was trying to imitate an Ewok or a Wookie or some such thing. At the point, I decided I had consumed too much of the local beer, or perhaps not enough. Anyway, that’s one fella that certainly didn’t get laid at the Steelhead Brewery that night.
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