KATU Summer Guide: Multnomah Falls, a place of beauty & legend, and other Gorge waterfalls

Multnomah Falls - Photo by Mike Warner, February 2017.

Oregon’s iconic waterfall, Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge, plunges more than 600 feet into a pool that continues on as Multnomah Creek.

It is the crown jewel of four other waterfalls that grace the cliffs and canyons along an approximately eight-mile stretch of the Historic Columbia River Scenic Highway. Between Multnomah Falls and Crown Point there exists Latourell Falls, Shepperds Dell, Bridal Veil Falls and Wahkeena Falls. The landscape gives each its own character. Each are popular, and will be discussed later, but Multnomah Falls attracts more than two million visitors a year and is one of Oregon’s best known tourist attractions. Because of its height and its power, Multnomah Falls holds a person's imagination and is a source of inspiration and of legend.

Multnomah Falls exists because cold water bubbles up from underground springs on Larch Mountain and then flows downhill toward the Columbia River, toppling over the edge of a great cliff. But according to Native American legend, it began because a young woman sacrificed herself to save her village.

Long ago, as the story goes, a sickness is said to have come down upon the people of the Multnomah tribe. The chief’s daughter, believing if she threw herself from a cliff and onto the rocks below, she could save her village.

She did, and after her sacrifice, the sickness did indeed leave the village.

The tribe buried her at the base of the cliff. And then her father cried out to the Great Spirit, asking for some sign that his daughter had been accepted into the land of the Spirits. A stream of water then immediately came over the edge of the tall cliff. The water crashed down onto the rocks below, and has been doing so ever since.

Today, the story can be found on several internet sites, but in 1953, a U.S. Forest Service employee, Ella E. Clark, published a book called, “Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest.” The book contained this story as well as many other Native American legends about the Columbia River and other Columbia River Gorge waterfalls. She gathered the legends from old books, government documents, anthropologists, folklorists, writings from pioneers and the Native Americans themselves.

The Iconic Footbridge

In 1914, Simon Benson built the Benson Footbridge that now spans the lower portion of the falls. And visitors who make the short hike to cross it can cool down in the summer from the mist of the falls.

But more awaits those who continue up the steep 1.2-mile Larch Mountain Trail with switchbacks. Near the top, a side trail leads to an overlook, where visitors can watch the water flow over the cliff’s edge and downward into what seems like oblivion.

The more adventurous can continue on the main trail for another six miles to the top of Larch Mountain. This hike isn’t for the faint of heart, and hikers are urged to be prepared. The views from the top of Larch Mountain are stunning. Mount Hood rises majestically above a carpet of green trees. On a clear day, it feels like it’s within arm’s reach.

And on those same clear days, visitors can also see Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Jefferson.

Those who are not into hiking that far, but want to see the views can still enjoy the experience. When the mountain snow melts, Multnomah County reopens Larch Mountain Road -- usually at the end of May or beginning of June. Visitors can then reach the Larch Mountain Picnic Area by car and a short hike will take them up the rest of the way to Sherrard Point, about 4,056 feet in elevation.

To get there: From Portland, drive to Corbett and follow the Historic Columbia River Highway two miles east of town and take the right fork. It’s 14 miles to the parking area, and don’t forget to have or buy a valid Recreation Pass.

In 1922 Simon Benson donated the land on which Multnomah Falls flows, and in 1925 Multnomah Lodge was built at the base of the falls. It features a restaurant, gift shop, snack bar, and information about the falls and trails.

Multnomah Falls is open year-round. And during the winter it’s often a winter paradise. Snow and frost coat the cliff walls and icicles hang from frozen ledges.

Too Busy at Multnomah Falls? Nearby Falls Also Offer Enchantment

Because of the popularity of Multnomah Falls, it is often crowded and there may be no parking available. The other four falls bracketed between Crown Point and Multnomah Falls are also busy, but that shouldn’t be a cause for disappointment. Each are worth a visit.

About six miles away from Multnomah Falls, the adventurer will come upon Latourell Falls, where water drops from a cliff for 249 feet and into a pool of water. A path from the parking lot takes visitors a short distance for a close-up view of the falls. A bridge at the base allows them to cross the creek and view the waterfall from another angle. A 2.4 mile hiking loop also awaits exploration, which will take visitors to Upper Latourell Falls.

One mile east of Latourell Falls is Shepperds Dell Falls. A bridge on the Historic Columbia River Highway crosses nearly over it. George Shepperd donated the land as a memorial to his wife. There's no true parking lot -- just a couple of turnouts on either side of the road on the east side of the bridge. One might be tempted to skip this falls, but the short trail leads to an enchanting dell hidden away from the world. An upper and lower falls cuts through the small canyon and the water flows beneath the bridge and eventually into the Columbia River.

Continuing on the historic highway, the next on the list is the not-to-be missed Bridal Veil Falls, which is part of Bridal Veil State Scenic Viewpoint. It’s a great place to rest and have a picnic. But of course the upper and lower trails are the main attractions, especially the lower one, which takes visitors to the 120-foot tall falls.

Finally, there is Wahkeena Falls, just a half mile from Multnomah Falls. In fact, there is a trail that connects the two locations. While the falls itself may be the main attraction, don’t overlook Wahkeena Trail #420. Hiking this trail can be a good workout, but it takes hikers through the narrow but beautiful Wahkeena Canyon. Those who continue upward will be rewarded with a view of Fairy Falls. It’s only about 20-feet tall but it has a certain delicacy about it.

Any of these falls can offer the visitor a moment's reflection, an appreciation of nature, but also a chance for the imagination to wander like a stream in a canyon that plunges to greater depths.

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