Photo Guide to the Columbia River Gorge
(Sadly, in September of 2017, the Eagle Creek Fire, a human caused wildfire, destroyed much of the Gorge Scenic Area. Areas east of Multnomah Falls past Cascade Locks and nearly to Starvation Creek. It may not be accessible for many years. See map)
The Columbia River Gorge is a dream location for waterfall lovers and it’s one of my favorite places to photograph. Not only is it easy to get to, but the waterfalls are very photogenic and many of them are easily accessed.
This short guide will cover the most popular and easily accessed waterfalls along with a couple other photo destinations. This is by no means exhaustive; there are a lot more waterfalls to explore on both sides of the Columbia River.
The Columbia River Gorge is only 20 or 30 minutes west of Portland, OR on Interstate 84. The Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway (Hwy 30), where you’ll be able to access many of the falls, can be accessed from I-84 at a number of points.
The first is at the town of Troutdale at exit 17. The next is at Corbett at exit 22. The third is exit 28 at Bridal Veil, and then exit 35 near Dodson.
One thing to know about many of these falls is that even on a sunny day, you can photograph them if you’re there early or late enough. They all face north and for the most part are in little gorges that block out the sun until mid-morning. By late afternoon the shade is back.
And a general word of caution. The areas surrounding waterfalls are wet and often slippery. Stream sides can be very slipper. So be sure to exercise caution. Bring along a hiking staff for extra balance or simply use your tripod as a hiking staff.
The scenic highway waterfalls
Along the scenic highway (Hwy 30) there are several waterfalls worth stopping at:
Multnomah: the big one. You can see it from I- 84. And it’s accessible from Hwy 84 as well as Hwy 30. There’s an exit off of I-84 at Multnomah falls that goes to a median parking lot. It’s a short walk to the lodge and falls from there. The lodge has a good restaurant and is a great place for breakfast after shooting a sunrise and bagging a couple of waterfalls. There’s also an outdoor coffee stand where you can get espresso drinks and pastries. I never fail to visit this stand at least once or twice on a trip.
You’ll probably head straight for the best vantage point right in front of the falls. But be sure to wander around the nearby area for some other vantage points that may include the cool looking post lights, benches, steps, and railings.
The bridge above the falls will often have people on it. If it doesn’t, just wait, someone will show up, hopefully in a brightly colored jacket.
Horsetail Falls is the next waterfall east of Multnomah on the scenic hwy. Along the side of the road, it’s not a large area so you should be able to scout vantage points quickly. Try using the trees along the road as framing devices. Those trees can be a nice subject themselves. In the morning, as the sun gets high enough, the sunlight and the mist from the waterfall combine for beams of light in the trees.
Upper Horsetail Falls (aka Ponytail Falls) is about a ½ mile hike from Horsetail Falls. The trail starts at the east end of picnic area. The first part of the trail consists of switchbacks that seem like they will never end but it’s not really that far and is well worth it. The trail passes behind the falls. Watch your step, it can be slippery here. You can photograph from either side of the falls or even underneath the falls.
At the low point of the trail, just before it goes behind the falls, is a decent place to make your way to the stream. Work your way downstream a little way and you’ll find even more good compositions. Again, BE CAREFUL, rocks along streams can be slippery.
Wahkeena Falls is the next fall west of Multnomah on the scenic hwy. There’s a stream next to the parking lot that’s worth looking at. The fall is about a ¼ mile or so walk on a paved trail. There's a cut log right in the middle of just about any picture you'd want to take. Here I'm using the trail to lead into the picture and doing so makes that dang log not so offensive.
Other falls on the scenic highway west of Multnomah:
Latourell: Definitely stop here. From the parking lot is a trail that goes up to a viewpoint. This is ok and the trail is really short. At the west end of the lot a paved trail leads down to the falls, which is the best place to go.
There are several vantage points, the best probably being right from the bridge that crosses the stream. I’ve shot from both ends and the middle of the bridge as well as just off the bridge on either side.
This is a good spot for both wide angle and telephoto lenses. Use your telephoto lens to concentrate on the rocks at the bottom of the falls. A long exposure will work well.
Shepperd’s Dell: Look for the sign near the bridge. You can’t really see the waterfall from the road but a very short trail leads down to it. For me, the best shot is from about 30 feet down the steps at the start of the trail.
Bridal Veil Falls: Not one I go to unless I really have some time to kill.
Other Waterfalls in the area
Elowah Falls: From I-84 take exit 35 and follow Hwy 30 east to the John B. Yeon trailhead. Elowah Falls is a spectacular waterfall. The hike is about ¾ mile each way. The trail both gains and loses elevation, but it’s not a butt kicker by any means. Well worth the hike.
I’ve photographed Elowah from both sides of the bridge that crosses the creek as well as from beneath the bridge (wearing chest waders). There are plenty of vantage points here.
Along with the wider landscape shots, be sure to use a telephoto to zoom in on the waterfall where it crashes into the rocks at the bottom. Use a longer exposure for some nice abstract images.
There are also shots to be had downstream from stream level. But these involve scrambling down the bank, not something I can officially recommend. If you pay attention along the trail as it approaches the waterfall you’ll probably see way-trails where others have made their way down.
Eagle Creek trail: This is where you’ll find Metlako and Punchbowl Falls. Punchbowl is about 2 miles from the trailhead. The trail is very scenic and it has its ups and downs.
This is a popular trail and the parking can fill very quickly, especially on a weekend. So plan on starting your hike early. There are other practical reasons for starting early that I’ll mention below. For directions, take a look here. This is also national forest land so you will need a Forest Pass. There is a pay station in the parking lot in case you don't have a pass.
Metlako Falls is about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. There’s a short side trail that leads to a viewpoint. But you need to pay attention because it’s easy to miss the sign. There’s really only the one vantage point so you won’t need to spend much time here before continuing on to Punchbowl.
There are two vantage points for Punchbowl Falls: the upper view and the streamside view. To get to the upper view, keep going past the trail junction that leads down to the stream. It’s not far. But the better shot is from stream level.
The side trail down to Punchbowl is where the trail gets the steepest. Use caution when you get to the bottom; you’ll have to cross some rocks that can be slippery.
Punchbowl Falls itself may or may not be visible from the shores of Eagle Creek, that all depends on the water levels. These days, whenever I go I bring a pair of chest waders in case I need to photograph from the middle of the stream. You may opt to wear shorts and go barefoot. Or just plan on getting wet. The rocks in the stream bed are usually slippery, so be careful. The water can be cold too, and a cool spring morning will make it feel even colder.
Punchbowl Falls is really popular. I’d suggest starting the hike early, right around sunrise. I suggest this for a couple of reasons. The first is people. After a while, people will start showing up. Generally it’s not too much of a problem since most visitors will only wade out to see the falls for a short time and so won’t be in your shots long, if at all. But if water levels are low and you can see the falls from the shore, you might have to exercise a lot of patience. So, go early.
The second reason to get there early is the sun. If it’s a sunny day, contrast will kill things rather early. I don’t remember exactly when the sun will ruin the scene, probably by 9 a.m.?? Anyway, get there early enough so that neither the crowds nor the sun will be an issue.
There are other falls to photograph if you want to continue up the Eagle Creek trail. You can find out more about them from the Waterfall Lovers book included in the references at the end of this guide.
Wahclella Falls: From Hwy 84 take Exit 40, Bonneville Dam.
Wahclella Falls is about a mile from the trailhead. It’s an up and down trail but not too much elevation gain and it’s a nice little area. The trail splits at about .7 miles. Go either direction, it loops back on itself. More on the hike here.
This is another area I’ve used my chest waders. But there are plenty of options without having to get into the stream.
Triple Falls. This is a hike. It doesn’t look far on a map but when you’re carrying your photo gear, it seems to go on forever. There are a couple of ways to get here. My suggestion is to take the route that brings you to Ponytail falls first and then continue on the same trail. After a while you’ll take some switchbacks down to a bridge crossing Oneonta creek (at this point you’ve hiked about one and a quarter miles). Here you’ll have a view of a waterfall often referred to as Middle Oneonta Falls. This may or may not be its official name.
After spending some time here, continue across the bridge and head uphill to an intersection with the Oneonta Creek Trail. Go left and follow for about another mile (uphill) to Triple Falls.
My guide books states that this is a moderate trail. Ok.
I mean, it’s not technically difficult, it’s just that it goes up. And up some more. And with camera gear on your back, it seems really up. Is it worth it? It’s a pretty waterfall, but if you’re short on time (or breath) feel free to skip it.
The accompanying shot of Triple Falls was taken at 34mm on my Nikon D300 (DX sensor). That would translate to about 50mm on a FX camera body like my D810 full frame.
At Ponytail, you’ll likely want to go wider. On my D300 I used a 12-24mm lens (18-36 on a full-frame) for landscape shots. If you want to isolate the waterfall, you’ll need to go longer.
So if you’ve got a wide angle zoom and a short telephoto zoom, that’s all you really need to carry. That makes room for extra water and snacks.
If you go, be sure to explore the area just past Triple Falls. You can see the bridge in the picture, where there's access to the stream.
If you only have a couple of days, here are my recommendations:
Multnomah, Latourell, Lower and Upper Horsetail Falls, & Elowah.
Shepperd’s Dell and Wahkeena are easy to get to and can be photographed quickly, so why not?
Sunrise & Sunset
If you want to get up early for sunrise, the best spot (only spot?) is the Women’s Forum Overlook that looks east toward Crown Point and Vista House. From I-84 take Exit 22 to Corbett and follow signs to Crown Point. You’ll see the Women’s Forum Overlook parking area before you get to Crown Point. This can be really worth it. Or a dud. You know, the usual. But I’ve made some of my favorite sunrise shots here. And on a cloudy morning, I took the resulting images and converted to black and white. Definitely visit this location for at least one sunrise. These four images were taken from the Women's Forum Overlook at sunrise over four consecutive years.
This is a telephoto location. These images were made with my 80-200mm and 300mm lenses.
You can also try it for a sunset. I’ve never had much success here for sunsets but the potential is there.
What I often do on workshops is start off with a sunrise at the Women’s Forum Overlook. Then we then make our way down to Latourell Falls. From there, depending on time and weather, we may stop at Sheppard’s Dell or Wahkeena. But the main goal is to get to Multnomah and get coffee and pastries at the coffee stand.
A good place for late afternoon on toward sunset is the McCall Nature Preserve at Rowena Point east of Hood River on Hwy 30. Late April to mid May or so is probably best for the wildflowers there.
You don’t need to hike the McCall Point trail. You’ll see the fields next to the road and the trail leading out into them.
Where to stay
You can find lodging in Troutdale or Cascade Locks (or Hood River, but that adds a lot of driving). I really prefer Cascade Locks as it’s quieter and there’s no real traffic on the main street. Troutdale is a truck stop and traffic can be a nightmare.
I like staying at the Best Western in Cascade Locks. There’s a restaurant next door, a small grocery store down the street, and a tavern with great food. I think it’s the Cascade Locks Ale House.
Ainsworth State Park is a good option for campers. Take exit 35 from I-84 and follow Hwy 30 west a short distance to the state park. I highly recommend making reservations as Oregon’s state parks can be very popular, especially on weekends.
The Waterfall Lover’s Guide Pacific Northwest by Gregory Plumb
Photographing Oregon by Greg Vaughn