During the early 20th century, there was a movement to set aside parts of Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge as parkland. The goal was to save the beautiful and unique landscape for future generations. Violent volcanic activity, coupled with powerful glacial forces, carved out a terrain of steep mountain peaks and sheer cliffs. The area is known for its dramatic rocky basalt peaks, the mighty Columbia River, lush forests, and waterfalls. A flurry of construction projects brought roads and trails to these areas during the 1910’s. Special care was made to showcase the wondrous beauty of the area, while preserving the surrounding wild nature.
These visionaries, familiar with area, also advocated for construction of a trail system in an area called Eagle Creek. The trail would travel upstream in a canyon, where dozens of streams and creeks pour into the Eagle Creek valley. Eagle Creek then flows into the Columbia River. Engineers were brought in from Italy to build the trail. Due to the geological nature of the canyon, parts of the trail needed to be carved out of the sheer canyon wall; this was usually accomplished with dynamite. The Eagle Creek trail would offer hikers a beautiful, yet frightening, view of the creek (hundreds of feet below in places). Towering trees, basalt columns, and mountainous peaks would greet the hikers from above. A heavy duty steel cable would act as a Bannister rail in these sections.
Today, the Eagle Creek trail has grown into a hotspot for day hikers and multi-day hikers. Its proximity to I-84 and Portland make it an easy addition for ones “Must-See” list. Over the years many other trails have branched off the Eagle Creek trail connecting to other trails, such as the Pacific Crest Trail. Dozens of undeveloped campgrounds can be found along the trail. It has become a favorite for waterfall hunters, photographers, fly fishers, as well as families looking to expose their children to the outdoor life. The trail is a 13-mile trail that ends at Whatum Lake. Hikers looking to take a multi-day hike, camp at Whatum Lake, or wilderness campgrounds in between. Many day hikers suggest going 6.5 miles to Tunnel Falls for a moderate hike. For many, the 2.5 miles to Punch Bowl Falls is the destination of choice. I decided to experience this trail as a waterfall hunting day hike. My destination would be Tunnel Falls.
The trail head is easy to find and starts off as a wide, gentle sloping trail. You are greeted with a sign informing you that you are entering the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness. You will pass a bridge that heads to other areas, such as Wauna Point. It isn’t very long before you end up on the narrow trail section that’s carved out of the cliff wall. The trail is heavily forested and much of the trail is rocky. As you approach the 1.5 mile mark, you will catch a view of Metlako Falls. While not the first waterfall you’ll pass, this is the first waterfall you get a good view of. And it is beautiful!
A half mile later, the trail opens up to a rest area. Posted on a tree, there’s a sign pointing you toward Lower Punch Bowl Falls. The trail descends to the bed of Eagle Creek. Lower Punch Bowl is a small waterfall (a 10 to 15 foot fall), and rests in a shallow part of the creek. If one is willing to walk out into the creek and look upstream, a unique view of Punch Bowl Falls rewards you. This is an excellent place to relax and swim. If you only plan on the 2.5 miles to Punch Bowl Falls, I recommend bringing a lawn chair, as sitting along the creek would be a nice way to spend the afternoon. Returning to the trail and continuing quickly brings you to the top of Punchbowl falls. You will find a designated viewing area, which offers the best view of this waterfall.
Continuing up the trail, you are treated to the changing trail and scenery. It’s easy to lose momentum on this hike as every corner holds something worth stopping for and exploring. You are constantly awed with views of the creek below and the opposite side of the valley. It’s a unique perspective, one usually granted to those that can fly.
As if the scenery wasn’t enough, one also gets to enjoy the very trail itself. Unlike most trails, this trail is rarely on the ‘ground’. Much of it was carved out of the rock or built up against the valley wall. As the geology changes on the trail, so does the nature of the rocks. About a mile after Punch Bowl Falls, you will come to a creek spanned by a bridge. The bridge is clearly damaged and unsafe to cross. But, being Oregon, a small trail leads to the creek floor where an old log provides a natural bridge. It’s a well-worn path and easy to find. On a weekend, it is easy to find this path, as you will see hikers forming a line to cross it
Your next landmark will be Loowit Falls at 3 miles. This waterfall is unique, as the waterfall forms a pool at the bottom, which then forms another small waterfall, that flows into Eagle Creek. But, if you look closely, you will notice that Eagle Creek forms into a waterfall right at the junction of Loowit Falls. A little further down the trail you will arrive at High Bridge. As the name suggests, High Bridge spans a chasm with a 150-foot drop to the bottom. Soon after you will no longer be on a narrow trial and the area opens up to more beautiful lush forest. You will also hear the rush of Skoonichuk Falls. This is a popular rest area for hikers. Some hikers explore the trails in this area, some exploring the waterfall while some trails lead to camp sites. Tenas Falls will wow you at the 4 mile mark. Continuing down the trail will next bring you to 4 ½ Mile Bridge.
4 ½ Mile Bridge spans a picturesque creek, complete with moss covered rocks and the eternal shade of the forest. You are treated to more waterfalls and fascinating rock formations. Throughout the hike you will catch glimpses of waterfalls, and other beauty, that are obscured by the forest and the trail itself. Due to the geological landscape of the valley, many creeks flow into the valley, creating a network of creeks and trails. From the high forested peaks above you, to the salmon rich creeks below, you understand why so many people come here every day to hike. As I passed the beauty of the 4 ½ mile mark, the number of hikers on the trail lessened. Around Blue Grouse Camp, you will see another sign for the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness. The sign also has general information for hikers and campers. Though, scribbled on the side of the sign was the most important message: Don’t quit! 30 minutes to Tunnel Falls.
Now the trail narrows and you will be on the familiar rock path. An amazing part of the trail, known as The Potholes, displays the interesting patterns formed by columnar basalt. The last mile to Tunnel Falls is on Talus Slope. This is a wide open area, not covered in the shadow of the forest. You will get a chance to get some sun (or rain) on the final leg of the journey. As with most waterfalls, you will hear the rush of Tunnel Falls before you see it.
Tunnel Falls is one of the taller waterfalls in Oregon with a 160-foot drop. The engineers who designed the trail had a dilemma with continuing the trail around such a high flowing waterfall. Their solution was to bore a tunnel into the rock and go behind the waterfall. This is an exhilarating experience! If you have managed to avoid getting wet thus far, that will change here. Advancing past the tunnel and further up the trail, looking back offers amazing views of the waterfall and the tunnel. This is the first waterfall on this trail where you are up close and personal. Being a high flowing waterfall means you also get to experience the wind created by Tunnel Falls. After 6.5 miles, the spray of water felt very refreshing.
Further down the trail, many other waterfalls can be found. Sadly, my time on the trail was ending and I could not continue any further. I turned around and got to enjoy my journey all over again. While the trail did head steadily uphill, the grade was gradual enough to never be strenuous. The return hike is just as enjoyable as the ascent. This trail is one of the most exciting trails I’ve experienced so far. The scenery was ever-changing as was the trail. The number of waterfalls on the trail is astonishing. It’s a great hike for all experience levels and would be a great hike for those with older children (old enough to understand the dangers of a cliff). The various number of trails and side trails means one could explore this area many times and always discover something new. It is a trail I will certainly explore again!
To get to this wonderful trail, head east from Portland, on I-84. Take exit 41 and exit right at the end of the off-ramp. Be careful not to get distracted by the beauty and miss this exit as this is the only way to get to the trailhead. Missing this exit means you will have to take the next exit and back. Heading west on I-84, toward Portland, take exit 40 then get on I-84 east. Arriving at the parking lot, you will find a pay station, bathrooms, and Cascade Fish Hatchery. The day-use fee is $5.00. You will also find another pay station at the Eagle Creek trailhead. As always, be safe, have fun, and explore more!