WAHCLELLA FALLS If you’re looking to be really efficient with a Gorge hike and want to cram in a lot of different elements of local trails into one outing, consider making a trip to Wahclella Falls.
There are a lot of wonderful waterfalls and hikes that accompany them in the Gorge, and though it’s by a subjective measure, Wahclella, is among the most beautiful.
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, a division of the U.S. Forest Service, touts the hike on the agency’s website as “one of the gorge’s most memorable waterfalls.”
Getting to the falls is pretty easy both by car — to the trailhead — and by foot, so prepare to meet a lot of new friends on the trail, especially on a hot summer weekend.
You’re also fairly close to the hyper-popular Eagle Creek Trailhead and may encounter some overflow from people hiking both trails in the same day.
The trailhead is located directly across the way from the entrance to Bonneville Fish Hatchery, off Interstate 84. If you’re westbound from Hood River or Cascade Locks, turn left at the bottom of the Exit 40 off-ramp and follow the road to the trailhead.
If the trail gods happen to bestow upon you that rare, exquisite luxury of finding a parking spot at the Wahclella Falls Trailhead, then you will need a Northwest Forest Pass to appease them ($5 for a day or $30 for a year).
If you don’t find a parking spot, there’s parking alongside the access road just uphill from the trailhead. Be sure to obey “No Parking” signs.
If it’s an especially busy day, there’s additional parking about a quarter-mile up the access road at Toothrock Trailhead.
The mile-long trail (two miles out-and-back) begins on a wide, dirt and pea gravel path that parallels rocky Tanner Creek, a tributary of the Columbia River. The majority of the trail is in the shade provided by various deciduous trees that hug both sides of the creek.
Although it is a great way to get out of the heat, all those leafy trees would also make Wahclella a good, colorful autumn hike, as well.
On the scenic area’s website, the Forest Service notes that in the fall, spawning salmon also make their way up Tanner Creek and are visible from the trail. A small intake dam for the Bonneville Fish Hatchery straddles the creek and can also be easily seen from the trail.
Eventually, the trail narrows and becomes rockier, providing opportunities to stub your toes if you’re not paying attention — entirely possible, as there’s plenty to look at on the hike.
People of all ages and ability levels can handle this hike, from small children to the elderly. Just make sure to keep an eye on any youngsters in your hiking party as there are some moderately steep drop-offs.
After hiking several minutes, a wooden footbridge will lead you to the first cataract of the day, Munra Falls, which is situated right next to the trail, and is about 70 feet in height according to the Northwest Waterfalls Survey.
It’s so close, you’ll have to crane your neck to see the top. On the west side of the creek, sheer basalt faces form an impressive canyon.
About two-thirds through the hike, you will come to a fork in the trail, which creates an upper and a lower section.
The upper section eventually merges with the lower trail at Wahclella falls, so it doesn’t matter much which route is taken.
The lower route stays closer to the creek. The upper route is “sheer-sided,” the website says .
You will hear the falls before you see them, but after heading down a switchback, they come into view, popping out of a slot canyon, over a basalt amphitheater, and into a plunge pool below.
Another wooden footbridge provides a great opportunity for photos. As you head closer to the falls, a path provides easier access to the creek and swimming holes on your left.
While your attention may be on the falls, don’t forget to check out interesting geologic features: a narrow cave tucked underneath an overhang along the trail, and some house-sized boulders not far downstream, which the CRGNSA says are remnants of landslide that occurred in 1973.
Getting up close and personal to the plunge pool takes a little bit of scrambling, but again, should be doable for most hikers. While it may look like a single drop initially, Wahclella Falls is actually a two-tiered, 350-foot waterfall, the upper section becoming more visible as you continue hiking until you can line up your view perpendicular to the slot canyon. When you’re done cooling off, either head back the exact same way you came, or climb up to take the return route on the upper part of the trail.