Whether you are an Oregon local or traveling to Portland for the weekend, a visit to the Columbia River Gorge and Multnomah Falls is a must. The state of Oregon has at least 238 waterfalls and luckily some of the most beautiful Oregon waterfalls are located alongside the Historic Columbia River Highway, only 30 minutes away from Portland. We suggest for anyone who is planning a trip to Oregon to take a drive down this beautiful road where you can find some of the state favorites that attract many tourists and admirers. Along the Historic Columbia River Highway you can visit Multnomah Falls, the largest waterfall in Oregon and second largest in the nation, or within a short hike you can discover some hidden tropical treasures like the Oneonta Gorge. Whether you have a few hours to spare or a whole day to explore, follow our Historic Columbia River Highway guide to see the best of the Columbia River Gorge area on your trip.
If you are starting from Portland, head east on highway 84 and take exit 22. From there on follow our guide below from stop #1 to #8. This route takes about 6 hours to complete including travel time to and from Portland. If you are short on time, skip stops #1-3 by taking exit 28 which would take approximately 4 hours to complete. If you are super short on time and can only spare a couple of hours, take exit 31 on the left off highway 84 and head straight to the main attraction, Multnomah Falls.
Bonus: Make sure to check out our handy printable guide at the end of this article!
1. Portland Women’s Forum Scenic Viewpoint
Start your trip by stopping at the Portland Women’s Forum Scenic Viewpoint for an amazing panoramic view of the Columbia River Gorge. Here you will be able to get a clear view of the Columbia River as it winds down the valley below. In the distance, you can catch a glimpse of the Vista House observatory sitting on the edge of the gorge cliffs. The Portland Women’s Forum Scenic Viewpoint earns its name from a group of ladies that formed an organization in 1946 to preserve this special viewpoint from private development. The group raised funds to purchase this viewpoint and donate it to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Now thanks to their commitment this viewpoint is a place for everyone to enjoy.
2. Vista House
Another great panoramic viewpoint of the Columbia River Gorge is at the Vista House. When S. Lancaster (no, not the family from the Game Of Thrones… or is it?) proposed the construction of the Vista House, the idea was to inspire people to travel along this scenic route and to admire the view of the Columbia River Gorge from a safe and accessible viewpoint. The Vista House was built in 1916 out of marble and green ceramic tile roof and now serves as a lookout point, gift shop and refreshment stop for travelers on the Historic Columbia River Highway. Stop by the Vista House espresso bar, grab a coffee and enjoy the view before heading out to the first waterfall.
3. Latourell Falls
The first waterfall stop along the Historic Columbia River Highway is the colorful Latourell Falls which can be reached via a short walk on the flat, paved Latourell Falls Trailhead. What makes this waterfall so unique is the bright yellow lichen and green moss that grows all around the columnar basalt rocks that support the waterfall. The Latourell waterfall can be viewed from the trail or a bridge located directly across the waterfall, but the curious can get a closer look by walking up to it if they wish. Standing next to one of the largest waterfalls in Oregon at 249 feet and feeling the rush of water and wind as it runs down the cliff will surely make you feel minute. From there, you can walk back the same way you came or a longer 2.4-mile loop is an option.
4. Bridal Veil Falls
The next stop along the Columbia River Gorge is the Bridal Veil Falls. The best view of the waterfall is located at a wooden viewpoint half a mile in. Although the hike to the viewpoint is short, it takes you through multiple switchbacks and some elevation change, making the way up a bit tougher. However, multiple resting benches are located along the way. The waterfall earns its name from its looks, as the water is divided into two tiers that get progressively wider towards the bottom, giving it the look of a bridal veil.
5. Wahkeena Falls
Wahkeena Falls is unique amongst the Columbia Gorge waterfalls because it starts as a white fan rushing down a cliff and turns into a creek beautifully flowing down the gradual rock slope. The best viewpoint of Wahkeena Falls is .2 miles up a trail that leads to an endearing stone arch bridge. From there on you can opt to continue on the Multnomah-Wahkeena Trail 420 for more views of gorgeous waterfalls, creeks, and panoramic views of the gorge.
The Multnomah-Wahkeena Trail 420 is a moderate, 4.8-mile hike with an elevation gain of 1600 feet that can take up to a few hours to complete but is worth the extra work it requires. Along this trail, you will pass many waterfalls such as the Fairy Falls, a light and wide waterfall running down a cliffside, and Weisendanger Falls, a waterfall surrounded by a cliff that requires a little bit of log scrambling in order to get a closer look.
6. Multnomah Falls
The main showstopper along the Historic Columbia River Highway is the 620-foot tall Multnomah Falls. As the tallest waterfall in Oregon, Multnomah Falls is the number one visited attraction in the state and typically gets packed with tourists and visitors during weekends and throughout the summer season. However, this is the one landmark you should make time to see as it is absolutely breathtaking. If at all possible, try to go on a weekday or off-season to avoid the crowds as the narrow path can easily get overcrowded. Our recommendation is to visit Multnomah Falls in the spring when the snowmelt adds additional water volume, the tourist crowds are more scarce, and the entire area is blanketed with newly sprung, lush green vegetation.
You can spot the grand Multnomah Falls from the distance as you’re driving up. The best view of the waterfall is a large, round viewpoint within a very short walk from the parking lot. From there, a paved path leads to a viewpoint at the top overlooking the entire waterfall as it rushes down the cliff.
What makes Multnomah Falls so recognizable in photographs is the iconic Benson Bridge where Multnomah Falls splits into the upper and lower falls. When crossing the bridge, make sure to look up at the top of the waterfall where you will see some of the cool basalt columns found at many of Oregon’s waterfalls. Once you are finished with the hike, you can enjoy a lunch at the lodge’s restaurant or stop by the gift shop for a souvenir.
7. Oneonta Gorge & Lower Oneonta Falls
One of the best-kept secrets in the Historic Columbia River Highway is the Oneonta Gorge and Oneonta Falls. While not a long hike at 1.2 miles round trip, the trail is not for the faint of heart as it will require walking through water, scrambling over logs, and depending on the water level, could require fording through chest-deep, ice-cold water.
The trail to reach the Oneonta Falls starts at the bridge looking into the gorge but does not have signs so most people miss it unless they’ve done their research. Take the stairs on the right side of the bridge leading down into the gorge, and continue along the narrow path where you will soon have to walk through ankle deep water and walk over logs until you reach an area where large logs and rocks block the entire path. Scramble your way up and across the logs and continue into the gorge, but be aware that during winter seasons you will be required to swim through ice cold water to reach the waterfall. Oneonta Falls is an astonishing beauty you won’t want to miss and is highly recommended, just make sure to have a change of clothes waiting in the car.
8. Horsetail Falls
The last waterfall along the Historic Columbia River Highway is the Horsetail Falls. After exhausting yourself hiking through the Oneonta Gorge, the Horsetail Falls is a pleasant stop because it is located right along the historical highway and doesn’t require much effort to admire except for parking your car and grabbing your camera to take some final waterfall pictures. Similar to Bridal Veils Falls, the Horsetail Falls earns its name because of its looks. With a skinny shape and a slight bend half way down, the waterfall does truly look like a horse tail.
With so many remarkable places to discover in Oregon, the hardest part is choosing what to see on your trip to this beautiful state. A drive down the Historic Columbia River Highway is a must for everyone and our guide is here to help you make the best of your trip. With so many options of incredible vista points, amazing waterfalls, and an out-of-this-world gorge, the only question you will be asking yourself as you leave is “Why didn’t I come out here sooner?”
We created an easy to follow guide to the Columbia River Gorge, perfect for bringing along on your adventure so you won’t skip a beat!
Written by Laura Sausina.