Monday, October 26, 2015

Eagle Creek Trail Without the Crowds

(A note to our readers, September 6, 2017: at this time, the Eagle Creek Fire is raging in one of our family's favorite places. The fire was set in the canyon itself, and it is likely that everything in this post has been damaged. It may be months or years before the hike can be attempted again, but we will keep you posted regarding its accessibility. In the meantime, we will leave this post as a tribute to this unique and beautiful area.)

Arguably the most popular trail in the Columbia River Gorge, Eagle Creek is famous for its numerous waterfalls and steep canyon walls. Spring attracts crowds of photographers with its peak water flows and plentiful wildflowers. During the summer months, whole families of happy tourists wander the trail. Young couples hike up to Punchbowl Falls in swimsuits and flip flops to spend their day swimming and lying in the sun.
Metlako Falls

The Case family hikes Eagle Creek in the fall.

The waterfalls are at a fraction of their springtime glory. The wildflowers remain only as distant memories held in seedpods beside the trail. Gone are the happy families, the carefree lovers. The low-angled sun glows softly on towering canyon walls as the gentle creek chuckles along. Maple leaves drift onto the trail. The mellow air holds a tinge of sharpness as we snuggle into our sleeping bags for a long, luxurious post-equinox snooze with only the sound of water to keep us company.

The views on this hike, the massive basalt cliffs, the luxuriant foliage, and the numerous waterfalls along the way are almost ridiculously out of proportion to the short six-and-a-half mile hike to Twister Falls. This thirteen mile out-and-back could be done as a long day hike; the trail climbs fairly steadily, but it never becomes very steep. An overnight hike allows for frequent photo stops, though, and opportunities to just stop and absorb the beauty of this deep canyon.

Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to find excellent driving directions to the trailhead; it can be a bit tricky to find your first time. Please note that parking near the camp host, as the page suggests, is not likely to be an option in the off-season when the campground is closed. Instead, park at the trailhead (this is generally not possible during the summer, but there is usually plenty of room in the fall). Do not leave anything of value in your vehicle. You will need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here, or else pay at the kiosk. Your first view of Eagle Creek is here as it rushes past the parking lot; this mountain-born stream will be the thread that traces the entire hike.
Likely pika country

At some point along the trail, you are likely to hear a sound like a stepped-on squeak toy emanating from a cliff or rock pile. You will have just heard a pika. These cute little rabbit relatives live in burrows among the rocks, where they store dried grasses for food during the winter. They are rarely seen, but they will let you know their whereabouts with their shrill whistle.

Loowit Falls
Tunnel Falls. Vertigo indeed.
Hike alongside the creek into woods, along slopes, and on shelves carved into cliffsides (use the cables as handholds; these trails can be deceptively slick, especially if there has been rain or fog). At 1.5 miles, Metlako Falls can be viewed from a short side trail. Walk a little further to find the trail down to Punchbowl Falls. While this is definitely worth a side trip, the trail is a bit steep in places (if you decide to leave your pack at the top, conceal it from passers-by; we once had our tent stolen when we left our packs here). Returning to the main trail, you will find another view of Punch Bowl from above.  A little over three miles in, watch for a viewpoint for Loowit Falls. Continue to High Bridge and cross the narrow chasm. Keep an eye out for partially-visible Skoonichuck Falls. Just past the bridge are a few campsites, and a little further along you will find some sites on a shelf above the creek. Fill out a free permit at the wilderness boundary just past the four-mile mark. Cross Four and a Half-Mile Bridge and watch for a few more campsites. At around five miles, you will notice a thin path on the left. Once a popular tie trail across Benson Plateau to Ruckle Creek Trail, this passage was badly damaged by fire several years ago and has not been reconstructed, though it lives on in many guidebooks. Stay on the main trail to pass behind 120-foot Tunnel Falls and you will begin to understand why this part of the trail is known as the Vertigo Mile. Hold onto the cable as you pass along cliffsides to Twister Falls, a unique double falls. The warm rocks at the top make a wonderful picnic stop on a sunny day. This is the last falls; the trail climbs away from Eagle Creek at this point. When you are ready to leave, return the way you came (it is also possible to continue on the trail as it heads uphill to Wahtum Lake).

Water purification break.
Because it is such a popular area, special rules apply here. No camping is allowed below High Bridge, and then it is restricted to established sites. Campfires are not allowed in this wilderness area.

Water is readily available from the creek, but be sure to purify it before drinking. Dogs must be on a leash, not because the rules say so (they do), but because too many dogs have plunged over the cliffs here (we once encountered a couple trying to locate their dog, not knowing how badly it had been hurt by the drop). For the same reason, it is crucial to keep small children close if you bring them on this trail. Eagle Creek has carved an extraordinary but deep canyon here; please enjoy it safely.

As you head back to Portland, consider a quick stop at ever-photogenic Multnomah Falls. This exit is frequently closed during the summer months because the parking lot is filled to capacity. You will find that the 620-foot falls is equally beautiful in the fall after the tourists have thinned out and left you your very own parking space.

Multnomah Falls
A particularly narrow section of Eagle Creek Canyon

Ladies and gentlemen, your trail...

Twister Falls


  1. This is awesome. I wish we could do it this fall. Perhaps, someday, the Emerys could come back and make this trip with the Cases. Loved reading about it, though, and the pictures are beautiful.

  2. Please note that Eagle Creek Trail has been closed by the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017. We hope that restoration efforts will make it accessible again soon.