Monday, April 18, 2016

Water and Wildflowers: Hiking to Triple Falls

Ponytail Falls
Horsetail Falls
It must be spring in the Columbia River Gorge; the Multnomah Falls exit is frequently closed now due to the parking lot being filled to capacity. The classic waterfall is certainly a must-see, and its surrounding hikes are beautiful, but the Gorge has much more to offer. This wide, rocky slot through the Cascade Mountains drains high, snowy slopes through countless waterways, from large torrents to tiny trickles. Hikes here can be as short as a few steps from the car or as long as dozens of miles. A wide network of interconnecting trails makes hikes of any length easy to plan.

Ponytail Falls
The trail from Horsetail Falls to Triple Falls is just a little over two miles one way, but it is a true Gorge hike, complete with wildflowers, ferns, basalt cliffs, and amazing views. This hike makes an excellent spring warm-up and it is highly recommended for families. Small children will need to be closely watched, of course, and they will doubtless want to be carried in the steeper parts, but this moderate hike is a perfect introduction to the Gorge.

Park as close as you can to Horsetail Falls, which is right next to the old Scenic Highway, or head out I-84 to Exit 35 (Ainsworth) and go west about two miles on the old highway. From the falls head up Trail # 438, climbing gradually through lush western Oregon forest. Watch along the trail for a wide variety of wildflowers. Note the jumbled rocky slopes which make excellent habitat for pikas; you will probably never see one, but you may hear their squeak-toy calls. Fairly soon you will come upon Ponytail Falls, which plummets over a basalt cliff and over the trail, as well. The cavern behind the falls is a delightfully cool haven on a warm spring day.

Triple Falls
Continuing along the trail, you will find yourself close to the edge of the Gorge walls. Watch for small side trails to find beautiful views over the Columbia River; be careful, though, and don't get too close to the edge. Keep children and pets well in hand. Soon you will reach a footbridge over Oneonta Gorge (at this writing, the bridge is restricted to one hiker at a time, so be patient). This verdant canyon is a good place to turn around if you have weary children; the next falls is almost a mile further, but well worth the effort.

After crossing the footbridge, turn left on Trail 424 and begin climbing toward Triple Falls. The trail is rocky in places, but never obscure or precarious. This part of the trail is tucked into a fold of the gorge wall, far from the freeway and its noise. You will hear Triple Falls before you come upon the three streams of water pouring into the pool far below. This is the perfect spot for a long picnic and photo session.

From here, you may return the way you came for more photos of the falls, or continue on 424 and eventually drop down to the old highway. The latter route provides additional views over the gorge, but you will have to walk a bit on the Scenic Highway to get back to your car.

While this hike is short enough for a stop along the way to somewhere else, it is a worthwhile destination on its own. Few trails offer so many waterfalls and views over so manageable a distance. Take a couple of hours to experience the gorge. Bring your camera.

Historic railing along the Scenic Highway

Oneonta Gorge

Top of Triple Falls
Historic tunnel near Horsetail Falls
The following are a few examples of the many species of wildflowers blooming in the Columbia Gorge this time of year. We start with Solomon's Seal.
Fringe Cups
Woodland Star
Chickweed Monkeyflower
Calypso Orchid

Wild Ginger. Look for wide, heart-shaped leaves close to the ground. Gently lift them to see these small but elegant purple flowers.


  1. As of 2018, the Oregon side of the Gorge can be hit-or-miss as far as trail accessibility. Watch this website for the latest conditions: