Oregon's Columbia Gorge - The Eagle Creek Trail
October 28, 2006

by Papa Bear

(Photo of Trail)
The Eagle Creek Trail
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The Eagle Creek Trail

(Photo of canyon walls)
Basalt cliffs form the canyon walls
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W

e made a visit to our daughter in Portland Oregon over the last weekend of October. We were blessed with uncharacteristically fine Fall weather. Every day we would start out with fog in the morning which would burn off by noon, giving us cool, blue-ski, sunny afternoons. Perfect!. Not only that, but the warm climate of western Oregon (compared to New England) meant that the Fall foliage was just about at its peak.

We did numerous (mostly outdoors) touristy things while in Portland (The Rose Garden, Powell Butte, etc.) but on Saturday, my wife went off with some friends while my daughter took me hiking in the Columbia River Gorge. I have hiked with her a number of times in the past, including an attempt at Mount Adams, a summiting of Mount Hood and some hiking in the Jefferson wilderness. I had also run the Hood-to-Coast Relay many times, so I thought I knew the area. But this hike was a spectacular surprise.

We hiked along the Eagle Creek Trail which is just west of Cascade Locks. I had never heard of it, but a Google search (when I got back home) informed me that it is one of the most popular hikes in the area, but is relatively unknown to outsiders. But popular in Oregon is not the same as popular in New England. The numbers for a busy summer season on this trail were around 4900 hikers. Hell, you get that many on Monadnock in New Hampshire on a busy Fourth of July weekend.

(Photo of trail cut into the cliff side)
The trail cut into the cliff side
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Perhaps one reason that peak baggers like myself haven't heard about it is that it doesn't go to a peak. For this trail, the journey is truly the destination. The trail itself is very easy - flat with a very gradual grade - but the terrain was something else. The entire area consists of basalt from long ago volcanic eruptions which covered much of the eastern slopes of the Cascades with thick layers of lava. The soft, but not too soft basalt makes a perfect medium for very steep sided canyons for all the tributaries flowing into the Columbia. And for that matter it is the reason for the dramatic Columbia Gorge itself.

The trail itself is a fantastic piece of work. My daughter thought it was probably built in the 1930s by the CCC, but Google revealed otherwise. It was built in the 1910s as part of the construction of the Columbia Highway (now called the "old road"). "Built in the 1910s to accompany the opening of the Columbia River Highway, the Eagle Creek Trail was blasted out of the cliffs with dynamite by Italian engineers". And boy was it ever blasted. Instead of following the stream bed as you might expect, it traveled high up along the cliff side. In many cases the cliff was nearly vertical and the trail was simply cut into the cliff face, with an occasional steel cable (on the inside) for the faint of heart to hold. No guard rail anywhere, so don't bring your toddlers or frisky pets.

(Photo of Old growth Douglas-fir)
Old growth Douglas-fir
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Besides the terrain and trail construction, I was impressed by the vegetation. it was really a rain forest, albeit a temperate one. There were moss and ferns and vines on every surface, and the contrast between the bright yellow of the hardwoods amidst the deep green of the Douglas-firs and cedars was stunning. The canyon had never been logged, although it was fire ravaged about 100 years ago, so old growth Douglas-firs were to be found along the steep slopes.

Although it was a clear and sunny day, most of the hiking was in the shadows caused by the steep canyon walls. Looking up at the top of the canyon walls let us know that the sun was there after all.

The trail starts very gradually and soon you find yourself 100 or more feet above the stream. After about 3 miles, we came to Punch Bowl Falls, one of the most picturesque of the many falls along the route. A short spur leads to a viewpoint, and a longer side trail (which we did not take) leads to a pool beneath the falls where you can take a dip on a hot summer day. Most day hikers turn around here.

Past Punch Bowl, the trail climbs higher along the cliff side and there is a glimpse of the high Loowit Falls in the distance across the canyon. The trail then crosses over the creek on High Bridge, about a hundred feet above the bottom where you can look down to an extremely narrow slot canyon formed by the stream.

The best is yet to come. Just before the 6 mile point, the trail hugs the side of a sheer cliff (probably about 150' high) about half way up. Along here I was staying close to the cable. You did not want to slip along this portion; past the edge of the trail it was straight down. The trail then takes an abrupt turn to the left and you see the most impressive falls yet, straight in front of you. It was Tunnel Falls, which brings the east branch of the creek into the main branch in a short narrow side canyon. But what happens to the trail? There was no bridge here. Well, the trail marches right up to the falls, and then tunnels through the rock behind the falls and comes out on the other side, about 30 feet away. It was the most impressive piece of trail construction I had ever seen!

(Photo of Tunnel Falls)
The trail passing behind Tunnel Falls
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It was interesting: when I got into the tunnel, I felt a temporary sense of security since I was no longer inches away from a precipitous drop. When my daughter got into the tunnel, she wanted to get through as fast as possible since she had a sense that the whole thing would come crashing down around her. But we both got through safe and sound, and about 10 minutes later we were sitting on a flat area above another falls (Criss-Cross Falls) having a leisurely lunch.

We turned around and headed back, with everything just as impressive as before. But with the afternoon progressing and us heading in the opposite direction, we got quite a different perspective of the trail.

We got back to the car, got back to Portland by 5:00 PM and met my wife and friends at a terrific Thai Restaurant. It had been a great day to be in Oregon.


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