Tuesday, May 31, 2011

World of Waterfalls

The Eagle Creek Trail is my most favorite hike in the Columbia River Gorge.  Unfortunately, it's a lot of other people's favorite too.  On sunny summer weekends, Eagle Creek attracts huge amounts of visitors.  It's so popular the parking lot can fill up by 10 am, and the path is so jammed you feel like you're on a freeway.   That's why even though I love this trail, I don't hike it all that much.

Eagle Creek, near the trailhead

But last Friday, I had the day off.  I'd taken a vacation day in anticipation of a Memorial Day weekend camping trip.  A cold and rainy weather forecast forced Roger and I to cancel our plans.  Not wanting to waste a vacation day, I decided to go hiking.  Since it was a Friday, and the weather was kind of rainy, I decided to try the Eagle Creek trail.  I was hoping the wet weather, and the fact it was a weekday would keep people away.

Cool ferns in the forest

I decided it would be fun to try and get some good waterfall photos. So I packed up my camera gear and tripod. I also grabbed a pair of sandals. Spring means lots of high water, and I wanted to be prepared in case I had to wade into the creek to get some of my shots. Of course Bear saw me getting out my backpack, and stuck by my side like glue. There was no way he was letting me leave without him!

Fabulous trailside flowers

The wonderful thing about the Eagle Creek trail is the waterfalls. There are four major waterfalls, and in the spring, several other minor falls that thunder down the steep walls of this canyon. A short two-mile hike is all that is necessary to view Metlako and Punchbowl Falls. At mile four, Loowit Falls is visible. And if one follows the path six miles, they'll be rewarded with a grand view of Tunnel Falls - the best waterfall of them all.

There are cable handrails along the trail

The Eagle Creek Trail was constructed in 1910 to coincide with the opening of the Columbia River Highway.  The trail is something of an engineering marvel.  To keep a fairly flat grade through the steep canyon, the builders blasted ledges into the sides of sheer cliffs.  They bridged a deep narrow gorge, and chipped a tunnel behind Tunnel Falls (hence the waterfall's name!)  The parts of the path along the cliff have steep dropoffs, so cables were installed as handrails.

To protect you from dropoffs like this

There are times as I'm crossing these cliffy areas, I grab onto those cables and am very glad to have them.  Some parts of the trail have steep dropoffs, and if you fall, it wouldn't be pretty!

And this

Bear and I started out from the trailhead, and didn't get very far, when I became distracted by the beautiful trailside wildflowers.  Well, I'd brought my camera for a reason, and wasn't going to waste all this nice scenery without capturing it! 

Bear is posing for me

Progress was slow, as per usual, with me clicking away at the wonderful sights.  It had been a couple of years since I'd hiked this trail, and I remembered why I love this place so much.  Eagle Creek is jaw-dropping-ly beautiful.  There are huge lichen-draped old-growth trees hugging the sides of the trail, steep mossy cliffs, many sporting small impromptu waterfalls, and this time of the year, lots of colorful wildflowers.  Eagle Creek roared in the gorge below, sometimes very far down.

The creek is waay down there

I ran into a nice couple visiting from Florida who were just blown away by the scenery.  I got to play tour guide and gave them lots of info about the great places to visit in the area.  We leapfrogged by each other several times on the trail, usually when I stopped for a Kodak moment.

Metlako Falls

I finally arrived at Metlako Falls, the first waterfall on the trail.  The recent rains had this falls gushing mightily. You can't get real close to Metlako Falls.  It's only visible from a viewing area that juts out over the side of the canyon wall.  I straddled my tripod over a cable fence on the edge of the drop off.  There were some pretty pink flowers in the foreground I was trying to include in my shots, and this position was the only way I could capture them.  I didn't get too daring, but did succeed in getting some images I liked.

Bear patiently waits for me to finish my photos

As I was finishing up my photo session at Metlako Falls, a couple of young men came down the trail armed with cameras and tripods.  We exchanged hellos, and I found out one of the men is a prolific photographer and poster on Flickr.  I've seen lots of his work, and it is excellent.  It's always nice to run into fellow photographers who are as excited about shooting images as I am.

Punchbowl Falls

After Metlako Falls, it was only a short distance to reach the turn off for Punchbowl Falls.  A short, steep path takes one down the canyon to the rocky bank of Eagle Creek.  From there, it's a short walk to the viewpoint.  Or, at least during low water there's a dry viewpoint.  Today the water was so high that the only way to see the falls was to wade out into the creek.  Good thing I brought my sandals!

Punchbowl Falls in its green mossy grotto

Punchbowl Falls is a cute little waterfall situated in a round mossy grotto that resembles a punchbowl (another original name!).  The waterfall is in such a pretty setting, it's popular with photographers, and many images of this waterfall appear in calendars and books.

I changed into my sandals, and waded into the creek to capture my own images.  The water was freezing cold, and the rocks really slippery.  I almost went down once (which would have been really bad, because not only myself but my camera would have gotten wet).  I waded out as deep as I dared and set up my tripod.  I fired away, trying to collect as many shots as I could before my feet went totally numb.

I had to wade out into the creek like these guys to get my shots

When I couldn't stand the cold water any longer, I slowly waded back to shore.  As I was making my way out of the creek, I noticed the two young men I'd met at Metlako Falls on the river bank.  They were preparing to enter the water.  As I splashed out of the creek, I told them "It's all yours!"

Small creeklet

Not long after I was back on shore, the skies opened up and it began to pour.  Luckily, I had most of my camera gear packed away before it got too wet.  I was glad to be out of the water.  I wouldn't want to be stuck out in the middle of that creek in a downpour!  I left the guys in the water, their cameras clicking away.  I'm curious what kind of photos the guys captured, so I'll have to check the Flickr site and compare.  Despite the rain, I'm sure they got some really good ones.

Round a bend in the trail

I continued down the trail, planning to reach the next waterfall.  But the rain continued, and I began to get really wet and cold.  I decided to turn around at high bridge, about mile 3.5. 

Wildlife sighting near the trailhead

As I retraced my steps back to the trailhead, the rain began to subside and I enjoyed my return trip.  This is one trail I don't mind hiking twice.  Just as I was nearing the end, I looked across the creek and there on the opposite bank was a doe.  She was munching away on vegetation, totally oblivious to Bear and I.  I took out my camera.  That must've got the doe's attention, because she turned around and looked straight at me.  It was as if she struck a pose solely for my camera.  I fired off a few shots, but my autofocus didn't want to cooperate, so this was the best I was able to do.

Bear and I toweled off at the car, and I got to experience the wonderful aroma of wet dog all the way back to Portland.  Although the rain forced me to turn around prematurely, I still had a great day.  I got to visit some lovely waterfalls and hike one of my favorite trails.  Next time, I'm going all the way to Tunnel Falls and beyond.  I've got the waterfall bug now!

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