Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Oneonta Trail

Portland finally got a break this weekend from the endless March rain (I was beginning to forget what sunshine looked like!)  My son Cody was home for Easter break, and we both decided to take advantage of the good weather with a hike in the Columbia River Gorge.

Size matters!  Click on any photo to enjoy a larger version.

Mandatory trail sign photo

I haven't been in the Gorge since my New Year's Day waterfall photo junket.  With all the recent rainfall, the sheer amount of water flowing into local streams meant the Gorge cascades would be spectacular.  A waterfall hike was in order!  And I knew just the trail - time to pay a visit to Oneonta Gorge.

Moss-covered rock wall lines the trail

There are many waterfall trails in the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area.  And they are all delightful.  But the Oneonta Trail gives the most bang for the buck.  In a mere two miles one can visit three (count 'em - three!) lovely falls.  Since Cody and I needed to be back in town by mid-afternoon, this short, view-packed hike fit the bill perfectly.

The trail squeezes between forest and a steep cliff

The trail begins at a large parking lot off the Old Columbia River Scenic Highway.  Right across the road is the very first waterfall - Horsetail Falls.  Most visitors only venture far enough to snap a couple photos of this tall, impressive cascade.  But if one treks past the trailhead, rewards are great indeed.

First glimpse of Ponytail Falls

Cody, Bear, and I switchbacked up the first ridge.  Typical of many Gorge trails, the first 0.2 of a mile was lined with several old mossy, stone walls.  Ferns draped over the wall's upper reaches.  Further up, we passed through a couple of rockslides and old gnarled trees, all covered in olive-green moss.  That's what nearly 8 inches of rain in a month will do.

Ponytail Falls and the trail behind

First on our tour - the lovely Ponytail Falls, only 0.4 mile from the trailhead.  This waterfall is especially cool as the trail routes behind the falls.  I'm told the lava flow that created this cascade's slot also buried a layer of soft soil.  The fall's constant flow over time has eroded this soil layer, creating a small cavern.  It's a very fun place to take young kids (even old kids too!)  Who doesn't get a kick out of walking through a cave that's BEHIND a waterfall?

Lovely Columbia River view

After a brief photo session at Ponytail Falls, it was time to move on.  The next highlight on the trail is a Gorge viewpoint jutting out over a cliff edge.  The vistas up and down the Columbia River are most excellent.  The clear sky meant one could see forever up and down the Gorge.  I caught glimpses of Beacon Rock and Hamilton Mountain to the east.

Close up of riverside pond

And from my perch, I really noticed the high river levels of the Columbia.  Water spilled over into the adjacent low-lying plains, flooding trees and creating small ponds.  One little pond had the most beautiful blue cast to its water.  I tried capturing the color with my camera, but the above photo doesn't do it justice.

First trillium of the year!

As we left the viewpoint to continue our trek, Cody spotted a small cluster of trilliums beside the trail.  Of course that was occasion for me to whip my camera back out!  (Which elicited a groan from Cody)  The sighting of these delicate, white flowers signals that spring is here to stay.

Mossy "weeping wall"

More interesting sights awaited.  Cody and I passed by a moss-covered rock wall that was dripping with narrow rivulets of water.  We paused and watched tiny streams cascade down the steep cliff face, forming small wet explosions as they hit clumps of moss.  It was mesmerizing.

The trail switchbacks down to Oneonta Gorge

Beyond the weeping wall, our trail switchbacked dramatically down to a footbridge crossing Oneonta Gorge, losing quite a bit of elevation in a very short distance.  It was an interesting viewpoint standing at the top of the ridge looking down over the sinuous path to the creek below.  Oneonta Gorge itself is another amazing sight.  It's a very narrow crack in the adjacent rock cliffs through which a creek flows.  I tried to capture a photo of this phenomenon, but due to lousy light, it wasn't worth sharing here.  There are waterfalls above and below the bridge, and I did capture a semi-decent pic of Oneonta Falls on my return trip (you'll see the photo later on in this post - I promise!)

Bear resting in the sunshine

After a trail junction, Cody and Bear (with me straggling along in the rear) climbed up to the next waterfall viewpoint.  This one was the best of all - Triple Falls.  One waterfall is great, but three for the price of one?  There was a huge group at the overlook as we walked by, so Cody and I elected to continue up the trail for a short distance, and chose a lunch spot by the roaring creek above Triple Falls.  It was a beautiful spot, complete with mossy boulders, small cascades, tall Doug Fir trees, and a nice sunny spot for Bear to relax (when he wasn't begging for a piece of my sandwich).

Triple Falls

We hit Triple Falls on our way back.  By this time, the large group had cleared out, but there was still another small party perched on the overlook.  No matter, the light wasn't great for photos, so I only made a couple image attempts before we packed up and moved on.   Triple Falls is really a neat waterfall and my intent was to produce a photo that did it true justice.  But alas, this sad image is the best that I could do (but aren't these falls cool?).

Oneonta Falls

Cody and I traveled back down to Oneonta Gorge.  This time the light was a little bit better, and I was able to get a semi-decent shot of Oneonta Falls.  By this time, it was early afternoon, and there was now a steady stream of people tromping down the switchbacks and across the bridge.  Sunny dry days bring hikers to the Gorge in droves!

My son and I

Cody's not fond of being in photos, especially when his mom is running the camera.  I tried to refrain from including him in my shots, but really wanted at least one image of my son and I to remember this great day.  Cody, being the good son that he is, decided to humor his mother.   Thanks to my tripod and timer, we posed on the Oneonta Gorge bridge and made this photo happen. 

After a busy winter of skiing, it was great to lace up my hiking boots again.  And there's nothing better than a waterfall hike in the Gorge on a sunny spring day (well.....except maybe a sunny powder day on the mountain).

(Oh - And I just realized I can't count.  There are actually FOUR waterfalls on this hike.  I forgot about Horsetail Falls at the parking lot).    :)


  1. Stunning photos, a great hike and a handsome son - sounds like a perfect day to me!

  2. WOW! this is such a gorgeous collection of photos ...what a glorious hike! The mossy wall...the beautiful!

  3. Wow! They're some impressive looking waterfalls! I love that wall of moss as well. That looks like my sort of walk. Great for photo opportunities :)

  4. Oh going to have to add this to my list of places to visit. Looks awesome. We are finally getting nice weather for hiking yeahhhhhhh. My son is the same way lol.

  5. I did this 3rd week of April last year! It was awesome. Especially for a Banff girl who is still the throws of mid-winter. Winter is loooong here. The Green World is always such an enjoyable contrast to my White World. Which is a large reason why I always take an April holiday every year. I don't really care if it rains sideways, as long as there is mud and ferns and muddy trails! And thanks for the kind offer! I imagine I'll be ready for some good company and a few treats by the time I reach Cascade Locks and Bridge of the Gods. :) I'll be in touch!


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