About Lower Oneonta Falls
Lower Oneonta Falls was one of those waterfalls where I had to go on a bit of an adventure to see. So why go through all the trouble if the Columbia River Gorge was already so full of impressive waterfalls?
Well, it turned out that this waterfall haunted us a bit especially after doing the Oneonta Trail going past such waterfalls as Middle Oneonta Falls and Triple Falls. For it was during that hike that we heard but didn’t get to see what promised to be an impressive waterfall down below us in the Oneonta Gorge. After all, the loud sound of rushing water certainly supported the theory that there must have been something significant down there. Nonetheless, there was no way we’d access the source of the rushing sound of water from that trail. Moreover, we were well aware of the direct scramble going up the Oneonta Creek itself.
However, our first visit there was in late March 2009 and that was when all the watercourses were swollen from the bad weather we had encountered most of that week. We couldn’t risk going in the water for the direct stream scramble during that time. So we had to be patient about coming back here before we would finally get to see Lower Oneonta Falls. That opportunity didn’t come until about 5-6 months later when we came back here in late August (though I ended up doing this hike solo).
Lower Oneonta Falls probably dropped just under 100ft in a backdrop surrounded by steep vertical-walled cliffs and fronted by clear pools. The water was so clear that I even noticed fish swimming amidst the submerged rocks. The falls sat roughly in the back of a narrow, almost slot-canyon-like gorge that reminded me a lot of the Narrows hike in Zion National Park. The big different here was that the walls were green whereas Zion’s were more reddish.
Another big difference was that instead of a long river hike like in Zion, I had to go on a roughly 0.3-mile scramble (in each direction) that included a series of obstacles. I definitely didn’t think this would be doable when the waterflow would be high so I was glad we didn’t make the attempt five months ago given the high water, rain, and bitterly cold temperatures.
I began with an informal creek-side scramble and crossing from beneath the road bridge over Oneonta Creek (see directions below). A few minutes thereafter, I was then faced with the infamous log jam traverse. I could see why it gained notoriety because it could get pretty dangerous here.
There were plenty of gaps between the logs where a fall in there could’ve been real bad news. As I was doing the traverse, I was very cognizant of how far down the dropoffs were as I was certain they could easily cause broken bones or even death. Not only that, but there was also running water down there so even if I could have survived a fall, there was a pretty high likelihood that I might’ve drowned or that I would not even have a way back up! It also dawned on me that the likelihood of an accident here could’ve really shot up had the logs been slippery and wet due to rain and/or mist.
Even with that said, there were lots of people (including some fearless kids) who were doing the scramble pretty easily. Many came prepared in spider rubber sandals and shoes, which I thought was a good idea. For even if the weather was dry, the shoes would most certainly get wet and that alone would wet the logs I had to rely on to get across (thus making them slippery). The spider rubber shoes would provide just that extra grip to lessen the chances of a nasty fall.
Finally once I made it by the rather scary log jam, I then had to wade across a series of deep pools. During my visit in late August 2009, the pools only got up to my waist. However, I could envision if the water level was higher, then it might even require swimming! Since I was carrying my DSLR), I had to make sure that I held the electronics high above my head during the deep crossings while making sure I kept my balance.
Beyond the pools, I eventually made it to the impressive Lower Oneonta Falls. Yet despite the glorious waterfall in such rugged yet beautiful settings, I still had to be fearful of falling rocks and flash floods. During my visit, I heard one such rock snap as it crashed to the ground behind me. And the flash flood danger was very real because there was no high ground to escape to within this gorge.
Yet with all the very real dangers that existed in an adventure like this, it made the reward for reaching Lower Oneonta Falls that much sweeter. It was most certainly one of the more photogenic waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge, and thus I found it well worth the effort.
So given some of the hazards on this hike and scramble, if you have stuff that you don’t want to get wet or risk losing (like camera, wallet, keys, etc.), it might be wise to leave those things behind. Preferably, you’d leave those things with someone trustworthy who’s not willing to do the adventure, because if you intend to leave it in your parked car, Julie and I noticed there was broken glass from car break-ins at the pullouts and car parks around this area. In my particular case, Julie didn’t want to do the adventure so I left my stuff with her while she waited for me (though I held onto my DSLR).
The nearest car park to start the scramble is at the one for the Oneonta Trail. See the page for Triple Falls for specific driving directions.
Once you’ve parked the car, you walk briefly eastwards along the Old Scenic Highway towards the bridge over Oneonta Creek. There are stairs leading down into the creek level of the gorge, and that’s where the scramble begins.
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