About Multnomah Falls
Multnomah Falls is easily the Columbia River Gorge’s most famous waterfall and could very well be the state of Oregon’s prime natural attraction. While our visits here have constantly shown that it was always busy here (hardly surprising as it’s said to be visited by over 2 million people a year), all that was forgotten once we stood before this towering 620ft two-tiered column of water with year-round flow. In fact, we’ve frequently seen this waterfall proclaimed to be the second tallest year-round waterfall in the United States and the fourth tallest in North America. Whether these claims are true or not, it felt like all the academic trivia didn’t matter so much as we were content to simply enjoy it for what it was – a majestic waterfall! Thus, we could totally understand its popularity, especially considering it was pretty close to Portland. Heck, we enjoyed this waterfall so much that we even felt compelled to put it on our Top 10 List of Waterfalls in the USA.
Even though we’ve seen quite a few towering waterfalls of at least this size, what really made this one stand out was that it seemed to have a bit of heritage to go with it. Case in point, there was an arched bridge spanning across the waterfall’s lower 69ft drop. Called the Benson Bridge, it was built in 1914 and named after a Norwegian-born lumber baron who deeded this falls as well as a few others to the City of Portland. I think it was this bridge that really made Multnomah Falls a recognizable icon. Fronting the falls was the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge, which was built in 1925 and had a classic look about it thanks to designer Albert E. Doyle who designed many recognizable buildings in Portland. These days, the lodge was being used as a souvenir shop, visitor center, and restaurant.
As for visiting the falls, it was literally a breeze. Perhaps the biggest challenge was to find parking despite its massively large combined parking area encompassing an area right in front of the historic lodge as well as a separate lot sandwiched between the opposite directions of the I-84 (see directions below). Once we parked the car, we literally just had to walk towards the concrete walkway adjacent to the historic lodge and immediately start cranking our necks to gawk at the towering waterfall. If the views weren’t enough, it was possible to hike up a paved path towards the Benson Bridge even up to the top of Multnomah Falls or beyond. I’ll describe the excursion to the top of the falls later on this page.
Julie and I have been to the falls on at least three separate trips so far. The first time was in the midst of some pretty nasty late Winter storms in late March/early April of 2009. As you can see from the photos on this page, the thickness of the Multnomah Falls was quite noticeable. As a result, the viewing area at the base was sprayed with mist so it wasn’t easy to take photos from there without waterspots getting on the lens.
The next two times we came here were in August of 2009 and 2017. While the falls took on a more slender appearance (see the photo at the top of this page), we felt it was just as beautiful (if not more) than the swollen state of the falls that we saw it in during the rain storm on our Spring 2009 visit. One thing we hadn’t done was to try to photograph the falls with Autumn colors, which I’m sure would add a whole different character to the scene.
Finally, we got to spend a bit of time at the visitor center due to bad weather on our first visit here. That gave us a chance to learn a bit more about the geology of this place as there were pretty cool 3-D models on display, waterfall comparisons between the Multnomah Falls and other famous ones, lots of historical and scientific tidbits, and more. I guess in the end, there were certainly many ways to linger here and soak in the experience.
Top Of The Waterfall
Top of Multnomah Falls (Difficulty: 2.5)While the views from the immediate lookout would be pretty sufficient for viewing and photography purposes, sometimes we felt like we needed to do something more to savor the experience as well as the waterfall itself. That’s where this option to extend the visit comes in. While the vast majority of visitors (some jokingly say 95% of them) would be content to go no further than the Benson Bridge (about a quarter-mile up or a half-mile round trip), I actually managed to go all the way to the top and back, which encompassed the Benson Bridge as well as a surprise waterfall further upstream of the main drops of Multnomah Falls. The top of the falls was a mile hike in each direction or 2 miles round trip.
The paved ramp to ascend beyond the main lookout began behind the Multnomah Falls Lodge. After passing through a gate (which I’d iamgine would be closed if the there was trail work or if the conditions were too dangerous), the path made a couple of switchbacks before following beneath an overhang with cages set up to prevent large objects from falling onto the trail. Under rainy conditions, we spotted a temporary waterfall that flowed before the overhangs then underneath the trail eventually joining up with Multnomah Creek. After a quarter-mile, I approached the often crowded Benson Bridge, where I could look upstream at the 520ft upper drop of Multnomah Falls or look down at the crowded main lookout where people were already starting to look tiny.
Beyond the bridge, the trail ascended towards one switchback close to the upper waterfall before veering away and going around a bend towards a shaded forested area. Right around the bend, I was greeted with a sign saying “Switchback 1 of 11” so I treated that as sort of a progress indicator though some of the switchbacks didn’t seem to be counted if they were shorter and in succession. The path remained sloping and paved as it navigated up the switchbacks, and even though the crowds had considerably thinned out compared to the Benson Bridge and the base of the falls, there were still enough people on the narrow trail to have to opportunistically pass slower hikers, especially those in groups.
Some parts of the paved trail showed damage from tree roots growing beneath the asphalt (sometimes it’s just cheaper to have a natural trail instead of a paved one) while others had rocks strewn across them. Some of the switchbacks revealed partial glimpses of the Multnomah Falls while others revealed parts of the Columbia River. The climb actually topped out at around switchback 7 or 8, where it climbed about 895ft up to that point. Then, the trail started descending for the remaining switchbacks before a signed trail junction took me onto the final spur leading to the overlook above the top of Multnomah Falls. The continuation of the main trail kept going towards Larch Mountain.
On the final approach to the overlook, I saw plenty of people enjoying the calmer parts of Multnomah Creek as it appeared to be the only place in the immediate vicinity to access the creek (it definitely wasn’t allowed at the bottom). When I finally got to the overlook platform (about a mile or more from the base of the falls), there was a surprise cascade or waterfall about 15ft tall a little more set back from the main drop of Multnomah Falls. With the railings at the overlook, I was able to try my hand at steadying the camera for some long exposure shots. Anyways, while I generally think of the tops of waterfalls as not being the best places to enjoy them, in this instance, the different perspective and that sense of vertigo looking down towards the parking lot and the lodge definitely made the experience memorable.
While this lookout platform was nowhere near as busy as further below, there were always at least a handful of people around so it was still relatively busy. When I had my fill of this spot, I went back the way I came initially climbing the first few switchbacks then descending the rest. During the descent, I tried to use my momentum to make quick progress and get back down in nearly half the time it took for me to go up. It took me just under 75 minutes to complete this hike.
There are actually two different parking lots for Multnomah Falls – one in front of the historic lodge along the Historic Columbia River Highway (or Old Columbia River Highway) and the other sandwiched between both directions of the I-84. Since parking is typically tight for the lot at the Multnomah Falls Lodge, sometimes there’s bound to be more parking space at dedicated off-ramp right off the I-84. I’ll describe how to reach both of them.
For the parking lot in front of the Multnomah Falls Lodge, we accessed the Old Columbia River Highway by taking the Bridal Veil Exit (exit 28) off the eastbound I-84, then keeping left to follow the Old Columbia River Highway to the parking area fronting the lodge in 3 miles. The exit 28 was about 25 miles (about 30 minutes drive without traffic) east of Portland, where the I-84 freeway began.
Going in the other direction, we took exit 35 (Ainsworth State Park) off the westbound I-84, then followed the NE Frontage Road for about 4.3 miles to the parking lot for Multnomah Falls on mostly the right side of the road. This exit was about 9 miles (15 minutes drive) west of Cascade Locks.
To access the “freeway island” parking lot from the west, take the eastbound I-84 to the exit 31 (the off-ramp is on the left). That leads straight into the parking lot. This exit was about 3.4 miles past the Bridal Veil Exit (exit 28) on the eastbound I-84, or about 29 miles east of Portland, where the I-84 started.
To access the “freeway island” parking lot from the east, take the westbound I-84 to the exit 31 (again, the off-ramp is on the left). That leads straight into the same direct-access parking lot mentioned above for the eastbound I-84 directions. This exit was about 4 miles west of the Ainsworth State Park Exit (exit 35) on the westbound I-84, or about 12 miles west of Cascade Locks.
For some geographical context, Portland was about 49 miles (over an hour drive) west of Cascade Locks, 75 miles (90 minutes drive) west of Hood River, 80 miles (1.5 hours drive) east of Cannon Beach, 112 miles (under 2 hours drive) north of Eugene, 274 miles (over 4 hours drive) north of Medford, 173 miles (about 2.5 hours drive) south of Seattle, Washington, 440 miles (7 hours drive) west of Boise, Idaho, and 423 miles (6.5 hours drive) north of Redding, California.