About Punch Bowl Falls
Punch Bowl Falls (sometimes spelled Punchbowl Falls) was perhaps the main attraction of the Eagle Creek Gorge. For such a modestly-sized waterfall at 30-35ft, it was a very popular waterfall. I’ve seen photographs of this waterfall downstream from its base grace post cards, screensavers, and even book covers as its position deep within a lush circular bowl seemed to embody everything that people love about the Columbia River Gorge in that one shot. During my visit on a hot Friday in August 2017, I saw at least 40+ people around the banks of Eagle Creek while a handful more made the swim to get within the secluded cove right at the base of the falls. It took on a festive scene as some people brought radios and other groups of people consisted of whole families with small children and elders alike. The more daring teenage and twenty-something types even did cliff dives over the Lower Punch Bowl Falls just downstream of the viewing area. Indeed, this waterfall was synonymous with Eagle Creek, and it was even more so since the collapse of the Metlako Falls viewpoint (so that waterfall could no longer be seen cleanly anymore).
The Eagle Creek Trail actually encompassed many more waterfalls in addition to Metlako and Punch Bowl Falls. Further upstream, there were more waterfalls at Tish Creek and a dramatic one as far as Tunnel Falls (which would have made this a 12-mile round trip hike). However, the Indian Creek Fire closed the trail beyond Punch Bowl Falls during my visit so Tunnel Falls was out of the question. So I’d say that for all intents and purposes, this hike involved a minimum of 4 miles round trip (depending on where you park the car and which viewpoint(s) you’re after) with some mild cliff exposure as there were several sections of the trail clinging to narrow ledges. Maybe I might be able to partake in a longer hike to experience more of Eagle Creek, but time will tell when the next opportunity for that will come up.
The hike began either at the end of the Eagle Creek Road or at a picnic area about a half-mile before the end of the road (which would extend the hike by another mile round trip). Near the overflow parking spots, there was a bridge traversing Eagle Creek and headed towards Wahclella Falls, but that bridge was closed anyways during my visit. The half-mile walk from the overflowing parking spots to the end of the Eagle Creek Road was pretty much along the paved road with minimal shade. Once at the actual trailhead, the trail then passed through a small forested area before it started to skirt the banks of Eagle Creek. After passing a bridge, the trail then made a gradual climb as the dropoffs became more pronounced while the trail undulated between forested stretches and cliff-hugging ledges. In some of the scarier parts, chains were bolted into the cliff walls to help the unsure. During the first 1.5 miles of the trail, the hike would persist in this manner though in wetter times (like the late March 2009 visit that Julie and I did when we first came here), we spotted several temporary waterfalls across Eagle Creek.
At about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, there used to be signposted spur leading to the Metlako Falls Viewpoint, which was a viewing area perched by a cliff ledge with a view upstream at the impressive waterfall. Unfortunately, that viewpoint collapsed in a major landslide in late 2016 so now there were closure signs discouraging hikers to leave the main trail. It would turn out that there’d be no clean look at the falls unless you knew exactly where to look though remaining cliff instability and potential for additional collapse ensured that would be an extremely risky move.
Shortly after the old Metlako Falls Viewpoint spur, the trail veered to the left and then crossed Sorenson Creek. The first time Julie and I did the hike under much wetter conditions, the crossing was pretty scary as water from the creek flowed over the circular concrete steps to facilitate the crossing. We definitely needed the Gore-tex property of our hiking boots to still keep our feet dry. However, on my latest visit in August 2017, there was much less water on this creek and crossing it was pretty trivial (except for some slippery spots on the wet rocks). Further downstream, Sorenson Creek sounded like it tumbled into a significant waterfall or cascade unseen further downstream. After the crossing, the trail then headed back towards the main contour of the Eagle Creek Gorge, where I did manage to catch an obstructed glimpse of Metlako Falls (though it was far from satisfying).
At about 2 miles from the trailhead, I then reached a trail junction. The path on the right was signposted for “Lower Punch Bowl” and it would descend to the bottom of the gorge in a roughly quarter-mile sloping path. The path on the left continued the Eagle Creek Trail, where in another quarter-mile of relatively flat hiking, it reached a viewing area overlooking the Punch Bowl Falls. At this overlook, we were able to get relatively clean views of the Punch Bowl Falls and its circular plunge pool as the vegetation was thin as a result of a combination of foliage not having grown from the Winter season yet. However, when I was there in August 2017, the view was completely obstructed, and while it was tempting to traverse the barricades and scramble down the use trails for a closer look, I knew that the barricades were there for a reason and cliff instability and erosion were a real threat to safety.
So back on the descending trail to the Lower Punch Bowl Falls, I eventually made it to the bottom, where I found myself at the top of the Lower Punch Bowl Falls. A giant fallen log there made photographing it difficult, but that didn’t stop some young folks from using that log as a diving board to jump into the plunge pool below. Scrambling further upstream on the rocky shores of Eagle Creek, I was eventually able to get to a spot where I got the distant view of the Punch Bowl Falls that you see at the top of this page. This was where lots of people were chilling out as the partially shaded spot was flanked by vertical cliffs. I didn’t need water shoes to get a decent view of the Punch Bowl Falls, but swimming was necessary in order to go further as the water was much deeper in the channel separating the informal viewing area and the secluded cove further upstream.
When Julie and I first did this hike, there was too much water on Eagle Creek as it had swelled to fill the entire width of the gorge by the Lower Punch Falls. So it was not safe to walk the stream bed up to the informal viewing area at that time. It just goes to show you that sometimes the conditions dictate what you can and can’t do. So after having my fill of this spot, I headed back the way I came. Since I had parked in the overflow parking area (I wasn’t lucky enough to score one of the closer spots), I wound up doing about 5+ miles on the trail, which included the unnecessary out-and-back section to the upper viewpoint.
Finally, I have to make one final comment about this hike. The arson-caused Eagle Creek Fire that started in early September happened before I was able to publish this writeup. From looking at news coverage of the aerial footage surveying the damage, it appeared that Eagle Creek was scorched (the illegal fireworks were tossed in this gorge). Given the steep terrain of the gorge, it will probably be a while before this trail would re-open again as the lack of vegetation will destabilize the soil, and inevitably landslides undermining the usability of the trail would occur. So until this area finally recovers and the trail may (or may not) get rebuilt or at least re-routed, this writeup will now serve as a reminder of what the area once was.
Portland, I’ll describe the driving route from there. Basically, I headed east on the I-84 for about 40 miles towards the Eagle Creek Exit (exit 41). It was shortly after the tunnel. Turning right at the offramp, I’d then follow the Eagle Creek Road for about a quarter-mile, where there was the shaded overflow parking to the left. A short distance further, there were more parking spaces though they were exposed to the sun. A half-mile further was the end of the Eagle Creek Road, where the nearest parking spaces for the trailhead were. Overall, this drive would take about 45 minutes or so.
From Cascade Locks, I’d drive west on the I-84 for about 3 miles or so before taking the exit 40 for Bonneville Dam. Turning left at the stop sign, I’d then drive under the I-84 and take the on-ramp on the left for the I-84 eastbound. Once on the freeway, I then took the exit 41 for Eagle Creek shortly after leaving the tunnel. Overall, this drive would take a little over 5 minutes.
A Northwest Forest Pass was required to park here, but my Interagency Pass (formerly the National Parks Pass) was accepted here (so I displayed it on the dash of my rental car). At both the end of the Eagle Creek Road and the shaded overflow parking area, there were payment kiosks to purchase a NW Forest Pass to display on the dashboard of your car as proof of payment.
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.
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