About Willamette Falls
Willamette Falls was one of the largest waterfalls in North America as the Willamette River dropped 40ft across a span of around 1500ft.
While you’d think such a large waterfall would warrant some tourism infrastructure to better experience it in person, it has had a rather checkered history with industrial developments.
Indeed, this waterfall is literally surrounded by paper mills, but it has also been harnessed for electricity as well as a passage for trading.
In fact, you could argue that the economic development as a result of exploiting the natural power of Willamette Falls ultimately shaped the development of Oregon as a state let alone Oregon City and West Linn.
In any case, the closure of the Blue Heron Paper Company in 2011 has opened the door to plans to develop a River Walk allowing the public to access the base of the waterfall for the first time in over a century.
Plans were underway since 2017, but from chatting with someone working at the Oregon City Municipal Elevator during a visit in early April 2021, he painted a rather complex picture of numerous vested interests further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
So who knows when this River Walk will finally be completed (it’ll get done when it gets done), but he at least made a guess that it might still be three years down the road.
The State of Willamette Falls
Given the exploitation of Willamette Falls over the years, the waterfall’s original shape had been compromised.
For example, the rocks surrounding the waterfall had been blasted to facilitate the economic development of Linn City and Oregon City in the mid 19th century.
This was another indication to us of how the economic rules of engagement both then and now rewards wealth building at the expense of diminishing the ability of the natural ecosystems to both properly function and provide.
So while we’re left to imagine what a different experience Willamette Falls would become had it been left in its natural state, there is indeed money and effort put towards the River Walk to economically revive Oregon City.
Yet despite the size of Willamette Falls, it was surprisingly tricky to properly experience this waterfall given the concrete-and-steel jungle around it.
In fact, we had a pretty frustrating first visit in August 2017 with this waterfall when we thought we could just show up and try to witness the falls through a combination of infrastructure and signage.
It turned out that we clearly didn’t come prepared with information about the various ways to experience the falls, and we paid dearly with what ended up being a pretty unfulfilled and inefficient experience.
So for the remainder of this write-up, I’ll detail the various ways to satisfactorily visit the Willamette Falls (at least until the River Walk is complete).
Note that the order in which I describe these various ways to experience the waterfall is intentional, which will be obvious when you see the directions below.
The Willamette Falls (West Linn) Rest Area
The first way to experience Willamette Falls is from a rest area stop off the I-205 Freeway.
From this rest area, there was a partially obscured overlook towards the brink of the Willamette Falls from the north (West Linn) side.
Granted, the views of the falls from here leaves a lot to be desired since it’s a little upstream from the waterfall itself and suffers from a lot of foreground overgrowth.
However, this rest area does have one thing going for it if the weather is good, and that’s the ability to view Willamette Falls together with Mt Hood!
Anyways, I made this the first method to witness the waterfall (especially if driving the I-205 eastbound) because the next way to experience the falls is readily accessed after a short drive from this rest stop.
The Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint
The next way to experience Willamette Falls is from a scenic viewpoint on the opposite side of the Willamette River (Oregon City).
This is easily reached from the 99E (McLoughlin Blvd) and pulling over at its designated interpretive lookout.
The lookout is actually the closest that I was able to view the Willamette Falls (as of early April 2021) though its viewing angle still leaves a lot to be desired.
You can’t park at this viewpoint long term, and even if you can’t find temporary parking space here, it is possible to park in an area along the neighboring High Street to do the remaining ways of experiencing the waterfall.
It’s even possible to park on High Street and then walk back to this viewpoint.
Viewing Willamette Falls from the McLoughlin Promenade
I’ve found that there’s a fair bit of street parking along High Street as well as on the dead-end on 6th Street (closest to the top of the Oregon City Municipal Elevator).
Regardless of where you choose to legally park (I think there’s a 2-hour limit along High Street as well as parking meters on the 6th Street dead-end), you can walk the pleasant McLoughlin Promenade.
This promenade skirts a cliff over the 99E providing an elevated view over Oregon City as well as parts of the Willamette Falls.
I found the promenade to also be charming in that there were historical-looking homes as well as gardens lining the walkway.
Just to give you an idea of how long the McLoughlin Promenade was, my GPS logs suggested that it was a 1/4-mile from the Oregon City Municipal Elevator on one end to the Willamette Falls Overlook (there’s a bench and angled railings here).
It’s an additional 1/4-mile walk to get from this overlook down to pedestrian bridge over McLoughlin Blvd (99E) and eventually to the Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint described previously.
So if you wanted to do the entire promenade walk from one end to the other and back, then it would be about a mile round-trip.
Viewing Willamette Falls from the Oregon City Arch Bridge
Finally, the last (and perhaps most unofficial) method of experiencing Willamette Falls involves walking onto the Oregon City Arch Bridge for the most direct view of the waterfall.
That said, this bridge is at least a half-mile away from the falls so the view can be rather distant.
Nevertheless, this was the way we experienced Willamette Falls on our inefficient first visit back in August 2017, where we found street parking along McLoughlin Blvd and paid the meter maid.
However, in hindsight, I’d recommend parking along High Street (as described previously) and walking to the Oregon City Municipal Elevator.
Then, take the elevator down to 7th Street and walk towards Oregon City Arch Bridge on its west side.
Aside from one tight squeeze between the road railing and the sidewalk, once you’re on the main part of the bridge, there’s enough clearance to safely view Willamette Falls from afar even with traffic whizzing by behind you.
After having your fill of the falls from this bridge, then you can backtrack to the elevator and return to the parked car.
Willamette Falls resides in Oregon City in Clackamas County, Oregon. It is currently privately owned, but plans are apparently moving forward with some kind of a restoration. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit the Willamette Falls Legacy Project website.
Willamette Falls sits in the southern outskirts of the greater Portland area on the Willamette River separating the cities of Oregon City and West Linn.
So even though this is an urban waterfall for all intents and purposes, it was a surprisingly tricky waterfall to properly experience.
Thus, in this driving directions section, I’ll just focus on a route that I’d recommend that would allow you to experience the main methods of witnessing Willamette Falls in the order described in the write-up above.
Driving from Portland to the Willamette Falls (West Linn) Rest Area
Assuming you’re starting from downtown Portland, head south on the I-5 and drive towards the I-205 east.
Then, follow the I-205 eastbound for about 7 miles to the rest area exit on the right, which is where the first viewing spot of the Willamette Falls is located.
This 20-mile drive should take under 30 minutes barring traffic.
Driving from the Willamette Falls (West Linn) Rest Area to the Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint
Next, go back onto the I-205E freeway and get off at the next off-ramp (exit 8 Hwy 43 West Linn Lake Oswego).
Turn right at the traffic light and then keep left towards Oregon City, where the road will cross the Oregon City Arch Bridge and deposit you at the traffic light intersecting with Main Street.
Turn right onto Main Street, and then turn left at the traffic light onto McLoughlin Blvd (99E).
Next, follow McLoughlin Blvd for about 0.4-mile as it passes through the tunnel and eventually reaches the Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint pullout on the right (shortly before the traffic light with S 2nd Street).
This is the second viewing spot of Willamette Falls.
Driving from the Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint to Finding Parking near the Oregon City Municipal Elevator
Continuing with the self-guided tour, get back onto McLoughlin Blvd and get to the left-turn lane for S 2nd Street when safe.
Then turn left onto S 2nd Street and follow it up the hill to a four-way stop signed intersection with High Street.
Turn left onto High Street and look for legal street parking (preferably as close to the intersection of High Street and 6th Street so you’re near the Oregon City Municipal Elevator and one end of the McLoughlin Promenade).
There may be other parking lots or opportunities for street parking, but this is the way that I’ve been successfully able to minimize the urban headaches associated with visiting Willamette Falls.
For some geographic context, Oregon City was 17 miles (about 30 minutes drive) south of Portland, 106 miles (over 2 hours drive) north of Eugene, 187 miles (about 3 hours drive) south of Seattle, Washington, and 959 miles (over 14 hours drive) north of Los Angeles, California.
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