Willamette Falls turned out to be one of the more frustrating experiences that we’ve had mostly because of its lack of public accessibility. During our visit, the area around the falls remained closed (as had been for over 150 years). However, with the closure of the Blue Heron Paper Company in 2011, economic and civic interests had been in the beginning stages of restoration, public access (via a riverside walk), and economic redevelopment of downtown Oregon City under the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, which apparently started in 2016. It was a shame because we were unable to properly experience what was said to be one of the widest waterfalls in North America as it spanned the width of the Willamette River at around 1500ft with a drop of 40ft. Some of the original shape of the falls was compromised due to blasting of the surrounding rocks to pave the way for economic development of Linn City and Oregon City in the mid 19th century (another indication to us of how the economic rules of engagement both then and now rewards wealth building at the expense of declining the ability of the natural ecosystems to both properly function and provide).
So after encountering a sign that explained all this, we were pretty much left imagining what kind of transformation this would be and what a different experience it would become if we were to come back after the completion of this restoration. On the one hand, it felt like we wasted our time after fighting Friday afternoon traffic that stretched from Eugene all the way to the greater Portland area and beyond to get here. But on the other hand, it was a bit of a welcome break to get out of the car for a bit to reduce the incidence of road rage after being confined in the car whilst moving sluggishly through the gridlock that was reminiscent of the typical driving experience during rush hour back home in Los Angeles.
Even though we were unable to get any closer and more satisfying views of the falls as such places remained off limits due to private property issues (so there remained forbidding fences, locked gates, and foliage obstructing any other remaining views within the immediate vicinity of the falls), we were able to experience Willamette Falls from a distance (as shown at the top of this page) from the Oregon City Arch Bridge (also known as the West Linn-Old Oregon City Bridge). Upon some advice from one of the gas station attendants close to the area, we were able to walk onto the bridge after finding street parking at a parking meter close by (see directions below). In order to access that bridge, we had to cross McLoughlin Rd on a crosswalk beneath the Oregon City Arch Bridge, then took one of the quieter side streets south until we were finally able to walk on the bridge itself.
Despite the rather distant view, we were able to appreciate a partial frontal view of the falls as remaining industrial buildings appeared to have obstructed the view of the right half of the river. However, there also appeared to be plenty of recreational activity going on within the river itself as we witnessed several paddleboarders, kayakers, and motorboats cruising the waters. In addition, there was apparently some signed overlook over the top of the falls, but we weren’t successful finding that (though truthfully, we just didn’t feel like fighting more traffic and one-way streets in pursuit of this other viewpoint after having our fill of the view from the bridge). Our walk from the parking meters to the view on the Oregon City Arch Bridge probably was on the order of at least a half-mile round trip, which was reflected in our difficulty score.
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. Even though we drove up from Eugene in Central Oregon, we’ll describe the directions from downtown Portland. Either way, they involve using the I-5 corridor. We’ll also describe an alternate approach from downtown Portland since it’s equally as valid. We’re well aware that there are many other routes to take to get to the falls, but for the uninitiated like we were, the two routes we’ll be describing seemed to be the most straightforward.
From downtown Portland, we found our way to the I-5 south. Then, we followed the freeway a little over 10 miles south to the I-205 junction. Heading east for a little over 7 miles on the I-205 freeway, the most convenient exit was exit 8 for the Route 43 towards West Linn and Lake Oswego before turning right onto Willamette Drive then crossing the Oregon City Arch Bridge (we actually took exit 6 towards 10th street due to the traffic jam on the I-205 before turning right onto 10th St then turning left onto Willamette Falls Dr and ultimately turning right onto Willamette Drive towards the Oregon City Arch Bridge).
After crossing the bridge, we then turned right onto Main Street, right onto 6th Street, and right onto McLoughlin Blvd (99E) before turning around with the aid of traffic lights at the Chevron on the corner of 10th Street and McLoughlin Blvd. Once heading west on McLoughlin Blvd (or Hwy 99E), we then parked at some parking meters roughly 0.1 miles from that gas station. This drive would take about 30 minutes without traffic according to GoogleMaps.
Alternately, from downtown Portland, we could also drive east on the I-84 for about 6 miles then heading south on the I-205 for about the next 12 miles. We’d then take the exit 9 towards Downtown Oregon City (99E) and turn left onto McLoughlin Blvd. Then, we’d follow McLoughlin Blvd for about the next 3/4-mile towards the parking meters on the right. This drive would also take about 30 minutes according to GoogleMaps.
Finally, 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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