Willamette Falls

Oregon City / West Linn, Oregon, USA

About Willamette Falls


Hiking Distance: roadside or up to 1 mile round trip
Suggested Time: about 30 minutes

Date first visited: 2017-07-28
Date last visited: 2021-04-07

Waterfall Latitude: 45.35059
Waterfall Longitude: -122.61843

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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.

Willamette_Falls_016_07282017 - Willamette Falls as seen from a distance
Willamette Falls as seen from a distance

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.

Oregon_City_001_iPhone_04072021 - That column you see against the cliffs up ahead is the Oregon City Municipal Elevator
That column you see against the cliffs up ahead is the Oregon City Municipal Elevator

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.

Willamette_Falls_Promenade_044_04072021 - Willamette Falls hidden behind lots of unsightly industrial buildings. Note that the graffiti-laced structure in the foreground was the defunct Blue Heron Paper Company, which is currently planned to be replaced by the Willamette Falls River Walk
Willamette Falls hidden behind lots of unsightly industrial buildings. Note that the graffiti-laced structure in the foreground was the defunct Blue Heron Paper Company, which is currently planned to be replaced by the Willamette Falls River Walk

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.

Willamette_Falls_009_07282017 - Julie and Tahia reading about the Willamette Falls Legacy Project as most of the spots to get a better look at it appeared to be fenced off
Julie and Tahia reading about the Willamette Falls Legacy Project as most of the spots to get a better look at it appeared to be fenced off

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.

Willamette_Falls_025_04062021 - Partial look at Willamette Falls with the silhouette of Mt Hood in the background
Partial look at Willamette Falls with the silhouette of Mt Hood in the background

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).

Willamette_Falls_033_04062021 - Willamette Falls as seen from the Willamette Falls Scnenic Viewpoint
Willamette Falls as seen from the Willamette Falls Scnenic Viewpoint

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

Willamette_Falls_Promenade_079_04072021 - This bright blue house was one of several charming historical-looking homes lining the McLoughlin Promenade in Oregon City
This bright blue house was one of several charming historical-looking homes lining the McLoughlin Promenade in Oregon City

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.

Willamette_Falls_Promenade_043_04072021 - The Willamette Falls Overlook from the McLoughlin Promenade
The Willamette Falls Overlook from the McLoughlin Promenade

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.

Willamette_Falls_024_07282017 - This photo should give you an idea of how far away Willamette Falls is from the Oregon City Arch Bridge
This photo should give you an idea of how far away Willamette Falls is from the Oregon City Arch Bridge

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.

Willamette_Falls_029_07282017 - There was enough clearance for pedestrians on the Oregon City Arch Bridge to at least view Willamette Falls without worrying about being run over
There was enough clearance for pedestrians on the Oregon City Arch Bridge to at least view Willamette Falls without worrying about being run over

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.

Authorities

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_001_04062021 - At the West Linn Rest Area, which was one place to easily view part of the Willamette Falls during my early April 2021 visit
Willamette_Falls_007_04062021 - Partial view towards the brink of Willamette Falls from the West Linn Rest Area
Willamette_Falls_011_04062021 - Similar view of Willamette Falls from a different spot at the West Linn Rest Area
Willamette_Falls_015_04062021 - Looking back at the context of the parking spaces at the West Linn Rest Area with the overlook barricades
Willamette_Falls_017_04062021 - Looking towards the silhouette of Mt Hood in the distance against the morning sun at the West Linn Rest Area during my early April 2021 visit
Willamette_Falls_021_04062021 - More contextual look at the bright morning sun rising near Mt Hood and the horseshoe-shaped brink of Willamette Falls
Willamette_Falls_029_04062021 - Looking across as much of Willamette Falls as I could from the Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint during my early April 2021 visit
Willamette_Falls_032_04062021 - Looking downstream at the active paper mill across the Willamette River from the Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint
Willamette_Falls_034_04062021 - Looking back at the context of the pullout area for the Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint
Willamette_Falls_035_04062021 - Looking directly across the Willamette River towards the unsightly paper mill as seen from the Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint in early April 2021
Willamette_Falls_036_04062021 - Focusing my look towards the most natural part of Willamette Falls during my early April 2021 visit
Willamette_Falls_050_04062021 - Another broad look at the context of Willamette Falls and the paper mill directly across the river from it
Willamette_Falls_052_04062021 - Another unsightly look downstream towards the power company and defunct paper mill company on the Oregon City side of the Willamette River
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_002_04072021 - Looking towards the top of the Oregon City Municipal Elevator at one end of the McLoughlin Promenade
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_003_04072021 - The back end of the top of the Oregon City Municipal Elevator
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_004_04072021 - Looking in the direction of Willamette Falls from the Oregon City Municipal Elevator
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_005_04072021 - Looking straight down towards the Oregon City Arch Bridge from the Oregon City Municipal Elevator
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_006_04072021 - Looking downstream towards the eastern side of Oregon City from the Oregon City Municipal Elevator
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_007_04072021 - Inside the Oregon City Municipal Elevator
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_009_04072021 - Following the McLoughlin Promenade from the Oregon City Municipal Elevator
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_016_04072021 - Attractive homes flank the McLoughlin Promenade
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_028_04072021 - This colorful home caught my attention while walking the McLoughlin Promenade
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_030_04072021 - Context of the McLoughlin Promenade and the views over Oregon City
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_032_04072021 - This was one of the main viewing spots for Willamette Falls along the McLoughlin Promenade
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_033_04072021 - Focused elevated view towards Willamette Falls from the McLoughlin Promenade
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_047_04072021 - Looking down towards the other end of the McLoughlin Promenade where the footpath descends to the bridge over the 99E below, and ultimately arrives at the Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_055_04072021 - Looking towards the context of Willamette Falls from the apex of the McLoughlin Promenade
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_061_04072021 - Another zoomed-in look at the Willamette Falls from the McLoughlin Promenade
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_065_04072021 - Last look back in the direction of Willamette Falls along the McLoughlin Promenade
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_080_04072021 - Heading back along the McLoughlin Promenade after having my fill of Willamette Falls
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_083_04072021 - Some attractive flowers blooming alongside the McLoughlin Promenade
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_086_04072021 - Interestingly-looking classic style homes flanking the McLoughlin Promenade
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_087_04072021 - Looking down at the Oregon City Arch Bridge from the McLoughlin Promenade
Willamette_Falls_Promenade_094_04072021 - Back at the intersection of High Street and 6th Street, where I managed to find parking on the morning of my early April 2021 visit
Willamette_Falls_005_07282017 - On our first visit to Willamette Falls in late July 2017, we first walked around past the Oregon City Arch Bridge looking for sanctioned ways to get closer to the Willamette Falls
Willamette_Falls_006_07282017 - This park-like area where McLoughlin Blvd bent to the south towards Main St looked promising as far as a Willamette Falls experience would be concerned
Willamette_Falls_010_07282017 - Then, we were greeted by signs that pretty much explained that Willamette Falls were off limits for now. thus, all other ways to get down to the river were gated and locked
Willamette_Falls_022_07282017 - Zoomed in look at the Willamette Falls from the Oregon City Arch Bridge during our first visit in late July 2017
Willamette_Falls_030_07282017 - Protective railings were set up to give us some piece of mind that our daughter wouldn't plunge into the Willamette River as we walked onto the Oregon City Arch Bridge during our first visit in late July 2017
Willamette_Falls_035_07282017 - When walking to and from downtown Oregon City, we had to be mindful of the many cars that would whiz by us while walking the narrower sidewalks on the Oregon City Arch Bridge
Willamette_Falls_037_07282017 - Looking downstream towards the bridge where the I-205 (War Veterans Memorial Freeway) was crossing over the Willamette River as we walked back to our parked car in late July 2017


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

Willamette_Falls_002_04062021 - Looking back at the off-ramp to the West Linn Rest Area for the first stop in this self-guided Willamette Falls Tour
Looking back at the off-ramp to the West Linn Rest Area for the first stop in this self-guided Willamette Falls Tour

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).

Willamette_Falls_051_04062021 - Context of the Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint with McLoughlin Blvd in the background
Context of the Willamette Falls Scenic Viewpoint with McLoughlin Blvd in the background

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

Willamette_Falls_Promenade_001_04072021 - This was the dead-end by the intersection of High Street and 6th Street, which was close to the top of the Oregon City Municipal Elevator
This was the dead-end by the intersection of High Street and 6th Street, which was close to the top of 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.

Willamette_Falls_001_07282017 - Back when we didn't know any better on our first visit to Willamette Falls, we actually found street parking near the Oregon City Arch Bridge, and then tried to find a way to walk onto that bridge
Back when we didn’t know any better on our first visit to Willamette Falls, we actually found street parking near the Oregon City Arch Bridge, and then tried to find a way to walk onto that bridge

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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About a 360 degree sweep from further to the east side of the rest area overlook where Mt Hood's silhouette can be seen in the morning haze


A pair of semi-circular sweeps from two different spots at the rest area overlook


Back and forth sweep from the closest lookout for Willamette Falls


Long video sweeping from left to right from a couple of different spots at the rest area


Downstream to upstream video from along the Promenade with an elevated view of Willamette Falls


Comprehensive downstream to upstream sweep as seen from the Promenade's apex while also revealing the trail leading to the bridge going over the road and towards the official brink lookout


Distant view of the falls as seen from the bridge over the Willamette River


Checking out the closure signs and fences nearest to the Willamette Falls without trespassing

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