COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE: Eagle Creek Trail to Punchbowl Falls

Punchbowl Falls, with clear mountain water in deep pools below the falls

“Gray skies, smiling at me …” 

Irving Berlin certainly didn’t pen these lyrics; his song was all about transforming gray skies and gray moods into blue skies.  But to a photographer in the temperate rain forests of the USA’s Pacific Northwest, gray skies bring the dark forests to visual life, eliminating the harsh contrast of sun and shade that can wash out the highlights of a landscape and deepen the shadows. Clouds fill in the shadows and tone down the bright spots, lending visual harmony.

With a favorable forecast of gray skies and little rain, we set our alarm for 4:30 a.m. for the July 1 drive from Puget Sound to the Columbia River Gorge, located east of Portland, Oregon. Coffee and Egg McMuffins got us to the trailhead by 9:00 a.m.; a bit later and we would have had to park half-a-mile from the trailhead–oh, the horror of having to walk more than absolutely necessary!

The Eagle Creek Trail was created about a century ago. At that time, the Columbia River Highway was being built to link eastern and western Oregon, and to provide newly driving tourists access to some of the sweetest waterfalls found anywhere. The (now) Historic Columbia River Highway was built to be a beautiful and scenic route; with gentle curves and graceful concrete railings, it is among the most beautiful roads ever built. Much of it was later abandoned when the more efficient (meaning faster) water level route was built through the Columbia River Gorge, and I can testify that I-84, as the new route is known, is efficient at getting us to trailheads in a timely manner, albeit with far less grace than the old curving road. There are still some drivable sections of the old highway, and other sections have become walking and biking trails.

Trail blasted into basalt a century ago; note the cable along the cliff for gripping during bad weather

Like the road, the Eagle Creek Trail was built to exacting and graceful standards. Our hike took us two miles to Punchbowl Falls, winding along cliffs and ascending some 400 vertical feet. To make the trail accessible to the urban hikers of a century ago, the trail’s planners and builders blasted part of the route from basalt cliffs. Mosses and ferns and trees now cover the scars of the blasting, making it appear as if the trail had always been there. In at least one part of the cliff-hugging trail, there is a cable along the cliff to hang onto when conditions get icy and dicey, as they frequently do in the winter months. On our hike, however, the weather was Goldilocks-perfect for a hike: not too cold in the canyon and not too hot while hiking. Just right!

The trail winds through forests of old conifers and maples, with plenty of dripping moss hanging from the sprawling branches of Vine Maples.  Then, in drier habitats, the hike passes through miniature oak savannahs of the sort we have seen in northern California, with grass and sun-loving wildflowers beneath the oaks.

Looking downstream from near the top of the falls, where Eagle Creek scours a gorge

The hike has its own sound track, so iPods are not needed. Waterfalls roar with continuous thunder, while feeder creeks add a tinkling melody. In the trees, Hermit Thrushes sing the avian heart-tugging equivalent of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, while Pacific Wrens continually perfect their too-long-and-complex-for-AM-radio songs. Conversations of delighted waterfall-watching families add to the feeling of being in a place that has been special to generations of Oregonians.

Upon reaching the Punchbowl Falls overlook, we were disappointed that so much vegetation has grown up that the falls are largely obscured (hey Forest Service: you’re supposed to be the experts at cutting trees … get with the program and do some selective trimming!). I crept down a precarious path leading to the top of the falls and got an unobstructed view downstream into the canyon below the falls, and was able to see much of the plunge pool formed by the waterfall–which gives Punchbowl Falls its name.

Classic view of Punchbowl Falls; visitors have arranged rocks to make a small jetty so that people can go out into the stream for this view

After a two mile hike to the falls with its owner, this retriever wisely chose to cool off by immediately plopping into the cold creek

Then we backtracked to the side trail leading to Lower Punchbowl Falls, and here found the classic and unobstructed view of Punchbowl Falls. I tugged on waders and fly-fishing boots and proceeded to take the split underwater and above water photographs you see here. We spent a long time on the gravel beach here, luxuriating in one of those Garden of Eden places where nature has outdone herself.

River rocks line the bottom of Eagle Creek; the first time I saw a photograph of this falls, some 40+ years ago, the photo showed a fly fisherman working the plunge pool below the falls

A lovely flower of the oak openings variously known as Herald of Summer or Farewell to Spring; the genus name is Clarkia

Seep Monkey Flower thrives in wet soils found near springs and seeps along the trail

Aleutian Maidenhair Fern thrives along the dark, moist cliffs of Eagle Creek

Water drips onto the stream surface from cliffs high above; Lady Fern and Aleutian Maidenhair love the moist, dark habitat along the cliffs

Diamond Fairyfan, another species of Clarkia, blooms along the Eagle Creek Trail

Green reflections in a very green place

Downstream edge of the plunge pool below Punchbowl Falls

Split view of the rocky stream bottom and Punchbowl Falls

Trail Notes:

Check the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area website for current information about rules, regulations, and fees.

Gorge trailheads are frequent locations of vehicle break-ins by gangs and other assorted thugs. One photographer I know had his van emptied of $10,000 in photo equipment in a few minutes; I also heard from family about a young couple visiting from out-of-state who had their rental car broken into. Be forewarned not to leave anything of value in the car.

Weather conditions here are variable; have layers of clothing and sturdy hiking shoes.

For more information:

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Historic Columbia River Highway

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