With dozens of waterfalls, rocky cliffs coated in moss and a crystal-clear creek that runs through it all, the Eagle Creek Trail is one of the most majestic natural attractions in Oregon.
Hikers have been rediscovering the beauty of Eagle Creek since it reopened on Jan. 1, more than three years after closing due to the Eagle Creek fire. While beautiful, the trail is also one of the most treacherous in the Columbia River Gorge – a problem compounded by landslides, narrow paths and the enormous crowds who flock to see it.
If you’re heading out to hike Eagle Creek – whether it’s your first time or your 50th – there are a few factors to consider and some preparations to make (including packing the essentials) before leaving home.
Eagle Creek was overcrowded before the fire, and the pent-up demand after a three-year closure will likely result in big crowds for the foreseeable future.
On Thursday, all parking areas around the trailhead filled up by 9 a.m., as people took advantage of a break in the rain. Cars were forced to turn around upon arrival, while some parked in precarious places beside the roads around the area – a decision that risks towing, ticketing and endangering public safety. Make sure you show up first thing in the morning or later in the day if you want to ensure a place to park.
Crowds also pose problems on the trail itself. Carved into rocky cliffs above Eagle Creek, the Eagle Creek Trail narrows to only a foot or two in most places, and passing people sometimes requires getting too close to the edge for comfort. Make sure you allow as much room as possible when letting people pass.
The U.S. Forest Service has also posted a sign at the Eagle Creek Trailhead with a reminder that face coverings are mandatory when hikers can’t stay at least six feet apart, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Given the narrow trail and the crowds, there’s simply no way to hike Eagle Creek without coming within six feet of another person. Expect to wear your masks throughout most of your hike.
Heavy winter storms have saturated the Columbia Gorge this winter, which could make hiking a miserable experience for those caught unprepared. Even on a dry day, the Eagle Creek Trail is extremely wet, as water constantly runs downhill over cliffs onto the trail. Come prepared with a waterproof jacket and good rain clothes, or else be prepared to get wet.
All that moisture also makes mud, and there’s a lot of it along the trail, made messier with the recent crowding. The rainy season means the smaller creeks that feed Eagle Creek are higher as well, and some crossings can be treacherous, requiring hikers to walk along fallen logs and slippery stones to continue along the trail. Waterproof hiking boots will save your feet from a very uncomfortable day.
Heavy rains also mean an increased danger of landslides, which were common along Eagle Creek before the 2017 fire and are even more likely now. Hikers should stay away from the edges of the trail, where possible, and should avoid leaving the trail for any reason. There are already a few small slides on the trail, some of which require tricky crossings.
The Eagle Creek Trail was always a bit dangerous – with narrow paths carved into cliffs above a sheer drop-off into a rocky canyon – and that has not changed.
With extremely rocky ground, hikers need to watch their footing and make sure to stay focused on the trail. Cables are still bolted into rock walls at some points, but that’s about all the help you’ll get. There are no guardrails to speak of.
Heavy rains only compound the issue. On some sections of the trail, hikers are forced to either plunge into a puddle or step around it and walk along the edge of a cliff (many, perhaps reflexively, choose the latter). Rocky areas also become slippery after rain, or after many muddy boots have crossed over them.
Aside from having proper footwear, maintaining physical awareness is key. Looking up or around you as you walk can sometimes result in a loss of balance, and on the Eagle Creek Trail that can be deadly.
There are three main areas to park for the Eagle Creek Trailhead. The primary parking area is at the trailhead itself, with room for about two dozen vehicles. A second parking area has room for about a dozen cars along N.E. Eagle Creek Loop, the road that leads from Interstate 84 to the trailhead, though parking is prohibited along most of the road. The upper parking area is found beside the Cascade Salmon Hatchery just off the interstate and has room for about three dozen cars.
All parking areas require cars to display either a Northwest Forest Pass or another federal lands pass. Day passes can be purchased on site for $5 per vehicle.
Some visitors leave their cars parked illegally along the roads around Eagle Creek, which poses both a danger for pedestrians and a problem for emergency vehicles that may need to reach the trailhead. Over the summer, local authorities began towing vehicles that were illegally parked around recreation areas.
Before leaving home, you should also check TripCheck.com to make sure the roads to Eagle Creek are open, as the exit off the interstate occasionally closes due to landslides.
HIKING THE EAGLE CREEK TRAIL
DISTANCE: 4 to 14 miles, round trip
DIFFICULTY: Moderately difficult
AMENITIES: Portable toilets, parking lots
The Eagle Creek Trail runs 13.1 miles one way, from the main trailhead to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail at Wahtum Lake, though few hike the whole thing. Most hikers either turn around at Twister Falls about seven miles in, at High Bridge after 3.6 miles, or at Punch Bowl Falls only two miles from the trailhead.
Within this corridor, there’s only one side trail to worry about: a short trip down to the water between Punch Bowl Falls and Lower Punch Bowl Falls. Otherwise, hikers can simply continue along the trail with no concern of getting turned around.
While there isn’t much elevation gain, we’ve rated this trail “moderately difficult” for some tricky crossings over streams and around landslides, and for the generally treacherous terrain.
Hikers will find four primary waterfalls along the first seven miles of the trail – though during the rainy season dozens of seasonal waterfalls flow off the cliffs into Eagle Creek. Metlako Falls comes first after about 1.5 miles, though after the waterfall viewpoint washed out in 2017, the view is distant from the trail. Punch Bowl Falls is next about two miles in, with a large viewing area just off the trail, which makes a good place to rest or turn around.
About 6 miles from the trailhead, hikers will reach Tunnel Falls, the most impressive waterfall on Eagle Creek, and one of Oregon’s best. The trail passes behind the 172-foot plunge through a tunnel carved into the rock, emerging beside the spray on the other side. Just a half mile past Tunnel Falls is the fascinating Twister Falls, where the water contorts on its way down.
Just past Twister Falls is a sloping rocky bank that makes a great place to rest. Those looking for extra mileage can continue down the trail, though a 14-mile round trip hike should be enough adventure for most.