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Eagle Creek trail reopens after damage for 2017 wildfire

The 13.1 mile round trip brings out powerful forces — fire and water

By , Columbian Sports Editor
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Charred trees surround the Eagle Creek Trail, remnants of a 2017 wildfire that devastated the Columbia River Gorge.
Charred trees surround the Eagle Creek Trail, remnants of a 2017 wildfire that devastated the Columbia River Gorge. (Micah Rice/The Columbian) (Photos by Micah Rice/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

With water dripping off the mossy gorge walls above Eagle Creek, it’s hard to believe that spot was once an inferno.

The wildfire that devastated the Columbia River Gorge in 2017 started here, ignited by a firework thrown by teenager from Clark County.

Over three months, the Eagle Creek Fire burned 50,000 acres. Outdoors enthusiasts mourned the scarring of the Columbia River Gorge and the closure of one of the Northwest’s most popular hikes.

But nature heals. Greenery is gradually returning to the Gorge.

And on Jan. 1, the Eagle Creek Trail reopened, letting hikers explore both the heart of the fire’s devastation and bask in the resilience of nature.

To hike the 13.1-mile round trip to Twister Falls is to see the power of two elemental forces — Fire and water.

Hiking the Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge shortly after it re-opened on Jan. 1, 2021. Video

Below a thinned forest where most still-standing trees are charred black, the brilliantly clear Eagle Creek gushes rapidly. In the winter, small tributary streams become vibrant waterfalls, cascading down the gorge walls to fuel the torrent.

Due to this week’s heavy rains, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area authorities are recommending hikers temporarily avoid the trail due to mudslides and downed trees.

But on the prior Thursday, hikers showed they were eager to be reintroduced to Eagle Creek. The small parking lot at the trailhead was full, as was a larger lot at the fish hatchery a half-mile away.

Face coverings are mandatory, and for good reason. At several spots, hikers pass each other in close proximity on rocky ledges that were blasted into basalt cliffs.

Anyone who is afraid of heights will be challenged within a mile. There, hikers traverse a sheer cliff 300 feet above Eagle Creek with only a cable railing bolted into the cliff wall for support.

The thrills don’t stop after that. Two miles from the trailhead, hikers reach an elevated viewpoint of the gorgeous Punch Bowl Falls, which plunges 100 feet into a grotto. A short side trail to Lower Punch Bowl Falls is marred by downed trees and not recommended.

As the trail continues upward on a slight grade, it’s noticeable how the fire didn’t affect all parts of the forest equally. In some spots, what dead trees are still standing have been stripped like spent matchsticks.

But a surprising number of mature Douglas firs survived. While their bark is black, the canopy remains green in a testament to the species’ ability to survive wildfires.

Green is also returning to the forest floor. Though not as verdant as before the fire, the ground is being repopulated by ferns, Oregon grape, moss and wild grass.

At the 3.3-mile mark, Eagle Creek is funneled into a narrow, deep gorge. Hikers cross 150 feet above the water at the High Bridge.

The trail continues to gain elevation slightly and hikers will have to ford two shallow but fast-moving streams.

Six miles from the trailhead is the highlight of the hike — the majestic 175-foot-high Tunnel Falls. The trail hugs the back of the natural amphitheater, crossing behind the falls in a tunnel blasted through the rock when the trail was built in 1916.

After another vertigo-inducing half-mile along a sheer cliff, the trail reaches Twister Falls. Though this is the highest Eagle Creek waterfall at 200 feet, the trail offers only a close-up view of the upper portion.

This is the turnaround point for many hikers. The way back offers a chance marvel at the power of nature, but also to realize that power is not safe from human folly.

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