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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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Your moment of zen: Wonderful waterfalls in Southwest Washington

Watch water tumble at these sweet in-state sites

By , Columbian staff writer
8 Photos
Intricate rivulets and glowing green moss make Panther Creek Falls an especially idyllic scene.
Intricate rivulets and glowing green moss make Panther Creek Falls an especially idyllic scene. Photo Gallery

GIFFORD PINCHOT NATIONAL FOREST — Oh, those sparkly Oregon waterfalls. They’re so famously picturesque — and crowded — that a couple of them recently rose to the top of a list generated by, of all random sources, an online casino reviewer and gaming trend-spotter called Mr. Gamble. (Gamblers apparently don’t like taking chances on outdoor sightseeing.)

No surprise, Multnomah Falls turns out to be the most “Instagrammable” waterfall in the nation, according to Mr. Gamble’s list of the top 30, which was based on the number of photo tags posted to Instagram. No. 8 on the list is Oregon’s Silver Falls.

No arguments here. First-place finisher Multnomah Falls is simply spectacular. At 620 feet high, it’s the tallest waterfall in Oregon and the most-visited tourist site in the Pacific Northwest, hosting 2 million visitors per year. Many tourists walk up the steep-but-smooth switchback trail that leads to a (semi-blocked) viewing platform at the top, a 2.4-mile trek round trip. Far fewer extend the walk into a larger loop hike by continuing uphill and veering west on the Wahkeena Falls trail, which descends again and reconnects with Multnomah Falls for a total of 5 miles.

Eighth-place finisher Silver Falls features a different kind of wow: Its Trail of Ten Falls loop (7 miles) begins with a spectacular squeeze directly behind 177-foot South Falls. You’ll walk along a damp but perfectly safe natural shelf that’s set into the basalt cliff while, right beside you, a wall of water pounds down to Silver Creek.

Multnomah and Silver are certainly worth seeing — and photographing and posting online — especially now that summer crowds have thinned. But what if you’re hungry for hash-taggable, truly envy-inspiring proof that you’re taking in wonderful waterfalls while staying in state?

Here’s a list of stunningly scenic cataracts outside of Clark County, but still in Southwest Washington. Some require driving on winding highways or unpaved roads in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but none require traversing an interstate bridge or (now that summer’s over) competing for parking.

1. Cape Horn Falls. (Difficulty: moderate. Permit: no. Trailhead restroom: yes.) Best known is the upper third of this classic 8-mile loop trail (going counter-clockwise) as it follows a scenic bluff to the west, but those who venture farther will enjoy (limited) views of a less known yet surprisingly tall waterfall (600 feet total). Picnic at the Nancy Russell Overlook at mile 2.5, then rejoin the trail as it switchbacks down to a pedestrian tunnel under state Highway 14, revealing a waterfall overlook. That’s at mile 4 or so. Your return trip will include 1.2 miles of easy roadway walking, so if you’re less interested in big views than a waterfall visit, just take the lower section of trail from the parking lot and head south toward the river, following the trail clockwise. Seasonal note: The lower section of trail is closed to hikers from Feb. 1 to July 15 while nesting peregrine falcons raise their young.

2. Hardy Falls/Pool of the Winds. (Difficulty: moderate. Permit and restroom: yes.) At 5,000 acres, Beacon Rock State Park is the fourth-largest state park in Washington, and the steep hike up Hamilton Mountain is considered a Columbia River Gorge classic for its combination of lush forests, distant vistas, spring wildflowers and a pretty waterfall zone about 1.25 miles up. First comes a side trail to a viewpoint beside 90-foot Hardy Falls; a little higher up comes the unique Pool of the Winds, where water gushes down a narrow chute (lately occupied by a fallen tree) into a protected rock chamber, and then out again. It’s a drafty but intimate little oasis you can view from a safe metal-railed side platform. Don’t neglect to visit the footbridge below for an expansive waterfall view. (Done with waterfalls but still up for hiking? Round-tripping to the scenic summit of Hamilton Mountain will add about 5 more miles — and a lot of elevation — to your journey.)

3. Dog Creek Falls. (Difficulty: easy, but not wheelchair accessible. Permit and restroom: no.) This can be the briefest of waterfall ganders or it can be a risky-yet-rewarding adventure. An hour east of Vancouver on state Highway 14, Dog Creek Falls looks like nothing more than an unimproved picnic site beside a pleasant 30-foot waterfall. Walk about 100 yards along a rocky, uneven path to reach the falls. Tiptoe on stones across Dog Creek to achieve best viewing.

But wait, hardy trail adventurers add, there’s more! Just left of the falls is a rock face that some brave visitors reportedly clamber up to reach higher tiers of falls. You can keep going for hours, climbing and exploring different falls back there, but don’t forget that you’re going to have to come back down all those scary vertical walls and root-branch handholds. Recommended only for the surest, steadiest hikers.

4. Falls Creek Falls. (Difficulty: out-and-back to falls is easy to moderate, going farther is strenuous. Permit and restroom: yes.) To reach this remote, gorgeous and complicated spot, head for Carson (about an hour east of Vancouver on state Highway 14), turn north on Wind River Highway and stay right on Forest Roads 30 and 3062. You’re facing a few miles of unpaved but quite passable roadway before you reach the large parking area. Take it slow.

A lovely, fast-whooshing stream will be your constant companion as you hike the woodsy 3.4-mile (round trip) trail, which starts easy but then zigzags back and forth, up and down. View the enclosed lower tier of falls from trail level, or scramble down to a pair of small ledges to get closer (and get damp from the spray).

That’s already plenty, but if you’re hungry for a challenge, locate the scree trail that continues up and to the left of the falls. The way is obvious in places, but in others you’ll have to improvise your own rough course forward. I struggled over, and squeezed under, a couple of fallen trees on my way to the bottom of the second tier, where water tumbles over three sides of a natural outcropping that’s so geometrically even, it resembles the corner tower of a castle. Sort of.

The way to still-higher tiers looked ill-defined and slick to me, so I stopped there. If you must reach the very top, try veering onto the well-signed back-way connector, which joins the main trail about a mile back.

5. Panther Creek Falls. (Difficulty: easy to moderate, but short. Permit and restroom: no.) This beautiful site could be the scenic cherry on top of any exploratory outing in the Carson area. And it doesn’t require much hiking. From Carson, take Wind River Highway and veer right on Forest Road 65, which winds a lot but stays paved. The waterfall is barely signed, so your best landmark is the large roadside quarry that serves as a parking lot, about 12 miles north of Carson. Cross the road and walk back about 50 yards to the trailhead. A spur off the well-maintained trail leads to an upper viewpoint. The half-mile trail gets a little tougher as it descends to a viewing platform where numerous signs urge visitors to respect the railing and not go farther, since injury and death have occurred here.

So be careful, but also be awestruck at the countless, intricate rivulets that gush down Panther Creek’s mossy flank. (Check out our video for a minute of waterfall meditation at Panther Creek.) If Panther Creek isn’t a top Instagrammable site, it’s only because people don’t know how to find it. Now you do.