The waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest are both abundant and beautiful. When I travel to other places in the world, and hear of a waterfall to check out, I always try to dial back my expectations so I’m not disappointed. We are so spoiled around here. Of course when we’re talking Angel or Victoria Falls, or even those in Yosemite closer to home, that’s different. Those waterfalls are world-renowned for good reason.
Waterfalls of the Gorge – Formation & Geology
The Columbia River Gorge, which slices through the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest along the border between Oregon and Washington, has an abundance of waterfalls. In fact the Cascades were named for all these cascades along the length of the volcanic chain. Most of the waterfalls in the Gorge are located on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. This is because the south side of the river faces north, and so is kept cooler and much wetter than the drier, south-facing Washington side.
Why are there so many waterfalls here? Well to start with the climate is wet. The Columbia’s active and ancient down-cutting, combined with the fact that rocks on either side are very hard volcanic basalt, means that the smaller tributary valleys are left perched above the level of the Columbia. The Missoula Floods, which were the biggest in world history as far as we know, raced through here more than 10,000 years ago. These deluges scoured and further deepened the Gorge, helping to sculpt the steep sides down which the waterfalls tumble.
This geological setting has given us easy access to the waterfalls, a fact best illustrated by Multnomah Falls, which can be seen from Interstate 84. Multnomah is Oregon’s highest cascade at 620 feet (189 meters) total, in two tiers. Multnomah Creek is busy eroding the basalt of course, but its progress is much slower than the Columbia’s (which is also much older). And so the cliff that the waterfall drops over stands very near to the creek’s mouth. Realize that waterfalls erode their cliffs such that over time they move backward, upstream.
There are some larger streams in the Columbia Gorge, such as Eagle Creek, that do not tumble over a tall cliff near their confluence with the Columbia River. These streams are eroding softer formations, often following fractures or faults that make their jobs even easier. They are larger streams because of this easier erosion, not the other way around. Softer rock formations equals larger drainage basins and thus more water captured by the stream.
These side-gorges are not lacking waterfalls however, far from it. One simply needs to hike up them to get to the cascades. Your hike will have the added benefit of leaving behind the traffic noiset from he busy interstate. You will generally be hiking through a narrow and lush gorge. Eagle Creek, in fact, is one of the most stunning hikes of this type to be found in the world.
Now on to this past weekend’s waterfall adventures. I was on a mission not to visit and photograph those waterfalls with easy access, nor even those along one of the many trails in the Gorge. My goal was to find at least one new waterfall, at least new for me. Since I’ve hiked all through this area, that meant going off-trail. With the recent wet weather, and also the new spring growth, I was in for some wet and messy travel through thick, slippery and potentially nasty brush and down logs.
The first hike was up McCord Creek to see if I could find some small cascades above beautiful Elowah Falls. The going was pretty rough, and I decided to turn around in order to have the opportunity to visit both Upper McCord Creek Falls and Elowah Falls. The two are actually so close together you can consider them to be two tiers of a single waterfall. I could not get a unique angle on Upper McCord Creek Falls, so I”m not posting a picture of this one. For Elowah, which is accessible by a trail, I wanted to get a good angle from near mid-point of the stream below the tall (220 feet) cascade. It was raining and the flow was very high. I got blasted with water from the falls when I passed it on the trail. Then I clambored out onto a log to reach a mid-stream rock. I set up there, but had a lot of trouble keeping my lens dry. The resulting haze gives the picture a bit of a dreamy look, I think. I will return to this spot when it’s not raining.
The second hike was up Moffett Creek, which enters just east of McCord. Moffett Creek is a fun one to hike up, primarily because there is no trail. This is best done in late summer when flows are low enough to wade up the creek where necessary. This time of year is a different story. I tried hiking up the creek to reach nearby Wahe Falls (also known as Moffett Crk. Falls). But it quickly became obvious that the stream (which requires constant crossing) was flowing with too much power to negotiate the route safely. I turned around and hiked up onto the side of the valley, following the Munra Point Trail. I soon left the trail and started traversing up the side of the valley, aiming for where I thought the falls were. It was steep, slippery and very tough going.
I was about to give up when I glimpsed the falls through the trees. That gave me hope and I gutted out the last steep, thick section. It’s an 80-foot single drop waterfall, seen by very few people (especially during spring flood). There is a beautiful cedar tree near its base. As per usual, it started raining steadily as I set up. But I managed to get a couple good shots before calling it good. It was near dark by the time I got out of there, soaking wet and muddy, but with a nice feeling of accomplishment. There are more cascades further up Moffett Creek. But that requires climbing gear, a partner or two, and lower water flows. This is very rugged country.
Hope you enjoyed this illustrated primer on waterfalls. I will post more waterfall photos on an irregular basis. Just click on the pictures if you’re interested in prints or download rights. You will need to click “add image to cart” and then make your choices. Don’t worry, they won’t be added to your cart until you decide what you want. The images are copyrighted and illegal to download for free, sorry. Thanks for your interest, and thanks for reading!