Reborn Wahclella Falls Trail offers the best easy hike in Columbia Gorge

Note: After the winter storm in the Columbia Gorge earlier this month, some trailheads may still have snow in the parking lots. Before heading to the trails, including Wahclella Falls, contact the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area to verify access at: (541) 308-1700.

About a year after the Eagle Creek Fire burned through the Wahclella Falls Trail, Josh Durham was working with a crew to clear the waterfall-filled trail when they started hearing the sound of rocks falling.

It was October 2018 and the goal was to put the finishing touches on a lower portion of the trail so it could reopen and allow visitors to return to one of the most beautiful places in the Columbia River Gorge.

The canyon had other ideas.

“As we worked we could hear rocks falling and moving, but it sounded like it was mostly across the creek,” said Durham, stewardship coordinator for the Trailkeepers of Oregon, a non-profit organization that helps maintain the trails. “But then a boulder the size of a dishwasher fell off the cliff and landed right between two of the crews.

Wahclella Falls would remain closed for over a year before another crew even went inside.

“As this fire spread, even though it was a low intensity fire, it burned through all of the moss and ground vegetation that was holding this rock in place, said Stan Hinatsu, a fire officer. Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area recreation staff. “That’s why we’ve seen so many landslides and so many rock falls and that’s one of the main reasons it’s taken so long for these trails to be safe enough to reopen.”

Today Wahclella reopened his full 2.4 mile lollipop loop. Crews removed tons of rock fall, massive amounts of downed trees to add a new bridge and stabilize the upper loop of the road.

“Anytime we can help open a trail, it never ceases to be great,” Durham said.

Wahclella trail looking pretty good after the fire

I returned to Wahclella earlier this winter and was immediately reminded why this was my favorite easy gorge hike.

Evidence of the fire is present with blackened trees along the trail and badly burned ridges, but overall the trail looks much the same as before the fire.

Wahclella begins at the start of a trail just outside Cascade Locks and follows an access road along Tanner Creek to a small water intake dam for the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, before d enter a narrow, enchanted canyon where waterfalls tumble from the cliffs on either side after rain.

After a short drive you reach a trail junction – the start of the loop and upper trail – which was basically buried under rock fall after the fire.

To stabilize the junction and the upper trail, crews installed numerous “gabions” – rectangular wire mesh cages filled with rocks that form a giant brick to support the trail surface on the steep slopes.

At the crossroads, I turned right – downhill to a beautiful bridge over Tanner Creek, with a view of a tall, thin waterfall tumbling among house-sized boulders.

The Wahclella Falls Trail in the Columbia River Gorge has recovered well after the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017.

At this point, there was another danger that track crews had to deal with. The wildfire burned on the mountain ridges killing many trees which fell from the 350 foot Wahclella Falls and formed a giant traffic jam. At high tide, the ice jam was floating on the trail near the upper deck.

“It took us two days to clean it up,” Durham said.

The bridge is now open, and after crossing it, Wahclella Falls roar in all their glory, exploding into a pool where mist billows like smoke from a wildfire.

Once known as Tanner Falls, the name was changed in 1915 by a committee representing the Mazamas, around the same time the historic Columbia River Gorge Highway was scheduled to open.

“Wahclella was the name of an Indian locality near Beacon Rock on the Washington side of the Columbia River, and was chosen because of its pleasant sound,” according to “Oregon Geographic Names.”

The 350ft two-tiered plunge makes a pleasant sound in the dead of winter – and creates a pleasant spot for lunch.

The Wahclella Falls Trail in the Columbia River Gorge has recovered well after the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017.

“Watch for water ouzels dancing and plunging down the side of the creek, and salmon spawning at the base of the falls in late fall, the Forest Service writes in its description of the trail.

The most impressive trail building feat is on the return loop via the upper trail. This entire trail was buried in rock from the fire.

A new bridge and a nice trail highlight the upper part of the course, as well as aerial waterfalls.

The loop is completed faster than you would like and before you know it you are back at your car. But before you head home, spare a thought – or maybe even a donation – for the trail crews who braved falling rocks to reopen the trail.

To note: Oregon Trail Keepers organized 13 task forces from November 2020 through April 2021 to help keep the Wahclella Falls Trail open. To support their efforts in the Gorges and elsewhere, consider making a donation or getting involved: https://www.trailkeepersoforegon.org/

The Wahclella Falls Trail in the Columbia River Gorge has recovered well after the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017.

Wahclella Falls Trail

General area: Cascade Locks and Bonneville Dam

Trail distance: 2.4 km round trip

Elevation gain: 382 feet

Difficulty: Easy

Good for kids: Yes

Season: Year-round, though low-level winter storms can block access

Contact: Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area Ranger District, (541) 308-1700

Costs: $5 daily use fee at trailhead or Northwest Forest Pass

Trailhead elevation: 308 feet

GPS coordinates of the trailhead: N45 37.840 W121 57.231

Itinerary : About an hour and a half from Salem. From Salem, follow Interstate 5 North toward Portland. Take Exit 288 for Interstate 205 and follow it 30 miles to Exit 22 for Interstate 84 East. Follow Interstate 84 to Exit 40 and stay right following a sign for Wahclella Falls Trail.

Zach Urness has been an outdoor journalist in Oregon for 15 years and is the host of the Explore Oregon podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.