I have wanted for years to see frozen waterfalls, and Portland’s early winter finally afforded me the opportunity to see some beauties. The Columbia River Gorge has over 100 waterfalls, and many of them freeze over during the cold snaps. This excursion takes us to the E Columbia River Historic Highway to view Horsetail Falls, Ponytail Falls, Multnomah Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.
Distance and Difficulty: Total of 3 miles across all the waterfalls, with the longest stretch being 1 mile round trip. Easy.
Elevation Gain: up to 350 feet gain
Directions: From I-84E, take exit 28 at Bridal Veil and turn right onto the Historic Highway. Drive for about 4 miles until you see the Bridal Veil parking lot. After you’ve enjoyed the Falls, head back east on the Historic Highway and stop at the various waterfalls (you’ll see them all the way down). Choose the falls I’ve noted, or go even further down toward Ainsworth to Elowah and McCord Falls, Latourell Falls, or Lancaster Falls.
Tip: I strongly recommend cramp-ons for this kind of a trek. The snow is very packed, so snowshoes aren’t necessary, but regular hiking shoes don’t offer the right amount of traction. I immediately picked up a pair from REI after NOT having cramp-ons and am very excited to test them out.
Bridal Veil Falls
The whole trail is a whopping .6 miles down and back, so it’s a great way to start your frozen waterfall ramp up. Unlike most of the waterfalls in the Gorge, this one is below you, so the cramp-ons are particularly useful. As you descend, you’ll have an open view of the Columbia River, and then down to a bubbling brook. The falls are on the opposite side of the bridge and to your right (you’ll hear it). Hike up to the crow’s nest for a complete view, or walk down to the pool for a fresh splash of ice water misting on your face.
Multnomah, meaning “down river” in Chinook, is one of the most iconic natural wonders in Oregon. At 630 feet, it is one of the tallest falls in the U.S. and a huge attraction for local and international visitors. Make sure to go nice and early to beat the crowds (and find parking). When it’s icy, the gate accessing the bridge is closed, and it’s not advised to break the not so subtle caution. However, if you do, PROCEED WITH CAUTION! It’s incredibly slick and very few ways to hold on as you ascend (not that I’m speaking from experience or anything). It’s a mere .2 miles to the bridge, so you can get in a few extra steps and enjoy the falls powers without too much energy spent.
Happily, Horsetail is right on the highway, so you could speed past it, or pull over for some visual pleasure. While there’s no hiking Horsetail, it’s just beautiful to see.
Just to the left of Horsetail Falls is the Horsetail Falls Trail #438 which leads up to Ponytail Falls and eventually Triple Falls. This is the longest of the four I’m mentioning today, but only 1 mile round trip. I would recommend including some hiking poles on this one, as the initial ascent is fairly steep and could use extra stability. After the first 1/4 mile, the trail levels out and quickly offers a stunning view of Ponytail Falls. Ponytail is one of the few you can walk behind, and when it’s frozen, there are some impressive icicles forming in the cave.
If you’re in need of some additional hiking, continue on another 1.5 miles to Triple Falls. I didn’t make it there on this trip, but went over the summer and can imagine the falls would either be completely frozen or with very little flowing water. Cramp-ons and poles will be a must.