Perhaps you’ve heard of Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge — the allegedly second tallest perennial falls in the US, and a favorite among Portlanders. It is pretty fantastic, but the best falls in the gorge actually goes to the girl next door: Wahkeena Falls.
At first glance, Multnomah Falls appears to easily beat its neighbors with its 620-foot height and romantic, Disney-esque bridge spanning the break between a two-stepped plunge. It looks like a scene from Snow White, along with an adorable lodge-like gift shop and restaurant at its base.
Set further from the highway, Wahkeena Falls is also two-tiered, but much shorter. It doesn’t have a lodge and there is no clear-cut view to photograph it from the highway below. Instead it requires a short hike up to the bridge to really see it, but then only half of it because the first drop disappears from vision as it’s neared.
But first impressions can be deceiving — spend a little more time with them both and you’ll find Wahkeena’s magic wins.
Part of the problem with Multnomah is it has no secrecy. Because the falls are literally right at the side of the interstate, everything is on display at first quick sight. It has been designed to be a major tourist stop since the creation of the highway about a 100 years ago, which also makes it crowded. Tourists can jump in and out of their cars to enjoy a quick pic in less than a minute before hitting the road again. It doesn’t require any time, and yet still feels busy.
In short, Multnomah is too easy.
Wahkeena Falls on the other hand is a little more complex and requires a little more effort because it is further removed from the highway. Although a quick look from the car is less impressive than her sister down the road, its precisely this distance that makes it alluring. It creates a sense of mystery and is full of the possibility of discovery. This is what ultimately led me to leave the other tourists behind in their cars to make the trek up to the falls in the misting rain.
Up close, Wahkeena is breathtaking. It’s covered in a riot of green velvety moss that is luxuriously thick in spots like decadent 70s shag carpeting. It takes a little bit more time to get to the “picture-perfect” vantage point — not a ton, but just enough to ponder its rushing beauty and roar. Wahkeena’s bridge glistens in a constant spray from its water whose path surges, falls, and bursts. It is mesmerizing and so very green. There are fewer tourists. It feels intimate. There is time.
It takes time to really appreciate beauty. Time to see it, time to ponder it, time to revel in it. This is what makes Wahkeena better than Multnomah – it requires just a little bit more time and is just that more satisfying because of it. Time is what makes Wahkeena Falls the fairest of them all.
To be clear, Multnomah is fantastic too. It even has some of the magic and mystery of Wahkeena, but not so much in its falls which expose too much too soon, but rather in its majestic views of the gorge on the hike up to the top of the falls. The common factor is it takes time to hike to the top of the falls.
In the end, see both waterfalls. And see all the others, too. The Columbia River Gorge is a must-see on any Oregon visit, and only a short drive from Portland. I’ve been back in drought-stricken LA for less than a day now and am already going through waterfall withdrawal.
— Laura Rowley