Mount Hood looms in the distance, visible from any high ground in Portland, weather permitting. Its top glistens with snow, when you can see it through the clouds. On our first visit to Portland, how could we resist getting a closer look? So we headed out again up the Columbia River gorge, retracing our route up Interstate 84 to Hood River, where we turned south and drove past the fruit orchards into Mount Hood National Forest, where we had picked out a hike on flanks of the mighty mountain itself.
Our destination was Tamawanas Falls, a 109-foot waterfall on the east slope of Mount Hood. We planned to do a simple out-and-back hike, but it is possible to build a loop of about five miles if you are so inclined. Given that this is a short and relatively easy trail with a large and showy waterfall at the end, it’s a popular hiking destination. A large parking area on the side of Oregon Highway 35 can accommodate dozens of vehicles, with overflow parking and portable toilets nearby.
After ponying up the $5 per vehicle day use fee, we set off from the well-marked trailhead onto the East Fork trail, numbered #650 in the National Forest’s scheme. The trail passes an informational sign detailing the U.S. Forest Service’s innovative plan to improve fish habitat in 1998. Prior to that, it was standard practice to remove fallen trees from streams, in the belief that barriers to navigation would prevent fish from migrating. In 1998, the USFS tried a different approach, actually placing over 1,000 logs in the East Fork of the Hood River. The logs actually helped prevent streambed erosion and slowed flood waters, which was actually more helpful to the fish population than keeping the streams unimpeded.
Within 100 yards of the trailhead, the East Fork trail crosses the East Fork of the Hood River on a narrow but sturdy bridge, anchored on one end by some impressively large logs. Our luck with the Oregon weather was holding — though we had driven through some rain on the way there, we had a crisp, clear day by the time we started walking.
For the first half mile of the trail, the East Fork trail parallels Highway 35, slowly rising along a ridge. The wide, well-groomed footbed was a new type of soil for us — a powdery gray volcanic ash soil, soft underfoot. This is doubtless typical of the Mount Hood area, but was a new experience for us Southern hikers used to pine straw, leaf litter, or red clay under our boots. Our Eastern volcanoes haven’t been active for around 200 million years, but Mount Hood is steaming merrily away (and the infamous Mount Saint Helens is only about 65 miles northwest of here).
At about the .5 mile mark, the East Fork trail continues to the north, and the Tamawanas Falls trail (#650A) branches off and heads west. The Tamawanas Falls trail descends down the north side of the ridge, and soon crosses Cold Spring Creek on a log bridge.
From this point on, the trail is never far from Cold Spring Creek. The trail gradually climbs for the next 1.1 miles, passing a few late summer wildflowers such as woodland beardtongue and fireweed, winding below huge Douglas firs, Western red cedars, and assorted hardwood trees. But make no mistake, the evergreens are large and in charge here.
Around .2 miles into the Tamawanas Falls trail, we came upon a short section of trail that had obviously been crossed by a landslide. It was only about 50 yards wide and easy to navigate across. The valley sloped uphill as we headed westward, with the creek beginning to drop in small but scenic cascades.
We soon came to a second, larger landslide, where the path narrowed a little but was still passable. At about .9 miles, the Tamawanas Tie trail merged in from the north, where it winds its way up the ridge to Elk Meadows. But that wasn’t the feature that caught the eye. Instead, it was the massive landslide that engulfed the trail, forcing us to pick a path upward through the boulders and jagged rocks to rejoin the trail about 500 feet away. I wouldn’t call it bouldering, but we were glad to have the hiking poles with us!
Second (small) landslide
Third (large) landslide
Navigating the large landslide was the most taxing part of the hike, but the payoff comes quickly. About .1 mile after the landslide, Tamawanas Falls comes into view, and it’s a beauty.
The trail technically ends at an overlook near the fall, but it’s relatively easy to pick your way across the rocks toward the base. However, there was a large crowd of people (probably around 20-30) who all had the same idea, and the sloping ground and jagged rocks made navigation a slow process. Tamawanas Falls is about 40-45 feet wide, and with that volume of water comes a mighty amount of spray. You can theoretically walk behind the fall, but the uneven terrain and soaking spray deterred most people, including yours truly. Instead, I partially crossed Cold Spring Creek to a small island about 50 yards downstream and set up my tripod to get some glamour shots.
The word “tamawanas” is from the Chinook concept of “friendly or guardian spirit,” though the Forest Service actually renamed the waterfall from its original name of Giffords Falls. I’m not convinced that they got that right. I don’t know the Chinook word for “bashful and uncooperative spirit,” but I’ll settle for calling this Bashful Falls. I’d get positioned for a photo, then a huge cloud of spray would completely obscure the waterfall. The spray would then clear, but my lens was then covered with water droplets. I’d clean it off, and another cloud of spray would wash over me. Then miraculously, the spray would clear, I’d wipe down my lens, and then the sun would disappear behind a cloud. The light in the valley at that particular time was awful too, with the waterfall in shadow. Bashful Falls flows to the north, which means the ridges on either side block the sun when you’re down on the valley floor. I couldn’t get far enough away from the waterfall to avoid the spray, unless I chose to wade in the creek on the other side of the island, and the current made that an unattractive proposition. So I took some lousy pictures, which I’ll share with you in a break from my usual careful curation of photos.
Honestly, this is the best that I could do at the time, and it has been Photoshopped nearly to death.
This was a very nice waterfall to experience, though. The shifting spray was quite atmospheric, and a cool breeze whistled over the increasingly damp onlookers at the base.
After having a quick trail lunch, we retraced our steps to the parking lot, stopping for a brief time at a little cascade that was a more willing photographic subject. The overall hike, according to the GPS track, was around 3.6 miles. And, since we were in the neighborhood, we couldn’t resist driving up to the Timberline Lodge, the historic inn built by the Works Progress Administration from 1936-38. The interior is quite striking for its low ceilings and the heavy feeling of the massive beams and posts. We quite enjoyed the WPA art still onsite, particularly the carvings and the rugs and tapestries woven onsite. And, of course, there’s that 11,245 foot volcano out the back door….