Eagle Creek is the quintessential hike in the Columbia River Gorge, boasting dozens of spectacular waterfalls, tall basalt cliffs, and the lush temperate rain forests that so characterize the Pacific Northwest. It is considered by many to be one of the most resplendent hiking destinations in the Northwest — no doubt, essential fare for Portland-area outdoor lovers.
What makes Eagle Creek even more popular is the number of ways one can enjoy it! There are options that can take 3 hours to 3 days depending on how far you go! In fact, one could literally hike to Mexico starting from the Eagle Creek Trailhead, as it eventually intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail some 13 miles in. In fact, many PCT thru-hikers will choose to divert their usual course over the Benson Plateau to take in the splendid beauty of the Eagle Creek gorge.
Maybe as impressive as the Gorge itself, is the story of how it was built. It was created in the early 1900s as part of an effort to begin preserving parkland areas in the Columbia River Gorge, where industry was rapidly encroaching. In some sections, workers used dynamite to blast the trail into the side of the cliffs. Soon thousands of people could enjoy areas that were impossible to traverse otherwise. The original trail has remained nearly unchanged to this day.
The Eagle Creek to Punchbowl Falls hike is one of the shorter options for taking in the beauty of the gorge, and perhaps is the most popular. Starting at the trailhead, you take the wide well-groomed trail along the creek for a stretch, then alternating in and out of a young deciduous forest before beginning to take on elevation.
Before you’ve gone a half-mile you’ll find yourself high above the creek, which has now opened up to a glorious valley. Many months the fog hangs low in the canyon, blocking your view of the snow-encrusted cliff-sides towering around you. In places the trail is narrow and the drop-off is quite steep. Cable lines were built into the walls in sections to provide some stability.
As the trail steadily gains elevation, it begins to divert away from the creek. You’ll notice the quiet as you ascend away from the rushing water and deeper into the lush old-growth forests of douglas fir, cedar and hemlock. Dewy ferns, moss-covered rocks, and sometimes poison oak blanket the forest floor. You will be surprised at the beauty and quiet of these sections, which at times are like scenes from a fairy tale.
Along the rest of the hike, you’ll cross various side-creeks — some by rock steps, many by footbridges. Be sure to look upstream as you pass by — especially in the wetter months — as you will be treated to waterfalls and more lush greenery.
After you’ve walked about a mile and a half, watch for an obvious spur trail off to your right. The path drops down to an overlook with a view of the magnificent 100-foot Metlako Falls, which seemingly shoots straight out of a cliffside into a large pool below.
Walk back up the spur trail to the main drag and continue southward, winding high away from the gorge with the creek well out of view. In just over a half-mile you’ll be at an obvious, signed junction and resting spot near your destination, Punchbowl Falls.
You can choose to take a spur trail down and to your right, or continue forward about 1/4 mile to the Punchbowl Falls overlook. The spur trail takes you down about 300 feet in a 1/4 mile. At the bottom of the steep hill, the improved trail ends at Lower Punchbowl Falls. Hikers can work their way up the wide open, rocky shoreline to a view of Punchbowl Falls about a hundred yards from the falls. In the summer months, this can be a crowded area, but given the right weekday in the off-season, this is a enchanted, quaint setting as you gaze upstream admiring the gushes of water blasting their way out the chasm.
Should you choose to continue on, the overlook gives you a great vantage point of the falls from above. You’ll look straight down to the rushing waters and magnificent deep, pool below. You may recognize this viewpoint from photos and postcards. Please stay inside the guardrails. Every year, there is some story about someone falling from this spot and injuring themselves.
SRC: Find more information about the hike to Punchbowl Falls here: www.oregonhikers.org/field_guide/Eagle_Creek_to_Punchbowl_Falls_Hike
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