The Columbia Gorge is well traveled and well loved. Visitors are most familiar with the spectacular display that is Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s best-known waterfall accessible from the interstate.
But anyone who’s visited Multnomah knows exactly how crowded it can feel. The parking lot is often full, hikers block the narrow historic highway, traffic backs up, and the serenity of this magical place is instantly lost.
Travel just a few miles in either direction and you’ll find yourself in another world, filled with moss and ferns and babbling creeks and quiet, foggy forests. And yes, more spectacular waterfalls.
The key to visiting the Gorge is to know your seasons. Winter is stunning and wonderful for photography, but stick to paved paths – icy trails and steep cliffs are a dangerous combination. Spring is wet, but it’s less crowded than summer and provides that true rainforest experience.
However, muddy trails and wet rocks are also slippery, and slippery is dangerous, so prepare well. Wear traction shoes, carry minimal gear and keep your hands free. Or, stick to wide, well-packed trails through dense forests. At some point they will snake back down to your waterfall destination, this is where you’ll watch your step and offer young kids a steady hand.
Summer is treacherously crowded, and the sudden increase in visitors is what’s choking the life out of this slice of paradise. If you love the Gorge and want to preserve it, the best you can do is plan your visits around the crowds. Summer should be avoided, if for no other reason than to preserve your sanity. You won’t find parking if you arrive late, the trails will be packed with single-file traffic, and there likely will be no room to swim or picnic at your favorite waterfall.
Swimming is truly the only good reason to visit the heart of the Gorge in summer, so if you enjoy taking a dip in a waterfall – and who doesn’t – consider venturing out very early in the morning on a Tuesday or Wednesday. You’ll be on your way home by the time most swimmers roll in. If you’re bringing little ones, you’ll appreciate fewer people on the trail, and in the water, too. And if you get a late summer, enjoy those warm afternoons when school starts and dip in the pools as the crowds dwindle.
I’ve spent my life exploring these waterfalls, and in the past few years, I’ve experienced them through the lens of a parent with eager, wandering boys. Safety is always first on a mom’s list when planning an excursion, so with that in mind, I’ve rounded up my favorite spots to take young kids in the Gorge. Many are off the beaten path, less crowded and perfectly safe for toddlers.
No huge waterfalls here, but with spring wildflowers, wide open spaces and sweeping views of the Columbia Gorge, there’s plenty to enjoy about this spot. This is a great road trip any day of the week. Mostly paved and graveled at the peak of Rowena Crest, there’s lots of parking and room to wander. The trails are gentle and wind through prairie grasses and wildflowers.
Along this stretch of the old highway, you’ll find a few pull-outs with amazing stonework, which also make for safer viewpoints for parents of toddlers. This end of the Gorge is less crowded, and you’ll get a real sense of the geology of the region. You’re standing at the point where the rainforest ends and prairie grasses begin.
Visit in May or June for best wildflowers, and bring a picnic. Head all the way to The Dalles to see the historic downtown and remnants from the pioneer days. Stop back by Mosier on your way out to see the farmers market or find some quaint local shops.
Mosier Twin Tunnels
While in Mosier, ask how to get up to the Twin Tunnels. This stretch of the old highway was restored several years ago, and it now features a wide bike path through the old tunnels high above the Gorge. Accessible only by foot or by pedal, this is a view that is worth the effort. Even better, it’s safe for kids.
The pavement is fresh and the guardrail is sturdy stonework. We hope to take our twins up here one day so they can learn to ride their bikes on the open road. I can’t think of a better place to learn to ride – and to be able to look back and remember that moment from your childhood would be pretty special.
I stopped here once at sunset for a short hike. I admit I haven’t trekked the entire length, so I don’t know how it ends, and the suspense is killing me. All the more reason to go back for another visit.
This is one of my absolute favorite hikes for preschoolers. There’s a small parking area, and a restroom, paved loop trail and little bridge over the creek. It’s worth noting this exit can only be reached from I-84 eastbound – if you’re heading toward Portland, there’s no offramp.
A nearby stretch of the old highway was finished just last year, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting its unveiling. The wide paved trail now connects with views of waterfalls tucked among the cliffs in one direction, and a state park in the other direction.
What I find most amusing about my memory of this spot is the huge hidden waterfall just beyond the parking lot. My family has been stopping here for years, simply for the picturesque rest area. Last summer I stopped with the boys one afternoon and decided to walk up the paved path past the restrooms to explore.
Lo and behold, there’s an impressive waterfall just around the corner, a few hundred feet up a fully accessible paved path. We walked right up to the base of the falls, looked for tadpoles, fished with sticks and floated leaves down the creek. The three of us spent a lovely, quiet afternoon here and didn’t see a single hiker.
I’ve yet to take the boys up the road through the new expansion, and what appears to be a host of waterfalls accessible only by foot, but let’s just say it’s next on my list.
This hike is too advanced for toddlers, but great for an enthusiastic 5 or 7 year old. In dry weather, this 1.1 mile trek to Elowah Falls is perfectly safe, but in spring I’d bet the switchbacks toward the falls get pretty muddy.
The hike begins at a small parking area not far from Starvation Creek, but accessible only from one side, so it’s best to map your route before you set out. Parking is close to the freeway so, as always, secure your valuables or leave them at home.
The trail forks about halfway, you can do a longer uphill battle if you’re so inclined. Or continue east toward Elowah Falls. Mostly you travel through shaded forest on wide, packed trails. The uphill slope is gentle but steady, and tiny legs might not be able to hike the whole way. Once you wind your way out of the forest toward the narrow gorge, you’ll hear the waterfall.
It’s a short distance down, but curvy and steep. You end at the base of the falls in a massive rock bowl to watch water tumble down the amphitheater from high above and disappear under the footbridge below.
This hike is perfect for the adventurous kid, with few hazards along the way, a great reward and plenty of distance to cover. A mile hike doesn’t sound like much, but once you’ve walked a mile into the backcountry and back out, you suddenly fancy yourself a rugged mountaineer.
This would be a great test hike for anyone considering an overnight backpacking trip with kids – it’s got flat spots, rocky spots, steep spots and switchbacks, but tiny ones, where they can test their skills.
Bonneville Fish Hatchery
This isn’t so much a hike as a scenic attraction, but no trip down the Gorge with kids would be complete without a stop at the fish hatchery.
The grounds are so incredibly picturesque you’ll wonder if you’ve stepped into a movie set in Scotland. The fish ponds are numerous, and each is perfectly designed to mimic a natural setting. My kids move from pier to pier, watching for huge fish to come by, and follow the trails to new ponds.
I love this stop for preschoolers because it’s hard to get lost here. The grounds are laid out in a way that lets you feel you’re deep in the forest, but even if you take a wrong turn, all trails lead back to the same spot. You are comfortable allowing them to decide whether to fork left or right, feeling like the independent little explorers they are.
And what kid wouldn’t want to see a sturgeon the size of the Loch Ness monster?
Bridal Veil Falls
I love the grounds at Bridal Veil for many reasons, but especially because the parking area is set apart from the old highway, and it’s rather large. There’s plenty of grass and the path to the waterfall is paved, but a little steep if you’re pushing a stroller in the heat of summer with a thousand other visitors flanking you.
Visit this gem early mornings and midweek and you’ll get a treat when you stand at the edge of the magnificent, rushing veil of water. Brides love to hit the old Bridal Veil Post Office nearby for the nostalgia of the postmark.
This beauty doesn’t have a large parking area, or any at all. It’s not a long hike, either, and there are steps – but it is more or less paved right down to the edge. Our boys love the thrill of standing right at the precipice, with a waterfall raging at them from high above, cascading farther down the mountain toward the gorge below.
This is a place to hold your little one’s hand as you descend, but it’s a spot I recommend for two reasons. One is it’s rarely visited and never crowded. But more importantly, kids get a real sense of the magnitude of water, standing right at the edge of it. They can judge the danger for themselves, and it teaches them very early that nature is a force to be reckoned with.
Waterfalls are so enchanting from a distance, they draw you closer and closer, so close you could be swept away. It’s an important lesson: Waterfalls are powerful and they must always be treated with caution and great reverence.
This is another hike where, like Elowah Falls, older and more adventurous kids can experience all types of terrain in under a mile. It starts very steep, and just when it feels like the switchbacks will never end – something to remember if you convince your preschoolers to attempt this hike and you end up having to carry them – suddenly the trail wraps around a rock face and continues right behind the waterfall.
This hike is famous in the Gorge because it’s so unique, yet close to the road. Accessible from the popular parking area on the historic highway, the trail is remarkably low traveled thanks to the main waterfall and swimming hole right on the road. For those who do venture up the slope to Upper Horsetail Falls, they’ll be treated to a thrill few people will ever experience – walking behind a waterfall.
This hike is not to be taken lightly, and should probably be enjoyed by older kids who are experienced hikers. I’d also avoid taking groups of children on some of these more spectacular hikes in the Gorge – you can never go wrong with a ratio of one adult to one child, and it’s a great time to teach kids about mindful hiking and being aware of their steps.
Upper Oneonta Gorge
Nearby Oneonta Gorge is famous for its narrow chasm that attracts swimmers, log-jumpers and waterfall enthusiasts all summer long. Fewer visitors, however, know about the upper falls, and the 2 or 3 mile trail that leads to the quiet backcountry trails above.
Popular with Portland dayhikers, if this trek is done later in the afternoon, morning visitors are gone for the day and you can explore in relative peace. A few rocky sections were reconstructed following mudslides, with steps and beams, so this is definitely a hike for which you’ll want your hands free.
The round trip can be done in half a day or less, but the farther you venture, the more backcountry campsites you’ll find out there if you’re looking for an overnight. Eventually this trail connects with the one from Rock of Ages, though it is not well maintained, and ones from Larch Mountain and Multnomah Falls, where hikers from Portland cross paths with those from the Gorge.
And from the treasures left behind at every crossing, it’s clear spiritual types have already passed through here many times in their quest for solitude, grandeur, and maybe a little bit of magic.
Upper Oneonta is a sparkling paradise hidden from the roar of tourists. It’s a place where fairies and gnomes are sure to dwell, you can see their tiny homes everywhere.
From a child’s eyes, the sense of wonder and imagination brought to life here, that’s something I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Someday my kids will get to experience this gem, too, I’m sure.
Perhaps the most popular and well-known hike for kids in the Gorge, Eagle Creek is traveled by Scout troops and families and solo backpackers alike. My dad remembers his overnight Scout trip in the 60s, when they lugged raw bacon and whole potatoes in their packs.
One of my own earliest memories was a recurring dream when I was very young. I remember stopping somewhere to hike with my parents, but the trail was muddy. We turned back before the trail narrowed around a rocky ledge, judging it too slippery to continue.
In my head, we stopped and turned back because it was dangerous. My little mind replayed that scene over and over in my dreams, until I wasn’t even sure it was a real memory. Sometimes we fell, sometimes my dog fell, sometimes I became petrified with fear, unable to move from the cliff. I did have a bit of a fear of heights growing up.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, getting together with a few friends, that I hiked Eagle Creek for the first time. Or so I thought. In an instant my childhood nightmare came flooding back. I suddenly knew where we had hiked that day in my dream, and where we turned back.
I hike this trail regularly these days, at least once every year or two. The rocky ledges at the start are a little scary, but with hand rails and no mud, it’s perfectly safe for older kids. Not my favorite hike with puppies, though, as they tend to want to barrel off the cliff toward the creek below. Best to do this one with your hands free and your wits about you.
This winter took its toll on Eagle Creek, though, so be sure to check your route before venturing all the way to the high bridge. This hike is one of the best-kept treasures of the Gorge, and it takes a community effort to keep it that way. Many thanks to the trail keepers, we appreciate you.
Hiking With Kids in General
It’s up to each of us as parents to judge our kid’s skills, and evaluate our own comfort levels, when setting out for a hike. The Gorge is well known for its scenery as well as its dangers. Too often we seek out the beauty without taking proper precautions. Anyone can be caught off-guard, get turned around, slip and fall or become injured.
Start early by getting your kids a tiny hiking backpack. A small hydration pack without the water bladder tends to work perfect. Teach them to carry the weight of what they personally need for the day. Make sure they bring, at minimum, a bright LED flashlight, a whistle and a bottle of water. A thin jacket, spare hat and pair of gloves are smart options, too. Add some fruit snacks and a ClifBar and you’re set. Teach the basics of first aid, and what to do if lost. I also let them bring a small toy, like a bug or a lizard, to play with in the water if sticks begin to lose their charm.
It’s also a good idea to run all packed trails yourself before taking very young children on them. A lot can happen over winter, and what may once have been a footbridge might now be a washed-out log. Find a few trails that you’re comfortable starting with, and spend the season working your way up to the harder ones.
The opportunities are boundless. And the rewards are endless. You’ll get much-needed fresh air and exercise, spend valuable time in nature with your favorite crew, and pass on a beloved Oregon recreational pastime to the next generation.
Happy trails to you, and your family, too.