Hiking, Scrambling And Swimming Oregon’s Oneonta Gorge

oneonta gorgeDespite the various nicknames bestowed upon me throughout my 20s (all along the lines of “Hippie,” “Nature Girl” and “Treehugger”), I had a love-hate relationship with hiking the great outdoors. Blame my poor, misguided parents, who made my brother and I undertake many forced marches on summer vacations. We hiked all over California, the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies and even Europe. I know, I know – call Child Protective Services.

It is perhaps unsurprising that I rebelled as I grew older. I was quite a sloth in college, despite my love of travel and camping, and not until 2000 did I rekindle my early love affair with walking the woods, deserts and mountains.

I was attending a conference in Portland, Oregon, and decided to spend a few days camping in Columbia River Gorge, an hour east of the city center. The Columbia is the second largest river in North America, covering 1,200 miles, from British Columbia to the central Oregon coast.

The Gorge itself is a stunning 80-mile drive, as well as a world-class wind-surfing destination, important salmon fishery and source of hydroelectric power. You can also kayak, fish and partake in various indigenous cultural events in the area.

During my 2000 visit, it was Indian Summer, and the dry heat combined with cool, mossy canyons, waterfalls (77 in the Gorge in all) and the Douglas fir forest made for enchanting hikes. On one memorable day, I embarked on three separate outings, stopping only when it became too dark to see.

Since then, I’ve returned to the area several times, but my favorite hike remains Oneonta Gorge, which is conveniently located on Oneonta Creek, just off I-84, 35 miles from Portland. Although frequently crowded with day-trippers, it’s such an unusual and beautiful hike (actually, it’s more of a scramble or slog, depending upon the season), it’s worth sharing.

Do note Oneonta requires some serious scrambling over massive boulders and a logjam or two, so you need to be agile and fit to do it. I’ve seen plenty of non-agile, unfit people in inappropriate footwear (tennis shoes, Chaco’s with Vibram soles or Keen shoes are ideal; water socks or high heels aren’t going to cut it) attempt the gorge. It isn’t pretty, and usually results in a homo sapiens jam, if not minor injury.oneonta waterfallOneonta is a slot canyon, just 20 feet wide. A half-mile down the creek bed is a 100-foot waterfall that spills into a clear pool. The thing about the gorge is that there’s no trail; you need to either swim, scramble or slosh it.

The first time I visited, the water was so high in October that it hit me mid-chest. Because I don’t relish swimming in snowmelt and I love a challenge, I decided to see if I could climb the entire route without touching the water. To this day, I have no idea how I managed to grip those wet, slippery, craggy canyon walls without falling, but I succeeded. To be honest, I’m still impressed with myself (and rather despondent that I no longer possess that kind of upper body strength).

I’ve also done Oneonta when it’s just ankle-deep, but regardless of water levels, you can always count on its sheer basalt walls to be teeming with ferns, mosses, lichens and other primordial plants. It’s otherworldly in there, and I find it oddly soothing, even with summer crowds. You could go early in the morning to avoid them, but it’s better to wait until for heat of the day, when the cool, misty air of the gorge provides a respite, and the sun’s rays send shafts of light down into its green depths.log jam

For the most diverse hiking experience, I suggest combining Oneonta in combination with the connecting 2.6-miles Horsetail Falls Loop. This extension will take you up into the forest, and provide views of the Columbia River from the Oneonta Bluffs. For the truly lazy, the 176-foot falls are visible from the roadside.

Getting there
Take I-84 East to the Ainsworth Park Exit 35, and make a right (west) on the Historic Columbia River Highway for 1.5 miles, until you reach the Horsetail Falls Trailhead parking lot. Cross the road, head west a few hundred yards through Oneonta Tunnel and you’ll see the “trailhead,” alongside a bridge with a set of decrepit concrete steps. Get ready to wade or scramble.

Tip: Ainsworth State Park is a lovely campground, and open March through October, first-come, first-served.

[Photo credits: gorge, Flickr user McD22; waterfall, Flickr user stokes rx;scramblers, Laurel Miller]

Visit the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon