Escapes: Exploring Oneonta Gorge

July 14, 2015

A hidden slot canyon beckons hardy hikers

By Megan Hill

Photo at right: Lush rare botanical flora hangs from the basalt walls of Oneonta Gorge. Photo by Warren Morgan. Courtesy of Friends of the Columbia Gorge,


The Oneonta Gorge traces a narrow capillary, branching off from the main artery of the Columbia River along the Washington-Oregon border. Designated as a botanical area by the U.S. Forest Service, the 25 million year old basalt canyon is host to unique species of aquatic and woodland ferns, lichens and mosses that grow only in the Columbia River Gorge.

The Oneonta Gorge is also a favorite among hikers for its quartet of waterfalls, however, the Lower Oneonta Falls is the only one accessible directly through the Gorge.

Oneonta Gorge Trail

The first of four falls, the 100-foot high Lower Oneonta Falls is tucked at the far end of the slot canyon and tumbles over lush moss-covered walls. Middle and Upper Oneonta Falls, as well as Triple Falls, sit above the canyon and can be accessed via a different trail system that runs above the Gorge.

A verdant slot canyon beckons scores of hardy hikers for photos of the iconic Lower Oneonta Falls, but this hike is anything but a stroll along a traditional dirt trail. Oneonta Creek is your pathway and you’ll follow it upstream toward the sound of falling water. The hike is less than a mile roundtrip and the waterfall is a mossy gem tucked into the far end of the canyon.

You’ll descend a set of stone steps near the bridge crossing the mouth of Oneonta Creek. Walk along the creek for a few dry yards until you reach a large unstable wall of logs. Navigate this obstacle carefully as the jumble of logs and boulders identifies this section as the most challenging for visitors.

Photo courtesy of Friends of the Columbia Gorge,

After the log jam be prepared for the best part of the hike—walking along the river bed. If the creek is running low, you’ll hit occasional dry spots otherwise you’ll feel like an intrepid jungle explorer as you ply the sometimes chest-high waters of the Gorge making your way upstream to the waterfall.


Be prepared to protect electronics and other essentials by bringing along a waterproof pack or bag. Wear sturdy shoes knowing they will get wet, preferably paired with neoprene water socks.

The best time to visit the Gorge is during the summer months when the water level is low and the weather is warm. Other times of the year the creek runs too high for safe trekking and is simply too cold for the duration of the hike.

Because the hike is easily accessible and close to the popular Multnomah Falls, many people hike the canyon to enjoy its cool walls and water during the warm summer season. Opt for an early morning on a weekend or on a weekday for a quieter hike.

Trails and waterfalls above the Oneonta Gorge

To see Oneonta Gorge from above, head to the Horsetail Falls Trail. This easy, 2.6-mile loop is rewarding because you’ll pass three waterfalls and glimpse Oneonta Gorge from above.

You’ll start at the thundering 176-foot Horsetail Falls, climbing a few gentle switchbacks before reaching a junction at 0.2 miles. Bear right toward the 80-foot Ponytail Falls. Here, the trail notches into the canyon wall allowing hikers to venture behind the spray of the falls.

You’ll parallel the highway for a short distance before turning deeper into the forest and above the Gorge. The trail leads to a footbridge spanning Oneonta Creek and Lower Oneonta Falls below, where you can peer into
the Gorge.

After you cross the bridge, you have an optional side trip to the left, toward Middle and Upper Oneonta Falls and Triple Falls. Alternatively, you can walk along the road on a sidewalk most of the way back to Horsetail Falls and the highway.

Trip Details/Resources

Distance: 0.6 miles round trip along the creek bed.
Trailhead Directions: From Portland, follow I-84 to exit 35 toward Historic Hwy/Ainsworth State Park. Turn right onto Historic Columbia River Highway, following signs for Multnomah Falls. Oneonta Gorge will be signed on your left after the tunnel.
Green Trails Maps: Columbia River Gorge-West #428S
Contacts: Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area,

More Columbia Gorge hikes can be found at: and

Megan Hill is a Seattle-based freelance writer. She specializes in writing about food, travel, and the outdoors.