Photo by Matt Reeder
From Portland, Drive East on I-84 to the Eagle Creek exit, number 41. Turn South and follow the road a short distance to the trailhead. From the east, drive to the Bonneville Dam exit, and re-enter the freeway eastbound, taking the Eagle Creek exit.
In most American cities these days, a 40-minute drive from downtown will place you smack-dab in the center of some beautiful suburban sprawl. But for Portland, a city surrounded with a remarkable amount of natural wonders, 40 minutes delivers you to the spectacular Eagle Creek Trail. This accessibility does come with a price, mainly, the population of a small suburb crammed onto a single trail. During the spring and summer months, little can be done to avoid the crowds. Even during weekdays the parking lots can be jammed full of cars. If you really want to get away from the people but still experience this trail, try it in winter when most people are afraid of getting rained on. Not only is the trail lonelier, but also the many, many waterfalls are running at full power and a great deal of seasonal waterfalls leap into the canyon.
The first few miles are relatively easy. The trail slowly works its way up the eastern wall of the canyon, giving views of the creek far below. The first major water is Metlako Falls, located two miles from the busy trailhead. A short side trip leads to a viewpoint of this impressive waterfall, although its true power and form is mostly hidden from the hiker by the canyon (One of the advantages of hiking this trail during the winter months is that many of the trees which block views of these waterfalls do not have leaves). Shortly after Metlako, the Creek takes another plunge, Punchbowl Falls, one of the most photographed waterfalls in Oregon (and probably the world). A half-mile trail leads down to the valley-bottom for an eye-level view of these falls.
The trail continues through the valley bottom, with many waterfalls along the way. Soon, the creek is forced through a narrow slot canyon, while the trail is impressively routed high on the cliff above. Note, that this portion of the trail is not for the faint of heart, and hikers with children should exercise extreme caution or turn back. A cable is provided along this section for the hiker to hold on too, which definitely doesn't take away from the feeling of danger! At the end of this impressive ravine, the trail crosses to the western side of the creek where several nice campsites are located (although the chances of these campsites being open for the summer months are extremely thin).
The trail soon crosses back to the eastern bank of Eagle Creek, and shortly comes to the junction with trail 434, which takes off up the canyon wall. For those looking for a long, strenuous loop trip, take this trail up to the summit of Benson Plateau, and then take trail 405 back down to the Eagle Creek Trailhead. For those continuing on, some of the best scenery of the trail is on the way. Directly past the trail junction, an impressive waterfall on a side-creek pops into view, giving a taste of the scenes to come. Shortly after this waterfall, three more impressive waterfalls come into view, the most spectacular being Tunnel Falls where you can actually walk behind the thundering wall of water. While I don't necessarily agree with the practice of blasting tunnels behind waterfalls, I do have to admit that it is pretty damn cool to be so close to so much power. The trail around Tunnel Falls is once again blasted into a sheer cliff, so extreme caution needs to be exercised. Because of the spray of the falls, the trail is permanently wet, and therefore quite slick (a cable is once again provided for the hiker, and really should be used) After turning the corner from Tunnel Falls, yet another waterfall cuts through the rock of eagle creek. Most of this waterfall remains hidden between rock walls, but the hiker can definitely feel the presence of these falls since the trail is routed directly adjacent to its self-created chasm. Beyond these falls, the river calms down slightly, but the scenery is still great.
Another large waterfall can be found another half mile up the trail, but the remaining portion of the trail to Wahtum Lake remains more of a nice, quiet forest walk. For those seeking solitude, the final miles to the lake may be the best section of the trail, as most people turn around at Tunnel Falls. Wahtum Lake is nice little lake, surrounded by forested ridges, but because a nice road gives access to the lake I wouldn't go in expecting a true wilderness experience.
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