Sometimes even the locals discover new treasures, hidden right in their backyard. We arrived yesterday in Portland, Oregon for my yearly pilgrimage to the land of my birth. I yearned to strike out into the fresh, damp air that is home, so my parents drove us out into the Columbia River Gorge, a hiker’s paradise. As we drove along the Old Highway, past all the lush, towering waterfalls as familiar to me as the back of my hand, I mentioned, “Hey Dad, how about we hike to Elowah Falls. Mark’s never seen it.”
To which my father, a resident of Portland for over 30 years, replied, “Where?”
Yes, my backpacking, survivalist father, who instilled my earliest love of the outdoors and hiking, had never heard of Elowah.
I hesitate to share this waterfall tucked off the beaten tourist path. The giants of the heavily-touristed Scenic Highway draw people like a fly to honey – Multnomah, Bridal Veil, Horsetail. Everyone knows these waterfalls, all unique and gorgeous.
But Elowah is one of my favorites.
The trailhead is hidden behind a confusing interchange of highway on-ramps. We hike back into a dense, soaring canopy of trees, lush with hanging limbs dripping ferns and moss. It may be the tail end of winter in the Gorge, but the hibernating forest is alive in fluorescent green blankets. Moss is everywhere – climbing up bark, dangling off limbs, inhabiting the crooks and crannys of the old stone fences. Ferns join the moss, colonizing even the tree canopies and cloaking the trees in feathery coats of green.
Sunlight filters onto the pine needles softening the forest floor and time slows until you breathe with the birds, the wind, the chattering brook. Occasionally the forest opens to views of the craggy cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge, the hills and mountains beyond dusted in a fine layer of snow, fading into the mist and clouds.
As we head deeper into the woods, the hum of Interstate 84 fading, the trail becomes rocky. Switchback down into primordial murk. And then, the roar. In February, the waterfalls are flush with snowmelt and rain, and the mist from regal Elowah pounding the rocks reaches deep into the forest. Our path turns to mud, the rocks slicken, the moss and dancing ferns gleam. We approach the waterfall, a perfect symmetrical cascade over a cliff of vertical columnar basalt formations, and fall into silent awe. This is a waterfall out of time.
I have been here before with my childhood best friend, when the waterfalls and trails of the Gorge were our playground. I greet Elowah with reverence, as one returning to the womb.
With relectance we depart, turn our back on Elowah, and race the falling dusk back to the trailhead.
(Photos to come later – promise!)