I wore sturdy boots and carried a loaded day pack. Many “hikers” around me wore sandals and carried iPads.
I’d been cooped up in my car for a few hours, so I was ready to hike quickly up the hill and off into the woods. But I was barely moving.
I was stuck at the back of a painfully slow line held up by a young woman hiking in high heels while letting her matching poodles set the pace.
Multnomah Falls Trail’s first 1.3 miles — the only section most visitors hike — can seem like a line at Disneyland.
The trail is paved and packed with people from around the world. At one of the 11 switchbacks, I heard a family speaking in Japanese just feet from a couple speaking in German.
Two months later, when I recounted my late August trip to Jen Kevil, she wasn’t the least bit surprised.
“I see people walking up there in flip flops,” Kevil said of the 700-foot climb from the parking lot to the top of the falls.
Kevil is the recreation and public affairs officer for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and says my trip sounds like a typical summer visit to Oregon’s majestic waterfall alley.
Managers of the scenic area don’t keep official statistics on visits to its 77 Oregon waterfalls, but they estimate it exceeds 2 million per year. “And almost all of those come in the summer,” Kevil said.
There are two tricks to avoiding the crowds: 1. Hike farther than the masses. 2. Visit in the fall, winter or early spring.
It’s easy to see why the falls are so popular. Multnomah, Bridal Veil, Wakeena, Horsetail and the others plunge dramatically over the hillsides as their creeks make their way to the Columbia River.
And these stunning views are just minutes from busy Interstate 84 and less than an hour from Portland.
This hardly seems like the place for a quiet getaway. But Kevil says don’t let the summer crush mislead you.
Now that it’s November, it’s easier to get a private audience with the falls.
“It’s quite different if you come here when it’s not summer, especially if it’s raining,” Kevil said.
Not only do the crowds thin dramatically or even disappear, but sometimes Mother Nature cranks the show up a notch or two.
“You might have to hike in the rain,” Kevil said, “but a lot of times the rain means the waterfalls are a little more gushing.”
The 620-foot Multnomah Falls is the most popular of the gorge waterfalls. A lodge built in 1925 sits at the base offering rooms, meals and souvenirs.
While many visitors hike the 1.3 miles to a viewing platform at the top of the falls, few turn left, leave the paved portion of the trail and continue hiking upward toward Larch Mountain. Those hikers are rewarded with considerably less crowded trails and even more waterfalls.
“Most people think the first waterfall is it, and they don’t go any farther,” Kevil said.
Such is the case just down the Historic Columbia River Highway at Horsetail Falls.
Visitors stop, pose for pictures beneath the 176-foot falls, then carry on, unaware that Ponytail Falls is less than half a mile up the trail.
The trail travels behind the 75-foot Ponytail Falls before continuing up the Oneonta Gorge.
“This area is beautiful,” Kevil said.
Kevil says the gorge trails should be approached with the same planning, gear and skills hikers would take on other backcountry hikes.
That means proper hiking etiquette, cleaning up after your dog and packing out your own garbage, she said.
In the summer, the crowds and developed trailheads can sometimes lull visitors into a false sense of a security.
“We do have field rangers who talk to people, and we do put up signs,” Kevil said. “But it can still be hard to get the word out. A lot of people just stop by and don’t do a lot of research. And with Portland so close, we get a lot of people who are not used to being in the forest.”
With the steep topography of the gorge and the lush green flora, it can be easy for those who venture off the trail to lose their way, Kevil said.
“And sometimes they don’t have the 10 essentials, like a compass or extra water or extra clothes, and they end up getting lost and needing help,” Kevil said.
Off-trail hiking is permitted in the scenic area, and dispersed camping is allowed as long visitors are at least 200 feet from the trail and the nearest water source.
Whether it’s the famous falls, the Columbia River or even the rain, for many visitors a trip to the gorge is all about the water. And you don’t have to work very hard to get an up-close view of this beauty.
But there’s more to explore behind those waterfalls and the farther you hike the more you’ll be rewarded.
“It’s a beautiful place to explore any time of year,” Kevil said.
And it’s probably best not to wait until summer.