Hiking Tunnel Falls
The Columbia River Gorge just outside of Portland, Oregon, is known for its fairy tale-like trails and countless waterfalls. In photos, it’s picturesque. In person, it’s unbelievable. While living in the #YourLead van this past summer, Heidi and I made it a priority to add Tunnel Falls to our jam-packed schedule. We couldn’t pass through the Gorge and not stop to explore this famous PNW wonderland!
The #YourLead van pulled up to the Eagle Creek trailhead in the late afternoon as the majority of hikers were filing off the trail and back to civilization. Perfect timing—empty trails make for happy trail runners! To maximize our views, we detoured to Lower Punchbowl Falls, but still made it to Tunnel Falls in time for sunset.
If you find yourself near Portland, pick up a copy of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland to make sure you experience Tunnel Falls, Punchbowl Falls, and dozens of other great hikes!
12 miles round-trip
In the first mile, you’ll get an idea of what you’re in for: a deep canyon, waterfalls, and a lovely creek without too much elevation gain. At 1 mile, you come to the first of several places where you walk a ledge—in this case, but not all, with a cable to hang on to. If it’s a summer weekend, things can get interesting here while you compete for cable space with dozens of other hikers. But the importance of being careful cannot be overstated: People have fallen to their deaths from this trail.
At 1.5 miles, you’ll see a trail to a viewpoint of Metlako Falls (named for a Native American goddess of salmon), the first of many such sights. Just past the viewpoint is a bench, if you need a rest. At 1.8 miles is another bench; from here a side trail leads down to Punchbowl Falls, a must-see sight and the end of the line for a lot of people. Descend this trail 0.2 mile to reach Lower Punchbowl Falls; just above that is a large clearing that’s often filled with swimmers and sunbathers.
If you turn back here, you’ll have hiked 4 miles, but it’s not much more work to go at least as far as High Bridge, another 1.2 miles up. If you continue, you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of Punchbowl Falls just 0.3 mile ahead; then the gorge narrows considerably. You’ll see Loowit Falls on the right just before High Bridge, which is a spectacular site at 120 feet above the river in a narrow gorge. It’s above here that you’re allowed to camp, by the way.
Continuing up the trail, you’ll soon cross what is officially known as Four-and-a-Half-Mile Bridge. Now, even the map acknowledges that this is exactly 4 miles from the trailhead, so what’s with the name? Well, the fish hatchery back at the trailhead wasn’t there when the trail was built (there was no need for it because Bonneville Dam didn’t exist yet), so the trailhead used to be 0.5 mile farther north, at Eagle Creek Campground.
Just past the bridge, look on the right for a double waterfall—that’s Opal Creek, but don’t confuse it with the world-famous Opal Creek. About 0.5 mile above that waterfall, a sign explains that the area you’re now entering was burned in a 1902 fire; you can still see some charred stumps around. So all the trees you’ll see in this area are less than 100 years old.
Hiking another 1.5 miles brings your total to 6 miles hiked, and you’ll come into a deep gorge, where Tunnel Falls plunges 160 feet and the trail continues behind it through a 35-foot tunnel. Tunnel Falls is actually on East Fork Eagle Creek, which flows from Wahtum Lake.
To return to Eagle Creek and see one final, dramatic falls, hike on about 0.2 mile. This falls doesn’t have an official name, but it does have an interesting crisscross feature in its upper section, leading many people to call it Crisscross Falls or Crossover Falls.
If you’re backpacking, you’ll find good camping at 7.5 Mile Camp (7 miles up) and at Wahtum Lake. Otherwise, if you head back at this point, you’ll wind up having put in 12 miles—which should be enough for a day. Besides, you’ll get to see everything again on your way back.