Temperate Rainforests of the Columbia River Gorge

by Alex Mody | April 21, 2012

© Alex ModySpring has sprung, and I can’t help but catch myself drooling yet again over the endless photographic possibilities that will soon unfold within Oregon and Washington’s Columbia River Gorge. Home to 115 officially named waterfalls—and many more un-named, off trail, and/or ephemeral falls—this 85-mile stretch of river boasts the highest concentration of waterfalls in the world!

The area has an impressive average of 70-90 inches of rainfall a year, and some pretty hefty snowfalls accumulate along the higher elevations of the area. All of that water has to drain somewhere. Thanks to gravity and an average wall height of 1500-3000 feet on the south side of the gorge, that water has cut dozens and dozens of deep valleys, gorges, and streams into the walls of the gorge. Because of historical volcanic activity in the area, these slopes consist of basalt, a rock that is not easily eroded by water. As the area’s many streams and creeks try to erode their way into the gorge, they are forced to flow over the basalt they cannot effectively erode, thus creating an enormous quantity of tall and spectacular waterfalls.

Thanks to the damp and cool weather of the Pacific Northwest, there is no shortage of moisture in the area, making for an impossibly lush and beautiful temperate rainforest ecosystem in the gorge. You can’t beat this setting—each and every stream or waterfall is strikingly gorgeous. With vegetation coving everything in sight, the place truly feels like a scene out of a dream. Spruce and fir trees tower hundreds of feet above, vine maples sprawl across the forest floor, five-foot-tall ferns evoke a prehistoric, primordial feeling, and the thick coats of moss and epiphytes covering every possible surface bring about a unique feeling of mystery and magic that I have yet to discover anywhere else.

Autumn Elowah Falls © Alex Mody

With deciduous plants, trees, and mosses showing their most vibrant greens, and streams still swollen from rainfall, spring is a great time to visit the gorge—but it is not the only time the gorge is worth visiting. Some years, the damp and drizzly weather continues well into June and July, allowing photographers to capture lush green scenes well into the summer. Autumn can be fantastic as well. In mid to late October, the short northwestern summer comes to an end, and the alder, oak, bigleaf maple, and vine maples that call the gorge home put on an amazing, though subtle display of autumn colors. In addition, just a few times each winter, many of the waterfalls situated in higher elevations are garnished with a coat of fresh snowfall.

Dry Creek winter © Alex Mody

From a photographer’s standpoint, this place is almost as good as they get! Photographing picturesque streams, huge waterfalls, and insanely lush greenery, one could keep busy for days on end in the gorge, as I know I have.

Embrace © Alex Mody

Though many of the waterfalls and streams in the gorge are no secret, I would be remiss in not mentioning at least a few of my favorite spots. Elowah Falls is a remarkable 213-foot plunge, located at the end of an easy 1.4-mile round-trip hike from John B Yeon State Park. These falls are especially fantastic in the autumn. Gorton Creek, home to the beautiful 10-foot Emerald Falls, is located in the eastern stretch of the gorge. I have probably seen a few hundred mountain and forest streams at this point, and never have I come across one as incredibly photogenic as Gorton Creek. The stream runs through an impeccable grove of alder and maple, sword ferns are growing in every which direction, and every surface that can be seen sports a thick coat of moss. Eagle Creek is home to two of the most picturesque and iconic waterfalls in the gorge, 101-foot Metlako Falls, and 35-foot Punchbowl Falls. A relatively easy 4-mile round trip hike from the Eagle Creek trailhead leads to these two waterfalls. Of course, there are many, many more locations to visit within the gorge, but these three are among the more accessible of them, and serve as a great introduction to the area.

New life © Alex Mody

Information regarding access to the many waterfalls of the gorge is very readily available, by a quick Google search and/or purchase of an area guidebook, such as Waterfall Lover’s Guide: Pacific Northwest by Gregory A. Plumb or Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano. Most areas in the gorge may be accessed without any visitor fees, but some locations require purchase of a NW Forest Pass to park at the trailheads.

About the Author

Alex is an aspiring young nature photographer based in Olympia, Washington. In 2009, Alex was named Youth Photographer of the Year by Nature's Best Magazine and was subsequently featured in an article on NatureScapes highlighting his accomplishments and beautiful photography. Alex is currently pursuing his bachelor's degree at Evergreen State University. To see more of Alex's work, please visit his website at

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