I am walking through a wide-lipped cavern as water streams down 80 feet before me like a gauze curtain. Beyond the waterfall, the late afternoon sun gleams from across the Columbia River, suffusing the sky with gold.
I am in the heart of the Columbia Gorge, tucked amid ferns, a dense screen of trees and mossy rocks, shut off from the traffic on Interstate 84 far below.
Beyond the falls, called Ponytail Falls, and its accompanying cavern, lies Oneonta Gorge, one of the signature attractions of the 85-mile-long Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, yet one often neglected by people in their rush along the freeway. Many see the dramatic 542-foot plunge of Multnomah Falls clearly from the highway, stop there and quickly drive on, thinking they've experienced the best the gorge has to offer.
But the Oneonta Gorge Trail, only 1.8 miles to the east, has delights that are far greater, in my opinion. To enjoy them, though, you have to be willing to get out of the car and walk, letting life's rush slow down to the pace of your footsteps.
The trail starts near the parking lot along the Historic Columbia River Highway at Horsetail Falls, loops 2.7 miles up into the forest to Oneonta Falls and then back down to the highway.
The best option is to either have someone drop you off at Horsetail Falls and pick you up at the end of the hike a half-mile up the road, or if you have another driver and car, to park one at the finish and drive the other to the start.
Beyond the cavern and Ponytail Falls, reached in the first .2 mile of the Oneonta Gorge Trail, is a panoramic viewpoint where you can see the sweep of the Columbia Gorge all the way to 848-foot Beacon Rock on the Washington side of the river. Another .4 miles of hiking will bring you to a metal footbridge above Oneonta Falls.
After walking to the far end of the bridge you must either take a side trip to Triple Falls or complete the hike by continuing down past the mouth of Oneonta Gorge to the highway. It's possible to walk directly into the gorge near the trail's ending point, but that adventure is best left for when water flows are low in late summer, and even then you will have a rough wade for a half-mile. But at the end of it is another 100-foot, rarely seen waterfall.
A more manageable walk this time of year is the side trip to Triple Falls. This spur trail goes up almost a mile beyond Oneonta Falls to bring you to the three falls whose thin streamers can be viewed at length from a convenient resting point beside the trail. Go a little farther, past another footbridge, and you'll reach a shaded refuge where the creek burbles slowly among the rocks, an ideal spot for lunch.
If you have time, and I recommend a two-day getaway for this option, I'd drive up the freeway to Multnomah Falls and visit it, too. The experience will be less intimate, but the Multnomah torrent remains the Columbia Gorge's premier cascade and shouldn't be missed.
Once there, you can take a short walk past the 1925 stone lodge for a grand view of the torrent, which falls in two tiers. If you are more ambitious, keep going up the steep, paved, 1.1-mile trail to the top for a dizzying view of water pouring over the cliff. A short distance beyond the top of the falls are a couple of quiet glades where you can catch your breath and enjoy some solitude.
After returning to the main trail, you have a choice. Either to go down the way you came or take a trail to the left that hooks up with the Oneonta Trail to the east. If you are fit, you could do both the Oneonta and Multnomah trails in one day by taking this second option, but I'd recommend doing the trails separately because the experiences they offer are so different.
The Columbia Gorge is of such length and breadth it's impossible to get more than a taste of it in any one trip, even a weeklong one. It's best appreciated in small bites.
Many visitors assume spring is the ideal time to see the falls there, but autumn can be just as good for two reasons. By now, there has been some rain, replenishing some of the falls. But even more important, far fewer people are there. Trees in the gorge change hue slowly in the fall, so even in November you may see remnants of the shift. The weather in the gorge is rainless enough for day hiking on some days even this late in November before the full onslaught of winter.
Getting to the Oneonta Gorge and Multnomah Falls trails from Southern Oregon takes less than a day. Just drive north on I-5, then veer northeast on Highway 205, avoiding Portland, to reach I-84, and head east.
Whether you go in the spring, summer or fall, the Columbia Gorge will work its spell on you, inviting you up its ravines and into the lushness of its forests. And the Oregon side is only half of it. There are more trails waiting to be explored across the river on the Washington side — but save those for another trip, perhaps in the spring when the wildflowers are blooming.
Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 541-776-4498 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the Oneonta Gorge and Multnomah Falls trails, see "Oregon Trips and Trails" by William L. Sullivan from Navillus Press in Eugene.