Only 30 miles east of downtown Portland lies a canyon of incredible beauty known as the Columbia River Gorge. Roaring through the middle of the canyon is the Columbia River, which serves as a natural border between southern Washington and northern Oregon in the great Pacific Northwest.
The area was created during the most recent ice age when massive floods (known as the Missoula Floods) pushed through the canyon, carving steep layers of volcanic rock above the Columbia River. Following Interstate 84 out of eastern Portland, the scenery rapidly transforms from large city to beautiful wilderness in less than 30 minutes.
The gorge itself offers a bevy of photographic opportunities, ranging from over 50 waterfalls to wildflower-covered hillsides in the spring. There are also pristine mountain lakes, many with views of snow-capped peaks of nearby Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams.
With depths of up to 4,000 feet, the canyon of the Columbia River Gorge cuts through the Cascade Range. Its boundaries are roughly from the eastern metropolitan reaches of Portland to 80 miles east at the confluence of the Columbia and the Deschutes rivers. The area encompasses 292,500 acres and is protected under the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. Included within this area of both public and private lands is a mix of forests and riparian areas managed by the USDA Forest Service.
Amazingly, the Columbia River Gorge hosts a diverse collection of ecosystems ranging from a temperate rain forest on the western border with an average annual precipitation of 75 to 100 inches, to the eastern grasslands with average annual precipitation between 10 and 15 inches, to a transitional dry woodland between Hood River and The Dalles.
The Columbia River Gorge Waterfalls
My advice for a first-time visitor would be to start in the waterfall area of the gorge. Take Exit 22 at Corbett while heading east on Interstate 84 to the Historic Columbia River Highway. If you are driving west, take Exit 35 at Dodson.
There are five waterfalls that you can see without ever leaving your car, but with so many falls to choose from, serious photographers will want to do some hiking. The granddaddy of all the falls is Multnomah Falls, towering at 611 feet. It takes only a few minutes to walk from the parking area to the base of the fall. There is also a paved trail that leads to the historic Benson Bridge, named after the original owner of the fall, Simon Benson, a prominent Portland businessman.
The bridge places you 69 feet above the base of the fall and allows for close-up images of the roaring water. I have captured images of Multnomah with lenses ranging from wide angles to extreme telephotos. With the almost deafening sound of the falls enveloping your senses, just let your imagination run wild. Personally, I find some of my favorite waterfall images concentrate on just sections of the falls that grab my attention. Multnomah is one such waterfall.
Most of my favorite falls vary both in walking distance and difficulty. Elowah Falls is seven miles round-trip. This year-round waterfall is best photographed in the fall and spring. Near the fall, you will see a steep amphitheater-shaped cliff covered in yellow-green lichen. The fall itself is said to be 213 feet tall and can be photographed from a wooden bridge that crosses the creek below Elowah and many spots along the trail. More daring souls will try climbing down into the creek area—but be careful, as it is very slippery and dangerous.
As we move west of Elowah, Horsetail Fall, essentially a two-section falls, can be photographed from the parking area as it plunges into a scenic pool. To access upper Horsetail (also called Ponytail Falls), one can experience the sensation of photographing from behind the fall. Note that access to upper Horsetail involves hiking a somewhat steep switchback—I recommend taking only lenses of 150mm and wider to lighten your load.
Perhaps my most favorite of all the falls in the gorge is Punch Bowl Falls. It does require a moderate 1.8-mile hike from the parking area with an elevation gain of 300 feet, but the effort is well worth it. Some of my favorite images of Punch Bowl require getting into the water. In late afternoon light, the sun is blocked by the steep moss-covered walls, and the entire area takes on a beautiful glow. Give yourself a lot of time on this hike, as there are incredible scenes all along the trail to the fall.
Wahclella Falls is an easy one-mile hike from the parking area and is easily photographed from a wooden bridge or areas on either side of the bank below the bridge. The fall itself is described as a plunge, a horsetail and a cascade. Other favorite falls in the gorge include Wahkeena, Bridal Veil and Latourell Falls.
Locations Around The Gorge: Southern Washington
In the final scene of the movie Wild, Cheryl Strayed (played by actress Reese Witherspoon) is seen standing on the Bridge of the Gods looking east up a misty Columbia River. This is one of three bridges (the others being the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge and the Dalles Bridge) that connect northern Oregon with Southern Washington. All three are steel truss bridges, with the Dalles Bridge being a steel-truss-cantilever bridge.
One of my favorite areas to photograph in southern Washington is Trout Lake. At times, it is nothing more than a small pond. What it does offer is an amazing view of Mt. Adams. I love being there at either dusk or dawn as the alpenglow light warms the snow atop Mt. Adams (elevation 12,280 feet). From Interstate 84, cross over the Columbia River (via Bridge of the Gods or the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge) and then head north on Highway 141. If you happen to be in the Gorge during the months of April and May, then you have a great opportunity to photograph lush hillsides covered in wildflowers.
Also in southern Washington, I would advise you to check out Dalles Mountain Ranch and Columbia Hills Historical State Park. In Columbia Hills, one can compose images of Lupine and vibrant yellow Balsam Root with Mt. Hood in the distance.
If you are fit and want to take on a good hike, then try Beacon Rock State Park for some awesome views both up and down the Gorge. A mile-long switchback trail will take you up the 848-foot Beacon Rock to the Beacon Rock Overview.
Locations Around The Gorge: Northern Oregon
A great place to stay when photographing the Columbia River Gorge is Oregon’s Hood River. Not only are the falls nearby, but one is also able to explore some awesome mountain lakes. Two of my favorites are Trillium Lake and Lost Lake.
Dawn or dusk is the best time to be at Trillium. Usually, you should have the location to yourself, especially in the spring, when the snow is still melting. Seeing first or last light on Mt. Hood is amazingly beautiful. Heading south out of Hood River, just follow Oregon Route 35 for about 50 minutes. Yes, this can mean a very early wakeup call, but the beauty is worth the missed sleep.
It takes about the same driving time to get to Lost Lake. It can be accessed via Oregon Route 281 and Lost Lake Road. A GPS is highly recommended when driving anywhere in the gorge.
Once you reach the resort, I advise walking along the northwest side of the lake, just past the general store, until you arrive at a viewpoint that on a clear day allows you to see Mt. Hood. I’ve found dawn is the favorite time for me to be there, but anytime Mt. Hood is out can work.
Like its neighbor Washington, northern Oregon also puts on a fantastic wildflower show during the spring. Without hesitation, I would advise one to not miss the Rowena Crest, which is less than a 20-minute drive from Hood River. There are a multitude of trails that wind through hillsides covered in spring wildflowers. Some locations afford views with the Columbia River, but I simply wander until I find some abundant fresh flowers.
Besides the Rowena Crest, there are other locations where one can find lush hillsides of wildflowers near and in the gorge. A few of my favorites are Tom McCall Preserve, Catherine Creek, Memaloose Hills and Dalles Mountain.
Regardless of the time of year you plan on visiting the gorge, you will be immersed in beauty that will uplift your soul and stoke the fire of your creativity. Northern Oregon and southern Washington are truly beautiful scenery. If you plan on visiting the Columbia River Gorge, give yourself time to visit the mountains, falls and the coast.
Tips For Photographing Waterfalls
One of the difficulties of photographing waterfalls close up is dealing with the spray and mist. I’m not one who advocates fancy covers to protect my camera and lenses; rather, I use plastic garbage bags or the very inexpensive OP/TECH USA Rainsleeve, which usually retails for under $10.
Another recommendation is to bring along a large chamois leather (also called a “shammy”). You’ll find these in any auto supply store, and they are great for wiping down wet gear. Also have a good supply of microfiber, non-abrasive cloths to wipe down wet lenses and filters
Lastly, in terms of accessories, bring a cable release or camera remote control—remember, your camera will be covered with plastic, so the connection of the cable release into the camera will stay dry.
My method for working close to mist and blowing spray is to set the composition with the camera on a sturdy tripod. While doing this, expect your lens to get wet. Once my scene is composed, I begin to dry the front element of the lens with the microfiber cloth with one hand (using a circular wiping motion) while holding a cable release with the other. As soon as I pull the cloth away, I fire the shot. Personally, I use single-frame drive mode, but you could try this with multi-frame burst mode.
If you are good at multitasking, you can even try holding a small umbrella (one is always in my camera bag) to further help in keeping your gear (and you) dry. Be aware that one drop of water on your lens is enough to ruin the image and even Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill will have a hard time dealing with the smudge.
My best advice is to slow down and take it one composition at a time.
Tips For Photographing Wildflowers
My recommendation is to not be afraid of raising your ISO until you get to a shutter speed that freezes or almost freezes the flowers. Most modern-day cameras can produce relatively clean frames at higher ISO settings. I have become a big fan of Auto ISO when photographing wildflowers in the wind. This allows you to choose a shutter speed to freeze the flowers and an aperture for the depth-of-field you desire. The camera will set the correct ISO to complete the exposure.
Another trick when the wind is whipping the flowers around is to simply be patient and wait for a lull. Generally, on the fringes of the day, the breezes will subside (unless a storm front is blowing in). Timing lulls can allow for slower shutter speeds and lower ISOs.
When composing a scene with wildflowers, I like to get eye level with the flowers and fill the foreground. I’m always looking for a complementary background. This will allow for your viewer’s eye to move through the frame and not remain static on just the flowers.
Oftentimes, wind can be an issue, making macro an exercise in frustration; however, telephoto and wide-angle scenes can be accomplished even with a stiff breeze.