Wander into the Columbia River Gorge on any summer weekend, and you’re likely to see families of every size, color, and age group spending time together. The waterfalls and hiking trails are popular attractions for both locals and out-of-town visitors.
Well-known spots like Multnomah Falls are often over-crowded, even on the steep hiking trail to the top of the falls. Families looking for a pleasant, low-key outing may enjoy something a little out of the ordinary. Horsetail Falls, a little further east from Multnomah Falls, is an excellent destination.
Horsetail Falls is not directly accessible from I-84. From Portland, take I-84 east to the Bridal Veil exit (#28), and then follow the Scenic Highway east for 5.5 miles to the falls. If you’re westbound on I-84, take the Ainsworth Park exit (#35), and follow the Scenic Highway west for 1.3 miles. Given the price of gas, this isn’t exactly a free outing, but there are no entrance or parking fees at the falls.
Lower Horsetail Falls is immediately visible from the parking area. A stone stairway leads to a pool at the base of the falls, where children often play in the shallow water and on the rocks (Parents should use caution, watch children at all times, and make sure they stay close to shore and away from the falls). A few picnic tables are available nearby, but the nearest toilets are at either Multnomah Falls or Ainsworth State Park.
The trailhead for climbing to the upper falls is located just east of the picnic area, and is clearly marked. It’s a .4 mile hike one-way to the upper falls, which is do-able for most families. We took our four and seven-year olds up, with the one-year old in a backpack. The trail makes several steep switchbacks, rapidly gaining 300 feet in elevation before winding back to the falls. At the upper falls, the trail actually goes under a cliff and behind the falls, which is exciting for kids and cooling for tired adults. We turned around after seeing the upper falls, and returned directly to the parking lot, for a total distance of only .8 mile.
Hikers who wish to go further can make a loop by continuing past Ponytail Falls to the Oneonta Trail junction. Turn right on the Oneonta Trail, and descend to Gorge Trail #400. Turn right on trail #400 to return to the Scenic Highway. Walk .5 mile east on the Scenic Highway to return to the Horsetail Falls parking lot. The entire loop covers 2.7 miles, with only 500 feet of elevation gain.
The trail also feeds into the extensive network of trails throughout the Gorge, connecting with trails leading to Ainsworth State Park, Multnomah Falls, and Larch Mountain. Backpackers can even find campsites above Horsetail Falls for longer hikes.
Horsetail Falls is a simple hike, with a pleasant reward for your effort. Portlanders and visitors alike are sure to enjoy it.