The Columbia River traces the border of Washington State and Oregon like a mighty vein through the land that provides an outlet for a number of fun outdoor activities. However, just outside of Portland, Oregon there is a beautiful gorge that juts out from the Columbia Riverbed and the Tunnel Falls Trail traces along the cliffs of that gorge past its numerous waterfalls, rich vegetation and various wildlife. Since the majority of this trail traces along the cliffs over Eagle Creek, it's a trail that is not recommended for those who have a fear of heights.
Getting There: The Columbia River Gorge and its Tunnel Falls Trail are located just a short 45 minute drive from Portland. Take I-84 that traces along the Columbia River (and provides some lovely sights) before taking Exit 41. Turn right and it will lead straight into the parking lot for the trail. However, a Northwest Forest Pass is required to park in the area for the day. These passes can be purchased from the forest service online or in the park for $5 for a day pass or $30 for the whole year.
The Hike: The trail starts simply enough at the Eagle Creek Trailhead nearby to the parking lot. This has hikers taking a pleasant stroll along the Eagle Creek, but before long the trail begins to ascend high above the gorge floor to the point where hikers will soon be looking down over Eagle Creek. The trail will continue to trace the basalt cliffs, with some portions of the trail having been blasted out with dynamite while other portions are naturally occurring. Some of the trail is a bit thin and sketchy, however, alongside the cliff walls visitors will notice cable bolted into the cliffside to provide handholds for those a bit unsure of the ground underneath their feet. Since this trail is located in a temperate rainforest, the rocks can be a bit slick at times, so visitors should always be wary of getting too close to the edge of this trail.
After about a mile of hiking, visitors ascend the steep walls of the canyon and will come across the first of many waterfalls--the Metlako Falls. This waterfall is accessed through a short side trail off of the main Tunnel Falls Trail. The Metlako Falls pours out of the rocks like water from a tap before emptying into Eagle Creek. For those lucky enough to be at the observation point at the right time, they may even be treated to a few daring kayakers going over the falls and into the creek below.
After returning to the main trail and just another short walk down it, hikers come across a second waterfall. It's not hard to determine how the 33 foot Punchbowl Falls got its name. This gorgeous waterfall dumps out of a rock tunnel and into a near perfectly circular "punchbowl" pond below. While the falls are visible from the trail, there is the option to take a short side trail to the observatory for an up close and personal viewing.
The next waterfall is just another short walk along the main trail. Loowit Falls is the largest waterfall along the trail so far at a massive 60 feet. It falls from a tributary into a round pool below and then cascades over several smaller falls into Eagle Creek below. This waterfall is named after an old Native American woman from local tribe folklore who took care of an everlasting fire along the Columbia River before transforming into Mount Saint Helens upon dying.
The Loowit Falls are the last set of waterfalls for awhile and also marks the beginning of some difficult trail ahead, its best to use this observation point as a resting stop for those who need it. This next stretch of trail is where the cable handholds really come in handy. The natural ridge on the cliffside is narrow and dangles 100 feet over the creek belong. Hikers should be especially careful when passing other hikers. When the trail begins to widen again, hikers are getting close to High Bridge. This is a great place to linger for weary hikers as it sits right above a nice set of rapids on Eagle Creek. Many hikers on this trail rest here just to watch the kayakers below try and conquer the water or to watch them fail to do so gracefully.
After crossing Eagle Creek via High Bridge there is a break in the cliffside walls that hikers have gotten accustomed to and visitors will get a nice look at the rainforest in the area. Nestled within the forest is the secluded Tenas Campground where hikers and kayakers can set up camp for all their various activities in the gorge. Past the campground, hikers cross the creek once again on the 4 1/2 Mile Bridge, named for how deep it is into the trail. This bridge is only 5 feet above the water, so for those who have been looking at all those refreshing waterfalls and that rushing creek water below, this is their best chance to get in and cool off. However, Eagle Creek is quite fast running and the waters can get quite high during the spring and fall months, so swimming is not advised.
After the 4 1/2 Mile Bridge the trail narrows down again and with a new challenge. From years of being beaten from a now defunct waterfall, this section of trail has become known as 'the potholes' because of the unique grooves left in the rock. While most of the potholes aren't very deep some can be deep enough to result in a twisted ankle if hikers are not careful. However, the potholes mean that hikers are getting close to their trail's namesake--Tunnel Falls. This massive 175 feet waterfall drops directly into the creek below and allows hikers to get so close they are likely to get soaked from the mist coming off it. Visitors can walk behind the falls through a tunnel that was pain-stakingly dug in 1910. While this is the namesake of the Tunnel Falls Trail, it is not actually the end of it.
For those that choose to continue on, and it is worth it to do so, they are tasked with conquering the "Vertigo Mile." This final mile of the trail is high and narrow, higher than any of the previous portions so a fall here would be unpleasant. However, for those that can handle the Vertigo Mile are rewarded with the biggest waterfall in the area. Twister Falls is a two-tiered waterfall that tumbles 200 feet down, twisting in between the basalt cliffs as it falls. The falls are visible long when the trail begins to steepen. The climb takes hikers all the way to the top of the falls where the area flattens out. This marks the turnaround point in which hikers are greeted to all the previous sights and waterfalls, but in reverse.