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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Columbia River Gorge: An Introduction

Rain drops on fern leaves

Shared between Oregon and Washington, the Columbia River Gorge is one of the premier landscape photography meccas of the United States. Beautiful in all seasons, it has something for everyone. Early last year, I was finally able to get out there for about five days. Not enough time to see everything, I assure you, but just enough to give me a taste so I will keep coming back.

Note: In light of the Eagle Creek Fire this month (September 2017) that ripped through some of the most frequented areas of the Gorge, I will try to annotate if the location I share was impacted or not.

Wildflowers against a backdrop of evergreens

Visiting in Spring, as I did, meant that there was an abundance of wildflowers and the waterfalls were full from snow melt and spring storms. Mountain sides blanketed in balsamroot; the stream banks a patchwork of mosses and ferns in a multitude of green hues alternatingly dappled with sunshine and showers. An amazing location for any nature lover.

As there are so many choices in shooting spots, I decided to start by meeting with local guide and nationally recognized photographer, Gary Randall. He showed me, along with a few other photographers from all over the country, some of his favorite spots along the gorge. We started with wildflowers overlooking Mt. Hood.

California Poppy close up

Photo tip: If traveling to a distant location or a location that has been on your list for a while, hire a guide or join a workshop in the area your first few days to get an understanding of the area and what it takes to get the shot there.

Gorton Creek

From there, Gary lead us up Gorton Creek trail. This trail had it all: waterfalls, macro subjects, ferns, trees and rocks covered in moss, and even a bridge that seemed to blend seamlessly with the forest around it.

Gorton Creek in the Mt Hood National Forest

Gear tip: I know I mention it every time waterfalls are involved, but make sure you have a polarizing filter when shooting waterfalls or wet forests. These will cut the glare off rocks and wet leaves, allowing the true colors of these elements to be captured.

Randall Falls on Gorton Creek

Not far from the trail is the center piece of the Gorge. A trip to the Gorge is not complete without seeing Multnomah Falls! Plunging almost 620 feet, Multnomah Falls is the tallest waterfall in the state of Oregon.

Multnomah Falls on a rainy day in spring  2016

Location tip: If visiting, try to visit mid week, early or late in the day. This location sees on average of 2 million visitors each year, so going during off peak times is key to getting a good picture. Unfortunately, this area was impacted by the fire. Through hard and dangerous work, firefighters were able to save the historic lodge and much of the area around Multnomah Falls. However, the fire did still burn some of the vegetation, especially towards the top of the falls.

Elowah Falls (from the upper vantage point)

The following morning, Gary and our group donned rain gear and continued to shoot, this time at a place called Elowah Falls (second tallest falls in the Gorge - 289 feet). The trail is relatively short to actually reach the falls, but it does have some incline to it and the coverage of dead pine needles can make it a bit slippery when raining. Once we were safely at the falls, the adventure of finding compositions starts.

Photo tip: Work slow. Especially in the rain, around waterfalls, there is no rush as light is unlikely to change and the waterfall isn't going anywhere. Take your time to find unique compositions and try various techniques such as different shutter speeds or lens lengths. Rush and you may end up with wet gear or a broken body.

Elowah Falls (from a lower vantage point)

Once the workshop with Gary was complete, I felt as if I had a bit better understanding of the local terrain as well as more confidence to shoot in sloppy conditions. So I decided to meet up with an old high school friend who lived in the area and chase more waterfalls.

My stops for the day included several of the more popular waterfalls, easy to reach, so be aware that these are places you are unlikely to have to yourself. Latourell Falls is a graceful , column fall that is unique to the Gorge as the water falls straight down from the basalt cliff versus tumbling over. By photographing this fall, I inadvertently also collected the top three tallest waterfalls in the Gorge, with Latourell Falls placing third at 249 feet.

Latourell Falls

Horsetail and Ponytail Falls are apply named as they both cascade off the rim in an arching flow, reminding onlookers of an equestrian's tail. Horsetail is directly at the parking lot, but I found Ponytail to be worth the effort. Not only were there fewer people since it is a bit of a walk, but you are able to hike behind it for a unique perspective.

Horsetail Falls

Location note: This location was impacted by the Eagle Creek Fire. At time of publication the exact extent of damage is not yet known.

Photo tip: When shooting waterfalls, I have found about 1/2 a second shutter speed gives the water good flow while still leaving detail. Obviously lighting, rate of flow, and the effect the artist is trying to achieve will vary this, but that is my normal starting point when approaching moving water. Just another reason overcast days are the best for waterfall hunting.

Trail behind Ponytail Falls

Last but not least for the day, my friend Jessie and her pup met me to hike to

Wahclella Falls. The longest hike of the day, its a quintessential Gorge hike with a well marked path along a stream that feeds into the Columbia River. Pretty easy, the trail did get narrow in a few places and some of the views required a bit of bouldering to access.

Stream along the trail at Wahclella

While not the tallest waterfall in the gorge, Wahclella Falls is a massive waterfall with a powerful flow rate.

Location note: This location was impacted by the Eagle Creek Fire. At time of publication the exact extent of damage is not yet known.

Wahclella Falls

With so many waterfalls visited in a short period of time, I decided to take a break and explore another facet of the area. This time I was climbing up for some aerial vistas.

Dog Mountain is a strenuous hike on the Washington side of the Gorge. Gaining almost 3000 feet of elevation in just over 3 miles, this trail is not for those scared of heights or with knee injuries. However, the stunning fields of bright yellow balsam root and other wildflowers are prize enough to draw crowds on spring mornings.

Hikers traversing Dog Mountain during spring

Location note: The parking lot fills fast so try to be there before 0800.

Four scenes from the Dog Mountain trail

Photo tip: Due to the physical difficulty of the trail, pack only the essentials with you to limit gear weight you will be packing up the mountain. Also ensure you have a pair of trekking poles with you for at least the decent. These help transfer the shock of descending away from your knees and hips as well as help stabilize your footing which can get sloppy when carrying a pack on tired legs.

Beautiful decent trail

Dog Mountain is no joke when toting a pack of camera gear. After finishing this hike, it was time for a bit of a break and I spent the rest of the day lounging around camp.

However, I was back at it bright and early the next day, meeting up with more good friends. Panther Creek Falls had been on my must see list for years so that was the target for the day. Once again the trail is not for the faint of heart. Steep with drop offs, its an at-your-own-risk trail in a no cell service area.

Location note: DO NOT try to take the shortcut from the viewing platform! There has already been one death in 2016 of someone who tried to climb down that way. Slow down and spend a few extra minutes walking to the trail head. It could save your life! Find the trail information here.

Panther Creek Falls (vertical)

There are several tiers to Panther Creek Falls but to reach some of the lower ones there is some bushwhacking involved. The day I visited, we had a storm approaching so I chose to only photograph the upper falls area and then work my way back to the vehicle, ensuring I could safely navigate the rope assisted sections. This is one location in the Columbia River Gorge I must visit again.

Upper Panther Creek Falls

As my time exploring the Gorge came to an end, I did get one last parting shot and story on my last morning. Up before dawn, I drove to Beacon Rock State Park on the Washington side of the river. It was here I had a most unexpected occurrence.

Standing there in the pre-dawn, I never expected to have a large sea lion approach the dock where I was set up to check me out. That was just not something that had been mentioned as a possibility in any of the literature or guides I studied before my trip. Completely unprepared, I just froze. He (I'm assuming the sex) just lifted his head and paused for a moment, studying me, before slipping away into the dark waters. Just a bit unnerving.

While it was too dark to capture the sea lion, here is the image I was able to capture of sunrise over Beacon Rock in the Columbia River Gorge as, yet again, a storm moved in for the day.

Beacon Rock State Park Sunrise

I spent another week traveling around southern Washington and will share those locations with you in my next article. Until then, I hope you find these locations interesting the the tips helpful. Happy shooting! Cheers!

Waterfall detail from Lower Louis Falls

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