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Gorge Explorer: Hike to the not-so-dry Dry Creek Falls

DRY CREEK tumbles over basalt cliffs and into a plunge pool on its way to the Columbia River. At the bottom of the frame is an old water diversion structure built nearly 120 years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Photo by Ben Mitchell.
DRY CREEK tumbles over basalt cliffs and into a plunge pool on its way to the Columbia River. At the bottom of the frame is an old water diversion structure built nearly 120 years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In geography, there are some pretty misleading names out there. Happy Valley, when viewed from Portland, looks a hell of a lot more like a hill than it does a valley (and do we know how happy things are up there, really?). Icy Greenland is another one that comes to mind (or maybe the Vikings prophesied climate change?). And that state of Rhode Island is, well, not an island (although it does include some).

Add to those names Dry Creek Falls, located near the lock-free (unsubmerged, anyway) city of Cascade Locks. And while the bodies of water that comprise the name could certainly be considered a creek and certainly a waterfall, they are anything but dry, even in the middle of a drought during the dog days of summer.

The hike to the falls itself isn’t particularly remarkable by Columbia River Gorge standards, but the falls are worth checking out, especially on a hot summer’s day.

For those who don’t feel like driving an hour or longer over forest roads in order to get their hiking or waterfall-gawking fixes, then Dry Creek Falls is a trip you should consider. For those who like to hike in solitude, this probably isn’t the best one for you, as you’ll likely see a good amount of people on the trail during a summer weekend. It’s a moderate/easy out-and-back hike (if you remember my last Gorge Explorer column, I’m a 28-year-old male in mediocre/questionable physical condition), with a round trip of about 4.5 miles (about an hour and 45 minutes). Those overachievers at Friends of the Columbia Gorge, who apparently have stronger legs than mine, simply list the hike’s difficulty as “easy,” (whatever) and have the hike pegged at 700 feet of elevation gain.

The hike, which piggybacks off a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, is hyper-accessible. The trail to Dry Creek starts right outside of Cascade Locks, and assuredly, the sounds of traffic flying along Interstate 84 will make hikers aware they are close to civilization for at least the first quarter to a half of the hike.

There’s a couple options for the start of the hike: if you have a Northwest Forest Pass, you can park at Toll House Park, located right before the Bridge of the Gods. If you don’t have a pass or if you feel like walking a little more, park somewhere downtown (and maybe patronize a local business on your way back).

The hike begins on a small piece of the Pacific Crest Trail, then takes a right along Moody Road for a bit, which crosses underneath an overpass of I-84. The paved road will soon link up with a gravel road (walk straight ahead and take the gravel road), and a couple minutes’ hike up that will take you to the PCT’s junction with Gorge Trail 400 — take a left to hop on the PCT.

Once on the PCT, you’re out of the urban section of the hike and surrounded by a surprising number of deciduous trees that would probably make this hike quite nice in the fall. The trail is a mixture of packed earth and rock, and doesn’t offer really anything in the way of views, other than some fleeting glimpses of Table Mountain poking through the foliage. Not much breaks up the hike, save for a brief period where you emerge beneath the forest canopy to cross underneath a BPA power line, which roughly marks the halfway point of the hike.

Head back into the trees and follow the trail until it connects with Dry Creek Falls Trail. The trail forms a junction with a bridge that carries the PCT over Dry Creek. Follow the sign that tells travelers to take a right onto Dry Creek Falls Trail (don’t cross the bridge), which runs, as you might imagine, right along the creek. As you’ll find from time-to-time in hikes around the Gorge, someone has annotated the Forest Service’s sign with a permanent marker, informing hikers of what the distance is from the trail junction to the falls: “1/2 MI More like ¼,” it says.

The sounds of pounding water become louder, until you turn the corner of a trail and are greeted by the very wet Dry Creek Falls, gushing out of a channel it has carved into an impressive basalt amphitheater. According to the Northwest Waterfall Survey, the final and most visible drop of the falls is 74 feet, but supposedly, there are a handful of drops hidden in the canyon above the final drop, making the waterfall even grander than it appears. The waterfall, plunge pool, and basalt amphitheater provide a cool, refreshing reprieve from what has been a horrifically hot summer.

As you approach the waterfall, you will likely notice a man-made structure in the creek, which according to the City of Cascade Locks, was a water diversion system built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1896, then used by the city of Cascade Locks in 1935 for its municipal water supply. It fell out of favor in the late 1960s when the city put in wells in the Herman Creek area, but is still part of the city’s water infrastructure.

After taking in the waterfall, simply turn back and retrace your steps to go back to the car, or if you want to be all hero-like, head back to the junction at the bridge and hike 1.6 miles over the bridge to see a basalt feature known as “the pinnacles” that are mentioned on the Friends of the Columbia Gorge’s website (I decided to go to Thunder Island Brewing instead).

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