In October of last year I wrote a post on columnar basalt in which I featured some details of Latourell Falls on Oregon’s side of the Columbia River Gorge. Being less than 30 miles from Portland, Latourell is one of the best opportunities a visitor to or resident of the city has to enjoy the splendor of the gorge. A simple loop hike of less than two and a half miles will take you through rich forests of Douglas Fir, canyons of ancient flood basalts, and cascading waterscapes of remarkable beauty.
My preference is to start this hike by heading up. From the parking lot, a path next to a wooden trail sign leads you immediately uphill and to a viewpoint from which you can see lower Latourell Falls in its full splendor. While the 224-foot cascade may demand your attention, do eventually inspect the stone behind the falls. This massive rock outcropping consists of a lower colonnade of columnar basalt and a well-developed entablature over which the waters of the falls plummet. These rocks are part of the Sentinel Bluffs lava flows which burned through an ancestral canyon here more than 15 and a half million years ago. That this was an intra-canyon flow explains why it was so immensely thick. The entire mass of the lava flow was channeled through an old stream valley that was once here. Having no ability to spread out, the liquid basalt filled the valley and eventually solidified here, the bottom of the flow cooling more slowly allowing time for the columnar joints to form.
From here continue up the trail. Most of the climb on this hike happens upfront, so power through it with the knowledge that most of the rest of the hike will be a comfortable amble. Enjoy the forest and keep an eye out for some of the remarkable flora that is common in this region of the gorge. Expect to see trillium, salmonberry, bleeding heart flowers, and of course sword ferns which (if you catch them in the early to mid-spring) may be growing out new stems. These new growths are called fiddleheads and, picked properly, can be cooked and eaten. Be a good steward of the land, however, and resist the temptation to pick these treats. Your local farmers market will carry them in season, so the ones along the trail can be left for others to admire.
In less than a mile you will reach the less-visited (and therefore more serene) upper Latourell Falls. Here the creek slides over a Priest Rapids member of the Columbia River Basalts. These flows are around a million years younger than the ones we saw earlier at the lower falls. They’re also shallower flows and have a less prominent colonnade/entablature formation. Cross the bridge here and enjoy the falls before continuing along the loop trail.
Now on your return trip, only half a mile from the upper falls you will come upon an overlook from which you can enjoy a view of the Columbia River and the Washington side of the western gorge. You may be inclined to inspect the promontory here. I urge caution! The rocks are slippery and the fall is deadly. Enjoy the view, but don’t be stupid.
From the viewpoint the trail winds back downhill and eventually to the Columbia River Highway. Cross the road and continue to the picnic area ahead. A paved path will wind you back into the amphitheater of lower Latourell Falls for a closer look at the plunge pool. Visitors frequently scramble behind the waterfall here to pose for pictures as Viggo Mortensen did while filming The Road.
As you walk back from the lower falls to your vehicle, look at the rock outcropping to your right. These deposits are of dacite that, unlike the Columbia River Basalts which traveled from afar, erupted from a source vent somewhere nearby. They are the oldest rocks on this trail; members of the Skamania eruptive events which cooled in this place more than 23 million years ago.
Enjoy the trail! And please know that the Google map that I provided above is a rough sketch of the trail based on my imperfect GPS data. Be sure to carry an accurate map or more detailed trail guide with you on any hike.