An Amazing Hike with a Hidden Waterfall Oasis

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If there’s one thing the kids want to do during the dog days of summer, it’s go swimming. If you keep them inside in an attempt to stay cool, you’re only hurting yourself. The tending of wound-up little ones with copious amounts of energy is a burden no parent should bear. You can take them to one of the public pools, or even go wade in the fountains around town, but where’s the adventure in that? Why not take them to one of the Portland area’s best natural swimming spots? A place where they can climb a log jam, hike through a creek, look up at towering, fern-laden walls, and then swim in the splash pool of a gorgeous, 100 foot waterfall. Get them out of the house, out of the city, and over to the Oneonta Gorge.

The Oneonta Gorge is a slot canyon barely 0.6 miles long in the Columbia River Gorge. Designated by the U.S. Forest Service as a botanical area, the steep basalt walls of the canyon are home to numerous rare plants and an incredibly scenic waterfall. At just over a mile round trip this hike doesn’t set any distance records, but burning lungs and thigh muscles aren’t why you bring the little ones here–you bring them to go swimming (with the hope that they’ll burn out and nap for a few hours).

When to go: When it’s hot outside. This is definitely a warm weather endeavor and the warmer the better!

Get there: Take I-84 east to exit 35 and follow the Historic Highway 2 miles to a parking area just past the recently re-opened Oneonta Tunnel. Walk down a set of stairs located on the western side of the bridge and begin making your way upstream.

Need to know: This adventure is going to require you to gauge your family’s abilities and tolerance for climbing and cold water wading. There is a rather sizeable log jam that requires you to scramble up, over, or around it before continuing the journey. Some kiddos may need assistance here. Also, the water in the shaded creek is cold, and ranges from ankle deep to chest high. Good water shoes, a bathing suit, and the love of cold mountain water are definitely recommended. Now that you’ve almost been scared off, most folks make it out and back without issue. Families with kids of every age regularly make this summertime pilgrimage. Just exercise your patience muscles.

What to do: The moment you descend the staircase leading to the creek, you’re welcomed with an air temperature that can be as much as 20 degrees cooler than where you parked. There may be no better place in the Columbia River Gorge on a hot summer day! The cool canyon is narrow, with 100-foot walls of rock on either side.

Once the log jam has been negotiated, the actual journey begins. Don’t bother looking for a trail here, Oneonta Creek is the trail.

After about a half mile and the deepest wading, the 100 foot high Lower Oneonta Falls emerges from around a corner. The falls are long and elegant, with an invitingly swimmable splash pool. This area can become crowded on hot summer weekends, but having this grotto all to yourselves on a weekday is magic.

“Like” this story if you’ve either been to the Oneonta Gorge or if you plan to this summer!

— Adam Sawyer

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