Last week I told you about nine different Oregon beauty spots. This week I’m picking one of them, the Oneonta Gorge, to tell you more about the wonderful hike I did there.
It’s an easy adventure incorporating hiking, scrambling, wild swimming and waterfalls that can be undertaken independently and with minimal preparation and kit. It is quick enough that you can complete it in afternoon, have enormous fun and be home in time for tea.
The adventure takes in the Oneonta Gorge, a narrow emerald chasm that slices into the wall of the much bigger Columbia River Gorge. Hike half a mile upstream and you’ll find a gorgeous waterfall tumbling down into a slow-flowing stream.
This hike was really high up on my list of things I wanted to do in Oregon, but I was travelling with my parents and I wasn’t sure whether they would wait for me while I scrambled in search of the Oneonta Falls. I needn’t have worried — not only was my dad happy to pull over, but my mum agreed to come with me.
I’m so glad she did, because this is definitely an experience you’ll want to share with someone. Plus, if you get stuck or injured (which fortunately we didn’t), there’ll be someone there to help you out.
It should be noted that this is not an official trail maintained by the Forest Service, and if you decide to undertake it, you do so entirely at your own risk. This area was also affected by wildfires in September 2017, so check with the Forest Service before setting out.
Now, there’s no two ways about: if you do this hike you will get wet and whatever shoes you wear will get soaked through. That doesn’t mean I would advise doing it in flip flops — too slippy — but an old pair of trainers might work. I wore: bikini bottoms, sports bra, running tights, a quick-dry running T-shirt and water shoes. You’ll need a towel to dry off afterwards and ideally a change of clothes.
I’d also invested in a clear waterproof case for my phone that I could hang around my neck leaving both hands free. I tucked it into my bra during the climbing and held it above my head while I was wading, just in case. I saw plenty of people holding dSLRs or carrying rucksacks above their heads, but I would recommend leaving behind anything you really don’t want to get wet.
To get to the gorge you park just off the road at the Oneonta trailhead and climb down the steps on the right side of the bridge. Follow a path through the undergrowth until you come to a giant rock (a great place for waiting family members to perch). Brace yourself, because it’s time to get in the water.
A short walk upstream you’ll find the first hurdle: the infamous log jam. This slippery maze of debris that blocks the entrance to the gorge is maybe two metres high and five metres across, front to back. It looks a little intimidating when you approach it, but presuming you are able bodied and careful, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to find a path across.
People have had accidents here before, so it’s important to take your time and not carry anything in your hands that you might drop (I definitely saw a few lost lunches down through the gaps). In the height of summer at the weekend I believe this trail gets crazy busy, and I would not want to cross the log jam when it’s crowded — you want to be able to choose your own route. I’ve also heard of people carrying small children and dogs across, which seems somewhat foolish.
To set your mind at ease, my mum has her senior railcard and is not one for taking stupid risks — she managed it absolutely fine and didn’t bat an eyelid. In fact both of us are quite clumsy, but we not only made it across and back without any problems, but we both really enjoyed the challenge. There were plenty of people around, but there were no bottlenecks to contend with.
Once you’ve crossed the log jam, then the hiking part begins. Most of the hike will only have you ankle- or knee-deep in the river, but I actually found these bits to be the most tricky, because even with my fairly thick plastic water shoes, some of the rocks and stones were really sharp. Try and stay in the shallows and use the mossy walls of the gorge for balance if you need to.
About 100 metres or so before you reach the falls you’ll notice the water starting to get much deeper. For this last bit, you’ll need to steel yourself to get cold and wet. Some people swim this section of the gorge, others wade. I waded through and at its deepest the water came up to my armpits (for reference I’m 5ft7).
The water was certainly chilly, but actually nowhere near as cold as I expected it to be. I was there on a cloudy July day, and I expect by August and September the water would be even warmer.
As you clamber over two final logs you’ll catch your first glimpse of the Oneonta Falls gushing down the bottle greens wall of the gorge. It’s the most rewarding end to this half-mile hike. Some people like to swim in the icy water directly underneath the 100ft falls, but for me it was enough just to stand and admire them.
The light was fairly flat the day I was there, but even without rays of sunlight filtering into the gorge, the whole place felt otherworldly — not surprising given that the exposed basalt walls date back 25 million years and sprout all kinds of rare plant species.
As I said in my last post about Oregon, my abiding memory of the Pacific Northwest is of its intense greenness and wildness and this little moss-strewn cul de sac with its hidden silver falls is the absolute epitome of this.
If you’re looking for a mini adventure that will challenge you, thrill you and take your breath away, it doesn’t get much better than this.
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