What’s to Love: In my opinion, Wahclella is the Columbia River Gorge’s most beautiful waterfall. I realize that’s a pretty bold claim considering all the great waterfalls. However, Wahclella’s massive canyon walls filled with lush-green vegetation will make you think you’re in Hawaii, and it’s only 40 minutes from downtown Portland. Spend the day, half a day, or even a couple hours, and you too will become a believer.
There are so many things to love about Wahclella, especially for families. The relatively small parking area keeps this hike less crowded than other options in the Gorge. Many people will see the full parking lot and decide to do another hike. Of course, this becomes a caveat when you’re the family looking for a different hike! However, if you’re fortunate enough to get a prized parking spot, you will enjoy some serenity that is becoming harder and harder to find in the Gorge.
While Wahclella’s aesthetics are its best feature for adults, your kids will enjoy the leisurely, 1 mile stroll back to the waterfall. Yes…this stunning waterfall is reached after only a 1 mile hike, which makes it a good option for young children and/or first-timers. It’s also the perfect outing for newborns carried in backpacks or other carriers. Although an easy hike, you will have to keep a watchful eye on your kids, because there are several big drop-offs along the way.
In the summer and early fall, you’ll be able to explore endlessly with your kids. Lower water levels expose some rocky beaches for your family to setup a mini-base-camp right next to the stream. Your kids can wade into shallow pools, boulder on the rocks, toss sticks and stones, build rock walls or dams, look for waterbugs, or relax in the sun. It’s very easy to spend a few hours just hanging out at the waterfall itself. Here is a clip.
There is serious fall-potential from different areas of the hike. The trail is in very good condition; however, it lacks protective fencing at some crucial areas. Of course, it’s the responsibility of parents to keep a close eye on their kids.
Distance from Portland: Approximately 50 miles from downtown Portland. Take 84 east to exit #40. Take a right-hand turn off the exit onto Tanner Creek Rd. You will see a sign for several trailheads in the area. The Wahclella trailhead is just up Tanner Creek Rd. a few hundred yards. Map of the area.
Recommended Ages: A great destination for the whole family. I think most parents could even drag their teen-agers back to this waterfall! It’s ideal for parents caring young kids, because it’s so short with such a great reward.
Parental Stress Factor: If you have kids between the ages of 3 and 6, most likely, they’ll be hiking on the trail themselves. In the areas with drop-offs, you’ll need to keep a close eye on them, which can be a bit stressful.
Once you’re back at the waterfall, there are many fun things to do, but all of them have an element of danger (e.g., climbing on large boulders, wading in a stream, throwing rocks and sticks, etc.). So, I would not rate this as a low-stress area. You’ll need to keep a constant watch on your kids. If you come with other parents, trade-off on the lookout duties. Then, you can kick back and relax a bit.
Physical Difficulty: Hike is mostly uphill going into the waterfall but nothing too strenuous.
Family Fun Factor: High for families with kids 10 and younger who like the outdoors. There are plenty of things for kids to do back by the waterfall.
Pet Friendly: This is a good hike with dogs on a leash. Because there are families with kids, it’s not a good idea to let your dog run free on the trail or back at the waterfall.
Weather Considerations: We’ve been to Wahclella at different points during the year, and the summer and fall are definitely the best times to visit. However, due to the short hike and excellent trail, this is a good year-round destination.
At the beginning of this hike, the stream you’re following is home to some very interesting birds. These normal looking birds have the ability to dive under the water for seconds at a time. It’s amusing watching them, and your kids will have fun trying to spot them.
If you’re there in the summer, your kids will definitely encounter plenty of garter snakes around the various pools of water – we saw 3, and I was able to pick one up to show the kids. They like to sun themselves on the rocks and logs.
Family Tips: This isn’t the best hike for a Bob/Jogging stroller. It certainly can be done, but you’ll have to push by some rocks and carry it up/down some stairs. Also, you’ll want the safety strap attached to your wrist the entire hike, especially during the cliff sections. It would be VERY bad for the stroller to get out of control!
A far better option (for this hike) is a backpack or other child carrier. Make sure you bring extra clothes, socks and shoes. The whole family will probably want to do a bit of wading into the stream; therefore, come prepared to get wet. Because the rocks are slippery and sharp, it’s a good idea to bring shoes you can wear while in the water (e.g., Aquasocks, Crocks, Keens, etc.). In case of a wipe-out or face plant, bring a small first aid kit – the climbing boulders are sharp!
There are plenty of spaces for a picnic and/or snack at the waterfall. Most likely, you’ll be sitting on the ground or on top of rocks. So, if you’re planning on sitting down have a fairly heavy-duty blanket ready to go.