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Tunnel Falls – 07/17/2011

2011 July 19
Upper Punch Bowl Falls in the rain

“It’s pouring rain out… We still doing this?”  An email from Donnie.  It is 6am and I have just rolled over in bed seeing the question on my phone.

“I’m going either way,” I emailed back.  I looked at the weather report on my phone.  40% chance of rain, “showers in the area”.  Tossing the phone on my nightstand I sit up.  I can hear the rain outside my window.

I walk into the bathroom and grab my contact lens case.  As I put my left contact lens in my eye I can hear my inner voice say, “Left-Eye Lopes”.  I have no idea why my personal narrative felt the need to mention a deceased 1990s pop icon.  I put in the other contact.  ”Right-Eye Rodriguez.”  I have no idea who that is…

After a couple more emails with Donnie, it is apparent that I am doing this hike solo.  Rain, poison oak, and crowds be damned…I’m heading to the Columbia Gorge!

Directions to the Trailhead

The trailhead for this hike is at Eagle Creek on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge.  Drive east out of Portland on I-84 to Eagle Creek (Exit #41) which is the first one after the exit for Bonneville Dam.  Take the ramp to the end and make a right.  I prefer to park right there at the parking lot on the left but you can follow the road for another half mile or so to the actual trailhead if you would like.  That section tends to get congested with cars which I find more annoying than it is worth.  Takes about an hour from Portland.

The Specs

  • Distance:  6.09 miles each way (12.18 miles round trip)
  • Elevation Gain: 1,200 feet
  • Time to Hike:  5.5 hours for me with several photo and food stops
  • Water Consumed: 2 liters
  • Red Tape: The obligatory NW Forest Pass (or $5 day use fee) is needed for parking and a free backcountry permit is required for the later part of the hike – you can grab one about 4 miles up the trail
  • Quick Description:  Long, relatively flat hike up the Eagle Creek Canyon ending at the amazing Tunnel Falls.

My Gear Highlights

Topo map from parking lot to Tunnel Falls.

My Hike

When I got to the parking lot it was still raining.  I put on my socks and boots, threw the raincover on my pack, and slid into my jacket.  I got out of the truck, pulled my hood over my head, popped in my headphones, and headed up the road to the beginning of the Eagle Creek Trail (#400).  As I trudged into the canyon, there was a steady, constant rain.  I was relatively dry but was sweating like crazy.  I don’t care how “breathable” your raincoat is, if it is warm (70 degrees today) and humid (it was raining) you are going to get sticky.  I hate sticky.

The view into the canyon opening from the parking lot. Currently raining.

After about a half of an hour I was getting into a pretty sheltered section of the canyon.  Sheltered enough to get out of my jacket and take the raincover off my pack.  The raincover is integrated into my pack so it just retracts back into it’s own little pouch in a matter of seconds.  I throw on my ubiquitous floppy hat and continue up the trail.  Another 10 minutes and the rain has stopped completely.  There are some clouds nestled right into the canyon, adding some softness to the quiet and peaceful setting.

The rain starts breaking up with some clouds hanging at eye level.

I trudge on trying to keep a decent pace.  Rarely do I feel the need to break out the trekking poles on this trail and they stay stashed away in my pack.  I blow right past Metlako Falls and cruise up to the insanely popular Punch Bowl Falls (upper and lower).  There is nobody there.  I keep on moving making the occasional stop to take only pictures that appear to be quick, lighted just right, or at the perfect angle.  I figure that I can always stop for more pictures on the way back down.

Moss covered rocks on the uphill side of the trail.

As I get past Upper Punch Bowl, I start passing backpackers on their way back down.  I was kind of surprised.  It had been raining up here all weekend so I had figured nobody would be up there.  No camping is allowed before the High Bridge so I was curious to see what I would find farther along the trail.  Just past the High Bridge I come across the first camping area.  One site out of the three there had a tent pitched.  From then on, every camping area that I passed had every site occupied.  I couldn’t believe how busy it was on such a day.

View back down the canyon from High Bridge with Eagle Creek far below.

Now that it was past 9am the trail was getting pretty thick with descending backpackers.  Every 10 minutes or so I pass another group.  I’ve been slugging water this whole time so I now have to pee.  The problem is that the trail is pretty narrow and there is thick brush on steep terrain on either side.  With the increased traffic, I start worrying about the show I might put on for an unsuspecting backpacker at the end of their trip.  When the coast seems clear, I bound off the trail for a few strides and take care of business.

This hike is really beautiful.  The canyon walls are steep and Eagle Creek has got a respectable volume of water flowing through it.  Not only is Eagle Creek cascading along, but every creek feeding into it usually ends with its own waterfall, crashing down the wall of the canyon.  There are several stream crossings but they are well maintained and several have bridges.  Although there are many waterfalls along this hike, only four of them have a name of which I am aware: Metlako, Punch Bowl, Loowit, and Tunnel.

Loowit Falls

A few miles past the High Bridge and you leave the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and enter the Columbia Wilderness area of the Mount Hood National Forest.  At this point you must sign in and grab a backcountry permit to hang from your pack.  No fee and no advanced registration required.

Backcountry sign-in area with guardian slug.

The trail heading around a corner.

Closeup of some natural steps along the edge of the trail.

After a little over 6 miles I get to Tunnel Falls.  Now the description that I had read said that the trail goes behind the waterfall.  No big deal.  I’ve seen that several times before in Oregon.  That is only kind of  accurate.  While yes, you do walk behind the waterfall, the passage is a 360 degree complete tunnel through the rock wall.  It is really surreal.  Because the inside of the tunnel is constantly dripping with water seeping though the rock, the inside edges are covered in ferns.  Not to mention that you have a unique vantage point about halfway up a waterfall that is over 160 feet of freefall.  Tunnel Falls is actually on East Fork Creek coming out of Wahtum Lake about 2,000 feet in elevation higher up on the top of the gorge.

First view of Tunnel Falls

Approaching the falls from the north. Notice the tunnel behind the waterfall.

Looking back from the south on the other side of the tunnel. The pool is about 80 feet below.

Lush green ferns growing inside the dripping tunnel.

I start making my way back down the trail.  I start passing day hikers.  Not too many this far up, but more than I was expecting.  After a while, I break off trail and work my way down to a rocky beach at the edge of Eagle Creek to eat my lunch by myself.  When I get back on the trail, there are more and more people.  I continue to hike all the way back to Punch Bowl.

Heading back down the trail. You can see where the wall has been chiseled back to create a path.

My lunch spot by the creek.

I hike down a spur trail to the top of Lower Punch Bowl Falls kicking myself for not stopping on the way up.  I wanted a picture of the beautiful upper falls on a day with such perfect light but was concerned about the number people I would find.  Luckily it had started to rain again and the creek bed itself is not sheltered.  There were several people heading back up as I was dropping down.  When I got to the rocky beach I came across a large group of high school kids organizing their backpacks.  Otherwise not too bad.  I got my pictures and headed back up to the trail.

Upper Punch Bowl Falls in the rain

I get back to the main trail and it is now annoyingly crowded.  It actually makes for interesting people watching.  At one point I saw a hipster wearing rolled up skinny jeans, Converse, and green horn-rimmed eyeglasses!  As I get to the spur trail for Metlako Falls I see a guy and girl running up the trail.  The dude is sans shirt showing off his shaved muscle-bound chest.

In some areas the water runs off the canyon wall above and splashes on the rocky trail.

When I finish vomiting I head down to the Metlako viewpoint.  Unfortunately the brush has limited the view of this lesser seen waterfall.  In order to get a good picture you need to go off trail a little bit past the viewpoint.

Metlako Falls

I head down the rest of the way back to my truck.  All in all, an enjoyable and laid back 12 miles.

Lessons Learned

  • I probably could have gotten by a little more comfortably with a pair of trail sneakers instead of boots.  I wouldn’t really go with hiking sandals since, even on a rainy day, there are sections of the trail that are so sheltered that they are actually dry and dusty.  Sandals would probably get a little grimy (I thought that was spelled “grimey” but my spellchecker disagrees – whatever).
  • I read a backpacking guidebook that mentioned that “more adventurous day hikers will make it all the way to Tunnel Falls”.  That’s crap.  A quick and determined pace could easily get you there in two hours.  If you want more distance and elevation gain, I would recommend continuing up to Wahtum Lake.  It is a couple additional miles each way and 2,000 feet of additional altitude, but if you have all day and calories to burn, why not?

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