Lower Oneonta Falls is an enchantress – a 100-foot ribbon of white water plunging down a steep wall of dark volcanic rock draped in moss and ferns. Getting to this waterfall demands an off-trail adventure up Oneonta Gorge that involves wading through crystal clear stretches of Oneonta Creek as it passes between the towering walls of this narrow gorge.
Located in Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (a land full of waterfalls, steep terrain, and lush vegetation), Oneonta Gorge is a truly wild gorge. The short but exciting excursion to Lower Oneonta Falls is just 0.8 miles round trip with obstacles along the way. There are downed tree trunks to climb over, rock walls to shimmy across, and up-to-your-navel water to wade through. This hike is a fun one!
The off-trail trek to Lower Oneonta Falls begins from Historic Columbia River Highway, just west of Horsetail Falls. Look for a sign for Oneonta Gorge on the west side of a bridge over Oneonta Creek. Descend a staircase at the west end of the bridge and begin walking up the gorge. The gorge runs pretty straight south and the cliffs on each side are quite tall, so it’s impossible to get off course. Forge your way upstream and you’re bound to reach the waterfall.
A path leads up and across the creek making use of rocks to hop across and logs to walk along. As the walls of the gorge come together and form a slot canyon-like alley, you’ll meet a cluster of tree trunks that present you’re first real obstacle. Climb over these logs and boulders, generally sticking to the left side of the gorge. When you get across the log jam, it will be harder to stay dry. Make your way out on the logs to avoid pools in the stream or just hop into the water. You’re going to have to get wet eventually, so embrace it.
Oneonta Creek runs clear, and it is nice to look down on the colorful rocks below the water. Moss, ferns and other small green vegetation cling to the side of the gorge like tapestries covering the dark, sheer cliffs.
Walk up the gorge through the flowing water to gravel beds on the sides of the creek. Much of this water may be less than ankle deep. However, the walls pinch together in a couple places where the gorge is only about twenty feet across. In these spots, the creek deepens and takes up the width of the gorge, so you have to just wade through. The final deep spot in the creek is the deepest of all and you can quickly find yourself in water up to your waist. If you’re feeling spry you may be able to avoid getting in too deep by clinging to the rock wall on the right side of the gorge and hoisting your way across ledges to drier ground.
Past the second deep pool, it is just a short walk up to the base of Lower Oneonta Falls. The waterfall slides down the near-vertical cliffs at the back of the gorge, hitting rock and fanning out just above the creek. Beneath the waterfall, which is at least a hundred feet tall, a pool fills the space at the back of the gorge.
When you are ready to leave the stunning waterfall, there’s no other option than to turn around and head back down the gorge. The hike to Lower Oneonta Falls is 0.8 miles round trip with only about 25 feet of elevation change.
During the spring wet season, Oneonta Gorge may be impassable (and the water will be cold). Target lake summer for your hike, when water levels are generally low enough to make reaching the waterfall possible. Conditions in the gorge may change year to year. There is no maintained trail up the gorge. Be mindful of your safety. Dogs are allowed, but Oneonta Gorge is not appropriate for all dogs or all hikers. Wear footwear and clothing that can get wet. No fee or permit is required to visit Lower Oneonta Falls, so enjoy the adventure!