Chances are you've seen pictures of Oregon's Oneonta Gorge — it's that brilliant green slot canyon, where moss and ferns
cling to the cliffs and hikers brave the cold waters to reach the waterfall at
the end. Oneonta seems to make it's way onto every bucket list or natural
wonder round-up, and once you've seen the pictures, it really shouldn't be a surprise.
Oneonta's steep walls cradle the frigid Oneonta Creek, which doubles as your hiking trail should you choose to undertake this adventure. You'll have plenty of rock bars to rest on, and the entire trek is fairy short. Bring the right gear, go on a warm day, and get that camera ready.
Oneonta Gorge branches off Columbia Gorge, the epic river canyon that forms the Oregon-Washington border. To start the Oneonta Gorge hike, you'll descend a set of stone stairs leading into the canyon. From there, take the short dirt path into the ever-narrowing walls.
Your first obstacle is a massive logjam, which you'll have to clamber over to reach the most beautiful part of the canyon. The logs are often slippery, so take your time as you weave over and under tree branches. After this, the hike is mostly sloshing through cold ankle-deep water that occasionally rises to the knees, depending on the time of year you're visiting and how much snow and rain they've gotten.
Luckily, the scenery makes up for any discomfort, and the hike is short, just 0.6 miles round trip. There's one section near the end where the water becomes quite deep. You'll probably be wading in chest-high water for about 10 to 15 feet, which isn't far but it's enough to take your breath away. You can stop to turn around before this, but if you keep going, you'll reach the end of the canyon where there's a wide rock bar for lounging and one hell of a reward.
Tucked away in a bowl only fully visible to those who venture this far
is Lower Oneonta Falls, which tumbles about 100 feet down the canyon. There's a
deep pool here and if it's a hot day, feel free to reward yourself with a dip.
How to Do It
You'll find the trailhead for Oneonta Gorge by taking I-84 from Portland (about 35 miles) to exit 35 for Ainsworth State Park. You'll turn right onto Historic Columbia River Highway, and the Oneonta Gorge sign and parking area will be on your left just after the tunnel. It's important to note that the parking area is very small, and this hike is popular on warm, summer weekends. It's best to get there early, or go during the week.
The best time of year for this hike is mid-to late-summer, when the water levels are at their lowest and the air temperature is warm enough to offset the perpetually frigid creek. Other times of the year, especially in winter, the creek can be dangerously high. Be sure to bring towels and a change of clothes to leave in the car, and wear your sturdiest sneakers or water shoes, along with clothes you don't mind getting wet.
The Oneonta Gorge hike is short and sweet, so it gives you the perfect chance to explore some other trails in the Columbia Gorge before heading home. You can partially see Oneonta Gorge from above on the Horsetail Falls Trail, or visit any number of the area's scores of outstanding waterfalls, like Wahclella, Multnomah, Horsetail, Punchbowl, and Latourell.