Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Mist Falls

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Today's adventure takes us to Mist Falls [map], out in the Columbia Gorge -- although "Mystery Falls" might be a better name for it. It's just down the road from Multnomah, Wahkeena, and all the others, and by all accounts, it's the second-highest waterfall there after Multnomah (although sources disagree on just how tall it actually is). For all that, almost nobody knows it’s there. It doesn’t have a large official sign at the trailhead like the others do. It doesn’t even appear on many maps of the area. If you've read this blog before, you know I can't resist a mystery like that. I'm going to wonder why, and keep wondering, and not be able to rest until I find out, because that's just how I am.

I’d vaguely heard of Mist Falls before, since it's mentioned in the print and online versions of the Waterfall Lover's Guide to the Pacific Northwest, but the guide doesn't tell you exactly where it is, or what it looks like, and for some reason rates it a mere one star, down in the "not worth turning your head to see" category. Then when I was digging around for info for Monday's gorge waterfall post, I ran across more info about the falls, and I just had to go find the place.

The crib note version of the falls: They're just west of Wahkeena Falls, are as much as 500 feet high, and do, in fact, run year-round, despite popular misconceptions to the contrary. And there's a trail up to the base of the falls, although the trail's hard to find, and difficult to navigate once you find it.

I figured I'd start out with a link dump about the falls. I researched the place on the net before setting out, so doing a link dump first is sort of going in chronological order. (Don't worry, there's more pics after the link farm. I don't really like how the waterfall pics are bunched up towards the bottom of the page, but that's how the piece wrote itself. If you just want to look at more photos, the scrolly wheel is your friend.)

  • Waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest describes the falls in various places as either 400 or 500 feet tall. I'm terrible at guessing heights, so either sounds reasonable to me. This site is where I figured out where the falls were, and learned there was a trail. Well, a kinda-sorta trail. We'll get to that part in a bit.
  • Lewis and Clark's Columbia River has several good photos, along with (naturally) excerpts of Lewis & Clark's journals as they explored the area.
  • A great photo of the falls, taken from across the Columbia. Presumably with a much more expensive camera and lens than I've got.
  • Ash Creek Images has a nice photo of Mist Creek and the base of the falls. It's just one of several pics of the area at that site.
  • Another photo, although the caption claims the falls are inaccessible and seasonal, neither of which is precisely true, technically speaking.
  • The Salem Public Library has an old photo of the falls. The exact date is unknown, but it's from somewhere in the 1879-1909 timeframe.
  • Yet another photo, this time mislabelled as Dalton Falls, another obscure waterfall due west of here. This is the sort of confusion that occurs when you don't put up signs and so forth.
  • The World Waterfall Database describes the falls as:

    This is one of the tallest waterfall in Oregon State, however, due to the creek's small drainage area, they are not very appreciated. The falls usually retain some volume throughout the year, however, they do run almost dry in the late summer, and may dry out in drought years.

    Fortunately(?) this year is anything but a drought year. I don't think they'll be anywhere close to running dry this year.
  • The falls were mentioned during the Congressional hearings that led to the present-day National Scenic Area:

    The timbered lands below Mist Falls, which is over 1000 feet high and which borders the highway, were sold for $7 and $8 an acre -- and logged.

    A thousand feet high. Wow. Well, Congress wouldn't lie to you, would they?
  • A 1907 issue of Mazama magazine gave the same figure. You'd think the Mazamas would have their numbers straight, but I suppose people weren't so big on precision a century ago. They just rounded up to the next-greater order of magnitude and called it good, I guess.

    Unless the falls really are a thousand feet high, and modern sources are wrong. I doubt that's the case, but if people wanted to believe Multnomah's the tallest, not some obscure interloper to the west, I can see how it'd be easy to overlook certain inconvenient facts. There's probably a really great conspiracy theory in this somewhere.
  • Oh, but it gets better. In 1940's Oregon: End of the Trail, the Federal Writers' Project described the falls thusly:

    MIST FALLS, 159.8 m., where the water drops from a 1,200 foot escarpment were thus mentioned by Lewis and Clark: "Down from these heights frequently descend the most beautiful cascades, one of which [now Multnomah Falls] throws itself over a perpendicular rock. . . . while other smaller streams precipitate themselves from a still greater elevation, and evaporating in mist, again collect and form a second cascade before they reach the bottom of the rocks."
  • And that's not all. An old guidebook by the California Automobile Association describes Mist Falls:

    Then comes Mist Falls, where a great body of water is driven to near-nothingness before it reaches the bottom of a cliff, 1500 feet below.

    1500 feet. Golly.
  • A 1916 Oregonian story by one Eva Emery Dye declined to estimate the falls' height, but waxed poetic about Mist Falls and its neighbors:

    A mile east of Shepperd's Dell, the Bridal Veil shimmers like the Staubbach, the Dust-brook of Switzerland, and three miles more, Mist Falls leaps like Nuuanu stream back of Honolulu, to be dissipated and blown into space long before reaching the waters below.

    Out of Punchbowl Crater, 1300 feet deep, springs Wahkeena, full panoplied like Minerva springing from the head of Jove, winged with foam and bubbles, cutting huge gorges on its way to the Columbia, a roaring cataract, tumbling, foaming, spouting icy-cold as the underground glacier in which it has its birth.

    People just don't write like that anymore. Certainly the newspapers never do. Possibly that's for the best.
  • The Virtual Tourist mentions the falls on its Off the Beaten Path Multnomah Falls page. Usually lists that use the phrase "off the beaten path" are anything but, so I'm pretty impressed to see Mist Falls on the list.
  • Another great page full of info at Portland Hikers' Field Guide, along with one reader's report, "After work to Mist Falls", with a bunch of great photos and a detailed writeup about the trail. That report is what really made me want to find the place ASAP.

Mist Falls

So this is the unmarked trailhead to the falls. This was taken heading east on the old Gorge Highway. Like all the instructions say, if you get to Wahkeena Falls you've missed it and you'll need to turn around and go back. There's also a larger pullout further west, so it's also possible to pull off the road too early. I'm not sure what the other pullout is for; I stopped and looked around but didn't see anything interesting. In any case, if it doesn't look like this, you're in the wrong place.

Mist Falls

Off to the left, across the highway from the mini-parking lot, are railroad tracks and a lake the maps just call "Fish Rearing Pond". If there's no lake across the street, you're in the wrong place.

Mist Falls

So here's the trailhead itself. As you can see, it's pretty overgrown and unmaintained, and this is the good part of the trail. It's all uphill from here. If you look at the photo with the road, the trailhead is near the center, between the parking lot and the highway. If you look at that pic on Flickr, I've added a couple of notes showing the location of a few key things.

Mist Falls

This little plaque is one of the key things I mentioned. If you see this, just a few feet from the start of the trail, you know you're in the right place. For those troglodytes out there who still use Lynx or have "load images" turned off, the caption reads:
So apparently Mist Falls is actually a super-obscure state park. Coolness. Tracking down obscure parks is another weird mini-hobby of mine, so Mist Falls counts as a twofer. So who was Rose Lenske, and what's the deal with the rock walls around here?

This page at Ash Creek Photo tells the story. There was a hotel here called "Multnomah Lodge" from 1916 up until the 1950s, and the rock walls were part of it. I haven't found a lot of info about the lodge -- it's a matter of finding it within the mountain of info about present-day Multnomah Falls Lodge. I did run across a 1916 mention of the lodge and the falls, in a state publication titled "The Mineral Resources of Oregon":
Multnomah Lodge is three and one half miles beyond Bridal Veil, a delightful hostelry, where visitors find both cheer and the fullest satisfaction of ordinary physical needs. Mist falls is a mere filament of water, so slender that before half of its sheer drop of near a thousand feet is made, it is none else than a spray of mist—hence its name.

The Ash Creek piece mentions Rose Lenske's "colorful" husband Reuben, linking to a juicy Willamette Week story about a fight over his estate. Kind of entertaining, although a bit off topic. The lodge's old fireplace is supposed to be around here somewhere (another photo here), but I wasn't able to find it, try as I might. I looked all around and didn't see it, but then, my powers of observation aren't always the best. Maybe I'll have to go back and look again or something. Back in January 2001, the Columbia Gorge Commission discussed removing the plaque, as it apparently doesn't meet their present-day criteria for memorials in the area. They must've changed their minds, though. The plaque is still there, and even looks like it's been cleaned recently.

Mist Falls

Another remaining sign of the old lodge is this cover over a storm drain on the highway, next to the trailhead.

Mist Falls

If you stand directly on the drain cover and look uphill, you can catch a glimpse of the top of the falls, as shown here. You can't actually see the upper span of the falls when you're closer to it, so you'll need to do this to really get the full experience. Actually the view's slightly better if you stand in the street, but Legal says I can't advise you to do that.

Mist Falls

So here's part of the actual trail. It doesn't give a good idea of just how steep it is, but you're clambering straight up a loose talus slope. It's not so much a trail as a climbable rockpile. This is the open part of the trail; other parts are equally steep but hemmed in with bushes. I didn't take too many photos on the trail, and most of them came out on the blurry side. You can't see the falls during the first segment of the hike. After the open slope you get to a large rock. If you thread yourself between the rock and the drop to the creek, you'll finally catch your first good glimpse of it:

Mist Falls

And if you turn around, the view out over the Columbia is pretty good too:

Mist Falls

Keep forging ahead, and you'll get to the base of the falls eventually. It's not a long trail, but it can be slow going, and why hurry, after all?

Mist Falls

Mist Falls

There are even a few flowers. You didn't really think I'd get through a whole post without any flowers, did you?

Mist Falls

So why is the place so obscure? Why aren't there any signs -- for the falls, the trail, the state park (whatever it's called)? Why is the only trail an unmaintained use path? Why all this, when the other falls along the highway all have first class visitor facilities? I have a few theories:

First off, many of the sites that bother to mention the falls at all give a disclaimer that there isn't a lot of water, even though there was when I visited. Possibly it does go dry in dryer years, or possibly it's just a meme that goes around. Interestingly, the older mentions of the falls don't give the low-volume disclaimer. Was there more water once? Global warming, perhaps?

So some people think the falls fail to impress because of their lower volume. I don't buy that, myself. Any amount of water falling 500 (or 400, or 1500) feet is innately impressive, especially in this setting. I gather waterfall purists (and they do exist) turn up their noses at anything that goes dry, or nearly dry, in the summer. Even if Mist Falls did dry up in the summer like nearby Dalton Falls , so what? Then you'd just want to visit some other time of the year. If it's flowing while you're there, why do you really care whether it dries up for a few weeks six months down the road? Silly purists. Feh.

Second, the present trail is really freakin' steep and narrow, and can be scary when wet. The trails at other falls around the gorge are pretty newbie-friendly, so if you just put up a big sign and didn't change the trail, there'd be trouble. At Multnomah Falls it's not uncommon to see people strolling up the trail, latte in one hand, the leash of an exitable Lab puppy in the other, yapping away to their broker or somebody on their hands-free Bluetooth headset, utterly oblivious to their surroundings. Try doing that on the Mist Falls trail and you're in for a rude and possibly painful surprise.

I'm sure they could put in switchbacks, stable surfaces, handrails and such. Building trails isn't rocket science. It's just a simple matter of throwing enough money at the problem. Unfortunately, since the state owns the land, finding said money would be an epic adventure. For all I know, Mist Falls has been in the pending queue for improvements since 1971, waiting for funds to become available someday. It wouldn't really be fair of me to make fun of the state for not having any money. Still a real shame, though.

Third, obscurity breeds obscurity. If you don't know the falls are there, you don't visit, and you don't lobby for or make improvements. If all the other falls have nice amenities, and this one doesn't, you naturally assume there's a good reason, and it's not worth fussing over the place.

Much of today's infrastructure in the gorge still dates back to the building of the Gorge Highway or shortly thereafter. At that time, and until 1971, the Mist Falls area was in private hands and so didn't get all the fancy stonework and trail engineering and such that the others got. Mist Falls wasn't in line when the goodies were handed out, nearly a century ago, and there hasn't been a second round of handing out goodies, so therefore it doesn't have them. Thus illustrating why it's good to get it right the first time, because you never know if or when you'll get another chance.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I have lived in the Portland, Or. area for the past 20 years and have visited most of the falls on the old highway and had never heard of Mist Falls until reading your blog.

With the help of your instructions in this blog, a friend and I were able to find Mist Falls. It was a lot easier than I expected. I can't tell you how much of a thrill it was. The cement Multnomah Lodge drain cover was still in place as was the plaque honoring Rose Lenske.

What did surprise me was when you mentioned "The Lodge's old fireplace is supposed to be around here somewhere but I wasn't able to find it." The fireplace was the first thing we saw. It is located just a hundred feet or so above the trail head off to the left about 50 feet, and can be seen from the road if you look carefully. It is still fully intact, and looks functional, in fact if one wanted to they could stand up inside of it (something I chose not to do).

I can't thank you enough for prividing the directions to this place. It really completed my day to find and visit a little known waterfall.