There are moments on the Eagle Creek Trail when you completely forget that it was the birthplace of one of Oregon’s largest and most high-profile wildfires of the past decade.
In autumn the canyon is ablaze in golden color as waterfalls drip down cliff walls from every direction, reminding hikers why this has long been considered one of Oregon’s five best hikes.
Even in the places that are burned — and the impact is clear — the burn scar is not overwhelming for much of the hike. There is lots of low-intensity fire, often known as “good fire,” where trees might have black scorch marks but the canopy is intact and the forest floor is covered up with ferns, moss or the golden color of bigleaf maple.
But every now and again you hear it — the loud crack and crash of a fire-weakened tree splitting and plummeting down the canyon. Because while the trail has largely “healed” from the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, the flames of five years ago will keep this an unstable and dynamic place of falling trees and landslides for years to come.
“The vast majority of trees that were killed in the fire are still standing with weakened root structures that means they do fall over pretty regularly,” said Karen Davis, spokeswoman for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. “There’s also frequent debris and mudslides. Even though it’s been five years since the fire, there is still a lot of danger or at least things to look out for especially after big storms.”
Indeed, even after Eagle Creek Trail officially reopened last year, it has been closed or blocked multiple times by landslides. And that’s likely to happen again.
But at least for now — as of November — the route is clear for the spectacular 3.3 miles to High Bridge. Beyond, the next 3 miles to Tunnel Falls do have some landslides that make for tricky hiking, and at least one semi-difficult creek crossing, but it does remain open and doable.
And it’s still one of the best hikes in Oregon, especially among those that usually stay open through the winter, with the exception of a few low-elevation snowstorms and the aforementioned landslides.
As ever, there are a million things to appreciate about the trail, including the autumn colors, walking the edges of high cliff faces and views of the endless waterfalls — Punchbowl Falls chief among them.
“The fire opened up the views so that after a rainstorm, you can see dozens of waterfalls that were previously obscured by living trees,” Davis said.
What I’ve always appreciated is how it can perfectly set up the type of day that you want to have.
For a quick, easy and semi kid-friendly trek, hike 2.2 miles (4.4 round-trip) to Punchbowl Falls.
For a nice day-trip, hike 3.3 miles (6.6 round-trip) to aptly named High Bridge, then return and head to Cascade Locks for a late lunch.
For a full day and adventure, hike 6 miles (12 round-trip) to Tunnel Falls, a trek that takes you into the Gorge’s best taste of a wilderness adventure.
It’s also a great place to see the way wildfires impact different patches of forest at different severity.
The first few miles — and really most of the way to High Bridge — there is a lot of low-intensity fire along trail, while up on the higher ridges, you can see much higher-severity fire manifest in the rows of dead trees. Later, the trail enters forest that has been more severely burned.
The story of the Eagle Creek Fire’s ignition
Most people who live in Oregon know the story of how the Eagle Creek Fire ignited — a teenager tossed a firework off the trail on a boiling hot day in early September 2017.
But not everyone knows the story of the 150 hikers who were trapped by the fire — including nine Salem teenagers — and forced to spend a night in the forest before hiking out the long way.
The Statesman Journal covered the story of the escape from the Eagle Creek Fire — which you can read at StatesmanJournal.com. There’s also an excellent documentary by TOPIC magazine on the rise of the Eagle Creek Fire.
Either way, it’s a wonderful thing to return to Eagle Creek Trail.
Eagle Creek Trail
In a nutshell: One of Oregon’s most scenic trails, located in the Columbia River Gorge near Cascade Locks.
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Length: 4.4 miles round-trip to Punchbowl Falls; 6.6 miles to High Bridge; 12 miles to Tunnel Falls
Scary parts: If exploring makes you nervous, this might not be the hike for you, as parts of the trail scale rocky cliffs high above the creek below.
Natural hazards: Downed trees and landslides may be possible on the trail. Watch social media channels from the U.S. Forest Service Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Fees: Northwest Forest Pass required, or pay a $5 fee at the trailhead per car.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.