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Horsetail Falls Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

TKO put tools to trail here.png
Horsetail Falls (Jeff Statt)
Ponytail Falls (Steve Hart)
View up the Columbia River from Oneonta Bluff (bobcat)
Looking down Oneonta Gorge (bobcat)
Indian plum above the Oneonta Gorge (bobcat)
Cascade penstemon (Penstemon serrulatus), Oneonta Trail (bobcat)
East end of the Oneonta Tunnel (bobcat)
Approximate trail map
  • Start point: Horsetail Falls TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End Point: Oneonta Trailhead
  • Trail Log : Trail Log
  • Hike Type: Loop
  • Distance: 2.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 565 feet
  • High point: 395 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Seasons: All year, except during winter storms
  • Family Friendly: Yes
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: Yes
Falling
Poison-Oak

Contents

Hike Description

This is a stunning low elevation loop that takes in three waterfalls, looks into the sheer-walled Oneonta Gorge, and offers views over the Oneonta Bottomlands and up the Columbia River Gorge. Families with small children need to be careful at the unprotected cliff viewpoints on Oneonta Bluff and avoid the poison oak that grows along the trail.

The trail begins at one of the most scenic trailheads anywhere, where Horsetail Falls plunges over a basalt cliff. A stone-walled viewing area adds to the ambience. Plan on a bit of time before or after your hike to view and photograph the falls. The Horsetail Falls Trail #438 begins climbing some easily graded switchbacks with beautiful rock walls. You'll pass your first trail junction here, where the Gorge Trail #400 heads east. After five switchbacks, the trail levels out and heads west high above the Gorge below. After 4/10 of a mile, the trail suddenly turns into the small ravine containing Ponytail Falls. (A rooty user trail here leads steeply up to the Rock of Ages Arch.) In literally a few steps, you leave the modern freeway noise and enter a different world. The trail passes behind Ponytail Falls in a cavernous overhang at a soft layer between Columbia River Basalt flows.

The trail continues west, maintaining a level path along the bluff. Rockfall here supports moss, ferns, and a few large maples. A side trail leads to Oneonta Bluff's clifftop viewpoints over the Oneonta Bottomlands below and then east to Beacon Rock and Hamilton Mountain. Directly across the Columbia River is the large forested bowl formed by Indian Mary, Duncan, and Woodward creeks, with Archer Mountain just to the west. Take care and don't step too close to the edge: a plaque memorializes a teen that fell to his death near here. You'll find some camas blooming at the west end of the bluff in spring.

The main trail continues into Oneonta Gorge, where the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire scorched hillsides in a raging canopy fire. Look up the narrow valley and, especially in winter, you'll get some good views of parts of all three lower falls on Oneonta Creek: Lower Oneonta Falls, Middle Oneonta Falls, and the spout of Oneonta Falls in the distance. Just past a weeping wall, the trail begins to switchback down, and you'll get a view into the narrow slot of Oneonta Gorge. A few nails in a tree at the viewpoint are all that remain of the incinerated sign. The trail crosses Oneonta Creek on a metal bridge, which somehow remained unscathed from the Eagle Creek Fire. Just above the bridge is Middle Oneonta Falls, a 15-foot drop. Just below the bridge, the creek disappears over the brink of Lower Oneonta Falls into Oneonta Gorge. The bared slopes above Middle Oneonta Falls bloom with yellow monkey flower in late spring. Beyond the bridge, the trail switchbacks twice up to a junction with the Oneonta Trail #424. (An optional extension up the Oneonta Trail from this junction is the Triple Falls Hike.)

To complete the loop, turn right and head down the Oneonta Trail. The trail crosses a new slide reinforced by a gabion, and then passes above a bench. Phacelia, rosy plectritis, penstemon, alumroot, candy flower, inside-out flower, and columbine bloom along the trail here in spring. Pass over another slide area and below seeping cliffs. Then you'll come to another junction with the #400 trail, this time heading west toward Multnomah Falls. Above the trail junction here, you'll see an old stone wall, and in the winter there's a seasonal waterfall off trail, just above the treeline. Turn right here to stay on the Oneonta Trail, and head down steeply to the Historic Highway, getting views of Archer Mountain across the river.

Turn right and walk half a mile back to your car. You'll walk below basalt cliffs and across the old highway bridge over Oneonta Creek to get a rather limited view up the Oneonta Gorge to the famous "logjam". A couple of interpretive signs tell about the restored Oneonta Tunnel and endemic plants. The 125-foot tunnel through Oneonta Bluff was gutted during the Eagle Creek Fire and was restored in 2020, the previous restoration being completed in 2009. Constructed in 1914, the tunnel operated until 1948 and was then filled with rubble as a newer version of the highway bypassed it. Beyond the tunnel is the small parking area/pullout at the Oneonta Gorge Trailhead.

Take care beyond the tunnel parking lot as the road is quite narrow. A foot trail right next to the highway serves you at first, but check carefully before you cross the bridge over Horsetail Creek to reach Horsetail Falls.


Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Green Trails Maps: Bridal Veil, OR #428
  • Green Trails Maps: Columbia River Gorge - West #428S
  • Geo-Graphics: Trails of the Columbia Gorge
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management: Columbia River Gorge
  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map: Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Fees, Regulations, Facilties, etc.

  • Picnic tables, information kiosk at Horsetail Falls
  • Interpretive signs
  • Between May 24 and Sept. 5, 2022, a Timed Use Permit ($2 fee) will be required for each personal vehicle accessing federal lands adjacent to the Waterfall Corridor between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. just east of the Bridal Veil off-ramp (Exit 28) to Ainsworth State Park (Exit 35).

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • Best Hikes With Kids: Oregon by Bonnie Henderson & Zach Urness
  • Best Hikes with Children: Western & Central Oregon by Bonnie Henderson
  • Curious Gorge by Scott Cook
  • Day Hikes in the Columbia Gorge by Don J. Scarmuzzi
  • Day Hiking: Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano
  • Day Hike! Columbia Gorge by Seabury Blair, Jr.
  • Hiking the Columbia River Gorge by Russ Schneider; revised by Jim Yuskavitch
  • Hiking Waterfalls in Oregon by Adam Sawyer
  • Best Outdoor Adventures Near Portland, Oregon by Adam Sawyer
  • 100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon & Southwest Washington by William L. Sullivan
  • Trips & Trails: Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • Oregon Favorites: Trails & Tales by William L. Sullivan
  • Afoot and Afield: Portland/Vancouver by Douglas Lorain
  • Hiking Oregon by Lizann Dunegan
  • Portland Hikes by Art Bernstein & Andrew Jackman
  • Columbia River Gorge: 42 Scenic Hikes by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • 35 Hiking Trails: Columbia River Gorge by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • 100 Oregon Hiking Trails by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • Short Trips and Trails: The Columbia Gorge by Oral Bullard & Don Lowe
  • Oregon's Columbia River Gorge: Camping & Hiking by Tom Stienstra & Sean Patrick Hill
  • 70 Virtual Hikes of the Columbia River Gorge by Northwest Hiker
  • Oregon Hiking by Sean Patrick Hill
  • Pacific Northwest Hiking by Scott Leonard & Sean Patrick Hill
  • Waterfall Lover's Guide: Pacific Northwest by Gregory A. Plumb
  • Waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest by David L. Anderson

More Links


Contributors

Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

Hiking is a potentially risky activity, and the entire risk for users of this field guide is assumed by the user, and in no event shall Trailkeepers of Oregon be liable for any injury or damages suffered as a result of relying on content in this field guide. All content posted on the field guide becomes the property of Trailkeepers of Oregon, and may not be used without permission.