The short answer is — no. Absolutely not.
It’s unfortunate, because Oneonta Gorge is a place of spectacular natural beauty, however, hiking the gorge is best done on foot, and even then, with great care.
A Bit About Oneonta Gorge
Oneonta Gorge is an amazing piece of the Columbia River Gorge scenic area located in Multnomah County, Oregon.
The gorge is an incredible place to visit that draws hikers, bird-watchers, botanists, and lovers of the outdoors from all over the world.
A miner from Oneonta, New York who was on the West Coast prospecting for gold fell in love with this area and documented his affair with the lush chasm by photographing it for the first time.
It was this man, Carleton Eugene Watkins, who gave the gorge its name “Oneonta,” after his home town.
Let’s look at what makes this gorge so fascinating — and keeps people falling in love with it over and over.
One of the most amazing natural chasms in the state of Oregon, Oneonta Gorge has dramatic walls of 25-million-year old basalt from the Miocene epoch.
These walls rise more than 100 feet in the air, and harbor lichens, hepatics, mosses, and ferns — some of which are only found in this tiny area of the Columbia River Gorge.
The stunning — and unique — woodland and aquatic plants that grow here prompted the U.S. Forest Service to designate the Oneonta Gorge as a National Scenic area.
Now, with urban sprawl threatening encroachment on this wild and wonderful land, there are groups springing up to help preserve the natural beauty of the gorge and surrounding areas.
Oneonta Creek plays host to a number of waterfalls that run through the gorge. There are four falls that are associated with the Oneonta Gorge — Lower, Middle, Upper, and Triple.
Because the lower part of the gorge is preserved so that the natural habitat remains undisturbed, there isn’t a footpath, trail, or boardwalk to guide you through it.
In order to get a glimpse of the Lower Oneonta Falls, you have to walk upstream — that’s right, walk right in the creek. You’ll access it from the Historic Columbia River Highway via a wooden stairway.
To really get a good look, you might have to wade into the water as far as chest-deep, depending on the snow-melt and the time of year.
There are also the Middle and Upper Falls, but these require creek-walking as well, or scrambling down a canyon wall to get glimpse.
The Triple Falls can be sighted from some of the upper trails in the canyon.
In fact, if you begin at Horsetail Falls trail head, you’ll make a brief climb to intersect Gorge Trail #400. This trail will lead you west to Ponytail Falls, about a half-mile after the intersection.
Ponytail Falls are unique because you can actually walk behind the falls to continue on to Oneonta Gorge, another half-mile further on the trail.
At this location, the Oneonta Gorge is spanned by a bridge over the Oneonta Creek-formed chasm. If you look downstream at this point, you can just see the apex of Oneonta Falls.
After you cross the bridge, a steep climb will take you to Trail #424, which you’ll follow until you reach Triple Falls.
Seeing the inside of Oneonta Gorge is best done on foot — from within the creek itself.
The best time to attempt the trek is late summer, when the water’s not overly deep or cold. To protect your feet, wear sturdy sneakers or water shoes as you ease into the 20-foot-wide chasm.
At times, there is no shoreline, so you’ll need to walk directly in the water — like it or not.
Recently, several boulders fell into the gorge, making access more difficult.
A log-jam has also partially blocked the way into the creek, although most people are able to simply scramble over the top of the jam.
Care should be taken negotiating over the log-jam, as it is unpredictably slippery and movable.
Why You’ll Love It
This refreshing destination is located only 40 minutes from busy, grid-locked Portland, and it’s a great way to beat the heat in the summer.
The hike is short, only about .6 miles, but it can be a little sketchy as you maneuver boulders and the log-jam that’s sometimes in motion.
If you make it to the end of the hike through the gorge, you’ll end up at Lower Oneonta Falls, and a picture-perfect swimming hole that’s a natural result of the falls pounding into the bedrock of the creek.
The water’s cold, but it will be a refreshing way to end your hike.
You might want to bring a water-protected camera or cell-phone to snap some pictures of the lush foliage and crystal-clear waters.
Because it’s hard to get to, Oneonta Gorge and the waterfalls associated with it aren’t normally as crowded as some of the other hiking and water attractions nearby.
So, if you’re looking for a more secluded, out-of-the-way hike followed by a quick dip to cool off, Oneonta Gorge is a natural choice.
Oneonta Gorge – The Details
Getting to the trailhead is easy, and there are no fees required to park or to enter the Gorge.
Just follow I-84 east, getting off at exit 35 to take the Historic Highway. In about two miles, you’ll find a parking area located past the Oneonta Tunnel, which recently re-opened.
Parking is very limited in the lot, so get there early or be prepared to circle back every so often to see if there’s a spot for you.
There’s a set of stairs on the western side of the bridge that leads to Oneonta Creek. When you get to the creek, start walking upstream.
That’s all there is to it — except for a few important details, such as bringing sun protection, insect repellent, and first-aid necessities, tucked safely in a waterproof pouch.
It’s a good idea to protect any cameras, smartphones, or other tech devices from the water, as well. It can be up to chest-deep in places, and some of the obstacles are slippery — and unstable.
Also, there are known to be flash floods in the area, and the gorge is sometimes closed for public safety.
If there is reason to believe Oneonta Creek is too high or flowing too rapidly, please stay out of the gorge.
This is most likely to happen in spring and early summer, when the snow-melt is at its height, but it can also happen any time there is a hard rain.
Plan for a late-summer hike for the best chances of making it safely to the falls.
Given the dangers and difficulties of this hike, families with small children should steer clear.
The obstacles in the creek and along the canyon’s edges are difficult for tiny arms and legs to negotiate and the water is deeper than toddler-height in places.
Hikers with dogs should also think twice about taking their pet along into the gorge.
The nearby Oneonta Falls trail is pet-friendly, but the Oneonta Gorge hike, with its obstacles and sometimes fast-moving water, should have dog-owners thinking twice.
A Great Gorge Experience with Older Kids
Not only can Oneonta Gorge be a fun family outing if you have older children, it can be educational, too.
The Friends of the Gorge, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and maintaining the Columbia Gorge area, which includes Oneonta Gorge, offers youth education programs for middle-school aged children.
These one- and two-day programs are designed to introduce kids to the wonders of the Gorge environment in a safe and educational manner.
But you don’t have to participate in a program to have a great day at Oneonta Gorge. If your older kids can climb and swim, they can enjoy the natural beauty and wonders that the Gorge has to offer.
Make sure you pack snacks in plastic bags, because time spent in that cold water is bound to burn some energy.
Since the actual hike isn’t far, it’s probably a good idea to have some food back at your car.
There are plenty of scenic places all along the Historic Highway to stop and have a well-deserved bite to eat after your hike.
If you and your family want a short hike that’s long on excitement, make sure to include Oneonta Gorge on your list of summer hikes to accomplish this year.