CASCADE LOCKS — At High Bridge, there’s a calm, relaxed feeling as Eagle Creek murmurs far below, a glassy emerald sheet in a collage of greens.
But just 2 miles away, at Tunnel Falls, Eagle Creek trail No. 440 in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, is anything but serene.
It’s a thunderous spot, as the East Fork of Eagle Creek plunges 120 feet. The trail — a narrow ledge blasted into a sheer cliff — is enough by itself to make a hiker nervous. The force of the water violently crashing into the plunge pool at the base of Tunnel Falls makes the whole area seem to shake.
And most amazing is the tunnel at Tunnel Falls. Trail builders in 1915-16 needed a way to get the path around the falls, so they did what was the common practice of that era: They blasted a tunnel behind it.
Eagle Creek trail (exit 41 eastbound off Interstate 84, then turn right) is the second-most popular trail in the scenic area, lagging only behind the hike up to Multnomah Falls.
But it is a superb winter trail. The first 6.5 miles are below 1,500 feet in elevation. Eagle Creek trail is accessible all year except for when snow or ice storms hit the Columbia Gorge once or twice a winter.
The deep canyon looks much the same in December or January as it does in July and August.
Asked to rank Eagle Creek trail, hiker Gene McManus of Beaverton answered: “It’s way up there.”
McManus was hiking the trail to Tunnel Falls on Veterans Day.
“This is one of the best waterfalls trails anywhere,” McManus said. “The cliffs are gorgeous with all the moss on them. It’s a beauty.”
Sean Tushla of Camas scored Eagle Creek as an 8 on a 1-to-10 scale.
“It’s well maintained, fairly level and offers beautiful views,” Tushla said. “At times, the crowds can be bit dense, but the falls are spectacular.”
Eagle Creek trail climbs gradually but almost constantly.
It is 2.1 miles to the Punchbowl Falls viewpoint, 3.3 miles to High Bridge, 4.8 miles to the boundary of the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness and 6 miles to Tunnel Falls. Another waterfall, informally called Twister Falls, is about a quarter-mile upstream of Tunnel Falls.
“Twister is pretty interesting, too,” McManus said. “It’s worth the little bit of extra effort to go on and see it.”
Stan Hinatsu, recreation manager for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, said more than 200 cars at a time will be parked at Eagle Creek trailhead on a busy weekend.
“The majority of those people are just going to Punchbowl Falls, so most of that use is on the lower end of the trail,” Hinatsu said.
Hikers at Eagle Creek trail need a one-day National Forest Recreation Pass ($5) or an annual Northwest Forest Pass ($30) to park at the trailhead. The day-pass can be purchased at a self-service box at the trailhead.
Tunnel Falls is only about the halfway point on Eagle Creek trail, which runs a total of 13.3 miles to Wahtum Lake in the Mount Hood National Forest. The trail stays along the creek for 8 miles, then climbs steadily to Wahtum Lake at an elevation 3,732 feet.
Backpackers will combine Eagle Creek trail with the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and Ruckel Creek trail to make a 26.5-mile loop.
Most national forest trails were built for transportation or firefighting. Eagle Creek was one of the first constructed solely for recreation, Hinatsu said. It was built in 1915 and 1916.
If Eagle Creek were to be built today, it likely would be in a different location, he said.
“I’m sure we’d not be blasting through rock bluffs.”