Tunnel Falls on Eagle Creek Trail
The trail narrowed and I noticed a handrail bolted to the cliff above. One look down over the edge, and it is clear. If I fell, I would die. I felt absolutely no guilt with my decision to walk along these more severe sections of trail. Better to live to run another day than to be careless along the way.
I’ve been awake since 3 am. Finally at 4:30 I gave in and got up to make coffee in my hotel room.
I am excited to try and run the Eagle creek trail. It is a 12 mile round trip with spectacular waterfalls along the way. Portland Hikers describe the route as follows: “The Eagle Creek to Tunnel Falls Hike is one of the most popular and magnificent trails in the Columbia River Gorge, and for good reason. You will literally lose count as you pass dozens of spectacular waterfalls through the lush temperate rain forests and tall basalt cliffs. You’ll traverse passageways blasted out of the bedrock with dynamite, footbridges over bubbling streams, talus slopes, and unique geologic formations along your journey — and that’s just in the first 2 miles!”
This trail was created in the early 1900’s as an effort to begin preserving some of the wild areas in the Columbia River Gorge. I can see where workers used dynamite to blast the trail into the side of the cliffs. It is hard to imagine how those brave men of yore were able to access this area to create the trail, but today, thousands of people swarm to this veritable watery wonderland to experience this trail that is unchanged since its creation so many years ago.
I have backpacked this route twice before, but today is the first time I have contemplated running. There are a few sections where we will need to walk and perhaps even hang onto the cable bolted into the cliff wall above the trail. These sections of trail have a lot of exposure (to risk of falling) where a slip could prove fatal. I could just see myself plodding along and a sudden flopping over of my weak ankle sending me sailing over the edge. No thank you, I think it will be allowed and even mandatory to walk these sections.
Tunnel Falls in Winter Garb
As I set out for the run today, I have some motivation to run the entire route. First and foremost is time. I am readily discovering that It is so very much faster to run than to walk, and I have a trail festival and “hiker trash” friends I want to see back in town. My secondary motivation to run the entire 12 miles, is the payoff for making it the distance, for at the turn around point of our designated route today is Tunnel Falls. This is a spectacular one hundred seventy five foot cascade that rushes down the cliff face and completely obliterates the trail. A wonderful and secret access to hikers is available via a little dark tunnel blasted from the rock immediately behind the falls. Truthfully, after the difficult time I had completing the ten mile trail run last week, I had my doubts about this even longer run today.
Twelve miles is the longest run I have attempted since my “weight gain and loss” apocalypse, and since I am not home, my nutrition is going to be different. Routine for me is crucial, as I have discovered that when I am pushing myself to new athletic heights, it is not the best time to try and mix things up. Since breakfast is not served here at the hotel until 6:30, which is right around first light and our designated time to head out for the trail head, I’m not sure just how I am going to fuel my body. Phil will not eat anything before the run and he will be fine. I might kill people if I try to employ the same strategy. I don’t do well without food. After searching my luggage, I found an old smashed Lara bar in my day pack and noshed it right on down with my morning cuppa Joe. Problem number one solved!
As daylight began to creep onto the horizon, we quickly headed for the car and drove the 3 miles to the trailhead. As we disembarked our vehicle, The temperature was in the fifties, but as morning temps are often that low at home in my warmer climate, I didn’t worry too much about it as I headed off up the trail wearing only spandex shorts and a tank top.
There were a couple of other parties at the trailhead as I nervously twitched about waiting for Dash (the running man) to finish lacing up his running shoes. I smiled and nodded, and finally, we were off. Adventure of the day begun!
This trail is incredibly popular with good reason … it is absolutely stunning. It is a lovely and heavily wooded trail traveling along through moss encrusted trees and rocks. This trail follows along Eagle creek, for most of its length, often traveling hundreds of feet above the water all while passing by a ridiculously large number of spectacular waterfalls. I have read that this trail used to be part of the official Pacific Crest Trail route. The PCT has currently been rerouted along the Benson Plateau; however, most thru-hikers (hikers who attempt to walk from Canada to Mexico in one year) still opt to follow the Eagle Creek Trail.
After we had run about a mile and a half, we were granted a small view of the 100-foot Metlako Falls, which is the tallest falls on Eagle Creek. It seems as though there is a secret opening high in the cliff face from which Metlako magically emerges and then falls straight down the cliff face into an idyllic and tranquil pool at its base. Another easy half mile brought us to Punchbowl Falls. I had backpacked here in the winter and spent a great deal of time with a camera and tripod trying to capture just a fraction of the natural beauty that is so prevalent along this trail. We didn’t stop running to take photographs of the falls today; however, I have a good selection to share from my previous trips.
I did briefly consider stopping to explore the falls, but I was concerned with timing, warmth, and my energy. At this point, I am not even certain that I can make the full twelve miles. We passed another spectacular series of tall water falls and encountered more sections of trail that offered as an extra benefit that little adrenaline rush of a “near death experience”. The trail beyond these falls is rocky and can be slippery in places especially when wet (yes, it was wet). The trail has been blasted into the cliff face 120 feet up from the creek. There is cable-line affixed in the rock to our left, providing some security, but the pucker factor here was still quite large. The trail guide warns against bringing children and dogs, as a slip from the trail in the wrong place could and has in the past proven to be fatal. Our pre-run strategy was to be aware and stay safe. Anywhere I felt a misplaced step might result in me plummeting over the edge to an untimely death, I vowed to walk, and not too surprisingly, we opted to walk through this short section.
The temperature outside never really warmed to a comfortable zone, and I was kicking myself a bit for under dressing. My hands were uncomfortably cold for most of the route. Today’s run is a twelve mile round trip that goes out and back and gains 1640 feet of elevation along the way. I have taken to heart the advice given by the running man, and I conscientiously strive to keep my pace slower and steady on the uphill grades. The strategy pays off, as not once along this entire twelve mile trail run did I find myself hunched over with dry heaves. This is a good thing. I was needlessly concerned about the uphill running. This run was ever so much easier than the steeper trail run from the week before.
As I remembered, this trail does not disappoint. Brilliant green majesty surrounds us at every turn. Breathtaking drops along the way descending into crystalline waters. I arrived at Tunnel Falls, the six mile mark and our turn around point, with an incredible amount of energy. This was ever so much easier than I had expected it to be! We took several minutes posing for silly photos near the tunnel. I was feeling a bit stupid for under-dressing, and as I was feeling uncomfortably cold at our high point, we did not linger.
Sheer Poetry in Motion!
Again, on the way down, we slowed to a walk at the “sketchier” sections of trail. That didn’t stop me from demonstrating my sheer gracefulness as I stepped on a slimy rock and just like a slow motion scene in a movie, I watched horrified, as the trail rose up to kiss me firmly on the lips. Ouch. Thankfully, this was in a fairly safe area, and there was no imminent danger of death.
As I continued to run down the trail, I was surprised at feeling just a bit emotional as the parking lot came back into view. I had set a goal for myself, and I didn’t know if I could succeed or not. But, as I have done so many times before, I suited up, and I showed up, and I gave it everything I had. Truthfully, in light of where this journey began for me… three years ago, and hopelessly overweight, I could not have been happier if there was a big brass band playing and a crowd cheering for me as I rounded that last corner. Of course, the Running Man told me that had he not been following me and keeping pace with me, he would have run up the trail faster than I did. You know what? Good for him. I’m thankful that he was willing to plod along behind and support me in achieving a new athletic height. Today, I ran twelve miles along a rocky trail. Just a short time ago, I never would have believed I could. So, with renewed enthusiasm, I shout out to the world, “Bring it On”. I’m ready for the challenge. Who knows what I can accomplish tomorrow…