Moss and Ferns and Flowers, Eaux My: The Plants of Oregon’s Wahclella Falls

Despite what the song says, Ryan and I actually make a point of chasing waterfalls whenever we travel. And during our recent trip to Portland, Oregon, there were over 90 cascades in the Columbia River Gorge to choose from. There’s the famed Multnomah Falls, the state’s tallest at 620 feet and the area’s the most famous. But on the recommendation of locals, we spent the last day of our trip hiking to Wahclella Falls, a trail that’s an easy one mile each way — but one that offers plenty of moss-, lichen-, fern- and wildflower-blanketed inclines, plus opportunities to wade in the brisk and glittering water of Tanner Creek.

It was also the afternoon leading up to autumn equinox. First day of fall? Let’s see a waterfall!

Trailhead for Wahclella Falls.

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Five dollars will get you on your way to the waterworks. Also note that the parking lot is small; carpooling is key.

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The falls are about 45 minutes outside Portland. Just take I-84 East to exit 40 and follow the signs. Luckily it was Monday when we went, so we were able to find parking in the very small lot. (And even then, I think we got the second-to-last one available.) Be sure to bring $5 for the recreation fee.

The leaves were already changing color, and the weather was perfect. For its ease and family-friendliness, the trail still offers some Lord of the Rings moments, in which horticulture and geology seem to fuse into one outrageously vertical hallucination. Taking our time, the walk to the falls took about two hours: on the way we saw tree trunks covered in emerald tufts of Brachythecium frigidum, we played “guess that aster,” we saw a woman doing yoga above the water, and we took off our sneakers, rolled up our cuffs and tested our balance on a fallen log that extended into the cold, crystal-clear stream. 

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Tree trunks were blanketed in moss. Here the bark is coated in golden short capsuled moss (Brachythecium frigidum).

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Golden short capsuled moss (Brachythecium frigidum)

A closeup of what we believe is golden short-capsuled moss (Brachythecium frigidum). If any moss-perts or moss-oisseurs beg to differ, let us know in the comments!

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We found ‘Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast’ to be a great reference for identifying mosses. Still, we wish we’d taken more close-ups; after a few hours of flipping through this book everything became a mossy blur!

Goose-necked moss or Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, Electrified cat's-tail moss

Goose-necked moss, aka Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, aka electrified cat’s tail moss.

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Later on in the season, salmon can be spotted swimming in Tanner Creek and spawning at the base of the falls.

After a 300-foot elevation gain, we met the falls themselves. Breathtaking in their intensity, they are two-tiered — 48 feet (partially hidden) on top, then 79 feet roaring down into a large pool. One hundred twenty-seven feet in total. Stacked between green-patched basalt cliffs, the cascades take on the shape of a mammoth, tilted, ever-flowing hourglass.

The kind of natural power that you can feel in your bones. In other words, it was hard to capture — but we tried! (And even did a waterfall GIF that you won’t want to miss.) Check out the flora we spotted and the falls we fell for, below…

—TH

Leafy aster (Aster foliaceus).

Leafy aster (Aster foliaceus), one of the lovely wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest.

Giant horsetail (Equisetum telmatiea)

Speaking of wild, this giant horsetail (Equisetum telmatiea) adds some pizzazz to the trail. This plant has an interesting distribution; the telmateia subspecies is native to Europe, northwest Africa and western Asia, and the braunii (Milde) Hauke. subspecies like the one above is native to western North America.

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Cat-tail moss (Isothecium myosuroides)

Cat-tail moss (Isothecium myosuroides) drips from tree branches.

Cat-tail moss, Isothecium myosuroides.

Goose-necked moss or Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, Electrified cat's-tail moss

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The trail is easy, but we stopped often to lean on trees.

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Love vertical gardens? Here’s a naturally occurring living wall. Western sword ferns spring straight out of the cliff faces, along with mosses and lichen.

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The trails slopes are gentle…

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But the verticality of the surroundings can still take you by surprise.

Plume moss (Dendroalsia abietina)

Digi-zoom on previous picture: We believe this is plume moss (Dendroalsia abietina), which favors calcium-rich cliff faces and whose fern-like stems bend downward when dry.

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Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea

Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea

Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea).

Polystichum munitum (western sword fern)

Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum).

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Uhhh…anyone else getting ‘third-grade picture day’ from this? Except this time…the background is REAL.

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Although busy during the summer and weekends, Wahclella isn’t as touristy as Multnomah Falls. This is about as crowded as the trail got during our three-hour hike.

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Ryan practices his balance above Tanner Creek.

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Some R&R.

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Yeah, the water was cold. After about 10 seconds Ryan couldn’t feel his feet.

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Western sword fern.

Western sword fern.

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Wahclella Falls.

The requisite waterfall GIF. (Learn how to make your own right here.)

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There they are: Wahclella Falls! We had a blast.

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Tree-hugging it out.

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Mountain man with moss-tache.

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Foliage from big-leaf maples mix with the rocks.

Big-leaf maple on the first day of fall.

 

 

  • adam cortell

    Thanks for sharing all the beautiful photos. It made me realize how often I don’t really see what is right in front of me. I grew up walking on northwest trails just like the one to Wahclella Falls and I never stopped to really look closely at the variety of mosses growing all around me. Next time I will make sure to have my “moss appreciation” eyes open!

    • “Moss appreciation eyes” will change how you dream, we guarantee 😉 Your blog’s looking great, by the way, Adam!