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Multnomah Falls is Oregon's most visited tourist attraction and rightly so as the nation's second-highest waterfall at 620 feet. However, probably more than 95 percent of the visitors to this scenic spot never venture past Multnomah's bridge overlook, making the surrounding area an uncrowded hiker's paradise.

Within the Columbia Gorge are dozens of trails leading to or past many waterfalls and offering refreshing solitude and nature at its best.This hiker's heaven is located about 25 miles east of Portland, just south of I-84, or about 775 from Salt Lake City. As brief as a one-hour stop off the freeway en route to Portland or Seattle can offer a hike more than worth a full day's journey.

The trails are well-kept and offer ample shade/greenery. However, the area is moist and so blisters and mud along the trail can be a problem. Also, wading is required on some trails and so "aqua shoes" and/or spare wading apparel are good hiking accessories to take along. Cameras would best be safeguarded in waterproof containers.

June through September are the best hiking months and the near sea level elevation makes hiking easier than anywhere in Utah.

Here are brief descriptions of four of the area's best trails. None are particularly difficult and range in time required from one to five hours:

- Punch Bowl Falls:

This beautiful falls, sometimes also referred to as "The Devil's Punch Bowl Falls" empties into a scenic pool and has been the backdrop for various movies over the years. This 4.2-mile roundtrip hike starts at Eagle Creek. Take I-84 exit No. 41 going eastbound or the Cascade Locks exit on the westbound side. The trail begins at the end of a paved road with a long stretch of parking located just past a major picnic area.

Following Eagle Creek, the trail climbs very gradually about 500 feet. Several trail sections pass large cliffs, but there are cables to grab for those afraid of heights. Still, young children need good supervision here.

At 1.5 miles up the trail, a side path leaves to Metlako Falls. One trail section passes through a weeping rock area, similar to the one in Zion National Park.

There's an upper overlook for Punch Bowl and a lower path too. (The main trail continues 11 more miles, passing Tunnel Falls.) The path to the lower overlook is hard to find, but there is a directional sign on a tree.

To see Punch Bowl from below, a wade in up to knee deep water is required, but it's here where movie makers have taken their shots.

Total hiking time is 90 minutes to 2 1/2 hours.

- Oneonta Gorge:

If you've ever hiked the Virgin River Narrows in Zion National Park or if you can't because of the long length of that trek, this short water hike may be for you.

The "trail" begins below the Oneonta bridge on the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway, No. 30. The trail is in the river and wading up to the waist may be required, depending on the river volume. Aqua shoes or old tennis shoes work great for this walk, only 600 yards long, one-way and leading to a 70-foot waterfall.

This canyon is extremely narrow, with the final section of the canyon being the narrowest - only about 10 feet wide. This narrows isn't nearly as long or deep as Zion, but it is narrower and greenery and moss cover the several-hundred foot high canyon walls.

The final 100 feet of the river trail are the deepest too, but a careful scramble along the side of the canyon wall can avoid high water.

Many loose river rocks make the walk slow going and the temperature is cool. Late summer/early fall are the best hiking times for this unusual trail. Fast walkers can reach the waterfall in 15 minutes. Others should plan on at least 30 minutes, one-way.

- Oneonta Trail:

This is a dirt trail, starting several hundred yards west of the Oneonta Narrows. It climbs about 1,000 feet on switchbacks and 1.7 miles to Triple Falls, another highly photographed waterfall that's true to its name.

From there, the trail crosses Oneonta Creek and at 5.1 miles out, it reaches a .8 mile long spur trail (No. 446) that connects with the Multnomah/Larch Mountain trail. One difficulty is that this connecting trail requires a wade across the east fork of Multnomah Creek.

(The main trail continues another 3.2 miles to the Larch Mountain Picnic area that's also accessible by a 14-mile auto drive from the town of Corbett.)

The Multnomah Trail goes down 4.8 miles down to the Multnomah Lodge and parking lot (or two miles further up to Larch Mountain). En route down, the trail passes by Dutchman's Tunnel and Falls, the Multnomah overlook platform and to the crowds at the bottom of Multnomah.

Total hiking distance is 10.7 miles, requiring three hours for fast hikers or about five hours for average ones.

- Multnomah Overlook:

This is short, paved trail that starts at the Multnomah Lodge, goes past the lower overlook and travels 1.2 miles to the wooden platform overlook at the top of Multnomah Falls. Here it connects with the Oneonta/Larch Mountain trail.

This hike takes about 20 minutes to an hour one-way, passes by several resting benches and is suitable for stollers.

Most Multnomah visitors do not use this trail, but it is still the most crowded of all gorge trails.

Valuables should not be left in cars parked in the gorge, especially near Multnomah, because of frequent theft problems in the area.

- More information on hiking in the Columbia Gorge is available from the District ranger of the Columbia Gorge District, Route No. 3, Box 44-A, Troutdale, Ore., 97060, or phone 503-665-0151.

Many lodging selections are available in nearby Hood River City or Troutdale.