- Location: Columbia River Gorge
- Start: Wahkeena Falls Trailhead
- Distance: 10 miles
- Duration: 2 hours 18 minutes (breaks not included)
- Elevation gain: 1700 feet
- Type: Out-and-back
- References: https://photomomlinda.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-ornament-trail.html
The Ornament Trail is an unofficial, semi-secret spot located in the Multnomah Basin. I first learned about it a couple years back and have been itching to do it since. Despite the fact that it contradicts Leave No Trace principles (which I work hard to uphold and promote on any outdoor adventure), the idea of Christmas ornaments lining a mysterious trail in the forest just sounds so magical. Christmas Eve seemed like the most fitting time to visit. It fell on a Saturday this year, so it worked out perfectly! I also realized that it would probably be quite a popular hike to do that day, so Mack and I decided to turn it into an adventure run in order to finish earlier and hopefully avoid the inevitable crowds.
The parking lot was empty when we arrived around 8:30 am. Score! Although there was already a group of people hanging out on the Wahkeena Falls viewing platform getting ready to begin, we were still able to hit the trail first. Conditions were sketchy as we switchbacked up the first half mile to the base of Wahkeena Falls. Much of the trail was covered in hard-packed, icy snow. We wore microspikes to keep us grounded, and, after watching her skid a couple of times, Cassie stayed on-leash for safety.
We continued past the falls and up Wahkeena Creek, crossing below Fairy Falls after a few more switchbacks. Between the relentless elevation gain and the uneven, snowy terrain, our very first trail run in the gorge was quite the challenge! I’ll admit this section was more of a run-hike alternation. We took Cassie off the leash for a short while, but when she started chasing birds on the slick trail (with steep drop-offs on the downhill side) we decided it was too risky and put her back on.
We finally moved past the switchbacks once we reached the junction with Angel’s Rest Trail. There was actually a bit of elevation loss as we headed toward Larch Mountain Trail (about 1.2 miles away). Unfortunately, it was difficult to take advantage of the downhill. In many sections, the snow on the trail hadn’t been packed down enough to create a flat surface. On the contrary, it created a slope that flowed straight into the downhill side of the trail. Slipping in any of these sections would send a person shooting down a steep slope. I was incredibly grateful for previous hikers who had kicked steps into the hard snow.
Shortly after turning onto Larch Mountain Trail, we crossed an old footbridge to begin another uphill stretch alongside Multnomah Creek.
Running in hard snow, uphill, with heavy microspikes attached to your shoes, does quite a number on your energy level. My legs were definitely tiring out. However, I got my second wind (and breathed a sigh of relief) when we reached the junction with Multnomah Basin Road. The Ornament Trail was close now!
The Ornament Trail turn-off isn’t marked on a map, so we weren’t sure how far we’d have to run before seeing it. Fortunately, the road is fairly level, so we weren’t exerting ourselves too much while we scanned for the first ornament. A light, but wet, snow began to fall as we continued the search. Despite our lack of waterproof layers, it was nice to experience a Christmas Eve snowfall for the first time. After a few minutes, Mack shouted with excitement: “I found it! I found it!”
Mack and I refrained from running so we could take our time to enjoy this magical little spot. Numerous ornaments of all shapes, sizes, colors, and materials dotted the trees and brush lining the trail. A variety of garlands and lights were strung across the trail in some sections, creating festive archways above us as we walked along. The whiteness of the snow covering the ground further enhanced the colors popping all around us.
My favorite spot was near the end (or at least where we ended up turning around). A large, overhanging tree branch strewn in a variety of quirky ornaments, including a pickle, a carrot, and a toothbrush (an homage to the lesser known name of the trail and where the tradition of hanging ornaments originally comes from). At this point, our fingers and toes were starting to go numb, so we thought it would be best to start running again.
The run down Larch Mountain Trail went a lot faster now that we were losing elevation. It was the first time I was able to stretch my legs and get some longer strides in. We ran into a lot more people on the way back. Thank goodness we started at the time that we did!
The only uphill section we had left to contend with was on the Wahkeena Trail before the Angel’s Rest junction. This was the area we were practically tiptoeing through because of the steep snow slopes. Once we were past that it was smooth sailing down to the parking lot, which had completely filled up. Hard to believe it had been empty just a couple of hours earlier!
A Christmas Eve run in the gorge was the perfect way to kick off the holiday weekend. Maybe this will become a new tradition!