Hikes for kids: Falls Creek Falls (Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Carson)

Nitty Gritty:

  • Trail to the falls view-point (up and back round trip) is about 3.4 miles with roughly 650 feet of elevation gain. There is a longer loop that goes up to the top of the falls and around the back side to the parking area. We did not do this one, but nets a 6.3 mile loop with 1150 feet of elevation gain.
  • Lots of families hiking and kids of all ages making the trek. Great family area!
  • Trail is closed December-April, but amazing the rest of the year. From what we understand, the waterfall flows year round.
  • Best driving instructions on how to get there can be found here
  • 45.90935 N   -121.9127 W


This week my sister came over for dinner. My husband was away on business and I needed an adult to talk to and I really like her – she is great company and tolerates being constantly interrupted by the Lad. As we were chatting we all decided we should do a hike together since my husband was going to be away for the weekend. We pulled out my trusty and well-loved hiking guide (which I should really buy an update to since it is from 2006) and discussed possible trails to hike. It was kind of a Goldilocks’ situation where some hikes were too long, and some hikes too hard, but my son decided we should hike Falls Creek Falls, which turned out to be just right!

Just outside of Carson, Washington in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest lies some pretty amazing and scenic places to hike. You are a stones throw from Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and the Columbia Gorge. It really is the perfect Northwest Trifecta, if you are like us and into that sort of thing. Driving from Portland, it will take just shy of 1.5 hours to get to the trail head, unless you are like me, happily chatting away, completely missing the Bridge of the Gods exit 44 and making your way to Hood River and having to back track on Hwy 14 (oops!). That will take 2.5 hours. It was a bad navigational day to be sure, but is making for a good story and that is all part of the adventure, right? Right! You will need to pay a $1.00 toll each way to cross the Bridge of the Gods.

Once you make your way through Carson, up Wind River Road (which is also known as Hwy 30), turning onto Wind River Road for .6 miles, then turning onto USFSR 3620 and then on to USFSR 57, you will drive to the end of the road, you will come to the trail head (see link for more detailed directions in the nitty gritty section above). Roads and the trail are well marked. One interesting thing we saw on our drive in (along the gravel road) was a sign where road 3620 splits to 57. It talked about the trees on our right (or behind us if we were standing in front of the sign) being our native Ponderosa Pines, and the trees in front of us being a collection of various pines that had been collected from other parts of the country. This was an experiment done by the National Forest Service to see which types of pine tree grows best in our environment. Based on what they saw, our native Ponderosa’s grew bigger faster than the other pines proving native plants were best in this area. It was quite interesting especially since the study was started in the first half of the 20th Century.

This trail head currently does not require the Northwest Wilderness Pass for parking. It is free to park here. Once you get to the trail head you will find a composting toilet if you need it and a handy info board letting you know of some of the things to be looking for (like Steelhead Salmon, Hermit Warblers and Western Tanagers). At the trail head there is a really nice picnic table in case you brought lunch or a snack with you and want to sit and enjoy it before or after your hike. It is a good spot to lace up your boots (we like to bring shoes to change into after hikes, just for comfort and if we happen to be tromping through mud, it contains the mess…a little).

I have not been able to find a proper trail map online for this hike. William Sullivan has a trail map he has drawn in his book (the one pictured above). To give you an idea of what it looks like, the map here is from my GPS from the trail head, up to the falls view-point and back to the trail head. When you are there, the path is very straight forward and you would have a hard time getting lost.

This hike was also considered “not crowded” according to online descriptions, but I think the secret got out. There were quite a few people there. The parking lot was full when we left and we passed quite a few people on the trail. Even with the various people, it was still really pleasant and there were some very peaceful places.

The hike starts off as a very flat walk that gradually works into a slight incline. You come to this wonderfully shaded wooded area, with dappled sunshine streaking through, where the creek turns to the left and ripples over the rocks. We heard the Tanagers calling in this area and were looking for their yellow/red heads. We didn’t see them. This would also be a great place to look for salmon swimming up-stream (sadly we didn’t get to see them either). It was in contrast to the area just up ahead where the creek flows through a small canyon and you have to cross a very sturdy suspension bridge to get across. To be honest this was one of the main draws for the Lad. I think suspension bridges must be a favorite thing for most kids! We had a quick look up and down the canyon before continuing on. From here the trail really starts to have more of an elevation gain. The trail is mostly level, however there are some places that have been worn away by our wet weather and a little extra dexterity is required to walk at a bit of a slant. Kids should do just fine here, but the really littles might need mom or dad to hold their hand and help them.

We found the trails to be very well maintained and easy to walk. There are a few roots sticking up and some rocks you need to cross over, but if you are watching your step it is a very easy trail. You get to walk through a forest with large pines, cedars and firs. You are surrounded by native plants like ferns, Oregon Grape, Vine Maples and lots of salal. The salal berries were not quite ripe as last weekend, but they are getting close as were the Oregon Grapes. Both are edible, but make sure you know your plants before foraging to stay safe. Not everything is edible for humans.

As the walk continues, you get to cross a second bridge, which was an added bonus for our guy. This one goes over what was a dry creek bed while we were there, but from what I saw, it looks to be where a  good amount of water during certain times of year flow. The mossy boulders all stacked on top of each other in this area look positively cuddly, and it was fun to see which shapes we could see as we looked at them (sort of like seeing pictures in clouds). The moss layers added to the fun.

After about a 1.25 miles you will come to a “Y” in the trail. There is a trail that goes off to the left and is marked as the Falls Creek Trail. This trail will take you to the top of the waterfall (go up the trail and turn right at the junction for the top of the falls, then back track but go straight and follow the trail back to the parking area). If you stay to the right, after about a quarter of a mile, this will take you past a beautiful mossy cliff area to the view-point of the falls.

At the view-point there is a nice flat area to sit and have a snack and watch the water flow over the tiered-falls. I know some will argue this with me, but I find this waterfall more beautiful than Multnomah Falls. While Multnomah Falls is beautiful, this one gives us such a different look that what we are used to, you get to be closer to the power, and there are far fewer people to deal with to get a good view. You feel nestled into a beautiful section of forest and can feel the light spray of the water on your face. We risked it and make our way up to the first tier of the waterfall.  There is a rough trail that has been etched into the hill by people trying to get up there after scrambling up the boulders, but it is risky and tough and I don’t recommend it.

On the hike back to the car we stopped at this little spot along the creek to enjoy the cool shade.  Plus, it is fun to race small sticks down the water.  My son enjoyed plopping a few small stones in the creek as well.  The water is particularly cold, so we stayed out of it, but it was a nice place to take a small rest and cool off as the temperatures were going up.

This hike was really great and a welcome change from our hike the previous weekend through a very urban environment (read about our 4T Trail hike here). We already have plans to get back sooner than later so we can take my husband along. We will probably make that left turn at the Y junction and go to the top of the falls the next time though. We highly recommend this hike!

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