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Hidden off-trail waterfall in Washington State’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Canyoning, Off-Trail Hiking, and Brews in the Pacific Northwest

This blog post is part of our Discover the Northwest story series where we work with some of our favorite local explorers by asking them to go on an adventure, take over our Instagram Stories and create a blog post about the adventure life. This post was written by Ryan Ernst, who has been exploring the many creeks in the Northwest for their rarely seen slot canyons and waterfalls for many years.

Welcome to the Northwest in the Fall! The Portland Metro receives about 5 inches of rain during November, the month I’m writing this post, so embracing the wet weather is a must. My partner loves a good mountain view hike but those essentially are replaced with fogginess. So what do we do instead? We look for waterfalls by off-trail hiking and canyoning! And we celebrate our finds with beer!

Hunting for waterfalls is one of my favorite things to do. Some people geek out on tv shows or the latest Oscar-nominated movie but I search google earth for waterfalls that have little to no documentation. I have been doing it for about five years, and being able to enjoy a new spot with very few people is something that I cherish.


My normal weekend outings consist of an emerging sport in the Northwest called “Canyoning.” It is the blending of hiking, swimming, technical rope work, navigating, and many other skills to help one get from point A to point B. Although I haven’t been taught in formal settings, I learned through mentorship. For anyone interested, the Mazamas in Portland or The Mountaineers in Seattle have trainings in the spring and summer.

Man in red wetsuit climbing up a rockface in the middle of a long waterfall. The waterfall is in a deep canyon in a forest Zooming in, we see the man hanging from a rope in a canyon. Two other climbers are standing below him in a small creek at the bottom of the canyon

So, what do I like about canyoning? I love the unknown. I love being literally trapped and needing to find a way out. How do we do this? Using various anchor building techniques such as bolting, wrapping webbing around trees or boulders, or even using each other as anchors.

What gear is needed for a canyon trip? Using canyon specific gear is pretty much a must. Climbing gear is normally not built for what I do. Some good brands are Adventure Verticale, Imlay, and Sterling’s Canyon Rope. We use both wetsuits and drysuits depending on water temperature and suspected time in the water. We mostly buy our boots from a small company in Spain that uses a special rubber compound that allows us to grip the rocks nicely. We also use static ropes to ensure a nice and controlled rappel. Using a normal climbing rope would be very bouncy and not preferred.

Waterfall exploration and drinking great craft beer in Washington and Oregon

Off-Trail Hiking

For my adventure with Pyramid Brewing I’ll be focusing on off-trail hiking, without ropes. When I first began to travel to off-trail locations I learned quickly that downloading the maps to my phone was crucial. I normally use google maps and GAIA to accomplish this goal and put a pin to where I think a waterfall may be.

I first look for good indicators for finding potential waterfalls. I toggle between the top overlay and the google earth overlay. If topo shows tight lines along a creek then I switch back to the earth overlay to see if I can see any white water falling over the potential cliff band. Google Earth also has a nice feature that allows you to go back into time to see if the imagery is any better. I then size up my options and any roads that may help me get to the waterfall.

Search Google maps for secret waterfalls in the Northwest Close up of the map. The path is labelled 'Tight topo lines are the giveaway, Waterfall as suspected via topo overlay.' The same view in google satellite view, displaying a waterfall.

Using Google Earth can help you see if the road has any washouts, gates, or rough areas which all come into play if you are going to be successful on your trip. Also imagery can help plan the best path. I’ve learned that it pays off to avoid swamps, old logging areas, and private property. It is important to know what is public land and what isn’t—there have been a time or two where I literally had to run from an angry property owner! GAIA helps keep you where you want to be.

So you’re probably asking, what is so cool about going to a waterfall in the midst of a month that receives so much rain? Well, in some cases, the rain is what brings the waterfall back to life! Waterfalls are fed a few different ways, including glaciers, springs, and RAIN! Usually as the summer goes by, the lower elevation waterfalls begin to look like trickles so when the rain kicks back in they become raging torrents.

Drinking Pyramid beer and enjoying beautiful hidden waterfalls

Where can you go to see cool waterfalls in the Northwest? Almost anywhere! Practically every mountain pass from Southern Oregon up to Canada is loaded with cool spots. On any weekend you can find me in the Mt. Hood National Forest or the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Just make sure that when you pack, everything is charged so you can capture the special moments along the hike. You’re also going to need some post-hike Pyramid beers. I find it fortunate that I enjoy walking in creeks because getting my beer to the right temperature in a hurry happens best in the waters from which Pyramid is brewed!

Above you can see that I have a spot on the map in the Gifford Pinchot where I believed an undocumented waterfall is waiting for me. I was right, and on my way I also passed by one of the many lava tube caves and some really large trees.

Lava tubes near the Lewis River and Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Just this last Saturday I took my son and partner to a classic off-trail hike near the headwaters of the Lewis River. We arrived and I realized I left our child carrier at the house. “Oops” I said, “I guess I get to carry Jr down to the falls.” 300 vertical feet down and I was winded. I don’t recommend this option often but I am well experienced in off-trail hiking with 30-40lbs of gear on my back. We reached the bottom and my 2 year old screamed “BIG WAWA FALL!” I loved it. We enjoyed our time and headed back to our cabin to unwind with a couple Apricot Ales.

The next day I headed out to see if I could locate a waterfall that topography maps suggested would be there. I shot down a steep hillside and made my way to the creek and to my excitement there was a really cool, and unique waterfall. On my way back I stopped by the Lava Bridges to see if there was any Fall color still around. I found that peak colors were probably a couple of weeks ago but I walked above and below them in amazement. The formation of the bridges are from old lava flows that eventually head underground. The area around this special place is said to have over 400 lava tubes. I love the Pacific Northwest!


Ryan Ernst

Exploring the Pacific Northwest’s forests, trees, and waterfalls