Monitoring the Waterfall Experience

My revised focus question addresses the experiences people seek at waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge. To what extent are these experiences being fulfilled? I’m going to guide my focus towards visitor experience at Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s most famous waterfall, and draw comparisons to the impact of accessibility at Latourell Falls. This comparison will mainly serve to inform the extent to which crowding and accessibility impacts the quality of people’s experiences at these waterfalls. Multnomah Falls is easily accessible but the trail leading beyond the base of the falls is closed, limiting a visitor’s experience to the highly populated and developed viewing area. This also places limitations on visitors as a wilderness excursion is not possible here due to access restrictions from fire damage. At Latourell Falls, the trail leading above the waterfall remains open, allowing visitors to chose between viewing the waterfall with minimal effort or embarking on a longer hike.

To tackle the question of experience, several variables must be considered. One of these includes trends in visitor’s pre-conceived notions, if any at all, about the waterfall they plan to visit. Some people may already be in the area without intentions of visiting a waterfall and stumble upon the falls by accident. What compelled them to stop and explore the waterfall at moments notice? Another variable involves trends in emotional or physical responses to the waterfall. How does being in the presence of a waterfall impact people’s emotional state and physical actions? The overall quality of people’s experiences at Multnomah and Latourell Falls will also be considered in relation to accessibility as well as crowding.

The overall approach to addressing my focus question will involve survey data from visitors. I also plan to investigate tourist literature and photography with certain theoretical frameworks in mind to draw conclusions about how waterfalls are perceived. Author Brian J. Hudson constructed a useful model for literature analysis of the waterfall experience. His model draws upon several theoretical frameworks like notions of the “sublime” and “picturesque” to understand the appeal of waterfalls. Tourism scholar Ovar Lofgren describes the notion of picturesque as “a certain way of selecting, framing, and representing views. It taught tourists not only where to look but also how to sense the landscape and experience it” (Lofgren, 19). In this sense, a picturesque scene is one that meets the eye as a satisfying picture – a scene that’s enjoyable to look at. Such views are comparable to paintings and photography that show a desirable view, like postcards of Multnomah Falls. According to Hudson, waterfalls have picturesque appeal because of their sublime qualities. Sublimity differs from picturesque as the sublime is “related to the ‘delightful horror’ that we experience at the prospect of danger when, in fact, we are detached or protected from any real threat” (Hudson, 75). Waterfalls can be scary and overwhelming places but when seen from a safe vantage point, their intimidating aspects contribute to a thrilling experience. 

Hudson also draws on habitat and project refuge theory to investigate the appeal of waterfalls. Originally penned by Jay Appleton, habitat theory “postulates that aesthetic pleasure in landscape derives from the observer experiencing an environment favorable to the satisfaction of his biological needs” (Appleton, 73). The presence of fresh water is essential for the existence of life itself and signs of life in wet places carry a strong attraction for humans. Water contributes greatly to the fundamental appeal of a landscape, so waterfalls owe some of their basic appeal to being aqueous features. However, unlike lakes or placid rivers, they announce their presence to the ear before the eye, hinting at the existence of freshwater before it is seen (Hudson, 2000). Appleton’s concept of project refuge theory connects to the idea of sublimity as it describes the inherent dangers associated with waterfalls themselves. In his long list of hazard types, the hazards pertaining to waterfalls include: aquatic (risk of drowning), locomotion (associated with movement, particularly falling), instability (risk of landslide), meteorological (risk of discharge fluctuation from weather conditions), and impediment risk concerning waterfalls as barriers to travel (Appleton, 1996). Despite so many dangers being associated with waterfalls, aspects of risk promote wonder and draw people to waterfalls. I plan to keep these theories in mind when reviewing literature and photographs. 

A useful analytical tool for measurement of landscape aesthetics that I plan to incorporate into my survey is the scenic beauty estimation method. This method conceptualizes scenic beauty as an interactive concept as it is neither in “the eye of the beholder” or solely based on an isolated aspect of the landscape. Rather it is “inferred from a judgement made by a human observer in response to their perception of a landscape” (Boster, 13). The Scenic Beauty Estimation (SBE) method quantifies such judgments on a scale from 1 (extremely low scenic beauty) to 10 (extremely high scenic beauty). This scale involves making criterion values for each number as people’s past experiences or pre-conceived notions of beauty will influence their standards (Boster). It will also be important not to over or underestimate people’s standards when it comes to a 1 or a 10. Estimated scale values can be derived from the judgments of a number of observers at a variety of different waterfalls. Another tool I plan to incorporate into my survey are visual research methods pertaining to standards of quality.  Visual research methods can help “standardize research on standards of quality by presenting a series of nearly constant images for all respondents” (Manning, 2). In this case, the series of images would depict various stages of crowding at a Multnomah or Latourell Falls and represent different scenarios under which a person would visit. The respondent would choose the image containing the level of crowding they would prefer. Such analysis would aid in pinpointing what kinds of experiences people ideally seek at a waterfall in relation to levels of visitation.


Appleton, Jay. The Experience of Landscape. Rev. ed. Chichester; New York: Wiley, 1996.

This book describes a new theoretical approach to landscape aesthetics including habitat and project-refuge theory.

Daniel, T., Boster, Ron S, United States, & Rocky Mountain Forest Range Experiment Station. (1976). Measuring landscape esthetics: The scenic beauty estimation method. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station.

This study provides a thorough investigation of the Scenic Beauty Estimation Method and how it measures aesthetic preferences for alternative management practices.

Hudson, B.J. “The Experience of Waterfalls.” Australian Geographical Studies 38, no. 1 (2000): 71-84.

Hudson’s paper describes the appeal of waterfalls through various theoretical approaches including the picturesque and sublime as well as project-refuge. While no single theory can explain the appeal of waterfalls, this paper stresses the importance of utilizing several conceptual frameworks to fully understand how people respond to the presence of a waterfall.

Löfgren, Orvar. On Holiday: A History of Vacationing. California Studies in Critical Human Geography ; 6. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

In this book, Lofgren investigates “elsewhereness” as a human pursuit regarding what people search for in their travel destinations. He also shares extensive historical background regarding eighteenth-century pioneers of tourism and how two centuries of “learning to be a tourist” has shaped methods of travel.

Manning, R. E., & Freimund, W. A. (2004). Use of visual research methods to measure standards of quality for parks and outdoor recreation. Journal of Leisure Research, 36(4), 557-579.

This source provides a detailed description on how visual research methods have been utilized for standards of quality in outdoor spaces. Manning also shares a variety of methods involved in monitoring visitor’s experiences at a certain site.



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