Actors and Processes in the Waterfall Experience

The experiences people seek at waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge are influenced by a variety of actors and processes. Despite physical features like the waterfalls themselves and access infrastructure such as The Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway bearing key influence on the waterfall experience, several other aspects were difficult to define. Such difficulty stems from the fact that the experiences people seek at waterfalls are equally, if not more, influenced by individual motives and perceptions of scenic beauty as characteristics of the waterfall itself. The actors that influence an individual’s reason for going to a waterfall in the first place are abstract, highly variable, and nearly impossible to pin down without direct survey data. Although motives for visitation are difficult to distinguish as an actor, guidebooks, waterfall photography in social media, waterfall accessibility, and overall perceptions of scenic beauty (although not yet clearly defined) all seemed to be appropriate actors that influence the waterfall experience. In my c-map, these actors are sorted as physical (i.e. the waterfall itself or access infrastructure), conceptual (perceptions of scenic beauty), or a mix of both (the waterfall experience, management agencies, etc.). The actors that mix the physical and conceptual involve both mental conception as well as physical action or characteristics.

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Guidebook information and photos that appear on social media can be powerful precursors to the waterfall experience. They motivate people to travel to a waterfall, incite curiosity, and shape expectations. Two of the most prominent guidebooks regarding waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge are Gregory Plum’s, A Waterfall Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest, and Russ Schneider’s Hiking The Columbia River Gorge. These contain descriptions accessibility, photos rendering waterfall appearance, and details on what visitors should expect. These books contain full sections regarding the Multnomah Falls recreation area as well as Latourell Falls. In Plumb’s book, “each waterfall is keyed for accessibility by car, foot, or boat, and rated for form, magnitude, watershed, elevation, and aesthetics” (Plumb, 2). Such information primes visitors for the waterfall experience and can motivate travel. Photos seen on instagram also dictate what destinations tourists perceive as notable (Man). This also ties in with perceptions of scenic beauty as people are drawn to images that they think are attractive or appealing. If images of Latourell or Multnomah Falls frequently appear in their feed, these destinations will inevitably be on their mind. Also, if a visitor sees photos of their friends having enjoyable or memorable experiences at these waterfalls, they will be even more motivated to visit. 

Although pre-conceived notions through guidebooks and social media shape the mindscape of  a waterfall experience, modes of accessibility facilitate the firsthand journey. The proximity of Multnomah Falls to I-84 and it’s paved trail make it an easily reached destination. Latourell Falls is also near 1-84 but is more directly accessed via the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway. The trail to the waterfall’s base is also paved but not quite as immediately accessible as Multnomah. The trail leading above the falls also remains open, allowing visitors to choose a longer excursion if desired. It is also important to note the significance of Eagle Creek Fire in 2017 as it severely limited access to areas above Multnomah Falls and closed much of the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway. Ignited in the Eagle Creek basin, the fire merged with the previously burning Indian Creek Fire to create one of the largest and most destructive wildfires in Oregon’s history. The fire burned upwards of 48,000 acres, temporarily closing I-84, raining ash upon Portland, and decimating the Gorge’s trail system (USFS). Multnomah Falls was also scorched, altering its once lush appearance, and confining visitors to the developed viewing area along I-84. Effects of the fire are not as noticeable in the forest surrounding Latourell Falls. However, crowding has increased here as people have a much more limited number of accessible waterfalls to choose from after so many being closed.

Significant actors that manage the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area are the Columbia Gorge Commission and the U.S. Forest Service. The aim of these agencies is to enforce and maintain goals listed in the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area Act. This act aims to “protect large, populous, and geopolitically-complex areas which, for a variety of reasons (especially political), may be unsuitable for more traditional protection as a national park or national recreation area” (Bowen, 867). The act protects both natural and cultural resources, considering urban settlement in the gorge as well as preservation of the natural surroundings. It also drew boundaries for a patchwork of public and private lands (Bowen). Nowadays, the Columbia River Gorge Commission works with the US Forest Service to manage the area, including it’s waterfalls, their access infrastructure and the forest that surrounds. Proper management of the area heavily influences the quality of experience for visitors and waterfall accessibility. These agencies will also play a large role in post-fire recovery and decision making regarding renewed accessibility in the coming years.


Bowen Jr. Blair, “The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area: The Act, Its Genesis and Legislative History,” Environmental Law 17, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 863-970


Plumb, G. (1998). A waterfall lover’s guide to the Pacific Northwest : Where to find hundreds of spectacular waterfalls in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho (3rd ed.). Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers.

USFS. “About the Forest.” Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area – Our Mission.

USFS. “Fire Management.” Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area – Fire Management.

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