White River Falls, Oregon

by Scott Setterberg June 11, 2020

White River Falls, Oregon

Hidden between ancient flood plateaus and high desert farmland in eastern Oregon's Tygh Valley, White River Falls State Park is home to an outstanding double-tiered waterfall that drops into a rugged basalt gorge near an abandoned hydroelectric power station that once energized and irrigated the region.  

Originating 40 miles away on towering Mt. Hood, the White River incorporates several tributaries as it winds downstream before finally merging with the Deschutes River.  As it carves through the Tygh Valley, the river divides the stunning plateaus that are scattered throughout eastern Oregon and the rolling windblown farmlands that produce Oregon's food.

Known as central Oregon’s mini-Niagara, White River Falls is actually two separate waterfalls and each has its own name.  The upper falls bear the same name as the small, rustic state park and plunge 90 feet over a wide horseshoe-shaped ridge of basalt, dividing into several individual plumes throughout much of the year.  At the height of spring runoff, the complete ridge can be submerged, creating a roaring panel of water measuring 250 feet wide.  The lower tier stands 45 feet tall, and in 2014, was formally named Celestial Falls due to the emerald pool below the falls. 

Both Oregon waterfalls are visible from viewpoints near the parking area, but in order to capture their full majesty, the trail should be followed down an incline parallel to the falls, to a wooden walkway that rests above the old settling pond that once stopped rocks and debris from entering the power plant turbines.  Continuing across the walkway, the trail turns right and leads down a dusty path through fragrant sagebrush to wide open viewpoints of Celestial Falls and partially obstructed vistas of the upper falls.  

Lower White River Falls, OregonDownstream from the base of Celestial Falls, the decaying, graffiti-covered remains of the power station sit, and are a stark contrast to the natural beauty of the spectacular waterfalls.  Because the falls are located in a fertile agricultural region, Pacific Power and Light built the now defunct power plant in 1901, and supplied electricity to Wasco and Sherman Counties until 1963.  Since then, local governmental agencies have made several unsuccessful attempts to renew the hydroelectric project.  The crumbling building and generators inside provide wonderful opportunities to capture colorful compositions filled with a variety of industrial textures. 

White River Falls Power PlantAfter exploring the power station, most people are content with returning to the parking area and leaving White River Falls.  What they fail to realize is that from the ridge to the east, high above the state park, a fantastic perspective of both waterfalls and Mt. Hood in the distance awaits.  At sunset, the view from this perch is one of a kind and jaw-dropping photographs can be produced there.

White River Falls Sunset, Oregon
One of the tips my first photography instructor instilled in me is that, no matter how gorgeous the scene is in front of your camera, always turn around and look behind you.  With such a hypnotizing spectacle happening to the west, it's easy to become enamored and not heed this advice.  But when you do, you will be rewarded, and depending on the time of year, you can capture a sensational moonrise over the Tygh Valley to the east.  

White River Falls MoonriseWhite River Falls is an oddly out of place jewel that showcases incredible Oregon landscape photography opportunities and industrial masterpieces.  We explore White River Falls on our Oregon Photo Tours and invite you to join us. 

Scott Setterberg
Scott Setterberg