Shawn Bolker                                                                                                                                

The Allure of Waterfalls

A scholarly essay presented by

Shawn Bolker

To the Lewis and Clark College department of Environmental Studies

in partial fulfillment for the degree of

Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies

Lewis and Clark College

Portland, Oregon

May 4th, 2019


Waterfalls are dynamic landforms that provide some of the world’s most astonishing scenes. Whether thundering cataracts or elegant cascades, these exquisite natural wonders are inherently attractive to humans, drawing hordes of visitors every year. This scholarly essay examines the allure of waterfalls through the investigation of waterfall experiences at Multnomah and Latourell Falls in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon. This study is framed by the question: What is the allure of waterfalls? More specifically: What experiences do people seek at waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge and to what extent are these experiences being fulfilled? At waterfalls, people seek an escape from the ordinary in the form of an intimate and dynamic sensory experience. People’s expectations for the waterfall experience are primed by images that emphasize sublime and picturesque qualities of the landscape. People’s experiences are fulfilled both through the lively physical involvement of being at a waterfall and a desired experience which is preserved through the photos they take. This question of experience was addressed through surveying one hundred visitors at waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge. Quantitative results were graphed and analyzed through an inferential t-test. Qualitative results were analyzed through voyant-tools to uncover key words and trends. To gain notions of preconceived experience, photographs were examined through the frameworks of the beautiful, sublime, and picturesque. Travel literature was also considered. Aesthetic appreciation of waterfalls impacts how we value and use beautiful landscapes. Conflict between increasing access to beautiful landscapes and aesthetic preservation are also considered.


I would like to thank everyone who helped me in the process of writing my scholarly essay and constructing my story map alternative outcome. In particular, I would like to thank Elizabeth Safran for her tireless support. Thank you for meeting with me throughout the process to discuss ideas pertaining to my capstone, for your shared knowledge and interest in waterfalls, and for your extremely constructive feedback. I also would like to thank Jim Proctor and Jessica Kleiss for their immense dedication to the ENVS program at Lewis & Clark College. Many thanks to Bruce Podobnik for meeting with me to help conduct inferential statistics on my quantitative survey results. Thanks to my classmates in ENVS 400 for your support and collaboration throughout the process. Lastly, I would like to thank my mom for giving me the opportunity to attend Lewis & Clark College and for her undying love and support.


The aesthetic appeal of landscape shapes human admiration of our natural surroundings. Notions of landscape aesthetics are rooted in the ideas of 18th century philosophers like Immanuel Kant who viewed “nature as an ideal object of aesthetic experience” (Carlson, 2009).  Aesthetic appreciation of notable landforms like mountains are based on behavioral relationships between the observer and their surroundings. A landscape’s scenic characteristics shape an observer’s experience and behavioral responses (Appleton, 1996). Behavioral responses to striking landscapes stem from both preconceived notions of aesthetic value and firsthand sensorial experience (Carlson, 2009). Appreciation of a landscape also stems from a place’s aesthetic character. According to author Emily Brady, aesthetic character is “the particular aesthetic qualities that make [a landscape] distinctive and distinguish it from others” (Brady, 2002). Although the concept of aesthetic character is inherently subjective and can be applied to any physical location, aesthetic appreciation does influence the protection of beautiful landscapes. The aesthetic characteristics of a landscape impacts how it is valued by humans and put to use (Brady, 2002). Aesthetic appreciation of scenic places has been a significant motivator behind their conservation, especially in America. The notion of landscape preservation on the basis of scenic beauty amongst other factors like cultural significance and protection of natural resources has been key to the establishment of many National Parks and National Scenic Areas.

 The aesthetic character of a place stems from it’s perceptual qualities. This includes its effect on all the senses, including taste (Brady, 2002). Landscapes that contain flowing water are particularly stimulating to the senses - especially those of sight and sound (Carlson, 2009). Among the most striking of freshwater landforms are waterfalls. Their dynamism, sensorial stimulation, and aesthetic appeal make them alluring attractions. Waterfalls are also locations of geologic and cultural importance. Waterfalls act as distinct, yet transient boundaries in a watershed and shape a stream’s morphology as they erode (Hudson, 2012). The presence of notable waterfalls in an area can also provide key incentives for visitation and tourist development (Hudson, 2012).

 According to author Brian J. Hudson, a waterfall is defined as “a vertical or very steep descent in a watercourse of 75° or greater” (Hudson, 2012). Waterfalls are unevenly distributed and the conditions required for them to occur are highly localized. Mountainous areas with a wet climate generally harbor the highest concentrations of perennial waterfalls. Waterfalls are formed by the erosive action of flowing water in conjunction with differences in bedrock strength, layering, and type (Hudson, 2012). As a river erodes its bed, it creates a longitudinal profile which tends towards a smooth curve. A river’s gradient is steeper near its headwaters and levels out near the mouth (Wohl, 2000). Differential rates of erosion can create irregularities in the stream bed (Wohl, 2000). Abrupt steepening of a river’s longitudinal profile from uplift, sea level fall, or uneven erosive patterns result in the formation of  “knickpoints” which often manifest as rapids or waterfalls (Hudson, 2012). Knickpoints propagate upstream as they erode, creating distinct boundaries between adjusting and relict topography.  Rates of propagation depend on rock strength, rock type, jointing, and layering (Lamb, 2009). Such bedrock properties, combined with stream flow and gradient shape a waterfall’s appearance (Stachelrodt, 1971).

Apart from their geologic importance, waterfalls have long been significant locations for human visitation. Most of the world’s best known waterfalls are located in North America and Europe. This is primarily due to developed means of access, outstanding aesthetic qualities, and proximity to major population centers (Husdon, 2012). Niagara Falls is a prime example of a famous, highly developed waterfall that has gained renown through the means described by Hudson. Although the waterfall itself is voluminous and spectacular, it is the accompanying human developments that have solidified the waterfall as a longtime global attraction (Wurst, 2011). A mere seventeen miles from the major city of Buffalo, New York, and surrounded by the towns of Niagara Falls (New York and Ontario), this waterfall has no shortage of human development. Numerous hotels, restaurants, casinos, museums, highways, and visitor centers surround the falls. It is even possible to take the “Maid of the Mist” boat tour for up close views of the waterfall while being blasted by its powerful mist. In Europe, waterfalls like Rhine Falls in northeast Switzerland have emerged as tourist attractions for similar reasons. Aside from being the largest waterfall by volume in mainland Europe, the town of Neuhausen am Rheinfall borders the waterfall on its northern side. Although not a populous as the city of Niagara Falls, Neuhausen am Rheinfall contains plentiful tourist amenities and developed means of access. The waterfall can be viewed easily from the town itself and boat tours are available here as well (Northeast Switzerland, 1999).

Motives behind waterfall visitation have shifted over time and vary amongst geographical locations. In Japan, waterfalls hold unique spiritual significance. Waterfalls hold special importance to the beliefs and rituals of the Shugendo religion. Shugendo is a highly syncretic religious practice that blends aspects of pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Kannabi Shinko (belief that the mountains are home to the deceased and other spirits), shamanistic beliefs, Chinese Yin Yang practices, ascetic practices, and Esoteric Buddhism (Swanson, 2009). As a general rule, shugendo stresses the importance of physical endurance as a pathway to enlightenment. Shugendo practitioners visit waterfalls to perform feats of physical endurance in the form of austerities to achieve the goal of enlightenment (Earhart, 2011). This usually involves standing or sitting under a cold mountain waterfall for extended periods of time (Swanson, 2009). Waterfalls in Japan are also sites of religious pilgrimage, housing kami and deities. A prime example of this can be found at Nachi Falls, a popular stop along the Kumano-Kodo pilgrimage route (Rodríguez, 2007). Here, Shinto priests make offerings to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy who is believed to reside atop the waterfall (Rodríguez, 2007). Although waterfalls in Japan are still spiritual locations, most modern visitors come without religious intent. The majority of visitors come to witness the landscape’s aesthetic qualities, take photos, and appreciate the unique experience waterfalls have to offer, not for a transformative religious experience.

A waterfall’s appearance, accessibility, and cultural significance are key motives for visitation. The thrilling combination of sights and sounds at waterfalls create a dynamic sensorial experience (Hudson, 2000). A major component of the waterfall experience stems from the urge to experience the beautiful, sublime, and picturesque. Originated in the 18th century, these concepts hold predominant notions about how and why landscapes are aesthetically appreciated. Beautiful landforms tend to be smaller in scale, delicate, and “subtly varied” (Carlson, 2009). According to Hudson, sublimity is “related to the ‘delightful horror’ that we experience at the prospect of danger when, in fact, we are protected from any real threat” (Hudson, 2012). Waterfalls can be frightening and hazardous places but constitute a thrilling view when seen from a safe vantage point. The picturesque refers to “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, 1999). In this sense, a picturesque scene is one that meets the eye as a satisfying picture – a scene that’s enjoyable to look at. Tourists who visit waterfalls photograph “picturesque” scenes to preserve a desired experience or capture a scenic view (Hudson, 2006). The applicability of these concepts will be further explored through investigation of photography and firsthand waterfall experiences in the Columbia River Gorge.

Photography is a key motivator to waterfall visitation and sets up pre-conceived notions of a waterfall experience. Long before the emergence of image sharing platforms like instagram which allow visitors to “view” waterfalls beforehand, people’s expectations were shaped by photos seen in books, brochures, and paintings. Visual representations of waterfalls have long emphasized the sublime and picturesque - alluding to an astonishing experience. For example, 19th century artist J.M.V. Turner emphasized the “force of agitated water through fearless and full renderings of its forms” (Ruskin, 1907). Author Brian J. Hudson notes the tendency for photographers and painters to render images of waterfalls in full flow. It is noted how, “there is a common preference for flows in the upper range of stream capacity. Images of waterfalls found in travel and tourist literature and promotional material usually show them in full flow, very rarely when the discharge is slight” (Hudson, 2002). Although variance in discharge can make waterfalls exciting and dynamic places, visitors may find themselves disappointed to find a trickling falls when they were conditioned to expect a raging torrent from photos seen beforehand.

With regards to sensorial experience, waterfalls have picturesque appeal because of their sublime qualities. Many  larger or more significant waterfalls have been developed and advertised as primary attractions (Hudson, 2012). Since many waterfalls occur in narrow canyons, often tucked away from direct sight, “partial concealment” adds to their picturesque quality (Hudson, 2000). It is this combination of aesthetic appeal and unique sensorial stimulation that constitutes a waterfall experience. A waterfall’s scenic beauty is largely derived from such aesthetic appeal and sensory stimulation. Accessibility also impacts the waterfall experience. Waterfalls with developed access are generally more crowded and well known. Levels of crowding also influence a visitor’s time at a waterfall. Being at a waterfall with few others around can allude to a more peaceful, wild experience. However, overcrowding at a waterfall can ruin the peace for some and degrade the surrounding landscape (Hudson, 2012). Waterfall experiences can have a major impact on how a visitor comprehends the natural world. Understanding experience with consideration of scenic beauty, accessibility, crowding, and visitor motivation can lead to key insight why people visit waterfalls as distinct landforms. A comparison of two waterfalls based on the criteria above can also reveal important information on what visitors are looking for in their “waterfall experience” and what aesthetic qualities make a waterfall most desireable.

My research is motivated by the broad question of: What is the allure of waterfalls? More specifically: What experiences do people seek at waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge and to what extent are these experiences being fulfilled? At waterfalls, people seek an escape from the ordinary in the form of an intimate and dynamic sensory experience. People’s expectations for the waterfall experience are primed by images that emphasize sublime and picturesque qualities of the landscape. The actual experience often differs from what is romanticized in pictures due to heightened crowding, human development, and differences in landscape appearance - usually related to waterfall discharge or fire damage. Despite some disappointments, people’s experiences are generally being fulfilled - both through the dynamism of the firsthand waterfall visit and through the preservation of a desired experience in the photos people take.

Situated Context: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Map from USFS - Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is Oregon’s premiere waterfall destination, containing upwards of 80 waterfalls on the Oregon side alone! The Gorge itself is a massive canyon carved by the Columbia River that spans 80 miles from Troutdale to the Deschutes River Confluence (Topic, 1982). A combination of wet climate, bedrock tilt, mountainous topography, basaltic lava flows, and heavy erosion from the Columbia River contrasting with less erosive tributary streams makes the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge rich with waterfalls (Allen, 1979). Most of the Gorge’s waterfalls lie within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (NSA). This area was preserved by the National Scenic Area Act - a bill that was passed in October of 1986 (Bowen, 1987). The purpose of this act was twofold. The goals were (and still are), “To protect and enhance the scenic, cultural, recreational, and natural resources of the Gorge. [Also] to protect and support the economy of the Gorge by encouraging sustainable growth in existing urban areas and by allowing future economic development in a manner that is consistent with the above purpose” (Bowen, 1987). The second purpose of economic growth has to be carried out in a manner that serves the first purpose, protection and enhancement of Gorge resources.

 The act was written by Friends of the Columbia River Gorge from 1980 to 1985 (Bowen, 1987) Friends are a non-profit organization dedicated to protection of the area. Although Friends originally intended to declare the Gorge as a national park, this goal became infeasible due to existing towns, railroads, dams, and a Northwest congressional delegation that supported U.S. Forest Service management (Bowen, 1987). Designating the place as a national scenic area was a worthy compromise as it protected the area’s scenic beauty while encouraging economic sustainability for its 40,000 plus residents. Today, the NSA is managed by the Columbia River Gorge in partnership with the United States Forest Service (USFS, 1992).

        The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area draws millions of visitors each year. Interstate 84 and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Highway are the two main thoroughfares of the area (USFS, 1992). The construction of the Columbia River Gorge Historic Highway (built between 1913 and 1922) was a key step towards developing the area as a tourist destination.  It was the first planned “scenic” roadway built in the United States (FHA, 2018). Upon completion, it was considered by the American Society of Civil Engineers to be “a destination onto itself” (FHA, 2018). This highway allowed visitors to easily access notable landmarks like Multnomah Falls and increased levels of visitation to the area (Prohaska, 1987). Human development and the construction of access infrastructure also occurred at waterfalls in the Gorge. Construction of the Multnomah Falls Lodge allowed visitors to stay overnight at the waterfall. Completed in 1925, the lodge was meant to provide visitors with a comfortable and luxurious stay. The lodge offered plentiful amenities including a restaurant and bar. Along with the lodge, footpaths to the waterfall and the iconic Benson Bridge were also completed in 1925 (Prohaska, 1987). To this day, the lodge is an essential stop for people visiting Multnomah Falls. At the lodge they can buy food, souvenirs, and gain information from the visitor center.

Within the Columbia River Gorge, my focus is cast towards visitor experience at Multnomah and Latourell Falls - both located along the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway. Multnomah Falls is a segmented, plunge (USDA, 2018). It’s proximity to I-84, easy access, and claim to fame as Oregon’s tallest waterfall makes it a sought after attraction. A paved trail, #441, ascends to the top of the falls, crossing the Benson Bridge which spans between the two drops (Mueller, 1997). Visitors can park in one of several large parking areas along Interstate 84 or the Historic Highway and walk a short distance on a paved trail to the falls. The Multnomah Falls Lodge lies at the trailhead, providing amenities to visitors. Multnomah Falls was burned Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 which marred the surrounding vegetation and prevented travel beyond the Benson Bridge for almost two years. The fire severely limited accessibility in the Gorge and changed the area’s aesthetic character through burning much of the once lush vegetation. Despite fire damages, Trail #411 re-opened recently in January of 2019, allowing hikers to once again climb to the top of Multnomah Falls. Roughly eight miles to the west, Latourell Falls can be found at Guy W. Talbot State Park (Mueller, 1997). It is a lofty plunge-type waterfall that hurdles over a massive wall of layered basalt. It can also be easily accessed from the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway but less amenities can be found here than at Multnomah Falls. This waterfall was virtually unaffected by the Eagle Creek Fire. A short paved trail leads to the waterfall’s base while a longer dirt trail leads to an upper falls (Mueller, 1997).


The question of waterfall experience was assessed through a combination of several methodologies. To gage pre-conceived notions of experience, I investigated how Multnomah and Latourell Falls are advertised to visitors. This included examination of photos and textual descriptions of the waterfalls from various time periods. Photographs taken in the early 20th century are contrasted with recent images from the 21st century to trace how Multnomah and Latourell Falls have been advertised over time. Textual descriptions from modern tourism websites are also examined. With regards to photography, I investigated images with the sublime and picturesque in mind. A photo holds sublime characteristics if the waterfall is shown as large or overpowering, a point of great admiration (Appleton, 1996). Sublimity can also be conveyed through “astonishing” scenes in which the central object commands fixation (Burke, 1757). Sublime photos aim to elicit emotional responses of awe and wonder from the viewer “through experiences of nature’s vastness” (Burke, 1757).  In a “picturesque” view, the waterfall takes up less space and appears more as a complementary aspect of a broader landscape (Hudson, 2000). According to author William Gilpin, picturesque photos “contain a variety of elements, curious details, and interesting textures, conveyed in a palette of dark to light that brings these details to life” (Gilpin, 1794). Although picturesque photos often contain a central object, a wider scope allows the viewer to see the picture as a detailed scene with dynamic characteristics. I also examined how photographers utilize “partial concealment” to encite visitor curiosity or enhance picturesque qualities of their photos. In photography, partial concealment is when the object of focus is somewhat hidden, still visible but not in entirety (Hudson, 2000).

To directly assess what experiences people are seeking at waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge and the extent to which these are being fulfilled, I conducted a survey. The survey was constructed on google forms and was given orally. I typed people’s responses into the form as they spoke. I collected a total of 100 responses, 50 at Multnomah Falls and 50 at Latourell Falls. I talked to people at various locations around each waterfall: at the parking lot, on the trail, and at the waterfall viewing area. It was important to move around the waterfall area during surveillance to gain a well rounded view of people’s experiences. My period of surveillance lasted from late October through early February - late fall to mid winter. I went on a total of six outings to collect responses, visiting both Multnomah and Latourell Falls every time, collecting an equal number of responses from each location. In autumn of 2018, the dates of my visits were: October 27th, November 3rd, and November 11th. In winter of 2019, I conducted surveillance on January 31st, February 2nd, and February 4th. Most of these dates fell on weekends, except for January 31st and February 4th which were weekdays.

In my survey, I asked visitors about their reasons for visitation, expectations, and overall experience. I then asked whether their firsthand experience met, fell short of, or exceeded their expectations. To quantify perspectives, I asked visitors to rate each waterfall by means of scenic beauty, accessibility, and crowding on a scale from 1-10. The exact questions I asked are displayed in a table between pages twelve and thirteen. These numerical scales draw on aspects of the Scenic Beauty Method utilised by the USFS to gage what landscapes people value over others. 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, 1976). The Scenic Beauty Estimation (SBE) method quantifies such judgments on a scale from 1 (extremely low scenic beauty) to 10 (extremely high scenic beauty).

 Upon gathering 100 responses (50 for each waterfall), I computed the average, median, and standard deviation of each numerical data set. I then ran a t-test for two independent samples on each data set to determine if there is statistical evidence for differences between the averages of both samples. This is a mode of inferential statistics which infers the properties of a population (Panik, 2012). The two samples comprised of the fifty numerical ratings of scenic beauty, crowding, and accessibility that were collected at each of the two waterfalls. A total of three t-tests were ran, one for each category of numerical rating. I ran the t-test on excel using the following formula to find the t-value: (mean of sample 1- mean of sample 2)/sqrt of (standard deviation of sample 1^2/50)+(standard deviation of sample 2^2/50). I inserted the resulting t-value into a calculator to find the p-value. The difference between means holds statistical significance if the p-value is less than 0.05 but is statistically insignificant if the p-value is greater than 0.05 (Panik, 2012). The results from my t-test are displayed in Table 2 on page seventeen. I also created three comparative bar graphs (one for each numerical question listed above) for visual representations of my quantitative results.

With regards to the qualitative results of my survey, I ran transcriptions through Voyant Tools to uncover major key-words or trends. I selected “stop words” to focus my results on the more pertinent terms that surfaced. In the resulting “word clouds,” the frequency of terms are indicated by the size in which they appear. If a word surfaces frequently, it will be shown in a larger font. Words that show up infrequently are displayed in smaller font. Interview questions and their resulting word clouds are displayed from pages eighteen to twenty.

Table 1: Survey Questions

What is your postal (zip) code?

Location: Multnomah or Latourell Falls

Why did you come to this waterfall?

What were you hoping to get out of this visit?

What expectations did you have for this place? What were they based on?

How did your time here compare to your expectations?

Rate scenic beauty from 1-10 (1 low - 10 high)

Rate accessibility from 1-10 (1 inaccessible - 10 highly accessible)

Rate crowding from 1-10 (1 vacant - 10 overcrowded)

What did you take pictures of? Are there people in your pictures?


Results: Photography Analysis

                           Fig. 1 - Multnomah Falls                     Latourell Falls

Multnomah Falls has been photographed and advertised as the primary attraction of the Columbia River Gorge since the early 20th century (Toedtemeier, 2008). The image on the left shows Multnomah Falls in 1913, before construction of the iconic Benson Bridge. This photo was taken by George Weister, a renowned photographer of the Pacific Northwest and was found on Old In this photo, Multnomah Falls is clearly the centerpiece, unconcealed and surrounded by rugged cliffs. This image contains aspects of both the sublime and picturesque as the waterfall is shown as an “astonishing” centerpiece with detailed surroundings that make it a pleasant scene to view. Latourell Falls is pictured on the right, this photo was taken by Fred Kiser and found on the Oregon Historical Society digital archives. Like Weister’s photo of Multnomah Falls, this image of Latourell contains elements of the sublime and picturesque. Elements of scale add to the sublime qualities of this photo - the trees and vegetation appear small in comparison to the waterfall, adding to the viewer’s sense of wonder. The stream in the foreground surrounded by lush vegetation and slight partial concealment gives the image picturesque appeal.

                                    Fig. 2 Multnomah Falls                 Latourell Falls                                                                                              

Multnomah Falls is still advertised as the crown jewel of the Columbia River Gorge, “a waterfall as magnificent and memorable as any in the country” (Schutle, 2018). In Laura Schutle’s description on, she emphasises the combination of easy accessibility and a thrilling waterfall experience. She notes how “From the parking area off of I-84, a 5-minute walk is all that separates you from the exhilarating spray at the base of the falls” (Schiutle, 2018). Aspects of the sublime (delightful fear) and picturesque (a scenic view) are emphasised in her description of Multnomah Falls as seen from the Benson Bridge. She notes how when, “Standing on the bridge you have a perfect view of the top tier's full 542-foot height and a knee-wobbling vantage point over the second tier's 69-foot drop!” (Schutle, 2018). Her photo of Multnomah Falls, shown on the left, also displays aspects of the picturesque. She utilizes partial concealment for an intriguing view. Sublimity is also utilized by showing how small people are in comparison to the waterfall. Despite the pleasing qualities of this photo, it could warp visitor expectations of crowding. A lack of crowding and emphasis on accessibility is evident with a clear view of the paved trail. Although Multnomah Falls is indeed easily accessible, it is generally much more crowded than shown in this photo, particularly during mid-day. Unless one visits Multnomah early in the morning or at dusk, one would not have the solitary experience that is depicted by Schutle’s image.

Latourell Falls is also advertised as a beautiful, easily accessed waterfall but is clearly not the main attraction of the area. Oregon Hikers describes Latourell as, “ the closest of the major Columbia River Gorge waterfalls to Portland, and also one of the most photogenic. A tall single-plunge waterfall of 224 feet, it spills over the lip of an undercut amphitheater of tall pillars of columnar basalt” (Oregon Hikers, 2018). The photo displayed in figure 2 on the right (taken by Brian Swan of the Northwest Waterfall Survey)  shows a head-on view of Latourell Falls at full flow, void of human presence. This photo balances elements of the sublime and picturesque by showing the waterfall as a dominant feature, yet incorporating it into the broader landscape. This photo primes visitors for a peaceful, pristine, and solitary wilderness experience - despite the falls being so close to the road.

Graphical and Statistical Analysis of Quantitative Survey Results

                             Fig. 3

Figure 3 provides a comparison of scenic beauty ratings between Multnomah and Latourell Falls. On average, both waterfalls differ by 0.2 units on scenic beauty scale with a mean on 8.5 at Multnomah compared to a mean of 8.24 at Latourell Falls.

                             Fig. 4

Figure 4 compares Multnomah and Latourell Falls with regards to accessibility. Both waterfall were deemed to be highly accessible. Latourell was viewed as slightly harder to access with an average rating of 7.54 compared to an 8.06 at Multnomah.


                              Fig. 5

Figure 5 provides compares Multnomah and Latourell Falls on the basis of crowding. Multnomah is clearly more crowded than Latourell Falls with an average rating of 6.65 compared to an average of 5.04 at Latourell.

Table 2: T-test Averages and Results

Average Rating (Multnomah)

Average Rating (Latourell)



Scenic Beauty















Table 2 displays the average ratings for scenic beauty, accessibility, and crowding at Multnomah and Latourell Falls. This table also shows the resulting t and p values. According to the p-values, there was no statistical difference regarding the average scenic beauty and accessibility ratings at both waterfalls. However, there was a statistically significant difference between the average ratings of crowding at both waterfalls.

Voyant Word Clouds of Qualitative Survey Results

Fig. 6: What are you hoping to get out of this visit?

         Latourell Falls                                                 Multnomah Falls

hoping to experience at latourellhoping to experience multnomah

Figure 6 displays comparative word clouds that resulted from visitor’s responses to the question of what they were hoping to get out of their visit at Multnomah or Latourell Falls.

At Latourell Falls, visitors were hoping to experience the autumn leaves as much as, if not more than the waterfall itself. Many also expressed interest in getting an “up close” waterfall experience with beautiful views. At Multnomah, people were interested in experiencing the tallest waterfall in the state and described their desired experience in broader terms. Many respondents at Multnomah explicitly mentioned wanting to experience the “picturesque” while getting a break from the urban routine. Photography was once again a dominant theme for visitors at both waterfalls.

Fig. 7: What expectations did you have for this place? What were they based on?

                  Latourell Falls                                          Multnomah Falls

latourell expectationsmultnomah expectations.PNG

The word clouds in figure 7 display key terms drawn from information that visitors shared regarding expectations for their waterfall experience and the basis of these expectations.

Photos clearly shaped visitor expectations at both Latourell and Multnomah Falls. Many people described the images seen as “pristine” and picturesque. Many respondents saw these pictures on instagram and google images. A fair amount of local visitors had been to both of these waterfalls before and had expectations based on previous experience.

Fig 8: How did your time here compare to your expectations?

                         Latourell Falls                                                       Multnomah Falls

latourell experienceexpectations 2

Figure 8 shows the word clouds that resulted from what visitors said about how their experiences at Multnomah or Latourell Falls compared to their expectations.

Autumn leaves truly enhanced the visitor experience at Latourell Falls. The main cause of disappointment at Latourell was low water flow. Low flow was primarily a concern for returning visitors who’d previously seen the waterfall at a higher discharge. For many visitors, their experience at Multnomah Falls “exceeded expectations” although “crowding” and “parking” surfaced as significant access issues. Several visitors emphasised how the Benson “bridge” added to an “impressive” experience.

Fig. 9: What did you take pictures of? Are there people in your pictures? 

                    Latourell Falls                                     Multnomah Falls            

Figure 9 displays word clouds resulting from the discussion of what visitors took pictures of and whether or not people were included in their photos.

Almost all respondents took photos of the waterfalls as they are the main attraction. Many visitors to Latourell Falls mentioned taking as many photos of the surrounding landscape as the waterfalls themselves. This was especially the case during autumn when many people came to see the vibrant colors. At Multnomah, the waterfall and bridge were the main focus of people’s pictures. Almost everyone included people in their photos but they were usually of people they were with or of themselves.


Upon review of my quantitative and qualitative results, some prominent themes have surfaced. With regards to scenic beauty, both waterfalls received roughly equal ratings with an average rating of 8.24/10 at Latourell and an average of 8.5/10 at Multnomah. Multnomah was seen as “more beautiful” by most visitors despite being significantly more crowded. In autumn, crowding had a greater impact on accessibility than scenic beauty. However, as crowding decreased during the winter season, accessibility ratings for Multnomah increased by 0.3 units on average while scenic beauty ratings remained similar, increasing by only 0.1 units. In the fall, Multnomah was deemed harder to access mainly because of parking issues and closure of much of the scenic highway from fire damage. The recent re-opening of the Scenic Highway and trails beyond the bridge at Multnomah also improved visitor experience, crowding and accessibility ratings. In the winter season, Latourell’s accessibility ratings fell by 0.7 units due to lack of wheelchair accessibility and from visitors intending on completing the three-mile loop hike. Perceptions of crowding at Multnomah Falls decreased notably in the winter season, falling from an average of 7 to 6.65. Ratings of crowding at Latourell remained constant through the seasons with an average of 5.04.

A combination of stream discharge and waterfall height greatly influenced scenic beauty results. Elements of the sublime and picturesque were certainly present in visitor’s responses. Visitors loved both being “overwhelmed” by the power of an impressive waterfall and stepping back to appreciate the aesthetic landscape as a whole, particularly with regards to seasonality. Upon my first outing, Oregon was experiencing a dry spell and both waterfalls were running low. Two also described how fire damage degraded their aesthetic experience. In the fall, visitors talked as much about the surrounding autumn foliage as the waterfalls themselves.A visitor from Portland remarked how “The autumn leaves made this visit special. The flow in the falls was low compared to last time but is still impressive.” After some significant rainfall, increased discharge completely changed visitor’s reactions. As previously mentioned by Brian J. Hudson, streamflow also influenced how experience measured up to expectations. A visitor from San Francisco remarked how Multnomah was “much more striking and powerful in person. There is so much water! I’m not used to seeing places like this in the Bay Area. What a great escape!” Another shared how “the high flow in the falls today was spectacular.” Increased accessibility at Latourell Falls along with less crowding and the possibility of an “up close” waterfall experience was a highlight for thirty of the fifty people I interviewed. A woman from Seattle commented, “this is my favorite waterfall. Love the sheer drop and mossy cliff face. It is so easy to get so close. Also enjoyed the longer hike to upper tier.” In this sense, visitors truly enjoyed the dynamic sensorial experience of being up close to a waterfall. Themes of seasonality and crowding also came up with regards to photography. In autumn at Multnomah Falls, ten respondents mentioned how they “tried to only capture the waterfall but random people are unavoidable in pictures.” Twenty of the thirty interviewed in the fall mentioned photographing autumn leaves and taking pictures of only themselves with the waterfall. Nobody intentionally photographed crowds of people or nearby human development (with the exception of the Benson Bridge). In the winter, people mainly photographed the waterfalls and themselves as autumn leaves were no longer an attraction.

In light of my results, the concepts of the sublime and picturesque do apply to how waterfalls are advertised to visitors. However, the influence of seasonal change on aesthetic appreciation and waterfall experience was more significant than expected. Waterfalls are inherently transient features, both on a geologic and seasonal scale. Elements of change have dynamic effects on waterfalls and impact aesthetic appreciation regarding what elements of the landscape are found most striking. This is reflected in what is included visitor’s photography and the desired experiences they wish to capture. With regards to my quantitative results, crowding did not impact accessibility or scenic beauty. Although visitors acknowledged the importance of scenic beauty, accessibility, and crowding to their waterfall experience, these categories remained relatively independent of each other. There were no statistically significant differences between the average ratings of crowding and accessibility between Multnomah and Latourell Falls. However, there was a statistical difference between rates of crowding at Multnomah and Latourell Falls with Multnomah being more crowded. The need to get “up close to” the waterfalls was also a trend amongst visitor responses, alluding to the desire for a more intimate waterfall experience.

Comparison and Generalization

         Aesthetic appreciation of notable landforms like mountains are also based on behavioral, cultural, and experiential relationships between the observer and their surroundings. Such is the case at Mt. Fuji, Japan - a significant natural and cultural icon. Like the waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, Mt. Fuji is transient through the seasons. The mountain goes through many stages of appearance and so do its surroundings. With regards to seasonal transience on Mt. Fuji, author Byron Earhart describes the mountain’s changing aestheticism. He states how, “During summer the bare rock above the treeline, actually solidified lava, takes on hues from sunlight and sky in shades ranging from warm red to blue or purple or almost black. When the mountain is snow covered, the light conditions and sky color may present a dazzling white triangle contrasting with a dark blue background or an off-white mass blending more subtly with a light sky” (Earhart, 2011). The changing aesthetics of Mt. Fuji make it a dynamic landform.

         Artist depictions of Mt. Fuji through the seasons provide interesting points of comparison to how photographers and artists represent waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge. Unlike waterfalls, Mt. Fuji lends itself to be admired from a variety of perspectives, not just from up close. Regarding paintings of Mt. Fuji, perhaps no artist is more well known than Katsushiga Hokusai. Produced between 1830 and 1832, his collection: 36 Views of Mt. Fuji includes some of his most notable work (Clark, 2017). This collection of landscape prints displays Mt. Fuji from a variety of locations in different seasons and weather conditions. Hokusai utilizes diverse color spectrums to illustrate the transience of Mt. Fuji through the seasons. In winter scenes, he paints with shades of blue and white, increasing use of reds and browns for summer scenes (Clark, 2017). The form and scale of Fuji also varies through the different settings of Hokusai’s paintings. Frameworks of the sublime and picturesque are also present in these works - particularly with regards to elements of scale. At times, the mountain appears as small triangle in the distance and emerges the a centerpiece of other paintings. For example, in Hokusai’s  Tsukuda Island, Fuji is shown as a complementary aspect of a broader landscape (Clark, 2017). Here it is depicted as a distant snow-capped peak, rising over a placid and expansive lake, covered by clusters of boats. This paintingIn contrast, Hokusai’s Red Fuji displays the mountain on a much grander scale. In this summertime portrait, the mountain dominates the scene with no signs of human presence. Rising majestically over the “sea of trees,” Hokusai uses shades of red that grow darker towards the summit of the mountain, draped with slivers of snow. 

With regards to tourism, seasonal transience has a far greater impact on Mt. Fuji than it does for waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge. The mountain is only open to climbers from July 1st to September 10th (Mt. Fuji Climbing, 2018). People can only get up close to the mountain during these summer months. Unlike waterfalls, seasonal change at Mt. Fuji provides an enhanced aesthetic experience even if seen from far away. Much of the mountain’s appeal comes from the fact that it can be viewed from far distances. One has to get up close to waterfalls for the same level of aesthetic appreciation. At waterfalls, an intimate experience is forced upon the visitor as they tend to have less of an impact when viewed from a distance. In consideration of my survey, accessibility plays a greater role in this case as people strive to see waterfalls from close vantage points. It is from up close that a waterfall is most astonishing.

Broader Implications

The waterfall experience is often conceived as counterpoint to urban life - a time when one can be temporarily relieved (or distracted from) the stresses of modern society. However, this seemingly inherent separation between nature and civilization is uniquely American. The American ideal of “wilderness” has led to the preservation and development of out National Parks as tourist attractions (Nash, 1970). Wilderness used to be feared by Americans but slowly became romanticized.  As Nash mentions, “Against this background of bias against wilderness, the ideas that produced the national park concept struggled into existence. Some can be labeled “Romantic” and entailed an enthusiasm for the solitary and wild in nature. Others centered around a change in aesthetics: the emergence of a sense of the sublime and picturesque” (Nash, 1970). The desire for  a “change in aesthetics” surfaced frequently amongst people I interviewed. It is a key motivator behind waterfall visitation. Many photos seen by visitors of the waterfalls beforehand displayed a romanticized experience that wasn’t always fulfilled in actuality. Several respondents noted their appreciation for “solitude” in the outdoors and how both waterfalls were less “wild” than expected. Such is the the case to the extreme in Yosemite as Orsi notes how “nothing in all America is less wild than the floor of Yosemite Valley… the floor of Yosemite is an amusement park, as crowded a city as New York’s central park” (Orsi, 1993). Visitors love National Parks and the sublime beauty they contain but are loving it to death. Increasing access to beautiful landscapes directly conflicts with key motivations for visiting them. The influx of crowding that comes with access development can decrease picturesque qualities of the landscape. However, a lack of access can also impinge on the experience for some visitors, making waterfall visitation difficult or impossible. It is essential to consider how the glamourization of wilderness shapes people’s expectations and motivations for visiting a scenic area. These romanticized notions of wilderness are what truly impact the experiences people seek at waterfalls and the extent to which these experiences are being fulfilled.

Next Steps:

It would be interesting to conduct surveillance at other waterfall rich situated contexts like Yosemite, Hawaii, or Japan to see in which ways results may differ or remain constant. One could also take this project a step further by mapping the individual experience of several visitors from various backgrounds. Through a combination of Arc GIS and photography in these various locations, one could illustrate how far most people hike as well as what vantage points are preferred by visitors. It would also be useful to expand on the concept of seasonal change at waterfalls and survey visitors over the course of a full year to gain insight on what components of visitor experience change or remain the same throughout all four seasons.


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