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If the "River of the West" - the closest geographic equivalent to the mythical Northwest Passage - didn't course through it, the Columbia River Gorge would surely be a national park.

As it is, humankind - Indians, explorers, trappers, pioneers, fishermen, farmers, railroad tycoons - long ago laid claim to this vital mountain-piercing corridor. Modern travelers, headed east or west, zip through on I-84. Hydroelectric dams and ship- and barge-bearing locks have tamed many of the river's torrents.Even with this heavy use, the region retains enough park-like qualities to earn designation as the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, and to be a worthy tourist magnet.

Basalt cliffs, scoured and scored by Ice Age floods and especially dramatic on the river's southern side, form the great canyon's walls.

From those walls waterfalls spectacularly tumble. A lovely, winding old highway links many of them. ("Highway" also well describes the route this narrow road takes.)

From perches upon those volcanic walls - such as car-accessible Crown Point on the south and hike-able Beacon Rock on the north - the views are astonishing.

The Columbia River itself is becomingly photogenic, and offers recreational opportunities such as boating, sailboarding, fishing and swimming.

Stretching 70 miles from Troutdale to the Dalles, the gorge can be the centerpiece of a multiday vacation or a day trip. Portland is only 15 miles from its western outlet. Loops radiating from this metropolitan center can take in either the Oregon and Washington shores (the Columbia forms the boundary between the two states) or swing around Mount Hood southwest of the city, among other possibilities.

Here's a sampling of the Columbia Gorge's sightseeing options:

- The Columbia River Scenic Highway / Multnomah Falls. The brainchild of railroad heir Sam Hill, this historic route's remaining portions are well worth traveling. This is where you'll find many a waterfall - including the famed Multnomah cascades - as well as enjoy an auto tour that's akin to time-traveling back to the early 20th century.

Hill envisioned a good road from Portland to the vicinity of his riverside mansion, Maryhill (now a renowned art museum upriver from the Dalles). After bringing engineer Samuel Lancaster in on the project, the two men traveled to Europe to study the better alpine roads. They masterminded a pleasantly twisting path carved into the cliffs, hired fine stonemasons for the bridges and trim, to give it aesthetic appeal, and by 1916 had created a 74-mile scenic wonder. The first paved road in the Northwest, the highway was a favorite for Sunday motoring in the teens, '20s and '30s.

Today I-84 sweeps along the Columbia, while 22 remaining miles of the older road hug and climb the mountainsides. Villages and farmsteads appear here and there - but the viewpoints, state parks and waterfalls are the reasons to take this route.

The Portland Women's Forum Park above Corbett presents views of the gorge below (fog and rainclouds permitting) - and of the stone Vista House on Crown Point to the east. Vista House, a many-windowed stone octagon (once dubbed the $100,000 outhouse, according to an Oregon guidebook), has itself become a photographers' favorite for brochures and map covers because of its picturesque placement above the gorge. Besides offering fine views, Vista House is a good place to stop for information about the Columbia Gorge's recreational opportunities.

And then there are the falls. At times along the scenic highway it seems there's a waterfall beyond every curve. You could - and maybe should - run yourself ragged dashing from one to the next. Trails of various lengths abound, and despite the plethora, each cascade seems to have a character of its own. The Lautorell Falls tumble over a black basalt cliff that seems to reveal the inner ribbing of earth itself; trails lead both above and below the splashing water. The Bridal Veil Falls emerge directly under the highway. Paths at this state park include an interpretive trail that has views of the Columbia and one that leads to a spot near the twin cascades.

The Multnomah Falls are justifiable favorites. The upper falls plunges 542 feet, splash into the cliff then drop another 69 feet - "the second-highest year-round waterfall in the nation," and the highest in the gorge, trumpets a brochure available at the attractive roadside information center/lodge, built in 1925. Up a quarter-mile trail is the Benson arch bridge, picturesquely placed high and in front of the falls. Another mile up the trail and hikers find themselves right on the edge of the upper cascade. Additional routes lead to the top of Larch Mountain (6 miles away) or loop back to the base of the falls via the 2.4-mile Perdition Trail or the 4-mile Wahkeena Trail.

- Bonneville Dam. Built during the Great Depression and dedicated in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Bonneville is really a collection of dams and locks that have subdued and harnessed a section of the Columbia River. Its stations generate hydroelectric power for the region, and the locks and 48-mile-long reservoir are part of the system that makes it possible for Lewiston, Idaho - 465 miles inland from the Pacific - to be a "port" city.

Forty miles east of Portland and Vancouver, the Bonneville complex, now on the National Register of Historic Places, includes visitor centers on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the river. These offer views of the Columbia and the lake, exhibits and films. Tourists also can get glimpses inside the powerhouses, and accessible water ladders and underwater windows make it possible, in season, to see fish such as steelhead trout and salmon make their way upriver.

Nearby communities like Cascade Locks (named for turn-of-the-century canals that helped steamships get around the rapids) and Hood River have museums of their own, as well as food, lodging, camping and the opportunity to hop on an old-fashioned sternwheeler replica, the Columbia Gorge, during the summer and early fall. The city of Hood River has historic lures of its own, such as the 1920s vintage neo-Moorish-style Columbia Gorge Hotel, once a destination of movie stars (Valentino, Clara Bow) and big bands. The hotel has beautiful gardens and sits high above the river, affording excellent views.

- On the Washington shore. The Bridge of the Gods - a metal span named for a rock bridge said in Indian legend to have arched the Columbia - provides a handy link between the north and south sides of the river at Cascade Locks. Besides access to the Bonneville Lock and Dam, the north shore offers additional recreational opportunities, including hiking, fishing and camping.

Fort Cascades National Historic Site has sheltered exhibits and a trail commemorating what was once a thriving location for Indians, explorers and, more recently, settlers. During the mid-19th century, the U.S. Army had a fort and quartermaster's storehouse on the site. The town of Cascades was here from 1850 to 1894 - the year a great flood destroyed every building. The community was never rebuilt.

Roadside markers remember the gorge's own "golden spike" ceremony (driven in 1908 to complete the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad's main line between Pasco and Vancouver, Wash.) and strategic posts like Fort Rains, which, along with Fort Cascades, was attacked in the 1850s by Indians angry about the encroachment of white settlers on their traditional territorites.

A rest stop and state park are easily found in the shadow of the monolithic Beacon Rock, named and described by Lewis & Clark in 1805. The sheer-sided formation - set away from the hillsides and towering over the Columbia River - rises some 800 feet from the floodplain. A mile-long trail, with railings, boardwalk bridges and 52 switchbacks, both short and long, leads from the road to the top of the pinnacle. The family of Henry J. Biddle, which owned the spot, built the trail in 1915 and 1916, and the property was given to the state of Washington in 1935. The views east and west are outstanding.

- Around Mount Hood. A circle tour around Mount Hood is an excellent way to return to Portland after enjoying the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway.

Highway 35 heads south from the community of Hood River, into the inviting farms and orchards around Odell and Parkdale. Soon hulking, snow-capped Mount Hood looms on the horizon, sometimes framed by the trees lining the East Fork of the Hood River.

On the flanks of 11,235-foot Mount Hood - a volcano that occasionally erupted in the 1800s - are several ski resorts, including Mount Hood Meadows. Skiing is even possible in summer, on the Palmer glacier snowfield. Rustic Timberline Lodge was built by WPA crews during the Depression, and was used as a snowy set for Stanley Kubrick's horror film "The Shining."

During the great Oregon migration of the 1830s and '40s, most pioneers had to raft the dangerous Columbia to get downriver. In 1845-46, Kentuckian Samuel Barlow built a bypass road around Mount Hood's east and south sides that helped settlers get to the Willamette Valley - though many complained that they couldn't see how the river could be a worse route. Today's pampered travelers can catch glimpses of that rough forest-lined path. A woman pioneer's grave is marked as well.



For information

Organizations that can give you advice:

- U.S. Forest Service, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, 902 Wasco, Suite 200, Hood River, OR, 97031, telephone 1-503-386-2333.

- Oregon Economic Development Department, Tourism Division, 775 Summer Street NE, Salem, OR 97310, telephone 1-503-986-0000.

- Multnomah Falls Co. Inc., Box 367, Troutdale, OR 97060, telephone 1-503-695-2376.

- Mt. Hood Visitors Information Center, P.O. Box 342, 65000 E. Highway 26, Welches, OR 97067, telephone 1-503-622-4822.

- Bonneville Lock and Dam, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cascade Locks, OR 97014-0150, telephone 1-503-374-8820.