It’s not easy to take it all in. The scenery changes from flat, farm land into a spectacular, picturesque gorge while traveling at high speed on I-84 toward Portland. The broad river is walled in with black and gray towering basalt cliffs along with numerous waterfalls whose water free-falls hundreds of feet and flows into and adds to the already significant river. The Columbia River Gorge offers so much for a day-tripper.
Here is a serious recreational marvel. The river runs 80 miles through an area officially called the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Inside the recreational boundary are found a scenic-historic highway, numerous state parks, trails to hidden waterfalls, dam tours, fish hatcheries, returning wild salmon observation centers, wind surfing, kayaking, rock climbing and wildflower displays. Full service tourist facilities are available nearby in communities like The Dalles, Hood River and Troutdale.
No doubt the signature, most popular and well-known scenic attraction, besides the gorge itself, is Multnomah Falls. It is a waterfall that once you have seen it you will never forget it. It is distinctly unique with a double plunge of water from the rim into one rock basin and then falling into another basin at the base of the canyon with a classically designed footbridge spanning the river far below. Dropping a total of 620 feet, the falls is the second highest year-round waterfall in the United States. Visitors can take a paved quarter-mile trail to the footbridge or farther up on top of the falls to a viewpoint. The falls has its own off ramp from I-84 and a large parking lot. A tunnel for pedestrians under the highway leads to a beautiful, old lodge built in 1925 that has a restaurant, visitor center, restrooms, and gift shop. The falls can be seen behind the lodge.
It seems that once you get into the gorge there just isn’t enough time to explore all that is available. Below is a short, but not complete, list of things to do.
Columbia River Gorge Historic Highway
The interstate was built along the base of the gorge and follows the river course. It replaced the original two-lane highway completed in 1925 that was designed not only to take cars and trucks east from Portland but also engineered to provide as many scenic and aesthetic views along the gorge that was possible. Unlike the level interstate road, the old highway gained elevation using wide curves up to the rim of the gorge with numerous views of the river far below.
Some of that original road still exists and is maintained. It passes several of the year-round falls hidden from the interstate highway. Several trail heads with short hikes can be found. The road does take a while to drive as it winds up and down among the basalt cliffs. But if you have limited time, make time to drive at least some of this road.
In the spring when there is snow melting from the Oregon mountains and seasonal rains the gorge comes alive with waterfalls. It is said that more than 50 waterfalls can be seen along the gorge. Even driving the interstate many of the falls can be spotted. But all year there are waterfalls to enjoy with less water flowing over the rim.
Numerous trails, both short and day-long can be found along the scenic corridor. Many of the short trails lead to one or more of the year-round waterfalls. For example, again starting at Multnomah Falls parking lot and climbing up to the top of the falls a 5.5-mile loop trail called the Wahkeena Trail (No. 441) will pass five other large falls before reaching Wahkeena Falls. That is seven waterfalls seen on this one outing! A half-mile return trail proceeds back to the Multnomah Falls parking lot.
There are numerous parks within the scenic area. Some are used for camping including sites for RV and tents, day use for picnicking, some for water access for fishing with boat ramps, and others for observation sites at overlooks on the cliffs above the river. Vista House is found on the historic highway. Built in 1917, the site may offer the most spectacular view of the gorge.
The gorge is rich with history. The entire area was thick with Indian villages. The natives took advantage of the river for transportation and more importantly the annual supply of fish as migrating fish came up the river to spawn. There were some tribes that lived in the area permanently and others that moved in seasonally. Lewis and Clark’s famous trip took them down the Columbia River and shortly after their two years of discovery the first pioneers started appearing, creating the Oregon Trail.
At what is now The Dalles the pioneers had to decide whether to risk traveling down the treacherous rapids of the Columbia or take a slower but safer land route to their final destination. The Gorge was a formidable barrier in order to reach the west coast. The stories are all interesting and can be found in various locations. If you can only pick one museum to visit the Gorge Discovery Center just west of The Dalles is a good choice.
Certainly a day trip could easily turn into several days exploring all that the Columbia River gorge has to offer. Spring adds more to the experience because of the extra water flowing over the falls, additional seasonal waterfalls and often a spectacular wildflower display along the roads and trails. Truly this is an exceptional area to visit.