The U.S. interstate highway system provides a direct, fast, fairly safe way to get from one town to another. In fact, most of us would never want to be without it. But often its scenic value leaves a lot to be desired. One of the interstate’s most beautiful drives in the country is I-84, which follows the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon side downriver toward Portland. If you have plans to go that direction, the recommendation is to not take scenic I-84.
There is yet a more spectacular drive through sections of the gorge. It is the Historic Columbia River Highway. Exploring this highway and the Columbia River Gorge can make a very good weekend getaway. Getting off the interstate in this area offers much to see and do.
The river gorge story begins way before there were any highways. Geologists have determined that after the last ice age a huge lake called Lake Missoula was dammed up in what is now Montana. The natural dam finally collapsed, and the water rushed west, flooding and scouring much of Eastern Washington on its way to the ocean. As the surge of water approached the Cascade Mountains, it was forced south and west though a narrow passage that is now the gorge.
Geologists estimate that Lake Missoula dammed and flooded dozens of times. The volume of water and force carved near-vertical cliffs where now in the spring nearly 50 waterfalls cascade down into the deep canyon on the Oregon side. Twenty or so falls are visible from the interstate. But the Historic Columbia River Highway will lead those who get off the interstate past several other waterfalls and trailheads to yet more falls. In fact the road gets so close to some falls that if the wind is right, windshield wipers may have to be used to wipe off the spray.
Driving west on the interstate and approaching the town of The Dalles, the steep basalt cliffs narrow into a passage that just allows the river to escape to the ocean. Pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail found that at this spot on their journey they could chance the fast-moving, rapid-filled river channel by floating it or backtrack south and travel overland to their future farms near the coast. Neither choice was popular with the weary wagon train travelers.
Later, as towns were established along the river, a more direct route was needed to connect them and their commerce with Portland. Again, the river and its gorge stood in the way.
Sam Hill, a Portland lawyer and entrepreneur, believed that a road could be built from Portland to The Dalles. Hill, however, included in his vision something that was unusual at that time. He recognized the natural beauty of the Columbia Gorge and wanted a road that would wind high above the river and blend into the natural landscape. He interested and enlisted an engineer, Samuel Lancaster, who shared his dream. Lancaster later said, “On starting the surveys, our first business was to find the beauty spots, or those points where the most beautiful things along the line might be seen in the best advantage, and if possible, to locate the road in such a way as to reach them.” It’s hard to imagine a present-day road engineer using those guidelines to construct a road.
The road was completed in 1922, built in harmony with the gorge’s natural elements in such a way that people came from all over the world to use and enjoy it. It was called “the King of Roads.” Lancaster designed gentle grades with large, graceful loops, figure eight’s that climbed up to the top of spectacular views of the river below and then back down to the water level. There were rock, arched bridges over rushing streams and next to waterfalls. Tunnels were blasted through the rock walls with open air windows to allow views of the gorge from within the tunnels. Rock guard walls and arched railings were constructed along the road to protect automobiles, i.e. Model T, and the pedestrians. Viewpoints were designed where motorists could stop and look out over the gorge. This narrow, two-lane road was and is to be used by visitors at a leisurely pace.
It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to guess that this highway, as beautiful as it was, was not going to carry modern cars and trucks east and west through Oregon. By 1949, a water-level route was built over part of the old highway. In 1969, a four-lane interstate was completed. Tunnels were filled in and much of the original road at river level was reconstructed.
Today, two sections of the original road remain intact. They happen to be at some of best locations. The road still climbs up to Vista House at Crown Point with great views both up and down the river. It is still possible to drive past some of Lancaster’s “beauty spots.” A remarkable series of waterfalls can be seen: Latourell, Shepperd’s, Dell, Bridal Veil and Wahkeena. Spring may be the best time to go because the large wildflower displays make the entire road and views richer.
This historic road is a must-see for those who travel through the Columbia River Gorge. The spectacular road with the high, overlooking views, waterfalls and wildflowers offers more than taking the direct and fastest route. Sometimes the interstate roads are not the best roads for traveling.
Lodging: It’s not often that a two-star motel is written up as the place to stay, especially in a tourist area that offers B&Bs, historic hotels and some excellent other accommodations. But the Cousins Motel in The Dalles offers all the requirements for a relatively inexpensive trip to the Columbia Gorge and access to the historic highway. For the budget-minded, there is also a Motel Six nearby. The Cousins Motel has clean rooms, and on the property is the Cousin’s Country Restaurant. Located just off the interstate, the frontage road where the motel is proceeds west and directly onto the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway.
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