Family Vacations to Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Multnomah Falls on the Columbia River Gorge
Multnomah Falls on the Columbia River Gorge (PhotoDisc)

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area covers nearly 300,000 acres and lies in both Oregon and Washington, stretching from the Deschutes State Park at the Deschutes River in the east to just past Troutsdale and Rooster Rock State Park in the west. The gorge itself is 80 miles long and 4,000 feet deep in places. For all the gorge's wild beauty, it is only about an hour away from the city of Portland.

Unlike a national park, national forest, or national wilderness, a national scenic area combines protection of rural and scenic resources with encouragement of community and economic growth. There is endless natural beauty to take your breath away, yet the gorge is not wilderness. It's home to thousands of people as well as towns and businesses, and it's a major transportation corridor. In other words, it's an area rich in opportunities for families—forest and trails, museums, excellent resorts, and enough recreational activities, including world-class windsurfing and kiteboarding, to keep toddlers to teens and their parents busy. Best of all, it's a breeze to access.

Geologically speaking, the gorge is fascinating. Its origins stretch back 40 million years ago, to the volcanic explosions of the Cascade Mountains. For centuries volcanoes deposited miles-thick lava and mudflows, then super floods at the end of the last ice age propelled walls of water up to 1,200 feet deep through the lava canyons, carving out the gorge. The Columbia's tributary streams didn't have the same natural forces propelling them, so they were left hanging high above the river, happily creating one of the world's highest concentrations of waterfalls—77 on the Oregon side alone.

Waterfalls are among the gorge's most stunning natural features, and whether you have very young children or teens, there's a trail and waterfall for you. But other family-friendly sights abound, too. Multnomah Falls, accessible via a steep 1.2-mile paved trail that climbs about 600 feet to a viewing platform, is a must-see, while the 13-mile Eagle Creek Trail boasts views of five falls—an epic undertaking provided you don't mind sheer cliffs without rails. Sams-Walker Trail is a good outing for families with young children, an easy 1.1-mile route through wildflowers with views of Horsetail Falls and the Gorge. History buffs, meanwhile, can learn about the geological and human history of the gorge in two spots, Oregon's Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, the Scenic Area's official interpretive center, and Washington's Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum.

Vista House at Crown Point State Park, an historic building 733 feet above the river, offers one of the most spectacular views of the gorge, while a cruise on the Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge provides n up-close perspective. To get better sense of the whole universe that revolves around the gorge, visit Bonneville Lock and Dam, which offers cool views of the river's finned residents and behind-the-scenes look at how the Columbia supplies major power—and don't miss the fish-viewing building, where you can see salmon, trout, and lamprey hurling themselves up steep ladders to reach their spawning grounds. To whet your excitement from home, watch the year-round live fish cams on the facility's official site,

The aquatic sport-obsessed, meanwhile should bee-line directly for Hood River, Oregon, arguably THE world capital of aquatic board sports like windsurfing and the growing craze of kiteboarding. Whether you want to challenge the gorge yourself or merely watch, the sight of brilliantly-colored sails negotiating wind and waves is impressive—and a top photo op.

Published: 8 Apr 2008 | Last Updated: 7 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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