Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

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

A great way to get started with the Gorge is via car. Then you can decide which of the many spectacular features deserves more attention. Interstate 84, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, is the quickest route from one end of the Gorge to the other. But if time allows, drive the Historic Columbia River Highway. This highway runs roughly parallel to the river and Interstate 84. It will return you to I-84 where you can choose one of several bridges to cross to the Washington side. There, State Route 14 meanders past more spectacular scenery. A good place to start the tour is the town of Troutdale, Oregon, 20 minutes east of Portland. Signs from Interstate 84 direct you to Exit 17—the waterfall loop, Historic Columbia River Highway and the town of Troutdale. Exit and follow signs through town past the Harlow House Museum and continue over the Troutdale Bridge. Take a right onto Highway 30—the Historic Columbia River Highway.

At 2.8 miles from the Troutdale Bridge, Dabney State Park on the Sandy River offers restrooms, drinking water and river access. The next five miles take you through the communities of Springdale and Corbett. Gas and groceries are available here and you can exit back onto I-84 east or westbound. This is the last gas station for the approximately 24 miles to the town of Cascade Locks.

Get your camera ready. A mile-and-a-half from Corbett you enter a stretch of the Historic Highway where some of the most famous shots of the Gorge have been photographed. Set up your tripod at the Portland Women's Forum State Park viewpoint. At Vista House atop Crown Point the famous Gorge winds greet you, as well as magnificent views across to Washington and great camera views looking east and west along the river. Vista House has a gift shop, restrooms, water and public information booth. It's open from April through mid-October.

Now, you drop down to a cool, woodsy section, passing old homes and several waterfalls. Three state parks—Latourell, Shepperd's Dell and Bridal Veil—offer hiking, views of their eponymous waterfalls, and placid picnic areas.

From here you enter national forest (much of the land in the National Scenic Area is private, state or county owned). Watch for Wahkeena Falls Picnic Area on the left. On cool, rainy days use the picnic shelter, complete with stone fireplace. You'll want to walk to Wahkeena Falls bridge and get a cool mist on your camera lens. The Wahkeena Trail #420 leads to Fairy Falls and Wahkeena Springs.

You just can't consider taking this drive without a stop at Multnomah Falls. Trails take you to the top of the fourth highest waterfall in the United States—620 feet. The historic lodge houses a restaurant, gift shop, snack bar and restrooms.

Drive two miles east to Oneonta Gorge. Many of the wildflowers found only in the Gorge reside here at the Oneonta Botanical Area. Misty hanging gardens can be seen during low water periods by hiking upstream in skinny Oneonta Gorge.

Horsetail Falls Picnic Area is a half mile beyond Oneonta. A mile beyond Horsetail, Ainsworth State Park gives you a spot to camp with 45 tent or trailer sites, restrooms, showers, water, sewer, electricity and dumping station.

You've completed the western section of the Historic Highway and can drive back onto I-84 to head east or west. Continuing east five miles you'll come to Bonneville Dam at exit #40. The Bonneville Dam Historical Site has free admission to the visitor center and tours. Visit the fish hatchery and fish-viewing window from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Or turn right off exit #40 and drive to the Wahclella Falls trailhead for a short hike to the falls.

Next stop is Eagle Creek, exit #41. Eagle Creek Picnic Area provides a great spot for family munching before or after hiking the Eagle Creek Trail—perhaps the best loved and most scenic trail in the Gorge. Eagle Creek campground has 20 campsites and accommodates trailers up to 20 feet, but has no hook-ups or shelter. Eagle Creek Overlook is on the other side of the freeway via an underpass and has a shelter with a stone fireplace and picnic tables (no hook-ups). It holds a maximum of 150 people and 40 cars and accommodates trailers up to 30 feet. The overlook is open May through October for groups with reservations. For more information contact the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Cascade Locks welcomes visitors to their riverside community, including the Cascade Locks Museum and Cascade Locks Sternwheeler river-boat cruises. You can gas-up here, dine, buy food or post cards, and camp. Nap on the grass at Cascade Locks Marine Park. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the Columbia River here. If you wish to head for Washington, Bridge of the Gods Toll Bridge will take you there.

Continuing east to exit 51, you will find Wyeth Campground located on a plateau between the shore of the Columbia and cliffs of the Gorge. This U.S. Forest Service campground offers sites for tent and trailer camping, a picnic area and hiking trails.

Hood River, the windsurfing capitol of the Northwest, is your next stop. Home of the Apple Blossom Festival in spring and the most delightful harvest of apples, cherries, pears, grapes and peaches in summer and fall, this is a spectacular gateway to the Mt. Hood National Forest via Highway 35. A microbrewery, Mt. Hood Historic Railroad, and two historic hotels are just a few of the many delights that await you. If you wish to cross to Washington, Hood River Toll Bridge provides an opportunity.

Still in Oregon and heading east, stop on the second drivable stretch of the Historic Columbia River Highway at Mosier exit 69. This series of loops takes you to the top of Rowena Plateau and the Governor Tom McCall Preserve, a wildflower refuge maintained by the Nature Conservancy.

This scenic stretch delivers you to The Dalles. In addition to gas, food and lodging, The Dalles offers Fort Dalles Historical Museum, self-guided historical walks, tours of The Dalles Dam and colorful views of windsurfers.

Cross the river here or continue east to Celilo, a traditional Indian fishing area. Construction of The Dalles Dam changed this once raging falls to more placid waters. Stop for a picnic here or drive east to one of Oregon's most popular white water rivers. Wagon trains traveling the Oregon Trail crossed the Deschutes River near where it plunges into the Columbia. Today this provides a dandy place for picnicking, birding, boating and fishing.

You'll leave the Scenic Area to reach the next bridge to Washington. Take Highway 97 north, crossing the mighty Columbia. You can continue north to Goldendale for a visit to the Presby Mansion and Klickitat County Museum, or head west on Lewis and Clark State Route 14 to visit Maryhill Museum and the nearby replica of Stonehenge—both part of the fascinating story of visionary settler Sam Hill.

Heading west again on S.R. 14, stop at Horsethief Lake State Park for swimming, rock climbing, boating or fishing. If you would like to view the park's pictographs and petroglyphs, call ahead for a reservation. Tours are given on Fridays and Saturdays for a limited number of people.

On your way west, enjoy the show of spring wildflowers along Catherine Creek. Hike up through the natural stone arch for a spectacular view of the Gorge. Stop at Bingen or White Salmon to sample local fruits, wines, or a snooze at a bed and breakfast inn. Views of Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens punctuate this stretch, as well. Take a side trip on Highway 141 to the town of Trout Lake and the Mt. Adams Ranger Station. We'll help you plan a loop tour past spectacular Mt. Adams, huckleberry fields, Langfield Falls, Big Tree (a huge ponderosa pine tree) and Ice Caves. Heading back on Forest Road 66, you'll pass the Big Lava Beds. Then pull into the town of Willard for an up-close view of Northwest lumbermill history.

Back on Route 14 heading west, you'll soon reach Wind River and the steamy relaxation of Carson Hot Mineral Springs Resort. Or head for Stevenson and the Skamania County Museum.

Finish your tour with a hike to the top of 848 foot Beacon Rock, the largest monolith in the United States. This state park offers birding, picnicking, hikes, boating and camping. You'll get a great panoramic view of the Gorge from the top of this famous landmark and from Cape Horn Viewpoint, the final stop on your tour.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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