The Columbia River Gorge: Huge, and Full of Waterfalls
By Don and Victoria Blodger
The Columbia River started solely as our route between two points but ended up as a treasured destination. But we didn’t know about the hikes in the Columbia River Gorge area.
As we traveled east from Portland, OR to Coeur d’ Alene, ID, we decided to follow the Columbia River because we assumed it would be a beautiful and scenic route, but nothing more. We never considered it a destination.
However, we spent two full days exploring “The Gorge,” as the locals know it, to see what the largest National Scenic Area in the United States had to offer. What we found was a waterway full of history, unique wonders, and surprises.
Where Is Columbia River Gorge?
The Columbia is big, 1,240 miles long, and is the largest river flowing into the Pacific Ocean. However, the Columbia River Gorge is only 85 miles long, beginning 20 miles due west of the Portland Oregon Airport, and straddles the southern border of Washington State and the northern border of Oregon. The Columbia River Gorge Scenic area is a broad area that is definitely worth a visit.
Crown Point – The Beginning
The I-84 parallels the river on the Oregon side, but to experience much of what makes The Gorge so spectacular, we took the National Historic Scenic Hwy 30. We got off I-84 at exit 22 in Corbett, OR, and stayed on Hwy 30, traveling east and upriver until it rejoined the I-84 near the Bonneville Dam.
Our first stop was the Women’s Forum Lookout. It is here where you can get an awe-inspiring view of the sheer size of The Gorge and the Columbia River. Here also is your opportunity to take the iconic landscape photo of the Vista House standing guard over this massive body of water.
The Vista House on Crown Point was built in 1918 to mark the finishing touches of the newly designed historic highway linking Portland to The Dalles – a monumental achievement of the day. The Vista House is now a museum and gift shop, but it also marks the beginning of one of the most unique and beautiful stretches of highway in the U.S., The Waterfall Corridor.
Hikes in the Columbia River Gorge
Leaving Crown Point, we continued east on Hwy 30 and found ourselves traveling on a winding road in a dark, deep-green forest. It is here where we encountered our first surprise.
Waterfalls…and not just a few waterfalls…but a lot of them.
This section of The Gorge boasts the greatest concentration of waterfalls in North America. Numbering 70+ and mainly on the Oregon side, the falls range from 620 ft. tall to only a few feet.
Fortunately, for the next 13 miles and within only a short walk, we encountered 7 of the most significant falls, all different with their unique signature. Some are the plunge type, a few are horsetails, others are like fans, and some are gently multi-tiered.
The first one is Latourell Falls which is right on the road and one of the largest at 260 ft. tall. Bridal Veil is also a wonderful 100 ft. waterfall worthy of the .5-mile round-trip hike in a tranquil and peaceful portion of the forest.
One of our favorites is Wahkeena Falls (242 ft.), with an easy .25-mile hike to the walking bridge directly in front of the falls. It is a unique multi-tiered waterfall, and the bridge makes for a great place to take a portrait or two of family members.
As we continued heading upriver and only a short distance after Wahkeena Falls, we arrived at the crown jewel of waterfalls, Multnomah Falls, standing an impressive 620 feet tall. It is simply a must-see and the most visited natural site in the Pacific Northwest.
Oddly, the other falls seemed more intimate; Multnomah felt like an event, maybe because of the staging area and the crowds.
When this highway was built, I am sure no one imagined so many tourists coming to see these falls. In fact, the number of visitors is now over 2 million a year.
There are plenty of turnouts, restrooms, and parking along the scenic highway, especially in the morning, except for Multnomah Falls. So some pre-planning is needed.
To accommodate all the tour buses and cars during this year’s peak season, between July 20, 2021, and September 19, 2021, there is a required timed reservation ticket to visit Multnomah. Visitor tickets can be purchased for $1.00 per person here.
If it is not peak season, your best approach is to go early in the morning, perhaps visiting it first before the others. There is also a visitor center, gift shop, and restaurant.
Half a day should be enough if you get an early start and only want to see the falls close to the scenic highway. If you love hiking, then you are in for a double treat and need more time.
Behind all the falls next to the road are more falls and behind those are, well, still more falls with hiking trails connecting them all.
Hwy 30 ultimately joins I-84 at exit 27, and across the river on the Washington side is another surprise: Beacon Rock.
Bonneville Dam Complex
Beacon Rock, seemingly a little out of place and originally named Beaten Rock by Lewis and Clark, is the cornerstone of Washington’s Beacon Rock State Park. It is 850 ft. tall and can be climbed, assuming you are so inclined, all the way to the top.
This hike is a top-rated out-and-back 1.8-mile trek up a very narrow trail that includes 54 switchbacks. Just imagine the view.
Upriver from Beacon Rock is an absolute engineering marvel, a massive hydroelectric complex supplying 60-80% of the Pacific Northwest with energy.
The Bonneville Dam is not just a traditional dam; it includes two power-generating dams, one spillway, and a navigation lock, all of which are separated by three islands. It is one of the largest hydroelectric systems in the world.
The Army Corps of Engineers operates the entire system and has provided two excellent visitor centers, one on the Washington side and one on Bradford Island in Oregon.
The one on Bradford Island has a large viewing area of salmon climbing the fish ladder as they return home to spawn.
There is also a park-like fish hatchery on the Oregon side, and it is perhaps the nicest we have visited.
The final surprise in this section of the river is the famous “Bridge of the Gods.” The name came from a Native American Legend when there was a partial natural bridge over the river in the 1400s.
Today it is a bustling connection between the two states and the only bridge in the 85-mile Gorge that allows pedestrians and cyclists.
It is also officially part of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, a trail between the Canadian and Mexican borders and recently seen in Wild, with Reese Witherspoon.
Pedestrians, cyclists, and horses can cross for free, but there is a $2.00 toll in either direction for autos.
Chasing the Wind
If you did a quick search to discover one of the top windsurfing spots in the world, you would find — surprise — it is the town of Hood River, OR, in the Columbia River Gorge, only 20 miles upriver from The Bridge of the Gods.
Hood River, OR, the second largest town on The Gorge, is known for hiking, fishing, and wineries, but it is also called the Windsurfing Capital of the World.
Today, windsurfing generally refers to the original windsurfing with a board and sail and the new version called kitesurfing.
The Event Center, located on the Oregon side next to where the Hood River enters the Columbia, is the location to watch the kitesurfers, take lessons, rent equipment, have a picnic, or even enjoy the Hood River Water Park. One of the surfing instructors told us they no longer teach windsurfing but only teach beginners kitesurfing, where the surfers are attached to the board and propelled by a kite or parachute. Parking is $10.00 at the Event Center.
On the Washington side of the river, close to Spring Creek Fish Hatchery State Park, is another surfing location, but this one is not commercial and does not cater to the surfing newbie. This is where the former surfers gather, those extraordinary athletes who have dedicated themselves to one sport, first ocean surfing and now windsurfing. It was easy to see we were watching years of dedication.
As we continued upriver, we reached The Dalles, the largest and most significant historic settlement in the early 1800s, and it has remained the largest town on the river.
The Dalles became the hub of the entire Pacific Northwest because it was, for a time, the end of the road – reaching The Dalles was fairly easy in the early days, but traveling further down the river into The Gorge was treacherous and difficult.
The Oregon Trail ended here, Lewis and Clark camped here multiple times, and Fort Dalles was a significant military presence on the river.
The Dalles has a small airport, a golf course, beautiful parks along the river, winery tours, and has endeavored diligently to maintain its history. There is an excellent walking tour through the historic district that includes Waldren Drug (1867), Baldwin Saloon (1876), and the Skibbe Hotel (1870).
The walking tour includes the Fort Dalles Museum, but it currently has limited hours, Friday – Sunday, 10 am-5 pm, or by appointment.
The Final Surprise of the Gorge
Most consider The Dalles as the end of The Gorge, but we discovered one more stop. The Maryhill Museum of Art turned out to be the biggest surprise in our 85-mile trek upriver.
To reach the museum, we crossed the river on Hwy 197 close to The Dalles Dam and headed east on Hwy 14. We thought we were lost during most of the drive since there was nothing to see except the road we traveled. Finally, after about 20 miles, a large building appeared. It was the Maryhill Museum of Art, standing alone overlooking the river.
This museum, built in 1907 by Sam Hill, was initially intended as his mansion before he ran into financial and infrastructure difficulties.
Sam Hill, a world traveler, and businessman was involved in building The Northern Pacific Railroad and was a pivotal force in developing paved roads in the entire Pacific Northwest and the Columbia River Gorge.
Although small, the museum is quite unique. There is a beautiful collection of chess sets from around the world, a collection of art and clothes from Queen Marie of Romania, and over 80 pieces of sculpture and drawings by Auguste Rodin. Tickets are $12.00 for adults and $5.00 for children.
But wait. There is one more stop only a couple of miles east. In 1918 Sam Hill built the first World War I memorial to honor Klickitat County, Washington service members. And just like the museum, this memorial is out in the middle of nowhere and provided one more surprise. The memorial is an exact replica of Stonehenge in England.
After exploring The Gorge for two full days, we have come to the following conclusions. First, we were wrong.
The Columbia River Gorge could make for a beautiful route, but it really should be a destination. Second, as a destination, we now know we barely scratched the surface.
Two days is nowhere near enough time to explore 85 miles of such historic beauty and surprises.
We look forward to returning to The Gorge with more time available, expecting more surprises around the next corner.
Columbia Gorge Resources:
US Forest Service map of Hwy 30 – https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5227100.pdf
US Forest Service Map of the hiking trails around Multnomah Falls – https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5227099.pdf
Beacon Rock State Park – https://parks.state.wa.us/474/Beacon-Rock
Multnomah Falls Reservation Tickets – https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/10073376
Bonneville Dam – https://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/bonneville/
The Fort Dalles Museum – https://fortdallesmuseum.org/
Maryhill Museum of Art – https://www.maryhillmuseum.org/
Don Blodger is a freelance photographer and travel writer; Victoria Blodger is also a writer. They live in Rocklin, California when they are not on the road. Visit his photography website at donblodgerphotography.com.