Falls and vistas where the Columbia cuts through the Cascades
To experience iconic waterfalls tumbling from towering basalt cliffs in a canyon formed by Ice Age floods and views of some of the Cascade Range’s highest peaks, tour the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area encompasses a significant chunk of the Cascade mountains on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the Columbia.
But the most popular draw is the roughly 75-mile route through the Oregon side’s deeper canyons and higher falls from Troutdale to The Dalles.
Highways and bridges
Interstate 84 affords scenic views of the Columbia and its bridges and dams, but cruising the curves of the Historic Columbia River Highway allows more intimate access between Troutdale and Dodson and then again between Mosier and the Dalles. This historic highway is also known as U.S Route 30, one of the earliest paved roads in the Pacific Northwest.
After overnighting in Portland or Troutdale — perhaps partaking in live music or the spa at the 74-acre McMenamins Edgefield campus — take the meandering historic highway through forests and farmland to Crown Point. Since 1916, motorists have visited the octagonal, marble-finished Vista House at Crown Point, a grand rest stop built to showcase epic views of the river and Mount Hood.
Past Bonneville at Cascade Locks is the Bridge of the Gods, a photogenic steel truss cantilever toll bridge named for a land mass from an ancient landslide. The bridge takes automobiles and pedestrians over the river to Washington State Route 14. Along this stretch of the the Lewis and Clark Memorial Highway, adventure travelers climb ropes in the aerial park at Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, or golf a round before a mineral water soak in a private claw foot tub at the rustic Carson Hot Springs Golf & Spa Resort.
Back on the Oregon side in Hood River (bring cash for the Hood River Bridge toll), explore downtown, watch kiteboarders and windsurfers from the waterfront park or enjoy an award-winning German-style pilsner and housemade bratwurst at Pfriem Family Brewers before picking apples or biking along the Hood River Fruit Loop.
Columbia River Gorge Fish
Buy fresh Columbia salmon in Cascade Locks from Native American vendors under the Bridge of the Gods or at the nearby Brigham Fish Market, a family business that sells fish netted in the traditional method of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. Make sure to try the smoked salmon chowder. Charter your own fishing trip at Cascades Locks Marine Park or take a narrated sightseeing excursion aboard the Columbia Gorge, a triple-decker, old-timey sternwheeler.
Tours of the massive Bonneville Dam hydroelectric plant, including subterranean viewing windows of migrating salmon and steelhead, are available on both sides of the river, but the Washington Shore Visitor Center tends to be less crowded at peak times. Go in September to see the largest number of chinook and coho in their magnificent spawning colors.
Downriver from the dam, the Bonneville Fish Hatchery supplies the Columbia with millions of salmon and steelhead. Self-guided tours include fish ponds, trout-feeding (watch out — they can bite) and the Sturgeon Viewing Center, where you can meet Herman the Sturgeon, a venerable octogenarian who’s nearly 11 feet long and weighs about 500 pounds.
Take the Plunge
Of the dozens of waterfalls in the Columbia Gorge, the dramatic tiers of 620-foot Multnomah Falls near Dodson make it the most popular tourist attraction in Oregon. Explore different types of falls along the waterfall corridor of the Historic Columbia River Highway. Horsetail Falls — unlike plunge-type falls — clings to the cliff beneath it on the way down, then fans out like a horse’s tail as it hits the water. For falls that spread in a wider arc like a fan, trek to Fairy Falls about a mile up Wahkeena Trail.
To avoid crowds, “Hiking Waterfalls in Oregon” author Adam Sawyer recommends the plunging Dry Creek Falls near the Bridge of the Gods and Wahclella Falls, a massive cascade west of Bonneville that reopened after a two-year closure due to damage from the 48,000-acre Eagle Creek Fire that affected many trails in the gorge. Parking lots for waterfall trails fill up in summer and on weekends, so arrive early.
History, Heritage and Culture
The Dalles was once an active gathering and trading place for tribes throughout the region. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery and Oregon Trail homesteaders also crossed through the area in the 1800s. Several excellent interpretive centers tell their stories, including the Fort Dalles Museum and the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center & Museum — both in in The Dalles — and the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum in Stevenson.
One of the most unusual art museums in the United States is further upstream of The Dalles off Washington State Route 14: the Maryhill Museum of Art. Founded by iconoclast entrepreneur Sam Hill, its collections include Rodin sculptures, gilded European furniture and marvelous vintage chess sets in a modernist mansion perched on a bluff overlooking the east end of the gorge. Hill also commissioned the nearby Maryhill Stonehenge, a full-scale replica of the ancient ruin in England as the first World War I memorial in the United States.
For a deeper look into the past, head to the Goldendale Observatory, a Washington state heritage site set to reopen to stargazers in February 2020 after an expansion and renovation.
–Written by Jennifer Burns Bright
Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.
- From Seattle: About 180 miles
- From Spokane: About 270 miles
- Cliff views
- Wind and water sports
- Northwest history
- Big fish
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