The Best of the Columbia River Gorge

Dusk at the base of the powerful Elowah Falls.
Dusk at the base of the powerful Elowah Falls. Jake Wheeler
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Driving across Eastern Oregon toward Portland, Oregon is a midwestern-style ride through arid flats, plastered with acre upon acre of farmland and dusty highway with ground-level views that make you think you can see the curvature of the earth. Interstate 84 traces the path of the lumbering Columbia River until, somewhere around The Dalles, it almost seems to slip underground. All of a sudden, the highway is forced almost into the river by cliffs shooting up thousands of feet from either side, painted in dark green as thick as shag carpeting. Everywhere, streams of water cut channels through the trees, only to nosedive down rocky escarpments to the road below.

The Columbia River cuts a deep gash in the Cascades, creating an obvious border for the states of Washington, on the gorge’s north side, and Oregon, to the south. But it’s also an 80-mile thoroughfare into a tightly-packed hotspot of hiking, camping, climbing and more, and anyone lucky enough to spend time there, should have a couple things on their must-see list.

1. Historic Columbia River Highway

The hike to Wahclella Falls is just a quick 1-mile (2 mile round trip) jaunt from the Historic Columbia River Highway.
The hike to Wahclella Falls is just a quick 1-mile (2 mile round trip) jaunt from the Historic Columbia River Highway. Jake Wheeler

Completed in 1922, this 75-mile route was the first major paved highway in the Pacific Northwest and the country’s first planned scenic roadway. Myriad tunnels, bridges, and loops carried travelers and sightseers along, through, and above the narrow gorge until it was bypassed by Interstate 84 years later. Today, sections of the original route are still drivable, and others are open to pedestrian traffic, but driving through the gorge is still an attraction unto itself. If you’re feeling even more adventurous in your driving, Washington’s State Route 14 on the river’s north side, is even narrower and wilder.

2. Hood River

The Gorge features a collection of quaint small towns, but Hood River, Oregon is a definite highlight. It’s tucked in a cramped flat where the cliffs briefly abate, between the river and the hills that climb to Mount Hood. Full Sail Brewing Company is a friendly brewpub overlooking the water and pumping out the region’s signature libation. For windsurfers, Hood River is an easy jumping off point for some of the best windsurfing in the country on the Columbia River.

3. Mount Hood

A fresh layer of early October snow on Mt. Hood.
A fresh layer of early October snow on Mt. Hood. Jake Wheeler

Even if it’s not right by the river, this 11,250-foot volcano is the crown jewel of the region. Visible from just about everywhere (besides the depths of the gorge itself), it’s the unquestioned center of the area’s outdoor activity. Flanked by thick forest leading to a healthy collection of glaciers, Mount Hood is popular with hikers, backpackers, skiers, and especially climbers. State Route 35 heads straight uphill from Hood River and on a clear day, a handful of vantages right from the pavement will rival any view of the mountain. From there, most summit attempts start on the south side, from the Mount Hood Meadows Ski Area before climbing into the crater and through the “Pearly Gates” to the summit. Experience with climbing on glaciers and with using crampons and ice axes is a must, but with help or experience, Mount Hood is a great training peak for the budding big mountain climber.

4. Table Mountain and the Bridge of the Gods

Sometime in the 15th century, a massive landslide ripped away the southern face of Table Mountain, on the Columbia River’s northern shore. More than 5 square miles of debris ended up in the water close to modern-day Cascade Locks, Oregon, creating a 200 foot high and 3.5 mile long natural dam that Native Americans could use to link either shore, calling it the Bridge of the Gods. Eventually, the dam was overtaken by the river and the Cascade Rapids were formed, but the effects of the bridge are still evident. Table Mountain, with it’s shorn-off face, is a strenuous hike with views looking up and down the gorge. The original Bridge of the Gods has been replaced by a steel version that carries Pacific Crest Trail hikers from one state to another, and a new dam (complete with new locks) was eventually built to help boats circumnavigate the rapids.

5. Oneonta Gorge

Hiking over a slippery logjam in Oneonta Gorge.
Hiking over a slippery logjam in Oneonta Gorge. Jake Wheeler

Oneonta Creek cuts deep into the rock surrounding it, so deep that the water laps the vertical mossy walls on either side. That means there’s no room for a trail. To explore the collection of waterfalls filling the creek up close, hop in the water and start wading upstream. At certain times of the year, some spots can be up to chest deep, but there’s no other way to get this view of the “emerald canyon.” Solid shoes that you don’t mind getting wet are a must.

6. Beacon Rock

Named by Lewis and Clark in 1805, Beacon Rock is an 848-foot monolith (one of the largest in North America), rising like a thumb from near the water on the river’s Washington side. Once the liquid contents of a volcano’s vent, it’s now one of the most easily recognized landmarks in the gorge. More than 50 switchbacks in under a mile will get hikers to the top where there will be incredible views of nearby Hamilton Mountain. Beacon Rock is also quite popular with rock climbers.

7. Eagle Creek Trail

This hike is one of the most popular in the Gorge, so expect company for at least the beginning, but there’s a reason it’s on everyone’s list. Following the drainage of Eagle Creek on the Oregon side, the trail was built along with the original Columbia River Highway, and in much the same form, winding and blasting along steep ledges and tunnels. You’ll pass a handful of waterfalls, including Punchbowl Falls less than 2 miles in. Later on, the trail heads behind aptly-named Tunnel Falls. If you’re looking to make a trip out of it, keep climbing up the valley until it loops around on the ridgeline to Tanner Butte. Descend back to your car for a 22-mile circuit.

8. Multnomah Falls

Oregon's famous two-tiered Multnomah Falls.
Oregon's famous two-tiered Multnomah Falls. Jake Wheeler

If you’ve never seen Multnomah Falls, take a look through some of your old calendars. The 620-foot two-tiered waterfall is the queen of Columbia River cascades and, right off the road, it’s a must-see for anyone passing through. A short walk takes you to the top of the lower drop and a footbridge that crosses just back from the edge. If you’re not scared of heights (Multnomah is Oregon’s tallest waterfall), head up a collection of switchbacks to a platform atop the falls to get a bird's’ eye view of the water’s violent freefall.

9. Crown Point

Farther toward Portland, there’s one spot that serves as an ample reminder of the major geologic forces that created the gorge. Crown Point is a promontory sitting 733 feet above the river’s Oregon side, but it wasn’t always that far away. As the ice sheets receded at the end of the last ice age, ice dams holding back numerous meltwater lakes further inland would periodically burst and suddenly send massive amounts of water down the Columbia River valley in what are referred to as the Missoula Floods. Most of the steep walls of the gorge were cut during these events and floodwaters shot as high as Crown Point. Today, the viewpoint offers unparalleled panoramic views up and down the gorge.

10. Angel’s Rest

Taking in the expansive Columbia River Gorge views from the summit of Angel's Rest.
Taking in the expansive Columbia River Gorge views from the summit of Angel's Rest. Jake Wheeler

Angel’s Rest is a rock-strewn summit high above the Columbia River that unveils some of the most expansive views in the gorge. The hike to the top is a short one at 2.5 miles (5 miles round trip), but it packs a bit of a punch, as it scales roughly 1,400 feet in elevation and criss-crosses through a number of various environs typical of the gorge. Given its proximity to Portland, the trail can get crowded at times, so make sure to get there early to beat the crowds—especially on weekends.

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