Let’s face it. There are a million different ways to spend your time outdoors enjoying all that which mother nature has blessed the Pacific Northwest. There are trails to hike, mountains to climb, snow skiing, wind surfing, kayaking, jet skiing, bicycling, white water rafting, and so much more. And then there are the rest of us who need something a little less strenuous yet just as thrilling. There are plenty of spots to see in that stunning area called the Columbia River Gorge. The Columbia River is the natural dividing line between the states of Washington to the north, and Oregon to the south. On the Washington side is Mount Adams. On the Oregon side is Mount Hood. Luckily for us, there are roads on both sides that make it easy to drive up one side and back the other for a pleasurable day trip out of Portland, or a weekend away from Seattle.
On the Oregon Side
The Historic Columbia River Highway
This two-lane road completed in 1922 takes you back in time and is a marvel of engineering of that time with tunnels carved out of sheer cliffs, stone guard rails, and beautiful detail stonework throughout. It takes you on a winding, approximately 75 mile leisurely drive and back to the time when driving was a pleasurable experience and not one to get you from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Take your time and explore the road as you travel right at the foot of about 40 waterfalls, past a living and vibrant Franciscan Convent, and many viewpoints. There is a fascinating short documentary about the man who spearheaded the development of this road – Sam Hill – and tells the story of the Columbia River Gorge as well. Watch here on Oregon Public Broadcasting TV.
Bridal Veil Falls
At the site of an old lumbermill, the Bridal Veil Falls State Park offers two hikes – a short but steep hike to the lower falls, or an easy paved one called the Overlook trail. No fee or pass required.
This beautiful stone lodge was built in 1925 and sits right at the foot of the iconic Multnomah waterfall. It makes for a spectacular setting to gaze out through the soaring glass windows towards the falls. It may not offer hotel lodgings anymore, but you can begin your day with an excellent breakfast at the lodge or enjoy an Oregon favorite marionberry or hazelnut milkshake!
Stop at Vista House at Crown Point
For a usually windy, spectacular view looking eastward up the gorge, the iconic Vista House is the place to stop. Inside the 1918 building there are visitor facilities and a gift shop. Get out and feel the gorge breeze with views of Beacon Rock and beyond.
A nice stop on the Oregon side of river with flower gardens, ponds full of fish and ducks, a nice gift shop, fish ladder, and an up close view of one of the largest and oldest known sturgeon around named Herman . At over 11 feet he is an impressive guy!
A fairly easy 0.8 mil hike, no fee or pass near Horsetail Falls. You can walk behind the waterfall on a path carved into the rock face for a unique experience. Part of the Oneonta Natural Area, it is a popular hiking area as there are multiple hikes for different levels of difficulty. The Oneonta Gorge hike is especially wondrous as you hike between two steep cliffs that form a natural gorge.
Stop at the foot of the Bridge of the Gods for a famous milkshake at the East Wind Drive-in or get out and stretch your legs at the nice park at the east end of town where you have a good chance of seeing the Sternwheeler paddle boat, as it docks here on its travels up and down the river or other barges as they pass by with their loads.
Depending upon the time of your visit, you can stop at the many roadside markets for some of the fresh fruit the area is known for. Or drive the town’s mapped out “Fruit Loop Trail” to see orchards in blossom. Hood River’s downtown sits at the base of a steep hill. Drive up the hill to the upper portion of town for amazing views of Mt. Hood up close. This vibrant town is alive with many breweries, wineries, restaurants, and shops. Get more information on their useful city tourism website.
For car lovers and history buffs, the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River is definitely worth a stop. Tour airplanes, antique cars, and even sign up to drive one yourself! They have one of the largest collections of still working airplanes and cars and love keeping this museum humming with energy.
On the Washington Side
If you cross into Washington at the Dalles, head further east about 25 minutes to see the fascinating Maryhill Museum. On a bluff overlooking the Columbia, you can find art pieces from all over the world. Built as a home by Sam Hill, the man who built the Historic Columbia River Highway and intended this house to be a self-sustaining utopia. His wife didn’t care to be so far from the big cities, so it became a museum. Attached is a monument he built honoring the men who served in WW1 which looks as if it is straight out of old Britain. See more on our post: https://bestofthenorthwest.com/maryhill-stonehenge-memorial/
Balfour Klickitat Loop Hike
Just south of Lyle, WA is a trailhead for an easy 0.9 mile looping hike that is a great place to go in search of bald eagles – especially in the winter months.
Driving north from White Salmon are the remains of ancient tubes of lava flowing from nearby volcanoes. They formed hollow tubes that have formed “land bridges” and fascinating ice caves where you walk down steps and feel the temperature drop dramatically. The land bridges form a level fairly easy hike. Read more on our story here.
A stop in White Salmon offers you a place for lunch, or get out and watch the white water rafters riding the waves downstream right there in the center of town. It makes a great stop if you’re heading to the Lava tubes or Guler Ice caves.
A fun old town with plenty of character. Maybe eat lunch on the deck of Clark & Lewie’s overlooking the Columbia River. The restaurant used to be the town’s brothel in one of its many past lives. Visit the many great shops and restaurants in the artistic little town. There is plenty of more options to be found at their city website: City of Stevenson
On the outskirts of Stevenson is a unique glass walled museum that includes large displays in their main large atrium-like gallery. You may see a full sized fish wheel, a 1917 Jenny bi-plane, or logging truck. The center focuses on the many stages of the Columbia Gorge and holds wonderful Native American artifacts, items from the history of the logging and fishing industries, and many stories of local pioneers. There is plenty here to keep kids busy too including a full sized diesel train engine outside.
This upscale lodge sits among the trees with a view overlooking the river. Visitors can stop and enjoy a nice lunch or dinner and explore the grounds or sit with a coffee in their vaulted great room. Take a stroll outside and enjoy the view overlooking the river. The lodge would also make a great spot to spend the night and sit out by their campfire overlooking the river.
Plan ahead and bring an ice chest to buy some fresh salmon to take home. At the entrance to the Bridge of the Gods is a famous salmon stand. People drive out just to buy their salmon sold by Native American tribes.
Bridge of the Gods
For just a $1 toll, drive across this steel bridge built in 1926 that takes you into Cascade Locks, Oregon. The site is probably the narrowest section of the Columbia Gorge due to an ancient landslide that at one point completely blocked the river, forming a land bridge from one side to the other. The river eventually made its way through again creating a gap and a perfect spot for a bridge.
If you have a good imagination and a love of early American history, a visit to the Fort Cascades Historical site would be worth a stop. Located near Bonneville dam, the site is a microcosm of the volatile history of the Columbia River Gorge in the 1800s. It includes an early wood military fort blockhouse burned down during a battle with a local Native American tribe, which was then rebuilt, only to be abandoned when the military turned its attentions more toward the Civil War. There are old portage roads, old train tracks, and petroglyphs. Many parts are now just interpretive signs as the living history slowly decays, but it still feels like stepping back in time.
The Bonneville Power Plant is fascinating, powerful, and somewhat controversial, yet it is where most people in the Pacific Northwest get their electricity. The enormous structure spans the mighty Columbia River and you can find out how they managed to built it and see the gigantic turbines working. There is plenty to see in their visitor center accessible from the Washington side. You can also visit the outdoor fish ladder and or indoor window to see the fish as they work their way upstream behind glass covered walls. Plenty here to keep the kids entertained! There is a great viewpoint from the Oregon side.
Franz Lake Wildlife Refuge
Just off the highway on the Washington side west of North Bonneville, is a viewing platform from which you can observe a lush wetland known for hosting a large concentration of migrating tundra swans.
Fort Cascades Trail
This dog-friendly trail is an easy 1.3 mile hike with no fees required. You’ll be rewarded with views of the Bonneville Dam and you should be able to see much of the scarring from the Eagle Creek fires that devastated the Oregon side of the Gorge. It was an historic settlement area and has replicas of petroglyphs found there.
St Cloud Loop Trail
This lesser known trail takes you through an old apple orchard down to the edge of the river where you can skip rocks, listen to the lapping waves, and ponder the past. It does not have picnic tables and the ground is covered in river rocks. It feels like a little hideaway where you can have the river all to yourself.
Stop for a picnic at Beacon Rock State Park and sit in view of this iconic landmark sketched in the Lewis & Clark journals. Beacon Rock is 848 feet high and is technically a volcanic “plug.” The Beacon Rock State Park sits just west of the rock with its steep switchback hike to the top. Surely a spectacular view from the top pf the rock, but the view from the park is just as pretty.
A small pullover spot on SR14 offers a gigantic view. Just to the side of the winding road is a jaw-dropping view well worth the stop. Drive slowly as you approach milepoint 27 there is no turn lane. It is most easily accessed heading east, but you can access heading south.
At the gateway to the Gorge sits a Northwest treasure, Pendleton Woolen Mills in downtown historic Washougal. Walk up the old wooden plank steps to the old mill now converted to a lovely store with ready-made clothing and goods as well as fabric by the yard.