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Columbia River Gorge

Columbia River Gorge Itineraries

Columbia River Gorge Exploring

Columbia River Gorge: Exploring the Washington Side

Cascading waterfalls, dramatic scenery and classic lodges

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Special Alert: As of September 2017 a massive wildfire is being fought in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic area on the Oregon side. I-84 is closed from Troutdale to the Hood River area and travel is limited on the WA side of the Gorge on SR 14. Be sure and check wildfire reports before planning a trip to the area at this time. On a very positive note, firefighters have been able to save the iconic Multnomah Falls Lodge and there is still green to be enjoyed in the Gorge.

The Columbia River Gorge is a spectacular geological wonder. The Ice Age Missoula Floods cut the steep, rock walls that exist today. The Gorge runs from Troutdale, Oregon, just east of Portland to The Dalles where the Deschutes River flows into the Columbia, approximately 70 – 80 miles. The western part of the Columbia River serves as the border between Oregon and Washington.

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area provides stunning views and a popular recreation area. You’ll find opportunities for fishing, hiking, biking, water sports and sightseeing. The Gorge is known for its breathtaking waterfalls. Some require a hike through old growth forest to see them and others are accessible from I-84 as well as the Historic Columbia River Highway on a quick day trip.


Sightseeing in the Columbia River Gorge

The Historic Columbia River Highway, 100 years old this year, is known nationally for the use of road building technologies allowing it to meander along the cliff face and to preserve the natural beauty of the area. You can still drive the highway and, in some areas, walk along the old roadbed. It is the oldest scenic highway in the United States.

As you explore the Gorge there are stops along the historic highway and along I-84. You’ll see such marvels as the 620 foot high Multnomah Falls and Bonneville Dam with its visitors center, locks and fish hatchery grounds. Many of the attractions are family-friendly and educational.

There are wineries, lodges serving northwest cuisine, and small resort communities like Cascade Locks where you can board the Columbia River Gorge Sternwheeler for a scenic cruise.


Hiking the Columbia River Gorge

You’ll find quick hikes from the highway to view waterfalls as well as longer hikes into the back country up switchbacks and along narrow trails. Even the easiest hikes will provide you with views of rushing water, mossy cliffs and Gorge wildflowers. You may encounter bear or deer as you trek. The Pacific Crest Trail, as described by local author Cheryl Strayed, passes through the Gorge. Day hikers can easily experience parts of the Pacific Crest Trail as described in her book, Wild.


The Washington Side

A drive along Highway 14 in Washington will provide you with a different micro-climate. It is drier on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. Heading east from Vancouver, Washington you can visit the Pendleton Woolen Mills, bird watch at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, hike up Beacon Rock for an amazing vista of the Gorge and enjoy beautiful Skamania Lodge, with golf course, zip line and fine dining.  Ready to relax? Consider Bonneville Hot Springs & Spa or go wine tasting.


Places to Stay in the Columbia River Gorge

Beautiful resort hotels such as Bonneville Hot Springs & Spa, Skamania Lodge and the Columbia Gorge Hotel, built in 1921, offer visitors luxury and fine dining. There are small motels and cabins dotted along the route and quaint B&B accommodations in Hood River. Some people opt to stay in eastern Portland, in communities along I-84, or in Hood River where there are a wide range of options.


When To Go

You can visit the Columbia River Gorge year round. In the spring, enjoy wildflowers. In summer, mist from the waterfalls will cool you off and in fall look for a show of autumn color. However in winter you must pay attention to road conditions. Some times I-84 east of Troutdale is closed due to icy conditions. Although icy falls are photogenic, winter storms can make traveling, walking and hiking in the Columbia River Gorge dangerous. After a rain, Gorge trails can be slippery and rocks unstable, so check with the visitors center or consult local weather reports before taking a hike.

How Much Time To Spend

You can enjoy a drive into the Gorge for a day trip or spend a vacation hiking, viewing waterfalls, and exploring the attractions the Columbia River Gorge has to offer. Many take a scenic cruise on the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler and go to the Visitors Center at the Bonneville Dam and Fish Hatchery.

High and Low Season

You can visit the Gorge year round however be attentive to the weather. I-84 can ice up in winter and, in severe storms, be closed. The best time to visit is spring, summer and fall.

Time Zone

Pacific

What To Pack and Wear

When you visit the Gorge and expect to get out and do some hiking or exploring waterfalls, you’ll need day hikers or hiking boots. Since you’ll be in the shade part of the time and in the sun while passing through open spaces, layering is important. A final layer should be waterproof in case of rain or spray from the waterfalls. Take water on your hikes and trail snacks.

If you want to drive and sight-see without hiking or walking in the woods, be sure and wear sturdy walking shoes and layer your clothing. Columbia Sportswear and REI are good places to purchase your clothing and gear.

What it Costs

Many of the attractions in the Columbia River Gorge are free of charge. For example, you can see Multnomah Falls, visit the Booneville Dam Visitors Center and Fish Hatchery, take in Crown Point and hike most waterfall trails free of charge. There are charges for State Parks.

Of course dining, overnight accommodations, some museum visits and commercial tours such as the Columbia River Gorge Sternwheeler cruise will cost you. In general, a visit to the Columbia River Gorge, can be tailored to any budget.

Transportation

The Gorge is accessible via car and via commercial bus or van tours. One is Martin’s Gorge Tours. If you fly in for your Gorge vacation, you will be flying in to Portland (PDX). Amtrak also serves Portland.

100 years ago Oregon celebrated the opening of Route 30, the historic Columbia River Highway, and people have driven to points of interest in the Gorge all these years. But sometimes it gets so crowded at Multnomah Falls that the parking lots are full and no additional visitors can access the beautiful falls.

It does get very crowded at trail heads and major natural attractions in the Columbia River Gorge. So recently we were pleased when the Oregon Department of Transportation announced the launch of a new public transit line.

The Columbia Gorge Express opened May 27th, 2016. The new line has 12 departures a day Friday through Sunday from the Gateway Transit Center in Northeast Portland with stops in Rooster Rock State Park (25 miles east of Portland) and Multnomah Falls (30 miles east of Portland). It’s just $5 for a round-trip ticket and bicycle riders are welcome aboard too.

In addition to the new Columbia Gorge Express shuttle service, visitors can take the PortlandGray Line bus tour, which stops at Crown Point, Multnomah Falls, Oneonta Gorge, Horsetail Falls, Bonneville Dam and the fish ladder. The Summer bus schedule runs from June 12-Sept. 6, leaving daily from Pioneer Courthouse Square at 8:45 a.m.; weekends during the shoulder season). Tickets start at $39.

Background

The Columbia River Gorge, beginning just east of Portland, Oregon, and flattening out at the Deschutes River after you pass Hood River, Oregon to the east, is a massive canyon of the Columbia River.  At places along the Gorge you’ll find the depth up to 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) deep. The Gorge stretches 70 – 80 miles and holds federally protected status as a National Scenic Area dubbed the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

The Columbia River Gorge began forming 10 to 30 million years ago. The most drastic changes took place at the end of the last Ice Age when the Missoula Floods cut the steep walls that the Gorge is known for. In fact the water and rocks caused the river to flood as high as the current Crown Point.

Today the Gorge is a draw because of the steep walls, the scenic waterfalls and the recreational opportunities. The Historic Columbia River Highway brought visitors to the Gorge over 100 years ago. Remnants of the highway are still used for driving, and, in some areas, for walking and biking.

The Columbia River serves as a border between Oregon and Washington. The Washington side is drier and the Oregon side is known for the waterfalls and lush vegetation.

History

The Columbia River Gorge began forming 10 to 30 million years ago. The most drastic changes took place at the end of the last Ice Age when the Missoula Floods cut the steep walls that the Gorge is known for. In fact the water and rocks caused the river to flood as high as the current Crown Point.

The Historic Columbia River Highway, now 100 years old, was the first modern highway constructed in the Pacific Northwest and the first scenic highway in the United States.

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