The Columbia River Gorge and the Cascade Mountains evoke the grandeur of the American Pacific Northwest better than just about anywhere else. Flowing 1,200 miles from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific, the 80-mile segment that runs along the Washington-Oregon border is so crammed with beauty that it is hard to appreciate it in a single visit.
We arrive at the Gorge, having driven from the southern Oregon coast, through the Central Cascades to Bend and north to Mt. Hood. It is a route that takes you through unexpected scenery — vast lava fields that rival those of Hawaii, lush forests with
waterfalls, glacier-covered volcanic peaks, sparkling blue lakes, and even a desert! For a photographer, it is a dream!
You think you have seen everything and then Mount Hood comes into view. Dominating the skyline for miles, the 11,235-foot mountain is the tallest in the state. In the forests approaching the mountain are countless lakes where you can stop to photograph reflections of the semi-dormant volcano that the Native Americans call Wy’east, son of the Great Spirit. Mirror and Trillium Lakes are amongst the most popular but we opt for the less crowded Frog Lake.
Mt. Hood is one of the only mountains in the Cascades that you can drive to. Sitting at 6,000 feet is the historic Timberline Lodge, built during the Depression where, even in August, skiers are busy donning boots, hats, and sunscreen for an afternoon on the glacier. Be sure to take a peek inside at the wooden beams, wrought iron decorations and hand carved furniture.
For a truly panoramic view of the Columbia River and the string of peaks that characterize the area, drive 14 miles through lush, green forests up Larch Mountain where, on a clear day, you can see the volcanic peaks of Mt Hood, Mt St Helens, Mt Rainier, Mt Adams, and Mt Jefferson. (The road is closed in the winter).
On your way back down, stop at the Portland Women’s Forum Park east of Corbett for iconic views of the Gorge, Beacon Rock, Vista house and the Bonneville Dam. Originally this was the site of the 1912 Chanticleer Hotel which burned down in 1931.
Further down the road is Crown Point, topped by the octagonal stone Vista House. Perched on a 733-foot sheer rock cliff, the elegant 1916 Art Nouveau observatory provides a superb view of the Columbia River and some of the brown and black basalt cliffs that line the gorge. Once, it was a place for travelers to rest as they traveled down the Historic Columbia River Highway. Even Lewis and Clark camped below this cliff as they pushed towards the Pacific Ocean.
As you leave this stretch of the river, you will find a huge hydroelectric station — the Bonneville Dam. This was one of the largest New Deal projects of the Depression era. Woody Guthrie sand about the power produced by the dam “Roll on Columbia, roll on, your power is turning the darkness to dawn.”
Since the Columbia River is filled with salmon, leaps had to be built that would permit the migrating fish to get around the dam. If you go down to the third level beneath the entrance of the Bradford Island Visitors Center, underwater windows allow you to watch salmon fighting the current to swim past. Some of them are enormous! There are also sturgeons in these waters, great big prehistoric-looking monsters that can be seen at the Bonneville Fish Hatchery.
Just north of Vista Point, the Columbia River Gorge is all about waterfalls — 77 on the Oregon side alone — of every description; Plunge falls, fan falls, cascade falls, horsetail falls and more. There are 11 just on this nine-mile stretch! The most popular and most easily accessible is Multnomah, a spectacular, 620-foot, two-tiered waterfall, spanned halfway up by a masoned arched bridge. You can climb up to the top of the falls in about an hour, through a forest of Douglas fir and lush undergrowth. When you are done, stop at the Multnomah Falls Lodge for lunch. The restaurant is famous for its wild huckleberry pie. Most of the other waterfalls are reached by hiking from well-marked trailheads.
If you want to explore the river from the water, in the town of Cascade Locks (44 miles east of Portland), look for the 145-foot sternwheeler, “Columbia Gorge,” where you can take a cruise on the river during the summer months. Nearby is the famed Bridge of the Gods that will take you across to Washington State.
Otherwise, you can try your hand at windsurfing or kite-boarding. The winds here are legendary, as the westerlies are channeled through the gorge against the river’s current. Aficionados are on the water from daybreak to sunset, their colorful sails punctuating the green of the gorge.
The Grande Dame of hotels on the river is the Columbia Gorge Hotel, perched on a rock 200 feet above the water. Its 13 acres of gardens are filled with native Oregon plants, bisected with streams whose waters flow into the hotel’s own waterfall, the Wah-Gwin-Gwin, tumbling over the rocks to the river below.
Built by Oregon lumber magnate Simon Benson in 1921, it was the “Waldorf of the West,” attracting the glitterati of the age including Presidents Roosevelt and Coolidge, Shirley Temple and others, including Rudolph Valentino for whom this was a favorite hideaway. The lounge is named after him.
This area of Oregon is famous for its fruit. If you are there in summer, don’t miss the many farm stands selling fresh cherries, pears, peaches, raspberries, blueberries, apples and more. You certainly will not go hungry. Oh yes! I forgot the wine!
Although you can cram quite a bit into a long week-end, if you truly want to experience this area of Oregon, you will need at least a week, a month, or a lifetime.
Bring all your lenses and a tripod. This is probably one of the most photogenic locations in Oregon. A neutral density filter is a must for photographing the waterfalls and a polarizing filter will cut the glare from the glaciers. Sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, as are the wildflowers in the spring and summer.
IF YOU GO
To explore the Columbia River Gorge, start in Portland, Oregon on the I-84. You can exit at Troutdale (Exit 17), Lewis and Clark State Park (Exit 18), Corbett (Exit 22) or Dodson (Exit 35). Look for signs that say “Scenic Road” which refers to the Historic Columbia River Highway, also known as US30, American’s first scenic road, finished in 1915. See www.fs.usda.gov/crgnsa.
Vista House (Open mid-April to mid-October).
Multnomah Falls Lodge (tel 503-695-2376; open year round 8 am to 9 pm).
Bonneville Dam (Bradford Island Visitors Center; Tel 541-374-8820; free admission 9-5).
Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler (Tel 503-374-8427; daily cruises; Sunset dinner cruises on Thursday, Friday and Saturday).
Columbia Gorge Hotel (4000 Westcliffe Drive, Hood River, Oregon; tel 1-800-345-1921).