Nestled between Oregon and Washington, the Columbia River Gorge boasts an 80-mile expanse of stunning landscapes and exciting adventures waiting to be discovered. As a National Scenic Area, this awe-inspiring region combines the best of the Pacific Northwest with its lush forests, cascading waterfalls, and unique recreational opportunities.
We invite you to explore the Columbia River Gorge and indulge in a variety of activities it has to offer. From windsurfing and kayaking to hiking through dense forests, this area tends to the thrill-seeker in all of us. And for those who find solace in history and culture, our journey will take us to iconic landmarks, quaint towns, and creative craft breweries.
In the following sections, let us guide you through the best that the Columbia River Gorge has to offer, and find out for yourself why this gem of the Pacific Northwest deserves a top spot on your travel bucket list.
Where is the Columbia River Gorge?
The Columbia River Gorge is an 80-mile stretch of scenic beauty, located in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It is a natural wonder that borders both Oregon and Washington states, showcasing the Columbia River as its centerpiece.
This spectacular region was designated as the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area due to its breathtaking landscapes, including jaw-dropping waterfalls, scenic overlooks, and diverse hiking trails. Spanning over a million acres, this area is one of the largest national forest recreation areas in the country, even though it is not officially a national park.
The Columbia River Gorge is accessible via the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway, which is often considered one of the most stunning drives in the USA. This historic route offers several opportunities for visitors to experience the wonderful natural beauty of the Columbia River and its surrounding forests and mountains.
In summary, the Columbia River Gorge is an enchanting destination situated in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Its diverse landscapes, picturesque views, and exceptional recreational opportunities make it a must-visit location for nature enthusiasts.
The Splendor of Seasons in the Gorge
In Spring, the Columbia River Gorge comes alive as the snow melts and the landscape turns vibrant with blooming wildflowers and lush greenery. It is an ideal time for outdoor enthusiasts who can take advantage of the comfortable temperatures as they explore the beautiful hiking trails and admire the roaring waterfalls. As the rain tapers down, it leaves us with crystal-clear skies and an abundance of picturesque views.
Summer in the Columbia River Gorge is a season of sun-soaked adventures and thrilling water activities. With the warmer weather, we enjoy kayaking, rafting, and windsurfing down the mighty Columbia River, taking occasional breaks to bask in the sun at the nearby beaches. This season also allows us to experience the majestic views from various overlooks as we hike through the dry trails, making it the perfect time for capturing stunning photographs of the Gorge.
As the leaves begin to change color, the Columbia River Gorge presents an enchanting display of autumnal beauty. The Fall foliage creates a vibrant backdrop to our hikes, and the mild weather is perfect for exploring the scenic trails. This time of year is well-suited for a relaxing drive along the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway, where we can take in the breathtaking scenery and stop by popular landmarks such as Vista House, Multnomah Falls, and the charming town of Hood River.
Winter in the Columbia River Gorge offers a magical experience as the landscape is transformed by a dusting of snow, clinging to the branches of towering trees. The colder temperatures make this an ideal time for us to bundle up and visit the nearby ski resorts on the slopes of Mt. Hood, where we can ski, snowboard, or even go snowshoeing. Back in the Gorge, the waterfalls partially freeze, creating an ethereal sight that’s not to be missed when we brave the chilly temperatures for a short winter hike.
The Columbia River Gorge offers a wide range of adventurous activities for outdoor enthusiasts. In this section, we’ll explore some of the most popular options, including hiking, windsurfing, kayaking, biking, kiteboarding, and various water sports.
Columbia River Gorge boasts an extensive network of hiking trails that cater to all skill levels, from gentle walks to challenging climbs. Some iconic hikes in the area include:
- Multnomah Falls: This 2.4-mile round-trip hike leads to the top of the tallest waterfall in Oregon, offering stunning views of the surrounding landscape.
- Catherine Creek Trail: A moderate 3-mile loop trail, perfect for spotting wildflowers in spring.
- Dalles Mountain Ranch: Wander through rolling hills and meadows on this 7-mile hike that offers impressive views of the gorge.
We highly recommend trying windsurfing while visiting the gorge, as the region is famous for its strong and consistent winds. Hood River, located within the Columbia River Gorge, is known as the windsurfing capital of the world. Numerous local outfitters offer equipment rentals, lessons, and guided windsurfing experiences for all skill levels.
Paddle through the calm waters of the Columbia River Gorge and soak in the serene beauty of this wondrous landscape. Kayaking gives us an opportunity to explore the gorge at our own pace. Several companies in the area provide kayak rentals, guided tours, and even multi-day trips down the river.
Cycling enthusiasts can rejoice in the fact that the Columbia River Gorge offers numerous biking trails catering to all abilities. With both road and mountain biking options available, we can choose from scenic rides along the river to adrenaline-pumping single-track trails on the hillsides.
Like windsurfing, kiteboarding is another thrilling water sport popular in the Columbia River Gorge. Hood River serves as a hub for kiteboarding enthusiasts, offering lessons, gear rentals, and ideal wind conditions. Beginners and experienced riders alike can find a suitable spot to harness the wind and glide across the water.
In addition to windsurfing and kiteboarding, there are plenty of other water sports available in the gorge. Swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, and fishing are just a few examples of the various recreational activities we can indulge in while enjoying the beautiful scenery that the Columbia River Gorge has to offer.
The Columbia River Gorge is home to an abundance of cascading waterfalls that are sure to impress any nature enthusiast. Some of the most prominent ones include Multnomah Falls, Horsetail Falls, and Wahkeena Falls. Many of these waterfalls can be easily accessed through scenic hikes of varying difficulty, making them perfect for visitors of all ages and skill levels.
The Gorge displays some breathtaking cliffs that have been naturally carved over time. These towering rock formations offer a dramatic backdrop to the lush landscape and pristine waterways, drawing in rock climbers and photographers alike. Remarkable cliffs in the area include the basalt columns at Rooster Rock State Park and the sheer walls of the Cape Horn Trail.
Several viewpoints along the Columbia River Gorge offer stunning panoramas of the surrounding topography. A prime example is the Columbia River Gorge Vista House, perched atop the Crown Point promontory, which offers sweeping views of the Gorge and nearby waterfalls. Other notable viewpoints include the Portland Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint and Angel’s Rest.
The dense, verdant forests of the Columbia River Gorge play host to a diverse array of flora and fauna. Hikers can explore the richly canopied trails, including the iconic Oneonta Gorge hike (currently closed) and the picturesque Fairy Falls trek. The towering trees, lush ferns, and vibrant wildflowers create an immersive experience amid nature’s wonderland.
Visible from many points within the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Hood is an awe-inspiring presence. As the highest peak in Oregon, it attracts hikers in the summer and skiers in the winter. When trekking through the Gorge, make sure to take in the beauty of this mountain and explore its ridges, glaciers, and forests.
The rolling ridges of the Columbia River Gorge offer a topographical marvel for hikers and sightseers alike. Many trails along these ridges offer spectacular views of the sweeping landscape below, such as the Dog Mountain Trail. As you traverse these ridges, you’ll witness wildflower laden meadows and dense forests, providing the perfect blend of adventure and beauty.
Historic and Cultural Significance
Lewis and Clark Expedition
The Columbia River Gorge has been a significant part of North American history, playing a vital role in the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. In fact, it was one of the main routes explored by the team during their journey in the early 1800s. This historic event is still commemorated today through various sites and trails that can be visited throughout the Gorge. Many interpretive centers and guided tours offer insight into the rich history of the area and the expedition’s impact on Oregon and Washington’s development.
Native American Influence
For more than 13,000 years, Native American tribes have called the Columbia River Gorge home, with the area being a crucial part of their culture and history. These tribes have a deep connection to the land, and the Gorge has been a gathering place for food, trading, and cultural exchange. Today, we can still witness the marks of their influence through various archeological sites, cultural artifacts, and the stories passed down through generations. It’s essential to honor and respect this rich cultural heritage by learning about the area’s native history when visiting the Gorge.
Historic Columbia River Highway
Constructed in the early 20th century, the Historic Columbia River Highway was a remarkable feat of engineering. Often called the “King of Roads,” it boasts a combination of visionary architecture, awe-inspiring scenery, and rich history. As one of the most scenic drives in the country, it offers panoramic views of the Columbia River Gorge, as well as access to multiple waterfalls, hiking trails, and cultural sites. The Historic Columbia River Highway has been designated a National Scenic Byway, making it a great way to explore the area’s beauty and history.
Below is a list of must-see sights located along the highway:
- Vista House at Crown Point: Built in 1916, it offers a stunning view of the Gorge.
- Multnomah Falls: The tallest waterfall in Oregon.
- Wahkeena Falls: A stunning cascade easily accessed from the highway.
- Cascade Locks: Home to the historic Bridge of the Gods.
One unique aspect of the Historic Columbia River Highway is the impressive stonework railings found throughout various stretches of the route. These railings showcase a high level of craftsmanship, blending seamlessly into the natural surroundings and adding to the route’s historic character. They still stand today as an elegant testimony to the skilled stonemasons who contributed to the development of the Columbia River Gorge’s infrastructure.
The Columbia River Gorge is home to numerous wineries that showcase the region’s diverse range of wines. We recommend trying the world-renowned Pinot Noir which thrives in the unique climate and soil of the area. Some notable wineries in the region include Marchesi Vineyards and Maryhill Winery. Be sure to check their websites for operating hours, tastings options, and any scheduled events.
If you’re more of a craft beer enthusiast, the Columbia River Gorge also boasts an impressive selection of breweries. pFriem Family Brewers and Double Mountain Brewery are two standout options for sampling exquisite beers and enjoying the fantastic atmosphere. Both breweries offer an extensive beer lineup that will cater to different palates and preferences.
Columbia River Gorge is also known for its fresh and locally grown fruits and vegetables. To fully savor these flavors, take a drive along the Hood River Fruit Loop. This 35-mile scenic route takes you through fruit stands, wineries, and farmlands, offering a glimpse into the Gorge’s agricultural bounty. Keep an eye out for seasonal offerings like apples, cherries, peaches, and berries.
No epicurean adventure would be complete without exploring the local dining scene. The Columbia River Gorge offers a variety of restaurants with farm-to-table menus celebrating regional ingredients. Celilo Restaurant & Bar in Hood River is a popular option for seasonal, local cuisine, and their menu frequently features dishes made from fresh produce found along the Hood River Fruit Loop. Another great choice is Solstice Wood Fire Café & Bar, known for its artisanal pizzas and riverside views.
Remarkable Attractions and Landmarks
At the top of our list is the iconic Multnomah Falls. This stunning, 620-foot waterfall is the tallest in Oregon and one of the main attractions in the Columbia River Gorge. We recommend stopping by the visitor center to grab a map and learn about the area’s geology before taking the short hike up to the picturesque Benson Bridge for an unforgettable view.
The Bonneville Dam is a fascinating landmark, where we can witness the impressive engineering of the dam as well as a fish ladder that helps migrating salmon pass through. We can explore the Bonneville Lock and Dam Visitor Center to learn more about the dam’s history and purpose, and be sure to visit the Bonneville Fish Hatchery nearby to see the fish up-close.
Bridge of the Gods
As we continue our journey, we’ll encounter the historic Bridge of the Gods, a steel truss cantilever bridge that spans the Columbia River. This awe-inspiring bridge connects Oregon and Washington along the Pacific Crest Trail and offers beautiful views of the surrounding landscape.
The Crown Point Vista House is a must-see attraction, offering panoramic views of the Columbia River Gorge. This historic building, built in the early 1900s, now serves as a museum and visitor center. It’s an excellent spot to take in the beauty of the gorge and learn about its rich history.
While in the area, we’ll visit the fish hatchery, a remarkable source of information about the spawning process for various species. The hatchery offers educational tours giving us insights into the life cycle of fish native to the region.
Thunder Island Brewing Co
After exploring the many natural wonders of the gorge, we recommend stopping by Thunder Island Brewing Co, a local brewery located in Cascade Locks. Here, we can sample locally crafted beers and relax with beautiful views of the Columbia River.
Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center
A must-visit for history buffs is the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center, which showcases the cultural and natural history of the Columbia River Gorge. This museum offers informative exhibits and engaging displays, making it an excellent educational stop.
Fort Dalles Museum
Another great historical attraction is the Fort Dalles Museum, which celebrates the history of The Dalles region. Here, we can explore pioneer and Native American artifacts, as well as exhibits on local military history.
The Dalles Dam
The Dalles Dam is another example of impressive engineering in the gorge. Like the Bonneville Dam, it serves as a hydroelectric power source and helps control the flow of water for ships navigating the river.
For those looking for accommodations, the Skamania Lodge offers a picturesque retreat nestled in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge. This beautiful hotel offers stunning views and plenty of amenities to enjoy during our visit.
The Society Hotel
Located in the charming small town of Bingen, The Society Hotel is another excellent lodging option. This restored historic building offers unique accommodations and a welcoming atmosphere, making it a great base for exploring the surrounding area.
Troutdale, Hood River, and The Dalles
Rounding out our list are the quaint small towns of Troutdale, Hood River, and The Dalles. These charming communities offer a glimpse into the history and culture of the Columbia River Gorge region, with local shops, restaurants, and beautiful scenery that make them perfect stops during our road trip through the National Scenic Area.
As we explore the remarkable attractions and landmarks in the Columbia River Gorge, we’ll keep in mind the road conditions and auto-touring opportunities, ensuring a safe and enjoyable journey through this breathtaking region.
Accommodation and Camping Options
In the Columbia River Gorge, we have several options when it comes to accommodations and camping. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing stay at a luxurious lodge or a weekend immersed in nature, you’ll find the perfect place to rest after a day of exploring the gorge.
One popular option for camping is Ainsworth State Park, which is open from March to October. All 45 campsites are spacious and equipped with electricity, water, and sewer hookups. Visitors can enjoy clean amenities, flush toilets, warm showers, and freshwater for drinking. For a more secluded experience, consider Timberlake Campground & RV Park on the Washington side of the river. This privately-owned, 22-acre property has 63 campsites nestled within a forested area, providing privacy for campers.
If hot springs are in your plans, Carson Hot Springs Resort on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge offers accommodations alongside the therapeutic benefits of hot mineral water. Rooms are available in rustic cabins or more contemporary motel-style rooms, and the resort also includes an on-site restaurant, as well as spa services to enhance your relaxation.
For a more unique accommodation experience, consider booking your stay at The Society Hotel. This renovated schoolhouse in Bingen, Washington, offers a variety of room styles including private rooms, bunk rooms, and hostel-style lodging. The hotel also features a cafe, rooftop deck, and spa facilities to make your stay truly memorable.
Skamania Lodge, located in Stevenson, Washington, is another great option for those looking for a luxurious getaway. Featuring stunning views of the river, the lodge offers a range of accommodations from well-appointed guest rooms to private treehouses. Guests can also enjoy amenities such as a golf course, on-site dining, and an outdoor pool.
Lastly, for those seeking a mountain retreat, Timberline Lodge, located on Mount Hood, offers a historic and picturesque option. The lodge features cozy rooms and suites, a heated outdoor pool, multiple dining options, and, of course, access to skiing and snowboarding during the winter months.
There you have it – a variety of accommodation and camping options to suit your preferences and make your Columbia River Gorge experience unforgettable.
Travel Tips for Columbia River Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is an incredible destination, boasting beautiful landscapes, diverse recreational activities, and small charming towns. As you plan your visit, keep the following suggestions in mind to ensure a memorable experience.
One important aspect to consider when visiting the area is road conditions. The Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway, which provides access to many of the gorge’s natural wonders, is known to be one of the most scenic drives in the country. However, narrow roads and winding curves can sometimes present a challenge, especially during wet or icy conditions. It’s best to stay informed about current conditions through the roads and weather websites.
The Columbia River Gorge is home to several small towns, each offering unique experiences for visitors. Hood River, for example, is known for its windsurfing scene, while Cascade Locks offers riverfront dining options. Exploring these charming communities is a great way to experience local culture, artisan shops, and delightful eateries.
Auto-touring through the Columbia River Gorge is an excellent way to take in the waterfront scenery, lush landscapes, and sweeping vistas. Along the way, you’ll find numerous overlooks that offer stunning panoramic views of the gorge. However, be prepared to share the road with bicyclists and pedestrians, as the area is popular for outdoor enthusiasts.
As you make your way through the gorge, don’t miss the opportunity to venture off the main roads and explore the waterfront. Many recreational activities such as windsurfing, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding are available to help you experience the majestic Columbia River up close. Gear rentals and lessons can be found at outfitters like Hood River Waterplay.
Finally, don’t forget to bring your camera to capture the breathtaking landscape of the Columbia River Gorge. From jaw-dropping waterfalls to ancient forests, the scenic area offers a wealth of natural beauty. Be prepared to be inspired by the stunning vistas, picturesque overlooks, and serene settings that make the Columbia River Gorge a must-visit destination.
Overall, these travel tips can help guide you through the diverse offerings of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Remember to check for road conditions, allow time for stops at the charming towns, and most importantly, relax and enjoy the striking beauty surrounding you.