National Scenic Area Offers Water Sports, Sightseeing, Hiking & More
Waterfalls, wildflowers, geological wonders, Native American history, blooming fruit trees, and windsurfing await in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
As the Columbia River flows through the Cascade Mountains between the states of Oregon and Washington, it cuts through a canyon 85 miles long and up to 4,000-feet high, forming the Columbia River Gorge. More than 70 waterfalls cascade from cliffs in the Gorge. Set against the backdrop of Mt. Hood, the surrounding geological formations present striking scenery and give rise to a diversity of landscapes, including acres of wildflowers in spring. The Columbia and its tributary rivers draw water lovers for windsurfing and kiteboarding, sightseeing, sailing, kayaking, and white water rafting.
The inland hills, forests, and grasslands draw hikers to hundreds of miles of trails, including many open to bicycles. Gorge towns invite visitors to stroll through shops, linger at pubs, dine and stay the night at one of the many resorts and lodge accommodations.
Interpretive displays at local museums outline gorge history from the ice age floods that formed the canyon to Native American culture and the life of early pioneers.
Sunny skies prevail in this area that lies predominately on the eastern, drier side of the Cascades.
Below are some of the highlights of a Columbia Gorge visit.
Multnomah Falls plunges 620 feet in two tiers. It is the second-highest year-round waterfall in the United States and one of Oregon’s most popular tourist stops. The site is 30 miles east of Portland, just off Interstate 84 at Exit 31. The large parking lot is visible from the highway. The falls drop from a sheer rock cliff surrounded by evergreen forest. A paved, one-mile trail leads to the top of the falls and an overlook. A 1925 historic lodge built next to the falls now houses a gift shop, restaurant, and U.S. Forest Service visitor center with maps and brochures of the area.
Columbia Gorge Discovery Center
The official interpretive center for the Gorge, this museum shares a spacious building with the Wasco County Historical Museum in The Dalles in the eastern Gorge. Interpretive exhibits cover the successive ice age floods that helped shape the gorge, plus Native American traditions and fishing history, the Lewis and Clark expedition and early pioneer life. A children’s hands-on learning room includes an archeological dig. The surrounding 5-acre grounds have been restored with native plants and wildflowers, plus a living history park. Signs point the way to the Discovery Center at 5000 Discovery Drive in The Dalles.
On the Oregon side of the Gorge near the town of Hood River, farmers have been growing fruit trees for more than a century. The “Fruit Loop” is a 35-mile drive through orchard country, where many farms tempt visitors to stop with fruit stands and gift stores. One of the best times to tour is during the annual blossom festival in mid-April when the flowering season is at its height for pears, cherries, apples, and peaches. Many farms offer food, picnicking and special events during the festival. The loop includes vineyards with wine tasting rooms, plus berry, vegetable, lavender, and alpaca farms. Hood River itself celebrates the blossom festival with art and craft shows, BBQs, and more. Farm locations and a map of the Fruit Loop route are available from the Hood River Fruit Loop organizers.
Mt. Hood Railroad
This excursion train follows Hood River past forests, meadows, and fruit orchards to the little town of Odell. It offers two- and four-hour narrated tours, plus dinner and brunch trips. You’ll learn about local history and points of interest along the way. Trains leave from the town of Hood River, 60 miles east of Portland. Reservations for the Mt. Hood Railroad are advised as the trains are popular. Check their website for ticket prices and schedules.
Miles of hiking trails, from easy to strenuous, take adventurers into the hills and meadows of gorge country. Various routes change from heavily forested to open and grassy, many following tributary rivers, streams, and creeks. Waterfalls are the focal point of many Gorge hikes, and you’re almost sure to pass spectacular viewpoints. In spring, a profusion of wildflowers fills the land, with trails leading through some of the best wildflower viewing areas. To get started, you can join a hike led by the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge every weekend from mid-March through mid-June. There is no fee. Schedules are available on-line.
Once you’ve covered these attractions if you’re eager to try windsurfing, sailing, kayaking, rafting, and other outdoor water sports, the town of Hood River is a good base to start your adventure. Stop by the Hood River County Visitors Center for information on lessons, guides, and outfitters. You’ll find it off I-84 at Hood River Exit 63, toward the river.
Columbia River Gorge, by Stuart Warren and Brian Litt (Moon Handbooks) is an area guide to restaurants, accommodations, driving tours, hikes and activities.
Hiking the Columbia River Gorge, by Russ Schneider (Falcon Guides) provides descriptions and directions for Gorge hiking trails.
60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Portland, by Paul Gerald (Menasha Ridge Press) outlines many Gorge hikes with directions and maps.