The Columbia Gorge, which begins just a few miles east of Portland and stretches for nearly 70 miles along the shores of the Columbia River, is a dramatic landscape of mountains, cliffs, and waterfalls created by massive ice-age floods. Flanked by national forests and snow-covered peaks on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the Columbia River, the Gorge is as breathtaking a landscape as you will find anywhere in the West, and the fascinating geology, dramatic vistas, and abundance of recreational opportunities make it a premier vacation destination almost any month of the year. Not only is the area filled with waterfalls, trails, and some of the world's best windsurfing, but there are also fascinating museums, resort hotels, hot springs, historic B&Bs, and even wineries. Between 1913 and 1922, a scenic highway (one of the first paved roads in the Northwest) was built through the Gorge, and in 1986 much of the area was designated the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area in an attempt to preserve the Gorge's spectacular and unique natural beauty.
The Columbia River is older than the hills. It's older than the mountains, too, which explains why this river flows not from the mountains but through them. The river was already flowing into the Pacific Ocean when the Cascade Range began rising millions of years ago. However, it was a series of recent events, geologically speaking, that gave the Columbia Gorge its very distinctive appearance. About 15,000 years ago, toward the end of the last ice age, huge dams of ice far upstream collapsed and sent floodwaters racing down the Columbia. As the floodwaters swept through the Columbia Gorge, they were as much as 1,200 feet deep. Ice and rock carried by the floodwaters helped the river to scour out the sides of the once gently sloping valley, leaving behind the steep-walled gorge that we know today. The waterfalls that elicit so many oohs and aahs are the most dramatic evidence of these great floods.
The vast gorge that the Columbia River has formed as it slices through the mountains is effectively a giant bridge between the rain-soaked forests west of the Cascades and the desert-dry sagebrush scrublands of central Oregon. This change in climate is caused by moist air condensing into snow and rain as it passes over the crest of the Cascades. And because most of the air's moisture falls on the western slopes, the eastern slopes and the land stretching for hundreds of miles beyond lie in a rain shadow. Perhaps nowhere else on earth can you witness this rain-shadow effect so easily and in such a short distance. It's so pronounced that as you come around a bend on I-84 just east of Hood River, you can see dry grasslands to the east and dense forests of Douglas fir over your shoulder to the west. In between the two extremes lies a community of plants that's unique to the Columbia Gorge, and consequently, springtime here brings colorful displays of wildflowers.
In North America, the Columbia River is second only to the Mississippi in the volume of water it carries to the sea--but more than just water flows through the Columbia Gorge. As the only break over the entire length of the Cascade Range, the Gorge acts as a massive natural wind tunnel. During the summer, the sun bakes the lands east of the Cascades, causing the air to rise. Cool air from the west side then rushes up the river, at times whipping through Hood River with near gale force. These winds, blowing against the downriver flow of water, set up ideal conditions for windsurfing and kiteboarding on the Columbia. The reliability of the winds, and the waves they kick up, has turned Hood River into something of an Aspen of windsurfing.
For centuries the Columbia River has been an important route between the maritime Northwest and the dry interior. Lewis and Clark canoed down the river in 1805, and pioneers followed the Oregon Trail to its banks at The Dalles. It was here at The Dalles that many pioneers transferred their wagons to boats for the dangerous journey downriver to Oregon City. The set of rapids known as The Dalles and the waterfalls of the Cascades were the two most dangerous sections of the Columbia Gorge, so towns arose at these two points to transport goods and people around the treacherous waters. For a while, locks and a canal helped circumvent some of the treacherous white water, but now the rapids of the Columbia lie flooded beneath the waters behind the Bonneville and The Dalles dams. The ease of navigating the river today has dimmed the importance of the towns of Cascade Locks and The Dalles, both of which are steeped in the history of the Gorge.
The Columbia Gorge Scenic Area: Begins 18 miles E of Portland
Stretching from the Sandy River in the west to the Deschutes River in the east, the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area is one of the most breathtakingly dramatic places in the United States. Carved by floods of unimaginable power, this miles-wide canyon is flanked on the north by Mount Adams and on the south by Mount Hood, both of which rise more than 11,000 feet high. With its diaphanous waterfalls, basalt cliffs painted with colorful lichens, and dark forests of Douglas firs rising up from the banks of the Columbia River, the Gorge is a year-round recreational area where hiking trails lead to hidden waterfalls and mountain-top panoramas, mountain-bike trails meander through the forest, and windsurfers race across wind-whipped waters.
The Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area is also as controversial as it is beautiful. Over the years since this area received this federal designation, the fights over the use of private land within the Gorge have been constant. The pressure to develop this scenic marvel of the Northwest has been unrelenting, as landowners throughout the Gorge have fought against restrictions on development. To find out more about protecting the Gorge, contact the Friends of the Columbia Gorge (tel. 503/241-3762; www.gorgefriends.org), which every spring offers numerous guided wildflower hikes.