Though I-84 is the fastest road through the Columbia Gorge, it is not the most scenic route. The Gorge is well worth a full day's exploration and is best appreciated at a more leisurely pace on the Historic Columbia River Highway, which begins 16 miles east of downtown Portland at the second Troutdale exit off I-84. Opened in 1915, this highway was a marvel of engineering at the time and, by providing access to automobiles, opened the Gorge to casual visits.
At the western end of the historic highway, you'll find Lewis & Clark State Park, which is near the mouth of the Sandy River. This park is popular with anglers and Portlanders looking to cool off in the Sandy River during the hot summer months. There is also a rock-climbing area within the park.
The first unforgettable view of the Gorge comes at the Portland Women's Forum State Scenic Viewpoint, which may also be your first encounter with the legendary Columbia Gorge winds. To learn more about the historic highway and how it was built, stop at the Vista House, 40700 E. Historic Columbia River Hwy. (tel. 503/695-2230; www.vistahouse.com), 733 feet above the river on Crown Point. Although you can see displays of historical photos here at Vista House, most visitors can't concentrate on the exhibits, preferring to gaze at the breathtaking 30-mile view. Vista House is open daily from 9am to 6pm.
From Crown Point, the historic highway drops down into the Gorge and passes several picturesque waterfalls. The first of these is 249-foot Latourell Falls, a diaphanous wisp of a waterfall cascading over basalt cliffs stained lime-green by lichen. A 2.3-mile loop trail leads from this waterfall up to the smaller Upper Latourell Falls. East of these falls, you'll come to Shepherd's Dell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Mist Falls, and Wahkeena Falls, all of which are either right beside the road or a short walk away. If you're interested in a longer hike, trails link several of the falls. However, for spectacular views, you can't beat the steep 4.4-mile round-trip hike to Angels Rest. The well-signposted trail head for this hike is on the historic highway near the community of Bridal Veil.
At 620 feet from the lip to the lower pool, Multnomah Falls is the tallest waterfall in Oregon and the fourth tallest in the United States. As the largest and most famous waterfall along the historic highway, this is also the state's most visited natural attraction, so expect crowds. A steep trail leads up to the top of the falls, and partway up there is a picturesque arched bridge that is directly in front of the falls. From the top of the falls, other trails lead off into the Mount Hood National Forest. The historic Multnomah Falls Lodge has a restaurant, snack bar, and gift shop, as well as a National Forest Visitor Center (tel. 503/695-2372) with information on the geology, history, and natural history of the Gorge.
East of Multnomah Falls, the scenic highway passes by Oneonta Gorge, a narrow rift in the cliffs. Through this tiny gorge flows a stream that serves as a watery pathway for anyone interested in exploring upstream to Oneonta Falls; just bear in mind that you'll be walking in the creek if you explore this gorgeous little gorge. Less than a half mile east of Oneonta Gorge, you'll come to Horsetail Falls. From these roadside falls, a trail leads uphill to Upper Horsetail Falls. The trail then passes behind the upper falls and continues another 2 miles to Triple Falls, passing above Oneonta Gorge along the way.
If you'd like to escape the crowds and see a little-visited waterfall, watch for Frontage Road on your right just before the historic highway merges with I-84. Drive east for 2 miles to a gravel parking area at the trail head for Elowah Falls. These 289-foot-tall falls are set in a beautiful natural amphitheater less than a mile from the road. Just be aware that this parking area is subject to car break-ins; don't leave any valuables in your vehicle.
Just after the two highways merge, you come to the exit for Bonneville Lock and Dam (tel. 541/374-8820; www.nwp.usace.army.mil/op/b/home.asp). The visitor center here has exhibits on the history of this dam, which was built in 1927. One of the most important features of the dam is its fish ladder, which allows adult salmon to return upriver to spawn. Underwater windows let visitors see fish as they pass through the ladder. Visit the adjacent Bonneville Fish Hatchery, 70543 NE Herman Loop (tel. 541/374-8393; www.dfw.state.or.us), to see how trout, salmon, and steelhead are raised before being released into the river. A Sturgeon Viewing Center allows you to marvel at several immense sturgeons through an underwater viewing window. At this same exit off I-84 (and at Eagle Creek), you'll find access to a section of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, a paved multiuse trail that connects the town of Cascade Locks with Bonneville Dam. This trail incorporates abandoned sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway and is open to hikers and bikers. Near the western trail head for this trail, you'll also find the trail to Wahclella Falls, a little-visited yet very picturesque waterfall tucked back in a side canyon. The trail to the falls is less than a mile long and relatively flat.
Beyond the dam is Eagle Creek, the single best spot in the Gorge for a hike. The Eagle Creek Trail leads past several waterfalls, and if you have time for only one hike in the Gorge, it should be this one. You'll also find a campground and picnic area here.
Not far beyond Eagle Creek is the Bridge of the Gods, which connects Oregon and Washington at the site where, according to a Native American legend, once stood a natural bridge used by the gods. Geologists now believe that the legend is based in fact; there is evidence that a massive rock slide may have once blocked the river at this point.
Just beyond the Bridge of the Gods is Cascade Locks. It was at this site that cascades once turned the otherwise placid Columbia River into a raging torrent that required boats to be portaged a short distance downriver. The Cascade Locks were built in 1896 and allowed steamships to pass unhindered. The locks made traveling between The Dalles and Portland much easier, but the completion of the Columbia River Scenic Highway, in 1915, made the trip even easier by land. With the construction of the Bonneville Lock and Dam, the cascades were flooded, and the locks became superfluous.
There are two small museums here at the locks. The Cascade Locks Historical Museum, 1 NW Portage Rd. (tel. 541/374-8535), which is housed in the old lock tender's house, includes displays of Native American artifacts and pioneer memorabilia, as well as the Northwest's first steam engine. The museum is open May through late September, Monday through Thursday from noon to 5pm, Friday and Saturday from 10am to 5pm, and Sunday 10am to 6pm. Admission is by donation.
The Port of Cascade Locks Visitors Center, which has displays on river travel in the past, is also the ticket office for the stern-wheeler Columbia Gorge (tel. 800/224-3901 or 503/224-3900; www.portlandspirit.com), which makes regular trips on the river. These cruises provide a great perspective on the Gorge. Fares for the 2-hour scenic cruises are $28 for adults and $18 for children; dinner and brunch cruises run $48 to $68 for adults, $43 to $63 for seniors, and $24 to $63 for children. There are also 6-hour cruises once a week in the summer ($84 for adults, $64 for seniors and children 4-12). These cruises should not be missed on a visit to the Columbia Gorge.
Should you decide not to take the historic highway and stay on I-84, you may want to stop at Rooster Rock State Park, especially if it's a hot summer day. This park has a long sandy beach, and in a remote section of the park there's even a clothing-optional beach. From I-84 there's also easy access to Multnomah Falls, the main attraction of the Historic Columbia River Highway.
Another option is to cross to the Washington side of the Columbia River and take Wash. 14 east from Vancouver. This highway actually provides the most spectacular views of both the Columbia Gorge and Mount Hood. If you should decide to take this route, be sure to stop at Beacon Rock State Park (tel. 509/427-8265; www.parks.wa.gov), which has as its centerpiece an 800-foot-tall monolith that has a trail (mostly stairways and catwalks) leading to its summit. In the early 20th century, there was talk of blasting the rock apart to build jetties at the mouth of the river. Luckily, another source of rock was used, and this amazing landmark continues to guard the Columbia. If you want to make better time, you can cross back to Oregon on the Bridge of the Gods. Continuing east on the Washington side of the river, you'll come to Stevenson, site of the above-mentioned Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center.
In the town of North Bonneville, a few miles west of Stevenson, you can swim in the mineral-water pool and soak in the hot tubs at Bonneville Hot Springs Resort, 1252 E. Cascade Dr. (tel. 866/459-1678 or 509/427-9720; www.bonnevilleresort.com), which charges $15 ($12 for seniors) for the use of its pool and soaking tubs for up to 3 hours. The resort is open to the public daily from 8am to 9pm (children 16 and under limited to Sun-Thurs 1:30-7:30pm). Massages and other spa services are also available. East of Stevenson, in the town of Carson, you can also avail yourself of the therapeutic waters of the Carson Hot Springs Resort, 372 St. Martin's Rd. (tel. 800/607-3678 or 509/427-8292; www.carsonhotspringresort.com). This rustic "resort" has been in business since 1897 and has one building that looks every bit its age. However, it's just this old-fashioned appeal that keeps people coming back year after year. Spring through fall, it's open Monday through Thursday from 9am to 5pm and Friday through Sunday from 8am to 6pm; call for hours in other months. A soak and post-soak wrap costs $20, while an hour's massage is $60.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.