Stevenson: 45 miles E of Vancouver, 25 miles W of White Salmon
The Columbia Gorge, which begins a few miles east of Vancouver, Washington, and extends eastward for nearly 70 miles, cuts through the Cascades and connects the rain-soaked west-side forests with the sagebrush scrublands of eastern Washington. This change in climate is caused by moist air condensing into snow and rain as it passes over the crest of the Cascades. Most of the air's moisture falls on the western slopes, so the eastern slopes and the land stretching for hundreds of miles beyond lie in what is called a rain shadow. Perhaps nowhere else on earth can you witness this rain-shadow effect so clearly. Between the two extremes lies a community of plants that's unique to the Columbia Gorge, and springtime in the gorge sees colorful displays of wildflowers, many of which occur naturally only here in the Columbia Gorge.
The Columbia River is older than the hills. It's older than the mountains, too, and this great age accounts for the river's dramatic gorge through the Cascades. The mountains have actually risen up around the river. Although the river's geologic history dates back 40 million years or so, 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, in what is now Montana, huge glacial ice dams burst and sent floodwaters racing down the Columbia. As the floodwaters swept through the Columbia Gorge, they were as much as 1,200 feet high. Ice and rock carried by the floodwaters helped the river 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. In 1986, much of this area was designated the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area to preserve its spectacular and unique natural beauty.
As early as 1915, a scenic highway was built through the gorge on the Oregon side. However, while the Oregon side of the gorge has the spectacular waterfalls and scenic highway and gets all the publicity, it is actually from the Washington side, along Wash. 14, that you get the best views. From this highway, the views take in both the southern wall of the Columbia Gorge and the snowcapped summit of Mount Hood. It is also on the Washington side of the gorge, in Stevenson, that you'll find the informative Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center.
Roughly 45 miles north of the Columbia Gorge rises Mount Adams, which, at 12,276 feet in elevation, is the second-highest peak in Washington. However, because it is so inaccessible from Puget Sound and can't be seen from most of Portland (the nearest metropolitan area), it remains one of the least visited major peaks in the state. Though few get to this massive peak, those who do often make the strenuous, though non-technical, climb to the mountain's summit.
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