Destination: Troutdale to The Dalles, Oregon, USA
Gouging out the jagged border between Washington and Oregon, the Columbia River bores through the Cascade Range in one of the most beautiful river gorges in the world. The Columbia River Gorge has panoramas carpeted in lush dark-green forest and spangled by crystalline waterfalls.
I-84 runs beside the river on the Oregon side (WA 14 follows the Washington shore), but it's well worth getting off I-84 at Troutdale to wind along U.S. 30, the Historic Columbia River Highway, for 22 miles at the west end of the 70-mile-long Gorge. You'll sweep close to waterfalls -- there are no fewer than 77 in the Gorge -- and rise to breath-catching vistas. Stop at Vista House at Crown Point (tel. 503/695-2230; www.vistahouse.com) for a view of Beacon Rock, an 800-foot-tall monolith across the river in Washington. A few miles east are the gorge's tallest falls, the 620-foot-high Multnomah Falls. When U.S. 30 leaves the river, continue on I-84 past the Bonneville Lock and Dam to the Bridge of the Gods, where Indian oral tradition claims a natural rock bridge once existed. Cross the bridge to Washington to visit the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center, 990 SW Rock Creek Dr., Stevenson (tel. 800/991-2338; www.columbiagorge.org).
At the end of the last Ice Age, huge glacial ice dams in Montana burst and sent 1,000-foot-high floodwaters racing along the river toward the ocean, dragging ice chunks and rocks that carved a steep-walled gorge. Tributaries that had once meandered down valleys were suddenly plummeting down to the river. The volcanic Cascade Range then began to rise around the gorge. Call the kids' attention to the contrast between the rainforest west of the Cascades and the sagebrush scrublands to the east, caused by moist air condensing into rain and snow as it hits the western slopes, leaving the east side high and dry in what is called a rain shadow.
On the Oregon bank in Cascade Locks you can board the stern-wheeler Columbia Gorge (tel. 800/643-1354; www.sternwheeler.com) for a cruise on the Columbia; if trains are more your style, hop aboard the Mount Hood Railroad, 110 Railroad Ave. (tel. 800/872- 4661; www.mthoodrr.com) and chug up the Hood River Valley in vintage rail cars.
Information: tel. 541/386-2333; www.fs.fed.us/r6/columbia.
Nearest Airport: Portland International, 30 miles.
Accommodations: Columbia Gorge Hotel, 4000 Westcliff Dr., Hood River, OR (tel. 800/345-1921 or 541/386-5566; www.columbiagorgehotel.com). Dolce Skamania Lodge, 1131 SW Skamania Lodge Way, Stevenson, WA (tel. 800/221-7117 or 509/427-7700; www.skamania.com).