The mighty Columbia River Gorge separates the states of Washington and Oregon. The river has long provided enormous resources to the region: scenic, natural (fishing, power, transportation), cultural, and recreational. It became the first designated U.S. National Scenic Area in 1986.
[Photo, left: 600-foot Multnomah Falls is the most visited natural site in Oregon.]
Today, Interstate-84 parallels the river on the floor of the gorge, offering travelers an easy but less than exciting route to their destinations. However, the original auto route, US-30, now known as the Historic Columbia River Highway offers access to spectacular scenery you would never imagine from the Interstate. Located on the Oregon side of the river, the old road hugs the side and top of the gorge, its route deliberately designed to pass some of the Northwest's finest scenery. Its western-most section (with the rainiest climate) offers a series of beautiful waterfalls culminating in 600-foot Multnomah Falls, Oregon's most popular attraction.
[Photo, right: The broad Columbia River Gorge, looking east from Crown Vista Point.]
The Historic Columbia River Highway was built between 1913 and 1922. Designed for early 20th century vehicles and accessing the gorge's finest scenic attractions and vistas, it was a narrow and winding route to begin with. With the advent of the interstates in the 1950's, the old road became obsolete and fell into disrepair. Some of the road was dismantled or paved over during the construction of I-84. As people developed a greater appreciation of their history and scenic resources, the highway has been refurbished and restored. About 75% of the original route is accessible to modern vehicles. Most of the remainder has been developed into fine hiking and biking trails.
From west to east, the historic highway closely parallels I-84 from Troutdale, Oregon (exit 18) to the Dalles (exit 84), with easy access from the interstate at numerous exits. On this trip we toured the western segment, Troutdale to Dodson, about 20 miles of driving. It is the highlight of Historic Columbia River Highway, with easy access to nine significant waterfalls.
We climb up the gorge on scenic and winding Corbett Hill Road (exit 22) in the pouring rain. The wide-open nature of the interstate alongside the Columbia River gives way to a heavily wooded and shady environment accessed by a narrow, winding road. From Corbett, you reach the historic Crown Point Vista House (photo, right) in less than three miles. Originally built as a memorial to Oregon pioneers, the classic building sits at a high point of the road offering spectacular views up and down the Columbia River. Inside, you will find a gift shop, a small museum, and visitor center.
Continuing east from Vista House, you enter Waterfall World with nine waterfalls in the next eleven miles of driving. Given the lateness of the day and the unsettled weather, we made four stops with short hikes.
Shepperd's Dell Falls State Park. A short walk down a small canyon below the highway bridge leads to a secluded tiered falls.
Bridal Veil Falls State Park. A short but hilly walk, down and then up, leads to a scenic walk deep in the woods. We also took the Bridal Veil Overlook Loop which reached a vista point of the gorge far below.
Multnomah Falls is the most visited natural setting in Oregon, a National Forest Service recreation site. The 600-foot waterfall is divided into a long thin Upper Falls and a broader Lower Falls. A short hike leads to a footbridge above the Lower Falls and at the base of the Upper Falls which can be reached with a more strenuous one-mile hike. The site also features the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge. While the lodge no longer offers room, it does have a restaurant, gift shop, and visitor center.
The aptly named Horsetail Falls can be viewed with a short walk from its parking area.
[Left to right: Shepperd's Dell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Horsetail Falls]
There are two other scenic roads in the area:
An unpaved road leaves the Columbia Highway near Crown Point and climbs over 3,000 feet in a few short miles to the peak of Larch Mountain where there is a superb vista point with views extending to distant Mt. Ranier near Seattle as well as Mt. St. Helens, a picnic area, and a hiking trail connecting to Multnomah Falls. The road is seasonal, closed much of the year due to snow.
The Mt. Hood Loop Highway (US-26, then Oregon-35) leaves I-84 in Troutdale (exit 17-18), loops around the base of Mt. Hood before returning to the interstate at Hood River (exit 64). The route passes through several small towns, much outstanding scenery, and the Hood River Valley (see below).
[Photo, right: Mt. Hood, from the Washington side of Columbia River Gorge.]
A few miles east of Multnomah Falls, the western segment of Historic Columbia River Highway ends, merging with I-84 at exit 37. There are several other accessible segments heading east on I-84:
The Toothrock Trail segment runs from east of Bonneville Dam (exit 40) to the town of Cascade Locks (exit 44). No longer open to motor vehicles, the route offers excellent hiking and bicycling.
The winding, rugged Twin Tunnels segment runs from Hood River (exit 64) to Mosier (exit 69). Most of this segment is hiking and biking-only, as modern motor vehicles cannot fit through the historic Mosier Twin Tunnels. This segment marks the transition from Oregon’s moist forested coastal zone to the semiarid interior.
From Mosier to east of the Dalles, the route is paved and open to motor vehicles with more scenic driving. The most scenic segment is west of Rowena (exit 76) where the route climbs onto the scenic Rowena Plateau. The most scenic vista point is known as Rowena Crest. East of the crest the winding Rowena Loops bring the route back to the river level, where it largely parallels I-84 before merging back into the interstate east of the Dalles.
On this trip, we left the historic route after Waterfall World and spent an evening in Cascade Locks, experiencing an Oregon downpour. Next day we crossed the historic Bridge of the Gods to sample a segment of rural Washington State, including a local winery, before crossing the Columbia River back into Oregon at the town of Mt. Hood.
[Photo, left: An aerial view of Bridge of the Gods from National Scenic Byways, © March 2003, Dennis Stilwell and Northwest Hikers.]
Heading south on Oregon-35 through the Hood River Valley (photo, below, right), we briefly sampled the Hood River Fruit Loop, an area rich with family orchards, country stores, farm stands and wineries. A couple of stops netted beautiful peaches, apples, pears, as well as homemade cookies. The attractive vineyards and wineries will have to wait for next time.
For more information:
National Scenic Byways - Historic Columbia River Highway
State of Oregon - HCRH Maps and Brochures
National Forest Service - Multnomah Falls and nearby