columbia river gorge
Featured Oregon Outdoor Activities Washington

Driving the scenic Columbia River Highway

Caption: Beautiful Columbia River Gorge surrounds the Skamania Lodge in Stevenson.

Editor’s note: The following article was written before the Covid-19 pandemic and Eagle Creek Fire. Most of the trails on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge are closed. The Historic Columbia River Highway is now open between Bridal Veil and Ainsworth State Park. Access Multnomah Falls by I-84 Exit 31 only. Visit ReadySetGorge.com for more information on closures and recreation sites. 

By Greg Johnson, travel writer

I made my first trip up the Columbia Gorge during the late 70s with friends on a windy, rainy Northwest day. It was my first time to see so many waterfalls, so much rain, and so much rugged mountain beauty.

The Columbia River Highway, later renamed the Historic Columbia River Highway (HRCH), was a technical and civic achievement of its time, successfully marrying ambitious engineering with sensitive treatment of the surrounding magnificent landscape. The Historic Columbia River Highway has gained national significance because it represents one of the earlier applications of cliff-face road building utilizing modern highway construction technologies. It is also the oldest scenic highway in the United States. The Historic Columbia River Highway’s design and execution were the products of two visionaries, Samuel Hill, lawyer, entrepreneur, and good road’s promoter; and Samuel C. Lancaster, engineer and landscape architect.

By the 1980s, public interest grew for returning drivable portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway to their 1920s appearance–based on careful documentation–and rehabilitating abandoned segments for trail use. Since then, drivable portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway, its masonry structures, bridges, and culverts have been repaired or replaced. The road is a popular tourist destination along with Multnomah Falls, the most popular natural site in Oregon, drawing over two-million visitors annually. The Falls are accessible both from the highway and nearby Interstate 84.

On a later trip, I was able to take a slower leisurely trip on the Historic Columbia River Highway. It is along this route where slow riders can visit the highly photogenic Vista House (gift shop open from April through October) atop Crown Point with its sweeping views of the Columbia River Gorge.

Next, the highway drops down to a shady, fern-covered woodsy stretch where Latourell, Shepperd’s Dell and Bridal Veil state parks offer hikes to waterfalls and picnic areas. As you enter the National Scenic Area, stop for a hike to Wahkeena Falls bridge for a cool, misty camera shot.

If you don’t mind crowds, Oregon’s most popular tourist destination, the 620-foot Multnomah Falls, offers an historic lodge house with a restaurant, gift shop and amazing views of the fourth highest waterfall in United States.

The Oneonta Gorge, two miles east up the highway, is interesting from the road for its narrow yet canyon like structure. Hikers will find misty hanging gardens while stomping upstream during low water periods.

After completing the western section of the historic highway, first time visitors may want to stop at the Bonneville Dam for a visit to the fish hatchery and fish-viewing windows where you can view the amazing array of eels, steelhead and salmon migrations.

We have been visiting the next stop for more than 30 years, long before the scenic town of Hood River became the windsurfing capital of the Northwest. We have watched as the primarily logging and agricultural town fed by the rich fruit growing hood river valley grew into an eclectic mix of windsurfing, kayaking, bicycling and trendy boutiques.

If you plan to overnight, stay at Hood River Best Western or Columbia Gorge Hotel and visit a local microbrewery or winery, take the Mt. Hood Historic Railroad or take a scenic hike on the walking path section of the historic highway just east of Hood River. Or, you can take I-84 east and catch the eastern stretch of the Historic Columbia River Highway at Mosier (exit 69). The highway loops around to the top of Rowena Plateau and the wildflower refuge at Governor Tom McCall Preserve. The highway ends in The Dalles, where you can tour the Fort Dalles Historical Museum or visit The Dalles Dam.

Rainbow over bridge
A shimmering rainbow looms over the Hood River Toll Bridge as it basks in the splendor of the Columbia River Gorge.

Another option is to cross the Hood River Toll Bridge to the Washington side towns of Bingen and White Salmon. This is actually my favorite part of the Gorge. Here, you can visit local wineries and fruit farms near the two towns and hike the scenic trails of Catherine Creek just east of Bingen. Or, you can drive further north in Washington up Highway 141 through the increasing popular whitewaters of White Salmon River to the scenic town of Trout Lake, which sits serenely at the base of snow-covered Mount Adams.