The Columbia River Gorge is amazing all in itself. It is like a mini Grand Canyon. The farther east one travel down the gorge, the higher the canyon walls climb. The rock is composed of many layers of volcanic deposits from eruptions and lava flows. The Columbia River Gorge is the only sea-level pass through the Cascade Mountains, which are volcanic in origin. The largest volcanoes in closest proximity to the gorge are Mt Hood, Oregon; Mt Adams, Washington, and Mt St Helens, Washington. The peak glimpsed in the video is Mt Hood. The gorge was as well scoured out from the Great Missoula Flood originating in Montana. As one starts on the western end of the gorge and drives eastward on Washington SR-14, the one and only main route across the state along the gorge, gradual changes appear in the topography and vegetation. This is because the west side of the Cascades receives much more precipitation than the east side of the mountains. Lush greenery tranforms to dry rocky areas with scrub brush. Douglas Fir on the west side gives way to Ponderosa Pine on the east side. Temperatures vary widely as well. The best times of the year to explore the gorge are in the spring and autumn. If you attempt the drive in the middle of the summer, expect dry, very warm (hot) temperatures once you enter the east end of the gorge. With the desert climate in the east end of the gorge, one would not expect much agriculture here. Surprisingly, some of the state’s finest vineyards exist in this area. The richness and correct acidity of the soil for wine grape growing can be attributed to ancient volcanic deposits along with the very warm, summer daytime temperatures and cool nights. Among the wineries along the route, one of the most popular is Maryhill Winery http://www.maryhillwinery.com They have an extensive gift shop and even an amphitheater for summer outdoor concerts. And all this comes with a breath-taking view of the gorge as you sit and sup on a glass of wine in a shaded outdoor patio area.
Just down the road from Maryhill Winery is the Maryhill Museum of Art located in a small oasis of greenery http://www.maryhillmuseum.org/ One is totally taken aback to come across this marvelous place of fine art in the middle of nowhere. Closed during the winter months, it opens its doors once again in the spring to its familiar customers and not so familiar customers. Here you will find exhibits such as the works of Auguste Rodin, gold leaf Orthodox Icons, an International Collection of Chess Sets, and one of the largest collections of Native North American People’s artifacts and artwork. Please visit their website to find out more about this jewel in the desert, and don’t miss the opportunity to squeeze in a visit somewhere among your travels. And don’t forget to look for the resident free-roaming peacocks on the facility grounds.
As you continue east from the museum, just down the highway is a great landmark that most people have no idea exists. It is a Stonehenge replica built atop the cliffs along the gorge masterminded by the great entrepreneur Sam Hill, which he built as the first WWI memorial in the United States in 1918. Here is another fascinating site that one would never expect to encounter in the middle of nowhere. As a side note, Sam Hill also constructed the International Peace Arch at the boundary between Canada and northwest Washington State. I would also be remiss if I did not mention that the Maryhill Museum building was actually constructed by Sam Hill as a home for his wife, but was never completed in his lifetime. Sam Hill’s ashes are enterred in a tomb with a marker along the side of the cliff where the American Stonehenge is located and overlooking the gorge. Nearby is a bridge spanning the Columbia River connecting to Oregon that was once named after him, but has sinced been renamed the Biggs Bridge.
Additional reading material: SAM HILL – Prince of Castle Nowhere ISBN 0-917304-77-2
One more place that I want to mention, and by no means the last, is the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum located in Stevensen. This has always been a favorite spot of mine to visit when traveling along the Washington side of the gorge. It’s a fascinating place full of exhibits, both indoors and outdoors. You may be surprised by its size and types of exhibits and collections. I certainly was the first time I ever stepped through its doors. Do be sure to walk outside and around the museum. One of its most impressive displays is a court of carved cedar trees representing the Pacific Northwest native people’s heritage.
Oh, did I mention to be prepared for gusty winds along the river gorge? The gorge is notoriously known for its wind, some spots seemingly windy all the time. Just be aware of this fact and that conditions change from day to day.
Stay tuned for Part II of this blog as I continue my adventures along the Columbia River Gorge on its Oregon side.