Traveling along the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon side is a bit different from traveling on the Washington side. The main route of travel is I-84, which originates in Portland and does not climb high among the cliffs, but rather follows close to the river’s shoreline. If you approach from Washington, it is best to hop onto I-205 a bit north of the Oregon state border. You swing a bit east, cross the river, and then can enter I-84 at the east end of Portland. I-84 is a multi-lane highway that you can make some good timing on if you plan on driving straight through.
As you continue east, you will soon notice a sign indicating that you are entering the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Byway. And oh, what a scenic byway it is! I am not exaggerating in the least bit! Let’s start by telling you that you have the option of taking the “high” road or the “low” road. By the “high” road, I mean the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway, which follows the historic Lewis and Clark Trail. There are a couple of highway exits that will get you there. Just follow the signs; they are well marked from the interstate. This historic highway climbs to the top of the gorge and gives grandeur, sweeping views of the river gorge below and beyond. My favorite route to get to the top quickly is the Corbett exit off I-84. Be prepared for a very steep, curvey climb to the top if you go this route. Once at the top, you enter the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway. Continue east and no sooner will you come to a sweeping view of the gorge called the Women’s Forum Overlook. There is a parking lot to rest and take pictures. Just down the road is the popular Vista House at Crown Point, another fantastic overlook and unique Art Deco style historic building that has a gift shop and restrooms. From Crown Point, you will start to descend down into an alluring world of lush, green forests and cascading waterfalls. The road gets quite narrow at times. I want to mention once again Sam Hill, as you may have remembered from Part I of this blog. He was also involved with the construction of the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway. If you have the time, stop to walk on some of the shorter trails to beautiful, cascading waterfalls as seen in the introduction video. The most prominent and tallest of these falls is Multnomah Falls. In fact, it is the second highest year long free falling waterfall in the US. There is an historic lodge, complete with gift shop and restaurant located at the base of the falls along with a hiking trail to the top of the falls if you feel so inclined to take the challenge. The historic highway continues east for a few more miles to another cascading waterfall and then you will need to merge back onto I-84. The historic highway does pick up again further east down the gorge. Below is a photo taken on a misty morning from the Women’s Forum Overlook with a sweeping view of the gorge along with Crown Point Vista House on the far right.
Now back down to ground level! A neat place to visit is the Bonneville Dam. If you have never witnessed underwater viewing windows to watch salmon and other fish species make their way up the river, this is great educational experience for the whole family. If fish don’t excite you, how about a tour on the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler? Stop off in the small community of Cascade Locks where there is an assortment of dining facilities, motels, and activities, such as taking a river tour on a sternwheeler. It is here in Cascade Locks that one can view or drive over the Bridge of the Gods, an historic steel, grated toll-bridge that crosses over the river and connects to Stevenson, WA. According to regional Native Indian legend, a land bridge once stood in the exact spot as the steel span bridge.
Next stop along the gorge is the city of Hood River. It is probably most popularly noted for it wind surfing. Constant winds blow through this part of the gorge making it a prime spot for the aquatic sport. Also, there is another steel, grated bridge connecting Oregon to Washington at Hood River. The popular historic Mt Hood Railroad is located here as well that takes riders up the Hood River Valley to experience fantastic views of Mt Hood and plentiful fruit orchards that explode with white pear blossoms in the spring. A major gateway to Oregon’s jewel of the Cascades, Mt Hood, is accessed from this part of the gorge.
The Hood River Valley is also home to many vineyards as we move into eastern Oregon. You will definitely notice the drier, more arid climate change, especially in the summer as you near the city of The Dalles. You will notice changes in the topography as well as changes in vegetation species. There is another hydroelectric dam located here as well. A great view of Mt Hood can be seen from the dam vantage point. Yet another bridge is located in The Dalles to connect to Washington. A great family experience of special interest is the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center http://www.gorgediscovery.org/ Once you travel eastward of The Dalles, there really is not much except for lots of arid, desert region. At Biggs, you have a choice to continue eastward, which at some point I-84 leaves the gorge area and takes a dip southeast through the state, or you can head south on I-97, a major north-south highway that will take you all the way down through the central part of Oregon on the east side of the Cascades. You also have a major bridge crossing again to access Washington and continue north on I-97. Biggs is really just a major junction point of these access routes and has a large parking area and fuel stops for big-rigs along with a few motels and eateries. You will notice the presence of large wind farms in this region. And if you drive up the slopes away from the gorge south on I-97, you will get a majestic view of Mt Adams, in Washington. What a sight! What a gorge!