A Great Weekend in the Gorge
I was so pleased to receive an invitation to some good friends’ wedding in one of the most beautiful places in the state, the Columbia River Gorge. The Gorge is just a 40 minute drive from Portland, so is a quick and easy day trip, which has usually been all the time I’ve spent in the Gorge. I was excited to be able to spend a whole weekend in a place that offers so much to do and see!
The wedding was on Thunder Island in Cascade Locks (follow signs to the Marine Park) which doesn’t look like an Island when you drive by it, but once you walk across the bridge and are on the Island I quickly realized why the lovebirds chose such a beautiful spot. Breathtaking views of the Columbia River, the Gorge and the Bridge of the Gods can be had from this ‘secluded, but yet just a few steps from the parking lot’ Island. Pack a picnic lunch or pick something up at the Char Burger Restaurant in town and have a nice, romantic, scenic and stress-free stop while you are in the area!
We stayed at the Best Western in Cascade Locks, and although it isn’t anything fancy, the rooms were clean, the beds were comfy, there was a pool for the kids and they had a free breakfast, so it was all we needed. The rates are very reasonable compared to other higher priced properties in the Gorge, and you get a view of the Bridge of the Gods and the Columbia River if you wish (but beware light sleepers, a train comes by the ‘view side’ of the hotel, so go for the parking lot view if this would wake you at night). For just a few dollars more, you can upgrade to a suite which gives you lots of room to move around, and a separate living room area with a fold out couch and tv, if you have a few folks with you in the room.
The town of Cascade Locks is very cute and hospitable. The highlight of the town is the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler, which we rode for a beautiful Saturday morning brunch cruise. The food was beautifully presented in a buffet style (so you hungry folks can go back as much as you want) and tasted just as good as it looked! But the views are really the most amazing part of the sternwheeler experience. You are truly ‘in the Gorge’ as you cruise down the middle of the Columbia River with Washington on one side of you and Oregon on the other. The captain will let you steer the boat if you want (a must for kids!) and tell historical tales of the River and the Gorge at the same time. Be careful when you leave the boat as you walk right through the gift shop which is one of the best little gift shops I’ve been in. It’s not what you would expect based on other tourist attraction gift shops I’ve been in (and yes, I still bought stuff in those cheesy gift shops too). They have done a nice job stocking it with high quality gifts and Gorge books, pictures, postcards, etc. I’ll bet you can’t get out of the shop without something!
The Char Burger Restaurant next door to our hotel had good ‘ol fashion food, served cafeteria style and was tasty, cheap and you get to enjoy views of the Columbia River and Bridge of the Gods while you eat (practically every place in town has a view of the River and Bridge!) The teenager working at the Ice Cream Restaurant just down the road from the hotel actually remembered us from the Sternwheeler that morning, so that was one of those ‘it’s great to be in a small town’ moments! It’s worth a drive over the Bridge of the Gods (there’s a small toll fee each way, but a nice lady works in the booth so don’t worry about having exact change) over to Stephenson, Washington to do some sightseeing, shop in their little town, maybe have some lunch at the beautiful Skamania Lodge. Or stop at the amazing Osprey nest atop an old metal bridge piling in the River to the right just before you head into town. We had to stop and take some pictures as the little bird head coming out of that big nest was a sight to see!
The hotel has a list of many hiking trails in the area that range from easy (for families) to challenging, so ask for that list at the front desk if you want to explore a bit. There’s a spa at the Bonneville Hot Springs nearby that has a body wrap that is very relaxing (you feel like a mummy!), and you should definitely read about the history of the Bridge of the Gods, so you can enjoy the culture of the area while you are there.
No trip to the Gorge would be complete without a stop in Hood River, which is just about 30 minutes away from Cascade Locks along the scenic stretch of I-84. Known as one of the very best windsurfing spots in the world (yes, in the world!) some of the first sights you’ll see upon entering town are the many windsurfers and kite boarders on the river. When you take the exit, just hang a left towards the river and you can drive down to the beach and park and sit on the grass and watch them do their magic! We were mesmerized, and a wee bit jealous, by the talent we saw there on the river. This is another great spot to bring a snack or lunch and stay awhile! But don’t stay all day, as the town of Hood River is truly a great town to do some window shopping. Lots of streets with cute little shops, coffee shops and a few microbreweries, but dress comfortably and wear your comfy shoes as this town is built on a hill. Not to mention you’ll stick out if you are over-dressed as everyone in this town is dressed in windsurfer casual, sporty attire. It’s a town of windsurfers so you wouldn’t expect anything else and it adds to the charm of the town. And you wouldn’t find a town filled with hip, in-shape sporty folks without also finding several breweries!
Hood River is home to the ever popular Full Sail Brewing, and a lesser known pub, Big Horse Brewery. We’ve thrown back many a Full Sail, so we decided to try the Big Horse for something a little different. I recommend that you be in somewhat decent shape to go there since there are a lot of stairs to climb from the main sidewalk to get up to the top story of the house where the restaurant is located (our 6-year-old made it up). I did see a door off the top level of the restaurant that goes into a neighborhood, so if you do a bit of meandering through the hilly neighborhood streets you can find this route if you’d rather not fight the stairs. Although the walk up the many flights of stairs IS worth it as you are rewarded with an AMAZING view of the River and all those windsurfers again! You truly are on top of the town up there, and since you’ll want to stay and enjoy the view awhile, I recommend ordering some of the not-so-standard pub fare on the menu. It’s pretty gourmet for a brewery! I recommend trying the sampler beer menu too, since it is always fun to have a tray of 8 little beers at your table!
It’s hard to go to the Gorge for just a day since there is so much to see and do, so making a weekend of it will be much more enjoyable for you! For you airplane enthusiasts, Cascade Locks has their own little airport so you can fly in for a fun weekend destination. Check out the local Chamber of Commerce and the Gorge Visitors Association websites for events and local happenings before you go, as they have a lot going on year-round in the Gorge. Lavender festival anyone? Quilt festival?
For more information on Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge, please visit our Attractions section.
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In this Itinerary
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