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About 14,000 years ago, cataclysmic floods scoured out the Columbia River Gorge. Early visionaries engineered an inspired drive along its towering walls. As America’s first scenic highway and a National Historic Landmark, this 70-mile/113-kilometer route is indeed the “King of Roads.”

One of North America’s grandest rivers, the Columbia is at its finest as it rolls through the Columbia River Gorge, framed by sheer walls of basalt, cloaked in firs and ferns and rare endemic plants, accented with waterfall after crashing waterfall. The nation’s second National Scenic Area, the Columbia River Gorge is also the largest and most densely populated, offering the amenities of urban centers close to the wild beauty of the outdoors. And that beauty is matched only by the stories that can be told here: of tribal people fishing, trading and thriving along its banks; of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery epochal 1805-06 journey; of pioneers launching their worldly possessions down its rapids; of Samuel Hill championing the nation’s first scenic highway and enticing generations of visitors to this heady, handsome place. It’s fitting that the Columbia River Gorge is known as one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon.

Troutdale to Crown Point

The Sandy River marks the western boundary of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, where the Portland metro area ends and the byway begins. From Troutdale (exit 17 on Interstate 84), the road follows the Sandy upstream, then winds uphill through Corbett to your first cliff-top panorama of the Gorge at the Portland Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint. The majestic Columbia you see here begins as a trickle of snowmelt in the Canadian Rockies. It absorbs a tremendous web of river systems on its 1,200-mile/1,931-kilometer run to the Pacific, swelling into the nation’s fourth-largest river. This spot 725 feet above the river also provides a good look at the grand basalt cliffs of the Gorge, formed by Ice Age floods scouring through ancient lava flows between 18,000 and 13,000 years ago. The vista inspired railroad lawyer Samuel Hill and engineer extraordinaire Samuel Lancaster to “conquer” the wild beauty of the Gorge with a grand scenic drive. It was an implausible plan — a road that would cling to sheer cliffs, traverse rushing rivers and tunnel through hammer-hard basalt — but they made it happen. The first segment was dedicated in 1916, an engineering marvel and a craftsmen’s showcase of hand-cut stone and elegant masonry. The first destination built along the new road, the 1918 Vista House has displays about the highway construction and unmatched Gorge views from the rotunda atop Crown Point, 1 mile/1.6 kilometers past the first scenic overlook.

A World of Waterfalls

From Crown Point, the byway drifts down the mountain in gentle arcs suitable for touring cars from the early 20th century, showcasing the highway’s original stonework. You’re soon immersed in a deeply shaded, ferny oasis, where one waterfall after another tumbles from Gorge rim to roadside. In 8 miles/12.8 kilometers, the byway skirts the base of five significant falls: Latourell, Shepperd’s Dell, Bridal Veil, Wahkeena and the granddaddy of them all, 620-foot Multnomah, one of the tallest waterfalls in the nation. Many have viewing areas and bridges close enough to feel the mist and thunder. Trails lead to more falls hidden deeper in the forest. Just east of Multnomah Falls, hikers set off from the Horsetail Falls Trailhead for a 4-mile/6.4-kilometer loop that winds past five gorgeous waterfalls — Horsetail Falls, Ponytail Falls, Oneonta Falls, Upper Oneonta Falls and Triple Falls. Farther along the interstate, you can spot a segment of the historic highway restored as the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail for bicycle and pedestrian use. Given their beauty and proximity to the highway, these waterfalls are popular hiking spots, especially on the weekends.

Bonneville Lock and Dam to Hood River

At exit 40, Bonneville Lock and Dam was the first of many dams to tame the Columbia. The extensive Visitors Center includes an underwater window where you can watch fish wriggling up the fish ladder to bypass the hydropower turbines. Visitors should stop in to the Sturgeon Viewing Center for the chance to spot Herman the Sturgeon — 10 feet long, 425 pounds and more than 60 years old. Before the dams, the Columbia churned through nearby Cascade Locks in a 7-mile/11.2-kilometer series of falls and rapids known as “The Great Chute.” Today sternwheeler boat tours paddle through this particularly dramatic stretch of the Gorge, where the river cuts through the Cascade Range. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail descends from the mountains and crosses the Bridge of the Gods to Washington. Cascade Locks’ shady riverside setting, campgrounds, brewpubs and other services make it an appealing stop for hikers and cyclists. Kiteboarders and windsurfers frequent the Hood River area, 18 miles/28.9 kilometers east, taking advantage of the natural wind tunnel formed by the Gorge. This appealing outdoorsy town is also the gateway to the Mt. Hood Scenic Byway. Carved out of the Gorge’s walls high above the river, the Twin Tunnels Trail is a sublime 5-mile/8-kilometer section of the Historic Columbia Highway State Trail for cyclists and pedestrians (closed to motorized traffic), and named for long tunnels chiseled through the basalt as part of the original road. Scenic overlooks abound.

Mosier to The Dalles

The byway rejoins the historic highway at exit 69 in Mosier, the east end of the Twin Tunnels Trail. Here the Gorge transitions from the fir forest of the Western Cascades to the semi-arid plateau of ponderosa pine and oak savanna to the east. A viewpoint atop Rowena Crest showcases dramatic geology, and footpaths lead into the Tom McCall Preserve, a bounty of spring wildflowers and several endemic plants found only in the Gorge. The byway makes a spectacular snaky descent down the Rowena Loops, a route featured in several car commercials. The eastern gateway to the Gorge, The Dalles was long a Native American gathering place. Downtown murals document its rich 19th-century heritage, first as a Lewis and Clark encampment, then as a staging area for Oregon Trail pioneers readying for the treacherous trip down the Columbia’s rapids. The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center brings the region’s natural and cultural history to life. The stunning geologic beauty of the Columbia River Gorge combined with its incredible access to the outdoors and its friendly small towns will draw you back again and again.

Save the date: Celebrate the Historic Columbia River Highway centennial in 2016 with the June 7 rededication ceremony at Multnomah Falls and the Vista House at Crown Point, as well as the Historic State Trail dedication in September.

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Drive safely.

Keep in mind many of the routes listed here travel through remote areas where gas stations are few and far between. And since road and weather conditions can be hazardous, even into summer, we urge you to call 800-977-6368 or check Trip Check before starting out.

Share your thoughts Comments

Have something to say? Your Comment

  1. Philip Mayeux says…

    Not a comment, but a question. Am I better advised biking west to east from Portland to The Dalles given the prevailing westerly winds inland from the coast?

    Written on October 20th, 2012 / Flag this Comment
  2. Deacon Dickie says…

    Great ride. Rode straight thru from Fresno, Ca. to Wallace, Id. which made much of my ride along the river in the night in late Sept 2011. The lonely train that came echoing thru their that night near the river was a sight & sound I won’t soon forget. Just a few days later on my way back I rode it during the day in a heavy rain storm & boy howdy that wind got wicked wild along that river. Gonna give’r another run one of these days. It’s a beauty fer sure. Give’r a shot.

    Written on January 30th, 2014 / Flag this Comment
  3. Ken Olsson says…

    In the Gorge a west wind prevails from spring to fall. A common 25-30 MPH breeze means that while you’re moving 65 MPH across the ground you’re fighting a 90-95 MPH wind if you’re headed west. It’s tiring. I often recommend eastbound from Portland to Hood River then return via the Mt Hood Loop, i.e. south from Hood River on OR-35 to US-26 then west to Portland. As long as you’re on US-26 make a stop at Timberline Lodge, too.

    The Mosier to Rowena description is a mite off. Mosier is exit 69, just five miles from Hood River, while Rowena is exit 76, twelve miles from H.R. If you go from H.R. all the way to exit 76 you’ll bypass Mosier, the orchards, the Mayerdale estate and the Rowena overlook. Also, given the overall eastbound course, the westbound hike/ride through Mosier Twin Tunnels described here may be confusing as it’s not between Mosier and Rowena. If you decide to hike the Twin Tunnels do it eastbound from Hood River (near exit 64) or westbound from Mosier (near exit 69).

    Written on January 31st, 2014 / Flag this Comment
  4. Clarence Downie says…

    Question??….Is there room to park small RV’s at the parking areas? I have a small 25 ft Fifth wheel and only measure 42 ft overall. Am not worried about the narrow curvy road, just places to park.

    Written on November 2nd, 2014 / Flag this Comment
  5. Claire Lind says…

    not a comment but a question: where is the best places to stay along the columbia river gorge and how many days do i need to hike, etc in the gorge

    Written on June 10th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  6. anne says…

    How many hours will it take to drive the scenic highway …and end in Troutsdale where we will be staying?

    Written on August 11th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  7. Steve Chambers says…

    Question: is it still possible for a full-sized tour bus to travel from west to east on the Scenic Highway?

    Written on August 18th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  8. Amit says…

    Is it just as nice to do it from east to west?

    Written on September 24th, 2015 / Flag this Comment
  9. Suzi Conklin says…

    This is the centennial year for the Old Gorge Highway. There will be fun events this year including an antique car drive on portions of the road normally closed to motorized vehicles. Cars built in 1948 and earlier will be allowed to drive the route. Mosier plans a parade end of July to celebrate the highway that runs right through Mosier.

    Written on March 12th, 2016 / Flag this Comment
  10. Julie says…

    We will be driving a 46′ RV and want to know if this road is manageable for this type of vehicle? Is it narrow, windy, hilly???
    Thank you!

    Julie

    Written on June 13th, 2016 / Flag this Comment
  11. Barb Hayner says…

    how large of a vehicle can one drive on the old Columbia hwy? Probably best not to drive a p/iu & camper but a standard car like a Toyota Avalon? Best time of year?

    Written on August 26th, 2016 / Flag this Comment
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