With its cascading waterfalls, hills full of wildflowers and sparkling river views, touring the Columbia River Gorge is one of the most scenic routes you can take in all of Oregon. But what if you could see the sights without having to drive? Luckily visitors can check out a few new ways to explore the Gorge car-free.
Leaving the car behind means saving on gas and avoiding parking headaches, not to mention easing congestion and reducing emissions, which will go a long way toward keeping this region pristine and green for the next 100 years. When you let someone else take the wheel, your eyes are free to enjoy the sights — and there’s a lot to see in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
One of the best parts about going car-free during the summer is that you won’t need to worry about securing a timed-use permit to visit Multnomah Falls between late May and late September. The permit is designed to help everyone have the best experience, considering about 2.5 million visitors come to the Gorge each year, the majority by car. The Historic Highway is a narrow, curving road with few shoulders and room for parking. There’s far more demand for activities here – wildlife watching, photography, hiking, cycling and more – than the roadway and parking lot can handle during peak times.
When the highway is congested, it creates dangerous delays for emergency vehicles including wildfire responders. Drivers who park illegally block the travel lane and cause safety hazards for pedestrians and cyclists. Here’s a look at some top car-free options available, ranging from just a few dollars to a more-inclusive luxury experience.
Go by public transit:
- One of the most affordable ways to explore the Gorge without a car is Columbia Area Transit, which offers services from Portland’s Gateway Transit Center to Multnomah Falls, Cascade Locks, Hood River and The Dalles with their Columbia Gorge Express Service. Many stops are within walking distance of local trailheads main streets, and attractions. You can buy a Gorge Pass for unlimited rides throughout the season.
- Mt. Hood Express is a public bus service run by Clackamas County, with stops in towns along Highway 26 from Sandy to Government Camp and Timberline. It’s a great option for mountain bikers headed to the Sandy Ridge Trail System, with bike storage available. There are also ski boxes to stow equipment for the mountain. Tickets are just $2 one way or $5 for an all-day pass. Each ticket lets you reach Mt. Hood via the Sandy Area Metro bus from Gresham Transit Center to the Sandy Transit Center, at which point you can board the Mt. Hood Express straight to the mountain.
Go by guided tour:
- The new Waterfall Shuttle offers a guided sunset tour of six area waterfalls. Or if you just need a quick lift, hop aboard their shuttle for the 5-minute trip from their parking lot off Exit 35 to Multnomah Falls, no permit needed.
- Gray Line Toursoffers half-day excursions to the Gorge to and from downtown Portland. The 4.25-hour tour stops at Latourell Falls, Multnomah Falls and Lodge, and the Bonneville Dam and fish ladder.
- America’s Hub World Tours welcomes visitors aboard its wine-lovers Gorge tour with transportation to and from Portland.
- Ride in a custom-equipped Mercedes Benz with Sea to Summit, run by two native Oregonians with two decades of guiding experience.
- Wildwood Adventures offers a popular waterfall tour, with stops at Crown Point Vista House, Latourell Falls, Multnomah Falls and Bonneville Fish Hatchery.
- Around Portland Tours offers two all-inclusive excursions – one is a waterfall tour and the other includes hiking and cycling along the Historic Highway.
- Evergreen Escapes offers a Gorge wine tour that includes tastings at five boutique wineries, refreshments and tasting fees.
Go by hop-on, hop-off shuttle:
- The new Gray Line Tours’ open-air Multnomah Falls Trolley offers regular, direct service from the Gateway to the Gorge Visitors Center in Troutdale to Multnomah Falls. And the company’s open-air Waterfall Trolley offers hop-on and hop-off service at 10 stops along the Historic Columbia River Highway.
- Sasquatch Shuttle makes it easy for you and your canine friends to explore at your leisure, with stops at eight top Gorge attractions.
Go by bike
- Experiencing the Gorge on two wheels can be an epic experience. Bring or rent a bicycle and know that the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trailis free of motorized vehicles, and cyclists do not need a permit on the Historic Highway.
- Want to try an e-bike? Outfitters likeEbike Multnomah Falls let you park at the shop, rent an e-bike and take a self-guided tour. In 2.5 hours you can see five waterfalls, or you can linger and do some short hikes for a half-day rental.
- For a guided tour in the Gorge’s wine country, consider a wine-bike trip with MountNbarreL or Sol Rides, offering all-inclusive packages with bikes, e-bikes and shuttle service.
Tips for Visiting
- Book your tours and shuttles early, as they will fill quickly. Visit earlier, later or midweek for fewer crowds, and continue eastward to explore the less-crowded East Gorge area.
- If you do decide to drive, know that a timed-use permit is needed to visit Multnomah Falls between May 26 and Sept. 4, 2023 during peak hours. Visit Recreation.gov for booking and details.
- Have a Plan B in mind. Check Ready Set GOrge for more trip-planning ideas.
- Wherever you adventure, always bring your Ten Essentials, stay on designated trails and put trash where it belongs, especially pet waste.