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 Fallsbetween 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.
Get a GOrge Pass
There are a host of public and private shuttle services available, but one of the easiest ways to get around is with Gorge Translink Alliance, a one-stop shop for exploring the region with local transit providers. Riders can take local fixed-route services to locations throughout the Gorge including Hood River, Cascade Locks and The Dalles. In Hood River, the Translink’s Columbia Area Transit (CAT), the region’s largest transit provider, includes several routes with multiple stops around town.
CAT’s Columbia Gorge Express provides services from Portland’s Gateway Transit Center to Multnomah Falls, Cascade Locks, Hood River and The Dalles; many stops are within walking distance of local trailheads. There may be more stops at trailheads this summer — keep checking back with Gorge Translink Alliance or Ready Set GOrge.
Until April, CAT’s Gorge to Mountain Express stops in Hood River, Odell, Parkdale and Mt. Hood Meadows and Government Camp. All buses in the Gorge Translink Alliance include bike racks and wheelchair access. If you plan on riding often, the GOrge Pass is your best bet for unlimited rides. The pass is $40 for adults and $20 for children, with $1 of each pass going to the Gorge Equity Fund.
Here’s a look at even more car-free options available, ranging from just a few dollars to a more-inclusive luxury experience.
Go by Shuttle or Tour
Transportation with bikes and skis
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.
All-inclusive sightseeing tours
- Gray Line Tours offers 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, a national historic site in the heart of the Gorge. Tours run daily mid-June through early September and operate on a reduced schedule in fall and spring. Tickets are $65 per adult and $32 per child age 6-12.
- America’s Hub World Tours welcomes visitors to book a guided Mt. Hood loop tour, half- or full-day Gorge tour, or a special wine-lovers Gorge tour year-round, with pre-arranged pickups and drop-offs from downtown Portland. The full-day tour covers each of the Gray Line’s stops, plus more at Timberline Lodge, Crown Point Vista House and Hood River, where visitors can explore before hopping on for the return trip. Tickets for a public tour are $130 per person.
- Ride in a custom-equipped Mercedes Benz 4×4 vehicle with Sea to Summit, run by two native Oregonians with two decades of experience guiding happy visitors through Oregon’s most scenic destinations. Their popular Columbia Gorge Waterfalls Tour ($89 per person) includes expert-guided narration along all of the stops, including Chanticleer viewpoint, Vista House at Crown Point, Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Wahkeena Falls, Horsetail Falls, Multnomah Falls, Bonneville Dam and the Sturgeon Research Center. Hit the highlights and continue on to Timberline Ski Area for the popular Columbia Gorge and Mt. Hood Tour ($159 per person).
- Book a half- or full-day with Wildwood Adventures including their popular 4-hour Gorge Waterfalls Tour, with stops at Crown Point Vista House, Latourell Falls, Multnomah Falls and Bonneville Fish Hatchery. Snacks and water are included, and the group of 6-12 travelers tour in a large van. About half the tour is spent walking around and exploring the sights. Tickets are $79 per person. The 8-hour Gorge Waterfalls and Mt. Hood Tour is a full-day experience with stops at Crown Point Vista House, Multnomah Falls & Historic Lodge, along the Hood River Fruit Loop, Mt. Hood and Timberline Lodge. Guests can grab lunch in Hood River and enjoy touring with 6-12 travelers in a large van. Tickets are $132 per person.
- Around Portland Tours offers two all-inclusive excursions. One is a Waterfall Zen: Hike the Columbia Gorge Waterfalls tour with stops at Multnomah Falls, Wahkeena Falls and Latourell Falls; tickets are $65 per person and include transportation, expert guides and food and drink. The tour is also pet-friendly. There’s also a 5-hour Hike and Bike: Columbia River Gorge Hidden Waterfalls Tour that combines a half day of hiking with a total of about 6 miles of easy cycling along the Historic Highway. Tickets are $95 per person and include transportation, use of a bicycle and helmet, snacks and water.
- If wine is your passion and you’re looking for the ultimate in luxury, Evergreen Escapes offers a full-day Columbia Gorge Waterfalls & Wine Tour that includes tastings at five of the region’s most prominent boutique wineries: Cathedral Ridge Winery, Hood Crest Winery, Wy’East Vineyards, Mt. Hood Winery, and Stave & Stone Wine Estates. Enjoy sipping with your designated driver at the wheel, and round out the day with short walks at some of the waterfall trails. Tickets are $1,000 per two travelers, and include a local cheese and charcuterie plate, snacks, refreshments, tasting fees, transportation and expert guides.
Hop-on, hop-off shuttles along the Waterfall Corridor (available late May through September)
- The privately run Sasquatch Shuttle makes it easy for you and your canine friends to explore at your leisure, with stops at Portland Women’s Forum, Vista House, Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Angel’s Rest, Wahkeena Falls, Multnomah Falls and Horsetail Falls. You can even track the real-time locations of the shuttle, so there’s no guess about arrival times. When you travel by shuttle in the summer you don’t need the timed-use permit for Multnomah Falls. All-day tickets are $15, or $20 for oversized vehicles.
- Gray Line Tours’ open-air Waterfall Trolley offers hop-on and hop-off service at 10 stops along the Historic Columbia River Highway. Tickets are $21 per adult and $10 per child.
Go By Bike
Getting to the Gorge by bike can be an epic experience. The Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail is free of motorized vehicles, and cyclists do not need a permit on the Historic Highway. The Hood River to The Dalles segment includes a blissful 4-mile car-free leg that goes through the Mosier Twin Tunnels, followed by a ride to the picture-worthy Rowena Crest Viewpoint and Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. If you have your own bike you can follow the Springwater Corridor from Portland to Gresham or Boring, then make your way north to Troutdale. Or join a bike-friendly shuttle that gets you right into the Gorge.
Try an ebike
Bring your own or consider booking an e-bike to travel the Waterfall Corridor, including Multnomah Falls. Outfitters like Ebike Multnomah Falls (located at Guy Talbot State Park in Corbett, at the Latourell Falls Falls Trailhead) let you park at the shop, rent an e-bike and take a self-guided tour, available April through October. In 2.5 hours you can see five waterfalls (including a couple miles of walking), or you can linger and do some short hikes for a half-day rental. A full-day rental can include a stop for a picnic or dining at the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge restaurant, which also sells ice cream and cookies for a quick treat. Ebike rentals include maps and instruction; riders must be age 16 or older. Pedal bikes are available for children under 16.
For a guided tour in the Gorge’s wine country, consider a wine-bike trip with MountNbarreL, offering all-inclusive packages with bikes, e-bikes and shuttle service. Rolling into the vineyards just might be better on two wheels.
Tips for Visiting
- Book your tours and shuttles early, as they will fill quickly. Consider visiting earlier, later or midweek for fewer crowds, and continue eastward past the Waterfall Corridor to explore the less-crowded East Gorge area.
- Highway construction projects and traffic backups in the Gorge are common. Check TripCheck.com for traffic updates and road conditions before you go.
- Have a Plan B in mind. Check Ready Set GOrge for more trip-planning ideas.
- Even where you share the road with auto traffic, low speed limits and scenic views make it a must for experienced road cyclists. Find handy maps with detailed elevations, route cues and scenic points of interest from the Oregon Department of Transportation and Portland Office of Transportation.
- Looking for the perfect weekend to pedal through the Gorge? Consider National Bike Travel Weekend in early June.