The Columbia River Gorge is a tourist hot spot, and if you’ve ever visited, you know exactly why. From cascading waterfalls to its dramatic views of the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, its towering high cliff walls and rolling hills of wildflowers. It’s an adventurer’s paradise — and during the summer months it can get pretty busy.
But did you know there are ways to explore the area without having to drive? You can avoid all the traffic and congestion while simultaneously reducing your carbon footprint by taking the Columbia Gorge Express shuttle. That’s what my friend, Shannon, and I opted to do. We traded our trusty steeds in for a relaxed ride watching the scenery pass by while we happily let someone else do the driving. And since the bus runs from Portland all the way to Hood River with stops along the way, we decided to make an overnighter out of it.
After boarding at Gateway Transit Center in Portland, our first stop was Cascade Locks on the western end of the Gorge along the Columbia River. (The shuttle also makes stops at the famous Multnomah Falls and, in the summer, Rooster Rock State Park.)
From here we embarked on a hike to Dry Creek Falls, which is reached via a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail is 4.4-miles round trip, and its trailhead begins at the edge of town. It was an easy 5-minute walk from our hotel, the Best Western Plus Columbia River Inn.
Although this area was deeply affected by the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017, the regeneration of the flora was incredible to witness. (And it’s worth noting the importance of using a boot brush prior to entering a fire-impacted trail to prevent the spread of invasive species in sensitive landscapes.)
Where once the forest floor was charred and barren, now blooms an abundance of wildflowers and lush greenery, a stark and eerie contrast from the blackened trees looming above. Our trek to the waterfall left us in awe of nature’s ability to quickly recover from devastating tragedy.
When we finally stepped foot off the trail, we were both feeling the pangs of hunger. So we made our way on foot down to Thunder Island Brewing, a cute spot nestled amongst the pines right along the river. We ordered food and drinks and settled in at one of their outdoor picnic tables, watching the Columbia River sparkle from the sun.
By the time we were finished, the sun was about to dip below the cliffs. So we hustled the short distance to watch the sunset at the brewery’s namesake, Thunder Island, with a great view of the river and the Bridge of the Gods. We watched the sun drop and the sky turn pink before we made our way back to our hotel. We knew we had a full day ahead of us, so we tucked in early for a good night’s rest.
Early the next morning, MountNbarreL picked us up outside of our hotel in Cascade Locks and whisked us away for a fun-filled day touring the vineyards of the Hood River County Fruit Loop by bicycle. Their all-inclusive tours provide bikes, helmets, shuttle services and a variety of vineyard tour options. (If you’re looking for a unique way to explore one of Oregon’s most prized wine regions, these tours are for you!)
We were delighted to ditch the traffic and get our legs and hearts pumping along those backcountry roads, the summer sun and mountain views providing us with the incentive to keep pedaling. At each stop we were rewarded with some of the most spectacular wines and ciders the region has to offer.
Our first pit stop was at The Gorge White House, where you can sip wines and ciders from their wide selection, order food from their renowned food truck and even pick fruit and flowers from their U-pick gardens. We could’ve spent hours exploring their beautiful lush property. But we had a schedule to keep, so we hopped on our bikes and pedaled through the orchard towards our next destination.
Just a short ride down the road was Mt. Hood Winery. And as we rolled up, the view of Mt. Hood was impossible to ignore. With a friendly staff, a tasting room situated to take full advantage of the view and outdoor seating for lounging in the sun, it was the perfect place to relax and try their award winning wines.
We finished up the loop ride at Wy’East Vineyards, where you can taste their passion for wine with every glass. Their small vineyard is meticulously managed and all grapes are still hand-picked. This attention to detail is made apparent when you sample their delicious wines. At 1,600 feet, it is also one of the highest elevation vineyards in the state.
We walked away from that experience with an appreciation for the community that’s being built here and more knowledge about the rich soil and varied ecosystems the wine region of the Columbia River Gorge has to offer, making it an ideal place to grow nearly any type of grape. What an amazing place we live!
Once our tour was over, we were dropped off in Hood River by MountNbarreL to catch the swift Columbia Gorge Express shuttle from downtown Hood River back home to Portland, knowing we’d come back to repeat the experience time and time again.
If you go
The Columbia Gorge Express transports visitors from the Gateway Transit Center in Portland to Multnomah Falls and Rooster Rock State Park for $7.50 round-trip; from Portland to Cascade Locks for $10 round-trip; and from Portland to Hood River for $15 round-trip. A hop-on, hop-off day pass is $15, or $12 if purchased online. Group passes are also available. The bus service departs Gateway nearly a dozen times every day, with expanded service in the summer. Cyclists can even get aboard with three bike spaces on each bus.
For additional travel from Hood River to The Dalles, catch the Columbia Area Transit‘s weekday transit, daily Greyhound buses, or Explore The Dalles free bus service on Saturdays in the summer.
The Columbia River Gorge is a designated Leave No Trace hot spot for summer 2019. Efforts include recreational education and decreasing human-impact along trails. Learn how to become a better steward of the land with the LNT principles, and educate yourself about responsible recreation in the Columbia River Gorge at ReadySetGorge.com.