Cascade Locks, located a short 40 miles east of Portland, sits in the heart of the picturesque Columbia River Gorge. Named after the locks built to navigate rapids on the river, it is packed with activities and sites for the ideal road trip. From hiking to dining to water sports or simply admiring the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge, you’ll have a tough time deciding what to do first.
I grew up going to the waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge, but admit it wasn’t until five years ago when I moved back to Portland that I first explored Cascade Locks. Now I’m hooked. It’s quickly become a must-visit destination for me each year, just minutes from waterfall trails, and I regularly make the quick trip to enjoy time away from the city and soak in the unbelievable beauty. To make this trip from Portland as I do, take I-84E to exit 44.
A Welcome from the Gods
When you arrive in town, the impressive Bridge of the Gods, towers above to welcome you. The stunning metal structure is named after Tamanawas Bridge, or Bridge of the Gods, that according to Puyallup tribal lore was a natural rock bridge destroyed by a great chief’s sons. Today, the metal Bridge of the Gods spans over the Columbia River Gorge, connecting Oregon and Washington for a $2 passenger vehicle toll (free for pedestrians). As you pass underneath, stop and spend a few minutes admiring the stunning mural painted on the southern bridge supports. The mural depicts local wildlife, the Lewis & Clark expedition, and early Indigenous residents.
Experience the River
A drive down the main street leads you toward Marine Park, the best place in town for a scenic picnic, to learn about the area’s history, and get in or on the water. If you’re feeling adventurous, try a sailing lesson or ride on a sailboat with the Columbia Gorge Racing Association (CGRA). Cascade Locks is known as a world-class sailing destination due to its climate and continuous wind, so there’s no better place to give this a try. If you prefer to admire the sailing from land, check out the CGRA’s summer regattas and events.
For an unforgettable experience on the water, hop aboard the famous Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler. This scenic riverboat cruise is perfect for travelers of all ages and abilities, and the nonstop panoramic views of the Gorge will have you wishing the ride never ends. The captain narrates the journey with the area’s history and stories of the tribes that first inhabited the region. There are multiple departure times and cruise lengths, and advance booking is recommended.
After your ride on the Sternwheeler, continue to the roundabout near the Sternwheeler dock and admire the bronze sculptures of Sacagawea and the dog Seaman, both instrumental aides in the Lewis & Clark expedition. These are the work of renowned local artist Heather Soderberg-Greene, the first woman to own a bronze foundry in the United States. To marvel at more of her work, stop by Greene Bronze located along Cascade Locks’ main drive.
Discover the History
Next, stroll through the park and visit the three original locktender’s homes and the remnants of the 19th century locks, each of which are listed as National Historic Landmarks. For a deeper dive into the locks and Native American history, stop by the Cascade Locks Historical Museum located within one of the locktender’s homes. Also part of the museum is the outdoor exhibit for the Oregon Pony, the first steam locomotive used in the Oregon Territory.
Cascade Locks also offers scenic trails and hikes for a variety of skill levels and is the only incorporated city on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of hikers bravely making this 2,650-mile trek along the West Coast — or buy them at a beverage at Thunder Island Brewing. For a brief taste of hiking on the PCT, you can walk 3.6 miles out and back to Dry Creek Falls, starting near Bridge of the Gods. Do not be deceived by the name; there is water in both the creek and the stunning 74-foot falls. It connects with the Herman Creek Trail, where you can experience the largest surviving forest of old growth fir, cedar and hemlock remaining in the Columbia River Gorge. Both trails were impacted by the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, and you can see fire scars on trees as well as new growth including wildflowers in the spring.
The Gorge’s “waterfall corridor” is also just minutes away by car. To avoid crowds at the popular Multnomah Falls, the state’s tallest waterfall, consider taking the Columbia Area Transit shuttle from downtown Cascade Locks.
No trip to Cascade Locks is complete without savoring the local cuisine. My favorite stop for fresh Columbia River salmon and sturgeon is the Brigham Fish Market. This delightful market is owned and managed by sisters who are members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. In season, they catch the salmon each morning on scaffolds in the same tradition of their ancestors. The mouthwatering smoked salmon is the perfect snack for a hike, or you can dine-in or purchase fish to prepare at home.
The nearby East Wind Drive-In is your go-to stop for a classic ice cream swirl on a hot summer day. If you’re looking for casual, local fare with a superb view, the Locks Waterfront Grill at the visitor center in Marine Park offers it all. Lastly, after a long day of fun, unwind and grab a drink is the adventure-based small batch brewery Thunder Island Brewing Co., now with a new location on Wa Na Pa Street next to Brigham Fish Market.
Spend the Night
The Cascade Motel offers individual cottages ranging from romantic suites to family-style cottages that sleep up to six guests. It’s conveniently located a few blocks from the main street, yet nestled in a quiet setting with mountain views. There’s also the Best Western Plus Columbia River Inn offering rooms with stunning views of the river and Bridge of the Gods.