Armed with a road atlas, a KOA campground guide, and a pass to the National Parks, I was twenty years old and setting out to see the country.  My plan was to travel east from my home near Portland, Oregon, across the northern part of the US, and then return by a southern route.  As a send off, my parents decided to caravan behind me out Interstate 84 to the town of Hood River where we would enjoy the famous breakfast at the Historic Columbia River Gorge Hotel.

It was a beautiful drive.  After breakfast, as I prepared to leave, my mother lamented my situation, “Poor, Jenny.  You’re about to go see the whole country, but the most beautiful part is right here.”  She had a point.

View of Vista House at sunset. Photo by McD22.


One’s appreciation of the Columbia River Gorge is enhanced by an understanding of geology.  Incredible natural forces conspired to create this beauty.

First came the lava.  Sometime between 12 and 17 million years ago, volcanoes in eastern Oregon and Washington erupted, leaving a layer of basalt that reaches 600 meters in depth.  Then, 2 million to 700,000 years ago the Cascade mountain range began to uplift. Finally the big event, 16,000 – 13,000 years ago the largest floods which have ever happened on the planet carved out the gorge.  Much of Canada was covered in ice at this time.  A mass of ice blocked access to the sea and a huge lake formed behind it.  Periodically (the Missoula Floods happened as many as 100 times over a period of 2,500 years), the water would break through and a huge flood would come crashing down.  This was the power that carved the gorge.

When a gorge intersects a mountain range beautiful things happen, mainly waterfalls.

Multnomah Falls – One of many waterfalls in the gorge. Photo by Don Graham.

The Historic Highway

The best way to enjoy this beautiful scenery is via the Historic Columbia River Highway.  Completed in 1922, the highway was the brainchild of a man named Sam Hill (as in, “where in the Sam Hill…?”). Hill was infatuated with roads and worked with the engineer, Samuel Lancaster toward a vision of creating a road which would rival the scenic byways of Europe.  Hill was a rather colorful character. Having come from modest beginnings, he trained as a lawyer and his success in several cases attracted the attention of “The Empire Builder,” Jim Hill. Thus, Sam soon made his fortune working for the Great Northern Railway and in 1888 he married his bosses daughter, Mary. In addition to the Historic Highway, his legacy to the northwest also includes two monuments and a remarkable art museum.

Heading east from Portland, be sure you get on the “Historic Highway” (if you stay on I84, you will miss all the falls except Multnomah) which you can access from Troutdale or Corbett.  Stop at Women’s Forum and Crown Point to take in the spectacular views.  Take your time and stop to hike at some waterfalls; Latourell, Shepperd’s Dell, Bridal Veil, Wahkeena, Multnomah (second highest year-round waterfall in the United States), Oneonta,  and Horsetail Falls.  You probably won’t have time to hit them all, but that’s okay.  Save some for the way back. Hiking maps are available from the US Forest Service.

Sights to See

  • Bonneville Dam– As you continue, the Historic Highway joins up with the Interstate. Bonneville Damn is about 10 miles east of this point.  The Columbia is one of the dammed most rivers in North America – 14 dams in all, providing hydro-electric power and reflecting a time when people enthusiastically believed in progress. You can visit the dam and see the huge turbines which generate electricity, as well as the fish ladders which try to make things easier for the salmon migrating up stream.  Take note of the background music.  In 1941 the United States government contracted Woody Guthrie to write songs promoting the hydroelectric projects and you can hear him sing “Roll On Columbia” as you tour the dam. While at the time, the building of the dams appeared to be a triumph of progress and culture, it was also devastating for the culture that had been there before.  Bonneville Dam flooded Celilo Falls which had been an important trade (goods coming from as far away as Minnesota, and a specialized language- Chinook Jargon developed to allow trade between various tribes) site for American Indians. You can see amazing photographs of Native Americans perched on scaffolding above the falls to catch the salmon as they swam upstream.
  • Hood river – Hood River is a lovely place to spend the night after a day of hiking.  When you wake up in the morning remind yourself how many calories you burned the day before and treat yourself to the famous breakfast at the Columbia Gorge hotel.  The area in front of you is rated as one of the best windsurfing spots in the world.  So enjoy the view- or try it yourself.


Windsurfers on the Columbia River. Photo by H. Dragon.

  • Horsethief Lake – Another overnight option is to go to the campground at Horsethief Lake State Park (on the Washington side of the river across from The Dalles).  A park ranger will lead you on a hike to see some of the remarkable pictographs (paintings)and petroglyphs (carvings) left by the Native Americans who populated this area, including the haunting “She Who Watches”.

She Who Watches. Photo by rooftop65.

  • The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center (in Stevenson on the Washington side) provides an excellent overview of the history of the gorge and the people who have populated it over the years.
  • Maryhill Museum of Art and Stonehenge– Proceeding east, you will come to Maryhill.  The elaborate home Sam Hill built and named for his wife.  She didn’t really like living there and today the building serves as an art museum with a notable assemblage of sculptures by Rodin, a delightful collection of chess sets and memorabilia from Queen Marie of Romania who was a friend of Hill’s. A short distance from the museum you can visit a life-sized replica of Stonehenge which Hill had constructed in 1918 as a monument to the servicemen of Klickitat County who died in World War I.  When visiting the real Stonehenge Hill had been told that the site was used for human sacrifices.  As a Quaker and pacifist he saw war as the modern version of human sacrifice and built this monument as a reminder of the folly of war.
  • Goldendale Observatory  – The town of Goldendale Washington hosts Goldendale Observatory State Park with one of the largest public telescopes in the country.  Enjoy a little stargazing before returning home.
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