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Great Road Trips In Washington State: The Columbia River Gorge
Let me ask you this. Do you like to do any of the following: camping, hiking, biking, golf, fishing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, windsurfing, kiteboarding, boating, bird watching, photography, downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing?
Let me ask you this. Do you like to do any of the following: visit museums, wine tasting, superb dining, shopping or lounging in a spa?
If any of that sounds enticing then you will most definitely enjoy this incredible trip through the Columbia River Gorge.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that this entire road trip does not occur just in Washington State. In fact, half the trip is in Washington and half in Oregon, but it is all within the area known as the Columbia River Gorge.
The Columbia River is the second largest river in North America, starting in British Columbia and flowing 1,200 miles to the Pacific Ocean. At its deepest point the Gorge is 4,000 feet deep and the canyon stretches over 80 miles, from eastern grassland with annual precipitation of ten inches to the temperate rainforest on the western end with precipitation of over 100 inches.
Most of the Gorge is federally protected and it is officially called the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. The Columbia River cuts the only sea-level navigable passageway through the Cascade Mountains, and it creates the border between Washington and Oregon.
If you are into history, this was the tail-end of the Lewis and Clark Voyage of Discovery, and there are several interpretive centers for your enjoyment and education. This is also Oregon Trail country, so a history buff would do well to spend several days on this lovely trip.
The Loop within the National Scenic Area is 150 miles long. I would suggest you begin your trip in Vancouver, Washington, and end in Portland, Oregon, adding another 160 miles to your journey, so plan on a little over 300 miles for the entire trip. Without a doubt the trip can be done in one day, but any serious traveler will want to spend three or four days to fully appreciate the entire area.
The directions are as simple as can be: from Vancouver drive east on Highway 14 until you reach Maryhill and the junction of 14 & 97. There you will cross the bridge over the Columbia and then turn west and follow Interstate 84 on the Oregon side back to Portland.
Heading East on Washington Highway 14
From Interstate 5 you want to take Exit 1 – Camus/Highway WA 14. You will be on a four-lane interstate for the first twenty miles or so. Eventually that road will become a two-lane the remainder of the eastbound leg of the journey.
At mile 23 your will come to the Cape Horn Lookout where you will be treated to a beautiful view of the evergreen forests along the Columbia. Continue another nine miles and stop in Skamania. You just might want to spend a night at the Skamania Lodge, a 254 room hotel with its own golf course. Using the hotel as a base you can venture down the road to Beacon Rock State Park. There you will find a challenge if you are a rock climber. The 848 foot tall Beacon Rock will give you a work out for sure. If you do not climb rocks then you can take the one mile trail to the top of the rock and enjoy a spectacular view. If you prefer to camp this park has 29 campsites and 9,500 feet of freshwater shoreline.
Four miles further and you come to North Bonneville, the home of Bonneville Hot Springs Resort. It offers 78 rooms with private outdoor hot tubs and the ever-popular Pacific Crest Dining Room. A short walk from there is the Bridge of the Gods toll bridge which will take you across the river and which commemorates the actual location of a natural bridge that spanned the river many years ago and was a part of Native American legend.
Next up is the town of Stevenson, the location of the old Cascade Rapids where Lewis & Clark had to portage around. The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center is located here; the 23,000 square foot museum traces the River’s history. Make sure you also visit the Bonneville Dam where there is a visitor’s center, fish ladders and tours of the generator rooms.
Twenty miles further and you will come to the twin towns of White Salmon and Bingen. White Salmon has Bavarian architecture and a bevy of restaurants and gift shops. Bingen specializes in antique stores and other shopping experiences. If you choose you can take the bridge across the river into Hood River, Oregon, a much larger town and renowned for its windsurfing.
A side trip is suggested at this point. Take Highway 141 north out of Bingen and head for one of the most remote volcanoes in the Cascades, Mount Adams. You will follow the White River, an excellent whitewater rafting river, and further up the road you will come to the town of Trout Lake where you can visit the nearby ice caves. During the winter this is great country for snowmobiling, skiing and snowshoeing, and the summer months offers a variety of trails and some great trout fishing.
Just a bit further down the road on Highway 14 and you will find vineyards, orchards, rolling grasslands and towering cliffs. If you like wine then you can visit the tasting rooms at Waving Tree Winery, Maryhill Winery, Cascade Cliffs Vineyard, Cor Cellars and Syncline Wine Cellars. You could easily spend a day here. Parks and trails are nearby so plan on stretching your legs and enjoying the great outdoors.
The last stop on the Washington side of the river is the Maryhill Museum of the Arts, a 6,000 acre ranch with 26-acres of gardens and a caste-like chateau on a bluff overlooking the Columbia. Inside you will find a marvelous art museum and outside a replica of Stonehenge. There is also Café Maryhill where you will find gourmet coffees, deli food and desserts.
Now take the bridge across the river and head west on Interstate 84 in Oregon.
Heading West on Oregon Interstate 84
Since this article is a summary of a Washington State road trip, our mention of the Oregon side of the trip will be limited. It would be an injustice to say that the Oregon side is the same trip only in reverse, and to do justice to this 97-mile leg of the trip would require another article. For now, let me highlight the sites you will see traveling east to west along I-84.
· Deschutes River State Park
· The Dalles Dam
· Columbia Gorge Discovery Center
· Wasco Country Museum
· Mount Hood Highway and a wonderful side trip to Mount Hood
· Mitchell Point Overlook
· Viento State Park
· Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail
· Cascade Locks
· Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery
· Eagle Creek Recreation Area
· Bonneville Dam National Historic Landmark
· Multnomah Falls
· Benson State Recreation Area
· Rooster Rock State Park
· Lewis and Clark State Park
· Oxbow Regional Park
· And of course, Portland, the Jewel of Oregon on the Willamette River
Time lapse drive through the Gorge
Great place to stay
- Columbia Gorge Hotel - Home
The Columbia Gorge Hotel is a historic landmark in the Columbia River Gorge. Lodging, restaurant and lounge facilities. Book a reservation to stay in the same hotel that hosted both presidents and Hollywood royalty in the 1920s. The Columbia Gorge Ho
Not just a place to sleep but an adventure! You will find no Motel 6’s on this trip. Most of the hotels along the way are first-class establishments that will cater to your every need.
· Columbia Gorge Hotel and Spa 800-345-1921
· Best Western Hood River Inn 800-828-7873
· Celilo Inn 541-769-0001
· Inn of the White Salmon 800-972-5226
· Bonneville Hot Springs Resort 888-902-7449
· Skamania Lodge 509-427-7700
· Carson Hot Springs Resort 800-607-3678
Museums Along the Way
Interpretive centers and museums abound on this trip. Make sure you spend quality time at each of the following:
· Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association
· Multnomah Falls Lodge
· Columbia Gorge Discover Center
· Wasco County Historical Museum
· Fort Dalles Museum
· Maryhill Museum of Art
Memories for a Lifetime
Do not cheat yourselves and rush through this trip. There is more than enough to see and you can easily spend four or five days making this loop. Whether you are an outdoorsman or simply a sightseer, you will not be disappointed on this journey.
Packing for this trip can be a little tricky. It is not unusual to find a temperature variance of twenty to thirty degrees between the western side of the Cascades and the eastern side, and on the Gorge trip that shift in temps can happen in a fifty-mile span. Remember, too, that the Gorge creates its own wind tunnel, so plan on winds up to thirty miles per hour.
Having said all that, be prepared for some incredibly beautiful scenery as you tour one of the great rivers in North America. I promise you will not be disappointed.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)