At the start of the 20th century, a group of Pacific Northwest bigwigs had a big dream: to build a highway from the Oregon coast to Pendleton—with the most scenic stretch threading along the southern wall of the Columbia River Gorge. Skeptics of the day doubted that any paved road could be constructed through the gorge's gauntlet of rockfall-prone cliffs and plunging waterfalls—much less the daring route that Samuel Lancaster, one of the project engineers, had in mind.
Proving them wrong, Lancaster carved out a two-lane highway that meandered from precipice-teetering overlooks to waterfall pools, presenting travelers with eye-popping natural beauty at literally every turn. Inspired by mountain tunnels he'd seen along the Axenstrasse, a legendary scenic road in Switzerland, Lancaster punched tunnels—complete with arched windows, so motorists could enjoy panoramic views—through sheer cliffs.
Determined to keep the highway as flat as possible, he equipped its steeper sections with switchbacks that surmount a near-vertical topography without ever exceeding a moderate, 5 percent grade. As much a visual delight as a safety feature, Lancaster's zigzag turns have appeared in so many road-hugging car commercials that it's almost impossible to cruise over Rowena Crest, between Mosier and The Dalles, without feeling the urge to slip on driving gloves and lapse into an Italian accent.
Completed in 1922, the road was hailed as an engineering marvel on a par with the Panama Canal. In the decades that followed, however, newer highways and various "improvements" that emphasize speed over scenery obliterated much of Lancaster's original design—except in the gorge, where vintage segments totaling more than 35 miles are still as drivable and scenic as ever.
In fact, the state of Oregon has recently refurbished the historic highway's rustic stonework and wooden guardrails, installed new parking lots and interpretive signs, and converted 11 miles of formerly closed roadway into paved hiking and biking trails. One trail near Mosier includes the Mosier Twin Tunnels, two re-opened passageways with original arched windows overlooking the Columbia River. To shield passersby from rocks that occasionally tumble down at this spot, work crews even built a unique catchment structure capable of withstanding the impact of 5,000-pound boulders.
Granted, travelers in a hurry will make faster time by staying on I-84. But for anyone wanting to savor the gorge rather than rush through it, Lancaster's superlative highway easily outstrips the merely super one.
Where it is: Between Troutdale, Ore., and The Dalles.
Who will like it: Hikers, cyclists, wildflower lovers, waterfall aficionados, and anyone thrilled by staggering vistas and ultra-curvy roads.
What's there: Cliff-edge overlooks; five waterfalls (including Multnomah Falls, one of Oregon's most visited natural sites); countless trailheads—some leading to additional waterfalls; Vista House—a historic interpretive center and viewpoint (the building is closed for renovation until 2004); 20 state parks; Bonneville Dam; paved switchbacks that make even minivan drivers feel as if they're behind the wheel of a Lamborghini; and ecosystems ranging from rain forests to high-desert scrubland.
When to go: Year-round, though wildflowers are at their peak from March through May, and traffic is lightest from late fall through early spring.
Illustration by Michael Klein
This article was first published in May 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.