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Columbia River

America's second biggest river just keeps rollin' along through some of the best and most accessible scenery in the Northwest.

Columbia River, image
Photo credit
Photo: tiger635/Wikimedia Commons
Photo caption
Scenic roads reveal the majestic sweep of the Columbia River Gorge.

Lots of rivers flow through mountain ranges, but few do it the hard way—nearly at sea level. The Columbia River Gorge, a roughly 75-mile canyon through the Cascades, originated in a string of events that would gladden James Michener’s heart: continental plate movement, lava flows, ice ages, a big flood, landslides, and earthquakes.

Add a few water-controlling dams and any white water rapids in this groove give way to a broad, picturesque river. Throw in a nearly constant breeze and you have ideal sailboarding conditions and a real Hairclub for Men proving ground.

The Columbia River Gorge is unusually accessible for driving tours as there are three scenic roads along it and plenty of attractions for stops along the way. Each of the three routes gives a different perspective on the gorge: I-84, State Road (SR) 14, and the original 1916 Columbia River Highway.

Interstate 84 in Oregon parallels the Columbia generally at near river-level. It has excellent views of the river and the Washington side. As a freeway, it pretty much makes the crooked straight and the rough places plain, so the fast, smooth going provides a good overview of the area.

SR 14 parallels I-84 on the Washington side. It’s a broad, two-lane road which runs high above the river for much of the way, passing through several small towns. Topography to one side of the river sometimes seems almost unrelated to that on the other; this apparent lack of coordination adds to the value of driving both sides.

Oregon’s old Columbia River Highway parallels I-84 for a stretch and gets you a lot closer to some impressive waterfalls, viewing areas, and other attractions, although views of the river itself often are better from the Interstate. Despite being along the same river, these three roads are quite different from one another, with relatively little duplication of views or attractions. To get the full picture, you ought to drive each of them.

Narrow and winding, the old road wanders through the forest between the gorge wall and I-84. Tumbling over that gorge wall are some unusually impressive waterfalls. It seems you hardly get rolling when one high waterfall after another presents itself. The highest is 620-foot Multnomah Falls. If you get out of the car to explore only one waterfall, Multnomah is a good bet—partly because it’s so well adapted to walkers and partly because the rustic Multnomah Falls Lodge restaurant is at the base.

Take the short, steep, paved trail to an arched bridge that straddles the stream just below the cascade. A good, if occasionally steep, trail takes you on about a mile’s walk to the top where there’s a viewing platform cantilevered out directly over the falls. Oddly enough, you don’t really see the falls from the viewing platform (the water’s directly below it), but you do get a dandy look at the river.

For those not keen on hiking, lofty spots reachable by car provide views every bit as good as the few you have to work for. Crown Point is a fine example of the genre. It was atop this 733-foot elevation the Columbia River Highway was dedicated in 1916; just afterward, construction began on Vista House. It’s an odd structure, a stone octagon in "German art nouveau" style. Inside are displays on area history, a bookstore, and restrooms. If the view from its grounds is insufficiently expansive, you can climb one story to the viewing area on its roof. And stand on your toes.

Far below, Lewis and Clark had their difficulties with the rapids when they tried to canoe through. The Columbia didn’t just roll along in its pre-dam days, in places it rushed and tumbled, slamming itself against rocks, creating plenty of white water.

Even thus preoccupied, the explorers noticed a higher and somewhat less accessible vista point on the Washington side, an 800-foot monolith they named Beacon Rock. The 0.9 mile walk to its peak is easier than it looks as there’s a well built trail that zig-zags up the cliff face to a viewing area at the top. And it’s well worth the relatively small effort since for part of the way the path practically hangs off the cliff wall. The day we visited, a trio of Helen Hokinson-type ladies made the climb as did a senior citizen walking his spaniel.

While Beacon Rock’s name is almost prosaically descriptive, the nearby bridge has an unusually grand title: Bridge of the Gods. It’s a scenic span, but even so it’s a stretch to imagine the gods travelling between Stevenson and Cascade Locks on a very high, narrow steel truss and paying 75 cents toll.

Actually, the name commemorates a much earlier natural bridge thought to have been here and to have collapsed either because of erosion, as some geologists claim, or because of a rivalry between mts. Hood and Adams for the favors of Squaw Mountain, as some poetically inclined anthropomorphizers claim.

As you probably will see while crossing the Bridge of the Gods, the broad expanses of relatively placid water and constant breeze make the Columbia popular with sailboarders—people who ride surfboards driven by large, triangular sails. One convenient place to watch is by the Hood River Marina, where there’s also a good museum on local history. You can get sailboard lessons, rent equipment, or just sit on the beach and take in the show.

If sailboarding doesn’t seem to recommend itself, the best way to get out on the river for a while is the two-hour riverboat tour. The Columbia Gorge is a 147-foot stern wheeler built in the 1980s but patterned after a 19th century steamer. The narrated tour takes you from Cascade Locks (there also are departures from Bonneville Dam and Stevenson) both up and down the river. The narrator gives details on points of interest, including the rather involved legend of The Bridge of the Gods. Take sunglasses and a jacket; tie your hat down.

Heading east on I-84, you can reach another section of the old Columbia River Highway from Exit 69. Unlike the western section, which goes through thick forest, this nine-mile stretch of road climbs through orchards to a dry and nearly treeless plateau for sweeping views of the river below. If you decide not to climb Beacon Rock, stop at Rowena Crest Viewpoint along the old highway to take in the gorge from a point just about as lofty. Directly across the road from Rowena Viewpoint is McCall Preserve, where you can walk on the bluffs over the river.

The Dalles Dam contributes to the river’s modern day placidity. "The Dalles," a name given by the French, has been translated by the Historic Preservation League of Oregon as "the gutters," by the Dalles Daily Chronicle as "long, narrow rapids," by the Wasco County Visitor’s Gazette as "flat, trough-like rocks," by the AAA Oregon/Washington TourBook as "the trough," while both Encyclopaedia Britannica and Cassell’s French/English dictionary say it means "flagstones."

In any case, the description (take your pick) is no longer particularly apt. Not only is the river wide now, there are no rapids, and any flagstones are under water. The river is also forced to pause long enough to power 22 generators and flow through a fish ladder.

This is the longest dam in the U.S., and the free, 45-minute guided tour includes a collection of petroglyphs carved in about four dozen lava rocks, the fish ladder, and the generators. An unusual attraction is that you get to the dam from the Visitors Center (on the Oregon side of the river) via open rail car pulled by a diesel locomotive. You can take the self-guided tour at Bonneville Dam, too, and visit its informative Visitors Center. While the two dams are not identical, there are enough points of similarity that touring one or the other probably would satisfy most people.

Going east on I-84, you’ll see a sign just before Biggs marking the official end of the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area. Don’t take it too seriously as the road remains scenic, and Stonehenge is just ahead. Cross the river at Biggs and you can get all your Washington-side questions answered at the Travel Information Center near the bridge. Above are two man-made attractions that help flesh out the term "eccentricity:" Stonehenge and the Maryhill Museum.

Both are the creations of roadbuilder Sam Hill. Stonehenge he did himself, the museum he created with a little help from his friends, Folies Bergère star Loie Fuller and the Queen of Romania.

Originally meant to be Hill’s mansion and centerpiece of a model farming community, Maryhill now houses an eclectic collection including many Rodin sculptures, a large Native American exhibit, Russian icons, a lot of Queen Marie’s furniture and jewelry, Loie Fuller memorabilia, and paintings.

Three miles east of the museum, Hill’s re-creation of Stonehenge is a memorial to local soldiers killed in World War I. This stonehenge is of concrete, and stands 600 feet above the Columbia. It improves somewhat on the original in that all the pieces are still in place and its grounds provide a first-class vista.

The small town of Stevenson boasts the area’s two newest man-made attractions: the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center and Skamania Lodge.

The Interpretive Center is a modern and occasionally eccentric facility across the street from Skamania Lodge. In one large gallery a fish wheel (an automatic fishing machine, now illegal, about three stories tall that uses river current to scoop buckets of fish right out of the water) competes for attention with a big Corliss steam engine and a yellow Mack truck loaded with logs.

This contrasts with "The world’s largest collection of rosaries" (just under 4,000) and the possessions of one Baron Eugen Fersen who wanted to nurture spirituality in the Gorge. His more tangible achievements included accumulating some museum-quality oriental furniture and a very large grandfather’s clock. Other displays are on Gorge people, industry, and geology, with a dramatic audio-visual show "The Creation of the Gorge" illustrating some of those Michener-like events mentioned earlier.

This article was first published in January 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.