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Home Road Trip Road trip to the Columbia River Gorge: Resorts and recreation

Road trip to the Columbia River Gorge: Resorts and recreation

by Staff

Head south to the Western Columbia River Gorge for a sneak peek of spring and summer. Communities and wild spaces bordering the Columbia River’s northern lip provide expansive views, spring wildflowers, warmer temps, and dozens of mild-weather activities before the summer crowds arrive. About an hour east of Vancouver, Washington, this is among southwest Washington’s most convenient and spectacular road trips. 

From Seattle, the fastest route is via I-5 to I-205, turning west onto state Highway 14. Stop by the growing town of Washougal for snacks or the Pendleton outlet for a quick tour and dig through winter clearance items — or stock up for summer’s T-shirt weather.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Shortly after exiting Washougal, you enter the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, established in 1988. This river canyon runs 80 miles along the Columbia River’s Washington and Oregon boundaries. It forms a protected space for rugged recreation and picturesque panoramas along forest service lands.  

As you travel west, budding maples and deciduous trees frame the two-lane highway, with rising rock cliffs to your north and Columbia River levels that rise and fall as you ascend and descend capes and bluffs. From the Washington vantage point, your passengers will likely spot Oregon’s numerous (and famous) spectacular spring waterfalls.

Pause at Cape Horn’s highway pullout for photos before (carefully) making your way across the narrow bridge. Or head above the highway to Cape Horn Overlook for a safer stop and to spot peregrine falcons — their nesting closes trail portions until mid-July.

Sitting to the road’s south like a lazing lion is Beacon Rock, a former volcano and now the second-largest monolith in the northern hemisphere. Stop off at Beacon Rock State Park and hike a breathless mile to the 848-foot-tall summit of the basalt plug.

About 40 miles east of Vancouver, you won’t miss the roar of the Bonneville Lock and Dam’s spillways processing volumes of spring melt. The National Historic Landmark’s Washington Shore Visitor Complex offers self-guided tours on the dam’s pedigree and through a fish-viewing building. The first powerhouse construction phase began in 1933 and was most recently completed in 1982 — requiring an entire town’s removal.

A few miles further, ask passengers to let you know when they spot the cantilevered, spiderweb-like Bridge of the Gods, and pull over to read up on the bridge’s lore and history.

Stay and play in the Gorge

Use Stevenson, Washington as a home base for exploring shops, dining, a museum, two hotels and numerous Airbnbs. Clusters of restaurants and shops line the main Highway 14 and a few side streets. Popular eats include Walking Man Brewing’s pizzas, burgers and suds, Big River Grill’s enormous platters of Northwest-centric foods (think sturgeon spread and smoked sockeye salmon alfredo), Red Bluff Tap House’s big salads, and two taco trucks. Many local restaurants — including the incredibly popular Backwoods Brewing Company in nearby Carson — feature indoor and outdoor seating for enjoying mild temps.  

Shopping options include crafts and novels at North Bank Books, a pantry of locally handcrafted items, foods, beverages and more at Traverse PNW Market, and home goods and clothing at Out on a Limb Home + Her. The looming courthouse is the site of a farmer’s market from June through October.

One of the area’s main draws is the 254-room Skamania Lodge, built in 1993 to be reminiscent of the turn-of-20th-century retreats. The forest resort’s four-story, timber-rich construction and on-site dining at three restaurants, shopping (one small but robust shop) and recreation at pools and outdoor hot tubs, trails and more.

The glamping tents won’t debut until later in 2023 on the 175-acre property. But the existing six 20-foot-tall treehouse cabins were so popular three more opened doors in 2023. The treehouses are a unique way to experience a Cascade woodland, featuring outdoor firepits, exterior decks and indoor bed-nooks with in-the-tree perspectives.

Even if you aren’t staying overnight, pick up a paper guide for a self-guided tour of 33 of the resort’s 250-plus works by and of the West, including rugs, acrylic paintings, oil, petroglyph rubbings, carvings, ceramics and lithographs.

You’ll spot several pieces in the Gorge Room. The room features enormous glass windows looking out onto mountain layers, with plentiful seating for board games, snacks or simple relaxation in rocking chairs by the 85-foot-tall fireplace made of stone (excavated a few miles away). The large timber columns sourced from Astoria, Oregon, boast a 100-plus-year-old pedigree — just a few of the materials repurposed from older buildings.

In all, you’ll find a total of 45 free and pay recreational activities on-site. Two exterior hiking trails provide free lake and mountain views, including a forest-bathing path through cottonwoods, conifers, birdsong and scurrying squirrels. For active families, there’s an 18-hole golf course, disc golf and in May, FlingGolf, a golf-lacrosse combo. Ride the lodge’s zip line through firs or step through the 19-platform aerial park.

Right next to the lodge, the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum features the natural and cultural history of the region, beginning with the Cascade Chinook first residents through logging and hydropower generation. Don’t miss the quirky rosary collection — rumored to be the world’s largest. Outdoors, you’ll find a diesel locomotive, logging equipment and even more beautiful landscapes.

The following day, rise for the resort’s breakfast buffet or pick up coffee and treats at Bigfoot Coffee Roasters or Crosscut Espresso and Deli. No matter what you accomplished yesterday, there’s still plenty to do.

Note: Forest Service Day Passes or Washington State Parks passes may be needed to park. Either order from home online or plan to buy en route. Regular trains’ haunting calls either aggravate or charm — decide which is valid for you before booking rooms — as those horns get much louder when sleeping closer to the tracks.

Whether you’re looking to make an environmentally conscious choice with a hybrid or to save cash with our new car lease deals, Western Washington Toyota Dealers can help you find a new car that keeps up with your lifestyle.

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