There’s no debating the fact that the Columbia River Gorge is one of the most scenic destinations in the Pacific Northwest, jam-packed with sights, sounds, smells and tastes to experience.
The only real question is: How do you go about seeing it?
With so, so, so much to do on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the river, exploring the Columbia Gorge can feel like an overwhelming excursion. Most locals opt to see it one piece at a time, making many day trips over several years to all the waterfalls, trails, beaches, viewpoints, farm stands and small towns.
That said, there’s something so epic about a singular road trip through the gorge. Whether you stop at every site along the way isn’t the point – the drive itself is one of the most scenic in the Pacific Northwest. Still, the question remains, how do you do it?
The straightforward, sensible approach would be to go east on one side of the river, cross The Dalles Bridge, and head back west on the other side. But why be sensible? Here’s a zanier idea: a zig-zag road trip, crossing all the bridges over the Columbia River, braiding your way across the gorge.
Before we get into the details, a few things to keep in mind:
- Yes, with all the bridge crossings, this does mean more money in tolls. Passenger vehicles pay $3 to cross the Bridge of the Gods and $3.50 to cross the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge (that’s $1.25 and $1.75 respectively with the BreezeBy toll transponder), adding up to $13 in total. The Dalles Bridge, which you’ll cross once, is free.
- Which side of the river do you start on? You could make arguments for both, but here, starting from Portland, I’ve opted for the Washington side. Heading east starting in Washington means you can easily pull off at the Cape Horn viewpoint in the morning (which is on the south side of the highway) and end with the popular waterfall corridor later in the day, when it may be less busy.
- Don’t forget your park passes! U.S. Forest Service trailheads require a $5 parking permit or display of an annual federal lands pass, both available online. Washington State Parks require a Discover Pass, which are $11.50 for the day or $35 for the year. Rooster Rock State Park in Oregon charges a $5 parking fee, which can be paid at the park. Those visiting Multnomah Falls will need a timed-entry permit from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 26-Sept. 4, which can be reserved online.
LEG 1: CAPE HORN TO BONNEVILLE DAM
Start out on Washington State Route 14, which enters the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area just past Washougal. With apologies to Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge (which is beautiful), the first big stop is the scenic Cape Horn Lookout on the side of the highway. Beacon Rock State Park is next, where hikers can also find an incredible trek up Hamilton Mountain. Get a peek into the Bonneville Dam at the Washington Shore Visitor Center, or start a hike from the neighboring Bonneville Trailhead.
LEG 2: PAVED TRAILS TO WATERFALLS
The Bridge of the Gods leads across the river to Cascade Locks, where you can easily spend an entire day. Continue east on Interstate 84 to find the Wyeth and Starvation Creek trailheads for the Historic Columbia River State Trail, a paved biking and walking path that runs past several viewpoints and waterfalls. Viento State Park gives access to the banks of the Columbia River, while the Mitchell Point Trailhead (temporarily closed) leads to some difficult hikes.
LEG 3: WILDFLOWER CORRIDOR
Hood River is a great place to stop for a meal, or to stay the night if you’re taking your time. When you’re ready to continue, cross the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge to White Salmon, a smaller town with a good dining and outdoor recreation scene of its own. Going east down the highway you’ll enter the Wildflower Corridor, which blooms in late spring and includes beautiful hikes at Coyote Wall, Catherine Creek and the Lyle Cherry Orchard.
LEG 4: MEMALOOSE AND MOSIER
Cross The Dalles Bridge back into Oregon, where you can find food, shops and attractions in the town of The Dalles, including the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. Jump onto the parallel Historic Columbia River Highway to reach the Oregon side of the Wildflower Corridor, with stops at Rowena Crest, Mosier Plateau and the Memaloose Hills. In the small town of Mosier, you can also find the Mark O. Hatfield East Trailhead which leads to the famed Mosier Twin Tunnels. Back on Interstate 84, Memaloose State Park offers a nice campground (just bring earplugs for the trains).
LEG 5: STEVENSON AND SKAMANIA LODGE
Back in Hood River, cross the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge into Washington and continue west. Dog Mountain, one of the most beautiful and strenuous hikes in the region, is the big highlight here (permits are required on spring weekends). The town of Stevenson is worth a stop, with a cute downtown and a number of good places to eat. Nearby Skamania Lodge is a great place to stay the night, where you’ll also find the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center.
LEG 6: WATERFALL CORRIDOR
Go back across the Bridge of the Gods and go west on the Interstate to find the famous Waterfall Corridor. The Eagle Creek Trail is one of the region’s very best, but an adventure that can take an entire day (or more). The Wahclella Falls and Horsetail Falls trails are perfect side trips, as is the Oneonta Trail to Triple Falls. Multnomah Falls is the gem of the corridor (make sure to get your permit, and head back to Interstate 84 for the main parking lot), and is the starting point to an incredible waterfall loop hike.
Follow the Historic Columbia River Highway to find the Angels Rest trailhead and a number of side-of-the-road waterfalls: Bridal Veil, Shepperds Dell and Latourell. Farther down is the historic Vista House at Crown Point and the Portland Women’s Forum viewpoint. Down on Interstate 84 you’ll find the sprawling Rooster Rock State Park, known for its popular nude beach.
— Jamie Hale
Our journalism needs your support. Please become a subscriber today at OregonLive.com/subscribe