The Columbia River’s enormous 80-mile-long gorge through the Cascade Mountains is one of the most dramatic destinations in the Pacific Northwest, so breathtaking that in 1986 Congress designated it the first of America’s National Scenic Areas. The mile-wide river, flanked by volcanic sentinels Mount Hood (in Oregon) and Mount Adams (in Washington), flows beneath handed basalt walls rising 3,000 feet. Waterfalls tumble from the gorge’s edge, cascading hundreds of feet to meet the river. All this beauty—plus excellent hiking trails and world-class windsurfing—is just an hour from Portland.
This awe-inspiring chasm—scoured by a series of Ice Age flash floods—has long been more than a scenic wonder: The only sea-level passage through the Sierra and Cascade ranges, for centuries it has also served as a major transportation corridor. For millennia, Native peoples traveled through the gorge to trade and fish. The Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, also passed through the gorge in 1805-06 on its epic journey to the Pacific. The gorge was also the final challenge to pioneers on the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail, which between 1843 and 1860 brought an estimated 53,000 settlers to the Northwest. In 1916, the Historic Columbia River Highway, a marvel of mountain road engineering, opened the gorge to automobile traffic. Although much of this route has been subsumed by fast-moving 1-84, remnants of the winding roadway (now Highway 30) remain and are by far the best routes for exploring the gorge.
The town of Hood River, the hub of the gorge, is known in the world of sports as the windsurfing capital of America. Stiff prevailing winds and the Columbia’s strong river currents combine to create a kind of wind tunnel that makes for legendary windsurfing and kitesurfing conditions. South of the city, above the pear and apple orchards of the Hood River Valley, the massive glaciered peak of Mount Hood rises to fill the horizon, a perfect postcard image of Oregon. In the 1910s, a rail line ran up the Hood River Valley to bring out lumber and later transported the valley’s rich bounty of fruit. The Mount Hood Railroad now carries day-trippers between Hood River and Parkdale on vintage Pullman railcars.
West of Hood River, a segment of the Historic Columbia River Highway climbs along the nearly sheer basalt cliffs, which serve as backdrop for the greatest concentration of waterfalls in North America. The most spectacular of all is Multnomah Falls, the tallest in Oregon and the second-highest year-round waterfall in the U.S. (after Yosemite Fall in California), with a total drop of 642 feet.
Riverboat cruises aboard the Columbia Gorge sternwheeler depart from the town of Cascade Locks, offering modern-day travelers a chance to see the river from the viewpoint of early pioneers. Lindblad Expeditions offers longer river trips on the Columbia and Snake rivers aboard a 70-person boat departing from Portland, accompanied by noted historians and naturalists.