Are you looking for a good self-drive day trip to take from Portland? Well, let me suggest the Columbia River Gorge! Not only have I taken my own day trip to a portion of this beautiful area, but after researching it I am ready to take another trip to see all I missed!
What we did in our Oregon trip was to drive out of Portland all the way to the town of Hood River, then cross the river to the Washington side and drive back to Portland. You could follow in our footsteps, or you could drive further down the river, spend the night in one of the lovely towns there and then make your way back the following day.
Here is a brief glimpse of what you will be able to see & do during your trip through the Columbia River Gorge:
- Portland Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint
- Vista House at Crown Point
- Waterfall Way & Multnomah Falls
- Bonneville Lock & Dam
- Cascade Locks Historical Museum
- Twin Tunnels Trail
- Rowena Crest and Loops
- Columbia Gorge Discovery Center
- The History Museum of Hood River County
- Bridge of the Gods
- Hiking the Gorge
This list is just a touch of all the amazing things you can explore and enjoy along this beautiful portion of the Pacific Northwest. Again, I would suggest trying to extend your stay for one or even two nights to give yourself enough time to experience it all. Keep reading for more detailed information about the route and sights along the way! And as always, there's a map too!
Columbia River Gorge Basics
The Columbia River Gorge is America’s largest National Scenic Area and one of the 7 Wonders of Oregon. There is a rich history in this area dating back to the original tribal people, Lewis & Clark’s historic journey of “discovery,” to the nation’s first scenic highway being constructed.
While the trip itself only takes about 4 hours to drive, there are numerous stops worth making along the way. Many travelers suggest it takes about 3 days to really explore and enjoy all the gorge has to offer.
The weather in the gorge stays relatively balmy throughout the spring, summer, and fall. In the spring and fall, the average temperature is around 65*F (18*C) for the high and 42*F (6*C) for the low. In the summer the high is around 88*F (31*C) and the low is around 60*F (16*C), while in the winter the high is around 42*F (6*C) and the low is about 31*F (-1*C).
Most people say that the best time to visit the gorge is March and early April as well as late October and early November. The busiest time of the year to visit is April through October due to the great weather and longer days. In the winter you run into a greater chance of snowy weather and limited access to roads and trails.
The Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) is a 74-mile long scenic byway that runs along the gorge on the Oregon side. It was the first scenic byway constructed in the United States way back in 1922 and eventually was connected to US Route 30. Interstate 84 is the much newer highway that runs parallel to the HCRH, but it does not provide the same views and interesting history.
The Historic Columbia River Highway, which is still sometimes referred to as Route 30, still has 40-miles open to motor vehicles allowing you to travel from Troutdale to The Dalles. For the true gorge experience, I would encourage you to travel the HCRH to get the full Columbia River Gorge road trip experience.
Traveling along the scenic byway, you will have numerous chances to get out and stretch your legs on a hike, or a short walk to enjoy some of the more spectacular scenery. Once you reach The Dalles, I would suggest finding a place to stay and then taking in the Washington side of the gorge the following day.
When you are driving along the Washington side of the gorge, you will take the Lewis & Clark Highway. There are more overlooks and trails along this side of the gorge, and I would suggest taking the Bridge of the Gods across to the Oregon side so you can include that in your visit. If you are in a rush to get back to Portland though, this part of the trip can be completed in about an hour and a half.
If you want to check the road conditions for the Oregon side of the gorge, click here. For the Washington side of the gorge, you will want to click here. This is especially important if you are traveling in the winter months as certain roads might have to close due to bad weather.
Points of Interest Along the Columbia Gorge
Now that we've covered the basics, let's look at what there is to see and do along this gorgeous route.
1. Portland Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint
This is considered one of the best places to view the scenic Columbia River Gorge. The Portland Women’s Forum was an organization active in preserving the land’s natural beauty and dedicated this site to the state. It is one of the most popular viewing spots for snapping scenic shots of Vista House.
2. Vista House at Crown Point
The Crown Point Vista House has some of the most stunning views in Oregon. In addition to the amazing views, this is also a visitor center with a gift shop and bathrooms for those that need it. It is located 733 feet above the Columbia River and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The house was completed in 1918 as a rest stop, observatory, and memorial to Oregon pioneers. In the main lobby there are eight historic pillars that each give visitors an explanation of the history of the house. The basement of the house has displays that show historical locations along the gorge.
The balcony and many stunning locations around the house give visitors a chance to experience the famous gorge winds. The structure of the gorge funnels the weather and wind which creates some of the strongest straight wind in the country. The house has been unable to maintain a wind gauge because they keep getting blown down!
3. Waterfall Way
The gorge is full of gorgeous, internationally famous waterfalls. There are nearly 50 different waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge, many accessible by car, so you are sure to see some amazing sights during your trip! These inspiring waterfalls spill from basalt cliffs along the gorge, below you will find the four that I believe are must-sees!
If you only have time to view one waterfall - it should definitely be the iconic Multnomah Falls with its famous bridge! If you have more time, add Latourell Falls. And if you can, go for all four! Here's a list of all four waterfalls -
The first major one you will get to when driving east along the Gorge is Latourell Falls. This 224-foot marvel cascades over the basalt cliffs which have turned green from the lichen. It is easily accessed from a short trail which leads to a viewpoint. There are also some longer hikes that will allow you access to the base and the top of the falls.
Bridal Veil Falls
This well-known waterfall is a short 1/3 of a mile from the road along an easily traversed pathway. It drops 118-feet in total along two different tiers.
This is the tallest and most popular waterfall in the entire state of Oregon! In addition, it is the 4th tallest waterfall in the United States. It is an amazing sight as it drops 635 feet via two tiers. As it drops, it crosses beneath the iconic Benson Bridge. This is usually crowded as it is the state’s most visited attraction but it is worth seeing in person.
This waterfall is aptly named due to the tunnel that was blasted out of the rock behind the falls in order for the hiking trail to continue without having to build an expensive bridge for pedestrians. It flows down over 165 feet and is accessible via the Eagle Creek Trail.
4. Bonneville Lock & Dam
Here you will find a few different places worth exploring. The Lock & Dam was the first built on the Columbia River, but not the last. You can learn all about the cultural history of the region, the construction of the dam, the history of navigating the river, and the life-cycles of salmon and the Pacific lamprey.
There are also underwater windows that give you an up close and personal view of the river wildlife. From there you can view the fish ladder, a place where salmon and trout are able to migrate upstream to spawn. You might even spot the terrifying parasitic Pacific lamprey, a primitive fish that looks like an eel but has a round sucker-like mouth and breathing holes instead of gills.
From there, you can head over to the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, the largest facility of its kind operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Here you will be able to view many different display ponds where you can see rainbow trout and sturgeon. There is one fish there who is over 60 years old, Herman the Sturgeon, he is almost 10 feet long and weighs around 425 pounds!
We visited the place when our kids were 7 and 9 years old respectively. They LOVED the visit. What's there not to like about certain viewing of wildlife? We also stayed for the tour of the dam, which was very good. All in all, we spend over an hour here.
5. Cascade Locks Historical Museum
The museum overlooks the lock and canal originally built in the late 1800’s. It houses the first steam locomotive built on the Pacific Coast in addition to many other exhibits. There are artifacts and photographs from Native Americans in the gorge, historic waterways, the Cascade rapids, and many other historically significant aspects of the gorge.
You can visit the museum on Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5pm during the months of May through September. General admission is $3, youth and seniors are $2, or families can get in for $5.
6. Twin Tunnels Trail
The two tunnels this trail was named after have an interesting history. They were originally part of the Columbia River Highway but were abandoned due to how often rockfalls occurred. When this part of the road was closed the tunnels were forgotten and became filled with fallen rock.
In 2000 the area was reopened to hikers after work was done to remove the rubble and resurface the road. It is an easy 14-mile paved round-trip hike with an elevation gain of around 300 feet.
7. Rowena Crest and Loops
This is a dizzying part of the scenic byway as the engineers decided not to build a tunnel but instead loop the road back and forth to climb to Rowena Crest. In the spring, this road is filled with motorcyclists, but it is still worth the drive.
Rowena Crest’s view has been described as “large and majestic.” From here you are able to see the Columbia River stretching out along the horizon and the Columbia highway winding along the side of the gorge. In spring the view is even more spectacular as it is filled with various wildflowers growing throughout the area.
8. Columbia Gorge Discovery Center
Located just outside The Dalles this center houses numerous exhibits, meeting rooms, an auditorium, museum store, café, and research library. In addition, there is an area where visitors can try out windsurfing while staying dry!
Here you can learn about how the gorge was formed, the geology of the gorge, and information for kids located at eye level. In addition, there are exhibits about the weather, wildlife, native tribes, and the Lewis & Clark expedition.
The Discovery Center is open daily from 9am to 5pm. General admission is $9, children ages 6 to 16 are $5, and anyone 5 or younger is free. For more detailed information, the admission costs are located at the bottom of their website.
9. The History Museum of Hood River County
This museum has many temporary exhibits as well as permanent exhibits which include information on Native American culture, pioneer settlers, the timber and logging history of the area, the Hood River Japanese American story, and others. It also has a children’s exploration space that has hands-on activities and displays.
The history museum is open Monday through Saturday from 11am to 4pm. It is closed to the public from the end of December through the month of January. General admission is $5, but children 10 and under are free.
10. Bridge of the Gods
This bridge is named for a Native American legend about a major landslide that dammed the river. Eventually, the river breached the obstruction and washed the majority of it away, but the local Native Americans still share the legend of the “Bridge of the Gods.”
Today there is a steel structure spanning the river that took on this name. It is a toll bridge that costs $2 to cross. It is featured in the 2014 film Wild which increased the amount of traffic crossing the bridge.
11. Hood River Waterfront Park
If you're traveling on a summer weekend, try and get all the way to this lovely town and head out for the waterpark. Grab some food and drinks and spend a while watching local windsurfers on the river.
We really enjoyed spending some time like this, and that was where we crossed the river to the other bank and began the drive back to Portland.
Hiking the Gorge
While I have mentioned a couple of trails in this post, there are many more that I haven’t been able to include. Here are a few that were most suggested during my research, but if you are looking for a specific type of hike, there are a few websites that can help you find the best hike for you.
Gorgefriends is a site that specifically focuses on the Columbia River Gorge. It includes options for the type of hike you are looking for as well as the difficulty level. This site also displays trail alerts so that you can make sure the trail you want to take is open.
The United States Department of Agriculture also has updates about trails in the gorge. You can download a full trail report or just read the updates on the main page. If you click on “day hiking” you can find a full list of all the trails along the gorge.
Oregonhikers is a site dedicated to trails found throughout Oregon. You can specify the area as Columbia River Gorge and then specify the length and there are many additional options available for you to check off.
Places to Stay Along the Way
If you decide to make your trip last longer than just a day, here are some suggestions on places to stay. I have given you options at multiple locations along the way because there are many great options in different cities along the gorge. As always, the links send you to booking.com which is my preferred site for making my reservations when I travel.
Hood River Hotel. This historic hotel is located in Hood River, Oregon. There is an on-site restaurant, a sauna, and gift shop. This one is particularly popular with couples.
Westcliff Lodge. Considered the best value in Hood River, this hotel overlooks the Columbia River. They have a 24-hour reception desk and a playground for the kids.
The Dalles Inn. Located just 1 block from the gorge this inn has an outdoor pool and a free continental breakfast. The Discovery Center is less than 5-miles away making it a great location, it is also rated the best value in The Dalles.
Shilo Inns Suites The Dalles. This hotel overlooks The Dalles Dam and is only 5 miles from the Discovery Center. It also has a restaurant and bar that serves Cajun and Pacific Northwest-inspired comfort food.
Tips for Planning Your Trip
These tips are based on our own experience as well as extensive online research.
- Summer is the most popular time to visit the Columbia River Gorge and many trails and viewpoints can have thousands of visitors each day.
- Locals also suggest that you plan your hike in the morning so you can finish up by 10am. This allows you to avoid the congestion that is often seen later in the day. In addition, if you plan properly you could be rewarded with stunning dawn views you can enjoy in peace and quiet.
- If hiking is something you would like to include in your trip, visitors suggest avoiding crowds by taking the less popular trails in the eastern gorge or on the Washington side of the gorge. These are beautiful hikes with spectacular views, they are just not as well-known and so are less crowded.
- If early morning is not your thing, then another crowd avoiding option is to plan your trip for the middle of the week. Tuesday through Thursday is a less popular time to visit as most people travel on the weekends.
- Many locals suggest planning your trip in reverse order from what typical visitors do. This would mean starting in The Dalles and driving west along the gorge. If you are interested in doing that, just reverse this list and you will have the order of what you will see along the way!
- If you have an additional day to explore, Mount Hood itself would be a great addition to this itinerary. We visited Mt. Hood on a separate occasion and hiked Trillium Lake - highly recommended!
And finally, the map!
Here's a map of the places mentioned along this route:
Have you been to the Columbia River Gorge? What sights were your favorites? Did we miss anything you consider a must-see? Tell us about it in the comments below!