Exploring the Columbia River Gorge

A Journey Along the Historic Columbia River Highway

The Columbia River Gorge, with its breathtaking vistas, towering waterfalls, and verdant landscapes, is a paradise for travelers, especially those who love to explore by road. The Historic Columbia River Highway, a marvel of early 20th-century engineering, offers a journey through this natural wonderland that is both scenic and serene. As a travel writer with a penchant for the open road and a deep appreciation for nature’s majesty, I embarked on this journey to experience the allure of one of Oregon’s most treasured routes. Here’s a closer look at the Columbia River Highway, from its rich history to the best spots along the way for photographs, dining, and lodging.

A Road Through Time

The Columbia River Highway, opened in 1916, was America’s first planned scenic roadway. It was the brainchild of visionary engineer Samuel C. Lancaster, who believed that a road could be constructed to “conform” to the beauty of the Columbia River Gorge, rather than mar it. Stretching for about 75 miles from Troutdale to The Dalles, this highway was designed to highlight the gorge’s natural beauty, with Lancaster incorporating gentle curves, stone guardrails, and arched bridges to complement the landscape. Today, parts of the original route have been preserved as the Historic Columbia River Highway, offering a glimpse into the early days of automobile tourism.

When to Visit the Columbia River Gorge

The Columbia River Gorge is a year-round destination, but the best time to travel the Historic Columbia River Highway is from late spring to early fall. This period offers the most favorable weather, with wildflowers in full bloom during spring and a kaleidoscope of fall colors in September and October. Summer, while more crowded, provides long, sunny days ideal for exploring the numerous waterfalls and hiking trails along the route.

Must-Visit Stops

  • Vista House at Crown Point: This iconic octagonal building serves as a museum and offers panoramic views of the gorge. It’s the perfect starting point for your journey.
  • Multnomah Falls: The tallest waterfall in Oregon, Multnomah Falls is a must-see, with easy access from the highway. The Benson Bridge and nearby Multnomah Falls Lodge offer stunning views and dining options.
  • Rowena Crest Viewpoint: Offers one of the most photographed scenes in the gorge, with sweeping curves of the road visible against the backdrop of the river and mountains.
  • Hood River: Known for its orchards, vineyards, and the charming downtown area, Hood River is a great stop for lunch and local wine tasting.

Where to Stay and Dine

  • The Columbia Gorge Hotel & Spa: Located in Hood River, this historic hotel offers luxurious accommodations with views of the gorge.
  • Skamania Lodge: Situated in Stevenson, Washington, just across the river, this lodge offers comfortable lodging, dining, and activities, all with breathtaking views of the Columbia River Gorge.
  • Broder Øst: In Hood River, this restaurant offers a unique Scandinavian-inspired menu, perfect for breakfast or brunch.

Navigating the Highway

Driving the Historic Columbia River Highway is a journey back in time, with narrow roads, old-fashioned bridges, and tunnels that remind travelers of a bygone era. The speed limit is lower than on modern highways, inviting drivers to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Be mindful of cyclists and pedestrians, as the road is popular with outdoor enthusiasts. Parts of the highway can be closed during winter months due to snow or landslides, so it’s wise to check conditions before setting out.

Our Bottom Line

The Historic Columbia River Highway offers an unparalleled driving experience that combines natural beauty, history, and the joy of the open road. It’s a journey that invites travelers to connect with the landscape, to stop often and explore, and to find wonder in the towering waterfalls, rugged cliffs, and expansive views of the Columbia River Gorge. Whether you’re a car enthusiast in search of the perfect road trip, a photographer looking for stunning vistas, or a nature lover eager to explore the outdoors, this highway promises an adventure that is both memorable and majestic. As you wind your way through the gorge, each curve in the road reveals a new view, a new opportunity to discover the grandeur of one of America’s most scenic routes.

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