Cascading waterfalls, deep forests, majestic mountains and a wide river highlight the landscape of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Spanning two states with a river between them, the Gorge is the largest national scenic area in the United States and also boasts the highest concentration of waterfalls. Beyond the natural, the Gorge has centuries of history, bustling industry and locally produced products, including award-winning wines. Spanning a total of 292,630 acres from Gresham, Oregon, and Washougal, Washington, to east of The Dalles, Oregon, and Wishram, Washington, there are plenty of things to do in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Go Hiking and Biking
As the largest national scenic area in the United State, the Columbia River Gorge is a hiker or mountain biker’s paradise. With dozens of trails on both sides of the river, you have plenty of options. Always bring your camera, as the views from many of the trails are spectacular. There are all kinds of trails for all levels of walkers, from easy trails with no elevation gain to expert trails with elevation gains of 4,000 feet or more.
Before you go, always check the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service website for the most up-to-date information on the trails, including which are open or closed. They will also have information on whether restrooms and picnic areas are open. Some areas allow dogs off leash, and these are indicated on their site as well. For biking specifically, check out Hood River Area Trail Stewards (Hood RATS) website and Facebook page.
Take a Scenic Driving Tour
Not a hiker or biker? Don’t worry! You can still enjoy the beauty of the Columbia River Gorge by car via the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway. The most popular segment is Highway 30’s Waterfall Corridor from Troutdale to Ainsworth. On nice days, the traffic can be bumper to bumper. While not good when you are trying to get home after work, for a scenic drive that slow speed is perfect for allowing taking in the scenery, especially when you pass by waterfalls. Bring snacks and water with you so you won’t mind if it takes you longer than expected to get to your next stop. If you want a break from the car, stop at a waterfall, one of the visitor centers or the Multnomah Falls Lodge restaurant for breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner with a stunning view. During busy seasons, reservations in advance are recommended.
Check out Bonneville Dam
No visit to the Columbia River Gorge is complete without a stop at Bonneville Dam. With visitor centers on both sides of the river (the Oregon one is on Bradford Island), they make it easy for you to learn about this man-made marvel. The Washington side tends to be less busy, so if you are looking to avoid crowds, you may want to start there. During the week in school months, it can be busy with student groups. The centers offer different exhibits on the Dam, its history and how it works. There is a third visitor center location at the Navigation Lock that is open seasonally from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It focuses on the commerce that happens on the Columbia River. Take a tour of the powerhouses if one is available during your visit, call 541-374-8820 to make a reservation. For more information about visiting the Bonneville Dam, visit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website.
Cruise the Columbia
Seeing the Columbia River Gorge by boat gives you a unique view of this incredible area. The Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler operates from the Cascade Locks and has brunch, dinner, sightseeing and landmark cruises. The captain of the vessel often narrates your trip, giving you facts and history of the area. You will get a great view of the Bridge of the Gods as you travel beneath it. See the Bonneville Dam up close and take in the wildlife that surrounds you on every cruise. For meal cruises, menu items include seasonal and local ingredients. For reservations, visit the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler website.
Raft the Klickitat and White Salmon Rivers
White water rafting in the Columbia River Gorge is an exhilarating experience. The Klickitat and White Salmon Rivers both offer class V rapids for experienced rafters to take on. The Klickitat offers a 10.8-mile stretch of rafting. The Yakima Nation dip-net fishes the area, so you are asked to keep an eye out for their nets and be respectful. The closest town is Lyle, Washington. The White Salmon River has rapids, waterfalls and abrupt drops to keep even advanced rafters on their toes. You can put in your own raft, or go with a commercial outfitter, such as Wet Planet Whitewater and Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys.
Hood River is the windsurfing capital of the world, so if you like water sports, this is definitely something you should do when you visit the Columbia River Gorge. The wide expanse of the Columbia River with the tall gorge on either side creates the perfect wind tunnel for this fun sport. The Columbia Gorge Windsurfing Association website is a great place to start, with information on events, put-ins, lessons and other important news. If you need gear, Hood River has three windsurfing shops, Big Winds Hood River, Gorge Surf Shop and Hood River WaterPlay. Hood River WaterPlay offers instruction in windsurfing, as well as supplies and jet ski rentals. Big Winds Hood River has rentals and also offers lessons on windsurfing and paddleboarding.
With all the waterways, it should be no surprise that the there are plenty of places to fish in the Columbia River Gorge. The area offers pond, lake, and river or stream fishing. A few places to check out are the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness, Northwestern Park, Eagle Creek Overlook Group Campground, Sandy River Delta, White Salmon River, Klickitat River and the Klickitat Trail. If you need fishing supplies, check out Gorge Fly Shop, Gorge Outfitters Supply, Flyfishing Strategies Fly Shop (they even have classes for those wanting to learn) and Big Y Fly Company.
Visit a Museum
There are several museums in the Columbia River Gorge that are all worth a visit. They give you an inside look into the history of this incredible area, and you are bound to learn something new even if you have lived in the Gorge your entire life. From Native American and natural history to early settlers and the building of the Dam, these museums cover just about everything to do with the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. A few of the must-see museums include the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center & Museum, that covers natural history from the Ice Age as well as settler history in the area; Fort Dalles Museum, which has a collection of pioneer and military artifacts from the Old West; Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, which focuses on Native American History of the area; and the Maryhill Museum of Art, which has an eclectic mix of art, gardens and a Stonehenge memorial. Also stop by the Vista House, which is a piece of history itself and well worth a visit.