We just arrived back from our first ever trip to the Pacific Northwest and it was brilliant. So many places exceeded my expectations. Cutting through the Cascade Mountains, the beautiful Columbia River Gorge in Oregon was high on that list. If you’re planning a trip to this area, here are my must-see recommendations…
1. Multnomah Falls
The tallest waterfall in Oregon is just a few minutes’ walk from a carpark right on I-84, so it couldn’t be easier to stop by and take a gander.
An information board nearby claims that it’s the second highest year-round waterfall in the USA, but a cursory search online shows that that’s not even remotely true.
Regardless, it’s still a towering beauty and well worth a look. The plural in the name is because there are actually two falls: the upper is the showstopper at 542 ft tall, while the lower is still a cool 69 ft.
Also on site is the Multnomah Falls Lodge, built in 1925 and currently operating a restaurant, snack bar, shop and small interpretive centre. (If you appreciate sasquatch-themed souvenirs, this gift shop is for you!)
2. Vista House & Chanticleer Point
Perched atop Crown Point promontory, it’s no wonder that Vista House chose to embrace the regal imagery and market itself as the “crown jewel” of the Columbia River Gorge.
The distinctive Art Nouveau structure was built in 1917 to provide both comfort and inspiration to travellers. And why not? In such a wonderful setting, any rest stop would be remiss if it didn’t also capitalise on the full splendour of the gorge.
Samuel Lancaster, the man behind the project, described the location almost reverentially as “an observatory from which the view both up and down the Columbia could be viewed in silent communion with the infinite.” Whether you silently commune with the infinite may be impeded these days by the crowds that flock to the site, but the views are definitely worth the struggle to find a parking space.
If you have time, head inside the building itself. There’s a small exhibition on the history of the highway and Vista House, plus a souvenir shop.
Chanticleer Point (Portland Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint)
As beautiful as the panorama is from Vista House, there’s a good case to be made for getting the building itself in your eyeline. I think it really adds a sense of scale to its surroundings.
I’d seen other photos from Chanticleer Point (AKA the “Portland Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint”, above), and immediately knew I had to see the view for myself. As it’s only a quick 5 minute drive west of Vista House, it’s really convenient to visit both in succession.
3. The Bridge of the Gods
Cost: Free for pedestrians, $2 toll for cars
Whether you want to take in impressive views, walk across the state line (Oregon-Washington or vice versa) or are simply a fan of the movie Wild, there are plenty of great reasons to walk across the Bridge of the Gods.
Named for the historical Bridge of the Gods land bridge that blocked the Columbia River as the result of a landslide, the modern cantilever bridge was opened in 1926. I read that Charles Lindbergh flew over and under the bridge the next year, fresh from his trans-Atlantic flight. But I haven’t been able to find any evidence for that rumour!
A brief visit to Washington
While the views were undoubtedly appealing, my own motivation for walking across the bridge was to get to Washington and add another US state to my tally.*
I have some uncertainty about the precise number of states I’ve visited (do I count the ones I’ve driven through, but not stepped out into?!). But my best guess is that Washington pushed me to 17 which, while a respectable number, is only 34% of the way through all 50. I have a long way to go!
*Disclaimer: I much prefer to properly visit states rather than simply hop over the border. It would be an absolute dream to really see each one but, being short on time and budget, I’ll settle for a quick visit!
Crossing the bridge
One thing to be aware of: there’s no sidewalk for pedestrians. Not having seen Wild, this made me wary of whether pedestrians should cross at all. Fortunately there was a sign at the toll station that listed “Bikes/Pedestrians: Free”. So it’s definitely fine to go on foot.
As we approached we thought we’d better check whether there was any protocol in particular for pedestrians. We were advised to 1) walk facing traffic and 2) keep close to the railings.
You’ll want to be watchful of the cars around you. Especially if you’re stopping to take the occasional photo, as we did. The traffic isn’t too busy, but make sure to watch for larger vehicles that may have trouble passing.
Stepping out onto the metal part you can see the river rushing below. Even as someone who doesn’t usually experience a fear of heights, I felt a surge of adrenaline. Of course there’s no need to look down if you’d rather not! Especially with the sweeping views across the Columbia River on both sides.
4. Trillium Lake & Mount Hood
Cost: $5 day use fee
Technically this one is about 50 minutes south of the Columbia River Gorge. But it’s definitely possible to do it as a detour from the I-84. We made it there and back in around 2.5 hours.
You can glimpse Mount Hood in the skyline as far away as Portland, but it’s hard to beat seeing it at close range. And the views at Trillium Lake are particularly imposing. I’ve seen so many stunning photos taken here, all fiery clouds or blankets of snow. Even without those conditions, it remains a beautiful spot from which to appreciate this majestic mountain.
Be aware that you do have to pay a $5 “day use” fee to park up here. If you’re not in a hurry, you could always make a day of it and add boating or swimming to your itinerary.
As a bonus, the views from the road are wonderful. As we headed south from I-84, the scenery reminded me more and more of New Zealand. Rolling hills, little farms, the jagged peaks against the sky. I could have easily driven around this area all day!
There’s actually a scenic drive for just that purpose – the Fruit Loop – that I was eagerly eying up, but unfortunately we weren’t able to squeeze it in. For those who are interested, though: the route takes in myriad vineyards, orchards and lavender farms and honestly looks delightful!
If you have even more time in the area to admire Mount Hood, check out this great roundup of some of the best views.
Over to you
Have you been to the Columbia River Gorge or the surrounding area? Please share your experiences in the comments! (Also, has anybody been to Bend or Sisters? I heard great things but unfortunately we were on a tight schedule so couldn’t visit them this time.)
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