After four fabulous days exploring Mount Rainier National Park, we packed up our car and headed off. It was a bittersweet parting; I was sad to leave when so much of the park remained unexplored but also excited for our next destination: Crater Lake!
After much cajoling on my part (and some whining – not on my part), I convinced my family to take the long way there and drive the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Highway. It added at least a couple hours to our already long drive, but in the end I think we all agreed that it was well worth it.
The Columbia River originates in British Columbia and is the fourth largest river in North America in terms of volume. It travels over 1,200 miles (1930 km) and drains part or all of seven states plus a large portion of British Columbia. Along the way, it travels south through eastern Washington before curving around to the west and forming much of the border between Washington and Oregon as it flows to the Pacific Ocean. Throughout much of Washington and along the border with Oregon, the Columbia River has cut a deep gorge.
On the Oregon side of the river, parallel to I-84, is the 75 mile (121 km) Historic Columbia River Highway (US Route 30). The highway has been recognized as one of the most scenic in the country and was actually the first highway in the US to be built specifically for that reason. As we traveled the length of the road, it was easy to see why.
Heading east from Portland, the first point of interest we came to is Vista House. Vista House was built in 1916 as a memorial to the Oregon pioneers, and today serves as a rest area and lookout from which the view extends along the Columbia River Gorge in both directions.
Two-and-a-half miles (4 km) up the road is the first of the many waterfalls for which the Columbia River Gorge is famous. The waterfalls are not on the Columbia River, though. They’re formed by streams that flow over the walls of the gorge on their decent to the Columbia River. If I return to the Gorge someday, I’ll plan at least a couple days, as there are miles of hiking trails and 77 waterfalls, most of which can’t be seen from the road.
But even without the time for any hiking, we still were able to view quite a few waterfalls from the road. The first one: Latourell Falls.
Latourell Falls drops 249 feet (76 m) as Latourell Creek flows over an overhung basalt cliff. This falls can be viewed from a small parking area off to the right. The lot was closed for construction when we were there, but we were able to catch a glimpse through the fence.
Another mile up the road, we stopped at the 220 foot (67 m) Shepperd’s Dell Falls.
Continuing east, the next stop is Bridal Veil Falls. Unlike all the other falls in the gorge, Bridal Veil Falls is downstream of the highway. We took a short trail down and across Bridal Veil Creek to a viewpoint of the beautiful falls.
One of my favorite things about the Columbia River Gorge is that each waterfall is unique. Latourell Falls is tall and skinny. Bridal Veil Falls is wider and has two steps. The next one – Wahkeena Falls – drops 242 feet (74 m) in a total of 6 sections, though only the lower 2 are readily visible. But rather than plummeting over an edge, the water calmly fans out across the rock as it falls.
Next is the most well-known falls in the gorge – Multnomah Falls. Because it’s the most famous, it’s also the most crowded area. We actually ended up leaving our car at Wahkeena Falls and walking a half mile (0.8 km) on a trail that parallels the road. The alternative would have been driving in a circle for 20 minutes waiting for a parking spot.
Multnomah Falls is the tallest waterfall in Oregon, at a height of 620 feet (189 m). This drop is divided into two sections; in the upper section, the waters of Multnomah Creek fall 542 feet (165 m) into a rather large pool. From the pool, water falls an additional 69 feet (21 m). The upper section of the falls is narrower than lower, giving Multnomah Falls a very distinctive appearance. The Benson Footbridge, built above the lower cascade to facilitate viewing, adds to the recognizable image of this falls.
Two miles beyond Multnomah Falls is Oneonta (on-ee-ON-tuh) Gorge and Falls. Oneonta Falls is located 1.1 miles (1.8 km) up the gorge, which we didn’t have time to hike to, but we did wade up Oneonta Creek a little ways.
Back on the highway, one mile past Oneonta Gorge is Horsetail Falls. To view the 176 foot (54 m) waterfall, we followed a short trail up Horsetail Creek.
The Columbia River Highway continues east from here to trailheads for a few more waterfalls and other local attractions. However, just past Horsetail Falls we exited onto I-84 to resume our drive south to Crater Lake.
The Columbia River Gorge is certainly a place I’d like to return to, as there are still so many waterfalls to see. But even without stepping off the beaten path, we were able to see so much in such a short distance. The high density of waterfalls is a large part of what makes the Columbia River Gorge so special, and I can’t wait to spend more time exploring the rest of the area!
The Important Stuff
- Getting there: US Highway 30, stretching 75 miles (121 km) between Troutdale and The Dalles, Oregon
- Fees & passes: driving the highway and parking at the trailheads is free
- Camping: there are a few campgrounds along the highway
- Hiking: there are many trails along the highway that lead to approximately 70 waterfalls; the ones I discussed above are visible either from the road or with just a very short walk
- Other: the highway was very crowded when we were there (in the middle of the week), especially at Multnomah Falls. Be prepared for traffic, and consider parking at Wahkeena Falls and walking up to Multnomah Falls; it’s probably faster than waiting forever for a parking space