Rides & Destinations: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Twisting roads, magnificent views and waterfalls: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area has it all.

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Photo by Joe Berk

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What: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
How to Get There:
Oregon’s Interstate 84 is the fast ticket in from either the east or the west.
Best Kept Secret:
Hood River, Oregon, a delightful little town and a good staging spot for a Columbia River Gorge circumnavigation. Try The Mesquitery’s porterhouse steak and a Polish beer (ask for the pierogi; it’s not on the menu, but it is wonderful).
Avoid:
Heading into the Gorge without checking the weather; it often rains and sometimes snows.
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Straddling the Columbia River on the border between Washington and Oregon, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is not so much a destination as it is a region, and one that should be on every rider’s bucket list. It’s an 80-mile stretch of heaven along one of the mightiest rivers in America, framed by first-rate riding and stunning scenery. Twisting two-lane roads, 4,000-foot-deep canyons, magnificent views, wildflowers, wildlife, waterfalls, massive hydroelectric dams, quaint towns, beautiful bridges and more: The Columbia River Gorge has it all. I’ve visited the Columbia River Gorge five times and I know I will return again. My advice? Take a full two days to circumnavigate this magnificent area (you’ll need at least that time to explore both the Oregon and Washington sides). You’ll be retracing the steps taken by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It’s awesome.

Designated a National Scenic Area by former President Ronald Reagan in 1986, the Columbia River Gorge starts 20 miles or so east of Portland, Oregon. The quick way to get there is on Interstate 84 out of Portland (a delightful town in its own right; see Destinations in the July/August 2009 issue). You can stay on I-84 and continue east (I-84 hugs the Oregon side of the river), but the smart money is on US 30, the Historic Columbia River Highway. US 30 is a two-lane delight that alternately climbs above the river and then plunges down to it. It’s lined with deep forest, sheer cliffs, beautiful moss-covered concrete walls, stunning views, and Oregon’s fabled waterfalls. Heading east into the Gorge, the fun starts immediately. Stop at the Vista House for commanding views of the Columbia River (Multnomah Falls is the best known of the 26 waterfalls). Hood River, Oregon, a fun little town midway through the Columbia River Gorge, is a popular spot for kiteboarding fueled by swift winds sweeping through the Gorge. Any of the massive hydroelectric dams are worth a stop, with tours that offer “fish-eye” views of salmon swimming upstream through the dams’ purpose-built salmon steps. Rowena Crest has magnificent canyon views, amazing wildflowers, soaring hawks, and if you’re lucky, a bald eagle or two.

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area’s eastern edge is just a stone’s throw away from Biggs Junction on the Oregon side. Hang a left onto US 97 to cross the Sam Hill Memorial Bridge. Lean left again as soon as you enter Washington and pick up SR 14 to continue your Columbia River Gorge circumnavigation. You’ll see snow-covered Mount Hood directly ahead. SR 14 follows the Columbia River west for a Washington perspective. For the ride of your life, turn left again in North Bonneville to cross the Columbia yet again, this time taking the Bridge of the Gods. It is a most dramatic ride. As you look down through the bridge’s steel-grated road surface it disappears with your forward motion. You are flying 140 feet above the Columbia River, and the experience is indeed religious.

Our advice is to spend the weekend taking in this stunning slice of America. Base your Columbia River Gorge circumnavigation out of Hood River. Hood River has two downtowns. One is right on the river, but it’s touristy. The other is about a mile south of the river higher up on the Columbia’s banks (it’s where the locals hang out). If you don’t try the Egg River Cafe and The Mesquitery, you’d be missing two of the world’s great restaurants. Both are owned by Polish immigrants and the cuisine is beyond impressive. It’s where the locals dine. — Joe Berk