The second stop on our Oregon Road Trip series is to the Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Hood region. Located just over an hour outside of Portland, Columbia River Gorge are an outdoor respite. We chose these stops based on a mix of iconic “must-dos” and lesser-known local hangs. Mix and match for your own one-of-a-kind adventure.
Read part 1 – Portland
Read part 3 – Willamette Valley
From Portland to Mt. Hood: I-84 from Portland, about 1 hr. 5 min.; OR 35 S and Cloud Cap Rd. to Mt. Hood Territory
There’s simply no better way to say it: A trip to Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood is absolutely soul-stirring. Venture eastward out of the Portland metro area for doses of stunning nature. It takes just a bit over an hour to reach the 80-mile-long, 4,000-feet-deep Gorge, and then about another hour and a quarter in a southerly direction to get to Mt. Hood Territory.
The largest National Scenic Area in the U.S., the Columbia River Gorge slices through the Cascade Mountains providing stunning views of the powerful and curvaceous Columbia River and the awesome waterfalls (e.g., Bridal Veil, Multnomah and Latourell Falls) that tumble down the vertical basalt cliffs edging the Historic Columbia River Highway.
The area is filled with jaw-dropping natural beauty; endless outdoor recreational adventures, including multi-season, high-altitude hiking on the area’s many trails, cycling on the Post Canyon mountain bike network and on the roads around The Dalles, paddling and rafting on various Gorge rivers, and windsurfing on the Columbia in spring at Hood River (aka, windsurfing capital of the world) where the Gorge serves as a natural wind tunnel.
But that’s not all. The area also offers a robust museum scene, a huge array of flavorful wines (the terrain and climate is ideal for grape-growing), delectable farm-to-table dining and many wonderful craft beer breweries.
To start your journey from Portland, take I-84 east to exit 17. Follow the signs through the charming town of Troutdale and over the Sandy River to the Historic Columbia River Highway.
Historic Columbia River Highway and State Trail
You’ll reap huge rewards as you traverse the Historic Columbia River Highway, which is also called the ‘King of Roads’ and represents one of the greatest engineering feats of modern times. Built from 1913-1922 and following the path of the Lewis and Clark and Oregon Trail, it was the first scenic highway in the U.S. to be designated a National Historic Landmark and it’s truly remarkable for the way it managed to provide views of the gorge’s many waterfalls and other beautiful natural features while displaying exquisite man-made craftsmanship through stone guard walls and graceful arches. The Historic Columbia River Highway spans the extremes of Oregon’s landscape, from the damp and mossy western starting point along the banks of the Sandy River to the dry oak savannas skirting Chenoweth Creek near the historic Dalles.
Before the highway rejoins I-84, take in sprawling views of orchards and blueberry fields; mind-blowing vistas of some of the most recognizable gorge sites, as well as Cascade Range peaks from the Vista House at Crown Point; Latourell, Shepperd’s Dell, Bridal Veil, Wahkeena Falls, 620-foot Multnomah Falls and, ultimately, Horsetail Falls.
To explore parts of the original highway by foot and bicycle, take the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail (it extends from milepoint 14.22 at the Sandy River Bridge near Troutdale to milepoint 88 near The Dalles)—the result of the Oregon Department of Transportation efforts to convert some portions of the original highway to paved hiking and biking trails as part of a broader mission to restore the entire historic highway. Three sections, covering 13.4 miles, are available exclusively to pedestrians and cyclists. With this recreational trail, you have the option of experiencing the vistas and the highway’s architectural grandeur in a more intimate way.
Once you’re back in your car, take I-84 to see the Bonneville Dam, and then head to Cascade Locks.
Marine Park and Thunder Island in Cascade Locks
Leave your car to walk around Marine Park in Cascade Locks — an ideal spot for sailing, fishing, camping and picnicking with broad, open lawns, a beach, boat ramp and marina where you can take in exceptional views of the river and Gorge.
Just a short walk over a footbridge is Thunder Island. The island boasts wonderful views of the peaks, cliffs and Bridge of the Gods. It’s also a great place to walk around and picnic.
Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler Cruise
For an even more immersive and dramatic view of the Columbia River and the spectacular basalt cliffs and trees that frame it, take a narrated boat tour that launches from the marina — the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler Cruise.
This 1800’s-style wind-and-current-propelled paddleboat will clue you into the formation of the Gorge, its landmarks, natural wonders and folklore. In addition to the awe-inspiring landscape, you may see bald eagles and lounging sea lions during your relaxing ride. There are several different cruise offerings, including brunch and dinner versions.
Thunder Island Brewing Company
Cascade Locks is not only the site of the cruises, it’s also home to notable Thunder Island Brewing Company. Take in the gorgeous panoramic views from their outdoor patio as you sip a beer and munch on a yummy burger, sandwich or salad.
From Cascade Locks, head to Hood River (stop here for some windsurfing if that’s your thing) and then proceed to Mosier, where the second leg of the Historic Columbia River Highway begins, and the terrain shifts to a sun-drenched plateau. In the spring, you’ll want to sample the juicy cherries in addition to ogling the blossoms. One of the three legs of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail lies just west of town – it’ll take you through the restored Mosier Twin Tunnels and, farther east, to the viewpoint at Rowena Crest that provides Gorge views as glorious as those at Crown Point.
The Dalles: Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center & Museum
Next, visit The Dalles, a former Native American gathering place that is rich in Oregon Trail lore and the Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center & Museum – the official interpretive center for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Permanent and short-term interactive exhibits will familiarize you with the area’s lore, culture and natural history and enrich your appreciation of the physical beauty that surrounds you.
The Riverfront Trail
The historic town enjoys plenty of sunny days, which makes it easy to explore the vicinity by bike along the beautifully paved 10-mile Riverfront Trail that traces the south bank of the Columbia River between The Discovery Center to the northwest and The Dalles Dam Visitor Center at the eastern terminus. (Before or after your ride, stop by the two wineries in The Dalles’ 100-year-old Sunshine Mill.)
Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Cascade Locks to Mount Hood
From June to October, visitors have an opportunity to hike part of the Pacific Crest Trail (made famous by writer Cheryl Strayed in her book Wild) from its lowest point at Cascade Locks on the Columbia River to Mount Hood and, along the way, see alpine slopes, wood ridges, river valleys and amazing waterfalls.
Approximately 6.2 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail is within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area before it enters Mt. Hood National Forest.
To travel by car to Mt. Hood, head westward from The Dalles on I-84 and take OR-35S southward and then Cloud Cap Rd.
Mt. Hood Territory
When you’re exploring Mt. Hood Territory, visit or stay at the Timberline Lodge & Ski Area (the lodge itself is a National Historic Landmark), which is located right on Mt. Hood (you’ll be one of the 2 million visitors per year who do the same). No matter what time of year you come, you can enjoy snow sports in the six ski areas.
Topped by 11 glaciers, Mt. Hood is the second most climbed mountain in the world. While the mountain is certainly the centerpiece of Mt. Hood Territory and a skiing mecca, the area offers so much more across all four seasons – from bike rides, mountain hikes and river kayaking and fishing to scenic valley wineries and farms (think orchards, lavender and wildflowers), as well as arts and heritage sites. The surrounding alpine lakes (e.g., Lost, Trillium and Mirror) are absolutely gorgeous, too, and each provides its own special view of the mountain along with rewarding boating and fishing opportunities.
Every season in Mt. Hood Territory delivers a spate of idyllic vacation experiences. In spring, wildflowers cover the hiking trails on Mt. Hood and tulips bloom in the valley. And the Clackamas River and Sandy River rush, creating thrilling conditions for whitewater rafting.
Summer is great for summer skiing on Mt. Hood, calmer river activities like stand-up paddle boarding, hiking flower-filled trails and camping beneath the stars. At this time of year, the fruit output is particularly abundant – it’s no wonder the drive between Mt. Hood and Hood River is named the Fruit Loop. May is designated Oregon Wine Month, which means that visitors can attend a variety of wine-related events. There are 18 wineries in the area, so tasting their fine wines alone could occupy days.
Fall brings amazing colors and more harvest-related events and destinations, while winter offers every imaginable snow adventure. If you’re not a ‘snow person’, tap into the area’s boutiques, delicious restaurants and wineries.
Cascading Rivers Scenic Bikeway
For a fabulously beautiful bike adventure south of Portland and to the east of Mt. Hood, head for the Cascading Rivers Scenic Bikeway between the towns of Estacada and Detroit, Oregon. On this byway, you’ll be following the course of two wild rivers – the Clackamas and the Breitenbush – through ancient forests in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains that run alongside tranquil pools, riffles and reservoirs for 72 miles. The ride on the remote roadways is challenging (much of the route through the national forest is steep and winding with little to no shoulder), but the lovely scenery and the soothing sounds of the water and wind will inspire you to no end. You may want to camp along the way or cast a line or swim in the rivers. Oregon is known to be an incredibly bike-friendly state and this bikeway shows just how deserving it is of its reputation.
Next Up—Region 3: the Willamette Valley South of Portland. The Willamette Valley region invites with more great cities, the spectacular Willamette River, mountains including the Cascade Range, the Oregon Coast Range and Calapooya Mountains and fabulous wines. This is Oregon Wine Country!