The Columbia Gorge
The Columbia Gorge stretch of the Columbia River is treasured by residents of both Washington and Oregon. No matter the season, no matter the weather conditions, the Gorge is always beautiful. You can choose your pace: I-84 roars along the Oregon side of the Gorge at river level, blasting through the rocky hills through a number of tunnels.
On the Washington side, things are a little more relaxed. A cross between country road and highway gently follows the contours of the land and the bends of the river. On the western stretch, the Lewis and Clark Highway (Hwy. 14) winds through maple and Douglas fir forests punctuated by stunning vistas into the river valley far below.
The scenery along the route blends the green forested hills of the western section into the dry basaltic and barren hills of the eastern half. In a distance of just 40 miles—from Cascade Locks to The Dalles—average annual rainfall changes by 40 inches! The gorge has its own climate, and temperature extremes on the east side range from zero or less in winter to 110°F of dry heat in summer.
It isn’t unusual to descend into the Gorge and into a gale because this narrow gap is the only place weather systems can push through the towering mountains. Sometimes in the winter a sudden arctic blast comes down the Gorge to create an ice storm, which, around these parts, they call a “silver thaw.”
The Columbia Gorge between Highway 97 and I-5 is heavily traveled on both sides of the river, but the area from Highway 97 at Maryhill Museum east to Paterson is the less so, so expect fewer services. The descriptions that follow are arranged west to east along the river from Camas/Washougal to McNary Dam, where the highway heads away from the river and north to the Tri-Cities area.
Seeing the Columbia Gorge
By Car: While the trip along Highway 14 does offer some beautiful Gorge scenery, by the time you arrive at Maryhill Museum you may feel that Columbia River trek is a bit longer than it looks on the map. This is truly a remote part of the state, so stock up on soft drinks, chips, and other necessities first.
Also keep your eyes peeled for speed limit signs. The now-you-see-’em-now-you-don’t towns that you’ll whiz by require slower speeds within their sometimes hard-to-gauge boundaries, creating speed traps that are zealously checked by local cops.
By Cruise: Take a cruise on the Columbia, with views of steep basalt cliffs and stops at Cascade Locks, Bonneville Dam, and Stevenson, aboard the triple-decked sternwheeler Columbia Gorge (503/224-3900, www.portlandspirit.com). The cruise boards at Marine Park at Cascade Locks in the heart of the Scenic Area and ranges $20–90 depending on the length of the trip as well as several dining options.
By Train: Amtrak (800/872-7245, www.amtrak.com) has service up the Columbia Gorge, departing from Portland or Vancouver and stopping at Bingen/White Salmon and Wishram before continuing to Pasco, Spokane, and points east.
By Bus: Bus service to these parts is close to nonexistent. Vancouver’s C-TRAN (360/695-0123, www.c-tran.com) will get you as far east as Camas and Washougal. Cross over to the Oregon side for Greyhound bus service along I-84.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition