The heart of the Columbia Gorge  is just an hour from Portland , making this a major getaway for residents and travelers alike. Any trip to the Gorge should include a drive along the Historic Columbia River Highway , with hikes to waterfalls  and a drive up the “Fruit Loop ” (Rte. 35) from Hood River  to Mount Hood .
Even though the Gorge is very popular, it’s also vast, so it’s easy to lose the crowds if you hike a lesser-known trail or get off the main routes.
While most people visit the Gorge as a day trip from Portland, consider spending a night in Hood River or at Mount Hood to make this a more relaxing trip—and to get a feel for the youthful culture of windsurfers  and mountain bikers  that use this stunning landscape as their playground. In addition to excellent hotels  and restaurants , you’ll find wine-tasting rooms  aplenty.
Also, if you’re based in Portland and plan to drive out on I-84 to visit the Gorge as a day trip, consider driving back to the Portland metro area along the Washington side of the Columbia . Two-lane Route 14 along the north side of the river offers a different perspective on the river and its mighty canyon and provides a break from the relentless truck traffic along I-84. Route 14 joins I-205 east of Portland for an easy detour back to the Oregon side of the Columbia.
Weather can be capricious in the Gorge, making for dangerous driving conditions any time of the year. The Cascade summits can wring more than 200 inches of rain yearly from eastward-moving cloud masses, yet at The Dalles  the annual rainfall is just six inches annually.
Given these contrasts, it’s not surprising that the convergence of weather systems at mid-Gorge often results in meteorological bedlam. In fact, Bonneville Dam  recorded the state’s one-day record for snowfall, 39 inches, in January 1980. Strong reliable westerlies make the Gorge a windsurfing paradise but can also make driving an RV a real challenge.
West of the Cascades, winter lows seldom dip below freezing. A notable exception to this happens when frigid winds originating in the Rockies blow through the Gorge in winter, resulting in ice storms that can make for freezing rain and black ice, with the weather sometimes closing the interstate.
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (902 Wasco St., Hood River, OR 97031, 541/308-1700, www.fs.fed.us/r6/columbia/forest ) is the federal entity that oversees the Columbia River Gorge  in both Oregon  and Washington . From its website you can print out a handy guide to the Gorge and learn more about recreational options.