Posted by: bkivey | 25 June 2015

Touring the Columbia Gorge

For the past three years I’ve complained that I don’t get to do anything in the Summer because I’m too busy. This week I had an unscheduled day off, and it was Summer, so I decided to do something fun outdoors, and that something was playing tourist in one of the great scenic attractions in the country, the Columbia Gorge.

The Gorge is where the Columbia river cuts through the Cascade mountains on it’s way to the Pacific ocean, and is the only water-level crossing through the mountains. Lewis & Ckark were the first Europeans to travel the river from Idaho to the coast, while the river served as a source of food and commerce for the natives in the watershed. The river still serves in those capacities, with railroads and highways along its banks, and large amounts of river traffic plying the waters as far as Lewiston, ID.

Because of the geography and the forces involved in carving the Gorge, it’s spectacularly scenic. That formational history also served to create the largest collection of waterfalls in North America on the Oregon side of the river. There are some two dozen waterfalls concentrated in a section about 10 miles long east of Troutdale. About half a dozen are visible from the road or by a short walk. There are also a number of overlooks along the way.

The first modern road through the Gorge was US 30. Influenced by the scenic highways of Europe, entrepreneur  Sam Hill and chief engineer Samuel Lancaster were determined to route the road so as to take advantage of the areas great natural beauty while maintaining moderate grades. They were stunningly successful, and the Historic Columbia River Highway is a must-see if you’re in Portland.

Taking I-84 east, the Highway starts in Troutdale, and starts to make it’s way along the escarpments lining the river. The first point of interest is Portland Women’s Forum Overlook. The plaque has a representation of Sam Hill.

Portland Women's Forum Overlook Sign

From the overlook there”s this view:

Portland Women's Forum Overlook


West is on the left and East on the right. There was a marine cloud layer, and it was threatening rain, but I figured the clouds would burn off by early afternoon.  A little further along is Vista House:

Vista House


There are stairs to the balcony above, and a museum and gift shop below. There is also a vista.

A couple miles down the road is Latourell Falls. They’re a short hike off the road:

Latourell Falls


It plunges over ancient lava flows (what, you thought our volcanoes were just for looks?), and the basalt formations are striking.

Next is Shepard’s Dell Falls. They’re visible from the road, but a short staircase leads down into the canyon for a closer view.

Shepard's Dell Falls


About a mile away is Bridal Veil Falls. Getting to these falls requires a short hike of about 1500 feet. The remains of a sawmill are in the area.

Bridal Veil Falls 1


About a mile and a half further are Wahkeena Falls. These are sort of visible from the road:

Wahkeena Falls from road


Sun starting to come out. There’s a short trail for a closer view:

Wahkeena Falls 1


Another view:

Wahkeena Falls 3


Here is where the fact it’s summer vacation season became apparent. Parking was at a premium, and there were a fair number of people about; more than I would have expected for the middle of the week. It was also starting to warm up, so the coolness of the forest and spray from the falls was welcome. There are several trailheads here, including one to Multnomah Falls about a half mile away. Rather than give up my parking space, I elected to hike to the falls.

Along the trail, some water falling down the slope and off the vegetation. Perhaps a nascent waterfall?

Trailside water falling 2


And the trail ducks under an overhang:

Overhang on Multnomah trail


The trail pops out at Oregon’s signature waterfall, Multnomah Falls:

Multnomah Falls 1


This waterfall is right next to the road. There’s a short trail to the bridge, and another trail about a mile long to the top. I only elected to go as far as the bridge, where you can look at the people looking at you:

View from Mutnomah Falls bridge


There’s a railroad bridge with a sign helpfully noting distances to various points:

Railroad sign at Multnomah Falls


Rail traffic is heavy, and the trains move fast. A good idea to stay off the tracks.

Back down the trail and to the car for the next attraction, Horsetail Falls. These are also visible from the road:

Horsetaiil Falls 1


The pool is a popular swimming spot. These are the last falls on this stretch of US 30, but a few miles away is another attraction, Bonneville Dam. I’ve passed the dam many times, but never stopped to visit. Bonneville isn’t just a hunk of concrete stretched across the river, but an entire hydroelectric complex. There’s a lot going on there, so I’ll save it for the next post.




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