The best way to see the Columbia River Gorge is to travel the Historic Columbia River Highway.
The highway was built for travel in the Model-T Ford in 1913-1922 and was the first paved major highway in the Pacific Northwest. Even without the spectacular views of the gorge, this is a beautiful highway with stone walls and rest areas where you can pull over and stop. Not all of the highway between Troutdale and The Dalles is open to motorized traffic but there is still enough to travel by car so you can fill your digital camera. Out of 74 miles of highway you can travel 40 miles by car in two separate sections.
The western section of 24 miles begins at Troutdale. Troutdale is 20 miles east of Portland. You need to travel east on I-84 from Portland. Take Exit 17 into Troutdale where you can follow the signs through town and take a right turn onto Highway 30. You will then travel through the towns of Springdale and Corbet.
Over the next 24 miles you will see Vista House at Crown Point which is open from April to October and has a gift shop and rest rooms.
Multnomah Falls is the second highest year-round water falls in the United States at 620 feet. Yosemite Falls is higher. There is a lodge to the right of the falls where you can dine and visit the gift shop. You can climb the trail that goes to the top of the falls. The view from the bridge that crosses the upper falls and from the top of the falls is awesome.
From Multnomah Falls you will need to continue eastward on I-84 for five miles to Bonneville Dam. Admission is free to the fish hatchery and you can take tours of the dam. A really fun thing to do is go to where they do the fish count. When fish travel through the fish ladders they have to go through a tunnel which has windows. A person sits at a desk and counts each kind of fish as it goes through the tunnel. You will see some huge salmon during spawning season when the fish are swimming up river from the Pacific Ocean.
As you continue east on I-84 you will come to the town of Hood River. Now I haven't mentioned this before but you need to expect a lot of wind in the gorge. The gorge is a giant ditch cut into the Cascade Mountain Range. It is probably the largest "breeze way" you will ever be in--a wind tunnel. So wind plus water make for great windsurfing and kiteboarding and Hood River is the most popular place in the Pacific Northwest for these sports. You can pull off the highway and watch the action on the river before you.
The hiking trails in the Columbia Gorge are some of Oregon's best with views of the gorge, the Columbia River, beautiful waterfalls, and lush vegetation. Be sure to carry water and snacks with you and wear layers of clothing that can be put on or taken off according to the weather. Some trails are quite rocky and it is best to wear very sturdy shoes, preferably hiking boots with good socks.
These trails can be accessed at other points along the Columbia River Highway but if you are new to the area, I recommend that you begin at Multnomah Falls. There you can pick up a trail map at the information booth and get advice for your personal circumstances. You don't want to end up on a hiking trail that is two feet wide, carved out of the stone of a cliff face with a 150 foot drop on the other side if you have young children with you. You can tailor your hike to fit your physical condition, age, time to spend, and stamina.
The good news is that even the short easy or moderate hikes have gorgeous scenery. If you re short on time just hike from the bottom of Multnomah Falls to the top of the falls for some unforgettable views. Going on a little farther, you will get away from other people and can enjoy the sparkling waters of Multnomah Creek. This is a nice place to be on a hot day. You can continue on this trail for a five- to six-mile loop that passes Wahkeena Falls and ends up back at Multnomah Lodge. Or...
You can make a shorter hike to Wahkeena Falls from the lodge and back again. This is trail #442 and begins west of the lodge. See Map.
There is a short hike to Bridal Veil Falls that is suitable for both young children and the elderly if they have a bit of help over a couple of rough spots. The trail to the falls begins at the west end of the parking lot at Bridal Veil State Park. It is half a mile long and paved part of the way. It ends at the bottom of the falls and there are stairs to the top of the falls. There are benches to rest on along the trail. There are some lookout points and some picnic tables - a nice place to have a picnic lunch.
The hike to Metlako Falls and Punchbowl Falls, while not overly long, is not a good one for children and dogs. You will hike high above Eagle Creek a good part of the way and the trail is narrow with steel cables bolted into the rock on the uphill side for you to hang on to.
The hike to Metlako Falls is about one and a half miles with Punchbowl Falls a half mile beyond that. It is a relatively easy hike but I personally have a problem with heights and this trail made me a bit nervous. My husband loved it. Seeing these falls makes the whole trip worth it.
Most people miss one of the best segments of the old Columbia River Highway because they don't know that it is there. It is the segment between Mosier and Hood River usually called the Mosier Twin Tunnels but is also called the Historic Columbia River Highway Trail and the Mark O. Hatfield Trail.
This part of the highway was closed in 1954 because it had constantly been a trouble spot due to falling rocks. It remained closed for 46 years until it was reopened for hiking and biking. It was repaved and new rock guardrails were built. This section which is 4.7 miles long has some of the best views of the gorge and the Columbia River. The tunnels themselves are interesting with one having "windows" or openings through which you can see the river and the gorge.
You experience a gradual change in weather and vegetation as you travel along. You are actually passing from wetter western Oregon into drier eastern Oregon. Remember the Columbia River actually cuts through the Cascade Mountain range. On the western end you will see ferns and moss covered rocks. On the eastern side it is semi-arid with Ponderosa Pine.
This segment ends at the little town of Mosier where there are coffee bars and restaurants where you can get a bite to eat and rest before you head back.
To begin your trip from Hood River turn off E. State Street to Old Columbia River Drive driving east. Go clear to the end. There is a parking lot at the beginning of the trail.
Now to get to the second part of the Historic Columbia River Highway you will need to leave Hood River on I-84 and travel east to Exit 69. From Exit 69 travel to the town of Mosier. In Mosier follow the "Scenic Loop" signs to Highway 30. Drive 6.5 miles and you will come to the Rowena Crest Viewpoint for a breathtaking view of the gorge and the Columbia River.
At Rowena is the Tom McCall Nature Reserve and it is here that you will see an abundance of wildflowers during the months of March through June with the peak for the showiest flowers being the end of April.. The preserve covers 271 acres and there are two trails. The easy one is one mile long and begins at the interpretive sign at the preserve entrance. The other trail is 3.5 miles long round trip, gains 1,000 feet of elevation and is only open May through October.
The gorge can be windy any time of the year. You need to dress in layers so you can add or take off clothing depending on the weather. These are not hikes you can take with your dog even with a leash. It is a reserve and all vegetation is protected.
There are no toilets or water available. The nearest facilities are at Mayer State Park.
Continue on Highway 30 to The Dalles where you can visit the Wasco County Historical Museum at Crate's Point for a look at the 40-million-year history of the gorge.
Your tour of the Historic Columbia River Highway is now complete. From The Dalles you can continue east on I-84 or return to Portland on I-84. Another way to return to Portland is to take Highway 35, the Mt. Hood Loop Highway. By doing this you make a complete circle around Mt. Hood where there is a lot more to see. You then return to Portland on Highway 26.