“Wow, that’s pretty impressive. I wonder where it is?”
I was watching a car commercial with an impressive background with some folks in a boarding house. They were pretty nonchalant about my question; “Oh, that’s just the Columbia Gorge. It’s about 30 miles up the freeway from here.”
I wanted to know more.
I had just moved to Portland in late 1977, and thought I’d explored the region as I’d done an extended camping trip across the western US that summer scouting out prospects for a new place to live, and had even taken a separate route moving out so I could see more of the state. But somehow, I missed the gorge. You know what they say about missing the broad side of a barn – that was me.
So, they filled me in: the west end of the gorge starts about 30 miles east of Portland via Interstate 84. It follows along the mighty Columbia River, and has cliff walls up to 2000 feet high. And lots of waterfalls.
A lot of folks have heard of Multnomah Falls, as it’s the second tallest year round waterfalls in the United States. It’s easy to get to; they’ve built a special parking lot along the freeway for passers by to make a quick stop to check it out. Assuming they retain their “find a parking space during the Christmas rush” skills, and don’t mind putting up with a tourist mob, they’re only a 5 minute walk to a prime view of the big falls. I suspect most of them don’t go beyond that, but they’re missing out.
Over the years since my serendipitous discovery, I’ve made many a trip up the gorge. In addition to Multnomah Falls there’s a whole series of additional falls, but more to the point there’s also a network of trails that can get you away from the crowds, into the woods, and onto viewpoints the drive by selfie shooters never see.
Last fall my wife and I realized we hadn’t been up the gorge for a while, and while we weren’t up for a hardcore hike we opted to check out the various falls accessible via the scenic highway that parallels the freeway. Some are just off the highway and some call for a moderate hike, but everything you’re about to see in this multipart post was enjoyed over the course of a long afternoon.
Crown Point Vista House
When we go up the gorge, we normally get off the freeway at the Corbet exit around milepost 22 and go up the hill to connect with the scenic highway, an old road built between 1913 and 1922. This sets the tone nicely, getting away from the zoom zoom and semi-trucks of the freeway and onto a forested road, dappled with shadows. Given its age, it’s on the narrow side and not the best place for big RV’s or even “he-man” pickups, especially in the curvy sections. About 3 miles east of Corbet you’ll get the the Crown Point Vista House. That’s the setting for the opening shot of this post.
Continuing on a couple miles you’ll get to Latourell Falls. There’s actually an upper and lower falls, both of which call for a short hike. The lower falls, with a 249 foot drop is the more impressive of the two, and you can get to the base via a half mile hike. A longer loop trail of 2.4 miles will get you to the smaller upper falls and Guy Talbot State Park as well. The upper falls has a 125 drop, including a curving cascade section followed by a drop. As our plan was to do shorter hikes at more falls we skipped the upper falls section that day.
Walking the trail to the state park was quiet and picturesque. We followed the stream that ran off the falls. Trees covered the slopes, with fern, moss, and mushrooms peeking up from place to place. Maple seeds helicoptered past my ears and landed next to the stream bed.
The trail passed under a scenic highway bridge, adding interest to the upward view.
Bridal Veil Falls
Another 3 or 4 miles down the road, we came to Bridal Veil Falls. There are two short hikes available here: one following a trail down to the falls, a .6 mile round trip with a 70 foot elevation change; and a second flat half mile hike along the bluff, with nice views of the gorge.
The Columbia Gorge is a natural wind tunnel, and is world famous for Windsurfing and Kiteboarding. Ground central, or perhaps river central is further up the gorge in Hood River (about 65 miles east of Portland), but other stretches attract sailors that like to have more of the river to themselves. We caught a view of these guys from the bluff loop trail at Bridal Veil.
That’s it for today’s post. Hopefully, this has given you a taste of what you can find in this scenic wonderland. Our afternoon in the gorge will continue in part two.