Columbia River Gorge: Everything You Need to Know about this Nature Lovers’ Paradise

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Columbia River Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge is a gorgeous getaway in the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit: Kristin Shaw

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The Columbia River Gorge is a stunningly beautiful river canyon in the Pacific Northwest, 80 miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep. The peaks of the Cascade Mountain Range frame the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, punctuating the many colors of the water and the land. It’s an epic road trip. Here’s what you need to know.

Where is the Columbia River Gorge?

The closest major airport to the Columbia River Gorge is in Portland, Oregon, about 33 miles away. Starting just east of Gresham, and continuing to The Dalles, the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area snakes along the Columbia River and spans 93 miles across. Notice that the only sea-level route through the Cascades mountain range is via this rolling river. More than two hundred years ago, explorers Lewis and Clark found their way through Oregon with the help of Native Americans who knew the land well.

What’s the weather like near the Columbia River Gorge?

Does it rain in Oregon? Heck yes, it does. And that goes double for the Columbia River Gorge, which is actually a temperate rainforest with mild soil and an abundance of plants and wildlife. Summers are spectacular in the Gorge, with highs in the mid-70s and lows in the 50s, typically. It gets chilly – down to the low 30s – over the winter months, but it’s still a very moderate climate.

Columbia River Gorge - Multnomah Falls
Multnomah Falls is Oregon’s tallest waterfall and just one breathtaking stop of many along Waterfall Alley. Photo credit: Kristin Shaw

Natural Treasures

Waterfall Alley

Waterfalls in Oregon are fantastical, fairytale-like formations surrounded by lush, green foliage. Multnomah Falls is arguably the most famous, its grandeur on display just off the stunning Historic Columbia River Highway. This area features a bridge that visually bisects a series of falls thundering down to the ground and reigns as Oregon’s tallest waterfall at 620 feet. That’s the equivalent of a 60-story skyscraper!

My family and I decided to stop at Multnomah Falls on a whim and I’m so glad we did. We climbed the paved walking trail leading to the Benson Footbridge overlooking the lower cascade and continued up a series of switchbacks on the path until it got a bit steep for us. Note that there is no railing on the path once you cross the bridge, so use caution, especially with small children.

Other nearby sights include Horsetail Falls, Angels Rest, Bridal Veil Falls, Latourell Falls, and several more. There is parking along the way, but on busy days that’s a gamble, as spaces are very limited. We pulled into a small lot just across the street from the lodge (ice cream, restrooms, and so on) at Multnomah Falls and waited 10-15 minutes for someone to vacate a space. We were lucky on that day, but wouldn’t recommend it if you can choose car-free options.

The Easy Way to See the Falls

Highly recommended: hop on the Waterfall Trolley (also called the Historic Columbia River Highway Trolley) for a hop-on, hop-off experience that allows you to see up to 10 stops for the reasonable price (in 2023) of $29 for teens and adults 13 and up, $15 for kids 6-12, and free for children 0-5.

The Waterfall Trolley is open-air, which is terrific for those with little kids or adults with mobility challenges. Take photos right from the trolley and enjoy the fresh air without having to hop off, if you like. Load in at the designated parking lot 2.5 miles from Vista House and the trolley will bring you back when you’re ready, no reservations required.

Columbia River Gorge - Gifford Pinchot National Forest
Gifford Pinchot National Forest is packed full of hiking, biking, and wildlife spotting opportunities. Photo credit: Kristin Shaw

Gifford Pinchot National Forest

North of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest offers 1.3 million acres of natural beauty. For scale, that’s even larger than the entire state of Delaware. Of that, 180,000 acres are designated Wilderness areas, which are protected, managed and maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. The Gifford Pinchot encompasses the Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument and Mount Adams and all of the camping, boating, hiking, backcountry skiing, picnicking, horseback riding, birding, and exploring you can handle.

Originally named Columbia National Forest, this area was renamed in 1949 to honor Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service (learn more at Wildlife is plentiful, trust me: I saw an elk cross a forest road right in front of my SUV, birds of prey, and even a black bear. That last sighting really shook me up because I’ve never seen a bear in the wild, and luckily I was with an experienced backcountry fly fisherman. The bear saw us and ran the other way, fortunately. Make sure you understand how to behave around wild animals when you’re in the forest; the National Park Service has an excellent list of tips here.

Read More: Ultimate Guide to Finding the Best Bear Spray

Getting There

To get to this National Forest, you can fly into the Portland International Airport and head east toward Cascade Locks, where you’ll cross over into Washington via the Bridge of the Gods. As of summer 2023, it’s only $3.00 to cross, and they take cash or credit cards.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you’re near Cascade Locks, stop at Thunder Island Brewing Company for a cider and lunch or dinner. I ordered the poached pear and beet salad and ate every delicious bite; my husband chose the blackened chicken sando and raved about it. I regretted that we arrived too late to enjoy the Eastwind Drive-In for ice cream, but will earmark that for my next visit.

Mayer State Park

Near Rowena, Oregon, Mayer State Park is alive with colorful wildflowers in the spring and activities for active visitors all year. Giant Ponderosa pine trees are scattered throughout the park; if you get close to one and inhale through your nose, you might catch a faint whiff of its distinctive butterscotch scent.

On the west side of the park, there’s a sheltered cove where you and your friends can swim in the river, unhitch a boat, or settle back with a fishing pole and some cold beverages in a cooler.

The east side of the park is a well-known spot for windsurfing and kiteboarding. In fact, between Mayer State Park and nearby Memaloose State Park, you can see the delta of the Klickitat River where it feeds into the mighty Columbia River. There, SA Kitesurf Adventures offers kiteboarding lessons in case you want to give it a try.

And at the midpoint of the park is the perfect place for those looking for a place to use stand-up paddle boards and kayaks or hop into the water for a swim, as the river slows down in this area due to natural rock formations. If you need to borrow a life jacket, there’s a loaner station with various sizes for kids and adults. And wearing a life jacket is always a good idea, especially when you’re not familiar with the current.

Memaloose State Park

Named for nearby Memaloose Island, a sacred site for the indigenous people of the Columbia River Gorge, this state park is just west of Mayer State Park and offers beautiful riverside campsites. There are 43 full-hookup sites, 66 tent sites, flush toilets, hot showers, and an RV dump station, and reservations are available up to six months in advance.

Note that Memaloose State Park does not offer access to water sports or swimming as the current is faster here (head over to Mayer State Park during the day for paddle boarding, kayaking, boating, and swimming). Wildflowers are abundant at this state-supported park throughout the spring and summer, and it’s an ideal place for stargazing from your campsite.

Beacon Rock State Park

Boasting nearly 4,500 acres of Washington land, Beacon Rock State Park offers camping year-round in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Sitting on what was once the core of a volcano eons ago, Beacon Rock State Park has 26 miles of roads and trails for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. There’s also plenty of shoreline for fishing or just soaking up the local serenity. The park’s namesake, Beacon Rock, is accessible via a mile-long trail. Once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views!

Bonneville Lock and Dam

The Bonneville Dam was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and first completed in 1938. This historic site has a terrific resource in the Bradford Island Visitors Center, where you can learn more about the life cycles and habitats of local salmon and Pacific lamprey and watch fish through an underwater viewing window. Beginners and veteran geocachers will also enjoy hunting for caches in the area. It’s very easy to get to from Interstate 84.

Hood River Fruit Loop

In Oregon, the Fruit Loop has nothing to do with colorful, sugary cereal and everything to do with real, delectable fruit. This part of the country grows 30 percent of the nation’s winter pears, along with apples, peaches, berries, huckleberries, cherries, and more. On the fruit loop, you’ll see dozens of stands from hard-working farmers selling the freshest fruit you can find. For a more hands-on activity, we liked the Draper Girls Country Farm where you can pick your own seasonal fruit.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Try a huckleberry shake at the Apple Valley Country Store. There’s nothing like it! And pick up a fruit pie while you’re at it.

Columbia River Gorge - Rental Homes and Condo-Style Lodging
Overlooking the Columbia River Gorge are plenty of rental homes and condo-style lodging where you can relax and enjoy the view. Photo credit: Kristin Shaw

Where to stay while visiting the Columbia River Gorge Recreation Site

On the Oregon side, the Hood River area has lots of things to do and see, and places to rest your head are plentiful here. It’s the windsurfing capital of the world and attracts adventurous souls with its windswept riverside landscape. From Hood River, you’ll have access to hiking and biking trails, 40-plus wineries and breweries, skiing at Mt. Hood,

Here are a few of our top picks:

Columbia Cliff Villages

Looking down to the Columbia River from 20 stories up, the Columbia Cliff Villas offers condo-style lodgings for those who like to settle in as if they’re at home, or cozy European-style hotel rooms with pillowtop beds for shorter stays.

The Villas has a convenience store on site but no dining establishments. Happily, restaurant choices are endless in nearby Hood River.

Hood River Hotel

If you like to base in the city within walking distance to restaurants and shops, the Hood River Hotel is a great choice. This quaint inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and each room is lovingly decorated, preserving as much local history as possible. Good news if you travel with a furry friend: the Hood River Hotel is pet-friendly! They’ll even have a treat ready for Fido when you check-in.

On the ground floor of the hotel, you can grab a bite between 8 AM and 3 PM every day at Broder Øst for yummy Scandinavian-style meals. Dishes include mouth-watering Æbleskiver (Danish Pancakes), Lefse (Norwegian potato crêpes), Köttbular (Swedish meatballs), beef or lamb burgers, and fun brunch drinks on the site. Psst: They even offer gluten-free bread.

Carson Ridge Luxury Cabins

On the Washington side, Carson Ridge Luxury Cabins features lovely, private abodes with fireplaces, hot tubs, and balconies with gorgeous views. Located an hour from Portland and only 30 minutes from Hood River, Carson, Washington is a quaint town that offers access to city life and expanses of wilderness. This place has a spa, or you can order up one of the spa services right in your cabin, which is truly luxurious. Choose from a three-course breakfast in the main lodge or opt for a breakfast basket delivered to your room for the mornings you feel like snuggling in a little longer.

SheBuysTravel Tip: We stopped at Crosscut Espresso and Deli a few times on our way to and from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Service is super friendly and the chai latte is delightful. Grab a sandwich and stow it in your picnic basket for an easy-breezy adventure day.

Things to do near Columbia River Gorge

  • Kiteboarding
  • Windsurfing
  • Rafting
  • Hiking
  • Fishing
  • Biking
  • Stargazing
  • Camping
Columbia River Gorge - Land Rover Defender
The Land Rover Defender is the perfect vehicle pairing for the rugged Columbia River Gorge area. Photo credit: Kristin Shaw

What to drive for adventures throughout the Gorge area

For the two weeks I spent in Oregon and Washington, I drove a 2023 Land Rover Defender, which is the perfect choice for a trip like this. Land Rover is known for its adventure vehicles, and the Defender is more than up to tackling National Forest dirt roads and all of the pavement between. We even found snow in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and had no trouble driving through it. If you’re going to the Pacific Northwest, a Defender offers everything you need, including a swing-open rear door that makes packing easy.

Heated power-adjustable seats, a wireless charging pad with a signal booster (which is key when you’re up in the mountains), 40/20/40 split-folding rear seats, and roof rails are all standard features. The Defender is tough enough to handle the trip and then some.

Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer, adventurer, and motorsports competitor with bylines at Popular Science, Edmunds, The Drive, Motor1, Road & Track, Car and Driver, Forbes Wheels, U.S. News and World Report, GearJunkie, and more. Her work on parenting and relationships has been featured often at The Washington Post and the TODAY show site. Follow Kristin on these channels: Instagram Facebook LinkedIn TikTok
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