My name is James Smith – I’m someone who loves exploring the real world (leaving materialism behind) and sharing my passion for nature through my Instagram page: @wanderlust_x_adventures. In this article, I will be sharing my love and passion for a place called the Columbia River Gorge – a stunning scenic area and river canyon in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
Originally, I’m a native of the east coast. I used to be a nuclear mechanic on a submarine that was always “underway”, so I had very little free time. I have always loved being in nature and found that being outside was the soul salve I needed after being cooped up on a submarine for months on end. To experience some nature while I was hundreds of feet beneath the ocean, I read a ton of John Muir (the famous Scottish naturalist).
John Muir inspired me to explore the west coast of the US which I had never been to before. While on deployment in the Middle East I planned a huge road trip from Seattle, WA to Phoenix, AZ for the two weeks I got off when we got back home. The minute we landed in Seattle and I saw the endless sea of massive Douglas Fir and volcanoes I felt right at home.
I instantly knew this is where I would live when I got out of the navy. I’m a free man now working as an engineer living at the gateway of the Columbia River Gorge. I pinch myself everyday at how lucky I am to be here.
Living in Troutdale, “Gateway to the Gorge”
I live in Troutdale, Oregon whose slogan is “Gateway to the Gorge” so I explore the gorge frequently. In Oregon, the winter is our rainy season with our summers being the dry season. That means you explore the plethora of waterfall trails in the winter when they are gushing water and hit the higher altitude hikes with the grand views on the warm summer days.
Wildflower season in late spring to early summer is an explosion of color, they show up in late spring on the dry eastern part of the gorge and slowly crawl west as the summer temperatures rise in the higher elevations. Tom McCall Preserve is a wildflower hike I hit every year – an ocean of flowers with views of the gorge and glimpses of Mt Hood and Mt Adams.
Latourell Falls is the hike I do a few times a month. It’s a quick bang for your buck that is a two mile loop including beautiful rainforest and two majestic waterfalls to see on the way. The Columbia River Highway passes nearby.
Why Visit the Columbia River Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge is a natural wonder where the fourth largest river in the US cuts through the Cascade mountain range and serves as the border between Washington and Oregon. The gorge ranges from temperate rainforest with massive Douglas fir among a sea of ferns and moss in the west to dry grasslands that explode with wildflowers within 80 miles, all between towering basalt cliffs that rise up to 4,000 feet in height.
Famous for its density of waterfalls of every variety, the Columbia River Gorge is ruled over by the king of the waterfalls, Multnomah Falls with its magnificent 620 feet free fall into a pool below. Continually inhabited for over 13,000 years, the area is rich in history and culture – from traditional native salmon fishing structures to modern meccas of craft brewing.
It’s an iconic feature of the PNW that has something for everyone from outdoor recreation like hiking, biking and paddling to cosmopolitan eateries, shopping, wineries and of course endless natural beauty.
7 Best Places to Visit in the Columbia River Gorge
1. Multnomah Falls
A trip to the gorge wouldn’t be complete without seeing the tallest waterfall in Oregon, Multnomah Falls. Conveniently located right off the highway, the falls are accessible to every kind of traveler and see two million visitors a year. A two tier waterfall that drops 620 feet into a beautiful pool among basalt cliffs with its iconic Multnomah Creek Bridge built in 1914.
2. The White Salmon River
The White Salmon River, a designated Wild and Scenic river, is a glacial blue river that cuts through rainforest. It is an epic white water rafting spot with multiple outfitters ready to take you on a half or full day adventure, cliff jumping included if you are bold enough. You will have earned your beer at Everybody’s Brewery afterwards, right down the street.
3. Angels Rest
Angels Rest is a hike within the Columbia River Gorge and a wonderful place to catch a sunrise or sunset. A short 4.5 mile out and back hiking trail that gets your heart pumping with its over 1,400 feet in elevation change. You will be rewarded with unobstructed sweeping gorge views.
4. Crown Point
Crown Point is a fantastic place to get panoramic views of the gorge without too much effort. The drive there is half the adventure as you cruise along the winding Historic Columbia River Highway. While at Crown Point pop into the Vista House, a historical museum and memorial built in 1918.
5. Bonneville Dam
Bonneville Dam is a dynamic place to visit. There is a museum where you get to learn about the construction and generation of hydraulic power and the history of western exploration. Also a fish ladder and counter where you can see the migration of salmon and trout swimming up river to spawn.
6. Bonneville Hatchery
Just outside of the dam is the Bonneville Hatchery where the United States government raises millions of salmon and trout hatchlings to help counteract the decline in fish population caused by the Bonneville Dam. It has viewing tanks where you can see the Columbia River’s largest fish, the mighty and ancient White Sturgeon that can grow as big as 10 feet long.
7. Beacon Rock Trail
Beacon Rock Trail is a wild and exhilarating short 1.5 mile hike out and back up a series of stairs that climbs up the 848 feet tall volcanic plug that gives panoramic views across the Columbia River Gorge. This epic hiking trail gives travelers an excellent way to get a hands-on lesson in geology.
Where to Stay in the Columbia River Gorge
My adopted hometown of Troutdale is a nice place to kick off an adventure in the Columbia River Gorge. Located at the gateway of the gorge yet only 25 minutes from downtown Portland, it offers the best of both worlds. Stay at Edgefield McMenamins which is an experience in itself.
Its sprawling acres include a winery, brewery, golf course, spa, movie theater, gardens, restaurants and outdoor concert venue. After a day of fun in the gorge stroll the downtown with its eateries, coffee and gift shops.
Cascade Locks is my favorite town in the Columbia River Gorge. It has excellent breweries, great spots to grab food and stellar views. The Bridge of the Gods gives you quick access to the Washington side of the gorge, the end location of Cheryl Strayed’s famous book Wild. It has cute hotels, accessible trails from town and is located along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Camping along the river is available and is a popular fishing spot. You can buy the PNW iconic salmon sold by the indigenous residents in town. The Bridgeside restaurant has one of the best views of any establishment I have ever been to with wall to wall windows giving sweeping views of the gorge.
Hood River is a cultural powerhouse (to say the least). It is one of the world’s most popular kitesurfing destinations, you can watch kitesurfers reaching new heights utilizing the Columbia River Gorge’s powerful winds.
Hood River’s brewery scene is one of the largest in the state. Dining and shopping options are endless here. Located in the heart of the gorge, you can spend a day exploring the fruit loop with its wineries and orchards, go skiing at Mt Hood or stroll the streets of the lovely city.
White Salmon is a cute little town across from Hood River with great places to eat and stay. Start the day at their famous bakery, White Salmon Baking Co. After a morning of white water rafting, drink in the views of Mt Hood at Everybody’s Brewery with their fantastic outdoor patio, then spend the afternoon strolling through wildflowers in nearby Lyle Cherry Orchard or go on a mountain biking adventure through the flowers at Coyote Wall.
Tips for Visiting the Columbia River Gorge
In the PNW, we have an unwritten rule that you are not allowed to use an umbrella – which I found hilarious when I moved here. The sentiment being that it rains often in the winter, but usually it is only a light but intermittent drizzle. Therefore bring a rain jacket everywhere you go. This can also help against the famous winds that blow through the gorge.
Our weather is mild, so a puffy jacket and rain jacket combo is usually just right. Outdoor recreation is part of the culture of the PNW, therefore on weekends popular trails can be crowded. So if you plan on going on a hike, I always recommend getting to the trailhead early if possible since parking can be limited, and have one trail alternative as a backup plan.
Don’t leave anything of value in your car, since trail bandits are common. Thieves break your car windows at remote trailheads to take anything of value. Always have the ten trail essentials whenever you embark on an outdoor adventure and remember to tell someone where you are going.
Amazing Memories at Tom McCall Preserve
To finish up, I would like to share my all time favorite memory from exploring the Columbia River Gorge. My best experience was the first time my wife and I hiked within the Tom McCall Preserve in wildflower season. It was an experience of natural beauty that you couldn’t describe with words.
The hike starts on a high bluff that varies between oak woodland and grass prairies. You are constantly walking through an ocean of purple lupines, balsamroot, Indian paintbrush, grass widows and many more flowers. This kaleidoscope of color is all set among constant panoramic views of the Columbia River Gorge that only gets better as you climb higher and higher.
If you look towards Washington across the Columbia River you get views of the second highest mountain in that state, Mt Adams. When you get to the end of the hike you are rewarded with a view of the state’s highest peak, the volcanic king of Oregon (Mt Hood), among colorful rolling hills.
It’s a truly wonderful experience that hits all the senses from the sweet perfume of the flowers to the birds singing while chasing insects among the flowers. It is a blissful experience that plasters a permanent smile on your face that you will exchange with everyone else on the trail reveling in the beauty of this wonderful spot on earth. Thanks for reading! I hope this article inspired you in some way to visit this gorgeous area of the PNW!