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The Columbia River Gorge
Columbia River Gorge from Vista House location. Photo by Susan Buce

The best places to play and stay in the Columbia River Gorge

  HOME | TOWNS | AREA ATTRACTIONS | HISTORY | NEWPAPERS

Communities along the way:

• Troutdale

Corbett

• Bridal Veil

Dodson & Warrendale

Cascade Locks

Hood River

Mosier

• Rowena

The Dalles

 

Historic Columbia River Highway (1922)

Vista House overlooking the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon
The Vista House, near the town of Corbett along Highway 30, stands as a sentinel overlooking the west end of the Columbia River Gorge.

This scenic highway is more than a road, it is an intentional paen to the breath-taking beauty of the Columbia River Gorge. When the 75 mile Columbia River Highway between Troutdale and The Dalles was officially completed on June 27, 1922, it was hailed as one of the engineering marvels of its age. The first paved highway in the Northwestern United States, the Columbia River Highway was called the "King of Roads." The highway was the product of two visionaries, Samuel Hill and landscape architect Samuel C. Lancaster. It was the first U.S. state historic highway to gain distinction as a National Landmark, it has also qualified as a National Scenic Byway, a distinction that requires the road itself to be considered a destination.

Multnomah Falls

The Columbia Gorge Waterfall Area

The Columbia River Highway winds through the basalt cliffs overlooking the Columbia River. The steep cliffs create a perfect vertical drop for some of the most spectacular waterfalls in Oregon, including Multnomah Falls, Wakeena Falls, and Horsetail Falls.

The lovely thing about this area is you can see most of these waterfalls within a short 15 mile area. Many of them are viewable from a car, although hiking trails are abundant in this area.

There are 77 waterfalls on the Oregon side alone. For more photos and information about the Columbia Gorge Waterfalls, click here.

The first section, between Tanner Creek and Eagle Creek, was restored and re-opened in 1996. This included restoration of the Toothrock Viaduct, the Eagle Creek Viaduct, a new bridge over the Toothrock Tunnel, and a new stairway.

The Eagle Creek to Cascade Locks section was restored in 1998. This section included restoration of the Ruckel Creek Bridge, construction of several rockery walls and construction of a new undercrossing of Interstate 84. It also included construction of trailheads at Eagle Creek and under the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks.

The Moffett Creek to Tanner Creek section was completed in 2000, lengthening the western section of the HCRH State Trail to 5.2 miles. This section restored the Moffett Creek Bridge, the longest, three-hinged, concrete flat arch bridge in the country when it was completed in 1915.

In November 2001 the Starvation Creek to Viento section was upgraded to be ADA accessible at the Starvation Creek end. This includes improving accessibility to view the Starvation Creek waterfall. This one-mile section connects two Oregon State Parks. Camping is available at Viento.

Parking & Accessibility

Many trailheads are designated Trail Parks. The Northwest Forest Pass Program requires a fee and a permit to park near designated trailheads. You can obtain a pass by calling 1-800-270-7504, or purchase online. Motorcycle passes are also available.

Mosier Twin Tunnels and the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail

Mosier Twin Tunnels

The Mosier Twin Tunnels were reopened in July of 2000 and dedicated as the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. The Mark O. Hatfield East Trailhead is outside of Mosier, Oregon, with the Mark O. Hatfield West Trailhead near Hood River. The actual tunnels are located on the East end of the trail near Mosier.

The trail is 4.6 miles long, and open to pedestrians and bicyclists. The trail on the east end winds through cliffs of boulders and wildflower meadows for a mile before you will come to the actual Tunnels. The view on the east end is spectacular, opening to vistas of the Columbia River Gorge and Eighteen Mile Island, also known as "Chicken Island." It is so named because it is located 18 miles downriver of the Long and Short Narrows of The Dalles, and because at one time there was a chicken ranch on the island.

The scenery on the west end of the trail isn't as readily visible due to the growth of trees that block the view on the north side facing the river.

Chicken Island as seen from the Mosier Twin Tunnel trail.

History of the Twin Tunnels: Constructed during 1919-1921, the Mosier Twin Tunnels were closed in the mid-fifties. The opening of the Interstate-84 freeway gave travelers a faster and safer way to travel the gorge. Between 1921 and 1955 when the road was closed, the area by the Mosier Twin Tunnels was the scene for regular disasters. Some were the result of head-on collisions caused by cars traveling too far into the other lane, or by cars who came around a sharp turn only to find the slopes above them had recently deposited huge boulders in the middle of the road. It was not uncommon for supply trucks to lose their load, resulting in a debris field of unclaimed products that was a boon to local residents. But some disasters were weather related. A stone just inside the first tunnel is etched with the names of travelers who became snowbound when a blizzard and avalanche blocked the tunnel. They enscribed the words "Snowbound Nov. 17-29,1921" and included the names of those entombed for 12 days. They were eventually rescued.

The 17-foot-wide Mosier Twin Tunnels easily accomodated two-way traffic by Model Ts. But as automobiles became larger, accidents were common - despite widening to 20 feet. Although signals eventually regulated one-way traffic, waiting vehicles were vulnerable to falling rock from the bluffs above. With construction of a water grade thoroughfare in the 1950's, the tunnels were closed and filled. Thanks to the efforts of Oregon's Senator Mark O. Hatfield, restoration of these famous tunnels as part of a hiking and bicycling path began in 1995.

The restoration has involved removal of the rock which had filled the tunnels, and the construction of a unique 700 foot long "catchment structure" on the west end of the tunnels that utilizes cellular concrete, pea gravel and 25 foot anchor bars. Iron bars were added to the view openings shortly after the tunnels reopened to the public. This action was taken to improve safety after a young boy fell to his death from the cliffs.

The restoration project was a collaboration of the Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) , Oregon State Parks, Oregon Tourism Commission, and the State Historic Preservation Department.

Rowena Crest viewpoint overlooking the Columbia River. Balsamroot wildflowers bloom from April through June. Many wildflower species are protected, so resist the urge to pick them.

Rowena Loop and
Tom McCall Nature Preserve

The road twists in the hairpin turns of the Rowena Loops where U.S. Highway 30 makes several switchbacks as it climbs up the side of the gorge to Rowena Plateau.The Rowena Loops were built to “develop distance” and to allow the maximum 5% grade on the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Looking down from high up on Rowena Loop, one sees a panaramic view of the Columbia River Gorge. To the west is the Tom McCall Nature Preserve, named for the late governor, who was committed to conservation of Oregon’s natural beauty. Spectacular spring wildflower displays grace this magnificent plateau overlooking the Columbia River. More than 300 plant species, including grass widows, prairie stars, shooting stars, balsamroot, lupine and Indian paintbrush thrive here. The open grasslands are home to four plant species unique to the Columbia River Gorge: Thompson’s broadleaf lupine, Columbia desert parsley, Thompson’s waterleaf, and Hood River milkvetch.The preserve is so diverse partly because it lies in the transition zone between the moist, heavily-forested west side of the Cascades and the drier bunchgrass prairies of the east.

Hikers are urged to stay on designated trails, not only to preserve the delicate plantlife but to avoid the scourges of poison oak which grows rampant in the hills between Hood River and The Dalles. (Remember: "Leaves of three, let them be.")

Take I-84 to either Mosier exit #69 or Rowena exit #76 and follow U.S. Highway 30 to the Rowena Crest. Beyond milepost 6, the preserve is on both sides of the highway.

Be cautious, be prepared

Anytime you go hiking in the gorge, be prepared. It's a sad fact that people die each year on gorge area hiking trails, and nearly all of those deaths could have been prevented with a little common sense and preparation.

Respect that this is a mountainous wilderness terrain. Falling rocks are common in the gorge. The landscape is constantly being shaped by the forces of nature, including high winds and soil erosion. Along with the adorable chipmunks, birds, and squirrels, keep in mind other wiild animals live in the Cascade mountains, including elk, deer, bears, cougars, rattlesnakes, and coyotes. If you encounter a wild animal during your hike, keep in mind you are encroaching on their territory, so give them a wide berth.

Take plenty of food and water, and a warm jacket - regardless of how hot the day is. Know the weather forecast. The temperatures in the Cascade Mountains get chilly at night even in summer, and in winter they often dip below freezing. Dress appropriately, even on short hikes, with long slacks and sturdy hiking boots. Take a first-aid kit. Consider what actions you would need to take should you twist an ankle or lacerate a foot on a sharp piece of basalt rock, and find yourself unable to hike back out in a single day.

Take a compass or GPS unit, and always be sure to inform friends or relatives where you are hiking and when to expect your return. Be observant of your route, especially when you take a trail that branches off the main one. Check in with the local ranger station if possible.

Don't stand on the edge of the trail or cliffs; these trails are subject to constant erosion and many a person has tumbled to their death when the trail gave way. Listen to your gut if you sense a trail may not be stable. A good rule when hiking the gorge is to "Prepare for the worst." When it comes to emergency supplies it's better to have it and not need it, than it is to need it and not have it.

Community Resources

  • Troutdale - Hotels & Motels, restaurants, shopping, gas, historic places.
  • Corbett - gas, groceries, historic places.
  • Bridal Veil - post office, historic places, overnight lodging at Bridal Veil Lodge.
  • Dodson & Warrenton - river view.
  • Cascade Locks - Hotels & Motels, Restaurants, shopping, gas, historic places, museum, river access, sternwheeler tours.
  • Hood River - Hotels & Motels, Restaurants, shopping, gas, historic places, river access, port marina.
  • Mosier - Mosier House Bed & Breakfast, Restaurant, grocery store,
  • Rowena - scenic views and hiking from Rowena Plateau, camping at nearby Memaloose State Park.
  • The Dalles - Hotels & Motels, restaurants, shopping, gas, historic places, river access, museums, port marina.

History

By the late 1800’s, steamboats and railroads served some locations along the Columbia Gorge, but lack of a good road hampered travel and commerce. Early roadbuilding efforts through the dense forests and mountainous terrain between Portland and The Dalles were largely unsuccessful. After the advent of the automobile, interest in building a road through the Columbia Gorge grew. In 1908, Samuel C. Hill, a Good Roads Advocate in Washington and Oregon, invited Sam Lancaster for a visit to discuss Hill’s vision of creating a highway through the Columbia Gorge. In 1908, Hill, Lancaster, and Major H.L. Bowlby (who became Oregon’s first State Highway Engineer) traveled to Europe to attend the First International Roads Conference. They studied European roadbuilding techniques and designs in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. The highway was constructed between 1913 to 1922. Its purpose was not merely to provide an east-west transportation route through the Columbia River Gorge, but to take full advantage of every scenic feature, waterfall, viewpoint and panorama. It is the oldest scenic highway in the United States. The Highway was the product of Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Scenic Landmark, this route is one of the original 13 federally designated All-American Roads.

This final section of the highway included two tunnels bored through the bluffs near Mosier. Finally, on June 27, 1922, Simon Benson, who was an ardent supporter and benefactor of the project, ceremoniously spread pavement mixture on the final segment at Rowena Point near The Dalles. After almost 9 years of work on the Columbia River Gorge Highway, the final segment linking Astoria to The Dalles was complete. From The Dalles to Troutdale, workers had built an amazing 119 km (73.8 miles) of roadway, including 3 tunnels, 18 bridges (some of worldclass quality for their time), 7 viaducts, and 2 footbridges.

 

Sources:

Friends of the Historic Columbia River Highway

Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail

Oregon State Parks

Oregon Department of Transportation

     
 

What you'll find:

• View 77 Oregon waterfalls

• Hiking and camping

• Picnic areas

• Historic markers and signs

• Bike trails

• Bird & Wildlife Watching

• Native plants & wildflowers

• Rock formations, mountains and canyons

• Nature & Visitor Centers

• Restrooms

• Some ADA restrooms and trails

• Year-round access

 

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