Along the Historic Columbia River Gorge highway, there are dozens of scenic stops to savor the adventure, including more than 70 waterfalls in only 30 miles. Here are few of my favorites to get you started:
Best Columbia River Gorge View Point: Portland Women’s Forum Viewpoint
If you’ve ever seen a photograph of the Columbia River Gorge, this is likely where the photographer was standing. Shaped 15,000 years ago at the close of the last ice age when enough water to fill modern-day Lake Erie carved the dramatic, basalt cliffs travelers see today, this viewpoint is the perfect place to break in your camera. And the gorgeous photo opportunities only continue as you drive deeper into the gorge.
Best Columbia River Gorge Historical Marker: Vista House
Once known as the “$100,000 outhouse” for its lavish design, the Vista House is a beautiful observatory at Crown Point and well worth the stop, even if it’s only to use the bathroom. Constructed in 1918 of gray limestone and topped with a green-tile roof, it sits on a rocky promontory with views in all directions of the Columbia River Gorge and forest. Walk around the upper level, visit the gift shop in the basement and make sure to check out the perfectly stacked rock wall that forms its base.
Best Columbia River Gorge Waterfall Trail with Kids: Latourell Falls
One the first waterfalls you’ll spot along the Columbia River Gorge highway, Latourell Falls tumbles about 250 feet from a beautiful, rugged basalt cliff tucked amid a lush forest grove full of giant Douglas fir, thimble berry and maple vines. Follow the paved trail down to the bottom of the waterfall to play in the strong spray of the falls or splash in the creek bed below the wooden bridge. Then hike back up the trail to the parking lot and follow the paved trail to a second waterfall at the top of Latourell Falls. There you can also admire the poured-concrete bridge that spans the creek, part of the original highway built between 1913 and 1922.
Most Popular Columbia River Gorge Locals Hike: Angel’s Rest
Like a balcony over the river, Angel’s Rest comprises exposed bluff with cliffs on three sides, providing at its summit one of the most spectacular views of the river. Climbing 2.4 miles up through the forest to the rocky outcropping, it’s a popular day-hike for visitors and locals touring along the scenic highway. Connecting to several other trails from the summit, you can often find thru-hikers and backpackers stopping alongside you to soak in the views. And while you can’t see any of the Cascades, volcanic peaks from the top, you can experience magnificent views of Beacon Rock, Silver Star Mountain and the Columbia River Gorge below. Be sure to pack a picnic and breathe in the beauty.
Columbia River Gorge’s Tallest Waterfall: Multnomah Falls
If you owned a waterfall that just happened to be the tallest in the entire state (and the second highest in the U.S.), would you be willing to give it away for others to enjoy? Simon Benson, noted Oregon businessman and philanthropist, did exactly that, donating more than 200 acres of his personal land in 1915 during the construction of the scenic highway. Falling 620 feet over two drops, Multnomah Falls is one of three waterfalls fed by the same underground spring in Larch Mountain. You can hike up to the Simon Benson footbridge and stretch your neck upward to watch the water’s last tumble down from the dense woods to the Columbia River. Also a great jumping-off point for other hikes, visit the information center in the bottom of Multnomah Falls Lodge to grab a map and cup of coffee before setting out.
Most Adventurous Columbia River Gorge Trail: Oneonta Gorge
Like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, the hike into Oneonta Gorge takes you into knee-to-torso deep water through a sliver in the basalt to a hidden waterfall. One mile out and back, the trail follows the creek bed over a large (and sometime unstable) logjam. That means not only should you be cautious crossing the logs but also you also need to bring a warm change of clothing. The water in this creek is brisk, to say the least, but it’s worth the wade on a warm, summer day. Or if you want to skip the soak, instead hike up from Horse Tail falls just past the parking area for Oneonta Gorge, a 2.5-mile trail offering views from above of Upper Horse Tail Falls and Oneonta Falls.
Columbia River Gorge Hidden Gem: Elowah Falls
Tucked away just beyond where the historic highway again joins the Interstate, Elowah Falls is only a few minutes’ walk toward what feels like a world away. As you hike into a massive basalt amphitheater, the sound of the highway fades away, replaced by the crashing, cold water from McCord Creek down the 289-foot drop. Make a more meaningful memory by turning off your phone and sitting for a few minutes to enjoy the serenity of this quiet corner in the Columbia River Gorge.
Most Spectacular Bridge: Bridge of the Gods
At the eastern end of the protected area of the Columbia River Gorge, the Bridge of the Gods may not look like much. An old, steel, truss, toll bridge spanning from Cascade Locks, Oregon, to North Bonneville, Washington, constructed in 1926, it’s not the most beautiful construction. But what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in function, offering an amazing vantage point of the river. Pay the $1 to cross each way to witness the dense forests adorning the riverbank and experience the wonder of the mighty river. And be sure to discover on your own the bridge’s namesake, a geological feature also known as the Bridge of the Gods.
Hiking her way around the world, Kelsey Ivey is a freelance outdoor adventure, travel, and wine writer. From muddy river trails in Oregon to glacier-capped mountain peaks in the Himalayas, she loves to explore and share the world’s natural beauty. A buzz for the bountiful Pacific Northwest, where she happily calls home, Kelsey works at EverGreen Escapes in Portland as a private travel specialist and tour guide and blogs on Evergreen Hiker and Oregon Winette.