Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway


December 29, 2016

Road Trip: Majestic Beauty along the King of Roads

By Kris Parfitt

Photo at right: Visitors at the Vista House photograph the upriver view of Columbia River Gorge. Photo courtesy of Travel Oregon


For centuries, the Columbia River Gorge has captured the awe of millions with its majestic beauty. Carved by epic ice-age floods 25,000 years ago, it is the lowest passage through the Cascade Mountains.

Before being settled by modern-day people, it was explored by Native Americans, the Lewis and Clark Expedition and wagon-train pioneers.

Seventy-five miles long, up to three miles wide, and blanketed with 13 species of wildflowers, the Columbia River Gorge churns 194,500 cubic feet of water per second through its ancient basalt shorelines. With 54 hiking trails and 21 recreational areas it is no wonder that in 1986 Congress designated this dynamic region a National Scenic Area.

Between 1914 and 1922, the Oregon Department of Transportation constructed the Columbia River Highway to better facilitate commerce between The Dalles on the east end of the Gorge and Portland to the west. Inspired by gently arcing and scenic touring roads in Europe, the highway was designed to take advantage of the geologic beauty while using architecturally designed elegance.

Called the King of Roads for almost 20 years — until State Route 30 (now Interstate 84) was built in the 1930s to accommodate heavier truck traffic — the century-old two-lane highway is still used today, albeit mostly by tourists.

On June 7, 2016, the Historic Columbia River Highway turned 100 years old and this iconic route is still considered to be one of the most beautiful drives in the western United States.

Identified as the first planned scenic roadway in the U.S., it’s a designated National Historic Landmark, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and recognized as an All-American Road by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Today the original historic highway is divided into three separate sections. Both the western and eastern segments can be traveled by car or bike, whereas the middle section is a mostly paved pathway open only to pedestrians and bicycles.

This past summer my husband and I explored the century-old highway in a rented Hideout Campervan. We started the journey by camping at Lewis and Clark State Park in Troutdale, the town known as the western gateway to the Columbia River Gorge.

Photo by Larry Geddis

On the West Side

The Vista House at Crown Point

Our first destination was the National Historic Landmark known as the Vista House, crowning a riverside plateau in Guy W. Talbot State Park. The site at Crown Point, an elevated basalt headland, sits 733 feet above the river’s surface offering majestic views of the Columbia River that is the boundary between the Oregon and Washington borders.

Waterfall Way

There are 77 waterfalls on the Oregon side of the Gorge. The six most popular are found within a 13-mile drive and can be seen from the Historic Columbia River Highway along what is commonly called “Waterfall Way.”

Be prepared to commit to a full day of hiking to each waterfall or just observing their beauty from your vehicle; at peak summer season, it is common to experience hours-long traffic jams.

The picturesque Multnomah Falls along this stretch is the tallest waterfall in Oregon and the most visited water feature in the Gorge. With a combined height of 620 feet, the double waterfall is spanned by a stone bridge and flanked by a 91-year-old lodge that is now a museum and concession stand. Horsetail Falls is the last waterfall along Waterfall Way and the end of the western section of the historic highway.

Blanketed in moss, the original stone guiderails of the Historic Columbia River Highway glow in multiple hues of green. Photo courtesy of Travel Oregon

Strolling in the Middle

Hood River and Mosier

Thirty scenic miles up-river lies the sporty, outdoor hamlet of Hood River. The wind through the narrow Gorge has created a mecca for windsurfers and the town also serves as basecamp for Mount Hood skiers in the winter, and hikers, bikers and trail-runners year-round. Shops, galleries, wineries, distilleries and breweries also offer visitors plenty to see and do.

After a tranquil stay at the Eagle Creek Campground, we were eager to hit the middle section known as the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, a 12-mile trail that follows abandoned stretches of the old highway between Hood River and the town of Mosier.

This path takes you through the Twin Tunnels — a 4.6-mile segment of the old highway with two original and restored tunnels. Hint: if you’re short on time, drive to Mosier on I-85 and walk less than a mile to the Twin Tunnels from the Mark O. Hatfield Trailhead.

The Eastern Passage

Rowena Crest Viewpoint

Back in the van, we followed the eastern section of the Historic Columbia River Highway from Mosier to the Rowena Crest Viewpoint, which offers 360-degree views of the area’s semi-arid terrain. From this vista, you can see the dramatic, geologic evidence of the ice-age floods.

The Dalles

We continued east along the historic highway through rolling hills to the town of The Dalles where we spent an afternoon at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum learning about the geological, ecological and cultural history of the Northwest.

Highlights in The Dalles include the 8,835-foot long Dalles Dam built in 1957. The Visitor Center in Seufert Park offers interesting history of how the dam was constructed. We also browsed through Oregon’s oldest bookstore, Klindt’s Booksellers and Stationers on Second Avenue.

We ended the trip with a hike in the Columbia Hills Historical State Park on the Washington side of the Columbia to see the Horsethief Butte Petroglyphs — ancient drawings made by the Native American peoples who inhabited the Gorge for centuries.

It was a symbolic way to end our sojourn along the historic highway and honor all who have contributed to the majestic beauty along the King of Roads.


Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association:
Travel Oregon:
Hideout Campervans:

Kris Parfitt is the managing editor of OutdoorsNW magazine.

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