Mt. Hood-Columbia River Gorge Loop: Oregon: USA
Mt. Hood-Columbia River Gorge Loop Once part of a nearly impenetrable wilderness that tested the mettle of even the most determined pioneer, the dramatic volcanic peaks and river gorges of northern Oregon today are delightfully accessible.
Few landscapes can equal the magnificence and variety of the one encircling Mt. Hood. Mountaintops under a continuous cover of snow, verdant forests laced with rushing streams and waterfalls, fertile farmlands, and the awesome gorge of one of America’s great rivers — these are among the treasures waiting to be discovered here.
Miles of farmland skirt Rte. 26 on the drive up to the town of Sandy, where visitors can tour historic sites and swim in the close-by Sandy River. As the highway continues to the east, the landscape changes rapidly, with the foothills of the Cascade Range beginning their relentless ascent. Towering Douglas firs, some of them centuries old, cover the slopes. Soon the Salmon River briefly comes into view, running to the Sandy River.
Wildwood Recreation Area
Situated on the banks of the Salmon River, picturesque Wildwood is one of many places to pause and sample the countryside. Take advantage of its picnic areas and hiking trails or, in the spring and fall, join the anglers who come in pursuit of trout and salmon. Visit Streamwatch, an underwater viewing port that lets you see life inside the river from a unique angle.
Mt. Hood National Forest
The splendors of nature are the star attractions throughout Mt. Hood National Forest. Encompassing more than a million acres, the wilderness is best known for its namesake, majestic Mt. Hood. The highest point in Oregon at 11,235 feet, the mountain’s conical dome is a dormant volcano that hasn’t had a major eruption for probably a thousand years or more. Its treeless upper slopes are blanketed with immense glaciers that glisten in the sunlight.
Between mile markers 45 and 46, past Rhododendron, note the reconstruction of the West Barlow tollgate. It marks a portal of the historic Barlow Road Drive extending from Mt. Hood to Oregon City. Blazed in 1845, this overland route was a lifesaver to pioneers heading west on the Oregon Trail; before the trail was opened, they had to convert their covered wagons into rafts and float down the risky and tumultuous Columbia River rapids.
Laurel Hill — its steep slopes are a challenge just to walk on, let alone descend in a covered wagon — was the last major obstacle faced by pioneers traveling toward the valleys and coasts to the west. In a task that could take days, the can do pioneers used ropes to slowly lower their wagons down the hill.
A six-mile turnoff climbs past vast forests and seasonal waterfalls to Timberline Lodge, a masterpiece of craftsmanship built by the WPA during the Great Depression. Constructed of stone and timber, the hotel is filled with handsome details, including huge fireplaces and fine examples of woodworking. Outside, alpine gardens thrive in the warmer months. You can also explore the surrounding countryside on a network of hiking trails. For a bird’s-eye view, sightseers can ride the mile-long chairlift that traverses the upper reaches of Mt. Hood.
Named for the three-petaled wildflower that flourishes in these woodlands, Trillium Lake lies two miles south of Rte. 26. Stands of evergreens surround the lake, whose surface forms a mirror for reflections of snowcapped Mt. Hood. Visitors come to this pleasant alpine retreat to hike, swim, fish, and boat.
The next leg of the journey through the Cascades follows Rte. 35, which soon climbs to 4,674 feet at Bennett Pass. Once over the crest, the road curves alongside the rushing Hood River.
Panorama Point offers one of the most startling views to be found along the drive to the Columbia River Gorge. A short detour on East Side Road leads to the lookout, where the panorama takes in the high volcanic peaks found to the north in Washington, the river valley, the forest-covered foothills, and the omnipresent crown of Mt. Hood.
The city of Hood River grew from and around the timber industry. After much of the area’s old-growth forests had been felled, however, the land was given over to farming, and thousands of fruit trees were planted. Today the harvest includes apples, pears, and cherries.
In recent years the area has become a magnet for windsurfers, who find ideal conditions in the Columbia River Gorge. Winds often whip steadily through the gorge, and small waves on the river add to the excitement. For a glimpse of the windsurfers’ colorful sails, stop at Columbia Gorge Sailpark, where a small sandy beach abuts the river.
The sport lends a jauntily modern counterpoint to the city’s many historic buildings, one of the most notable being the Columbia Gorge Hotel. Take a relaxing trip on the Mt. Hood Railroad. Leaving from the town’s historic district, the train makes a scenic 44-mile tour through the Hood River valley, with ample picture opportunities.
An interstate highway, I-84, parallels the Columbia River to The Dalles, which was named by French explorers who thought the area’s basaltic rocks resembled flagstones, or les dalles. As the interstate follows the generally widening gorge to the east, the road leads past tall pinnacles of volcanic rock deposited in ancient eruptions, floodplains, tablelands, and on the opposite bank, hills covered with mosses and an abundance of majestic conifers. Today wheat fields and cherry orchards edge The Dalles, and the historic district contains numerous fine examples of 19th-century homes and government buildings.
Historic Columbia River Highway
On the return trip west, leave the interstate for the eastern section of the Historic Columbia River Highway (Rte. 30). Constructed between 1913 and 1920, the road remains to this day a testament to the skills of its builders. Switching back and forth in search of the most scenic route, the highway is a marvel of design, with panoramic viewpoints, arched bridges, and beautifully designed stonework.
To the west of The Dalles, the historic highway soon enters a region of barren hillsides. These areas became scablands about 13,000 years ago, when they were ravaged by huge floods caused by melting ice-age glaciers. The growth that occurs today finds its nourishment in the ashes deposited by eruptions in the area.
The old highway between Rowena and Mosier passes into a transition zone — the dividing line between the arid prairies to the east and the moister forests to the west. Here too you will find one of the most astonishing segments of the drive — the Rowena Loops, where the road zigzags wildly up and down hillsides. The highway also passes two natural areas, the Tom McCall Preserve and Mayer State Park, both of which showcase flowers and wildlife.
Back on the interstate the drive heads west past farmlands, commercial centers, and miles of forest before entering Cascade Locks.
Over the years the town’s name has become a bit of a misnomer, for its cascade was submerged after the completion of the Bonneville Dam and, since its locks were built to circumvent the cascade, they too are no longer a distinguishing feature. Nevertheless, a park overlooks the unused passageway, and a museum depicts the area’s colorful history.
To get an entirely different perspective on the region, you can board the Columbia Gorge, a grand old stern-wheeler that makes daily excursions in the summer. Travelers can also view the river from the Bridge of the Gods, which crosses over to Washington.
The Bonneville Dam was the first of many dams built to tame and tap the Columbia River torrents. A series of fish ladders, or water-filled terraces, are on view at the visitor center.
Salmon leap from pool to pool on a remarkable journey to the upper reaches of the river, where they spawn. The fish come from as far away as Alaska, returning to the very waters in which they first hatched.
Another viewing area looks out on the underwater world of the huge bottom-dwelling white sturgeon. Sometimes weighing more than 1,500 pounds, the ancient fish, with bony plates instead of scales, have been prowling the rivers and seas since the time of the dinosaurs.
Ainsworth State Park
At exit 35 leave the interstate for the 22-mile western sector of the Historic Columbia River Highway, which skirts a lush forest on its way to Ainsworth State Park. Perched atop steeply rising bluffs, the park sits back from the smooth-coursing Columbia River. Of the area’s many hiking trails, one standout leads to nearby Horsetail Waterfall, where the hiking path actually passes behind the falling water.
Traveling two miles farther west through the dense forest, you’ll come to Oneonta Gorge, a botanical area maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. A fairly difficult hike (especially in the wetter winter months) climbs 900 feet to Oneonta Falls, and other trails loop through the area.
The Historic Columbia River Highway passes more than a dozen waterfalls, but most people consider Multnomah Falls to be the grandest of them all. Divided into upper and lower cascades, the falls plunge a total of 620 feet.
Plenty of parking is provided for the area’s many sightseers, and a nature center and 1920s stone lodge have fine views of the falls above. Trails — paved, but on the steep side — explore the hillsides; one crosses an arched footbridge above the lower falls.
Back on the scenic highway, more waterfalls come into sight, tumbling down the steep ridges that line the road. From east to west, the major cascades visible from the highway are Wahkeena, Bridal Veil, Shepperds Dell, and Latourell falls.
Crown Point State Park
A winding drive on the Historic Columbia River Highway climbs upward to Crown Point State Park, a well-maintained preserve that sits perched atop an enormous volcanic rock — the park’s namesake — that rises more than 700 feet above sea level. The preserve, with unobstructed views extending both east and west, is an excellent place to observe the breathtaking beauty of the mighty Columbia River. Almost certain to catch your eye from here is Beacon Rock — an even larger monolith towering nearly 850 feet on the opposite side of the river, a fitting close to your visit to the Columbia River.