The first time you visit Portland, you must set aside a morning or afternoon to drive east into the Columbia River Gorge. You will encounter stunning views of the river and the surrounding mountains, lush forests that tower above the road, and waterfalls, so many waterfalls. The Oregon side of the Gorge is a string of shimmering silver cascades falling into pools at the base of mossy cliffs and shaded by enormous douglas fir trees. You could spend days here, hiking the trails and photographing the waterfalls, but a morning drive is enough to give you a trip and photo album to brag about.
The first thing to do as you head east out of Portland is to get off of Highway 84 and on to the Historic Columbia River Highway. You can do this in Troutdale and take a long lazy day exploring the Gorge, or wait until the Corbett Hill Road exit if you only have a few hours. The first must-stop photo-taking location is the Women’s Forum Park. It has a spectacular view of Crown Point and the Vista House, an old highway stopover from the early days of road travel. One thing you will notice about the Columbia River Gorge is that it doesn’t look much like a gorge. It is more of a canyon or even deep valley with cliffs rising up out of the trees. No matter what you call it, the views are amazing.
The Vista House is the next stop with a great view of its own and a nice visitor center inside. I was there last weekend and the weather was perfectly still and cool, but it isn’t always like that. The Columbia River Gorge is known for being very windy and Crown Point is no exception. Perched on the cliff as it is, any wind coming down the river sweeps over the parking lot like a hurricane. Once, years ago, I took my parents up the Gorge. When we arrived at the Vista House, my mom couldn’t open her door into the wind. I had to fight my way around the car to open it for her, then help her across the parking lot to the Vista House. We enjoyed the views from inside on that day.
From the Vista House, you will descend to the bottom of the gorge and drive along the base of the steep hills and cliffs. This is waterfall country. Every few miles, there will be a sign for a waterfall. There may be a full park or just a turnoff in which to park. The falls may be right next to the road, a short and easy hike, or a strenuous climb. Don’t worry about what you will miss. Just pick a few falls, grab your camera and enjoy. You really can’t go wrong.
I took some friends here last weekend. We didn’t have all day, so we only stopped at a few falls. Our first was Bridal Veil Falls, a beautiful double cascade that gets its name from the way it flows down as if down the back of a young bride. The surrounding trees and bushes, and even the stones are impossibly beautiful, filtering and reflecting shades of green that occur nowhere else in the world. It is like a giant stained glass window that glows with life. People like to call it lime green, but that doesn’t even begin to describe it. It is the sort of green that you only see in the woods after a rain, usually in the spring.
The falls aren’t the only joy here. Take a moment to breathe the air. Listen to the breeze stirring the branches, the soft rush of water over stone. Look at the architecture of the trees, dark brown and furrowed against that amazing emerald canvas. You could spend an entire vacation just walking those trails and leaning over the rails of a bridge, staring into the water.
There is one can’t-miss stop in the Gorge: Multnomah Falls. Don’t even think about heading back to Portland until you see it. Multnomah Falls drops 620 feet over two steps, making it the second tallest waterfall in North America. The stunning upper falls drops about 542 feet into a pool. The mist and wind generated are impressive, as are the green, mossy cliffs above the pool. The water flows down a short rapid under a beautiful bridge, then drops another 69 feet. There are numerous hiking trails in the area, including one that takes you right to the top where you can watch the water disappear over the edge of the cliff. There is also a beautiful old lodge at the base, from the days when Multnomah Falls was a Sunday daytrip for the people of Portland. It is still a nice place to have a meal or a cup of tea and stare at one of America’s most beautiful sights.