The Columbia River Gorge is one of a kind, all right, with the mighty river flowing between towering cliffs, and plunging waterfalls replenishing the flow. But never mind the natural uniqueness, theyve even made it official: the Columbia River Gorge is the only designated National Scenic Area in the United States.
Interstate 84 gives high-speed transit through the gorge now, and even speeding along its gentle curves, the views are spectacular. But to get a fuller measure of the experience you must stop, stare and turn away.
Turn away because the views to the basalt walls are as much a part of the landscape as the river itself. Turn away to see the scores of falls that water the cliffs, then add their load to the Columbia. Turn away to the roads that take you from high-speed hurry, to high-level adventure above the river and above the urgency of the day.
The historic Columbia River Highway is an unnatural wonder in itself.
Chiseled out of the stone, twisted around the cliffs, bored through the mountainside, it was both an engineering feat and a thing of beauty.
When they started the highway in 1913 they had a vision of preserving the natural attraction of the area as they built. The engineer and landscape architect for the project, Samuel C. Lancaster, said he pledged myself that none of this wild beauty should be marred where it could be prevented.
Instead they sought to enhance it, using no plain utilitarian guard rail for example, but installing in some sections a stone wall ventilated with arches, following a style Lancaster had seen used in Europe.
The road was tremendously expensive for the time, particularly chiseling out twin tunnels. The project was funded in part by the first gasoline tax in the nation. But it was also expensive to maintain, and it didnt serve the needs of modern high-speed travel. Much of the highway was closed by the 1950s. Some sections became part of other roads as I-84 and its predecessors came into being. A 4.6 mile section, including the two tunnels, was reopened in 2000 as the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, accommodating hikers and bikers.
Somewhere in some Oregon tourist material I read that this old Highway 30 was once called King of Roads. Once? Why not still, even in its old age, even with its mileage diminished, even with King Interstate on the throne? Only a few miles of driving on remaining sections are enough to convince me: The old king lives!
Two sections of the old highway are still open to traffic, and sometime when youre headed for Portland, when you can forget the need to be there so soon, you need to take this road less traveled.
We started our Columbia River Gorge trek at The Dalles one morning, and immediately turned away from our main objective, the river. But what we turned to is a worthy objective in itself. We wanted to visit the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center at the Dalles, but while we waited for its 10 a.m. opening we turned uphill for a look at Mt. Hood.
It isnt hard to find. The 11,245-foot cone is Oregons highest, and its
snowy slopes are easily spotted from all around. We drove a half-circle route and caught many views, most of them not so snowy during our late summer trip, but the icy glaciers on the sides were still shining in the sun. When we pulled into a parking lot at the ski area below the slopes a friendly maintenance worker reassured us that the big dog bounding toward us as we got out of the car was only greeting us, not meaning any harm. He helped us find the trail to a secluded waterfall nearby but not until he had volunteered his lecture on the habits of skiers who come to the area for winter sports. He was particularly vocal regarding snowboarders, who, he said, leave their heads some place.
Retreating from Mt. Hoods heights we stopped at the other main attraction of the Hood River Valley, the fruit growing region. We bought cider, pears and dried apples at the Draper Fruit Farm, noting a sign that said, If were not here, weigh and pay, a reminder of similar trusting instructions at some locations along the Willard-Perry Fruit Route.
Growers in the area make the most of their location and bring visitors for the Mount Hood views and for a series of festivals: Blossom Festival in April, Cherry Time in the Valley in July, Gravenstein Apple Days with the Gravenstein Pie and Ice Cream Social and Peachy Keen Weekend, all in August, and but you get the idea.
Heading back toward The Dalles, we shunned the interstate to pick up a stretch of the historic highway that winds up the wooded canyons and takes repeated switchbacks to skirt and climb the cliffs. Here were ample stretches
of the handsome rock-wall guard rails against the backdrop of the river and gorge. Winding around one of those dugways to the top of a cliff we came to Rowena Point with another long-range vista upriver. A bicycle club, 20 or 30 cyclists strong, were taking a breather from their steep climb and enjoying the view.
Back at The Dalles we went to the new Columbia River Discovery Center. It explains the area, the geology of its formation, its climate, vegetation and early residents. In the same building is the Wasco County Historical Museum. When Wasco County was created Jan. 11, 1854, we learned, it comprised all of the Oregon Territory between the Cascades and the Rockies, including parts of Idaho and Wyoming, and was an empire itself.
Down river a few miles and over the river at Stevenson, Wash., is another gorge museum. The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center tells the gorges story with displays including an Indian fish wheel, a huge, loaded logging truck right inside one of the display rooms, and the Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) airplane used to deliver the first airmail in the gorge. It had, the signs said, a maximum speed of 55 miles per hour not fast enough, it occurred to me, to keep from getting run over on most of the freeways we had been on.
They also display charming historical family photographs, materials besides the big truck on the timber industry, and the Worlds Greatest Collection of Rosaries, which includes other religious artifacts identified with the history of the Northwest.
We crossed back to Oregon over the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks. Legend holds that a stone crossing over the Columbia at this point was originally a gift to the people from Manito, the Great Spirit. Todays soaring steel-girded span is a toll bridge with a cantilevered center span of more than 700 feet.
From there we returned to a section of the historic highway and its spectacular views. Crown Point is the high point of the drive at 773 feet
above the river and you can see up or down the river and gorge for 30 miles. The picturesque stone Vista House, built in 1917, was under remodeling. It usually offers an information center with interpretive displays on the story of the highway and the natural history of the area. From there we descended the narrow highway through arches of trees until we were again near river level. This was a region of waterfalls, plunging off the cliffs and through the dense forests to join the Columbia. Multnomah Falls, the tallest of the lot at 620 feet, has a hiking trail with a viewing bridge that makes the falls even more photogenic.
Up and down the mighty Columbia there are not only the scenery-seekers from the banks, and the fun-seekers on the river, but also the workers using this waterway as it has been used for many decades, as a kind of highway itself.
There are cruise ships that take tourists on week-long jaunts from Portland downstream to where the river spills into the Pacific, then upriver, through the Cascade Range, and on to where the Columbia is joined by the Snake River flowing in from Washington and Idaho. This long navigable stretch is a highway for commerce as well, and cargo ships and barges join the pleasure craft, the fishing boats and the windsurfers on its waters.
For work or for play, on the old roads or the new, the Columbia River Gorge deserves its reputation as a thoroughfare of commerce and its designation as the nations only National Scenic Area.
J R Allred is a free-lance writer and photographer living in Hyde Park.