A tour of the Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Hood

With city-centre in Portland forecast to reach 37C, our original plans for Alaina’s birthday – the Oregon Brewers Festival – didn’t seem wise. So we started looking for tours that would get us out of Portland and into nature. I was sure there were plenty of scenic spots, from forests to mountains to the coast line, but hadn’t really done any research before departure. A popular option seemed to be to check out a series of waterfalls alongside the Columbia River. One itinerary in particular caught our eye- a full day tour which added a visit to Mt. Hood. Although rather pricey, the idea of trading the city’s sweltering conditions for a glacial mountainside sounded ideal. So without reading too much more we took the plunge and booked tickets for the next morning.

In this online age the fear of missing out can lead to over-preparation for a destination, and a sense that once you’re actually there, you’re just ticking off the way-points. We really enjoyed going into this tour largely uninformed, as that meant plenty of unexpected surprises. Obviously a thorough run-through here would ruin that effect for potential future travellers, so I’ll just try to sketch in the broad strokes and offer a photographic taster.

Most of the tour was along the Oregonian bank of the Columbia; a protected national scenic area in which new building is heavily regulated, and the – relatively unobtrusive – interstate and an older scenic highway are often the only signs of human activity. Or so it seemed to our untrained eye – in fact, last year vast swathes of forest had been consumed by a two month burn which underlined the risks of both teenagers with fireworks and the wildfires currently spreading through California. The resulting road closures and capacity limits at popular spots immediately demonstrated the value of having joined an experienced tour guide. In particular, he was able to smooth our way into accessing the Multnomah Falls, the tallest in the state.

From there, we joined the historic highway – a beautiful tree-lined, sun-dappled winding road that is probably as much fun to drive as it is to take in from a passenger seat. Along the way to the Latourell falls, we learnt some of the history of this route and the individuals who willed it into being at the start of the 20th century. One monument to their ambition is Vista House – a ‘comfort station’ added to encourage travel by the newly emerging class of car owners. Although public funds were obtained for its construction, only the wealthy would have the means to actually visit at first. This – coupled with architectural flourishes such as opalescent glass, a bronze-lined dome and an abundance of marble – led to the nickname of ‘the million dollar restroom’. You certainly get a million-dollar view!

View east from Crown Point

Such luxurious conditions did not feature in the experiences of those would-be settlers who made the trip west along the valley. The challenging nature of these first expeditions and migrations live on in the place names. Starvation Creek is now a charming – but apparently often overlooked – spot with another waterfall, but its history was clearly less forgiving. Further east, the modern-day Hood River was previously known as Dog River – a more subtle hint at dietary hardships.

Fortunately – for it was our lunch stop – Hood River is better catered these days. It’s not quite a one-street town (there’s at least two decent sized roads) but it does have only a single stoplight, and definitely contributed to our ‘local America’ quota. What it lacks in traffic management it makes up for in breweries, however, and Alaina was therefore able to get a birthday beer after all.

Pressing onward, we switched beverages at Draper Girls Country Farm, with cider from their orchards for sale in a tumbledown barn-turned-gift-shop. A more charming spot on a sunny day you’d struggle to find: with baby goats in a pen, sunflowers in the garden, and Mt. Hood now looming large on the horizon. As pleasant as the various falls were, I’m glad we opted for the full-day tour which included this stop plus, of course, the mountain.

Looming Mt. Hood.

To properly experience that, we drove up to Timberline Lodge, a Great Depression works project (and film site for The Shining). More importantly, it sits at an altitude of almost 6,000ft and thus offered temperatures some 10-15C cooler than we’d been experiencing (although today’s tour had been thoroughly air-conditioned). Skiing is apparently possible year-round, thanks to permanent glaciation; we encountered some snowboarders to prove it. As the final stop of the tour – and with a 60 mile drive back to Portland ahead of us – we were given plenty of time to explore both the lodge and the walking paths above it, from which we could admire the views across the surrounding mountains.

The photos