“There is but one Columbia River Gorge,” engineer Samuel C. Lancaster wrote nearly a century ago, describing the 80-mile-long chasm that begins just east of Portland. It is endowed with “so many beautiful waterfalls, canyons, cliffs and mountain domes. . . . Men from all climes will wonder at its wild grandeur.”
Stretching from Troutdale to The Dalles, Oregon, the Gorge is a steep-sided ravine carved by the Columbia River during the Missoula Floods some 15,000 years ago. It is green and wet and thick with conifers in its western reaches before giving way to tawny brown hills in the east. Lancaster designed the first road through the Gorge in 1913, and today if you drive his creation, the Historic Columbia River Highway, you will come to appreciate his awe.
From Portland, take exit 17 off I-84, near the Troutdale Airport, turn right on SW 257th Avenue, and then left on the Historic Columbia River Highway. Swoop and swerve uphill to milepost 22, where you’ll spot Vista House, an octagonal stone observatory perched 733 feet above the Columbia River. Architect Edgar M. Lazarus conceived this 55-foot-high domed structure, opened in 1918, as a place where “the Columbia could be viewed in silent communion with the infinite.” On its windswept deck you can see the river’s sandy shoals and meandering tributaries, plus the pluming smokestacks of Camas, Washington. Inside, high on the pillars that hold up the dome sit eight bronze-coated plaster busts of Native Americans. Curators are still guessing which American Indians the sculptor aimed to depict.
Eight miles farther east, on the Historic Columbia River Highway, you come to the tallest waterfall in Oregon, Multnomah Falls, plunging 542 feet from a verdant, evergreen-studded plateau into a deep pool before dropping another 69 feet into a second pool. Two million tourists visit each year. There’s a gift shop and snack bar, but the place somehow feels like the wilds, always awash in the sound of crashing water. On Labor Day 1995, a 400-ton boulder tumbled off the face of the waterfall into the upper pool, causing a giant splash that inundated a wedding party posing for photos on the bridge crossing the lower falls. The bride and groom were drenched but survived.