Hood River is also the gateway to a 4.5-mile portion of the historic highway that is closed to motorized traffic, giving cyclists, joggers, and walkers a chance to experience views of the Columbia at their own pace. The car-free stretch starts at the west Mark O. Hatfield trailhead just outside town and runs to the community of Mosier. Three miles in, you arrive at the Twin Tunnels, two passageways that bore through solid basalt—about 80 feet for the west tunnel and 290 feet for the east tunnel—in a testament to the power of well-placed dynamite.
Sunbaked Beauty from Hood River to the Dalles
East of Hood River, the ferny, drippy green of waterfall country changes to a drier, more rugged landscape that impresses with its immense scale. Leaving the interstate at the Mosier exit, you can catch the final drivable expanse of the historic highway, a quiet 16-mile section that winds past outcroppings of black rocks and stands of oak trees on the approach to The Dalles.
The road passes a large colonial-style house and cherry orchard on the Mayerdale estate before reaching Rowena Crest, an open plateau above the Columbia. The waterway appears wide and mighty from up here, but the most remarkable sight might be the horseshoe loop of the highway below. It's like a car commercial in real life, with nonprofessional drivers on a very open course.
The highway eases down from the plateau to The Dalles, a sunbaked town surrounded by high desert. Here you can take weekend tours of The Dalles Dam, watch salmon power up fish ladders, and enjoy unobstructed views of Mount Hood. The town is also home to the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum, an eye-catching building whose exhibits include the type of cargo Lewis and Clark's expedition hauled through the gorge en route to and from the Pacific, as well as mammoth molars and other remnants of the Ice Age. A continuously running 1916 movie clip shows tourists motoring past waterfalls on the brand-new Columbia River Highway.
Machinery has changed in 100 years, but the nation's first highway built to celebrate the scenery still lives up to its original promise: to deliver people to a place that deserves to be seen, now and for many anniversaries to come.