The Columbia River Gorge
The plane begins its descent into Portland over a landscape that’s not what you might expect of the Pacific Northwest. The earth below is arid and brown, etched here and there with squares and circles of irrigated fields. Then in the hazy distance to the left, the unmistakable white cone of a volcanic peak appears. Below, a wide blue swath: the Columbia River. The approaching hills begin to thicken with green.
Suddenly, the great hulk of Mount Hood looms into view, all 11,000 snowcapped feet of it, just off the left wing. Cliffs rise up around the Columbia, and you can make out the thin ribbon of Multnomah Falls, one of the highest in the world, recessed into a niche in the rock wall. Out of view far to the south lies the remains of Mount Mazama, an extinct volcano that now cups the indigo gem of Crater Lake. Somewhere directly ahead is one of the most beautiful, largely undeveloped, yet accessible stretches of shoreline in America. Welcome to Oregon.
The Columbia River Highway
Turn off the air conditioning and roll down the car windows and you can almost imagine that it’s 1938, the year the Bonneville Dam was completed, and people drove into the Columbia River Gorge on this old winding two-lane road to marvel at that new engineering wonder. The Columbia River Highway was something of a wonder itself when it opened in 1915, allowing people to drive east from Portland along the broad Columbia where it slices through the Cascade Mountains.
Which is how Sue and I began our driving loop through Oregon, a trip that would take us through the Columbia Gorge, up to Mount Hood, down the east side of the Cascades to Crater Lake, southwest to Oregon Caves National Monument and Redwood National Park at the northern edge of California, then all the way up the Oregon coast.
The Columbia River Highway was designed with craftsmanship and sensitivity to its surroundings that seem rare today outside of national parks. Built to blend in, it follows the curves of the land and occasionally burrows through the rock. No ugly Jersey barriers here: white wooden guardrails flank the road along forested stretches, and low handcrafted archworks of stone curve alongside the more exposed sections. Arched stone bridges carry the highway across streams. This road was built for pleasure, not for speed.
Unfortunately, speed eventually prevailed. The highway was superseded—and in part obliterated—by Interstate 84, which can now whisk you through the gorge so fast you hardly see it. Two main sections of the historic road remain. The most scenic stretch begins just past Troutdale, a few miles east of Portland, and runs for 25 or 30 miles before merging onto the interstate. Another picks up at Mosier and runs through The Dalles in the eastern part of the gorge. You can traverse the gorge in an hour on the interstate; we chose to spend all day poking along on the old highway, stopping at the many vantage points, and walking some of the miles of trails that lace the forests.
Near the western end of the gorge, the road curls around Vista House, another relic from the highway’s early days. The octagonal domed stone structure was completed in 1918 as a memorial to Oregon’s pioneers and provides a panoramic view from more than 700 feet above the river. Inside is a visitor center with exhibits on the gorge and the building of the highway.
The Columbia River Gorge is broad, because the river itself is broad. The Columbia is the fourth largest river in North America in length and volume, behind the Mississippi, St. Lawrence, and Mackenzie. It is the only river route across the Cascades and has long served as a vital transportation corridor. Lewis and Clark passed through here in 1805. So did pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail. It remains today a highway, rail, and river route, and a major source of electricity and water for the Northwest. Irrigation provided by its waters has made possible the prolific fruit orchards east of the Cascades.
The valley of the Columbia is, literally, older than the hills. The volcanic Cascade Mountains rose around the Columbia, and as they did the river stayed its course and continued to cut down through the rising land. A series of titanic floods resulting from the breaking up of vast ice dams during the ice age surged through the valley to a depth of a thousand feet and scoured it out, leaving behind sheer cliffs hundreds of feet high.
Past Vista House, the road eventually swoops down to river level and passes several of the many waterfalls that spill over the sheer rock walls above. A network of trails allows you to view them from different perspectives—you can even walk behind Horsetail Falls. The best known is Multnomah Falls, the second highest in the United States (behind Yosemite Falls) and perhaps the seventh highest in the world. Multnomah Falls cascades 620 feet in two leaps. You can view it from the bottom or midway up from an arched bridge that crosses in front of the upper falls.
The Bonneville Dam, midway up the gorge, is the farthest downstream of numerous dams along the course of the river that essentially transformed the mighty Columbia into a series of lakes. The river’s once feared rapids are now submerged, and only after passing Bonneville does the Columbia flow freely to the sea. The dams impede the passage of salmon, which must migrate upriver to lay their eggs, so fish ladders have been installed to help them out. At the Bonneville Dam visitor center you can view salmon climbing the ladders both from above and below the water level.
Heading from west to east, a dramatic change in climate occurs. The environment transforms in a short distance from lush conifer forests in the west to sagebrush and grasslands farther east. The moist winds blowing in from the Pacific rise over the Cascade Mountains and dump most of their water on the western slopes, leaving the land farther east dry—a contrast that is especially striking from the air.
The Columbia Gorge Hotel
You can drive out the Columbia River Highway, spend the day exploring, then scoot back to Portland on I-84. Or you can spend the night as we did in the town of Hood River at the Columbia Gorge Hotel, an elegant Mediterranean-style structure of yellow stucco walls and red tile roof that overlooks the river.
The hotel opened in 1921 right beside the highway, perfectly situated to attract tourists visiting the gorge. Trouble was, people tended to drive out from the Portland area for the day, take in the spectacular view, eat a meal at the hotel’s renowned dining room, and drive back without staying overnight. The hotel failed within a few years, changed hands a number of times, and served for a while as a retirement home. Now reopened as a hotel, it’s been refurbished to its plush 1920s opulence. If you ignore the interstate that overran the old highway out front, you can again lapse back here into the gracious air of another time.
The hotel has maintained its two claims to fame: its beautifully landscaped grounds and its fine dining, in particular its sumptuous multicourse farm breakfast. You can take an early morning stroll through the gardens, along the stream that crosses the property and cascades over a 200-foot cliff right behind the hotel, and past the handcrafted stone footbridges and walls that grace the grounds. Then you can head for the dining room and partake of a real meal: a huge array of fruit, a baked apple, apple fritters, old fashioned oatmeal, three eggs prepared to your liking, your choice of bacon and pork sausage and a smoked pork chop or grilled mountain trout, hash browned potatoes, biscuits and a long ribbon of honey expertly drizzled onto them from high above (imitating the waterfall outside), and finally a serving of buttermilk pancakes. The menu warns, “It’s not a choice, you get it all.”
Don’t plan on lunch.
Mount Hood and Oregon’s National Parks
The lodge isn’t as creepy as it seemed in Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film The Shining. In fact, it’s rather cheerful and cozy and full of playful details. Only the exterior was used in the film. The rustic interior bears no resemblance to Kubrick’s sweepingly grand “Overlook Hotel,” whose snowbound winter caretaker, played by Jack Nicholson, went exceedingly mad.
The only vaguely sinister thing about this popular year-round resort is the presence high up the mountain of sulfurous steam vents, which yellow the ice and snow around them and can sting your nose far down the slope when the wind is right. They serve as an unsettling reminder that volcanic Mount Hood, like Mount St. Helens and many other Cascade peaks, is only dormant—not dead.
Our Oregon odyssey gave me and Sue the opportunity to bask in the ambiance of four very different historic hotels, beginning with the 1920s Columbia Gorge Hotel. We next visited Timberline Lodge, which sits at the tree line 6,000 feet up the slope of Mount Hood. From the lodge the summit of the mountain looms deceptively near, though it actually rises another vertical mile. Extensive hiking trails and year-round skiing and snowboarding make Mount Hood and the lodge popular destinations, close enough to Portland for an easy day trip. We stayed overnight, in a rustic room with a fine view of the snowcapped peak.
Timberline Lodge was built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide work for hundreds of men and women left unemployed by the Great Depression. Everything about the lodge tells you it was built to last. The gray wooden structure rests on a robust stone foundation and has a cedar-shake roof steeply pitched to shed the heavy snowfalls. Inside, a central six-sided stone fireplace rises more than 90 feet through the lower and upper lobbies. Huge hand-hewn wooden beams, reinforced by thick iron straps, support the high conical ceiling of the upper lobby. The massive front door weighs nearly a ton. Even the furniture is hefty, built of thick slabs of wood.
Timberline is a showcase of Depression-era craftsmanship. The artisans who worked on it were given free creative rein, so the lodge is packed with imaginative details. Hand carvings of animals appear inside and out. Among our favorites were the creatures carved into the tops of the stair posts: a bear, pelican, beaver, owl—a dozen different ones in all. Woodcarvings and ironwork incorporate Indian motifs. Paintings, mosaics, and carvings commissioned by the WPA grace the walls. The original rugs, drapery, upholstery, and bedspreads were handmade and uniquely designed. Timberline Lodge is worth a visit—and a meal in its fine dining room—even if you don’t spend the night.
Crater Lake National Park
Between Mount Hood and Crater Lake National Park, a few miles south of Bend along U.S. 97, lie two worthwhile diversions. The first is the excellent High Desert Museum, which has both indoor and outdoor displays on the region’s natural and human history: live animals (porcupines, otters, birds of prey, and various sorts of desert critters) in recreated natural habitats, a log cabin and working sawmill, a wonderful series of walkthrough dioramas (including a coal mine and a village street), and much more. Don’t pass it by.
The second is Newberry National Volcanic Monument, where you can get a close-up look at a cinder cone, fields of jagged lava, and a flow of obsidian (volcanic glass). Unless caves give you the “willies,” you can also explore on your own an unlit, mile-long tubular cavern formed by a river of lava. The cave is a constant 42 degrees, so dress warm, and believe the person at the ticket booth when she tells you that those little flashlights you brought won’t get you very far. Rent a lantern.
But the jewel of the southern Cascades is Crater Lake. It is cupped in the stump of Mount Mazama, a volcano that blew itself out several thousand years ago and collapsed, leaving a caldera 6 miles across and up to 3,000 feet deep. In time water from rainfall and snowmelt collected, forming an unusually pure lake nearly 2,000 feet deep—the deepest in the nation—whose exquisite blue color you have to see to believe.
A 33-mile-long road encircles the lake and provides access to many roadside overlooks. Short trails lead to a few other nice vantage points, such as the historic fire lookout tower on Watchman Peak, and Sun Notch, which overlooks the famous Phantom Ship rock formation that pokes up out of the lake. Another way of seeing the crater and lake is by boat. You can walk down a trail from the rim to a boat launch and take a cruise to Wizard Island, a secondary volcanic cone that rises more than 700 feet above the surface of the lake. Outside the caldera, Castle Crest Wildflower Trail, Annie Spring Canyon Trail, and Godfrey Glen Trail provide nice forest walks with views of wildflowers, canyons, and some truly spectacular trees.
We spent two nights at Crater Lake Lodge, which is perched right on the rim a thousand feet above the lake. Though historic in spirit, the lodge is essentially brand new. It opened in 1995, replacing a lodge that was built on the same site in the early 1900s. Unlike Timberline Lodge, the original Crater Lake Lodge was not designed to withstand the rigors of its alpine environment. It was poorly constructed, inadequate, uncomfortable, and unsafe—but what a stunning location! Plans by the National Park Service to raze the lodge ignited a vigorous grassroots campaign to save it. The lodge closed in 1989, and planning for an ambitious refurbishment began.
Over the next few years, workers methodically dismantled the old lodge right down to its foundation—where there was one—and constructed a new building in its place. Outwardly the new Crater Lake Lodge looks almost exactly like the old one—some of the original materials were even reused—but structurally it has been completely modernized, a sturdy new hotel in an old skin.
The lodge and its public spaces are modest compared with many of the grand old lodges found in the western national parks. Its charm comes from its cozy stone and wood interior and its incomparable views. You can sit on a rocker on the veranda overlooking the lake, take an evening moonlit walk along the rim, or relax in front of the lobby fireplace with a drink or a book. Our room was a comfortable, quiet nook on the fourth-floor overlooking the lake. The window seat in front of our dormer window provided a cozy spot to relax and enjoy the view.
Oregon Caves National Monument
No one just stumbles across Oregon Caves National Monument. It lies well off the beaten path in southwestern Oregon at the end of a long, winding mountain road. There are two reasons to visit: to tour the cave—which is not that outstanding, despite the tour guide’s valiant efforts to make it seem so—and to have a romantic stay at the Oregon Caves Lodge, the last stop on our our of historic Oregon hotels.
Snuggled at the head of a wooded ravine across from the cave entrance, the lodge seems lost in a time warp all its own. Much of it hasn’t changed since it opened in 1934. Original wooden furnishings surround the stone fireplace in the expansive lobby, where broad picture windows frame a sweeping view of the ravine. In the center of the lobby is a piano; in one corner a wooden phone booth; in another corner a huge cabinet containing an ancient radio, which until recent years was the lodge’s main link to the outside world. You can order a malted shake downstairs in an old soda fountain, where the clock seems to have stopped around 1955. The dining room offers superb meals accompanied by candlelight, leafy views of the wooded ravine, and soft music intermingled with the gurgling of a little stream that trickles right through the room.
Your first trip up to your own room may seem less enchanting. The halls that wind back to the guest rooms are a bit musty and dark. Brown pressed-board tiles cover the walls and ceilings everywhere. But when you step into your room and open the windows, the rush of falling water fills the air, for just outside and down below is a small mountain stream spilling into a little pool. We left the windows open that night and let the sound of the cascade lull us to sleep. I dreamed of waves foaming ashore along a foggy strand, of leaving the mountains behind us and going down to the sea.
The Oregon Coast
You can tell you’re out west just by the cars on the road. An unusual number of vintage automobiles pass by, many well preserved, some beautifully restored. Not just Mustangs and ‘50s fin-and-chrome beauties, mind you, though there are plenty of those. You see more Ford Mavericks here than you have in twenty years, and a couple of brave souls are still driving Pintos. On the roadside is an ancient tow truck restored to mint condition and an old police car, black-and-white with a single dome-shaped light on top, the kind Broderick Crawford drove in the ‘60s TV show “Highway Patrol.”
And then, of course, there’s the Pacific coast, which on the whole is wilder and more dramatic than the Atlantic coast. Windswept headlands draped in fog jut out into the sea, and massive rock monoliths called sea stacks lie offshore. In places the waves crash against cliffs of resistant rock, while only yards away they ease onto a beach gently enough to deposit a fragile sand dollar smaller than a dime. You can lose yourself here for hours or for days. Whenever the time comes to leave, it is hard to turn away.
Oregon’s Western Edge
U.S. 101 runs the length of the Oregon coast, about 350 miles. Sue and I drove the entire route from south to north, from the California border to the mouth of the Columbia River, but there is one compelling reason for doing it the opposite way. Almost all the roadside pull-offs would be on your right, making it much easier to act on a sudden impulse to turn off the highway at a scenic spot, of which there are many.
If you travel to the southern edge of Oregon, you should go the few extra miles into California to see the tallest trees on the planet, the coastal redwoods. Large stands of them have been preserved in Redwood National Park and adjacent state parks. Redwood trees can grow to be more than 20 feet wide and 360 feet tall and perhaps 2,000 years old. But you really have to stand among them to begin to get a sense of just what those numbers mean.
Driving north out of California provides a dramatic introduction to the Oregon coast, for the stretch of U.S. 101 between the state line and Port Orford, about 60 miles north, is one of most spectacular. All the way up the coast, the nature of the two-lane road continually changes. It hugs the cliffs and skirts the dunes, slips in and out of coastal towns, veers inland among forested hills and dairy farms, then swings back to the shore again. Burrowing through the banks of coastal fog adds drama to the drive.
I suppose it’s possible to drive the whole route in one very long day, but who would want to when there’s so much along the way to see and do? You’ll want to stop often to admire the view or to take a walk on the beach in any of dozens of picture-perfect spots, or to explore the tide pools for starfish, or simply to watch the waves exploding against the rocks. The entire beach is public domain, and scores of state parks and waysides provide easy access to it.
You might even spot a gray whale offshore, as we did while walking on the beach at Port Orford and again from a bluff at Cape Arago near Coos Bay. If not whales, you might see seals or sea lions basking on the rocks below a bluff. Perhaps you’ll come across a herd of elk grazing in a roadside meadow, or startle a nutria (a muskrat-like critter) in a pond along a trail in the Oregon Dunes Recreation Area.
Oregon Dunes covers 40 miles of shoreline between Coos Bay and Florence and contains sand dunes hundreds of feet tall. Dune buggies and off-road vehicles tear up and down them in some places, but other areas are protected and offer you the chance to walk among these giant hills of sand. One thing you probably won’t want to do here or elsewhere on the coast is go for a swim, for the waters are mighty chilly.
If you stop for the night around Florence, you might spend the evening wandering up and down Bay Street in the historic district along the Siuslaw River waterfront. There you can poke around in the shops looking for Oregon crafts and products or have a relaxing dinner—the Bridgewater Restaurant would be a good choice.
You might want to spend couple of hours at the popular Oregon Coast Aquarium, until recently the home of Keiko, the orca of Free Willy fame. The aquarium is in Newport, another river town with a historic district, which not only offers shops and restaurants, but also remains a working waterfront.
Like just about everyone else who passes this way, you’ll no doubt stop in at the Tillamook Cheese Factory in Tillamook to view the cheese production lines and sample the wares. If you haven’t yet tasted Tillamook Ice Cream, here’s your chance. Then pick up a bottle of locally produced Marionberry syrup to take home and some picnic supplies for later—a brick of smoked cheddar, perhaps, and a four-pack of Henry Weinhart’s Orange Cream Soda, which tastes just like a liquid, carbonated, Creamsicle.
If you want to stay put for a day or two near the north end of the coast, check out the old resort town of Seaside. Compared with ocean resorts back east, Seaside is almost subdued. Many of its charms are simple and low key: a ride on an antique carousel in the little shopping mall on Broadway, a gourmet pizza at the Vista Sea Cafe, a room with an ocean-front balcony from which you can enjoy the sunset. Take an evening walk down the 2-mile long promenade and double back on the incredibly wide beach, so firm and flat you could shoot marbles on it. Then leave your balcony door open and let the constant, even roar of the ocean lull you to sleep.
The nearby neighboring town of Cannon Beach is more upscale and artsy than Seaside and has a wider choice of shops and restaurants but fewer places to stay. But it’s worth a visit to walk on the beach past huge, 235-foot-tall Haystack Rock, browse in the shops, and eat a nice meal. You might consider the rustic Fireside Restaurant—be sure to try their homemade chocolate peppermint pie, a yummy concoction with chocolate chunks and the zing of real peppermint.
From Seaside it’s an easy drive up to Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River, which defines the northern edge of Oregon. Drive up the hill to Astoria Column for a sweeping view, take a walk among Astoria’s lovely Victorian houses, and visit the most spectacular of them, the fabulous Flavell House, built in 1885 and altered little since then. You can wander through the rooms at will—pretty unusual for a historic house museum—and get an intimate view of what life was like in a wealthy late-19th century household. Don’t miss the basement, where there’s an odd assortment of stuff on display, including an antique telephone switchboard, old office machines, a Victorian pool table, and a horse-drawn sleigh used mainly to get around Astoria’s muddy streets.
At Fort Clatsop National Memorial, just south of Astoria, is a reconstruction of the tiny fort the Lewis and Clark expedition built somewhere nearby in 1805, after reaching the Pacific Ocean at the end of their 4,000-mile trek. They spent a miserable winter here, hunkered down in a log compound 50 feet square, before heading back east to bring home the news of their exploration, which helped to open the northwest to settlement.
But all travels must end, and a nice way to end this one is to stop at Ecola State Park, just south of Seaside, and pull out that cheddar cheese and those orange cream sodas, and the other goodies you picked up along the way. Spread them out on a picnic table with a splendid view of the ocean and what is probably the most famous vista along the Oregon coast: the view south toward the towering sea stacks of Cannon Beach.
When it comes time to pack up and leave, you may find yourself lingering, not wanting to turn away. But finally you’ll walk back to your car, climb in, and drive off. And when you do, you may find yourself staring into the rear-view mirror for one last glimpse of the blue Pacific, until it slides out of sight as you turn up the hill and head for home.
David Romanowski, 1998