The historic Columbia River Highway was the first ever scenic highway in the United States and is designated a National Historic Landmark. The highway is about 75 miles long between Troutdale and the Dalles in Oregon, and travels through the Columbia Gorge transitioning between temperate rainforest to dry grasslands in only 80 miles! The area is best known for its high concentration of waterfalls but is also a popular destination for hiking, mountain-biking, fishing, water sports and sight-seeing.
The Columbia River Gorge makes a great day trip from Portland because it is less than a 45 minute drive away and there is plenty to see and do here - with all the area’s attractions within an easy reach of each other. In summer, you can find refuge in the cool forests and refreshing pools or view spectacular frozen landscapes in the winter. You can easily see the highlights in one day but we recommend staying overnight if you want to take advantage of the great hiking trails in the area.
Guide to Visiting Columbia River Gorge
Best Times To Visit the Columbia River Gorge
Spring: Best for less crowds & hiking
Summer: Best for swimming, water sports & berry picking
Autumn: Best for seeing fall colors & photography
Winter: Best for viewing frozen waterfalls
Columbia River Gorge Travel Guides
What To See Along the Columbia River Gorge Highway
The Bonneville Dam is the oldest dam on the Columbia River and features a highly informative and interesting Visitor’s Center. A team of rangers and volunteer staff are available to answer questions and share information about the significance of this dam to the Pacific Northwest. There is an underground viewing area and a fish ladder which allows you to get a good view of migrating salmon making their way upstream.
Bonneville Fish Hatchery
The Bonneville Fish Hatchery raises millions of Chinook Salmon, Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout every year. At the hatchery, visitors can view the display ponds year round, watch fall spawning activities, and even feed the large Rainbow Trout. The highlight of the hatchery though would be the adult Sturgeon enclosure which is home to Herman the ten foot long sturgeon who you can see swimming in his pond from above or below. The kids will certainly enjoy themselves here as will any adult wildlife enthusiast.
Bridge of the Gods
The Bridge of the Gods is a steel truss bridge that spans the Columbia River between Cascade Locks in Oregon and Washington State. The bridge was seen in the film "Wild' with Reese Witherspoon and is part of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Best Waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge
Latourell Falls is a 249-foot plunge waterfall and the first waterfall seen along the Columbia River Highway. This waterfall is most recognized for the large patch of bright yellow lichen adorning the cliff face to the right of the falls which makes for some visually pleasing photographs. Latourell Falls is a short hike from the parking lot to the bottom of the falls.
Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil Falls is a two-tiered waterfall which requires a short hike to reach the viewing deck overlooking the falls. The trailhead is located right off the Columbia River Highway and starts out paved and soon changes to gravel, leading to a beautiful wooden arch bridge over the creek.
Wahkeena Falls is a 242-foot waterfall which has a subtle cascading flow. To reach this waterfall, park at the Wahkeena Falls parking lot and hike an easy 0.5 miles out to the falls. You can also continue this loop trail to reach the top of Multnomah Falls.
Multnomah Falls is the most visited waterfall along the Columbia River Highway. Multnomah is a 611-foot cascading waterfall easily accessed via the parking lot. For a closer view walk along the paved trail to the bridge which spans the falls first tier's misty base where you will have a perfect view of the top tier's full 542-foot height.
Lower Oneonta Falls
The only way to reach Lower Oneonta Falls is by wading waist deep in water through the Oneonta Gorge. It also requires a lot of climbing and scrambling over rocks and log jams but this makes it all the more an adventure!
Elowah Falls is a 289-foot waterfall that crashes into a huge amphitheatre. The cliffs on either side of the falls are flanked with the colorful yellow-green lichen found throughout the Columbia Gorge adding a lot to the aesthetics of the scene. Located near Warrendale at John B. Yeon State Park.
Horsetail Falls is located right beside the Historic Columbia River Highway and requires no hiking! This waterfall is much less crowded than nearby Multnomah Falls and is great for getting photographs of yourself in front of the waterfall.
Best Hiking Trails along Columbia River Gorge
Eagle Creek Trail to Punchbowl Falls
The Eagle Creek trail is an easy and very popular hike. It is 3.8 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 500 feet. The trail leads to Punchbowl Falls where you can reward yourself at the end of the hike with a swim in the crystal clear waters.
Eagle Creek to Tunnel Falls
This trail continues past Punchbowl Falls and is a little more strenuous. It is a 12 mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 1640 feet. The trail leads to a tunnel built behind Tunnel Falls (hence the name) which plummets to the creek below. It makes for an excellent climax to the hike!
Oneonta Gorge to Lower Oneonta Falls
The Oneonta Gorge trail is an incredible hike through a slot canyon and is a little bit like Zion National Parks ‘The Narrows’ trail. It is a 4.6 mile out and back, heavily trafficked trail that is rated as moderate. On this hike, the creek is the trail so you need to wade in cold, waist deep water and scramble over log jams until you reach Lower Oneonta Falls.
Hole In The Wall Loop
This hike is a 2.5 mile round trip loop hike with an elevation gain of 600 feet which leads to a man-made waterfall.
This hike is 1.8 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 680 feet. There are great views from the top of the Columbia River below and Bonneville Dam. Beacon Rock is an icon of the Columbia River Gorge and is on hiking trail not to be missed!
The Angels Rest trail is 5 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 1500 feet. The trail is on the western end of the Columbia Gorge and leads to spectacular 270 degree views of the gorge including Beacon Rock.
Campgrounds along the Columbia River Gorge
Eagle Creek Campground
The Eagle Creek campground has 17 campsites which must be booked online. The campgrounds feature flush toilets (no showers) and drinking water. Campsites are situated between large trees atop a bluff above Eagle Creek and the Columbia River. There are no RV hookups. Eagle Creek campground is situated adjacent to Interstate 84 and railroad tracks so may be too noisy for some.
Wyeth Creek Campground
The Wyeth Creek campground offers 13 sites in a beautiful setting surrounded by Douglas-fir and Big-leaf maple tree's. This is a popular campground so book early! Exit the I-84 at Wyeth road and drive 1/4 of a mile.
KOA Cascade Locks
The Cascade Locks KOA campground offers tent camping, RV sites and cabin accommodations. This is our favorite of the campgrounds because their amenities include a swimming pool, hot tub, games room, snack bar and laundry facilities. When we stayed they also offered all you can eat pancakes on the weekend for $5!