I’ve done the drive so many times I could do it blindfolded. From Seattle, drive south on I-5 for a million hours and turn left at the Columbia River. A familiar whirl of wind envelopes me like I’ve entered a wind tunnel into the past.
The gorge is filled with history. The formation itself is a fascinating story. A massive flood ripped down the Columbia River during the Ice Age. Ice dams that held the glacial Lake Missoula, broke apart sending a torrent of water flooding much of eastern Washington and the Columbia River. The flood waters carved out a canyon leaving only the hard remnants of ancient volcanic rock forming what we know today as the gorge.
Native Americans have lived in the gorge for over 13,000 years. Much like today, it was an important transportation corridor to travel and conduct trade. It was also an important source of salmon. Lewis and Clark travelled the gorge in 1905 on their way to the Pacific Ocean and early settlers established steamboat lines along the river.
The first stop on the old Columbia River Highway is the Vista House. Perched at 700 feet on the rocky Crown Point, the small stone observatory gives an eagle’s perspective of the gorge. It was built as a resting place for early adventurers in the times before the interstate.
The first thing you will notice as you descend from the Vista House is how green it is here. This area, with little protection from the Pacific Ocean and it’s weather, receives around 70 inches of rain a year. This combined with the steep canyon cliffs creates a wonderland of waterfalls.
The first major waterfall you encounter is Lautorell Falls. If you weren’t watching for the sign, you could easily miss it. Enjoy a short walk to the base of the 250 foot high falls or travel further to Upper Latourell Falls. The next falls is Bridal Veil. This popular short trail travels the north side of the highway to the pretty falls. Most people just stop to check out the falls, but there is a lovely loop that travels through some of the best camas displays I’ve seen, and it’s usually not as crowded.
The 620 foot high Multnomah Falls with its iconic Benson Bridge is incredibly beautiful, but it’s also incredibly crowded. Leave the crowds behind on the Multnomah-Wahkeena Loop Trail. You could conduct a day long scavenger hunt on this trail with all the waterfalls and wildflowers found here. Fairy Falls, Ecola Falls, Weisendanger Falls and Dutchman Falls all cascade along this route and the trail is lined with dutchman’s britches, fairy bells, mountain bells, cow poison and Oregon iris, just to name a few.
Next up is Horsetail Falls which greets you right at the trailhead. But by now you know that it takes just a little more effort to get to something even better. In this case, it’s Ponytail Falls. This one is particularly fun in that you can actually walk behind it. A trail cuts through the eroded space behind the falls giving you a whole new perspective.
Lastly, there is my favorite, Elowah Falls. It’s not particularly different than the others, but I just love the big patch of golden lichen growing on the rock nearby and it’s contrast with the green around it. The waterfall itself is inviting and appears like a cloud. I like to think that if I touched it, it would feel like ribbons of cotton.
There are endless numbers of waterfalls in this area, and these are just some that you could visit in a day or two. The adventure of the gorge is just beginning at this point. Continue east to cross over into a completely different land, one that is dry and arid in complete contrast to the green and wet western portion. As the sun is setting, drive up the winding switchbacks to Rowena Crest to see the sun light up the purple and gold of the bountiful lupine and balsamroot.