Updated January 16, 2016
Traveling the Columbia River Gorge makes a great road trip, and the Historic Columbia River Highway, a National Scenic Byway, runs through one of the United States’ premier travel destinations, the remarkable Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Located about 40 miles east of Portland, Oregon, the Historic Columbia River Highway--Eastern section, astounds visitors from around the world with jaw-dropping vistas and stunning geologic wonders.
Along the byway history comes to life. Tread where Lewis and Clark once explored. Journey the Oregon Trail blazed by courageous pioneers. Discover the tales of notable settlers.
Make a weekend road trip here just about any season to experience the different faces of the Columbia River Gorge. Find migratory birds and wildflowers in spring, hike trails to magnificent natural wonders, photograph wildlife and view the ever changing character of the Columbia plateau as it changes with the seasons.
As part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, the National Scenic Byways program was established in 1992 to preserve special roadways with historical, scenic, archaeological, natural, cultural and recreational significance.
These roadways are national treasures and have great stories reflecting the heart and spirit of America.
The first road in America to be awarded the rare distinction as a National Historic Landmark was the Historic Columbia River Highway. Designed in 1913, it was considered one of the modern age’s greatest engineering achievements.
Prior to the road’s construction, travelers rafted the dangerous Columbia River or traversed the equally perilous Barlow Road over treacherous Mount Hood in the Cascade Mountain Range.
A railroad constructed in the 1880’s along the mighty Columbia River’s edge, improved access to the Pacific Northwest.
By the early 1900’s a serious need for a transportation route to support cars and trucks was acknowledged by local and federal governments.
Construction of the Historic Columbia River Highway commenced in 1913, the last pavement laid in 1922. In the early 1930’s it became apparent a new, straighter highway was needed.
Construction of this new highway, completed in 1954, destroyed much of the original road and evolved into the current freeway known as Interstate 84.
Today, after decades of collective effort, over 75% of this extraordinary historic byway has been restored and opened to the public.
The adventure begins at the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail between Tanner and Eagle Creeks along the Toothrock Trail. From Interstate 84, take Exit 40, Bonneville Dam, National Historic Landmark; turn south onto Star Route following it about 100 feet; at the fork turn right and follow until the road ends at Wahclella Falls/Toothrock Trailhead.
To see the Bonneville National Historic District, retrace your route back to the junction at Exit 40. Continue north, passing under the freeway. Follow the road to a large parking lot at the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, the starting point.
The next segment of this historic venture picks up at Eagle Creek. From the Bonneville National Historic District motorized vehicles will need to retrace the route back to Interstate 84 and go east. Take Exit 41, Fish Hatchery/Eagle Creek Recreation Area; park in the area appropriate for the recreation activities you choose.
From the Eagle Creek Recreation Area continue your road trip eastbound on I-84 to the town of Cascade Locks to see the Bridge of the Gods. Take Exit 44, which leads directly to Tollhouse Park and the Bridge of the Gods. After enjoying some time here, travel east on, Wa Na Pa Street, the main road through Cascade Locks, and rejoin the eastbound freeway at the junction of I-84.
From Interstate 84 travel to Hood River and take Exit 64, Mt. Hood Hwy, toward OR-35, White Salmon/Government Camp; turn right onto U.S. 30 west, Bridge Road/Mt. Hood Hwy. Turn left onto Old Columbia River Road, which winds up a bluff by means of many hair-pin curves to the Mark O. Hatfield West Trailhead. Caution is needed as this steep, winding road is shared with bicyclists.
To continue exploring the Historic Columbia River Highway, re-trace the route back to Interstate 84 East. Take Exit 69 Mosier; turn onto U.S. 30 East/Mosier--The Dalles Highway.
Enjoy the sights and stops along the way.
To tour the Washington State side of the Columbia River Gorge--Eastern Section, at The Dalles continue east on Interstate 84 to Biggs, Oregon, and then cross the bridge into Washington. Turn left onto SR-14 West.
To complete the loop, and this road trip through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, cross the bridge back over to The Dalles, Oregon.
Hiking trails abound in the Columbia River Gorge, all with superb scenery, and the Wahclella Falls/Toothrock Trail is a worthy must-see. Visitors can hike or bicycle along the trail with views of Bonneville Dam and the Columbia River.
Construction of the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River displaced a section of the original Historic Columbia River Highway, when a new section was rebuilt in another location.
Due to the restoration of the Historic Columbia River Highway, this abandoned section is now a paved trail accessed by Toothrock Trailhead.
Enjoy a hike through transportation history.
The trail starts out following alongside the I-84 freeway before stepping back in time to an old road once traversed by freight wagons pulled by oxen in the late 1800’s, and then moving forward in time, to the early 1900’s when the Historic Columbia River Highway was first built.
Named in remembrance of Captain Benjamin L.E. Bonneville, whom explored western America between 1832 and 1835, the Bonneville Dam and surrounding areas were declared a National Historic District between 1986 and 1987.
A significant landmark in the Columbia River Gorge, this historic area comprises Bonneville Dam with supporting operations and historic buildings, the navigational lock, the islands and reservoir, the fish ladders, the Bonneville Fish Hatchery and Sturgeon Center, and the towns of North Bonneville, Washington and Bonneville, Oregon.
We always bring a picnic lunch and dinner with us because an excursion here takes all day.
One of our favorite memory makers is a self-guided tour of the Bonneville Fish Hatchery and Sturgeon Center, the first point of interest in this huge historic district. We enjoy learning about the newest science in preserving native salmon species and in hatchery practices.
The best part is wandering the fish ponds in a park-like setting. Feed the trout. See prehistoric fish . . . Sturgeons are huge, long-lived ancients of the deep.
Next on our itinerary is a stop at the Navigation Lock visitor area. The Columbia River is a busy conduit for freighting cargoes, so there is good chance for seeing the lock in use.
Did you pack your fishing pole and tackle? Cross over the lock channel to Robins Island and fish off the banks at the picnic area.
Bring your binoculars to spot huge sea lions that swim hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean to feast on salmon and young sturgeon.
Then, cross over again!
The road runs on top of First Powerhouse to Bradford Island and the Bradford Island Visitor Center, where we enjoy meandering through the museum and seeing the massive Bonneville Dam spillway.
Afterwards, visit the fish ladder and participate in underwater “fish viewing” to see salmon and other aquatic species that swim the Columbia River.
The Sternwheeler Pier is here.
Plan ahead, and book a cruise on the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler, a nice way to top off a special day.
Because of its resplendent beauty, many nearby recreation activities, and close proximity to Oregon’s largest city, Portland, Eagle Creek is one of the most visited year-around recreation areas in the state, especially on weekends.
Consider picnicking in the woods beyond the rest area, a respite from road tripping fast freeway lanes. Discover all the Eagle Creek Recreation Area has to offer.
There’s history here!
Eagle Creek was the first Forest Service campground built in the United States in 1915.
Even more historic is the fact it was the first campground in the U.S. to have restrooms with flush toilets . . . still in use!
To stay here, make reservations well in advance. A few first-come-first-served campsites are available.
Did you pack your hiking boots?
Constructed in 1916, Eagle Creek Trail is one of the most hiked trails in the Columbia River Gorge. Day hikers and backpackers enjoy outstanding scenery along the banks of the equally exceptional Eagle Creek.
One of my first, early season backpacking trips was on the Eagle Creek Trail. After a long day’s hike, my husband and I found a nice campground on the high side of the trail away from the creek's bank. I can’t remember at which point we stayed, somewhere above High Bridge, but I do remember the trail and forest were quite damp.
We chose a campsite we hoped would keep us from flooding out should it rain. As an extra precaution, we dug a trench around the tent to channel water away and secured a rain fly for added protection.
In the middle of the night we made a visit to the trees.
Bone-chilling rain poured down, as if we were standing beneath Punchbowl Falls.
The water level in Eagle Creek rose fast.
We dove back into our tent, our teeth-chattering, and huddled together to keep warm through the rest of the night.
The next morning, we awoke to rain, still pelting.
Soaked and shivering, we quickly struck camp, and slipped and slid all the way down a dangerously slick trail to go back home.
I can, without a doubt, say that hiking the Eagle Creek Trail is fraught with memory . . . just ask any seasoned veteran who has traversed here. There’s just something about this trail!
So, hike some more!
Explore the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trailhead, located to the north of the Eagle Creek Fish Hatchery beside the eastbound freeway entrance. This paved 2.5 mile trail is adorned with wildflowers, ferns and moss covered rocks beneath an emerald Douglas Fir canopy, and ends in the town of Cascade Locks. Parking for the trailhead is at the rest area south of the Eagle Creek Fish Hatchery.
The most significant bridge in the Columbia River Gorge is the Bridge of the Gods, because it remains an important connection throughout history, both old and new.
The current structure is built near the site of the original stone land bridge, used for centuries as a crossing over the Columbia River Gorge by ancient peoples, until it collapsed and gave birth to a magnificent cascades.
Though the cascades are now buried deep beneath the reservoir created by Bonneville Dam, the age-old history and the geologic events that happened here are captured in spellbinding Native American legends . . .
. . . and the Bridge of the Gods proudly stands in commemoration of it all.
Today, The Bridge of the Gods connects two states, Oregon on the south bank and Washington on the north bank, the Columbia River is their boundary line.
The bridge also connects the 2600 mile Pacific Crest Trail forged through three states, originating at the Canadian border and running south through Washington, Oregon and California, to its end at the Mexican border.
Crossing this toll bridge is like taking a trek back in time, a memory worth making.
One of the most fascinating parts of this journey begins at the end of Old Columbia River Drive in Hood River, Oregon, “The Wind Surfing Capital of the World” and one of National Geographic’s top 100 adventure towns in America.
There is so much to see and do here . . . but that’s a topic for another road trip article. Right now, we’re focusing on the Historic Columbia River Highway.
In Hood River, a segment of the Historic Columbia River Highway has been restored and re-purposed at the Mark O. Hatfield West Trailhead.
Open to hiking and bicycling, this 5 mile paved trail allows visitors to travel from a lush green fir forest littered with viewpoints, through astounding geologic formations via the incredible Mosier Twin Tunnels.
Emerging from the tunnels’ east side, visitors are greeted by a dramatically different climate zone, the semi-arid Columbia Plateau, a pine strewn landscape with golden grasses waving in the wind.
The journey along the Historic Columbia River Highway continues between Mosier and The Dalles, where the road is shared by motor vehicles and bicycles.
Mosier is all about nostalgia, reminiscent of renowned Route 66.
A fine point of interest is Mosier Falls. A grassy trail leads past Mosier Pioneer Cemetery along the Columbia River Gorge rim to the top where the 70 foot falls is tucked into a deep canyon.
From there the scenic byway wends along basalt bluffs . . .
. . to dizzying heights with marvelous viewpoints, over arid plateaus and through rugged canyons, passing intriguing points of interest and breathtaking views of the Columbia River Gorge.
Memaloose Overlook sits atop a bluff with views of Memaloose Island, a historical Native American burial ground. Below, Memaloose State Park provides riverside recreation.
A spectacular view of the Columbia River can be had from here.
As we traveled the Historic Columbia River Highway east from Memaloose Overlook, views of the Columbia River Gorge crescendo.
More than any other view point in the eastern section, the majestic Columbia River Gorge is best regarded from Rowena Crest Viewpoint.
The viewpoint is located atop the Rowena Plateau on a high basalt mesa.
The panoramic scene at the bend of this mighty river grants visitors distant vistas of the terrific vastness defining the Gorge.
Keep your eyes open and your cameras ready! The Tom McCall Wildlife Preserve, located across the parking area at Rowena Crest is home to many species of life.
The adventure never stops! Take a thrill ride!
The byway moves through Rowena Loops, steep switch-backs down the cliff-side off this outstanding plateau and into a remote canyon.
We enjoyed the scenic drive along the south ridges of the Columbia River Gorge as we ambled toward The Dalles. Voted one of "The 19 Most Beautiful Towns of 2014" and one of the "Top Ten True Western Towns of 2014", The Dalles remains an undiscovered destination, a small town of national historical significance.
Outdoor and water sports enthusiasts, anglers, bird watchers and nature lovers enjoy 300 days of sunshine per year.
No road trip to the eastern section of the Historic Columbia River Highway is complete without a stop at one of the best museums we've visited to date, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, located on the north side of the byway before it eases into the historical district of The Dalles.
Like Hood River, The Dalles is filled with historical sites to visit, wonderful eateries, great lodging and terrific recreation.
Once in a great while we run across a great place to dine at. You know, those unforgettable culinary experiences that create such a vivid memory you can still taste it months, even years later?
That’s the Baldwin Saloon.
I thought it was the scrumptious dinner I would remember . . .
. . . until we had dessert!
It isn’t often a fine food establishment features gluten-free desserts. We struck pay-dirt with two unbelievably delicious gluten-free confections that tasted like a piece of heaven!
Though I normally make g-rated recommendations, I felt an honorable mention was justified in this case.
Chef Tracey Linebarger and her husband, Mark, have lovingly restored the Baldwin Saloon to its old glory, including the fabulous works of original paintings adorning the walls.
Here’s the not g-rated part; in the saloon area of the restaurant, the paintings are antique original nudes. While art lovers will appreciate their value, families will need to remain in the dining room section of the restaurant to protect their children’s’ innocence.
Unfortunately, access to the restrooms is through the saloon, so parents, please keep this in mind if you take your children here.
My suggestion is, arrange a couple’s night out to enjoy live music, wonderful camaraderie and mouthwatering food.
To continue this scenic road trip vacation, loop around to the Washington State side of the Columbia River Gorge.
Proudly sitting atop a grassy bluff overlooking the Columbia River, Washington’s Stonehenge Memorial can be seen for miles.
Like its grandfather in the United Kingdom, this replica “Stonehenge” is a noteworthy landmark because it was the first American monument built in honor of the soldiers who died in World War I.
Inscribed on a plaque, is a deeply touching quote that says it all:
Monuments within the larger Stonehenge Memorial commemorate the soldiers from Klickitat County who gave their lives in service during World War II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War.
A short trail leads to the bluff’s edge where incredible views of the Columbia River Gorge can be had.
On this day, we captured “commerce” happening. The railroad tracks on both sides of the river handle a busy schedule of trains moving goods east and west every day of the week.
A deep channel allows the passage of sea-going tugboats guiding barges filled with shipping containers up and downstream.
Wind farms are a common sight in the Columbia River Gorge, Eastern Section, on both sides of the river. The electricity generated by these wind farms supplements the hydro-electric power generated by dams, like the previously mentioned Bonneville Dam, to meet the energy needs of the Pacific Northwest.
In 1914, local historic figure, Sam Hill, commissioned the building of his Maryhill mansion. Before construction was completed, Mr. Hill changed his mind and decided to dedicate the building to the public as an art museum.
Through the decades, quite a collection of art has amassed, ranging from historic Native American pieces to possessions donated by European royalty.
The museum also features traveling exhibits and many special events throughout the year.
The grounds offer a tremendous view of the Columbia River Gorge. Consider enjoying a picnic in a park-like setting following a walk through the museum.
This impressive basalt edifice is a favorite destination for rock climbers and hikers. A moderately-easy trail leads to the top.
For us, Horsethief Butte was our final stop before concluding the loop through the Washington State side of the Columbia River Gorge.
We crossed the bridge back to the Oregon side of the Gorge at The Dalles.
We concluded our road trip through the Columbia River Gorge by supping at the Baldwin Saloon and spending a night at Cousin’s Country Inn.
There’s no doubt the Historic Columbia River Highway makes a fabulous road trip.
The Columbia River Gorge is a glorious expanse of countless wonders and magnificent beauty . . .
. . . This is Columbia River Country!
Thank you for journeying with us!
Fort Dalles is one of our favorite museums. Though small, it is rife with history. We easily spent a good part of an afternoon here and enjoyed every minute! fortdallesmuseum.org
"The Goldendale Observatory is a major center for viewing astronomical events. It was the designated official headquarters of the National Astronomical League for the total solar eclipse of February 26, 1979. The interpretive center offers afternoon and evening programs about telescopes and star-gazing."
"The Dalles Dam is 192 miles upstream from the mouth of the Columbia River, two miles east of the city of The Dalles, Oregon. The dam extends 1.5 miles from the Oregon shore to the navigation lock on the Washington shore. The project consists of a navigation lock, spillway, powerhouse and fish passage facilities. Various recreational facilities are provided along Lake Celilo, the 24-mile long lake behind the dam. There is a visitor center available focusing on the project and the region with interpretive displays and Park Rangers on site to answer questions." I visited here as a young lady and it was one of the best tours of a dam I've ever eperienced . . . very memorable!