A natural playground, the Columbia Gorge and surrounding area have become a popular year-round destination for visitors to the Pacific Northwest.
The western side of the Columbia Gorge is a green heaven water with the mighty Columbia River and dozens of creeks, waterfalls, mist and cool temperatures.
If you love waterfalls, the gorge's west end is as good as it gets — it is simply "waterful."
Even those en route to Seattle or Portland — with only minutes to spare — can take exit No. 31 off I-84 and spend 15 minutes or less enjoying Multnomah Falls — a 620-foot-high drop, second-highest year-round falls in the U.S.
The eastern half of the gorge is drier but offers its own variety of activities.
"The further you get from Portland, the drier you get," said Mary Stocks, events coordinator for the Columbia Gorge Visitors Association, in The Dalles.
Multnomah Falls at the top, going over the cliff.
"Hood River is known as the windsurfing capital of the world," she said. "The Dalles is sometimes known as the cherry capital of the world."
Words like awesome, fantastic and beautiful seem to dominate the visitor log entries at the Columbia Gorge, Stocks said.
The community of Hood River is usually smaller than The Dalles, but Stocks said the many windsurfers on the Columbia in the summer expand its population greatly. Hood River almost has a bay/gulf of the Columbia River, and that, combined with wind, makes it excellent for the sport.
Hood River also has a historic railroad, offering two-hour scenic excursions, while the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler boat operates out of Cascade Locks.
The Dalles are also extra famous these days for being the location for Google's data center.
Stocks also noted that the entire gorge is very historic. For example, The Dalles boasts 10,000 years of being a trading destination among Native Americans. The Indians still fish on the nearby Deschutes River.
Hiking and biking are also popular in The Dalles area and Bonneville Dam has a visitors center that's not to be missed. White water rafting is also a popular summer activity.
If you prefer short, easy hikes, head to the western gorge. After all, it is almost sea level here, and that, combined with the cooler temperatures, means hiking is easier here than in the high-altitude, dry Beehive State.
But there's so much to see from the roadside that even visitors who never leave the roadway will not be disappointed.
The historic Columbia River Highway, Route 30, is the heart of this lush, spectacular place. As brief as a two-hour excursion here will let you see a sampling of this treasure. In a stretch of nine miles, this narrow paved road passes by six major waterfalls — only one of which you can't see from the roadway and have to hike to.
Crown Point visitor center/gift shop.
Starting at the Crown Point Vista House (containing a gift shop, observation room and exhibits), you will have sweeping, panoramic views of the gorge. Then, you'll feel like you're traveling back in time on a narrow vintage roadway.
When at Multnomah Falls, take more time and walk about 400 yards to the Benson Bridge overlooking the falls from a slightly higher vantage point than the lodge area. Go another one-mile, one-way and hike on a paved trail to the observation point near where the water goes over the top.
The lodge, with a restaurant, gift shop and U.S. Forest Service office, was built in 1925 of natural stone. At Christmas time, there's a brilliant outdoor lighting display here, too.
But be warned — on weekends and holidays in particular — open parking spaces can be in short supply. Multnomah is very popular, and even getting a photograph without other visitors in it can be a rarity.
Still, Stocks said, the dining experience at the Multnomah Lodge "is out of this world," with an all-glass enclosure and a great menu. She also recommends the many excellent campgrounds the historic waterfall area boasts.
As awesome as Multnomah Falls are, having the time to go elsewhere in the gorge is well worth it just to get away from the heavy crowds.
Bridal Veil Falls.
For example, it's a good half-mile round-trip walk to the bottom of the 140-foot Bridal Veil Falls (the only major falls you can't see from Highway 30), but having the solitude on the picturesque bridge below is very satisfying.
With plenty of picnic tables along the Columbia Gorge, taking a lunch along is a natural.
If you're visiting in spiring or fall, you need to be prepared for misty or wet weather. Don't let a little rain halt any plans you have made — it's tolerable if you are dressed for it.
Stocks said summer is the most popular season here, but winter has skiing at Mount Hood and spring has a short wildflower season. In the fall, the autumn leaves create their own colorful spectacle.
Mount Hood. Photo by Roger Arave.
If Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest peak at 11,239 feet above sea level, isn't encased in clouds, it's a spectacle of its own.
Here's a sampling of some of the lesser visited attractions in the gorge:
• Oneonta Gorge. Just two miles east of Multnomah. Here a 600-yard walk in water inside a Zion Narrows kind of green gorge ends with an 80-foot waterfall.
In recent years, you have had to scramble over a logjam or wood to access this, but it's well worth the water walk. The water is cold, but you get used to it after several minutes. Young children need lots of help here.
• Above Multnomah: If you keep walking above the limits of this paved trail and go off on dirt, the crowds thin and you may find some solitude. An extra 500-yard walk, and you will see Weisendanger Falls, a small but outstanding drop. Double your walk and spot Ecola Falls. The lone drawback is that after rainstorms, this trail gets very muddy.
• Triple Falls: Trailhead No. 424, just east of Multnomah, switchbacks up the gorge and 2.1 miles later reaches Triple Falls, where the water splits three ways. Little crowds here, but it's steep. If you're up for a several-hour hike, it is also possible to wade one stream and cross over to the Multnomah trail and complete one big loop.
• Elowah Falls: Located at the extreme east end of Highway 30, an easy path leads to this 289-foot water drop. Family friendly, this hike is just 1.4-mile round-trip and climbs a modest 600 feet.
• Punchbowl Falls: A 4-mile round-trip is required here, and it seems to appeal mostly to locals. Although a modest 20 or so feet high, it's the bowl setting that stands out. The trail follows Eagle Creek (I-84 exit No. 41) and is pretty gradual. However, it's a steep walk down the falls, and there are some long drop offs and cliffs along this trail. Children need careful supervision here.
The trail to Punchbowl Falls.
There's an upper viewpoint to see Punchbowl, but you have to wade in the water to snap the classic photograph at the bottom. Also, in recent years a big, fallen log obscures that view.
Punchbowl Falls' best views are from walking in the cold water.
ACROSS THE COLUMBIA RIVER -- In Washington State:
• Beacon Rock: It will cost $1 one-way per vehicle to cross the "Bridge of Gods" and get to the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge. However, this hike is a man-made classic up an 848-foot-tall ancient volcano remnant. The trailhead is well-marked off Highway 14. Almost half of the path is a delightful series of bridges, stairways and platforms. It's about 0.8 of a mile to the top (750-foot vertical climb) and well worth it with a sweeping vista view. It can be very windy on top and children love this hike. It includes lots of railings, but, again, young kids will need to be supervised.
A section of the artificial trail up Beacon Rock.
• Hamilton Mountain: Just to the north of Beacon Rock is a picnic area/trailhead to more waterfalls. They aren't just on the Oregon side of the gorge! It will take a 1.5 mile walk to reach the first falls. You have to pass under some power lines and you won't see or hear the water until you're almost there. Hardy Falls, the lowest, is pretty tame, but Rodney Falls is much more exciting. The "Pool of Winds" lives up to its name, though photographing it is a challenge, given the wind, mist and steep angle.
The "Pool of Winds."
There's even a replica of Stonehenge, England, in Maryhill, on the Washington side of the eastern half of the gorge. Located on a lofty perch, this Stonehenge is a monument to World War I soldiers but is not nearly an exact replica.
With free admission, it is worth a visit, a short jaunt off I-84. Vineyards, a new trend in the gorge, are nearby, as well as the Maryhill Museum of Art.
(-Distilled from a story by Lynn Arave in the Deseret News. All photographs by Lynn Arave, unless otherwise noted.)