It was time for our annual reunion with our friends Cyndi and Ernie from Winston-Salem, NC, and Penny and Gil from Santa Rosa, CA. Where should we go, we wondered, that would give us beautiful scenery, outdoor recreation, a sense of history, and great food and wine?
The answer was Oregon. We started our long weekend together in the Columbia River Gorge – an interesting choice, actually, given that none of us really knew much about the area. The only thing I could recall learning about the place came from my middle school history class. Lewis and Clark, aided by Sacajawea, their Native American interpreter and guide, had passed through the gorge in the early 1800s as part of their quest to find an inland water route across the country. I definitely needed new information and an up-close-and-personal exploration.
We remedied our lack of knowledge with the help of Keith, owner of Explore The Gorge and our guide for a daylong tour. As we drove off in his van from the Best Western Plus Hood River Inn – a lovely property on the bank of the Columbia River – Keith whet our sightseeing appetites with some of the gorge’s fun facts:
- The gorge has had a tumultuous geologic history, forming over the course of millions of years from fiery volcanoes spewing lava and mud, floods of Biblical proportions, and massive landsides.
- The 1,200 mile-long Columbia River, which originates in British Columbia, is the main dividing line between Oregon and Washington. While the mile-wide river passes through the Cascade Mountains at nearly sea level, it’s flanked on both sides by basalt lava escarpments ascending four thousand feet.
- The gorge is a natural wind tunnel. The river current goes one way, and the wind usually blows the other – ideal conditions for the many paddle boarders and wind surfers who take to the water.
- The gorge is a haven of biodiversity. Differing amounts of rainfall create a near-rain forest to the west and a desert to the east. The ubiquitous Douglas fir trees have given rise to one of the largest Christmas tree industries in the country. Hemlocks and Western red cedars also are prevalent.
- The gorge has the highest concentration of waterfalls in the U.S., with some 75-plus cascading year-round on the Oregon side alone.
- The snow-capped and dormant volcanoes – Mt. Hood in Oregon, and Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens in Washington – lord over the landscapes.
What struck us most were the views. From every vantage point, they were breathtaking, panoramic, rugged, dramatic.
The first stop on our excursion was Bonneville Fish Hatchery for a self-guided tour. It’s the largest of Oregon’s 35 hatcheries. The hatchery collects female fish eggs and male sperm and fertilizes eggs to start the life cycle. It incubates some 15 million eggs to the eyed stage annually in a building that’s on the National Historic Register. The fish continue their growth in an assortment of rearing ponds where they are segregated by type. The Sturgeon Viewing Center has a glass wall along one side of a pond, which facilitates viewing the fish as they swim. Keith alerted us that we were likely to see the famous “Herman the Sturgeon.” There was no missing Herman when he swam into view. He’s over 10 feet long, weighs over 450 pounds, and is over 70 years old.
All told, Oregon’s hatcheries release more than 53 million salmon, steelhead and trout for sport, and commercial and tribal fisheries.
Next Keith took us to Bonneville Lock and Dam to see the fish ladders, passageways around the dams to help adult fish (salmon, steelhead, shad, and others) that seasonally migrate upstream from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in the rivers where they were born. Dams, overfishing, and predators have made it an especially arduous trip, and the population of salmon spawning has dropped from 15 million to 1 million over the years. It takes the fish from 2-48 hours to swim the ladders.
We drove along the gorge cliffs on the scenic Historic Columbia River Highway to both Chanticleer Point and Vista House, an observatory on the summit of Crown Point. From these higher surroundings, we could appreciate the wonder and majesty of the gorge even more.
Lunch was at Multnomah Falls Lodge, followed by a walk up to Multnomah Falls, one of the most photographed spots in Columbia River Gorge. At 620 feet, Multnomah Falls is the second highest year-round waterfall in the U.S. The steep cliffs and cool, misty climate create an environment for some plants and animals that are exclusive to this area.
Our day with Keith ended at the historic river town of Cascade Locks. In their journals, Lewis and Clark described this section of the river as the “great rapids of the Cascades.” In the early 1850s, a small settlement grew here to help travelers portage around the rapids until locks were built in the 1890s. Watching the Queen of the West paddle wheeler cruise by added to the sense of a bygone era. For hikers today, Cascade Locks is significant as being the only town situated on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The featured stop in Cascade Locks was the steel “Bridge of the Gods,” one of two bridges on the west end of the gorge that connects Oregon and Washington. Charles Lindbergh flew his Spirit of St. Louis under the bridge in 1927, a year after it was completed. Geological evidence supports the theory that a natural bridge formed here some 800 years ago when 14 cubic miles of rock fell off a mountain on the Washington side. The rock bridge collapsed long before Lewis and Clark’s trek.
The notion of a land bridge also was the stuff of Native American legend. Keith told the tale of a chief of a village at the foot of the “Great Crossover,” who became so angry at his sons feuding over a woman that he turned all three into the snow mountains. The brothers became Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams, and the woman became Mt. St. Helens. An artist has depicted that scene, as well as historical and natural events, on a large outdoor mural beneath the modern bridge.
The next day we hiked to my favorite waterfall – Wahclella. The rolling one-mile trail to the site took us alongside a creek and a small intake dam used by the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, and into an increasingly narrow canyon with some steep drop-offs and high, overhanging cliffs. We had a slight preview of things to come as we crossed the bridge at the base of the Munra Falls. We hiked through a couple of switchbacks to another bridge, which overlooked a house-sized pile of boulders left from a 1973 slide. Look up and you can see where the boulders used to be. Truth be told, that made me walk a little faster. We came into a grotto and then had full view of the magnificent Wahclella Falls – a 350-foot, two-tiered plunge, with the final 60-foot section providing a thunderous horsetail fall into a large splash pool.
Wahclella Falls was a fitting conclusion to our stay in the gorge, and set the tone for upcoming adventures on our drive to Portland.