Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory

Portland and the Columbia River Gorge

By Charles Shugart, Jr.



The biggest park within any American city's borders is in Portland. Forest Park is 5100 acres (by way of comparison ... New York's Central Park is 843 acres and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is 1017 acres), and offers hiking trails as well as grassy areas. It's a wilderness surrounded by a city.

The Audubon Society's Wildlife Preserve is open to the public.

As is the Arboretum – aka botanical garden.

Portland is renowned as the Rose City, and Washington Park offers the magnificent Rose Test Garden, with dozens of different types on display. And it's okay to stop and smell the roses.

Also in Washington Park you'll find the exquisite Japanese Garden, with springtime offering pink and white blossoming trees, while autumn gives us lovely golds, oranges and reds.

Nearby is Portland Zoo. Following the trend of recent years, much time and effort has gone into making it a habitat for the animals, rather than a collection of cages. If you haven't been to a zoo for awhile, Portland's is an excellent place to observe the progress that has been made. It is big enough to offer considerable variety, yet small enough that three or four hours will give you time to see everything.

OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) is a real "hands on" teaching and learning museum. It's along the Willamette River, and is designed for the enjoyment of adults and children of all ages.

Greenbelt pathways are located downtown on the edge of the Willamette, and are good places for walking and watching boat traffic. Portland is a deep water port, even though it's more than a hundred miles from the ocean by way of the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

If you happen to be in Portland during the first week of June, find out what's going on at the Rose Festival. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships tie up at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Each year they are joined by Canadian warships. In recent years, a fleet of tall sailing ships have joined the party. There are Dragon Boat Races, a MusicFest, and the Grand Floral Parade, plus many additional and exciting things going on, including a carnival. Local artists and craftsmen offer their wares for sale, and, of course, cotton candy can be found somewhere.

Yes, Portland has a lot to offer.

Including easy access to the Columbia River Gorge, where numerous waterfalls plunge over lava-flow cliffs into clear pools, surrounded by the lush growth found in a temperate rain forest. Brilliant green mosses and brightly colored lichens are everywhere, even attached to tree trunks and branches. Ferns spread their lacy fronds in all directions.

Several waterfalls occur within a few miles of each other, offering concentrated and delightful scenery, and soul-satisfying hikes.

To really see the Columbia River Gorge to its best advantage, head east from Portland on Interstate 84 to Troutdale (exit #17). Then follow the Old Highway, which was built in 1915 and is positively enchanting.

Your first lookout is above Crown Point; it's the Women's Forum State Park. From there you look down on Crown Point Vista House and beyond to the beginning of the Gorge. It is a well-loved spot, especially if the late afternoon sun shines golden and the sky is clear except for a few perfect clouds.

The road winds downhill through the rain forest to Crown Point, which is another good stop. After enjoying the view and seeing the display in the rotunda, continue on the Old Highway. You might have feelings of deja vu, because many car advertisements have been filmed along this section. Its serpentine route is up against the basalt lava flows that make the Gorge such a stunning place. Keep your eyes open for pullouts where you can stop to look at the forest.

Also look for small but sensational waterfalls: Latourell, Shepperd's Dell, Wahkeena, and Horsetail are worthy of stops and photography.

In the middle of it all is Multnomah Falls, the second tallest in the U.S., after California's Yosemite Fall. At 620 feet, the upper falls is magnificent! With the lower falls, the bridge and upper falls, the combination is worthy of your time and appreciation. Multnomah Falls is popular, so there will usually be people standing on the bridge. Use them to your advantage; they lend a sense of scale to your photographs. Don't forget the view from the bridge looking straight down. There are many sightseeing and photo possibilities. All are good.

A short hike takes you up to the bridge. A longer hike takes you to the top of the falls. From the top, a trail continues through more of the rain forest. Hikers can make an enjoyable loop by continuing on the trail west and coming down the Wahkeena Falls Trail, then back to your vehicle on the path next to the road.

After Horsetail Falls, stop at Oneonta Gorge. You have to wade up the stream to get to the falls, but on a hot day, that's not all bad. Just don't take an expensive camera when wading.
Leaving this section of the Historic Highway, you can pick up Interstate 84 for a short distance and turn off at Bonneville Dam – it's very impressive. Head to the viewing room to watch the salmon as they go by the fish-counting station. If you want to photograph the migrating fish, get your lens close to the glass to reduce reflections.

Further on, stop at Eagle Creek for some of the best hiking in a rain forest – but don't drive your RV to the end because there's not much room for turning around. Instead, park in the outer lot. The first mile or so of the trail is mostly level, and then it becomes slightly uphill. The rewards for your modest efforts are well worth it. You walk alongside the stream. Thirty feet below is the narrow slit the water has carved into the basalt lava rock. Those same lava flows loom above you.

Then it's back to the freeway. Turn off at Cascade Locks for a view of the Bridge of the Gods. The nearby park is next to the river and is a good place for a picnic lunch.

Continuing east on the Interstate, you arrive at Hood River; a perfect location to base yourself for a few days. Take time to explore Mt. Hood Scenic Loop Road and the drive to Lost Lake. Park at the lake, walk counterclockwise for awhile and you'll find one of those delectable places where Lost Lake is in the foreground with Mt. Hood behind it. If there is no wind (mornings, usually) you can get great reflections. In the late afternoon you might get Alpenglow on Hood's snow-covered peak ... snow-covered in early summer, that is. By September much of the white stuff has melted.

Too many visitors to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area blast down the Interstate, stopping only at Multnomah Falls. Although that is certainly a good place to pick, there are several other places that are worthy of your time. A full day exploring the Gorge might be enough. Want to take a bunch of photographs and do some hiking? Then take your time; two or three days could go by in a flash.

RVers note: Don't take your rig on the Old Scenic Highway that goes by all the waterfalls; the road is too narrow in places, and has low, overhanging basalt cliffs where the mountain was blasted away to make room for the road. Instead: make camp in the area, disconnect and then go exploring.

Although farther north than Portland Maine, Portland Oregon has mild winters, with rain being far more common than snow. Winters in the gorge might bring temperatures cold enough to freeze some of the water coming down the falls. This can be visually dramatic. Spring offers the most water coming over the waterfalls – autumn the least. Summers can be warm, especially on the eastern edge of the Gorge.

Portland and the Columbia River Gorge are great places to visit.

At any time of the year.