THE DALLES, Ore. — Last November, the Columbia River Gorge became a National Scenic Area. But the designation just formalizes what many in this region have known all along: the Gorge is a great place to visit.
A natural destination for the Pacific Northwest visitor, the Gorge lies less than an hour from Portland. It offers a mix of natural abundance with city services. Thirteen towns are interspersed among the 277,000 acres, affording uncommon visitor convenience.
The landscape of the gorge is dramatic. Sheer basalt cliffs--carved by the Columbia River--guard its waters. Adorning these rock faces are the silver threads of more than a dozen waterfalls, with Multnomah Falls being the most famous.
Multnomah Falls, reached by Oregon's Interstate 84 or the western section of the Gorge Scenic Highway, is the fourth-tallest falls in the country, plunging 620 feet.
The rustic stone walls of Multnomah Lodge complement this silvery splendor and house a souvenir shop, snack bar and dining room.
Behind the lodge a paved path leads to the overlook bridge and a closer look at the fall's wind-whipped beauty.
The Columbia River not only shaped the land, it shaped the history of this region.
The river carried the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the emigrants of the Oregon Trail from The Dalles, Ore., to the fertile valley of the Willamette River. The Dalles marked the end of the 1,900-mile overland trail but not the end of the emigrants' journey. Until 1845, the farmlands they sought could only be reached by a harrowing journey on the turbulent waters of the river.
Long before white men visited this area, Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest congregated here to harvest the riches of the salmon runs.
Salmon's Vital Role
The salmon continues to play a vital role in the economy and heritage of the region. Bonneville Dam Visitor Center explores and promotes the salmon's importance with its gallery of underwater windows for viewing salmon migrations, its fish ladders and the Bonneville Fish Hatchery. September is the best month for salmon viewing, with runs occurring in spring, summer and fall.
On the Washington shore, fall visitors can drive up Washington 142 and view the Yakima Indians netting fish from rickety wooden platforms in the tradition of their ancestors. But for the angler, the promise of pulling in a 40-pound salmon generates more than a spectator's interest.
The artwork of the early Indian fishermen ornaments the basalt of Washington's Horsethief Lake Recreation Area near Lyle. A standout among the pictographs and petroglyphs is the pictograph "She Who Watches." The detailing of this apparent raccoon far exceeds the usual stick graphics characteristic of the rock art of the North American Indian.
East of the park, the Maryhill Museum offers a major collection of Indian artifacts, Romanian art and Rodin sculptures. This museum is an unlikely find, being 100 miles from the nearest metropolitan area.
Five bridges crisscross the river for hopscotch viewing between Washington and Oregon. The historic Lewis and Clark Highway (Washington 14) leads the discovery of the Washington corridor, and Interstate 84 and two snatches of the Old Scenic Highway take the visitor along the Oregon side.
The best way to appreciate the Columbia Gorge is through a series of stops and short hikes. A healthy number of turnouts punctuates Washington 14 and I-84. Each provides another perspective on the Gorge's wealth, beauty and history.
The region has incomparable water recreation. White-water rafting, speed boating, sailing and sailboarding are all popular pastimes. Oregon's Hood River (the town), bills itself as the best inland sailboarding center in North America. The natural winds of the Gorge and choppy waters of the Columbia are an unbeatable combination.
For those with a nautical inclination but a milder temperament, the stern-wheeler Columbia Gorge revives the romance of the past with a slow-churning introduction to the Columbia and its offerings. Tours operate out of Cascade Locks (40 miles east of Portland) during the summer. Price per adult is $9, weekend dinner cruises $24.50.
For elegance in accommodations, the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River is without rival. Preserved within its walls are the glory and romance of the 1920s, with the aura of romance spilling over to landscaped grounds that feature the 206-foot Wah-Gwin-Gwin waterfall. The cost per couple is $95-$135, including the famous farm breakfast.
The hotel's central location makes it an ideal base for exploring the Gorge.
The Columbia River Gorge is only a narrow strip of real estate, but its offerings are broad and varied.
Every bend swells with beauty and discovery, and you will soon know why the designation "National Scenic Area" is so well-deserved.
For more information, contact the Visitor Bureau, Box 460, The Dalles, Ore. 97058.