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Cruisin' Oregon with the top down, then up

Modern-day explorers navigate a historic highway, stopping at waterfalls and watering holes.

June 19, 2005|Robin Rauzi | Times Staff Writer

Troutdale, Ore. — We took the convertible.

I've never upgraded my rental car. But we landed in the Pacific Northwest with a forecast for three straight days of sunny skies. "It's been raining for three weeks," the agent said in Portland. "But they're talking about 90 degrees on Friday."

Properly stocked with trail mix, bottled water and one new Oregon map, we set out. Amy -- the Clark to my Lewis on this reverse expedition up the Columbia River -- navigated us east on U.S. 84 to Troutdale, where the end of Portland's suburbs overlaps the beginning of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. It's also where U.S. 30 becomes the Historic Columbia River Highway, diverging from the interstate.

The highway was built between 1913 and 1920 and remains a thing of beauty. It was constructed without modern machinery at the beginning of the Automotive Age, a marvel of engineering, and was the first major paved road in the Pacific Northwest.

The full 74-mile highway stretched from Troutdale to the Dalles (rhymes with "gals"), but its glory was short-lived. As early as the 1950s, segments of the King of Roads were built over to accommodate the growing need to move goods across the state. By 1969, a four-lane highway covered the same route, in some cases overlaying and otherwise bypassing the historic road.

But the surviving (and restored) 22-mile section still reaches many of the "beauty spots" that engineer Samuel Lancaster said he wanted to emphasize to motorists. The Vista House on Crown Point is one. The octagonal stone structure resembles a chapel more than a rest stop -- its original purpose. The point, about 600 feet up from the river, provides 360-degree views. Equally elegant are the figure-eight loops that Lancaster carved into the hillside at a gentle grade. Negotiating them unrushed in a convertible on a warm summer evening is as close as one might get to nirvana behind the wheel.

The stretch that followed felt a century removed. The guard rails are whitewashed wood or arched stone walls. We soon reached the first of the 70-plus waterfalls that rush out of the gorge's basalt cliffs down to the mighty Columbia: Horsetail Falls, Bridal Veil Falls. We stopped at Multnomah Falls, the highest in the state at 620 feet in two cascades. An arching bridge crosses the lower cascade, from which a paved path winds another steep mile up to the very top.

We backtracked to Troutdale for the evening to stay at Edgefield, an offbeat resort run by the McMenamins. Brothers Mike and Brian have transformed old buildings in Washington and Oregon into lively social campuses that combine accommodations with brewpubs, restaurants and more.

The McMenamins bought Edgefield Manor -- a onetime county poor farm and later a nursing home -- in 1990. One of the comfortable and inventive rooms with a shared bath in the Georgian Revival building is only $50. Pictures and tales of Edgefield's former residents are painted on the doors and walls. It is a bit like stepping into a children's book.

There are no phones or TVs, all the more motivation to pass the time visiting the winery or hoisting a pint of the Hammerhead Ale (brewed on the premises) in the Power Station Pub.

Cliffside hiking

The next day, we picked up the trail at Hood River, surely the windiest city west of Chicago. Its stretch of the Columbia is a destination for sail boarding and windsurfing.

Another preserved/restored segment of the historic highway just east of Hood River has been turned into a trail for walking and biking. Clinging to the cliffs, the trail snakes above the railroad tracks, freeway and river. Eventually you pass through the Mosier twin tunnels, cut for motorists, but they would hardly fit a Mini, let alone a Ford Expedition.

In the five miles between Hood River and Mosier, the entire ecology of Oregon shifts from soggy forest to parched plateau. The black cliffs along the river are topped by golden dirt or wheat instead of trees, and the temperature seems to rise with each mile.

This is Sam Hill country. Hill, a wealthy civic booster who made his money in railroads, was one of the forces behind this road. In the Dalles, we crossed over the river briefly into Washington to see a few other marks he left on the landscape. The first is Maryhill, a poured-concrete chateau that Hill built as his home starting in 1914; it now houses an eclectic museum collection of Parisian artwork, costumes and Indian basketry.

Down the road is the Stonehenge War Memorial. Hill, a Quaker and pacifist, built a full-scale replica of England's Stonehenge, again of poured concrete. His replica, dedicated to local men killed in World War I, is more an antiwar memorial, pronouncing the perceived foolishness of the sacrifice.

When we turned around, Mt. Hood dominated the horizon. We cut south back into Oregon on U.S. 197, and the moment we cleared the plateau's edge, hills covered with corn and wheat rolled out in front of us.

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