Columbia River Gorge & Hood River – Rural Oregon Travel Guide

Columbia River Gorge & Hood River

The Columbia River is the natural border between Oregon and Washington, and is a required visit for anyone in or around Portland!

Good beer. Big waterfall. Lamb gyros. The Columbia Gorge has it all, plus the most romantic hotel in the nation.

If you happen to live in Portland, or are traveling in or through town, you have no excuse not to visit the nearby Gorge. All it takes is one tank of gas or a day’s car rental.

Captain Robert Gray, of Boston, named the Columbia River in 1792; however, humans have inhabited the region for more than 10,000 years. The river marks the natural border between Oregon and Washington states. It is 80 miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep, with Washington and Oregon mountains forming the canyon walls to the north and south, respectively.

On the Oregon side, the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area begins just outside Portland on I-84 and ends just past The Dalles (approximately 60 miles). The highway follows the Columbia River, curving from side to side along the Oregon mountains, home to the largest concentration of waterfalls in the Northwest. The drive itself is gorgeous, even if you don’t get out of the car.

But there are lots of reasons to pull over.


Multnomah Falls. See that little gray line near the bottom? That’s a bridge.

Multnomah Falls & Larch Mountain
Heading east, the first place to stop is Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s most popular tourist destination. It is located just off the freeway, the perfect place to stop for a stretch. At 620 feet, Multnomah Falls is the second-highest year-round waterfall in the nation. It is nestled in Larch Mountain, surrounded by trails of various lengths. The shortest walk – ideal for the pit-stopper – is just .2 miles. The short jaunt will take you to Benson Bridge, built in 1914, which faces the falls.

A one-mile trail takes you to the top of the falls; if you have some extra time and a picnic lunch, a 6.8-mile trail will take you to the top of Larch Mountain.

The Multnomah Falls Lodge, built in 1925, is located right beside the falls. There’s a gift shop with traditional souvenir items, a snack bar, a small museum and the Multnomah Falls Restaurant and Lounge. The restaurant offers close-up views of the falls; during the summer, outside seating brings you even closer to the majestic attraction.

Closeup of Benson Bridge, at Multnomah.

About 20 miles from the falls, Mitchell Point Overlook is the place to stop for an awesome view of the Gorge and I-84. Don’t forget your camera: on a clear day, the view is outstanding.

For more info on the Columbia River Gorge, go to, see the site for the CRG National Scenic Area.

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Hood River
The next stop is Hood River. I had never been to the town before writing this article, and now I can’t wait to go back! Hood River (population approximately 6,000) is the home of the Full Sail Brewing Company. Founded in 1987, the employee-owned brewery produces some of the state’s best beer, including its most popular ales: amber, pale and pilsner.

The "tasting room" – I would call it the "bar" – offers visitors every beer currently being brewed. Customers can also order lunch or dinner from the short menu (condiments are brought to the table in a cardboard six-pack container).

The brick building at left is Hood River City Hall. Just up the street and at the right side of the shot, is the Big Horse Brew Pub.

If you stop by the brewery, I recommend taking the short, 20-minute tour, offered every hour on the hour, from noon until five. Learning about the brewing process is interesting, but being in the presence of so much quality beer is truly an outstanding experience.

Afterwards, tourists receive a free Full Sail pint glass and a beer sampler platter. If you feel compelled, as I did, to take home an extra souvenir, they have logo tee shirts, key chains, bottle openers, socks and more.

If all that beer gives you a craving for a hearty meal, head to the Big Horse Brewing Company (yes, more beer) up the hill at 115 State St.. I would recommend either the Big Horse Burger or the Big Horse Gyro. Lots of meat, great views – the perfect destination after a morning’s drive.

By the time you’ve indulged at both Full Sail and Big Horse (perhaps you’ve gone back and forth several times), you may want to convert the trip into an overnighter. There are two outstanding places to stay in Hood River: The Hood River Hotel (downtown) and The Columbia Gorge Hotel (just minutes from downtown, heading back west on I-84).

The Hood River Hotel is the town’s oldest, located on 102 Oak Street. The rooms are beautiful; most have hard wood floors that lend the room a clean, polished scent. Each room is furnished with different antiques. The best (and most expensive) rooms are the ones with river views. If you want to go all out, ask for a suite – a bedroom, kitchen and living room decorated in the hotel’s quaint, country style with views of the river and downtown.

The Columbia Gorge Hotel.

The Columbia Gorge Hotel was rated the "Most Romantic Hotel" in the nation in 2000 (by Citysearch). Located right off of the river, north of the freeway, the immense hotel offers more seclusion and grander atmosphere than the Hood River Hotel. If you want to impress a certain someone, ask for rooms 339 or 340. The first is the "waterfall room." One of its windows is located over the small waterfall on the north side the hotel. Room 340 contains the hotel’s signature canopy bed, built in the 1700s and formerly housed in a French chateau.

The Gorge Hotel is a destination in itself. The grounds are ideal for strolling, gazing at the river and relaxing. The hotel also operates a beautiful restaurant and bar with views of the river (outside seating is offered during the summer).

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Other Stops
On your way back west, the small town of Cascade Locks is worth a short stop. The one main street rolls along the river between grocery stores, diners, saloons and campgrounds. Cascade Locks is also home to the Bridge of the Gods, which leads across the river to Washington. The toll bridge, built in 1926, marks the area where a natural bridge may have stood at one point. Regional legend has it that the gods created the bridge to connect the two sides of the river.

It may be tempting to stop at the Bonneville Dam, but, unfortunately, it has been closed to tourists since September 11th for security reasons. The dam, built in 1937, is 197 feet high and 2,690 feet long. It regulates the flow of the lower Columbia River. Folk music fans will associate the dam with Woody Guthrie, who was commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration in 1941 to write songs about the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams to convince Northwesterners to support the work of the BPA.

If you’ve still got time and want to frolic, stop by Rooster Rock or Lewis and Clark State Park, each located off of I-84. Then head home or back to the hostel – and plan your next trip to the Gorge.

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Road Conditions
During winter remember to check road conditions before you set out. Some areas of rural Oregon may be completely impassable due to snow; some areas require chains or snow tires – and believe me, you’ll want them. For current road conditions, call (800) 977 6368 (inside Oregon) or (503) 222 6721 (outside Oregon). Or click here for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Highways & Travel Information page.

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