By Herb Sparrow
When people find out I am a travel editor, they frequently ask my favorite destination. It is a hard question to answer. I have been to numerous places domestically and internationally that have made lasting impressions, either for their striking natural beauty, distinctive culture, interesting history, delicious cuisine or great entertainment.
However, two places always near the top of my list are the Columbia River Gorge, which divides the states of Oregon and Washington, and the Hood River Valley, which extends south from the gorge toward Mount Hood.
The almost overpowering vista of the wide, powerful river and its steep cliffs is enough to imprint a permanent, pleasing image in your mind. Add the many waterfalls that cascade down those cliffs and the rich agricultural land filled with orchards, pastures and vineyards that extend through the Hood River Valley with the towering, snow-covered peaks of Mount Hood as a backdrop; numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation; and quaint riverfront towns, and you have a place that is hard not to love.
“It’s as majestic as the Grand Canyon, with water running through it,” said Lila Martin, regional media relations coordinator for Travel Portland.
“It’s a gorgeous gorge,” said Marcia Chiaudano, director of the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce’s visitors center.
The Columbia River Gorge stretches for some 80 miles between Troutdale on the west and The Dalles on the east. Although Interstate 84 runs the length of the river, the best way to experience the gorge is on the historic Columbia River Highway with its moss-covered stone walls and viaducts that was dubbed the “king of roads” by a London newspaper when it opened in 1916.
The gorge can be entered from either direction, but the most impressive introduction is from the west, a short drive from Portland. Rounding a curve near Corbett at Portland Women’s Forum State Park, the gorge spreads out in front of you, filling the horizon with the octagonal Vista House atop Crown Point, 733 feet above the river, as the centerpiece.
“It is just a beautiful, beautiful view of the gorge,” said Chiaudano. “When you step off your bus and look at the whole west end of the gorge, it just takes your breath away. It’s quite a view to behold.
“You can see Beacon Rock over in Washington, see the Bonneville Dam and see Vista House and Crown Point right in front of you.”
The copper-domed Vista House, built at the same time as the highway, has a museum, a gift shop and interpretative displays about the gorge’s geology.
“Then you take the road to the floor of the gorge to see all those gorgeous falls,” said Chiaudano.