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Photo courtesy of hood-gorge.com
One of the best ways to experience the Columbia River Gorge? By bike, which allows you to cruise by such sights as the 176-foot Horsetail Falls.
Nearly a year and a half after devastating wildfires ripped through the region, the Columbia River Gorge is once again ready for adventure.
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It was early fall in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, and Jill Buck was on her way home from work. Buck is co-owner of Multnomah Falls Lodge, a 1925-era, Cascadian-style restaurant and visitor center built next to a 620-foot waterfall (Oregon’s tallest) inside the gorge. After a hectic holiday weekend, she was ready to unwind.
But as soon as she reached home, she received an urgent call from an employee: The lodge was being evacuated. Nearby wildfires, which had been burning all weekend, had taken a sharp turn and were headed straight for the lodge, which is built of timber and local basalt rock.
As she raced back, forest rangers were evacuating thousands of travelers—not just from her building but also from the entire Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which stretches 80 miles along the Columbia River and contains several towns and a whopping 125 trailheads. The gorge is known as a refuge for Portlanders, with its moss-covered forests of maple and Douglas fir, and plenty of breathtaking waterfalls, but its appeal stretches wide: Multnomah Falls attracts roughly 4 million visitors each year.
When Buck arrived at the scene, the area surrounding the lodge was unrecognizable: “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she recalls. Embers soared through the air, and a sizable length of Highway 30—the same road she took to work every morning—was engulfed in smoke. “You couldn’t even see, there was so much ash and debris,” she says.
The Eagle Creek Fire quickly made national headlines. In total, 48,861 acres burned—not a huge area as wildfires go. The difference here, however, was that the fire affected so much of the recreational area of Columbia River Gorge, which one park ranger referred to as “Portland’s backyard.”
A year and a half later, the region is on the mend. Multnomah Falls Lodge reopened in November, with a brand new shuttle service from Portland. And though many trails remain closed due to concerns over landslides (on steeper slopes, loose rocks are held in place by naturally forming moss, but that will take years to regrow), the gorge is busy again. Linked to Portland by I-84, which has convenient exits at major trailheads, the region is a day trip–a friendly, endlessly hikable, astoundingly scenic place. Here are a few of the best things to do in the area.
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Even as the gorge seeks to rebuild, it’s also expanding. In June, the Wyeth to Lindsey Creek Trail will open to the public: an elevated, vehicle-free, three-mile zone that follows an abandoned section of the Historic Columbia River Highway. Built in 1915, the highway cuts a lush, leisurely route along the Oregon side of the Columbia (it was replaced years later by the more streamlined, modernized I-84). For cyclists, the Wyeth to Lindsey Creek segment is an exciting part of a multi-year initiative, aimed to revive the lost glory of this road, complete with tunnels, arches, and Italian stonework. Officials estimate the project will be complete in 2030, when it will be possible to bike 73 miles on uninterrupted pavement, from Troutdale (nickname: “Gateway to the Gorge”) all the way to The Dalles.
Based on a wildfire survey conducted by Oregon’s tourism bureau, restaurants and hotels suffered the worst from the fire, losing roughly $13 million each in revenue. Now, they’re bouncing back.
In the town of Cascade Locks, which intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail, Thunder Island Brewing Company, a dynamic brewpub with riverfront views, is getting ready to expand into a larger space on Main Street. (The brewery’s “Remember the Forest” IPA is a fitting tribute to the local ecosystem and pairs deliciously with the slow-smoked pork ribs.) Also in Cascade Locks, Son of Man focuses exclusively on crisp, wild-fermented, Basque-style cider (at txotx, a semi-regular tasting event held at the waterfront space, visitors gather around the barrel and catch spurting cider in their cups).
Over in Hood River, 25 minutes away, there’s tasty Belgian-style Lambic and smooth Pilsner on tap at pFriem Family Brewers, an award-winning operation that also offers plates of sambal honey–glazed fried chicken and lentil croquettes. As a town, Hood River (population 8,000) has come a long way since head brewer Ken Whitmore first opened pFriem in 2012: Today, the formerly derelict waterfront is home to a sprawling park and an outdoor amphitheater; you can sit and watch the windsurfers cruise by on the Columbia River (thanks to high winds, Hood River is a popular place for the sport).
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While there’s still recovery work ahead, two-thirds of the gorge’s 125 hiking routes—including those around Multnomah Falls—are currently open. In November, Angel’s Rest, Wahkeena Falls, and Horsetail Falls made their triumphant comeback, after being closed for more than a year. But there’s never a shortage of forest to explore here. Oregon State Park manager David Spangler urges visitors to press further, into the gorge’s dryer, more undiscovered eastern corridor: “People stop at Multnomah, but you need to go past that. From Starvation Creek to Rowena Plateau, the scenery is different out there,” he notes. “As you go east, you move into more open landscapes. It changes completely.”
(As with any region hit by wildfires, it’s important to check trail conditions before you head out. See recent updates here.)
For centuries, American Indians prized this 80-mile stretch of the Columbia River. These days, they are the only people permitted to commercially fish these waters, but travelers can get a taste. At Brigham Fish Market on Wa Na Pa Street in Cascade Locks, there’s a simplicity to the menu that fish lovers will find irresistible. Each morning before sunrise, co-owners Kim and Terrie Brigham can be seen fishing out on the locks, the same way their father and grandfather did in nearby Celilo Falls. For Terrie, who supplied hot meals to firefighters while they were stationed in Cascade Locks during the 2017 fires, providing food for her family and community is a self-affirming act: “I know exactly where [the fish] came from. I caught it. That was my hard work.”
June, she says, is the best time to visit because visitors can have their pick of steelhead, sockeye, and Chinook salmon. The Cajun-style fish and chips is an easy favorite, but the salmon chowder is so delicious, you’re likely to find yourself craving it the next day.
Rain forest, high desert, volcano, and alpine forest sit side-by-side in the gorge, making for rich sightseeing. Late spring brings the added attraction of wildflowers. Thanks to plentiful rain and warming temperatures, hillsides on either side of the gorge explode with flowers in shades of yellow, pink, and purple. Rowena Crest, located inside the Tom McCall Nature Preserve, 20 minutes east of Hood River, is a particularly enchanting spot, with the entire plateau blanketed by vibrant lupine and balsamroot each April and May.
Flower lovers should also consider driving Highway 35 from Hood River all the way up to Mount Hood. As you gain altitude, you’ll find yourself in a valley framed by old farmhouses, with mountain ranges shielding you on both sides. The majority of Hood River’s famous cherries are grown here; in late April, when the cherry trees are in whitish-pink bloom, with snow-capped Mount Hood visible in the distance, it’s a sight to behold. Later in the summer, fruit stands pop up along the side of the road, offering the perfect snack to take with you on an afternoon hike through the gorge.
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