Explore the Columbia River Gorge

It's not all Seattle in the Northwest... Oregon's outdoors are calling.

Approaching Oregon's awe-inspiring Multnomah Falls.
  • Approaching Oregon's awe-inspiring Multnomah Falls.

When you think of the Pacific Northwest, Seattle is most often the first city that's called to mind. After all, it's the Emerald City, and it's home to the famous fish market, a Starbucks on seemingly every corner, a beautiful downtown waterfront and a soaring Mt. Rainier looming in the distance.

Oftentimes Portland, Oregon, is left out of the conversation when one discusses this part of the country. Perhaps it's because it hasn't been glorified in movies the way Seattle has, or maybe it has something to do with Seattle’s large tech companies and booming coffee culture. Located just 175 miles south is Portland, the Rose City.

Autumn in the Northwest is an absolutely stunning time of year to visit.

On my second day in Portland, I awoke, looked outside and saw a light mist and a thick cloudy sky. It may have been grey but I refused to let this damper my plans to go out and explore some of the nature just outside of the city. The plan was to hop in the car, head east along I-84 toward The Dalles to explore the Columbia River Gorge. Immediately I noticed the simplicity in getting out of the downtown area. A bridge crosses over the Willamette River, and within a few minutes I was completely out of the city and on my way toward the Cascades.

It was no more than twenty minutes when the clouds began to break and specks of blue sky appeared. To the right, large stone cliff faces began towering above, while the Columbia River came into view on the left-hand side. The river starts in Canada and stretches more than 1,243 miles down through Washington and then into Oregon before it turns westward, out to the Pacific. Steadily, the clouds began to disperse and rays of sunlight appeared in the distance. I had hoped to see Mt. Hood, the 11,250 peak that sits just to the southeast or Portland, and with the sun beginning to shine, I was expecting to see it tower above the treetops each time I came around a bend.

Continuing the trek east, the forest continued to grow thicker and the autumn leaves began to intertwine amongst the bright green backdrop.

After about thirty minutes, I took Exit 28 toward E. Historic Columbia River Highway, and continued heading east toward Hood River. The historic highway runs parallel with the main highway, but meanders slowly through the thick forest and past old farmhouses.

After just a couple of miles, it opens up to a picnic area and a number of off-street parking spots. To the right is Wahkeena Falls, a 242-foot waterfall that appears high up on the hillside before dropping down and then gushing underneath the roadway. It seemingly appears out of nowhere, all of a sudden dropping down the side of the mountain and snaking its way downward. A short quarter-mile hike led me right up to the falls. It got me close enough to feel the mist, look down at the flowing water and north toward the Gorge.

Oregon's Multnomah Falls

With car parked, I continued on foot east toward Multnomah Falls. The short hike led through a lush forest of moss-covered trees, wild mushrooms, large boulder formations and water that flowed slowly down pink and green moss formations, giving the illusion of icicles.

After the half-mile, the trail dumped me out onto asphalt. Immediately, I was confronted by a large stone lodge, a restaurant and gift shop, and a small stand selling overpriced coffee and treats. The area was busy with tourists, but being somewhat off season, it was not tremendously packed.

As I made my way around the corner of the lodge, the majestic waterfalls came into view. The initial 542-foot drop free-falls straight downward into a pool, before then plunging another 69 feet – making Multnomah Falls a 642-foot tiered waterfall. The water crashes against a massive, moss-covered wall, which carves out new sections and brings this mammoth to life. The towering trees were soaked in vivid colors and provided a beautiful contrast between the golden hues and dark evergreens. The short hike up to the viewing bridge is well worth the few minutes' walk and provides up-close views as well as a stunning view to the north.

After leaving Multnomah Falls, I continued my journey east along the Columbia River, admiring the scenery and continuing my quest to see Mt. Hood. After another thirty miles or so, I exited toward White Salmon, Washington. The town sits high up on the hillside, just on the other side of the river. The center of town is home to Everybody's Brewing, a small brew company with a large deck and a gorgeous view across the river.

If there was going to be the perfect opportunity to see the mountain, this was it. The sun was shining, blue skies were practically falling on me, and the mountain couldn't have been more than thirty miles away.

As I ventured out onto the deck, I couldn’t see anything. Nothing. Where's the mountain? Though it was a sunny day, there was a thick haze obstructing our view. But that's okay. I ordered a delicious pork sandwich and washed it down with a fresh-brewed IPA. The fall leaves rustled about, and there wasn't a care in the world. The pace was nice and relaxed, it was 60 degrees with a light breeze, and I was away far from the hustle of everyday life.

It took a little over an hour to make it back to the city, the drive just as stunning on the way back.

It's near impossible to make your way through this beautiful land without wanting the simple life: that nagging yearning to fish for salmon, sit back and listen as the water trickles by or barrels down a mountainside. There’s that wanderlust, and then there's the sound of the autumn leaves as they crumple underneath each passing step.

It's impossible to look out at this massive river that gouges a route through the mountain range and not ponder what life was like here hundreds of years ago. It's impossible not to wonder; then again, it's impossible not to be grateful to see such natural beauty.

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