Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon and Washington

by Janean Flowe
family walking a path in the area of the Columbia River Gorge with Mount Hood in the background

By Amity Moore Joyce

Occasionally America’s lands — even those that have been commercially developed — are deemed so spectacularly beautiful that they are designated national scenic areas. A section of the Columbia River is one such spot.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an act that established the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, thus simultaneously protecting “the scenic, cultural, recreational and natural resources of the Gorge” and “encouraging growth to occur in existing urban areas.” More than 80 miles and 292,500 acres along the Oregon-Washington border comprise the tapestry of wild spaces and urban centers.

people walking along a bridge in front of a waterfallTraveling east from Portland on I-84, it’s easy to see why the area earned its designation. The interstate bends and straightens with the sometimes mile-wide Columbia River, the waterway’s presence formed by volcanoes and floods — over 4,000 feet deep at its deepest. Leafy oaks and towering cedars frame the varied landscape, while waterfalls, such as the popular Multnomah Falls, lure you to scenic overlooks. You could drive through the national scenic area, stretching your legs at notable landmarks — Bridal Veil Falls, Bonneville Dam and Bridge of the Gods, to name a few — or in charming, hip towns like Hood River, but the better way to experience the scenery is to get out of the car.

Take a paddlewheeler down the Columbia to see the gorge from the water, or raft one of its federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers: the White Salmon or Klickitat. Hike into its interior on trails that lead to views of Mount Hood on the Oregon side or spurs of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail on the Washington side. Mountain bike near Coyote Wall, a formation of columnar basalt, or road bike along the Historic Columbia River Highway between Mosier and The Dalles. Fish at high mountain lakes. Perhaps most unusual of all, go windsurfing in the area that claims to be the world’s windsurfing capital. Whichever way you choose to explore this national scenic area, one thing is certain: it’s gorge-ous!

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