Just beyond the city limits of Portland lies some pretty amazing natural beauty. The Columbia River Gorge is just minutes from downtown, yet it feels like you are in the middle of nowhere. The Columbia River starts in Canada and winds its way southwest to the Pacific Ocean, forming some of the northern border between Oregon and Washington. The river cuts the only navigable passage through the Cascade Mountains, and the gorge formed tops out at an elevation of 4000 feet. The mountains cause disparate levels of precipitation, from 100 inches per year on the western end to 10 inches per year in the east. This difference creates different ecosystems and the result is a temperate rain forest in the west and an arid grassland a mere 80 miles east.
Getting here is half of the fun. From Portland, Multnomah Falls is 30 minutes via Interstate 84. For the scenic route, take the Columbia River Highway (US 30) from Troutdale. Yes, it takes twice as long, but the ride is more than twice as beautiful. Along the way you will have plenty of photo opportunities, especially at Crown Point State Park and Vista House.
For the best view of the Columbia River Gorge, you have to get to the top of it. There are hikes for all ages and abilities (and tolerances for getting wet). Serious adventurers can wade through waist-high water and scale the rock walls of the Cascade mountains. For the rest of us, we will have to settle with climbing to the top of Oregon’s tallest waterfall for our view of the gorge.
Located on the Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls stands 611 feet tall and you can hike to the top of it along a paved switchback trail. Once at the top, you will have views of the Gorge below that are second to none. Don’t expect to get a great view of the falls, though. Those are best seen from the observation bridge far below.
If you don’t feel like going all the way to the top, you can still get a pretty good view from the observation bridge. It is a few minutes’ walk from the visitors’ center and allows you to get up close and personal with falls. You may get wet, so dress appropriately.
At the base of the falls is the Multnomah Falls Lodge, a combination gift shop, restaurant and visitors’ center. Make this your first stop when you get here and ask the incredibly friendly and knowledgeable staff about hikes in the area. They can help you choose a trail based on your ability, what you want to see and how much time you have.
Parking can be a nightmare, so best to come early in the morning or on a weekday. Long holiday weekends in the summer mean bumper-to-bumper traffic.
The Columbia River Gorge is simply too scenic not to see, and with its proximity to Portland, it is an easy day trip or half-day trip.