Head 30 miles east of Portland, Oregon, and you’ll enter the largest national scenic area in the United States, the Columbia River Gorge. Stretching for more than 80 miles, this canyon is full of waterfalls, scenic vistas, and endless opportunities for outdoor adventure. And when you get hungry, there are plenty of places to pop in for craft beer and farm-fresh food.
When locals need a break from city life, this is where they go. And whether you want to take a driving tour of the main viewpoints or hike the lesser-known trails, you won’t regret spending a day in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Here are 10 fantastic things to do on a visit.
1. Go For A Drive
A great way to see portions of the gorge is by driving the Historic Columbia River Highway. This 70-mile drive begins in the town of Troutdale and ends in The Dalles. Built between 1913 and 1922, this was the first planned scenic roadway in the U.S. Along the way you’ll see Multnomah Falls, the Bonneville Lock and Dam, and the Bridge of the Gods. Make a day of it and pack a picnic to enjoy at one of the many scenic stops. Or park and head out on one of the many trails along the way.
2. Enjoy The Views From Up High
Head to Crown Point and Vista House for excellent views of the Columbia River. Visitors come for the natural beauty of the area, but it’s definitely worth stopping at the hexagonal Vista House with its stained glass windows and domed tile roof. Originally built as a rest stop for drivers along the Historic Columbia River Highway, it is now home to a museum, gift shop, and restrooms. Before continuing on your journey, be sure to visit the viewing deck — it’s a great spot for photos!
3. Float Down The River
You can stay on land during your visit, but consider getting out on the water, too. Windsurfing is a popular sport on the Hood River, located at the eastern end of the gorge. Locals claim that it is among the best windsurfing spots in the world. But it’s okay if you’re a beginner, since there are plenty of local outfitters that provide rentals and lessons. Hood River WaterPlay offers lessons ranging in length from 2 to 8 hours. Or if standup paddleboarding is more your style, then head to Hood River SUP And Kayaking, where you can rent equipment, reserve a tour, or even take a yoga class.
If you’re looking for time on the water that’s more relaxing, try a cruise on the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler. Cruise times range from 1 hour to 5 hours. For something romantic, book a sunset dinner cruise.
4. Admire Oregon’s Tallest Waterfall
No visit to the Columbia River Gorge would be complete without a stop at Multnomah Falls. This 620-foot two-tier waterfall is just a short walk from the parking lot, but be sure to take the short trail up to Benson Bridge for a truly breathtaking view. For a real challenge, hike up to the Multnomah Falls Upper Viewpoint. On a hot day — or after a steep hike — it’s refreshing to feel the mist coming off the waterfall.
If you need a snack, a restroom break, or a souvenir, pop in to the Multnomah Falls Lodge. It was built in 1925 and also houses a U.S. Forest Service interpretive center.
5. See The Salmon Swim Upstream
If you’ve ever wanted to watch salmon swim upstream, then head to the Bonneville Hatchery. In September and October, visitors can view salmon returning from the oceans to the rivers to spawn. Bonneville Hatchery is the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s largest such facility and has a diverse fish production program. If you’re not visiting in September and October, you can still enjoy the display ponds featuring rainbow trout and white sturgeon. The grandkids will enjoy the chance to feed the trout.
After seeing the fish, head to the Bonneville Lock and Dam. Completed in 1938 by the Army Corps of Engineers, it was originally built to improve navigation on the Columbia River and provide hydropower to the Pacific Northwest. To learn more about this important structure, head to one of the visitor centers located on Bradford Island or on the Washington Shore.
6. Wind Your Way Along The Fruit Loop
When you’re ready to sample the fresh produce and wines from the area, follow the Hood River Fruit Loop. Along this 35-mile scenic drive, you’ll have the chance to visit farms, fruit stands, wineries, and even a country store. In the spring, you’ll enjoy apple and pear trees in bloom. And in the fall, much of the area’s produce is harvested. Throughout the year, there are several events and festivals to be enjoyed.
A drive along the Fruit Loop wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Apple Valley Country Store for small-batch jams, jellies, and syrups, all made with local fruit. When you’re ready to sample the wine, head to Mt. Hood Winery, located on a century-old farm, or Cathedral Ridge Winery, known for their excellent red wines.
7. Sample Local Beer
Portland is the epicenter of craft beer, and that trend has expanded to the Columbia River Gorge region.
Enjoy great views of the Columbia River while sitting outdoors at a picnic table at Thunder Island Brewing Co. in Cascade Locks. Their beers are inspired by the outdoor adventures taking place all around the gorge. One of the older breweries in the region is Full Sail Brewery, housed in a former fruit cannery. Definitely try their fruity amber or gold-medal-winning black lager.
If you’re looking for delicious pizza to accompany your brew, then Double Mountain Brewery & Cidery is the place. Locals recommend their India red ale.
8. Hike To A Waterfall
Portlanders make frequent trips to the gorge for the sole purpose of hiking to a waterfall. And fortunately, there are plenty of trails for that purpose. In fact, the Columbia River Gorge is home to the highest concentration of waterfalls anywhere in the U.S.
Latourell Falls can be seen from the parking lot, but if you’re up for a 2.4-mile hike, you’ll be treated to the Upper Latourell Falls as well. To see three waterfalls in one hike, trek the Triple Falls Trail. The distance is 3.2 miles with an elevation gain of 610 feet. This trail is a favorite of locals, but it’s rarely crowded.
If you’ve ever been curious about the Pacific Crest Trail, now is the chance to explore a small section of it while also seeing a waterfall. The Dry Creek Falls Trail winds its way through the forest to Herman Creek and ends with a beautiful but lesser-known waterfall. This 4.4-mile trail has 700 feet of elevation.
9. Explore Hood River
The town of Hood River is a popular stop for many visitors to the Columbia River Gorge. Located on the Columbia River, Hood River offers plenty of shopping and dining to break up a day of outdoor exploration. Whether you’re looking for books, wine, or outdoor gear, the Historic Downtown District has it all.
For dinner with a view, try Riverside, featuring a large outdoor patio and lots of local seafood. After a long hike, you may be craving a burger with fries, so head to the Twin Peaks Drive-In Restaurant. Be sure to splurge by ordering one of their thick milkshakes.
10. Join A Tour
Visitors to the gorge with limited time can take advantage of a guided tour. This is a great way to hit all the best sights and not worry about the driving. Departing from downtown Portland, Wildwood Tours offers a half-day experience that includes the Crown Point Vista House, Multnomah and Latourell Falls, and the Bonneville Hatchery. Cyclists may prefer to explore the gorge on a bicycle with Pedal Bike Tours. Over the course of 5 hours, you’ll ride 8 miles while admiring the waterfalls and mossy green forests.
What To Know Before You Go
The best time to visit the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is spring, summer, or fall. The winter can be very cold, and some roads may not be accessible. But since this is Oregon, be prepared for rain at any time. Take a cue from locals and dress in layers when doing anything outdoors.
The parking areas for the waterfalls can fill up fast. Head to the waterfalls early in the day so you can snag a spot for your car and get great photos.
Allow plenty of time while visiting the gorge. The sheer number of waterfalls combined with the endless river views make this destination worthy of slow exploration.