t may not be the narrow, fjord-like chasm outsiders might expect from the word gorge, but there’s no mistaking when you’ve left the city behind and entered the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, designated by Congress in 1986 as the second-ever such area to limit development and preserve much of its natural glory. Traveling east from Portland, it officially begins when you cross the Sandy River, leaving Troutdale’s airport, outlet mall, and row of last-chance gas stations in the rear view. On the Washington side, bustling Washougal suddenly gives way to a curling, fir-lined Highway 14 with peekaboo views around every bend. You don’t have to go far to see what this gorge has to offer.
Where to Eat
A day-trip escape can start just outside the scenic area at Troutdale’s Sugarpine Drive-In, an almost obligatory stop for its waffle iron-pressed grilled cheese, pulled pork sandwiches, and soft serve sundaes with new-school upgrades like pine nut honeycomb crunch, miso caramel, and blueberry-lavender sauce. Like your soft serve 100 percent old-school? Continue east to Eastwind Drive-In in Cascade Locks for classic cheeseburgers, chicken strips, and chocolate-vanilla swirl cones piled high. For a sit-down stop in Cascade Locks, take a breather at Thunder Island Brewing Co, grab some gastropub-style fare, and choose from several stellar IPAs to sip on while perched on the second-floor patio, which offers awe-inspiring views of the Columbia River and the Bridge of the Gods.
Across the river, Hello Waffle in Camas makes ideal adventure fuel for hikes—who could say no to a waffle sandwich stuffed with fried chicken or sausage and gravy, or a sweet caramel apple pie–inspired waffle topped with cinnamon apples, granola, caramel, and whipped cream? If you’re nursing a hangover, stop at Clark & Lewie’s in Stevenson, sit on the river view patio, and order a Bridge of the Gods Bloody Mary, loaded with green beans, asparagus, pepperoncini, celery, bacon, and pepperoni. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the Big River Grill serves salmon in omelets, sandwiches, pasta, bleu cheese–loaded salad, and more; sit inside the old-school booths, or on the patio along Stevenson’s main drag. —KCH
Where to Stay
Outside of Hood River proper, Gorge lodging choices tend to skew a little more rustic and reasonably priced. And what you’ll give up in quicker access to Mount Hood’s trails and resorts, you’ll gain in proximity to less crowded trailheads, wildflower meadows, and breweries. Skamania Lodge, on the edge of Stevenson, is no secret, and its rooms give off standard contemporary Northwest vibes. But its rolling green lawn, outdoor fire pits, and open-air hot tub simply never get old, and adventure seekers will like the in-house zipline tour of the surrounding forest—go midweek to snag bargain pricing on the romantic treehouse suites. A little farther east, the Carson Ridge Luxury Cabins offer privacy, lovely grounds, and ginormous comfy beds—you might even get some rose petals strewn around the in-room jetted tubs if you mention you’re celebrating a honeymoon or an anniversary. For a relaxed dinner and drinks, head across the street to Backwoods Brewing Company.
Hotel options are more limited on the Oregon side in this part of the Gorge, but check out Airbnbs like Venture Garden House in Cascade Locks, complete with a sweet backyard sauna and views of the Columbia River from the plant-filled bedroom. Take a waterfall hike or two from a trailhead in walking distance, and then kick back on the sleekly appointed, adults-only roof deck at Gorges Beer. —JS
Where to Play
Any self-respecting Gorge-goer stops to take in stunning views at the historic Vista House on their journey. The terrain near that viewpoint is jam-packed with destinations: an easy 2.5-mile loop hike just off 84 will take you to the two-tiered Latourell Falls. Eastbound I-84 travelers should hit Bridal Veil, Ponytail, and, of course, Multnomah Falls, all a stone’s throw apart. (Be sure to get a permit from ODOT for daytime summer trips on the Historic Columbia River Highway, or check out services like Gray Line’s Waterfall Trolley or the Sasquatch Shuttle. Public transit can get you to a lot of waterfalls, too.) Closer to Cascade Locks sit a pair of rewarding jaunts to Wahclella and Dry Creek Falls, and if you find you’re all waterfalled out (which, suit yourself!), have a hot soak in the 1920s-era bathhouse at Carson Hot Springs (an acquired taste) or get thee to the ’30s-era Bonneville Dam for a misty, surprisingly majestic commune with one of the world’s largest hydroelectric systems. Tours are offered thrice daily on the Washington side of the Columbia.
Back home in the Beaver State, you can check out the to feed some trout, coo at some sturgeon, and learn a whole lot about salmon. Still hike-hungry? The five-mile out-and-back trail to Angel’s Rest, high above the Gorge, should do the trick. —CR