Road Trips

Columbia River Highway: Experience the West Coast's Autumn Display

Filed Under: Fall, Oregon

The Historic Columbia River Highway, the first scenic highway in the United States designated a National Historic Landmark, begins 13 miles east of Portland, Ore., on I-84. Built specifically for sightseeing roadtrippers and modeled on the mountain roads of Europe, the highway is arguably the jewel of the Northwest and the most ideal route on which to enjoy fall foliage in the region.

When to Go
Plan a fall foliage road trip for mid-October, when the colorful display of big-leaf maple, cottonwood and Oregon ash trees is unmasked. The scenery of the Columbia River Gorge is beautiful at any time of year, especially its many waterfalls. Once autumn's colors mix in, visitors experience particularly memorable vistas.

Where to Drive
The highway begins east of Portland on Interstate 84, in Troutdale, OR Take Exit 18 and drive south along the Sandy River until you reach the Sandy River Bridge. The keystone-shaped signs from Troutdale to Dodson, OR and from Mosier, OR, to The Dalles, OR, will guide you through the rest of the route.

What to See and Do
Before hitting the road from Troutdale, plan to visit Lewis and Clark State Park, named for the pair who first explored this region of the United States and shared with the nation their discovery of the rich scenery and the indigenous cultures that inhabited it. Their stories inspired pioneers to make the journey west along the Oregon Trail and settle along the Columbia River, leading to the area's development. The park is truly a must-see and a convenient place to relax after enjoying the historic downtown and antique shops of Troutdale.

A short drive from the beginning of the highway, the Portland Women's Forum State Scenic Viewpoint showcases several vistas. It was the view of the Columbia River and the Columbia River Gorge seen from here that inspired engineer Samuel Lancaster and the entrepreneur Samuel Hill to start construction and funding of the highway. The men intended to construct a road that would align the region's most beautiful spots and make them easily accessible to drivers.

Just beyond this stop, you will see Crown Point, the next major viewpoint. Lancaster, as the highway's engineer, wanted to make it possible for cars to descend 600 feet from Crown Point. His well-thought-out highway designs consisted of figure-eight loops that wind down toward the river while not altering the landscape.

For most visitors, the Vista House at Crown Point, a memorial to Oregon's pioneers, is an obvious stop, as it is one of the most recognizable sites along the highway. This memorial includes an observatory and provides a spectacular 360-degree view of the Columbia River. Visitors can also glimpse the mountains of Washington state across the river.

Also photo-worthy are the waterfalls seen along the route, for which the area is so famous. While Multnomah Falls (pictured at left) is a runaway favorite, Latourell Falls, Shepherd's Dell, Wahkeena Falls, Oneonta Gorge and Horsetail Falls are also well worth a look. Unwind at the Multnomah Falls Lodge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, where you can relax, grab a bite and mingle with an international mix of travelers.

Continuing down the highway, you'll come to Bonneville Dam. The first dam built on the Columbia River, it was constructed in 1938 to produce hydropower for the region, as well as to protect its fish and wildlife. Today it is a National Historic Landmark. Tourists can visit the fish hatchery downstream and the dam itself to view fish, in particular the native salmon.

The highway terminates at The Dalles, which once marked the end of the Oregon Trail. It is the largest city on the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The town's 19th-century churches and houses still stand. For a better understanding of the natural attractions you have seen, head to the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and the Wasco County Museum, both excellent interpretive centers.

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