On the Oregon side of the Columbia River spans one of the more scenic drives to be found anywhere. It winds past numerous waterfalls, gorges and scenic overlooks. Once you head East on Highway 84 and get about 10 miles past the outlet malls, traffic and sprawl around Troutdale a different world emerges. Turning off towards Lewis and Clark State Park you can find signs that direct you onto the Historic Columbia River Highway and East past one stunning sight after another.
Around almost every turn is another scenic wonder; from the green foliage and diaphanous mist surrounding a waterfall to grand vistas looking out over the vast Columbia River Gorge area.
Winding up a relatively narrow 2-lane road you emerge at the historic and iconic Vista House which is home to some of the most spectacular views of the Columbia River Gorge. Completed in 1918 the Vista House is essentially a rest stop and observatory for travelers although it puts your standard roadside rest stop to complete and utter shame. It is one of the more ornate and beautiful rest stops anywhere in the world so much so that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The domed interior is covered in marble and brass throughout and stained-glass windows frame the exterior views on all sides. You can walk up a flight of stairs to an exterior observation deck where Willow got adventurous and I almost had a heart attack.
Since she seemed comfortable on the ledge we got her situated on the front side and I calmly implored her to “sit and stay pretty please” as I quickly ran downstairs to take a picture that captured both her and the Vista House.
Heading away from the Vista House you drive down an even more twisty road until you come out onto the flats again where soon enough you come to find the turnout for Latourell Falls. The full hike to the top of the falls is about 1 mile each way but, since we were going to see several falls and other sight this day we chose to just do the short walk to the area near the base of the falls.
Once we arrived we marveled at the its excellent geologic example of a columnar basalt formation.
At a drop of 224 feet the falls is the only in the area that essentially free falls while most of the others tumble and cascade over rocks to some degree.
There were no signs stating we could not get closer and there was a path from the trail down onto the rocky beach that surrounded the pool and cascade. It was a bit overcast or else we would have enjoyed the copious and forceful mist that slammed off the water in a continuous horizontal deluge. Willow was not too keen on the pounding, hissing sound either and kept a prudent doggie distance…wussy.
Once back up to the parking area we quickly dried ourselves and then continued along further East. The next sight we stopped at was Wahkeena Falls.
If you chose to walk East from Wahkeena Falls on the trail you would arrive at arguably the crown jewel in this group of sights, Multnomah Falls. We instead decided to drive the mere half mile by car on the Historic Columbia River Highway to reach the Falls and Lodge.
Sadly, since we got a bit of a late start on our day of sightseeing we arrived here smack dab in the middle of the tourist bus and lunch time crowds. Ugh. After winding our way around dozens of walker-wielding seniors and parents trying to rein in their erratically-“walking” toddlers we reached the main observation area. After waiting for more than a few folks to carefully frame and take a dozen pictures each we eased our way through the crowds, got Willow to hop up on the back of a stone bench, took two pictures and then got the hell out of there.
After those quick two pictures we took the short hike up to the bridge above that you can see in the first Multnomah Falls picture. Willow said “hi” to a few receptive people and then we made a beeline back down the hill to leave the smothering crowds behind as quickly as possible.
Our next stop heading East was the Oneonta Gorge area. While driving the slow speed limit we saw before us a timber-framed tunnel and decided to stop and take a look.
Nearby was an information plaque which informed us that the tunnel was made in order to facilitate the construction of Highway 30 in the very early 1900’s and then, once highway 84 was built it fell into disuse and was purposely plugged with rocky debris until 2006 when it was dug out, reinforced and made a part of the new walking trail.
We took a little path down into the riverbed area under the bridge and Willow romped with abandon in the low and slow stream.
After she had gotten her fill of wet romping we walked back up to the roadway and our Tacoma and headed the minuscule 1/5th of a mile to Horsetail Falls.
Beautiful rock stairs led down to a small beach area essentially at the base of the falls and so we could not resist. The day was not hot but Willow took the opportunity for a quick dip in the clear and cold water.
Once she had finished her rounds we headed back to the Tacoma and began our longest leg of the day, a whopping 7 miles up to the Bonneville Dam and Lock area which also houses an impressive hatchery. Named for Captain Benjamin Bonneville (1796 – 1878), a soldier, trader, and explorer of the area.
When we first pulled in we turned towards the Bonneville Locks and were stopped at a security checkpoint. The guard was friendly but adamant that we could not have any firearms in the truck because, apparently, firearms are bad and can bring down a whole dam. No, he would not take our word for it we would have to pull to the side of the access road, unlock our camper shell and allow him to gaze upon our pile o’stuff inside before we would be allowed to pass.
We pulled off to the side to allow the car behind us to be put to the inquisition and, while the guard was thus occupied, unlocked the shell and quickly rearranged a few items to cover the scary boom stick that was sitting, unloaded in the back. Once satisfied he would not see anything worth alerting the National Guard about we called him over and he took his cursory glance, we passed with flying colors and were allowed to continue through the gate and up to the Cascade Lock area.
From the parking area we walked all of 50 feet to the visitor’s center at the Western Lock. A volunteer was there and was gracious enough to answer the several questions I had before I had read the information plaques prominently displayed which would have answered those very same questions. Sorry for the dumb questions volunteer guy.
The locks open, free of charge, for any boat that calls ahead to the Lock Master (what a job title) and requests passage through. We waited around for about 15 minutes before a small zodiac puttered up to begin the process. While still interesting it would have made more of an impact had we watched one of the sightseeing paddle wheels or a long, huge barge carrying metric tons of this or that make the transit through the lock.
Once they had tied off at one of the buoyant mooring bitts that ride in vertical slots in the lock walls the giant downstream doors began their closing process. Once closed we started to see the water level slowly rise. We walked down to the Upstream Lock and watched as the water being held back on the Eastern side tried its hardest to force its way through before the rising water in the lock reached equilibrium. When full the lock holds 38 Million gallons of water!
The total process took a little over 20 minutes and then we headed over to Bonneville Dam itself. As we drove away from the locks and across a small bridge that led us to the Original Dam Powerhouse we caught a great look at the downstream lock gates in their closed position holding back more than 158,000 tons of water!
When we entered the parking lot the first thing that caught our attention was the large Kaplan Turbine with its adjustable pitch blades sitting out to the right of the Visitor Center entrance.
In service for almost 60 years it regularly turned at 75 RPM being powered by 96,000 gallons of water passing through its blades a second! Behind the old turbine stretched the newer of the two powerhouses. The first powerhouse that we had driven by to get to this vista was built in three phases starting in 1933 and being completed in 1943. This second one was built between 1974 – 1982.
Just to the left of the entrance to the visitor center we were happy to see electric vehicles parked and charging for use by facilities personnel. The very epitome of getting your power at the source.
We walked around the visitor center and down to the fish counting area. All we saw were some little 2 inchers and a couple of 3 foot lamprey happily staying attached at the window pane.
Outside there were painted arrows on the ground with electric bolts on them pointing the way to the first powerhouse but we had seen a sign earlier that powerhouse tours could only be taken with the guidance of a Ranger. We went to see about that and found tours are given three times a day at 11am, 1pm and 3pm and we had just missed the last one of the day. We will make an effort to take that tour next time we are in the area.
Next to the sidewalk with the electric bolt arrows we found the cascade of the fish ladder and stopped to take a look.
These long series of steps and pools provide a gradual upward climb for the fish who gain 60 feet on their way up and around the dam.
Now in a “fish mood” we made our way back to the Tacoma and headed the 1 mile route to the Hatchery to see the setup but mostly to stop and see Herman, the sturgeon. On the way to the sturgeon pond we took the meandering path past holding ponds filled with a variety of sizes of Rainbow trout, Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, and summer and winter steelhead.
For a quarter we got a handful of pellets and fed the Rainbow trout. Willow liked the pellets too but, for that price, these were more expensive than WAY premium dog food. Many of the trout were easily the size of grown salmon and they have obviously grown fat and happy in their protected and well fed environment. Not an original thought but I do have an awesome G. Loomis Steelhead pole and a box of lures in the Tacoma 😉 If only.
After perusing the holding tanks we made it to the Sturgeon Viewing Center which looks somewhat like a nice house that was sunk in a lake.
Around both sides are stairways that lead down to the viewing area where there are several White Sturgeon including the famous Herman in all his approximately 11’ long, 500 pound and around 77 years old splendor. The place was again a crowded mess and when Herman slowly cruised by the window a crowd of squealing youngsters and their protective parents pushed to the front and so a good picture was not to be.
On our way out we strolled by the outside holding tanks a second time. The Tacoma was where we left it, which is a good thing. We had done a lot in one day and were tired. Willow was limping a bit and needed help to get back up into the truck. We didn’t know exactly where we were going to set up camp and so, to make things easier, we just drove about 10 miles East and found the Wyeth Campground to drop anchor for the night. Except for some highway noise and freight trains every so often it was a nice, green and shaded camp. As an extra bonus AT&T actually didn’t suck and so we were able to catch up on some online news, email, forums and the like. Our next stop would be North and into Washington State for a couple of weeks. Adventure awaits.
So, starting about 20 miles outside of Portland in Troutdale the next 30 miles East towards Cascade Locks offers the interested and open-eyed traveler a vast pallet of sights, sounds, smells and experiences. We did a bunch in just one day but could have easily spent a week or more in the general vicinity and never see the same attraction twice…unless we wanted to. Fellow travelers have many food, hotel and camping options galore to satisfy any whim. A good camera and a good friend (or dog) to share the journey with make this exquisite area all the more enticing and a destination not to be missed if you have the opportunity to visit.