Quick history and geography lesson: The Columbia River drains most of the Vista House Pacific Northwest; it is second only to the Mississippi in terms of volume of water discharged at the mouth. We're here in the dry season of a dry year, so the river seems pretty tame. It's navigable for quite a distance, with several locks and dams to tame the river and draw hydroelectric power.
Lewis and Clark followed the Columbia at the end of their expedition, and the Oregon Trail came down to the Columbia. At The Dalles the river becomes flanked by steep mountains. The pioneers had a choice of a risky raft trip through stretches of white water or an arduous overland trek through the hills.
The fertile Willamette Valley prospered, and as soon as there were motor cars Oregonians began thinking of a motor road that skirted the Columbia River Gorge. It was an engineering marvel, with bridges and tunnels and switchbacks, View to the East and it brought magnificent views of the Gorge to travelers. The United States declared the Gorge a National Scenic Area, and numerous landowners donated property to the government.
The next part of the story is not so happy. U.S. 30 and, later I-84, cut a swath along the river's edge to speed transportation, and the scenic road fell into disuse. Finally it ceased to be maintained at all; a tunnel caved in, bridges collapsed, and the road was effectively abandoned.
About 20 years ago a group of Portland citizens began to work to revive the Scenic Highway. More than half of the road is opened to cars today, and the tunnel has been dug out and opened to pedestrians and cyclists.
Our first overlook of the Gorge was the Portland Women's Forum State Park, dedicated to the (modern) Portland Women who helped rebuild the scenic La Tourelle Falls road. It's located on the site of an old hotel that burned down, and has splendid views. Next we came to Crown Point, where the Vista House, an ornate architectural folly on a prominence overlooking the river in both directions, has been restored.
There followed a serious of wondrous waterfalls, each more beautiful than the one before: Latourell, Shepperds Dell, Bridal Veil, Wahkeena, Multnomah, Horsetail.
As we oohed and ahhed over this lovely drive, we wondered about Americans in a rush, speeding by on the Interstate and not pausing to smell the daisies. We're certainly grateful to the citizens who moved to have the road reopened and provide this alternative.
We weren't done with scenic attractions. We came next to Bonneville Dam, a depression project dedicated by FDR in 1938. The Dam is in three parts, spanning two islands in the Columbia, and includes locks and a salmon ladder, fish hatchery, and power generators. The Army Corps of Engineers visitor center has a nice exhibit which discusses the Gorge from the time of the Native Multnomah Falls Americans to the present.
As we came into the town of Hood River, it was time for lunch, and serendipity operated for us once more! We found the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel and had a simply scrumptious lunch. Our table overlooked the river and the hotel gardens outside, where workers were unthreading the last strings of Christmas lights. The luncheon included an appetizer (fabulous salmon mousse and a triangular slice of cream cheese, flavored and colored in three layers, served with crispy bread, accented with fresh asparagus marinated in sesame oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds), soup (chicken noodle with a sun-dried tomato base) or salad, and an entree (steamed clams and rainbow trout were our choices.) The service was excellent and the hotel itself gorgeous. It was originally opened in 1921 as one of the stops on the scenic highway and it's on the National Register of Historic places.
It's rare that we single out an establishment for special praise, but we simply can't say enough about luncheon at the Columbia Gorge Hotel. As we left the chef greeted us, and the manager gave us a rate sheet for overnight guests in their newly decorated bedrooms. $199 includes champagne and caviar in the evening and their Farm breakfast the next morning. "Be sure to see the waterfall," they told us, so we walked around and, sure enough, there was a Fish ladder at Bonneville Dam large and impressive waterfall right in their back yard. What a place! If you're interested, their phone is 800 345-1921 and website is www.ColumbiaGorgeHotel.com.
In the Bonneville Visitor Center an exhibit explained how the Gorge contained five different ecological zones. We hadn't been paying much attention, because ever since we started up the California coast it's been trees, trees, trees. But the trees suddenly went away; we wondered if going in the opposite direction you'd see a wall of trees approaching. Anyway, we were soon in a sagebrush landscape that reminded us of northern Nevada. As we pulled into Pendleton (where else) for the evening we were in cow country, with hayfields and grazing land and, as we discovered, the State AA High School basketball tournament, which has been going on all week and will climax this weekend! Tall boys and girls are everywhere in our motel, and many room doors bear decorations and team slogans.