This website uses Cookies to offer you an enhanced browsing experience. Find out more about how we use Cookies.

USA Radio

The Columbia River Gorge

Windsurf in the shadows of volcanoes

The Columbia River’s enormous 80-mile-long gorge through the Cascade Mountains is one of the most dramatic destinations in the Pacific Northwest, so breathtaking that in 1986 Congress designated it the first of America’s National Scenic Areas. The mile-wide river, flanked by volcanic sentinels Mount Hood (in Oregon) and Mount Adams (in Washington), flows beneath banded basalt walls rising 3,000 feet. Waterfalls tumble from the gorge’s edge, cascading hundreds of feet to meet the river. All this beauty—plus excellent hiking trails and world-class windsurfing—is just an hour from Portland, Oregon’s largest city.

This awe-inspiring chasm—scoured by a series of Ice Age flash floods—has long been more than a scenic wonder. The only sea-level passage through the Sierra and Cascade ranges, for centuries it has also served as a major transportation corridor. For millennia, native peoples travelled through the gorge to trade and fish. The Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, also passed through the gorge in 1805-06 on its epic journey to the Pacific. The gorge was also the final challenge to pioneers on the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail, which between 1843 and 1860 brought an estimated 53,000 settlers to the Northwest. In 1916, the Historic Columbia River Highway, a marvel of mountain road engineering, opened the gorge to automobile traffic. Although much of this route has been subsumed by fast-moving I-84, remnants of the winding roadway (now Highway 30) remain and are by far the best routes for exploring the gorge.

The town of Hood River, the hub of the gorge, is known in the world of sport as the windsurfing capital of America. Stiff prevailing winds and the Columbia’s strong river currents combine to create a kind of wind tunnel that makes for legendary windsurfing and kitesurfing conditions. South of the city, above the pear and apple orchards of the Hood River Valley, the massive glaciered peak of Mount Hood rises to fill the horizon, a picture-postcard image of Oregon. In the 1910s, a rail line ran up the Hood River Valley to bring out lumber, and later transported the valley’s rich bounty of fruit. The Mount Hood Railroad now carries day-trippers between Hood River and Parkdale on vintage Pullman railcars.

West of Hood River, a segment of the Historic Columbia River Highway climbs along the nearly sheer basalt cliffs, which serve as a backdrop for the greatest concentration of waterfalls in North America. The most spectacular of all is Multnomah Falls, the tallest in Oregon and the second-highest year-round waterfall in the U.S. (after Yosemite Falls in California), with a total drop of 642 feet.

Riverboat cruises aboard the Columbia Gorge sternwheeler depart from the town of Cascade Locks, offering modern-day travellers a chance to see the river from the viewpoint of early pioneers. Lindblad Expeditions offers longer river trips on the Columbia and Snake rivers aboard a 70-passenger boat departing from Portland, accompanied by noted historians and naturalists.

This trip idea can be found in:

1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die®

Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.

Welcome to Visit The USA!

Now that you have registered, you can save trip ideas to your suitcase.

Start exploring

Enter your email address and we’ll send you a link to reset your password.

Please check your email.

Start exploring

The password on your account has successfully been changed. Please use your new password to login.

Start exploring

This website is set to 'allow all cookies' for the best user experience. By continuing without changing this setting, you are consenting to this. You may change your settings at any time at the bottom of this page.

More information about cookies

Cookies are very small text files that are stored on your computer when you visit some websites.

We use cookies to make our website easier for you to use. You can remove any cookies already stored on your computer, but these may prevent you from using parts of our website.

If you choose to disable non-essential cookies, the website will:

  • Allow you to log in and remember you are logged in, while in session
  • Determine your country of origin in order to serve you the most relevant version of the site

This website will not:

  • Restrict welcome messaging to the first time you visit the site
  • Track any activity on the site for analytics purposes

More information about cookies