I love small cities, the kind that have a bit of everything you could want but also don’t run on for miles upon miles of endless strip malls and suburbs. I like a city where one minute you could be in the center of the business district and in a half hour you could be hiking in the middle of a forest. These types of cities seem to have the best people, with a modern city exterior but still with that small town soul. Basically I like cities with big city excitement and small town charm. After spending a week in Portland, I think it fits the bill perfectly.
Growing up near Phoenix, Arizona with an endless landscape of 4+ million people, Portland is practically a small town. What is lacks in population though, it makes up for in character. Never will you find a city more unique, wacky, or fun. And bonus, the city has the Columbia River Gorge as its backyard.
I was actually in Portland for work and after a few days I was ready to explore beyond the downtown district. Thankfully, the Columbia River Gorge really is just a short drive out of the city and offers up some of the best scenery in the whole state of Oregon. Carving its way through the landscape, the Gorge seems to have an endless supply of breathtaking views. Top that with dozens of waterfalls, historic buildings, and peaceful winding roads, and the Columbia River Gorge makes for an awesome Portland day trip.
To reach the Columbia River Gorge, head out of Portland on the I-84. A place this beautiful should not been seen from an interstate though so take the exit for the Historic Columbia River Highway as soon as you see it. This historic roadway was built in the early 1900s and while it parallels the interstate through most of the Gorge, it can seem a world way. The winding roadway is one of America’s most scenic drives, passing through the Gorge with forested cliffs on one side and the mighty Columbia River on the other.
One of the original highlights of the route, the View Point Inn, is unfortunately now closed. When I first drove through the Columbia River Gorge in 2010 I stopped here on a recommendation from a friend and was blown away by the beautiful historic inn, the gardens, and the views from its hilltop location. The site was always a popular wedding venue and in 2009 was even featured in the Twilight movie. When a fire destroyed a good deal of the structure in 2011, it was left deserted with the garden now overgrown and the building vandalized. And yet, the view still remains. If you are a Twilight fan or just like a good secluded view, it still might be worth a quick stop.
For another great view, without the creepy old deserted building feel, stop by the Crown Point Vista House just down the road. This historic building has served as a symbol for the Columbia River Gorge since the very first days of the Historic Columbia River Highway. Built as a stopping point and visitors center, the Vista House still today is a popular pit stop for anyone driving through the Gorge. Occasional in the summer you might have to circle around for a bit for parking but it will be worth it once you get out of the car. The building itself sits proudly atop a cliff overlooking the entire Gorge. Inside you will find a small gift shop, museum, and educational displays on the history and geology of the Gorge which are actually quite interesting.
Before you think the whole Gorge is just historic buildings and good lookout points, let me tell you about the best part – the waterfalls. The Columbia River Gorge is filled with waterfalls, cascading down from the cliffs to the river below. Just on the Oregon side of the Gorge there are at least 77 waterfalls! This is what I was talking about when I said I wanted to find a beautiful forest retreat and to think it is only a half hour or so from Portland. The waterfalls range from small creek falls to mighty river cascades and if you are up for it, many of them sit on great hiking trails.
The first major falls you pass after the Vista House are the Bridal Veil Falls. Here the beauty of the falls is best viewed on one of the area’s two trails. The upper trail has great views of the Gorge with sign boards all along the trail pointing out important native plants. Along the way you can also see the famous Pillars of Hercules, a 120-foot basalt tower that was once a popular mountain climbing spot. The lower trail is a short walk, around a mile round trip, to the base of the falls.
The next main set of falls along the Historic Columbia River Highway are the most famous of all. The Multnomah Falls, at over 600 feet tall, are easily the biggest falls in the Columbia River Gorge and there are actually only 3 falls larger than the Multnomah Falls in the whole United States. Many people short on time take I-84 straight to the Multnomah Falls and in the middle of summer, the area around the Falls can get pretty crowded.
To fully experience the falls, take the trail starting at the Multnomah Falls Lodge up to the Simon Benson Bridge and from there, after taking a few photos, zigzag your way up the rest of the trail to the very top of the falls. Fewer people make the full 1.2 mile steep hike to the top of the falls making it a good way to bypass the crowds on a busy summer day. For a full day of hiking, from the top of the falls you can continue along either the six-mile Wahkeena Loop Trail or the trail up to the top of Larch Mountain.
After seeing Multnomah Falls, lots of people call it a day but on my trip I wasn’t quite ready to head back to the city. Instead I got back in the car and headed just a bit more up the road to Horsetail Falls. At Multnomah Falls you can actually stop to have lunch in the Lodge there but I suggest instead packing a picnic and making the peaceful Horsetail Falls your lunch stop. There are picnic tables here and afterwards you can take the short trail up to the falls. The trail here even passes behind the falls, which is not only an awesome experience but also a great way to cool off on a hot summer afternoon before heading back to Portland.