An easy day trip that you can do from either Portland or Seattle, the Columbia River Gorge area is a fun road trip to experience this magnificent region on your own or a group tour. Designated as the Columbia River National Scenic Area, it is a very popular tourist destination that you can eastily do in a short-day trip from either Portland or Seattle area. The landscape is filled with spectacular scenery all around the narrow gorge area, you’ll encounter some of the most stunning landscape with beautiful vista points, impressive waterfalls, forest overlooks, wine country vineyards and charming towns you can visit and explore.
A fun road trip through the Columbia River Gorge
Where is the Columbia River Gorge
Bordering the states of Washington and Oregon, the Columbia River separates both states with fantastic riverfront drives along both shorelines. The drive from Portland to the main sections of the Columbia River Gorge is less than a 30-minute drive and from Seattle is about 3.5 hours south of the city. The best way to do this tour is by renting a car and touring the attractions on each side of the river. Or, you can also take the Columbia George Express shuttle that departs from Portland and stops at the main attractions in Multnomah Falls, the Cascade Locks, the Hood River and the Dalles.
Best time of the Year to visit the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area
The scenic roadway is a truly a year-round destination with each season offering a different aspect to visiting the popular attractions in the region. Each season brings out a unique and different experience with spring time showcasing the best waterfalls shows and wildflower blooms in the area. Summer time a very popular and busy time frame for school holidays and weekend getaways with regional travelers. Fall times brings seasonal color change, wine country tasting and the fall harvest exploring the Hood River fruit loop for the fruit harvests and locally grown foods from the region. Winter time is popular for snow shoeing, cross country skiing and snowboarding or skiing around the Mt. Hood area.
As you can see each season has its own reasons to visit the region and making the area a year-round destination You should plan on visiting different times to enjoy the change of seasons here.
Top things to do around the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Visit and explore Multnomah Falls
One of the biggest attractions along the Columbia River is Multnomah Falls which is just off the main Highway. Easy parking and entry to the fall’s entryway and immediate viewing to the falls. Anyone interested in a closer view can do the short hike to the bridge area right below the main falls and even get sprayed on in the process. The falls are magnificent in the spring time when the water table is heavy and creates massive drops into the pools below before emptying into the river.
Tip – come early or late in the afternoon because the parking lot does get full with day trippers visiting this attraction
Wonderful paved hiking trails with spectacular views of the falls and various lookout points
Check out these cool tourists visiting the falls on a summer day
Explore the Bonneville Dam
One of the biggest dams on the river, the Bonneville dam spans the entire river and you can check out the action from the main observation deck. You can also watch salmon swimming upstream from the Bonneville hatchery from the viewing area and is active from September to October timeframe.
Visit the Columbia River Gorge Discovery Center
The Discovery Center is a cool place to visit and family friendly to learn about the history and geology in the area with fantastic exhibits and interactive displays for the entire family to visit and learn more about this beautiful region. Check out more details to visiting here for updated information and open hours at the center
Go on a Paddle wheeler cruise or watch kite surfers on the Hood River
The Hood River is the spot to check out the kite surfers that cruise back and forth quickly along the Hood River. You can also take a fun paddle wheeler cruise on the Columbia River with Sternwheeler cruises located at the Cascade Locks and enjoy a fun and easy rider along the main portion of the Columbia River Gorge area. You can sign up for a basic sightseeing, brunch or dinner cruise and enjoy the views from a water perspective.
Kite surfing fun on the Columbia and Hood River – all along the Columbia and Hood River, you’ll find lots of kite surfers that cross the river areas in high speeds to catch the incredible winds that blow through the gorge area and make this a thrill seeking experience for this adrenaline producing sport. It’s fun to just watch these kite surfers on the shoreline and watch all their dare devil and high speed acts from a safe and dry spot on the shore.
Wind surfers and kite surfers come out in force when the weather is good and the winds are strong
Visit the Vista House
A nice scenic drive leads to the Vista House located on the Oregon side with expansive views of the entire river and gorge area. Completed in 1917, the historic Vista House is perched high above a rocky outcrop with spectacular lookout points to the river and gorge below. The Vista House is originally a rest stop observatory and now a museum and visitor’s center. Located at Crown Point, the building serves as a memorial to Oregon pioneers and a comfort station to travelers visiting the Columbia River Gorge scenic area.
Open now after the Pandemic, check out their website here for more details and information to visiting the Vista House.
Do some wine tasting along the Hood River Valley Loop
With so many delicious wines grown in the region, the Hood River Valley Loop is a very popular drive with a variety of wineries that are casual and offer a variety of delicious wines grown specially for that appellation offering robust wines that really thrive in this soil, climate and environment. The wine loop is easy and offers many different choices of wineries to sample depending on what your interest is in sampling the local wines from the region.
Check out the details here to visiting the Loop with wineries, orchards and specialty places to visit in the area.
Wine tasting with a vineyard view
Additional waterfalls to explore in the region
There are so many other fantastic waterfalls to visit if you are into chasing gorgeous waterfalls along the Columbia River area. Check out the other falls here including: Bridal Veil Falls, Latourell Falls, Horsetail Falls, Fairy Falls, Wahkeena Falls, Triple Falls, Dry Creek Falls, Elowa Falls and Wahclella Falls.
Kayaking or rafting fun on the White Salmon River
Outdoor water enthusiasts will enjoy the white-water rafting experience on the White Salmon River with up to class 3 waves along the river areas. You can sign up with various river outfitters here for more details on their daily programs in the river area.
Check out this guide to kayaking and touring companies in the area here for more information.
Explore the cute towns of Hood River or White Salmon River
These cool and unique towns are worth a visit to find some cool shops, delicious eating venues and look for some unique finds and treasures from local artist, crafters and food vendors in the area. At Hood River, go check out the Big Art walking tour and check out some of the local galleries in the area. A fun walking town with classic inns, restaurants and shops along with nearby attractions like the Fruit Loop, Brewery hopping and wine tasting in the region.
Other cool venues to explore in the region
Mountain biking trails you can enjoy along the Post Canyon network or do the Mosier Twin Tunnels or Dalles Riverfront Trail
Explore the Hood River Fruit Loop farms, wineries, orchards, lavender fields and cider houses. You can download the free map here of places to visit on the loop area.
Check out and capture the Horseshoe turn at the Rowena Crest Viewpoint
Do the Gorge Beer Trail and brewery hop along the Hood River – check out this guide of breweries and cider houses in the region for reference.
Places to stay along the Columbia River National Scenic Area
Although you can visit many of these attractions in a day trip, why not stay overnight or a few nights and really get to explore the area. There are many popular places to stay with inns and small hotels in the various small towns in the area. Check out these top reviewed hotels and Inns here for current prices and availability
Best Western Plus Hood River Inn – a very popular and well reviewed inn riverfront with beautiful design and amenities, modern with comfortable rooms.
Hotel River Hotel – a classic renovated hotel with spacious rooms with vintage elements and a great vibe along with being centrally located.
Inn at the Gorge – a classic Victorian beauty with nice details and comfortable rooms, nice public areas and generous breakfast service and friendly front desk service.
For more fabulous stays and well reviewed inns and hotels through Trip Advisor, check out their top reviewed hotels here for inspiration, availability and current prices around the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
More details to visiting the Columbia River Gorge area
The popular Multnomah Falls is one of the most popular destinations here so arrive early or later in the afternoon to secure a parking spot and ample time to visit the falls without all the major crowds
Bring your own drinks and snacks to avoid long lines at the various centers and enjoy a picnic outdoors
Always check the various trails in advance to see if they area open and the trailheads are not closed to inclement weather
Cell service is spotty so download any maps in the areas you want to visit.
Consider a longer weekend or stay to enjoy more of the area’s outdoors, food venues and many other attractions to discover along the region.
Conclusion to visiting the Columbia River National Scenic Area
Aren’t all of these places inspiring and worth a visit as a day trip from Portland or Seattle? Definitely worth putting on your bucket list of places to explore outside of the Seattle region and planning a trip soon.
Thanks for visiting the Mature Traveler and hope you visit again soon!
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