Welcome to the country's first planned scenic roadway, the Historic Columbia River Highway! The 75-mile road has a laundry list of special awards and designations: It's a Scenic Byway, an All-American Road, a National Historic Landmark, and even a Civil Engineering Landmark, all rolled into one epic route. Of course, all of those titles come with the territory... it really is one of the most incredible drives in the country.
Originally built between 1913-1922, the roads were specifically constructed to highlight the natural beauty along the Columbia River and to blend in seamlessly with the landscape. The highway attracted early car-owners in their Model Ts, and it has been a major draw for roadtrippers ever since.
Start off your trip with a breathtaking overlook and some gorgeous architecture at the Vista House at Crown Point. It's a 1917-era rest stop with a few little historic exhibits in the basement and an observation deck up top with a totally unforgettable view. Bring along a camera and take a few photos of the building and the scenery!
One of the main features of the highway is that there are dozens (77 on the Oregon side alone) of waterfalls along the way, some even lining the road; You don't even have to pull off the route to see them. However, Multnomah Falls is iconic. The two tiers of the falls are straddled by an utterly charming footbridge, which offers a totally different look at the dual drops.
For a more adventurous side-trip on your cruise down the Columbia River Highway, take some time to hike Oneonta Gorge. The trail takes you into the bottom of a lush, green canyon with a creek in the bottom, and waterfalls lining the walls. It's about as
Just fair warning-- if you do plan on hiking through the enchanting gorge, be prepared to get wet; at times the stream itself is the actual trail, taking you past enormous basalt walls covered in emerald green moss and bubbling, sparkling waterfalls. The lower gorge is a protected habitat for the rare lichens and ferns and wildlife, hence the need to walk upstream through the creek. There are four major waterfalls along the gorge (Upper Oneonta Falls, Middle Oneonta Falls, Lower Oneonta Falls and the triple falls), so the hike, which at times can be through chest-deep water, is totally worth it. If you'd rather not get wet while exploring Oneonta, don't sweat-- there are also trails and observation decks and bridges on dry land through other parts of the verdant gorge, so people of all hiking skill levels can experience it for themselves.
Deciding which of the seventy-plus waterfalls to visit along the way can seem daunting... especially since they're all so pretty! Elowah is another well-known waterfall in the Gorge. It's an impressive 200+ feet tall, and flows year round, making it a great stop in the summer and fall, when some falls dry up to a mere trickle. Plus, another advantage is that Elowah is a bit more off the beaten path... you'll have to hike a tricky trail out, but you'll have the waterfall pretty much to yourself.
The Columbia River Gorge, which the highway covers, is so notably beautiful that it's actually a National Scenic Area. Rolling grasslands give way to temperate rainforests and the majestic Cascade Mountain Range. The transitional landscape further adds to the beauty of the Gorge, creating the perfect conditions for mossy lichens, rare wildflowers, and stately trees. Hiking trails abound, and fishing and windsurfing are incredibly popular on the river itself, providing lots of opportunities to enjoy the beauty of the Gorge.
Quirky little towns line the highway as well. Hood River is one of the more popular to visit, and it's got tons to see and do. Art galleries, farm-fresh restaurants, cozy B&Bs, and natural beauty make Hood River worth spending a day or two exploring, and when you stop by, definitely make sure to visit one of their many breweries. Full Sail Brewing Company is one of many fantastic brewpubs: their menu of elevated pub fare and delicious beers mean you could easily spend a full evening here sampling their offerings. Pro tip: the Wassail Winter Ale is brewed with hops from the Pacific Northwest for a real taste of the region!
Beer isn't the only adult beverage that can be found everywhere along the highway: the conditions around the Columbia River Gorge are great for growing certain kinds of wine as well. Analemma Wines is located on the historic Atavus Vineyard and they craft and bottle some stellar wines. Gewürztraminers, Pinot Noirs, rosés, chardonnays, and blanc de noirs make up most of the styles you'll find here... they take a focused approach to their wines, and the love and attention shows. Their tasting room is open on weekends, so stop by for a tour and some samples.
Mayer State Park is home to one of the best overlooks along the Highway: Rowena Crest. Once you're done cruising the loop and basking in the sweeping views, you can kiteboard, swim, or windsurf here. There are also a few nice trails for hiking. Oh, and if you're a history nerd, you'll appreciate the fact that Lewis and Clark passed by here on their way to the Pacific Ocean!
The historic Columbia River Highway ended near The Dalles, a city where, funnily enough, many pioneers ended their trip down the Oregon Trail. You'll find plenty of cultural spots, like museums and art centers, great restaurants and bars, and rustic lodges where you can spend the night. Visit the oldest continuously operating bookstore west of the Mississippi, Klindt's Booksellers and Stationers, go white-water rafting, explore Fort Dalles, and enjoy the Pacific Northwest vibes!
After your road trip along the Columbia River Highway, you'll see why it claimed the honor of being the first scenic route... it's still hard to find any highway or byway that can top it! From the waterfalls along the road to the charming towns that have cropped up along the way, it's a truly special place.