Somewhere between twelve and seventeen million years ago, gigantic tectonic forces were at work as the Cascade mountain range pushed its way upward, changing the landscape of thousands of square miles of the American Continent’s northwest corner. Then, at the end of the last Ice Age, the great Missoula Flood carved deeply into earth and volcanic rock, depressing and rounding the hills on the north slopes of what is today’s Washington and the steep rocky palisades and forested plateaus of Oregon to the south. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark laid eyes on the 4000-foot deep gorge on their epic journey of 1805-1806 they must have been awestruck by the sheer magnitude of the mighty waterway draining nearly half of the continent, and the dramatic scenic grandeur of the eighty-mile long gorge through which they made their tortuous way.
Even before the Clatsup tribe members who welcomed and helped the Voyage of Discovery expedition occupied and thrived in the moist and fecund environment of the Gorge, ancient peoples who had traversed the land bridge from Asia left their fingerprints on a land rich in resources and with a friendly climate. As long as salmon and other migrating gifts of the sea had added to the provenance of game-and-berry-rich forests, native people had been a part of the region’s history.
For 19th century travelers following the “Oregon Trail” in pursuit of their hopeful dreams, the transit of the Columbia River Gorge was at once the most spectacular and dangerous segment of a westward migration which would be historic in its dimension and national impact. Interstate highway I-84 follows what in its day was one of the country’s engineering masterpieces known as “The Columbia River Scenic Highway”. Imagined by entrepreneur Sam Hill and designed by landscape engineer Samuel C. Lancaster, it was built between 1913 and 1922. Running at river level through some of Oregon’s most challenging geography, it was one of the first roadways conceived and built to be a “scenic byway”, its remaining segments designated today as a “National Historic Landmark”. In 1926 it would be made part of U.S. highway 30, part of the coast-to-coast route called “The Lincoln Highway”.
Turning the narrow and cliff-hugging motorway into the divided double lanes of Interstate 84 was a tricky business, since the right-of-way which the expanded roadbed must traverse was owned by the Union Pacific Railroad whose tracks were “senior” in construction. Imaginative dredging and tunneling saved the day for both side-by-side uses.
For gorge travelers today, there is a sense of history in every mile, and as we make this journey in both directions every year, we feast on the legacy which continues to reveal something new to our eyes and hearts each time. The mighty river itself is an ever-present eye-catcher, and we note the barge traffic, private fishermen, and wind-surfers taking advantage of the winds and currents which funnel through the 80-mile long defile, explaining the miles of giant wind generators on both northern and southern headlands, their presence a seeming intrusion on the natural world.
Birds of prey, from hawks, eagles, and soaring osprey whose nests adorn every convenient piling and power pole to the aerial display of gulls and cormorants provide additional entertainment for gorge travelers. Vineyards and fruit orchards climb the fertile slopes, bringing a certain agricultural symmetry to a region of conifer forest and patches of hardwoods, and a burgeoning wine industry has accordingly taken root on both shorelines. Towns and villages are few and far between, but such river-embracing communities as The Dalles (our annual stop-off place) and Hood River offer enough history and discovery to make visiting a worthwhile adventure. Every here and there we see the remnants of native fishing weirs along narrow strips of grassy river banks, contrasting with the majestic views of Mt. Hood looming in the distance.
In a green environment wreathed in frequent fogs and nurtured with up to 75 inches of annual rainfall, the western stretch of gorge from Hood River to Troutdale is a scenic wonderland whose steep granite face is home to more than 70 waterfalls – more than any other locale in the Northwest, and possibly the whole country - and highway planners designed access to these gems for gorge travelers. Don’t pass them by! In all, traveling through the Columbia River Gorge is a journey through time.
Fed from underground springs and with a total drop of 620 feet in its two segments, Multnomah Falls near Troutdale in the Columbia River Gorge is the tallest year-round waterfall in Oregon and possibly the second highest in the U.S. The footbridge crossing at the midpoint was built by Italian stone masons in 1914. Within a few miles, at least 70 such wonders await Gorge travelers.
With up to 75 inches of annual rainfall and a near-tropical micro-climate, trees and landscape are covered by green growth between Horsetail and Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.
Photos by Al Cooper