Grand Gorge

Published: April 8th 2012
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Mount HoodMount HoodMount Hood

Pyramid shaped Mount Hood, from the parking lot of a forest service ranger station.

Mount Hood and Timberline Lodge

Today was a day for scenery, on a grand scale.

First up was Mount Hood.

Hood River the town sits on the actual Hood River, which leads to (yep) Mount Hood.

The drive up starts in summer and ends in winter.

The early part passes through open fields with a special view of the mountain when the clouds cooperate.

The white pyramid peak dominates the horizon.

The road passes into a pine covered gorge, and then into high mountainside.

Snow appears at this point.

The sky also started to rain, producing the look of late winter.

The south side of Mount Hood has been a haven for skiers for over a century.

Thanks to the mountain’s glaciers, it’s possible to ski here year round.

In 1937, the Works Progress Administration hired unemployed loggers and artisans to build a special ski lodge on the side of the mountain, Timberline Lodge.

The lodge is such a sight that it has become a tourist destination in its own right, even for people who will never hit the slopes.

The lodge is built entirely out of hand cut
Timberline LodgeTimberline LodgeTimberline Lodge

Outside of Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, the most famous ski lodge in the northwest.
timbers, with hand forged cast iron decorations.

The central room is a hexagonal central hall, the shape of a snowflake.

The pattern carries over to both the beams and the lights.

The beams were hand cut from single Douglas fir trees.

The lights are hand forged.

The furniture was originally all hand made from local wood.

Some of it has had to be replaced over the years.

The walls are covered in artwork.

Much of it is landscape paintings on mountain and skiing themes, but the odd cubist landscape shows up in places.

Even the staircase railings are works of art, carved with animal motifs.

The road to the lodge passes a site from the Oregon Trail.

As noted back at the National Pioneer Trail Museum (see Pioneer Trails) the final part of the trail required floating rafts down the Columbia.

This proved to be so dangerous that people searched for a land route around Mount Hood.

One Samuel Barlow finally found one in 1846.

The route was brutally steep, requiring pioneers to lower their wagons with ropes in parts.

Samuel Barlow also charged
Central Hall timberline lodgeCentral Hall timberline lodgeCentral Hall timberline lodge

The soaring central hall of Timberline Lodge. Everything here, except some of the furniture, is handmade!
a toll for use of his road.

Still, people preferred it to the alternative.

The current road to Mount Hood follows this route.

A sign along the way pointed to “pioneer women grave site”.

A short drive on a narrow road led to a rock pile with a small flag on it.

A plaque tells the story.

The unknown woman died along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and was buried along the side of the trail.

The builders of the current road in the 1930s found her grave site.

They reburied her under the current grave, which has become a pilgrimage site for local history enthusiasts.

She symbolizes all early migrants to Oregon who lost their lives along the way.

Columbia River Gorge

After Mount Hood, I drove the Columbia Gorge in earnest.

The gorge is one of only two spots that a river crosses the Cascade Mountains, and it has the least overall drop.

The natural history of this area is amazing.

It starts with volcanoes.

They filled this area with basalt.

Basalt is tough to erode, but a river
Pioneer Woman's GravesitePioneer Woman's GravesitePioneer Woman's Gravesite

The gravesite of an unknown woman who died along the Oregon Trail.
the size of the Columbia can do so.

The river cut a narrow V shaped valley through the mountains.

That all changed in the last ice age.

A glacier blocked a mountain pass in northern Idaho, and a lake the size of Superior and Michigan combined ultimately formed behind it.

The water pressure became so high that the glacier dam broke.

The entire lake drained into what is now eastern Oregon and Washington in a matter of days.

The flood was so powerful that it ripped away everything in the area down to the bedrock.

All that water then ended up in the Columbia River.

A huge wave of water now filled with dirt, rocks, and icebergs tore through the valley, ripping everything it could from the sides in the process.

The V shaped valley became a dramatic U shaped gorge with high walls of basalt.

The flood finally dropped its load in the Willamette Valley, making it the most fertile part of the Pacific Northwest.

A hundred years later, another glacier blocked the same pass, and the flood repeated; it happened a dozen plus times.

The floods are now called the Bretz Floods, after
Starvation Creek FallsStarvation Creek FallsStarvation Creek Falls

Starvation Creek Falls in the Columbia River Gorge
geology professor J. Herman Bretz, who first discovered the evidence they left behind.

The drive on the highway was as dramatic, and as harrowing, as two days ago.

Looking at the river and the gorge walls all around is highly tempting.

Being hit by a big truck soon afterward is not.

The gorge has a series of state parks along the roadway.

Unfortunately, many of them are only accessible heading east.

This created a depressing pattern of driving past the area I wanted to the next exit, turning around to get to the park, and then turning around again afterwards to head back west.

The pattern continued until Bonneville.

The most notable parks in this stretch contain waterfalls.

As noted above, the gorge has high walls of volcanic rock.

Streams can’t cut through this rock very quickly, so they reach the edge and fall off instead creating classic hanging valleys (see Welcome to Wonderland).

The Columbia River gorge contains the highest concentration of big waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest.

First up is Wah Gwin Gwin Falls, which is located on the
Bonneville DamBonneville DamBonneville Dam

The famous Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, from the Historic Highway trail.
grounds of the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel near Hood River.

The hotel was built in 1921 to serve travelers on the newly built highway through the gorge (more on it later).

They let people see the falls during daylight hours.

A little stream falls a long way down the cliff the hotel sits on.

The waterfall can only be seen from the top.

The view of the gorge is pretty special too.

The next waterfall worth noting is Starvation Creek Falls.

The unusual name comes from an incident in 1884 when a passenger train was snowed in for a week near the waterfall.

Nobody actually starved, thankfully.

The waterfall is a cascade of three tall drops in a narrow valley.

The viewing area is at the bottom, where the overall falls looks huge.

Bonneville Dam

The next sight heading west is the famous Bonneville Dam.

The first dam on the Columbia River, built in 1937, it is one of the most famous New Deal projects.

Woodie Guthrie even wrote a song about it (Roll On, Columbia).

Its lasting fame comes from the effect it had on the local economy
Elowah FallsElowah FallsElowah Falls

Elowah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. This waterfall requires a hike.
rather than any sort of dramatic looks.

The dam is simply a long concrete wall across the river with lots of electrical transformers on top, and nothing more.

The dam did have an unacknowledged role in winning World War II.

As noted at the Museum of the Air Force (see Plane Envy) this was the first war where air power played a significant role.

To win, the United States and allies needed airplanes, and lots of them.

Airplane builders need a large supply of aluminum.

Aluminum smelting uses a huge amount of electricity.

Bonneville and other dams on the Columbia River supplied it.

The Pacific Northwest became the center of US airplane manufacturing thanks to the Columbia.

Due to its size, getting a good overall picture of the dam takes some effort.

The best way to do so reveals a scenic treat of another sort.

Take the exit for the dam, and then take the highway away from the dam entrance.

It soon ends in a parking lot.

I 84 through the gorge was the replacement for an earlier highway.

Horsetail FallsHorsetail FallsHorsetail Falls

Horsetail falls along the Historic Columbia River Highway
of the old road is now a hiking trail, and this parking lot marks the trail head.

It goes over some bridges on the mountainside with beautiful stonework.

A hike of roughly ten minutes reaches one of those bridges with a perfect view of Bonneville Dam downstream.

Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway

Speaking of that old highway, I got the chance to drive it east of Bonneville.

Portland booster Samuel Hill promoted the idea of a highway through the gorge starting in 1913.

The county and state hired noted landscape architect Samuel Lancaster to design it, and the highway opened in 1926.

He designed the road to showcase the gorge to the maximum extent.

The road contains intricate masonry bridges, with precisely layered local stone.

While the views were worth their weight in gold, the highway was also filled with narrow lanes, tight curves, and some nasty tunnels.

The overall design had an uncanny resemblance to the Needles Highway in the Black Hills (see Sacred Peaks).

As the gorge became more important as a transport route, the highway was replaced by the Interstate in the early 1960s.

The westernmost section has been preserved, and is still drivable.

The road
Columbia Historic Highway BridgeColumbia Historic Highway BridgeColumbia Historic Highway Bridge

A typical bridge along the Columbia Gorge Historic Highway. Note the stonework on the right.
may be the most unusual historic site in Oregon.

As advertised, the road is narrow, tricky, and pretty.

In places it runs right next to its modern replacement.

The drive is a view fest, the type where paying attention to the road is tricky.

Unfortunately, doing so is necessary due to the complexity of the drive.

The early part has a series of waterfalls.

All of them free fall a long way from high basalt cliffs.

The first one is Elowah Falls.

This waterfall is the only one not next to the road.

From the parking lot, a trail climbs into the hills below the gorge walls.

The woods are filled with giant pine trees of several species, and hanging moss.

This is the type of forest I picture as deep wilderness (even though all of it is actually second growth).

The trail passes into the next ravine over and follows it up to a bowl.

The walls of the bowl are basalt columns.

The waterfall drops directly into the middle of the bowl.

The falls is so
Monumultah FallsMonumultah FallsMonumultah Falls

Here it is, the most popular wilderness photo in Oregon: Monumultah Falls. The waterfall is located directly along the historic highway.
long the water breaks into mist on the way down.

I loved this waterfall, partly due to the sense of isolation.

Next comes Horsetail Falls.

This one drops into a pool directly next to the highway.

The water hits the rock at the back of the pool and spreads out, giving the falls its name.

Multnomah Falls

The next waterfall ranks with Mount Hood as the most famous natural feature in Oregon.

It is pictured in every travel guide to the state ever.

It falls directly next to the highway, so the same promoters that built the highway built a visitors complex next to the waterfall in 1925, including a lodge now used as a restaurant.

The place has the feel of a tourist trap.

The waterfall is so popular the Interstate has a rest area with walking access, just so people can see it.

This waterfall is Multnomah Falls, the second highest waterfall in the United States with a year round flow.

A trail of precisely laid stones leads from the lodge to the base of the waterfall.

It falls in two drops, a lower drop
Monumultah Falls upper dropMonumultah Falls upper dropMonumultah Falls upper drop

The tall upper drop of Monumultah Falls, shot from the bridge over the pool.
roughly seventy feet high and an upper drop at least seven times that, with a pool between the two.

A bridge exists over the pool, built in 1914.

The view from the base is one of the most classic photographs in Oregon.

From the lower viewpoint, a steep paved trail leads up to the bridge.

It goes through a series of switchbacks.

The view from the bridge is worth the effort.

It shows the upper falls free falling in all its glory.

It too breaks into mist on the way down.

For the brave, lean over the bridge on the downstream side to see a view directly over the brink of the lower falls.

This is the best top down view of a waterfall since Rock City (see Stress, Danger and Discovery).

Wahkeena Falls appears less than a mile down the road.

The waterfall is a set of steep cascades in a narrow ravine.

From the roadside viewpoint, rocks partially obscure the waterfall.

It’s possible to hike a trail to a high viewpoint with a better view, but I needed time for other sights.
Waterfall Vertigo!Waterfall Vertigo!Waterfall Vertigo!

The view directly DOWN the lower drop of Monumultah Falls, seen from the bridge.

The final waterfall in this area is Latourell Falls.

A paved path leads away from the highway and reaches the falls in a few minutes.

The waterfall looks remarkably similar to Elowah, a long free fall over a wall of basalt.

I enjoyed it a little less due to falling over a wall instead of a bowl.

After the last waterfall, the road climbs away from the river and highway.

Near sunset, I reached an area called Bridal Veil Falls.

There is a waterfall here, but it’s not the real attraction.

A short path leads to a cliff over the Interstate with a huge view of the gorge.

The river and valley stretch to the horizon.

From this overlook, the road climbs some more, through a stretch of tight switchbacks that locals call the “figure eights”.

It eventually topped out on a high cliff, next to a small building called Vista House.

The building was deliberately sited to give day drivers from Portland a huge view of the gorge.

Seeing it at night was a treat with the lights of the city glowing in the distance.

Columbia Gorge at sunsetColumbia Gorge at sunsetColumbia Gorge at sunset

The view from the Bridal Veil Falls overlook at sunset.
after Vista House, the gorge ends and the road merges into town streets.


See the road from a motorcycle:


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