It took lava flows, ice age floods, and a series of massive hydroelectric dams to shape the Columbia Gorge into its present form—well, that and a lot of breweries. The section east of Portland serves double duty as a working waterway and the boundary between Washington and Oregon; what is first lush and green just outside the city quickly moves to dramatic brown bluffs further east as the landscape becomes dry and windy. Playing outdoors defines Gorge recreation, be it on foot or bike, or powered by wind—and yet the region still holds plenty of indoor treasures.
The steep walls of the Gorge make for seriously tall waterfalls, particularly the famous Multnomah Falls—the Forest Service claims it is the most visited natural recreation site in the entire Pacific Northwest. Its historic lodge (now a restaurant) and 620 feet of cascading water make a good starting point for a drive along the Historic Columbia River Highway past a number of other waterfalls, all mere feet from the serpentine road. The best long-range views come from the Vista House observatory along the highway.
The Gorge has been called the windsurfing capital of the world thanks to its brisk and reliable breeze, particularly around Hood River. But even though the signs for river access all display a windsurfing icon (a hard surfboard-like base connected to a sail) the kiteboarders are usually more numerous these days, using parachute-style sails to move across the water. The winds turned, so to speak, in the ’90s, though the two types of wind chasers still share the water. Hood River’s series of waterfront parks, just east of the bridge that crosses the Columbia, is home to several introductory schools.
The Pacific Crest Trail may bisect the Gorge on its way from Mexico to Canada, but it’s far from the only hiking route in the region. Of the Oregon trailheads, Angel’s Rest remains one of the most beloved and well-used; the route to an exposed promontory still bears the scars of the 2017 Eagle Creek wildfire that devastated the region.
On the Washington side, Beacon Rock’s steep ascent passes bird habitat; farther east, wildflowers bloom along Dog Mountain. Columbia Hills State Park, home to a rock climbing area at Horsethief Butte, also contains a series of petroglyphs carved by the Native Americans that lived in the region long before the once-thin river was dammed into its current size.
The Columbia Gorge has been producing beer since back when the independent makers were known as microbreweries (today they're mostly called "craft"). Hood River’s Full Sail Brewing can trace its roots back to 1987, when the owners turned a fruit cannery—representing what was then the area's signature output—into a beer hub. Now the town also boasts pFriem Family Brewers, Double Mountain Brewery, and more; thanks to Northwest-grown hops, IPAs are common.
Down the river in Cascade Locks, Thunder Island Brewing pours ales in a brand-new taproom with a broad second-floor patio. Even the smallest towns host their own beer makers, from Backwoods Brewing in tiny Carson to Freebridge Brewing in a historic building in The Dalles.
When Quaker businessman Sam Hill (not that one) set down in the eastern end of the Columbia Gorge in the early 1900s, he built a dramatic mansion on a bluff overlooking the river, naming the town he hoped to grow after his daughter. Though the town never materialized, Hill turned the house into Maryhill Museum of Art, stuffing it with European and Native American works, in particular sculptures from Auguste Rodin.
The beaux arts building isn't the only thing that feels a little out of place on the grassy brown landscape; Hill built a full-size replica of Stonehenge a few miles away as a World War I memorial, open free to visitors.
Twin glassy visitor buildings sit along the great waterway, their names remarkably similar and their missions, well, not that different either. The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum in The Dalles—the Oregon one—stresses the natural history of the area, sometimes putting on live raptor educational programs. A large collection of baskets woven in the region anchors the Native American exhibit.
At Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum in Stevenson, Washington, the story starts with the ice age floods that carved the region but then goes surprising places. A moving replica of a nineteenth century fish wheel towers over a statue of a Native American dip netter. Then upstairs, one exhibit covers both a Russian baron who tried to start a philosophical movement in the area (he failed) and the largest rosary collection in the world, nearly 4,000 prayer bead strings. The Gorge clearly contains multitudes.