There's nothing understated about the Columbia Gorge, a deep chasm carved through the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River as its backbone. The section east of Portland is the best-known slice of Gorge (unless you're a music fan—the Gorge Amphitheatre is in a different area altogether), dotted with wineries and restaurants and windsurfers. And two Gorge museums.
The names of these two totally separate institutions are no help in distinguishing them: The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum versus the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum. Confused yet? Each secrets some strange and memorable exhibits, and the pair makes good bookends to a Gorge road trip. Here's how to tell them apart.
First, the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center in Stevenson, Washington, about an hour east of Portland. Here on the rainy end of the river, mist hangs over the evergreen forest (except where the destructive 2017 Eagle Creek Fire ravaged the hillsides). The Interpretive Center, a private nonprofit, sits near the base of Skamania Lodge, in a building meant to resemble the sawmills that once drove industry here. A working water wheel inside and plenty of old train equipment outside rescue the bored-kid demographic.
Robert Peterson began at the Center 26 years ago, right when it opened, in a maintenance position; today he oversees the whole operation as executive director. He notes that the Center was sure to secure permission from local tribes to reproduce the Columbia River's most famous petroglyph, a face called Tsagaglalal. The museum's geology video called Forged Through Time plays in its own theater, with melodramatic narration more entertaining than educational. (A sample: "Imagine, in a time beyond time.... The earth shuddered in titanic forces, forces beyond imagining convulsed, burned, and reshaped the face of the land." Heavy.)
Upstairs, one corner of the museum takes an unexpected turn. First, the strange story of Baron Eugene Fersen, son of a Russian Grand Duchess, who in the twentieth century tried to launch a spiritual order called the Lightbearers in the Gorge. He largely failed, but the old-world furniture he left behind is as exquisite as it is incongruous.
Nearby, hundreds of Catholic rosaries hang in display cases, donated by another local; the 4,000 owned by the museum, including one from John F. Kennedy, make up the largest collection in the world. (One jarring plaque has to explain the few swastikas among the prayer beads, pointing to the symbol's pre-Nazi history.) Save this strange detour into the Gorge's unexpected religious history for last.
Then some 45 miles east and across state lines—and to the arid, grassland part of the Gorge—sits the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum in The Dalles, Oregon. As the interpretive center for the national scenic area, the institution hits some of the same beats as its Washington cousin. Notably, it stars a replica long-tusked mammoth and a plaque that explains that dire wolves (not, apparently, a Game of Thrones invention!) used to roam this inland plateau. The geology programming immediately delivers a more scientific bent than its downriver neighbor thanks to a video starring Central Washington University geologist Nick Zentner.
The white explorers and settlers of the Gorge—from missionaries to fur trappers, Lewis and Clark to fish canneries—get a bit more real estate here than Native tribes. An indoor recreation of early Oregon storefronts feels almost like a Disney attraction. The currently shuttered Basalt Rock Cafe helps stretch a visit, though expansive views around the property serve as convenient backdrop to even a picnic lunch. But outside the Discovery Center, the real stars: the seven birds that call the Raptor Center home.
All the avian residents are unreleasable back into the wild; both bald eagles have partial wing amputations, for example, and the great horned owls are blind. In summer, daily raptor programs show off the flock, including a red-tailed hawk and American kestrel. The Center hopes to expand the raptor area with a dedicated building, likely longhouse-shaped in a salute to Native American architecture. Still, the living exhibits peek out from their enclosures year-round.
With relatively modest admission prices—$10 for adults in Stevenson, $9 in The Dalles—the twin museums are best served in sequence. Even when they overlap, they reveal how two institutions can tell the same story in completely different ways, digging up memorable aspects of one region's history. Besides, who wants to choose between a strange Russian baron and an honest-to-goodness bald eagle?
990 SW Rock Creek Dr, Stevenson, WA
Travel time from Seattle: 3 hours, 30 minutes
5000 Discovery Dr, The Dalles, OR
Travel time from Seattle: 4 hours, 10 minutes