by Lee Foster
Both east and west from Portland, an exploration of the Columbia River offers one of Oregon’s major pleasures for the traveler.
The Columbia has been the defining influence on the development of Washington and Oregon. The first discovery and charting of the area came via the Columbia. Legendary fishing runs, especially for salmon, occurred annually on the Columbia (be sure to see the underwater fish ladders at the Bonneville Dam). The harnessing of hydro power of the Columbia has provided a major amount of electrical energy for the region. It is difficult, with hindsight, to appreciate how detractors of Bonneville Dam once belittled it and scoffed at it, calling it “the dam of doubt.” These men of vision believed that the dam would produce more electrical power than the region could ever consume, and was thus a waste of money. The beauty of the Columbia Gorge, especially east from Portland, pleases the traveler.
Getting to the Columbia River Gorge
Use Portland as your base of exploration. Portland is on a tributary of the Columbia, the Willamette River. Allow a day for a trip west to Astoria and Fort Clatsop and another day for a venture east to the Bonneville Dam.
Drive the small highways near the river. Take Highway 30 west from Portland to Astoria. East from Portland, take the scenic highway, where possible, not Interstate 84. Signs will alert you to the scenic highway going east.
Columbia River History
Three of the major attractions here tell parts of the historical story.
West of Portland, be sure to visit the Fort Clatsop memorial to the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Columbia Maritime Museum in Astoria.
East of Portland, the premier stop is the Bonneville Dam, which tells the story of the early maritime adventurers on the rapids before the damming of the river for hydro power and for safe locks that allow orderly shipping.
In 1792 a New England sea captain, Robert Gray, discovered the mouth of the river, which he promptly named after his ship, the Columbia. John Jacob Astor’s fur company made the first permanent settlement here, and called it Astoria.
Explorers, fur trappers and traders, and finally overland settlers made use of the Columbia. However, barging down the river was treacherous in the early days because of the rapids.
Columbia River Main Attractions
Consider the drive west from Portland first.
The town of Astoria lies near the mouth of the Columbia River. Astoria has always enjoyed a maritime orientation, so it’s fitting that it is now the site of a first-rate Maritime Museum, charting Columbia River and general maritime history. Be sure to visit this museum along the Astoria waterfront. The exhibits on salmon fishing are instructive, from Indian gill netting to the sturdy little boats that fished on the open seas.
While exploring here, you’ll note the vigorous sport fishing and commercial fishing boat traffic from Astoria. Large ships leave from docks here or slide past Astoria on their way upriver to Portland.
For a panoramic view of the area, drive to a hill top in Astoria to see the Astoria Column. Climb all 166 stairs to the top. On the exterior of the column a long frieze tells the story of the discovery of the Columbia and the founding of Astoria. On a clear day you’ll enjoy a view of the Lewis and Clark River and of the broad mouth of the Columbia River. It’s worth noting that the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, which lies just north of Portland and can be seen from the cliffs as you drive west from Portland, deposited so much debris from its mudflows into the Columbia that shipping came to a standstill until the river could be dredged.
As you climb the hills of Astoria, you’ll note the well-kept Victorian houses that generations of prosperous seafaring families have built and maintained here. For a map listing the choicest Victorians, stop by the local Chamber of Commerce.
The other major destination west of Portland is the Fort Clatsop National Memorial to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The memorial is on the Lewis and Clark River, 6 miles from Astoria.
The memorial is worth visiting to immerse yourself in the rugged, self-sufficient world of the early explorers. A replica of the original fort has been created, complete with details of daily life, from the skinning of a beaver to the forging of a musket ball. An informative movie also brings alive the expedition. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark provided the first comprehensive report on the region, which fueled the imagination of trappers and settlers and encouraged further exploration. The journals of the journey are a detailed historical record of what was looked for, and what was observed, including the Native American tribes, flora, fauna, and topography. The 50-foot-square fort here housed 33 members of the expedition. Among the exhibits is a 32-foot dugout canoe of the type the party used on the rivers.
As you drive west from Portland along the river toward Astoria, there is one artifact other than the views to consider. That is the Trojan nuclear power plant between Rainier and Globe. A visit here can acquaint you with the promise and prospects, rather than the controversy, surrounding nuclear power.
East from Portland the Columbia cuts its way through the Cascade Mountains. From Interstate 84 you get a river view perspective. From the Columbia River Scenic Highway, the old winding river road, the view becomes more scenic. The road departs from 84 at Troutdale and winds along the ridges for 24 miles before joining 84 again, 5 miles before the Bonneville Dam.
A side road from the scenic highway takes you to Larch Mountain, the best vista point in the region. Allow plenty of time, however, for this winding road. Trails and picnic tables await you at the top. Hikers can obtain information at any of the state parks here about the extensive network of trails along the Columbia.
Scenic lookouts on the main road are at Women’s Forum Park and at Crown Point. Both offer breathtaking views of the Columbia River Gorge.
The area is also noted for its waterfalls, the most impressive of which is Multnomah Falls, a 620-foot drop, the highest falls in Oregon.
Beyond the falls, a major attraction along the Columbia River is the Bonneville Dam, 40 miles east of Portland. Bonneville was built in the 1930s and named after Captain Benjamin de Bonneville, an early explorer.
There are several aspects of the dam site.
First and foremost are the fish ladders and fish viewing chambers on Bradford Island. From underground viewing stations you can see salmon, eels, and other fish swimming upstream. Here they are counted to project future fish population levels. An elaborate system of outdoor ladders allows the fish to traverse the dams. The locks that allow ships to bypass the rapids and the fish hatchery are other interesting sights here. Interpretive displays tell the story of ships that met a cruel fate on the rocks here before the locks were built.
Upriver from the dam, at Cascade Locks, a museum records the portaging that was necessary around the rapids until locks were built in 1896.
Nearby Trips from the Columbia River
If intrigued with a view of Mt. St. Helens, you might want to cross into Washington State and make a day tour around the volcano.
Boat trips can give you a different perspective on the Columbia gorge. From Cascade Locks a cruise boat called the Columbia Sightseer departs during the summer travel season.
Columbia River: If You Go
The website state tourism information for Oregon is www.traveloregon.com.
For Portland information, see www.travelportland.com.