Explore like a Kid in the Columbia River Gorge

Explore Timberline Lodge when you visit Columbia River Gorge with kids.
The Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood is one of Oregon’s seven natural wonders and a quick drive from the Columbia River Gorge. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Oregon boasts seven natural wonders, like Crater Lake and the Oregon Coast. Two of those destinations lie within miles of each other, a few hours from Portland.

Topping my list of scenic drives, the Columbia River Gorge protects over 80 river along Interstate 84. Along the majestic river, I found unbelievable waterfalls steps from the road. And what can be better than fresh fruit from the miles of Oregon orchards along the Fruit Loop.

Mount Hood stands tall as a beacon in northern Oregon. It offers season-to-season skiing and boarding along with the historic Timberline Lodge for national park lodge lovers.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Discover the Columbia River Gorge with Kids.
Climb high above the river to see how mighty the Columbia River is. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The ice age 15,000 years ago created the Columbia River Gorge with its distinctive V-shape. With uncontrolled flooding and seasons of freeze-and-thaw, the Columbia River Gorge features a high concentration of waterfalls to the delight of waterfall chasers, like me.

The Native Americans used the Columbia River for transportation and trade, using wooden canoes to navigate the untamed river. In 1805 Lewis and Clark’s Expedition explored along the Columbia on their way to the Pacific.

Explore Fort Clatsop with kids and earn a Junior Ranger badge.
Explore Lewis and Clark sites in Oregon and Washington to earn a Junior Ranger patch. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Army Corps of Engineers tamed the Columbia River falls in 1957 when it constructed the Bonneville Dam and The Dalles Dam. In 1986, Congress established the Columbia River Gorge as a national scenic area. 

Family Fun along the Columbia River

The Dalles

I started in The Dalles on the eastern edge the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Up first, the official interpretive center at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum where my kids, 9, 13 and 14, went to work on the museum’s scavenger hunts learning about the pioneers and Lewis and Clark.

The Columbia River Gorge tops my list for family fun in the Pacific Northwest. With something for everyone, my family found outdoor sports for every season, waterfalls, fields of fruit and flowers along with local shops and restaurants. Got all the details to plan your trip.

During our visit, we learned about the Oregon Trail pioneers and the natural resources of the Columbia River. The Lewis and Clark Expedition and Oregon canning industry get equal attention.

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adult admission is $9, kids from 6 to 16 are $5 and kids 5 and under are free, located at 5000 Discovery Drive.

Explore the Columbia River Gorge with kids.
The Army Corps of Engineers built and operates the dams along the Columbia River. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Since the Army Corps of Engineers tamed the wild Columbia River, we visited The Dalles Lock and Dam. With a visitor center and a Junior Ranger activity booklet, my kids learned about the importance of dams, water safety and how fish use fish ladders.

Free and open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Tour the dam with scheduled tours on summer weekends. The visitor center is located at 3545 Bret Clodfelter Way.

Hood River with Kids

Just 22 miles west of The Dalles, our next destination offers lots of agritourism. Hood River, bulges with wineries, orchards, farm stands and lavender fields.

Explore the Fruit Loop when you visit the Columbia River Gorge with kids.
Columbia River’s Fruit Loop offers endless fruit stands, like several cherry varieties you can only sample in Oregon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Fruit Loop starts in Hood River, a town along the Columbia River’s Interstate 84. With over 35 miles of country roads to meander, we spent an afternoon sampling endless fruit stands. Since it was cherry season we sampled every local variety, many too delicate to ship outside of the region.

I adore lavender so a stop at Hood River Lavender Farms (3801 Straight Hill Road) to pick my own lavender bouquets was mandatory. The gift shop offers lavender infused products and the bees seemed friendly.

Pick lavender at the lavender farm when you explore Columbia River Gorge with kids.
Stop and smell the lavender during the summer. I picked several bunches. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Kids love animals so we stopped at Cascade Alpacas and Foothills Yarn and Fiber (4207 Sylvester Drive). With spinning demonstrations, my kids learned how alpaca fur turns into yarn.

Waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge 

The Columbia River Gorge’s waterfalls offer spectacular hikes and envy-worthy photo opportunities. The most well-known waterfall, Multnomah Falls, is just the beginning. As a ribbon of water plummets 620 feet, it’s the second highest year-round waterfall in the U.S.

Visit Multnomah Falls when you explore the Columbia River Gorge with kids.
Multnomah Falls is a must, if the parking lot is full, come back in the late afternoon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Located at exit 31, the U.S. Forest Service Rangers hand out Columbia River Gorge Junior Ranger booklets for the kids and award niffy patches at the visitor center. I walked through Multnomah Falls Lodge next to the falls, with a regionally-inspired menu along with a separate bar. Restrooms, a snack bar and a gift shop offer the necessities.

Hike to the Benson Bridge, a .25-mile hike from the visitor center, an option for most visitors. Or take the 1.2-mile hike to the top of the falls, don’t forget the water bottle.

Explore the waterfalls when you visit Columbia River Gorge with kids.
Latourell Falls offers fewer crowds and a convenient parking lot a few miles from Multnomah Falls. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Don’t skip the other waterfalls along the Columbia River Scenic Highway (Hwy. 30), the crowds diminish and scenery increases.

Latourell Falls, located in Guy W. Talbot State Park, features a 249-foot plunge fall a short hike from the parking lot.

Bridal Veil Falls also requires a short hike, one mile west of exit 28 off Interstate 84. Visitors gaze at the tiered waterfall set in a mossy forest.

Visit Horsetail Falls when you explore Columbia River Gorge with kids.
Horsetail Falls is another waterfall to visit along the Columbia River Gorge. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Wah-kee-na Falls, .5 miles west of Multnomah Falls, translates into most beautiful from the Yakama language. A 242-foot tiered waterfall awaits with a nearby picnic area.

Horsetail Falls, 2.5 miles east of Multnomah Falls, offers a 176-foot waterfall steps from the highway.

Best Places to Watch the Sunset

Might not be the Oregon coast though I found a couple of spots to catch the sunset. Stop by the Vista House at Crown Point, a memorial dedicated to the Oregon pioneers and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1918, it’s perched 733 feet above the Columbia River and the setting sun casts an amber glow in its windows.

Mount Hood stands as a beacon along the Columbia River Gorge, rising up from the evergreen landscape with glaciers and year-round skiing. An easy drive allows families to explore the area, a quick drive from the Columbia River Gorge.

Explore Timberline Lodge when you visit Columbia River Gorge with kids.
The Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood is a historic national park lodge. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

While on Mount Hood, walk through Timberline Lodge. The historic national park lodge is a must lovers of the parkitecture, Timberline Lodge offers its guests rustic elegance. With six sides, the four-story building features a central fireplace, handmade furnishings and wood carvings throughout the lobby.

Lodging along the Columbia River Gorge 

During my visit, I stayed at the Cousins Country Inn in The Dalles. The conveniently located  off Interstate 84, it offers all the necessities a Mom needs, like self-service laundry and a pool for the kids.

With a restaurant located onsite, I appreciated the convenience of home-style meals. My kids couldn’t be over their cinnamon rolls as big as a plate.

Hood River, Oregon, is another option for lodging, located about halfway through the Columbia River Gorge. Close to the western edge of the gorge is Portland, Oregon, with numerous lodging and dining options.

Where’s the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Columbia River Gorge starts 30 miles east of Portland, Oregon, along Interstate 84. Portland offers the closest international airport.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. The National Park site is a fee-free area.

Interstate 84 runs the length of the scenic area though I recommend exiting and driving the Columbia River Scenic Highway.

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is a quick 80 miles north along Interstate 5. Lewis and Clark National Historical Park gives kids a further understanding of the 1805 expedition with numerous sites at the mouth of the Columbia River, 120 miles west. Oregon Caves National Monument and Crater Lake National Park offer more national park sites to explore.

Know Before You Go: 

  • Grab your fresh fruit first before passing it to the back seat. Kids can vacuum pounds of fresh fruit in minutes.
  • Lavender can give some people headaches in high concentrations, like the car ride home.
  • If parking is unavailable at Multnomah Falls, tour nearby Bridal Veil Falls and circle back around.
  • Look out for banana slugs near the waterfalls, slugs the size and color of a banana.

More Information:

I recommend the Moon Guides for more information. I own several and use them to research my trips.

Disclosure: 

Consideration for brands mentioned. This post contains affiliate links.

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