Oregon boasts seven natural wonders, like Crater Lake and the Oregon Coast that can be easily explored as an Oregon road trip. Two of the top destinations are a miles of each other, a few hours from Portland. Spend some time exploring the Columbia River Gorge from The Dallas on the east until Portland on the west.
The Columbia River Gorge protects over 80 miles of river along Interstate 84. Along the majestic river, find unbelievable waterfalls steps from the road. And don’t miss out on the fresh fruit from the Oregon orchards along the Fruit Loop.
Standing tall, Mount Hood is a beacon in northern Oregon. Find season-to-season skiing and boarding along with the historic Timberline Lodge for national park lodge lovers.
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
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.
Native Americans used the Columbia River for transportation and trade, using hand-carved wooden canoes to navigate the untamed river. In 1805 Lewis and Clark’s Expedition explored along the Columbia on their way to the Pacific.
Finally 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
Start at The Dalles on the eastern edge of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Stop by the official interpretive center at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum. Walk through the museum to learn about the pioneers and Lewis and Clark.
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.
Located at 5000 Discovery Drive. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission based on age and kids 5 and under are free.
Since the Army Corps of Engineers tamed the wild Columbia River, visit 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.
Located at 3545 Bret Clodfelter Way. 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.
Hood River with Kids
Just 22 miles west of The Dalles, Hood River offers lots of agritourism. Hood River bulges with wineries, orchards, farm stands and lavender fields.
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, spend an afternoon sampling endless fruit stands. If it’s cherry season, sample the local varieties, many too delicate to ship outside of Oregon.
I adore lavender so a stop at Hood River Lavender Farms to pick my own lavender bouquets was mandatory. The gift shop offers lavender infused products and the bees seemed friendly. Open daily for cut-your-own lavender from June until September. Located at 3801 Straight Hill Road.
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.
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.
First 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. And don’t forget the water bottle.
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 alsorequires a short hike, one mile west of exit 28 off Interstate 84. Visitors gaze at the tiered waterfall set in a mossy forest.
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.
While on Mount Hood, walk through Timberline Lodge. The historic national park lodge is a mustlovers of the parkitecture. Timberline Lodge offers its guests rustic elegance with six sides and the four-stories featuring 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. And my kids couldn’t get over the 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.
I recommend the Moon Guides to help you plan your trip.
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