Things To Do Along Oregon’s Historic Columbia River Highway

Driving The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Byway in Oregon

When Dead & Company announced their summer tour, we bought tickets for the whole family see them play in Portland, Oregon on Friday, July 22 and in George, Washington on Saturday, July 23. We turned it into a family adventure and road trip, with plans to explore the famous Columbia River Gorge on Friday before the concert.

Oregon’s public access to natural beauty, historical sites, and cultural sites has earned it more designated Scenic Byways and Tour Routes than any other state and the Columbia River Gorge is the nation’s second National Scenic Area.

We got up early Friday morning, filled up on a yummy breakfast at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Portland Downtown, then hit the road to experience the wondrous beauty of Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge and hike it’s gorgeous waterfalls.

Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Bypass

For our day of adventuring, we took the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Bypass, following the Columbia River through the Columbia River Gorge. America’s first scenic highway and a National Historic Landmark, the road follows the curves of the mountainside and is lined with walls of basalt, firs, ferns, and towering waterfall after waterfall.

From the shady tree lined roads and towering rock walls to the spectacular waterfalls and majestic views of the Columbia river from the scenic lookouts, the Columbia River Gorge lived up to everything we had heard and read about.

There are so many must-see stops on this route that it would takes days to explore them all. We love hiking and waterfalls, so we chose to visit seven waterfalls and one scenic vista lookout during our trip, including:

  • Horsetail Falls
  • Multnomah Falls
  • Wahkeena Falls
  • Fairy Falls
  • Bridal Veil Falls
  • Shepperd’s Dell Falls
  • Latourell Falls
  • Vista House

While driving along the Historic Columbia River Highway and curving around the mountainside and basalt walls, you can see the highway’s original stonework, shaded areas covered in lush greenery and ferns, views of the Columbia River, and easy access to one waterfall after another pouring from the mountainside.

Things To Do Along The Columbia River Highway

Seven waterfalls and two amazing scenic viewpoints are so close together, they are almost right next to each other. What is most amazing is that the waterfalls are directly off the road, and most can be seen right from your car. We stopped at each waterfall to get a closer look and trust me, parking and walking the trails, even if they are short, are completely worth it.

Here is a list of the stops we recommend:

Horsetail Falls

At Horsetail Falls, you can get right down to the base of the falls and wade in plunge pool for awesome photos. There is also a trail that leaves from the parking lot that takes you on a 4 mile hike to several more waterfalls, but we skipped that one because we had a limited amount of time.

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Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls is the most famous waterfall in the Columbia River Gorge and one of the tallest waterfalls in the nation. With a 620 foot plunge, it is incredible to see, and the iconic Benson Bridge that crosses the falls just between the upper and lower falls is truly picturesque. One thing to note thought is that Multnomah Falls is also VERY crowded. Often the parking lots get closed and a shuttle is required to bus people in.

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Wahkeena Falls

The tumbling rapids of Wahkeena Creek wind through Wahkeena Canyon, cascading over rocks and bubbling around the canyon curves. Wahkeena Falls is just a 0.4 mile hike up a long switchback to a stone bridge at the base of the Falls — and the view of the falls is stunning. The trail continues up above the falls to Lemmon’s Viewpoint, with fantastic sweeping vistas of the Columbia River Gorge.

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Fairy Falls

Fairy Falls is above Wahkeena Falls. Once you reach Lemmon’s Point at the top of Wahkeena Falls, the paved trail ends and it veers to the left uphill. The hike to Fairy Falls is steep and takes you through the gorgeous Wahkeena Canyon that is just wide enough for Wahkeena Creek and the trail. On the hike you’ll hike up several switchbacks, cross four wooden bridges, and tackle several lengths of steep trail.

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Bridal Veil Falls

Bridal Veil Falls is a short, easy, fairly flat hike through a beautiful shaded, fern covered wood, across a wooden bridge, and up a staircase to a wooden observation deck that looks out on the awesome two-tier waterfall. The absolute best view of Bridal Veil Falls and best photo spot, however, is just below the observation deck at the top of the stairs.

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Shepperd’s Dell Falls

Shepperd’s Dell Falls is a smaller waterfall, but one that shouldn’t be skipped! The coolest part of the walk down to this waterfall is path itself, which features gorgeous moss covered stone walls with small arches along the trail. At the waterfall overlook, you get a fantastic view of the Shepperd’s Dell Bridge.

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Latourell Falls

Latourell Falls is by far the best waterfall of the whole day. There is a short trail to a viewpoint of the falls which offers a great view, but the best trail is the one that leads down to the base of the falls where you can climb over rocks right to where the falls crash into the pool and rocks below — It makes for a stunning photo. Just be aware that you’ll be soaked from the waterfall mist!

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Vista House

Vista House is an observatory at Crown Point that overlooks the Columbia River Gorge. Built in 1918, Vista House was the first destination built on the Historic Columbia River Highway and today acts as a scenic lookout with bathrooms, a coffee shop, a gift shop, and a museum.

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Portland Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint

The Portland Women’s Forum State Park has incredible, breathtaking views of Rooster Rock State Park, vista House at Crown Point, and the Columbia River Gorge. Along with the spectacular views, this roadside vista point also has a memorial drinking fountain, a memorial to Sam Hill on a large rock with four bronze plaques, and two interpretive signs that provide information about the ice age floods that created the gorge and the the vision of Sam Hill and Samuel Lancaster to construct the Historic Columbia River Highway.

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Planning a Day Trip To The Columbia River Gorge

If you’re planning a day trip to the Columbia River Gorge and want to explore these surging waterfalls too, I’ve got some important tips to help make your trip a success:

  • Visit during spring to see the best waterfalls, during fall for the best weather, and avoid visiting in the winter as it gets a bit dangerous.
  • Visit mid-week and early in the day for fewer crowds and better parking.
  • Download a Columbia River Highway Waterfall Map, documenting the waterfalls between Corbett and Dodson.
  • Other than the cafe and restaurant at Multnomah Falls, which is ridiculously crowded, there are no places to get food or gas, so fuel up first and pack a picnic. There are picnic tables at almost all waterfall parking lots.
  • Pack an ice chest with plenty of water — more than you think you need. Even if it’s not sunny and hot, you’ll sweat while hiking and it’s important to stay hydrated.
  • Wear shoes and socks in case you decide to hike any of the trails, but bring flip flops in case you want to wade through the water at the base of some of the falls.
  • Download the Historic Columbia River Highway Brochure.
  • When you’re standing at the base of some of the waterfalls, you’re going to get really wet. Our whole family was soaked after exploring and climbing around the base of Latourell falls. So if you don’t like being wet, bring an extra set of clothes.

Oh and make sure your phone or camera is fully charged because you’re going to want to take about a billion photos. This stretch of Oregon’s Historic Columbia River Highway is simply spectacular — on par with California’s Big Sur, and Yosemite.

I can’t wait to go back again to do some more hiking and explore the waterfalls we missed. In fact, we’re already planning our next road trip back!

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