Oregon’s Seven Wonders, Part VII: Columbia River Gorge

Waterfalls everywhere! Photo: Courtesy of Clark
Along the Columbia Gorge, waterfalls are everywhere! Photo: Courtesy of Clark

Snow turned to rain as we made our way down from the high desert of Eastern Oregon into the lush ecosystem of the Columbia Gorge.

The next of Oregon’s seven Wonders begins where Central Oregon’s Deschutes River flows into the mighty Columbia and heads westward to the Pacific. Known officially as the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, it encompasses nearly 300,000 acres, stretches over 80 miles and is 4,000 feet at its deepest point.

The gorge, which also acts as the border between Washington and Oregon, is an ecological wonder with a temperate rainforest at the western end (complete with mossy hemlocks, ferns and nearly 100 inches of rain on average each year) that transitions to expansive grasslands and Ponderosa pines at the eastern end.

We pulled into Cascade Locks, where the Bridge of the Gods spans the Columbia River, and walked in the rain to the Cascade Locks Ale House and indulged in some local beers and hearty pizza.

The next morning, after a reported 1.5 inches of rain, we drove the scenic Highway 30 (what we called “Waterfall Way”) off Interstate 84 and stopped in awe at Horsetail Falls plunging 176 feet.

The best part about winter at the Gorge: waterfalls all to ourselves. Photo: Clark
The best part about winter at the Gorge: waterfalls all to ourselves. Photo: Courtesy of Clark
We hiked the short trail to Ponytail Falls, which offers one of the more unique perspectives of a waterfall: the view from behind. From there, you can watch water blast out of a slot canyon in the rock 80 feet into a giant pool.

The access was easy and the experience breathtaking. It’s not often you can view a waterfall from a cave behind it, let alone one that’s only a half-mile hike from a highway.

The view from behind Ponytail Falls. Photo: Irons
The view from behind Ponytail Falls. Photo: Courtesy of Irons

Waterfall Way

From Horsetail Falls to Ponytail to the iconic Multnomah Falls, it’s as easy as pulling off the Historic Columbia River Highway that runs parallel to the Interstate to ogle water gushing over lush-filled cliffs. Or you can go hike one of the many trails.

We recommend Ponytail Falls for convenience and beauty.

The trail to the falls.
The trail to the falls.

Hood River

From kitesurfing and windsurfing to mountain and road biking, to skiing, to rafting or just strolling the bucolic Oak Street, this 10,000-person town is the jumping point for all Gorge adventures.

Take a tour of the Full Sail Brewing Company, grab a pint at the neighboring Double Mountain Brewery or a delicious coffee from Dog River Coffee Co. and indulge in the Gorge’s best town.

And be sure to make room for the most giant and delicious cinnamon roll the size of your face at Bette’s Place on the corner of Oak Street.

The Dalles

East of Hood River sits The Dalles 15,000-person town right on the Columbia River. Drier than Hood River, the town is close to the Deschutes River State Recreation Area, which, with Oregon’s Rails to Trails system — a 17-mile path that follows an old railroad bed — acts as a great spot to hike or bike in the winter due to its drier climate.

Afterward, swing on into Clock Tower Ales, a brewpub in a 19th-century building that used to house the courthouse and jail, and enjoy one of 27 locally crafted beers.


Choose from over 30 trails that offer spots to backpack and stay in one of the three campgrounds in the Gorge. This is your best bet to embed yourself in the beauty.

We’ll definitely be back for more of that.

John Stifter & Janna Irons, @vanventures

To win an Oregon Winter Wonders getaway …

Learn more about John and Janna’s trip through Oregon’s 7 Wonders and plan your own adventure at TravelOregon.com