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Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

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Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Overview

Each year, millions of motorists wend their way into the Columbia River Gorge on the border between northern Oregon and southern Washington to take in the stunning beauty of its black basalt cliffs, ribbon-like waterfalls, and lush fir forests. On foggy days, the scenic vistas in the Gorge are reminiscent of Chinese scroll paintings of steep-sided mountains adorned here and there by twisted pines. In November 1986, Congress recognized the unique beauty of the Gorge when it made it the nation's first National Scenic Area.

The 80-mile-long Gorge is a testament to the power of flowing water; over time, the mighty Columbia River has worn this deep gash into the volcanic rock of the Cascade Range nearly down to sea level. At points, the canyon walls tower 4,000 feet above the river. Frequent rain nourishes a lush rain forest and replenishes the waters that cascade over sheer basalt cliffs into blinding cataracts—there are 77 waterfalls on the Oregon side of the Gorge alone. The western Gorge is dominated by the dark verdure of conifer, while also sheltering stands of big-leaf maple, cottonwood, Oregon ash, and vine maple. The eastern Gorge is home to Oregon oak and big-leaf maple.

For over 31,000 years, the Columbia River Gorge has supported flourishing civilizations. Evidence of the Folsom and Marmes people, who crossed the Great Continental Divide from Asia, were found in archaeological digs. Excavations at Five Mile Rapids, a few miles east of The Dalles, show humans have occupied this ideal salmon-fishing site for more than 10,000 years.

The Columbia River Gorge is also one of the Northwest's numerous world-class outdoor playgrounds. It is arguably the boardsailing capital of the world—it functions like a wind tunnel, generating 30-knot winds as pressure differentials east and west of the Cascades find an outlet in the deep cut of the Gorge. Hiking to the Gorge's waterfalls is a classic Portland-area day trip, and in late fall and early spring, when the heights of the Cascades are buried beneath deep snow, the Gorge is the premiere option for area hikers and mountain bikers.

Ride the Wind
Hood River, the town at the narrowest point of the Columbia River Gorge, is an internationally famous destination for boardsailors. Surfers launch from both sides of the river, from Rooster Rock to Rufus, and often find that wind conditions can vary wildly from one location to the next. This is due to the unpredictable collision of cool marine air found on the western side of the Cascades, with the dryer air from the inland basin. The wind speeds often vary from 15 miles per hour at one location to 35 mph at another spot just 30 miles east or west. Launch sites as little as one mile apart can have huge swells at one, and small chop at the other.

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Hike Eagle Creek Trail
Sections of this 13.2-mile trail are carved into sheer basalt cliffs while elsewhere it meanders through lush forest. Along the way, pass Punch Bowl Falls, where angel hair strands of water fall 25 feet into a verdigris pool of water set in a large grotto. Walk across High Bridge, which traverses the gorge 150 feet above the creek, and through Tunnel Falls, where the trail passes through a tunnel behind a curtain of falling water.

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Crown the Sturgeon King
There's an old-time smoked-fish breakfast place on Manhattan's Upper West Side called Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King. Who's the Sturgeon King in your family? The only way to find out is to drop a hook deep into the Columbia River above and below the Bonneville Dam. The sturgeon is a bottom-feeder and prefers the deep, cavernous sections of the river. The Columbia River's waters are also home to smallmouth and largemouth bass, panfish, walleye, and shad. If you're after salmon and steelhead, check out the Little White Salmon River that flows into Drano Lake.

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Behold Multnomah Falls
The double-tiered Multnomah Falls, at 620 feet high, is the second highest waterfall in the United States. You can see five flows of Yakama basalt in the fall's cliff face. The Benson Bridge, built by Italian stone masons, allows you to view the falls between its upper and lower cataract.

Mountain Bike Gorge Trail 400
Bike beneath the towering basalt cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge. Although gentle grades generally make this smooth cycling, expect numerous rock talus crossings to challenge your obstacle avoidance skills. At Wauna Viewpoint, you can gorge your eyes on the beguiling engineering wonder known as the Bonneville Dam.

More on biking in Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Identify Rainforest Wildflowers
Average annual precipitation of 75 inches at Oneonta Gorge yields a temperate rainforest teeming with "endemic" (nowhere else in the world) and exotic wildflowers. As you explore this lush ecosystem, you'll feel as if you have wandered into a natural outdoor greenhouse. Keep your eyes open for Columbia Gorge daisies—these white-petaled flowers can be found on overhanging basalt cliffs. The white-flowered Oregon Sullivantia prefers to cling to the wet cliffs near waterfalls, and tends to be found in the low elevations at the western end of the Gorge on the Oregon side.

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