The Columbia River Gorge is so beautiful and packed with jaw-dropping waterfalls, overlooks, and hikes that they designated it a National Scenic Area. On top of that, the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway is actually considered one of the most scenic drives in the country.
Along this 70-mile highway, you will have the chance to see several charming towns, historic buildings, monuments, fish hatcheries, and countless numbers of enchanting waterfalls. Not to mention, the hiking and watersports possibilities are endless. This is our roundup of the best things to do in the Columbia River Gorge on a day trip from Portland.
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COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE: WHAT TO EXPECT
The western end of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon is a destination bucket list item for people all over the world. Seriously, where else can you find back to back to back waterfalls on a historic highway? From the majestic forests to the magical falls, the Columbia River Gorge day trip offers unparalleled scenery that’s sure to amaze. Aside from the scenic wonders, this region has so much more to offer. Here, you’ll find some excellent small towns worth visiting featuring art galleries, cafes, restaurants, and shopping.
Thought the Gorge only required a couple of hours to explore? Think again. There are almost too many things to do in the Columbia River Gorge.
We recently decided to take a road trip to the Columbia River Gorge to go hiking, check out some new scenery, explore new towns, and taste craft beers. On our most recent day trip to the Columbia River Gorge, we got as east as Hood River and Lavender Valley, then turned back around for Portland.
I’ve done road trips to the Columbia River Gorge on a few other occasions, and no matter what attractions I visit, I always have such a great time out there—and still can’t believe it’s right there in Portland’s backyard.
Since you may only have one to two days to explore the Columbia River Gorge, this list is focalized on the western end of the Columbia River Gorge. I’d highly recommend you go back on another occasion because there’s simply so much to see and do here.
COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE: ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP
- Cell phone service can be spotty in the National Scenic Area, especially if you have T-Mobile as I do. Make sure you download or print out a map of all the falls you want to visit, and take note of their mile markers.
- The CRG and the towns here can get super windy, so don’t even think about leaving the house without a windbreaker.
- Check with USFS for the most up-to-date information on trail closures. Many of the trails in the Columbia River Gorge were damaged by recent fires over the years, so before heading out, check to see if your destination/hike is open or not.
- The Columbia River Gorge draws a lot of tourists, especially in the summertime. Start your trip before 9 am to beat the crowds. You can also travel against the grain (east to west).
- To really make the most of your time at the Gorge, you’ll ideally need three days.
- Leave no trace. Respect nature and pack out what you pack in.
- The night before your road trip, pack up water, snacks, and maybe even a picnic lunch for the next day. That way, you can head out quickly once you wake up, get an early start, and have extra hours to experience the Gorge!
ROAD TRIP PREPARATION: RENTAL CARS
If you don’t have a car or don’t have a reliable car you trust to get you out of Portland and back in one piece, I suggest you pick up a rental car for your road trip.
We like to rent from Hertz. Why? Well with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive. There’s a Hertz location at the PDX airport, as well as two other locations within the city. Book your rental car with them here.
If you are more the type to compare prices between rental car companies, use Priceline’s rental car search. Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices, but most of the time you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees.
ROAD TRIP PREPARATION: ROAD CONDITIONS
Right before your trip, check Google Maps or TripCheck (by the Oregon Department of Transportation) before you hit the road.
We actually like TripCheck a little bit more for this exercise, because not only does it provide you with live road condition information, but it also gives you live weather alerts as well. There are even live cameras you can check out to see exactly how snowy a mountain pass may be or how bad the traffic is in the city. Though not as detailed as within Oregon, the highway condition information even extends to nearby states!
If you’re traveling in the wintertime, make sure to pay closer attention to road conditions. Road closures tend to be more common in the wintertime.
COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE: 12+ THINGS TO DO ALONG THE WAY
Troutdale, also known as the “Gateway to the Gorge”, is the entrance to the National Scenic Area. This area has a thriving downtown area with independent stores, art galleries, museums, fine restaurants, and even a premium outlet mall. If you’d like to linger longer here, explore Troutdale’s Glenn Otto Community Park on the banks of the Sandy River. If you’re looking for a jumping base to start your trip into the Columbia River Gorge, Troutdale makes a great option. By far my favorite thing to do in Troutdale is to spend a few hours at McMenamins Edgefield, a historic hotel with a massive property featuring an endless amount of things to see and do in itself (see below).
2. MCMENAMINS EDGEFIELD
McMenamins Edgefield is so much more than a historic hotel. This property is 74-acres large and located only 20 minutes away from downtown Portland in Troutdale. Formerly a poor farm during the Great Depression, McMenamins is a wonder to see and explore. It’s so expansive there is even a visitor’s guide and map of the property available to visitors. Seriously, the estate is huge!
You could easily spend a few hours wandering about the extensive gardens (glass of wine or a pint of beer in hand), play golf, visit the glass/pottery shop, distillery, and winery, take a seat and enjoy one of the many bars, eat lunch in the outdoor courtyards, watch a recent-run movie in the theater, listen to live music and explore the gift shop. It’s such a serene place to spend a few hours or even a night. If you’re a hotel guest here, you can also take advantage of the beautiful soaking pool next to the tea bar.
3. WATERFALL AREA
Off I-84 at Exit 17, you’ll hit the waterfall area along the Historic Columbia River Highway. Twist and turn down the highway to find a variety of waterfalls worth stopping for, including the iconic Multnomah Falls. Here’s a quick overview of only a fraction of the waterfalls you can choose to explore:
- LAUTOURELL FALLS – short walk to the falls from the parking lot, but a longer loop hike will take you toward Upper Latourell Falls and beyond
- BRIDAL VEIL FALLS – 1-mile out and back with elevation change and switchbacks
- WAHKEENA FALLS – 0.5 miles hike, can be seen in conjunction with Multnomah Falls
- HORSETAIL FALLS – right by the freeway
- FAIRY FALLS – 3.4-mile round trip hike with 1,500 feet elevation gain
- WAHCLELLA FALLS – 2-mile round trip hike, rather strenuous but worth it
- ELOWA FALLS – 1.4-mile round trip hike along McCord Creek
- ONEONTA GORGE – 1-mile roundtrip hike with a large log jam to maneuver over, as well as wading through knee to chest-deep water (water level can get up to 5ft depending on the time of year)
- PUNCHBOWL FALLS – 3.8 miles roundtrip from Eagle Creek Trailhead
- DRY CREEK FALLS – 4.5-mile out-and-back trail
4. VISTA HOUSE
The Vista House at Crown Point was built in 1917 on one of the most beautiful scenic points on the historic highway, as not only a comfort station for travelers to rest and refuel as they drove the highway, but also as an observatory of the Columbia River Gorge and a memorial to Oregon pioneers. The 100-year-old building is an attraction in itself, and the views of the Columbia River are awesome. Parking can be annoying, but just be patient because visitors are constantly coming and going. Be sure to go inside the Vista House to appreciate the beauty of the building. Head upstairs and take in some views of the river from a higher elevation.
5. MULTNOMAH FALLS
It’s likely you’ve visited or at least heard of this popular waterfall in the Columbia River Gorge before. If you haven’t, well you’re in for a treat, because it’s a must-see as you travel along the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway. It’s a quick stop off the highway and you can walk right up to marvel at the falls without even breaking a sweat. Talk about bang for your buck! There’s an interpretive center and a gift shop here. You can also grab lunch, ice cream, coffee, and other refreshments here as well. Use the restrooms here before moving onto the next stop!
Tip: The only parking area for the site is the Interstate 84 parking lot at Exit 31. Commit this exit to memory, in case you start driving and lose cell phone service as I did. Do not continue driving to Multnomah Falls on the historic highway. There is no parking available and you’ll have to flip a U or drive extra miles to get back on the freeway to turn around.
6. WAHKEENA FALLS
Just up the road from Multnomah Falls is another very impressive waterfall called Wahkeena Falls. Did you know you can visit both falls at once, as well as more than four other falls by hiking the Wahkeena-Multnomah Falls Loop Trail? That bridge you see in the photos of Multnomah Falls—you can actually walk on that during this hike!
If I had to pick just one hike to do in the Columbia River Gorge, it would be this one. This 5-mile loop trail starts at Multnomah Falls on the Return Trail #442 located on the west end of the parking lot to the right of the lodge. As with all Columbia River Gorge hikes, check here for the latest trail conditions and potential closures. There are often closures due to wildfires, landslides, downed trees, etc.
6. CASCADE LOCKS
Cascade Locks is located in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge and is home to the famed Bridge of the Gods, a steel truss cantilever bridge that spans the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. It’s also known as an ideal spot for sailing—it even hosts national and international sailboat racing events year-round.
The town offers a variety of activities for craft beer lovers, foodies, cyclists, day hikers, and nature lovers!
7. THE DALLES
One of the more off-the-beaten-path things to do while in the Columbia River Gorge area is to explore the sunny and historic town of The Dalles. This town, despite it being not too far from rainy Portland, only gets 15 inches of rain per year. It is the closest point to Portland with this kind of climate, meaning sunny days and rolling hills for cyclists and explorers year-round!
As soon as you hop out of your car, you’ll feel that you’ve been transported back in time. The Dalles is steeped in history, and it shows in the architecture. Many of the historic buildings are working businesses, so visitors can take a step back in time while enjoying the modern shops and restaurants housed in them.
If you’re a history buff, head to the Wasco County Historical Museum and the Fort Dalles Museum to learn more about the settlement of the American West. There’s also plenty of opportunities for sipping wine, just head to the Sunshine Mill, where you’ll find Quenett and Copa Di Vino tasting rooms.
8. HOOD RIVER
If you’ve made it to Hood River, great job! Now you’re going to need a few hours (even a whole day or two) at minimum to really explore the town and enjoy all the activities it offers. Hood River is known for a whole slew of outdoor activities, including mountain biking, hiking, skiing, rafting, and most famously, windsurfing.
Be sure to check out the historic downtown, where you’ll discover an elective mix of independently-owned boutiques, coffee shops, distilleries, breweries (try Full Sail Brewing), and wine tasting rooms. In terms of shopping, you can expect clothing shops, home decor shops, kite and hobby shops, gourmet food shops, and outdoor gear shops, just to name a few. Hood River Waterfront Park on Portway Avenue will bring you to the bank of the Columbia River, where you can beach, swim, eat, and grab a beer under the sun.
If you like art, you can take the 2.65-mile self-guided BIG ART walking tour, showcasing 15 outdoor sculptures by local artists. A few other hidden gems include the Western Antique Airplane and Automobile Museum, Ruthton Park, and driving the Cider Route (see below). During the months of May to November, the Hood River Farmers Market comes to town every Saturday from 9am to 1pm.
Got more time here? Head to Lost Lake, a southwest drive away, for classic views of Mount Hood while you engage in recreational activities including hiking, swimming, boating and camping.
Tip: Hood River is the epicenter of river activities. Hit the water on one of the 8 rivers near Hood River, including Columbia, Deschutes, Hood, John Day, Klickitat, Sandy, White Salmon, and Wind Rivers).
9. HOOD RIVER COUNTY FRUIT LOOP
The Hood River County Fruit Loop is a scenic 35-mile self-guided driving route through Hood River County. It features various fruit orchards, including pears, cherries, and apple orchards. The tour suggests stops at over 30 orchards, farms, cider rooms, and wineries. If you’re making the drive, be sure to try a huckleberry milkshake! Some things to look forward to by season:
- Summer season: huckleberry milkshakes, fresh-picked apples, berries, 1st apple pies of the year, cherry milkshakes, fresh local cherries, hand-rolled cherry pies, cherry scones, and jams.
- Fall season: fresh-picked local pears, fresh pear pies, scones, cookies, and huckleberry and pumpkin milkshakes.
If you’re looking for fruit products and gifts to bring home, it doesn’t get much fresher than this!
10. LAVENDER VALLEY
I love this little off the road travel attraction! There’s nothing better than visiting a lavender farm during the summer season and going to annual lavender festivals. At Lavender Valley (located a short drive from Hood River), you can wander the lovely lavender fields, cut and pick your own lavender, and explore the little gift shop after you’ve enjoyed your stroll through the grounds. The view of Mt. Hood is as intoxicating as their fragrant fields! No lie, the view by far is the best thing here and certainly does not disappoint. If you’re looking for an alternative, there are other lavender farms in the area including Hood River Lavender Farm.
11. CAMAS, WASHINGTON
Still have time to hit up another town on the way back from your trip into the Gorge? If so, why not head over to Washington? Camas, located on the Washington side in the Gorge, is only 15 minutes away from the Portland airport. Here you can enjoy the fine shops, art galleries, brewpubs, and eateries among the small-town charm. All the historic charm you need in your life is in downtown Camas.
Outdoor activities are also abundant here, including kayaking, SUPing, biking, hiking, fishing, and wildlife watching. Explore the diverse hiking and biking trails, lakes, and waterfalls on the Heritage Hiking Trail. In the springtime, head to the Camas lily fields at Lacamas Lake— they’re a spectacular sight to see. While you’re at Lacamas Lake, don’t miss the various waterfalls, walking trails, and picnicking areas.
12. PICK UP SOME WINE ON THE WAY BACK
Columbia River Gorge might look like just scenic beauty, but did you know it’s also partially wine country? The Gorge is home to more than 90 vineyards and 1,300+ vineyard acres, as well as close to 50 wineries and tasting rooms between Troutdale, Oregon and Maryhill, Washington.
The gorge’s oldest winery, Hood River Vineyards and Winery, has been producing wonderful reds and ports for more than 30 years. Cathedral Ridge Winery is another popular winery, featuring an award-winning Pinot Noir as well as numerous other varietals that have received high marks from the likes of Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE
A great place to call your turnaround point is Hood River or its surrounding towns. Before you turn around and head back for Portland, consider an overnight stay to truly experience the magic of the Columbia River Gorge.
Our favorite stylish hotels in the Hood River area include:
- Hood River Hotel – the oldest hotel in Hood River, yet is extremely stylish and modern.
- RubyJune Inn – a bed and breakfast offering an exceptional breakfast; located on the Washington side of the Columbia River, just 10 minutes drive from Hood River.
- The Society Hotel Bingen – a beautiful concept hotel featuring a restaurant, bar, sun terrace, indoor pool, spa, a shared lounge, and garden. An absolutely drop-dead gorgeous hotel!
COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE: ROAD TRIP PACKING LIST
Aside from the normal clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without for your Columbia River Gorge road trip:
- License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
- Offline Map | Either download a map of the Gorge to your phone, buy a guidebook or print one out.
- Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
- Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Flashlight | You never know when you’re going to be stranded on the road at night, out hiking late, or even exploring a dark cave. Leaving a flashlight in your car can really come in handy when you’re faced with unexpected situations.
- Umbrella | An umbrella, particularly a wind-proof umbrella, is crucial when traveling to destinations with varying/unpredictable weather. If you have an umbrella with you, then it means the rain can’t stop you from enjoying your trip and exploring the outdoors.
- Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road-trip. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
- Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- Garbage Bags | Because you don’t want the inside of your car to resemble a dumpster can. Plastic bags (or garbage bags) can also be used to hold wet clothes if you get caught in the rain, go for a swim, etc.
- GoPro | Capture all those awesome action/adventure moments with a top of the line action camera. Your regular camera or iPhone won’t be an option if you’re engaging in action sports like mountain biking, rock climbing, or whitewater rafting. For water sports, you could always get a waterproof case, but GoPro has time and time again proven to be the best for underwater photography.
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time on the river or at the surrounding lakes, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure in the Gorge. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Puffy Jacket | You’re going to need layers in the CRG, which tends to get pretty windy at times. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from a river or lake to a car. This one here is a great option.
- Dry Bag | Another multi-purpose item on the list! Dry bags are completely necessary for keeping your dry belongings (clothes, electronics, money, etc)… dry. Don’t set foot on a kayak, boat, or canoe without putting your stuff in a dry bag. Trust me, it’s better than ending up with a phone or camera submerged in water in the case where the boat tips or something. It’s also super handy for carrying around wet bathing suits and towels. Or even doubling as your laundry bag!
- Insect Repellent Lotion | Mosquitos love hot and wet climates, so I would definitely recommend packing insect repellent with a high DEET percentage if you’re traveling in the summer and plan to be on the water. Sawyer makes some really great bug repellent products, and they’re travel-friendly too!
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Headlamp / Flashlight | Being able to find your way through the wilderness or through lava caves in darkness is essential, so you should always carry a light source with you, even if you don’t plan on staying out past sunset. An LED headlamp allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light. FYI, the flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute– the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always carry extra batteries.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great breweries and eateries… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.
Aside from the activities listed above, there are about a million other things to do in the Columbia River Gorge. What are some of your favorite activities for a day trip to the Columbia River Gorge?