If you are looking for scenic adventure, all you have to do is get in your car and drive. From Vancouver to Hood River along the Washington side of the Columbia River, the drive takes about an hour and a half with zero stops. While the drive is pretty enough, there are at least three places worthy of a stop for exploration, walking and enjoyment. Completing the entire loop with zero stops is 136 miles and takes around two and a half hours. However, our itinerary for the ultimate Columbia Gorge scenic drive is a full day of adventure.
While you don’t need to do all of the stops in one day, the Columbia River Gorge is one of the prettiest drives in the country. Few know that the Washington side is a scenic byway and the Oregon side of the gorge, one of the first planned scenic highways in the nation, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark. Whether you drive the gorge once a year or explore it every weekend, the following stops will help entice and inspire more adventures along our mighty river.
1. Stop #1 – Franz Lake National Wildlife Refuge
The first stop along the Washington side of the Columbia is at the Franz Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Just 32 miles east of Vancouver, this refuge is a known destination for hundreds of Tundra Swans during the winter months. Your best views of the lake can be found at the end of Indian Mary Road.
2. Stop #2 – Beacon Rock State Park
Three miles east of Franz Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Beacon Rock State Park is another must-stop destination while taking a scenic drive along the Columbia River Gorge. Here, you need to get out of the car and stretch your legs by taking the 1.8 mile round trip trek up to the summit of this 850’ rock. Climbing 52 switchbacks, the trail isn’t for the lighthearted. Make sure you have a tight grip on your children hands, as the level of exposure is quite intense.
3. Stop #3 – Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center Museum
After experiencing the dizzying heights of Beacon Rock, the next stop you need to take is at the Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center Museum. Often overlooked, the incredible artifacts found here can be explored for many hours. Whether you love Native American culture and history, Lewis and Clark facts, transportation displays or even a classic diesel locomotive, this awesome destination is sure to become a family favorite. After this museum, you can choose to drive farther down to the Hood River Bridge and enter Oregon, or turn back a few miles and cross the impressive and historic Bridge of the Gods.
Driving across the Bridge of the Gods, just three short miles from the museum, is the natural route for a return trip, as it allows you to span the Columbia in a region that has been culturally significant for millennia. The Bridge of the Gods was named for the region, as a massive landslide once blocked the Columbia near this spot. For the best view of this stretch of the river, hop on the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler for an unforgettable boating adventure.
4. Stop #4 – Bonneville Fish Hatchery
Heading west along the Oregon side of the Columbia, your stop after seeing the river from Cascade Locks needs to be the Bonneville Fish Hatchery and the Bradford Island Visitor Center just five miles away. This is an ideal place to stretch your legs for an extended period of time. At the fish hatchery, wander along the paved paths to see ponds full of trout and the massive beasts of the Columbia, known as sturgeons. The most famous fish here is Herman the Sturgeon, who is nearly 10’ long, 425 pounds and over 60 years old!
After walking around the fish hatchery, head to the Bonneville dam itself and explore the Bradford Island Visitor Center. Walk through a great museum and visitor center. Then, experience a world-class fish-viewing area. Through a large window, visitors can see salmon swim by and get an up close and personal view of the slightly terrifying Pacific Lamprey.
5. Stop #5 – Visit a Waterfall
Photo credit: Douglas Scott
Once you have finished with the fish viewing and dam walking, it is time to reward yourself with the internationally famous waterfalls of the Oregon side of the Columbia River. While there are literally hundreds of miles to hike along the gorge, the three most family-friendly walks to gorgeous waterfalls are to Horsetail Falls, Multnomah Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. Closed due to the devastating fires of 2017, the three falls will reopen to the public at some point in the near future, once again giving breathtaking views of the cascading waters.
6. Stop #6 – Vista House
Photo credit: Douglas Scott
Finally, once you have seen the waterfalls and enjoyed the gorge’s awesome stops, it is time to take one last glance of the beauty of the Columbia before heading home. Built in 1917, the Vista House is considered to be home of one the most iconic views of the Columbia River Gorge. Sitting 733 feet above the Columbia River, this is an excellent place to watch the sun set to the west, illuminating the entire region in a brilliant display of color. The Vista House is closed due to the 2017 fires, but will reopen soon, letting you end your Gorge adventure with stunning, panoramic beauty.