We began with the alarm at 6:00, breakfast and out the door on the road by 8:00, heading up to the Columbia Gorge. The gorge is not just one of the most beautiful places in the US, it is also accessible to anyone whether they just drive down the road and view the waterfalls or whether they get close and personal with the hiking trails, it has something for every one: a dam, hiking trails, beautiful plunging waterfalls, a river for water sports and fishing and lots of picnic tables and benches for quiet contemplation of nature’s beauty. And, did I mention that it is drop dead gorgeous? Sorry, I must have missed that.
We listened to Linda and Terri last night and our plan was to take in two well-known viewpoints along the scenic highway, the Vista House and the Women’s Forum State Park, stop to see Multnomah Falls, one of the most photographed falls in the Gorge, visit the Bonneville Dam, have lunch at Charburger in Cascade Locks, cross the Columbia on the Bridge of the Gods and finally stop in at the Interpretive Center on our way back home on the Washington side of the Gorge. Whew, can we get all that done in one day? Let’s try.
2 vista points - not too hard. Hey, it’s Ladies’ Day in the Gorge. We met 3 cars of women at the first vista point and at the next and then 2 of them at the 3rd. One car with 2 women in their 80’s who travel all the time. They had just gotten back from a cruise which followed a trip to New Zealand. Their husbands died and they decided to pool resources and travel. Then there was a group of women from Alabama and Mississippi. All out and about touring and enjoying.
From the women’s Forum we could see the Vista Point, Beacon Rock in the distance on the left side of the river and the Bonneville Dam towards the center. Then we headed on over to Vista Point because not only does it have great views but it is also a tourist attraction in itself.
But both of these State Parks, the Women’s Forum and Crown Point where Vista House is, wouldn’t have happened had not Samuel Lancaster and Samuel Hill decided that a scenic highway linking Portland and points east through the Columbia Gorge was built. Hill was the vision and promoter while Lancaster was the planner and builder. Conceived as both a scenic highway and as a viable link between Portland and points east, the Historic Columbia River Highway was built between 1912 and 1922. It was the first modern highway in the Northwest, the first scenic highway in the US and a model for other scenic roads like the ‘Going to the Sun’ highway in Glacier National Park.
It was the early part of the 20th century, cars were becoming a mode of transportation, and people wanted to tour. National Parks were being developed and other scenic areas were trying to lure the tourists too. The Columbia Gorge was a natural with the river, the cliffs, the trees and all those beautiful waterfalls. But there was no easy to way to get there, travel along it, stop to see the view and to enjoy the touring. A modern highway was needed. This is where Lancaster and Hill came in with their vision of what kind of highway they wanted.
Here’s the funny part. Hill wanted to put this road in Washington, on the northern side of the Columbia and actually built a prototype road to his community there. It was the first asphalt road in the state and had gradual curves to accent the beauty and for early cars to climb. However, when Washington state turned him down, he went to Oregon, showed them his model in Washington and got it approved to run through Oregon.
Lancaster’s first goal was to spotlight the natural wonders. This highway was envisioned not just to get from point A to point B but as an elegant way to see all of the natural beauty along the way. He wanted to make the gorge's "beautiful waterfalls, canyons, cliffs and mountain domes" accessible to "men from all climes". According to locating engineer John Arthur Elliott.
‘The ideals sought were not the usual economic features and considerations given the location of a trunk highway. Grades, curvature, distance and even expense were sacrificed to reach some scenic vista or to develop a particularly interesting point. All the natural beauty spots were fixed as control points and the location adjusted to include them. Although the highway would have a commercial value in connecting the Coast country with the eastern areas, no consideration was given the commercial over scenic requirements. The one prevailing idea in the location and construction was to make this highway a great scenic boulevard surpassing all other highways of the world.’
Imagine that - beauty and not economics.
And what a beautiful highway it was and still is: marvelous stone walls lined part of the highway, white fencing lined other parts, trees canopied over the road forming a tunnel of green, the water falls were spotlighted, and glimpses of the river below were visible through the trees. They even put ‘windows’ in the tunnels so people could see the beauty of the drive even through the tunnels. Of course, cars were slower then and people had time to savor the view while driving.
During the highway’s construction, many parcels of land were donated by private individuals who realized the value of this scenic highway. Multnomah, Latourell and Wahkeena Falls, Shepherds Dell, Crown Point where Vista Point is, Chanticleer Point where the Women’s Forum Overlook is and many waysides.
With picks and shovels, horse-drawn Fresno scrapers and carts the workmen carved and blasted the roadbed to wind along the cliffs and through the forests. Skilled masons built walls some as high as 35’ and 1000’ long. They used the natural stone also.
They wanted campgrounds and places to stop to rest.
But, even as this highway was being built, it was becoming obsolete as those wanting to get from point A to point B began to outnumber tourists. Who wants to stop along the road to admire a waterfall when there are miles to cover? Who wants to travel through a leafy tunnel when there are goods to get to market? Soon a new highway, Highway 30, the cross country highway, replaced the Columbia Highway and slowly but surely the old highway began to crumble, walls began to fall over, weeds grew in the pavement and the tunnels were filled with rubble and abandoned. Then Interstate 84 replaced Highway 30.
However, even though speed is one reason for a road, so too is the enjoyment. Enjoy the journey, stop and smell the roses. And, thus the state of Oregon is beginning to recover many parts of the old highway and it is possible to drive along it for many miles. There are turnouts and parking lots to stop to view the waterfalls, there are trails to take to get further inland to see more and the old road is being repaired and rebuilt. So, development of the old scenic highway comes full circle: not only is it a beautiful drive, it is also a tourist magnet, bringing in millions to Oregon. This road is now one of the most popular tourist drives in the US and Multnomah Falls, along the drive is the most popular natural site in Oregon.
With the history out of the way, Gary and I were ready to hit the road and travel through the Gorge. We stopped at Women’s Forum to take in the view (note the picture above). Stunning beauty. No wonder there are benches here to sit and contemplate.
Next is the Vista House, designed as a waypoint for motorists to get out of their cars, to stop for refreshment, to stand at the edge of the Gorge to take in the scenery.
As Lancaster described it, the Crown Point promontory was the ideal site for “an observatory from which the view both up and down the Columbia could be viewed in silent communion with the infinite.” Such an observatory would also be a fitting memorial to “the trials and hardships of those who had come into the Oregon country.” And it could “serve as a comfort station for the tourist and the travelers of America’s greatest highway.” He suggested it be known as the Vista House and it was formally dedicated on May 5th 1918.
And, we too, stopped to enjoy the views. It is a stunning building to complement a stunning highway.
But, we’ve got miles to go and lots to see. We hadn’t planned to stop for all the waterfalls along the highway, leaving them for tomorrow which was supposed to be a sunny day. But, as we passed the first waterfall, Latourelle, I gasped and told Gary to pull over, that we had to see this. WOW.
The road is a popular tourist destination along with Multnomah Falls, the most popular natural site in Oregon, drawing over two-million visitors annually. Next we stopped at Multnomah Falls, usually considered the most popular of the falls with its stone bridge in the middle. Well, the bridge was damaged by a rock in 2013 and they are rebuilding parts of it, cleaning all of it and right now there is a shroud over it all. No scenic stone bridge for us. But the falls are stunning in themselves, even with the cover.
Now on to the Bonneville Dam.