No place in the Northwest showcases the diversity and natural beauty of the region like the Columbia River Gorge. No place. There isn’t a wrong time to visit the Gorge, but spring makes a strong case for the best season. Creeks and rivers swell, flowers and foliage awaken and the crowds that fill trailhead parking areas in summer barely qualify as a notion.
Over the course of roughly 80 miles, the Gorge, a National Scenic Area, switches over from temperate rainforest to desert. Every turn in the river, every bend rounded, introduces a new microclimate or landscape. It’s stunning and easily experienced. From west to east, a trip along Washington’s Highway 14 will show you firsthand.
The damper, western side of the Cascades is home to verdant forests, a legendary creature or two, and some boutique lodging choices in the towns of Carson, White Salmon and Lyle.
A high point for adventure-seekers is the White Salmon River. Named by the Lewis and Clark Expedition when they observed it almost overflowing with salmon that had gone pale after spawning, the White Salmon River is in the heart of the Gorge. It also marks the beginning of the transition zone, where the states of Washington and Oregon say goodbye to rainforests and transform into desert, just a few miles east. This dynamic makes the area basecamp for several outdoor pursuits. The town of Hood River, just across the Columbia River from White Salmon, is the windsurfing capital of the world. On the Washington side, it’s all about the whitewater.
For rafters and kayakers, there is something for everyone along the section of river between BZ Corner and Husum Falls. It also happens to be crammed with class II through V rapids. If water levels are right, you can take a run at Husum Falls. The 12-foot falls is labelled a class V rapid and is the tallest commercially raftable waterfall in the United States. This is some of the best whitewater in the Northwest, and most certainly within the Gorge. Because the river is spring-fed, it maintains good water levels all year. The rains and snowmelt that accompany the spring season only bolster the flow. The river runs clean, and, because it traces a collapsed lava tube, the waters pinch through narrow chasms and gorges that are home to some amazing scenery as well as fast moving water. The stunningly beautiful area also sustains a substantial list of varied flora and fauna; including a returning salmon population. Thanks to the removal of the Condit dam in 2011, the river now runs unimpeded for the first time in over a century. No matter your level of rafting experience, the guides at Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys (zooraft.com) can introduce you to the thrills of the White Salmon.
Back on the road, the change in scenery is swift and dramatic. Forested ridges give way to grasslands and prairies. Cedars succumb to pines, and pinots release their grasp on the landscape to cabs and barberas. The next 30 miles of driving pass through one of the most diverse wine growing areas in the country, if not the world. Because every mile you go east from White Salmon sees an inch less rain annually than the last, the list of wine varietals that thrive in the Gorge is staggering. One of the best places to put Washington winemaking to the test is at Maryhill Winery (maryhillwinery.com).
Maryhill is a cornerstone of Washington wine. A tasting there is difficult, in a very good way. It’s hard to take it all in. Between the award-winning wine, tasting room, grounds and a classic eastern Gorge vista, Maryhill consistently fires on all cylinders. It’s impossible to prioritize, so just take a deep breath and begin your tasting. Walk over to a window, take another deep breath and enjoy the view. Assess the vineyard for a few minutes then get your next tasting. Watch the river snake through layers of ancient lava on its way to the Pacific Ocean, get your next tasting. Walk outside—you get the idea. You’ve got time, so take it. Just bear in mind you have to go home eventually. Or maybe not. There’s still the Oregon side of the Gorge to inspect.