Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail

by Tamara Muldoon

Completed in 1922, Oregon’s Historic Columbia River Highway is considered by some to be the first U.S. roadway built specifically as a scenic highway. Engineer and landscape architect, Samuel Lancaster, designed it to showcase the basalt cliffs, waterfalls and panoramic vistas of the incomparable Columbia River Gorge.

Construction of Interstate 84 through the Gorge in the 1960’s bypassed, and in some places obliterated, the original highway. Yet, the remaining historic Highway 30 endures as a popular visitor attraction, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000, and a National Recreation Trail in 2002.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), with other partners, is working to reconnect these original highway segments with paved trails. Only five more miles of trail are needed to restore the original 73 miles from Troutdale to The Dalles.

The three trails offer a variety of scenery, from shaded forest corridors to verdant wildflower meadows, with panoramic Gorge views, rushing streams and waterfalls. Their relatively short length makes them ideal for a day’s recreational outing. Educational plaques along the route display local history and images. The trails are for pedestrian, bicycle and e-bike use only; no motorized vehicles are allowed. In terms of effort required, they are easy to moderate depending upon the section. Some trailheads require a parking fee, payable onsite.

Bonneville Segment: John B. Yeon State Scenic Corridor to Cascade Locks

At 6.5 miles one way, this is the longest trail section. It traverses dense forest as well as open meadows. There are many ups and downs, and some sharp corners, but the hills are fairly short. Enjoy views of Bonneville Dam and Locks, Eagle Creek, Moffett Creek and Ruckel Creek.

Perhaps the toughest part of this trail is a 40-foot, two-flight staircase with bike wheel grooves that bypasses the Toothrock highway tunnel. Park at John B. Yeon trailhead for Elowa Falls, Eagle Creek State Park, Toothrock Trailhead or beneath the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks.

Mitchell Point Segment: Wyeth to Viento State Park

Stretching nearly 6 miles one way, this trail skirts the rocky talus slope of Shellrock Mountain and winds through shady forest over a stretch of the original highway dubbed “Mossy Road.” Along the way are the Lancaster, Hole-in-the-Wall, Cabin Creek and Starvation Creek waterfalls. Starvation Creek makes a nice spot for a break, with restrooms and a picnic area below the falls. The sloping 500-foot Summit Creek Viaduct features a viewpoint at the uphill end; a convenient excuse for a rest stop. This trail is the easiest for cyclists. Although there are hills, they are gentle and short. Parking is at Wyeth trailhead, Starvation Creek Falls Rest Area and Viento State Park.

This segment will eventually extend to Hood River. ODOT is drilling through solid basalt to re-create the famed Mitchell Point Tunnel with its five arched windows, which was destroyed during freeway construction. Completion is expected in 2024. However, more trail will be needed to connect the tunnel with the Highway 30 route through Hood River, a project not yet funded.

Twin Tunnels Segment: Hood River to Mosier

At 4.5 miles one way, this is the shortest but steepest segment. From either end there are long gradual climbs with a relatively flat section in the middle where you encounter twin tunnels still remaining from the original highway. This segment is higher in elevation, reducing freeway noise and offering spectacular panoramic views of the Gorge. Park either at Senator Mark O. Hatfield West Trailhead near Hood River or East Trailhead near Mosier.

A detailed trail map is available at stateparks.oregon.gov. For information on visitor services near the trailheads, go to visithoodriver.com.