Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 11, 2015

What Falls Upriver?

We’re exploring Oregon in a series of articles. In the previous post we visited Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River. Let’s travel upriver, past the confluence with the Willamette (wil-AM-met), into the Columbia Gorge.

Columbia Gorge Brad Nixon 0006 (640x480)

We’ll circle back to the Willamette valley in the next post, because there’s more to see there.

The Columbia is immense, flowing more than 1,200 miles from the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, south through Washington, then defining the border of Washington and Oregon on its way to the Pacific. For about 80 miles above the Willamette, it carved the Columbia River Gorge, and that’s where we’ll explore today. We can’t pretend to do justice to this vast landscape in a few hundred words, so let’s focus on something picturesque: waterfalls. They are the answer to the question, “What falls upriver?”

According to Oregon Tourism Commission, there are 77 waterfalls on the Oregon side of the Gorge, so, again, we have to limit ourselves. We’ll see three notable examples.

The Columbia and its tributaries have been the primary transportation route through the Northwest for thousands of years. The Lewis and Clark Expedition followed the river to reach the Pacific, followed by subsequent explorers and settlers via ship, steamship and, in the 19th Century, railroads built lines along the river (BNSF on the Washington side, rival Southern Pacific on the southern, Oregon shore).

We’ll drive the Historic Columbia River Highway. Purportedly the “first planned scenic highway in the United States,” it was built between 1913 and 1922. The story of its planning, engineering and construction is worth reading. More than a hundred years later, it’s still delightful to drive. You can get somewhere faster on Interstate 84, but we’re not “getting” anywhere, because … we’re already there.

Please note that the trip described here is doable in a single day from Portland. We’ll drive east, upriver, along the Oregon side, then cross to the Washington side at Hood River for the drive back. If you’re pressed for time, drive as far as your time allows on the scenic route, then take the Interstate back to Portland. It’s worth taking the opportunity to see one of America’s most impressive landscapes within such easy reach of a major city.

Soon after leaving Crown Point, the start of the highway, we make our first stop to take the easy walk from the parking lot to see Latourell Falls (click on any photo for larger image).

Latourelle Falls Brad Nixon 0021 (480x640)

This cataract (love that term) is unusual for the Columbia River Gorge, because it descends in a single unbroken span, rather than “tumbling” over a series of falls.

Next stop, not far along the route: Bridal Veil Falls.

Bridal Veil Falls OR Brad Nixon 0030 (480x640)

It’s worth noting that there is a tiny town of Bridal Veil, which — but for its name and its post office — would scarcely still exist. Enough couples send their wedding invitations to the local post office to be postmarked “Bridal Veil” to keep it operating.

Next we reach probably the most famous of the Columbia waterfalls: Multnomah Falls.

Multnomah Falls Brad Nixon 0037 (480x640)

That isn’t the most dramatic shot one can get, but was chosen to show that there are two falls of water: one 542 feet, the lower another 69 feet. It’s an easy walk from the highway to the base, and you can go to the top via a 1.2 mile trail. The falls is spring-fed, and flows year-round. At the highway there’s an interesting fieldstone lodge, dating from 1925.

From here, you have opportunity to stop to see more waterfalls and other sights as you continue upriver. The original highway is no longer continuous the entire 75 miles to The Dalles, as it once was. You can also choose to cross to the Washington side at Cascade Locks. We hopped on I-84 so that we could reach Hood River in time to look around and find lunch.

Hood River OR Brad Nixon 0051 (640x469)

Hood River is a big town, and we strolled only through a portion of the old downtown, near the river. It feels like a genuine western town, with that big river flowing by and the hills surrounding it. Looking directly south, there’s a good chance you’ll have a view of the town’s namesake, at 11,240 ft. the highest peak in Oregon:

Mount Hood Brad Nixon 0054 (640x633)

We crossed the Columbia here and had a good view of the large number of windsurfers who take advantage of the broad river and the strong wind that reliably blows up out of the Gorge. Farther south, we stopped to see a man-made site that has its own significant place in American lore, Bonneville Dam.

Bonneville Dam Brad Nixon 0057 (640x425)

The Columbia, huge in flow and with a steep gradient, is a mammoth generator of hydroelectric power, which has had a lot to do with the development of the Pacific Northwest by way of massive works like the Bonneville, Grand Coulee, and other dams. None other than Woody Guthrie was engaged by the Bonneville Power Administration to write a series of songs, “Columbia River Ballads.” As The Powellians and we did on that day in ’09 when they generously gave us this tour, let’s join in singing what’s become the official state song of the state of Washington (to the tune of “Goodnight, Irene”):

Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Your power is turning the darkness to dawn,

Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Let’s continue to roll on, ourselves, and be amazed at what we find under western skies.

This post is part of a series about traveling in Oregon. CLICK HERE to see the first. Use the navigation below to see earlier or later posts.

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from Under Western Skies are available on CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky image portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2015, 2017. “Roll On, Columbia” lyrics by Woody Guthrie, “Good Night, Irene” by Huddie Ledbetter.



  1. wonderful read, thank you for sharing. I can’t wait to go to Oregon this summer. I look forward to going back and reading the previous posts! will there be more?


    • Yes, we’re circling back to Portland after this. The only thing we’ve covered there so far, for the most part, is Powell’s City of Books, which you are instructed not to miss while in Portland. You can click back to the post about Powell’s some time early in October. I’ll reference it in the Portland posts, too. Thanks for commenting. My readers are advised that your own blog is extremely well-written, and worth a look.

      Liked by 1 person

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