Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Historic Columbia River Highway
My wife, young son, and I hold hands as we make our way down the earthen, stone-strewn embankment that falls away from the road toward the water’s edge at Oregon’s Horsetail Falls. Pulling off our shoes, we wade into the chilly water. Shivering at first as we acclimate to the cold, we feel our way over the smooth stones underfoot to draw closer to the falls. The plume of water rushes past the basalt cliffs 176 feet above us and crashes to the wading pool below, throwing shimmering clouds of spray into the air. The scene before us is lush − dense with evergreens and emerald moss, almost primeval − yet we’re only steps from the roadway. A laughing couple in their 20s float on their backs in the deeper water at the base of the falls, basking in the spray, soaked through, clothes and all. Further down along the curve of the water’s edge, a woman sits in a wheelchair, rapt, her doting male companion standing behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders as they smile and share the view. We’re all gathered here thanks to America’s very first scenic byway: Oregon’s Historic Columbia River Highway No. 100, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Horsetail Falls. Photo: Design Pics / Dissolve
This unforgettable thoroughfare was the first modern highway constructed in the Pacific Northwest. A National Historic Landmark, the “King of the Roads” rolls through 73 miles of breathtaking natural beauty in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and has been called America’s greatest scenic drive. Highway builder Samuel Hill, known as “The Father of Good Roads,” along with engineer Samuel C. Lancaster, dreamed of building a new highway through the majestic beauty of the Columbia Gorge that would not, in Lancaster’s words, “Mar what God put there.” Dedicated in 1916, and elegantly trimmed with stone and arched masonry bridges, the antique two-lane artery meanders past waterfalls, rivers, and streams, tunnels its way through hillsides of solid rock, and skirts the edges of cliffs as it winds through the gorge. Observe the anniversary of its creation by experiencing it. Here are a few highlights along the way.
A View to Remember
Enjoy a memorable stop at historic Vista House at Crown Point perched 733 feet above the Columbia River and offering awe-inspiring views. Lancaster envisioned this traveler’s rest as an airy pinnacle from which “Columbia could be viewed in silent communion with the infinite.” That’s a declaration of intent you’d normally expect to hear from a holy man rather than from an engineer who designed a highway. Maybe Lancaster was a little of both. Behold “what God made” from the windswept vantage at Vista House and see if
you don’t agree.
The starring attraction along this route is the Multnomah Falls Recreation Area, a key starting point for many scenic hikes for a range of skill levels. At 611 feet, Multnomah Falls is the highest waterfall in Oregon. In fall, you can peer over the stone footbridge adjacent to the road and see the red bodies of spawning salmon fighting their way up the tributary stream. The Multnomah Falls Lodge, built in 1923, contains a small museum, a gift shop, an ice cream stand, and a restaurant serving delicious regional cuisine. Ask for a table on the patio behind the lodge for a dramatic view of the falls while you dine. The paved, well-maintained switchback trail to the top of the falls is only 2.2 miles long but climbs 700 feet in elevation. While technically rated as “moderate” in difficulty, my seven-year-old did it handily.
Multnomah Falls. Photo: RM USA / Alamy Stock Photo.
Traveling to the sites in the story? Receive 15% off at the Bonneville Gift Store when you show your Subaru key through December 2016.
Columbia River, which is nirvana for fishermen, includes a variety of fish, such as native white sturgeon that can grow up to 20 feet or more. To meet one up-close-and-personal, visit the Bonneville Hatchery’s underwater viewing windows for an audience with Herman the Sturgeon, all 10 feet and 425 pounds of him. Built in 1907, the hatchery raises millions of salmon, and you can view every stage of their life cycle here.
A Quaint Stopover
The town of Hood River is, in the words of my wife, “ridiculously adorable.” With an easy-going beach-town vibe, interesting restaurants, coffee shops, Victorian-era hotels, art galleries, and bookstores, it’s easy to adore. The town also features pro shops where you can rent a board and try out your wind-surfing skills on the challenging Columbia River.
For the finale, take the rare opportunity to drive your Subaru on the historic Maryhill Loops Road, one of seven experimental roads created by Sam Hill to test road-building techniques. Today, the Maryhill Loops Road opens twice a year to the motoring public as part of the Car is King Weekend + Maryhill Arts Festival . The steep, narrow ribbon of tarmac features eight hairpin turns, drop-offs, and blind corners. For 2016, your window of opportunity occurs from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m. on October 1.
Maryhill Loops Road.
Modern highways are mostly designed like our modern lives: they’re results-oriented. Efficiency is everything. The worth of a highway tends to be measured solely by how quickly you can put it behind you. While there are many things to do and see along the Historic Columbia River Highway, this remarkable road is, and has always been, about the journey.
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Photo: Image Source / Dissolve