The state border between Oregon and Washington is notable for one thing: a river runs through it. But not just any river – the mighty Columbia, the fourth-largest river in the US, flowing through a massive gorge that’s up to 1219m (4000ft) deep and over 128km (80mi) long. In this gorge, myriad adventures await: whether in the water or on the trails, in summer or winter, the Columbia River Gorge offers amazing recreational activities for both hardcore outdoor enthusiasts and relaxed weekend voyagers. This is just a small sample of the high-adrenaline activities on offer.
The towering mountains surrounding the Gorge – home to surreal, mossy forests and over 100 named waterfalls – are home to a nearly endless supply of scenic hiking trails suitable for everyone from families and the less physically fit to those who want extreme challenges. Armchair gawkers can take a short walk to the base of Multnomah Falls (189m/620ft), one of Oregon’s most-visited sights, while those looking for a steep day hike can climb to the top of the falls and the mountains above, or loop to nearby Wahkeena Falls. Nearby Oneonta Gorge is a slot canyon with waist-high water, where the intrepid wader is rewarded with moss-covered walls and a fairytale waterfall. Families should consider the Wahclella Falls trail, a mostly flat, 3.2km/2mi round-trip hike with three waterfalls to enjoy.
Both mountain biking and road cycling routes abound. On the Oregon side, the Historic Columbia River Highway (the first scenic highway in the US), a narrow, two-lane road following the contours of the gorge walls, has several restored areas open to cyclists and pedestrians only. The views are stunning and there’s no traffic to contend with, though it’s also worth exploring the other areas of the historic highway that are also open to cars. Mountain bikers should check out the route from Eagle Creek to Cascade Locks, as well as the single track at Larch Mountain.
On the Washington side, road cyclists can take in the view from the Columbia River Scenic Byway, or head inland on one of the forested two-lane roads that head into the Cascade Mountains. There’s no shortage of mountain bike routes on this side of the gorge, either. The Catherine Creek Recreation Area has 32km (20mi) of trails, while the Klickitat Rail Trail is a gentle trail running through a spectacular canyon.
Check out the excellent Historic Columbia River Highway cycling page (www.columbiariverhighway.com) for more ideas for two-wheeled fun.
The Columbia River Gorge is known for its extreme breezes, which whip through to create perfect conditions for windsurfing – a windy day will see dozens – if not hundreds – of primary-colored sails zipping along the whitecaps. The best spot to set sail is just outside of Hood River, Oregon, but the Gorge also offers other excellent spots for beginners to test the waters.
Kiteboarding is another water sport that takes advantage of the Columbia River Gorge’s natural wind tunnel. Boarders flock to Hood River’s Sandbar, the only sandy launch spot in the Gorge and one of the consistently windiest (note that where on the Sandbar you should depart from depends on your skill level). Winds start as early as 10am and tend to die down by 2 or 3pm. Beginners can take a class with Hood River Waterplay (www.hoodriverwaterplay.com).
Stand-up paddle boarding
Stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) is a relatively new sport and accessible to all skill levels. Beginners can use a large, wide board for stability (and kneel on it for balance), while experts can actually catch waves. Much calmer than wind-based water sports, stand-up paddle boarding allows you to relax and take in the views – or concentrate and go hard. It’s also a good workout, strengthening core muscles and improving balance. Hood River, Oregon is the most popular place in the Gorge for SUP, and has several shops offering rentals and lessons.
White-water rafting and kayaking
Rapids-filled rivers flow from the Cascade Mountains into the Gorge, offering unparalleled white-water activities. Washington’s White Salmon River is one of the more popular rivers, but you can also raft the (aptly named) Wind and Hood Rivers. There are plenty of rafting operators to guide your float, offering a variety of trips based on rapids class – you can go from mild to wild.
Kayakers can opt for white-water trips on the above rivers, or calmer paddles on the Columbia River. Mellow sunset tours or lessons on the Klickitat River are available; inquire with Columbia Gorge Kayak School (www.gorgekayaker.com).
Winter in the Gorge presents nearly as many outdoor recreation opportunities as does the summer, such as skiing at Mt Hood, ice-climbing Ainsworth Left or snowshoeing in the Cascades. You can even just don a warm hat and boots and head out for a winter hike through a beautiful, frozen land; the further inland from the Columbia River you get, the more snow you’ll see. Pack a thermos of hot chocolate and enjoy!
Article originally published in January 2013, and updated in June 2013.
Ready to hit the road and explore? Take a copy of Lonely Planet's The Pacific Northwest's Best Trips for all of the best drives and local secrets.