Columbia Gorge

Recent wild­fires, like the Eagle Creek Fire, have brought increas­ing atten­tion on the Colum­bia Riv­er Gorge and its huge swaths of wilder­ness. Long before this sea­son’s fires, how­ev­er, the Gorge has been a unique flash­point in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Here are some key moments in the his­to­ry of one of the Northwest’s most icon­ic places.

Carleton Watkins Columbia Gorge1867–1883: The Gorge Goes National
In 1867, Car­leton Watkins, the Amer­i­can West’s first icon­ic pho­tog­ra­ph­er, was on a roll. He was fresh off show­ing the first images of Yosemite to Abra­ham Lin­coln and had won a medal in Paris. The Ore­gon Steam Com­pa­ny then hired him to make images of the Colum­bia Gorge, where the rail­ways along the riv­er were inac­ces­si­ble any oth­er way. His 18 x 22-inch “mam­moth plate” images became the first known pho­tographs of the Gorge. But Watkins was a bet­ter pho­tog­ra­ph­er than a busi­ness­man. In debt ten years lat­er, he was forced to give cred­i­tors his orig­i­nal neg­a­tives. The loss haunt­ed him, and in the 1880s he returned to re-pho­to­graph the Gorge dur­ing an epic snow­storm. The Gorge was now on the nation­al radar.

Jan­u­ary 12, 1927: Bretz Fig­ures It Out
The Gorge’s beau­ty was well known, but how it was geo­log­i­cal­ly formed was not. J. Har­lan Bretz, a geol­o­gist who had spent years tramp­ing around the sca­b­lands of East­ern Wash­ing­ton, intro­duced a new the­o­ry. He claimed that long-ago floods had carved the Gorge and much of east­ern Wash­ing­ton. The geo­log­i­cal estab­lish­ment laughed. But Bretz was right, and over the ensu­ing decades, the full sto­ry was pieced togeth­er. A mas­sive lake formed behind an ice dam on the Ida­ho-Mon­tana bor­der, and when the dam broke, tor­rents of water—now called the Bretz Floods—raced down the Colum­bia carv­ing the Gorge.

Celilo FallsMarch 10, 1957: Drown­ing Celilo Falls
When the gates of the Dalles Dam were closed, an icon­ic water­fall and one of the Northwest’s great cul­tur­al cen­ters was lost. Celilo Falls has been under­wa­ter since 1957. The falls were one of the great salmon fish­eries in the world, and Cellilo was one of the old­est con­tin­u­ous­ly inhab­it­ed sites in North Amer­i­ca, going back at least 11,000 years. William Clark called it “the Great Mart,” a meet­ing place where peo­ple from tribes around the North­west came to trade and socialize.

David Sohappy1969: Sohap­py v. Smith
David Sohap­py, a Yaka­ma trib­al mem­ber, had fished at the mouth of the White Salmon Riv­er since age five. When state reg­u­la­tors began pros­e­cut­ing native fish­er­men, Sohap­py and 14 oth­er Yaka­ma filed suit in fed­er­al court. The court acknowl­edged their right to “take fish at all usu­al and accus­tomed places” on the Colum­bia Riv­er. It was a land­mark deci­sion for treaty rights. But offi­cials still tar­get­ed Sohap­py and oth­er natives, lead­ing to a “Salmon Scam” sting oper­a­tion where he was arrest­ed for ille­gal fish­ing. The Yaka­ma sued again in 1986 and won, but Sohap­py did not live to see it, dying a few months before the case closed.

1980: Rid­ing the Wind
In 1980, 13 wind­surfers launched from Cas­cade Locks, attempt­ing to ride the wind to Hood Riv­er. None of them made it. But they were the advance guard of a new­fan­gled sport that trans­formed the Gorge and the town of Hood Riv­er. By 1984, there were four wind­surf­ing shops in Hood Riv­er, and the Gorge Pro-Am drew 200 com­peti­tors that year. The Gorge, wind­surf­ing and kite board­ing have been cul­tur­al­ly linked ever since.

Novem­ber 17, 1986: The Gorge Act Passes
The Colum­bia Gorge Nation­al Scenic Act was one of the few great envi­ron­men­tal laws from the 1980s. The Gorge Act was a unique law—a com­plex legal way to safe­guard the nat­ur­al beau­ty of the Gorge across two states, six coun­ties and numer­ous cities. The obscure Colum­bia Gorge Com­mis­sion remains a crit­i­cal play­er in the health of the Gorge. The bill just made it before the clock ran out: Pres­i­dent Rea­gan signed it hours before it would have died from a pock­et veto.

Columbia GorgeNovem­ber 1991: Snake Riv­er Sockeye
The jour­ney of Snake Riv­er sock­eye salmon is incred­i­ble: from Red­fish Lake in cen­tral Ida­ho, down the Snake and Colum­bia rivers, out to sea, and back again to spawn. Hin­dered by dams, loss of riv­er habi­tat and dis­eases intro­duced by hatch­ery fish, Snake Riv­er Sock­eye were list­ed under the Endan­gered Species Act, fol­lowed by oth­er runs of salmon on the Colum­bia and Snake. Salmon recov­ery unleashed changes in the riv­er, includ­ing ongo­ing debates about how dams are man­aged, whether four dams in Hells Canyon should be breached, how to restore healthy spawn­ing grounds, and even truck­ing smolts down the riv­er in barges. The debate about how to restore salmon runs still roils in the Gorge.

June 4, 2016: The Explosion
Gorge advo­cates had warned about oil trains run­ning through the Gorge, putting the entire low­er Colum­bia at risk of a Exxon-Valdez sized spill if some­thing went wrong. Some­thing went wrong at noon on June 4th, 2016 near Mosier, when 11 cars from a 96-car Union Pacif­ic train car­ry­ing crude oil jumped the tracks and caught fire. The plume of smoke caused evac­u­a­tions and infil­trat­ed ground­wa­ter in Mosier, but didn’t ignite the rest of the train. It’s a warn­ing of what could come.


In the Colum­bia Riv­er Gorge, there are trails that are hard­er than sev­er­al notable near­by moun­tains. And while these trails will kick you hard in the glutes, they’ll also make you feel like a queen or king of the moun­tains. The best part of tack­ling these trails? Besides out­ra­geous­ly fine views and a deep sense of sat­is­fac­tion, you get most of them to your­self. Make sure you car­ry the 10 essen­tials and take a bud­dy. Just con­sid­er mak­ing that bud­dy a human. Steep with plen­ty of expo­sure, these trails beg for dogs to be left at home or at the very least, always on a short leash. Here are 10 of our favorite Gorge hikes on the Ore­gon side of the Colum­bia River.

Mt Defi­ance
It starts easy with pret­ty creek and waterfalls—and quick­ly becomes a big, bad, steep butt-kick­er, eas­i­ly one of the hard­est hikes in the Gorge. Some say it’s hard­er than hik­ing to the sum­mit of Mt. Hood. At 11.3 miles round trip, out and back, with an ele­va­tion gain of 4,935 feet, it’s at least ide­al train­ing for the 11,250 ft. peak. Though it’s fair­ly straight­for­ward, get a map to nav­i­gate this one.

Trail­head: Take I‑84 from Port­land to exit 55 (Star­va­tion Creek State Park rest area).

North Lake
Inter­mit­tent­ly loose scree over hard dirt, with sev­er­al sec­tions of “death ledges,” the route to North Lake fol­lows the Wyeth Trail, march­ing from an old roadbed straight up to the Gorge’s rooftop. It cov­ers 3,800 feet in the first four miles before tem­porar­i­ly lev­el­ing out and then pro­ceed­ing up again. The total gain is 4,220 feet over 11.4 out-and-back miles through lush old growth. Go left at the Gor­ton Creek junc­tion on the Wyeth Trail #411. Switch­back after switch­back with a few long tra­vers­es inter­spersed, you’ll final­ly reach the junc­tion with the Wyeth-Green Point Ridge Trail. The trail descends a series of talus slopes before drop­ping into an old growth for­est. You’ll pass across a wet­land area and then up over Lind­sey Creek. Two tie-spur trails lead back from the North Lake Trail to the Wyeth Trail. Keep left and descend 500 feet before regain­ing the ele­va­tion as you approach North Lake.

Trail­head: East on I‑84, take Exit #55/Starvation Creek State Park and Rest Area (east­bound exit only).

Green Point Ridge
You’ll feel like you’re on a relent­less switch­back­ing stair­case as you ascend 3,840 feet in the first four miles of this 15-mile out and back trail. Pass North Lake where #411 (Wyeth Trail) joins #423 and take the trail south to ascend to the top of Green Point Ridge. Enjoy the view and reclaim your lungs before head­ing back down #418 for 2.8 miles to where it rejoins #411 for the last four miles. The trail is 15 miles with a total gain of 4,400 feet.

Trail­head: Take I‑84 to Exit #51/Wyeth to the camp­ground. Fol­low trail­head signs to the far back of the camp­ground to the park­ing lot.

Nesmith Point Trail
Turn around as you ascend this lung buster and you’ll see that you’re nev­er far from tow­er­ing views of the gorge—another rea­son why this trail should be called steep and steep­er. Start at the Elowah Falls trail­head, con­tin­ue with an easy pace past the junc­tion of the old Colum­bia Riv­er Gorge Trail #400 and fol­low the signs south to Nesmith Point on the Trail #428. From there, you’ll knock off almost 3,000 feet in 2.5 miles. Con­tin­ue on for anoth­er mile and a half to the junc­tion with Trail #425. After this junc­tion, you’re a short, lit­er­al crawl to the top of Nesmith Point and out­ra­geous views across the top of the Gorge’s rooftop. You’ll feel like a loaded bus in neu­tral with no brakes as you head back down a trail that gains 3,706 feet over 5.1 miles (10.2 round trip).

Trail­head: Take I‑84, exit #35/Ainsworth State Park.

Ruck­el Ridge Trail
This is the penul­ti­mate out­door Park­our chal­lenge: at times you’ll bear down on a near 35 per­cent grade, which includes root lad­ders, a nar­row, ele­vat­ed, moss-encrust­ed basalt spine called “The Cat­walk” that begs for sit­ting and scoot­ing on, with lots of expo­sure above Ruck­el Creek. After hit­ting the Ben­son Plateau, take Ruck­el Creek Trail (#405) down (6.5 miles). You’ll wend through a steep but gor­geous Doug Fir rain­for­est bor­dered by neon green rock walls and boul­der fields. The ridge trail scales 3,700 feet in 3.8 miles.

Trail­head: Begins at Eagle Creek Camp­ground, near exit 41 from I‑84, east of Portland.

Bell Creek Loop Trail
This lol­ly­pop loop starts at the Oneon­ta Trail­head, con­nect­ing with Gorge Trail #400 and final­ly Trail #424. Once on it, con­tin­ue past the junc­tion with Horse­tail Falls Trail (#438 at 0.8 miles in). Pass Triple Falls and cross sev­er­al side drainages before final­ly reach­ing the bridge over Oneon­ta Creek. Pass anoth­er bridge before leav­ing and turn north­east onto the Horse­tail Creek Trail (#425), and across the Oneon­ta Creek ford. After that, the grinder real­ly starts: switch­ing back about 20 times in 2.3 miles before mel­low­ing a bit and reach­ing the junc­tion with Bell Creek Trail (#459). Take #459 and cross the foot­bridge over Bell Creek and cruise (for about 1.4 miles) beneath a canopy of Doug fir canopy and along wet­lands anoth­er 1.4 miles to the junc­tion of Oneon­ta Trail (#424) again, bypass­ing a few oth­er junc­tions. This trail ascends 3,300 feet and clicks off a total of 14.5 miles.

Trail­head: From the west, trav­el east on I‑84 to Exit #28/Bridal Veil. Dri­ve east on the His­toric High­way for 5.1 miles to a small park­ing lot on the left/north side of the road, just before the Oneon­ta Gorge.

Tan­ner Ridge, Dublin Lake
It takes a map (look for the Tan­ner Butte trail­head) to find the trail­head. But once you fig­ure it out you’re on your way up, cov­er­ing 3,700 feet in 6.8 miles. At the Tan­ner Ridge/Butte Trail­head, fol­low Trail #401 for about 2.2 miles and up 1,500 feet to the junc­tion with the Wau­na Point Trail #401D. Go west right and con­tin­ue to Tan­ner Ridge. In about 2 miles you’ll arrive at a junc­tion with Trail #448, which descends back down toward Tan­ner Creek. Use it to com­plete a loop. Add the lake to your hike by con­tin­u­ing on to Trail #401 and the junc­tion for the beau­ti­ful lit­tle Dublin Lake, Trail #401B to add 4.2 miles to this hike.

Trail­head: East on I‑84, take Exit #40/Bonneville Dam.

Indi­an Point Loop
Basi­cal­ly, this trail fol­lows Gor­ton Creek Trail out and comes back on the Her­man Creek Trail (#406). Start up the Her­man Creek Trail; in a third of a mile con­nect to the Her­man Bridge Trail. Avoid spurs and stay on the main trail. In 1.2 miles, the trail reach­es Her­man Camp and the junc­tion with the Gorge Trail #400, which tracks north, while Gor­ton Creek Trail #408 tracks east and the Her­man Creek Trail tracks south­east on an old log­ging road. You want Gor­ton Creek Trail. It steadi­ly gains ele­va­tion, cross­ing a few small sea­son­al streams on a few switch­backs. At mile 3.8, you’ll meet the Ridge Cut­off Trail (#437). A short trail leads to the rock spire where you can take in views of Mounts St. Helens and Adams, Wind Moun­tain and Dog Moun­tain. After a breather, head back to the #437 and fol­low it 0.6 miles to the Nick Eaton Trail (#447). Descend north on the Nick Eaton Trail about 1/2 mile a view­point and con­tin­ue down the same trail to the junc­tion with the Her­man Creek Trail (#406). The loop is 8.3 miles total with 2,800 feet of ele­va­tion gain.

Trail­head: East on I‑84 to Exit #44/Cascade Locks. Fol­low signs to Her­man Creek Campground.

Mult­nom­ah Falls – Franklin Ridge Loop
Eas­i­ly the tamest of the bunch, it’s still a chal­lenge, espe­cial­ly because you’ll have to nav­i­gate crowds of peo­ple at the start at Mult­nom­ah Falls. Head up to the high­est view­point at Mult­nom­ah Falls and con­tin­ue on up to its feed­er, Mult­nom­ah Creek. Turn east at the Franklin Ridge junc­tion, and fol­low it up to the junc­tion with Oneon­ta Gorge. Descend to Oneon­ta Gorge and fol­low the creek past Triple Falls to the junc­tion with Gorge Trail #400, before head­ing back to Mult­nom­ah Falls. You won’t see many hori­zon views but you’ll have gained 2,660 over the 12-mile loop.

Trail­head: Mult­nom­ah Falls exit 28 to His­toric Colum­bia High­way 30 East to Mult­nom­ah Falls Lodge.