Once upon a time, Ice Age floods defined the Columbia River Gorge region. Flash forward a few million years, and you have one of the most beautifully verdant wildernesses in the United States.
A canyon that reaches depths of 4,000 feet and is more than 80 miles long, the gorge forms a natural boundary between Oregon to the south and Washington to the north. Due to the varied elevation, this massive chasm is home to a range of ecosystems, from temperate rain forests to grasslands to dry woodlands.
The natural diversity of the Gorge region makes it a particularly unique place to explore on foot. And the outdoorsy ethos that defines the land and its locals will certainly inspire some epic runs, says Joanie Thomson, marketing director for Breakaway Promotions and organizer of the Columbia Gorge Marathon. “With almost 100 waterfalls between Portland and Hood River, there is no shortage of beautiful trails.”
Whether you’re just crossing the border or planning to stay for a while, be sure to get out and enjoy the switchbacks, single-track, paved paths, lung-busting ascents and breathtaking surroundings.
This trail touts a paved pathway that traverses 7 miles of riverfront. Running through this historic area, you’ll pass by a campsite made famous by Lewis and Clark. On the trail, keep your eyes open for ospreys and lizards of all shapes and sizes. Post-jaunt, stop in the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center for a look at the rich local history and ongoing efforts to preserve the natural landscape.
Bridge of the Gods Trailhead
Located on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, this trailhead offers up two main loops, both of which share stomping grounds with the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. A 10.4-mile strenuous trek, the Rudolph Spur trail features a serious climb (3,700 feet!), which rewards the runner with panoramas of Greenleaf Peak and Wauna Lake. For a less intense jaunt, try the 4.4-mile Dry Creek Falls trail, which shares the same starting point but has a more manageable 710 feet of elevation gain to navigate.
Mark O. Hatfield Trail
This trail will take you through two climate zones on a partially paved path. Travel by foot along 5 miles of steep rock faces, semi-arid terrain and fir forests, starting at either the west trailhead near Hood River or the eastern starting point just outside of Mosier. As you pass through the Twin Tunnels (carved into a solid rock cliff) take note of this feat of engineering. If you look closely as you pass, you’ll see names that were carved into the walls when a group of hikers were trapped during a 1921 snowstorm.
In the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, Klickitat offers 31 miles of scenic rail trails. Following the historic rail corridor that long ago linked the Washington towns of Lyle and Goldendale, it features spectacular canyon views and windswept vistas. Marked by ponderosa pine forests, the site is home to wild turkeys and even mountain goats—both likely to be spotted by exploring runners. For some solitude, venture out to the Swale Creek Canyon on the eastern end, where you can take a load off amid impressive natural rock formations and a meandering creek.
Ainsworth State Park
Serving as a great jumping-off place for the hiking (or running) hungry, this park houses the greatest concentration of high waterfalls in the world. Among them is Multnomah Falls with a spectacular, two-tiered 620-foot drop. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better view than the Benson Footbridge, which hangs 105 feet over the lower cascade. Along the trails, you’ll encounter countless named and unnamed falls that reveal what makes the gorge so special.
Race and Swim
Race the Gorge
The best way to explore the beauty of the Columbia River Gorge is on foot, but if you aren’t into maps and guidebooks, simply sign up for a local race! Not only will you get a pre-marked tour of the area, but you’ll also score a T-shirt to show off around town. The premier event in the area is the Columbia Gorge Marathon, held on October 26, 2014. Dubbed “the most scenic marathon in the country,” it lives up to the hype.
Forming a natural wind tunnel, the Gorge has long been home to a vibrant windsurfing and kiteboarding community. If you’re looking for a splashy day, grab a board and hit the river. There are plenty of opportunities to take lessons in Hood River during the summer months at places like Big Winds Hood River.
Wind River Cellars
Tucked away in the hills over Husum, Wash., this highly touted local winery boasts expansive views of Mount Hood. Pouring wines made from grapes grown right in the gorge, they produce a long list of reds, white and fortified wines.
The largest winery in the region, Maryhill produces 40 award-winning varietals and blends, and it was awarded Winemaker of the Year honors at the 2013 Indy Inter-national Wine Competition. The tasting room opens on a Tuscan-style terrace looking over the Columbia River.
Full Sail Brew Pub
Perched atop a bluff in Hood River on the grounds of an old fruit cannery is where you’ll find this charming pub. Stop by to enjoy the view and grab a beer and burger, made from local beef. You can also take a tour of the brewhouse to learn how they source local ingredients and create their award-winning brews.
Cave B Resort
If you’ve never stayed in a desert yurt, here’s your chance. Environmentally sensitive accommodations, the yurts are framed in sustainable Douglas fir and covered with canvas. Offering a close-to-nature experience, without the inconveniences of traditional camping, each yurt has a king-sized bed, private bathroom and refrigerator. Adjacent to the Cave B Estate Winery vineyards, you’ll enjoy wide-open views of the Columbia River, shrouded in a starry sky each night.
Columbia Gorge Hotel
A 1920s-era structure, this hotel was the follow-up project of Simon Benson, one of the driving forces behind building the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway. Presidents Roosevelt and Coolidge utilized the hotel before it fell into post-Depression disrepair. Restoration began in 1977, recapturing much of its stately opulence. Standing on a bluff amid the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, the hotel has 39 guest rooms, a dining area that is considered to be one of Oregon’s best restaurants and plenty of vibrantly colorful gardens and green space.