An engineering marvel in its day, the Historic Columbia River Highway continues to wow visitors.
COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, Ore. — My wipers flailed at the windshield as I crossed the Sandy River east of Portland. It was the kind of downpour that would have sent Noah scrambling for a tape measure to be sure he’d left enough room for the elephants.
As a passing semi’s spray obliterated my view of the soaring ramparts marking the entrance of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, I couldn’t help but think: This kind of rain would ruin most weekend vacations.
Ah, but not this one.
As I left Interstate 84 for the narrow, winding historic highway, rain-fueled waterfalls cascaded like I’d never seen them before. Falls splashed down rock walls where there weren’t usually falls. Some added to the spray on my windshield.
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Wending eastward, I peered across the mile-wide Columbia River and glimpsed two temporary cataracts leaping from the highest promontory on the usually dry Washington shore. Dropping hundreds of feet, they plummeted directly into the Columbia.
I was here to re-explore the Historic Columbia River Highway, a transportation marvel that marks its 100th anniversary with special events this summer. It was dedicated in 1916 to bring visitors to see this scenic wonder known today as Waterfall Alley.
And Waterfall Alley, with at least seven major year-round waterfalls between Troutdale and Dodson, Ore., was putting on a grand show.
What the Sam Hill?
Did you ever hear your grandfather ask, “What the Sam Hill is going on?” Some say the euphemism originated with Pacific Northwest engineer, entrepreneur and “Good Roads”-movement champion Sam Hill (1857-1931), who was unafraid to back crazy-sounding projects — such as building a highway tiptoeing along cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge.
His other big dream, the gorge highway, came to be considered one of the engineering feats of the then-young 20th century.
And that’s still apparent, I saw as I drove. It was apparent at the spot where cliffs squeeze the narrow road so tightly that bulging rock faces protruded above my car; where curlicues of narrow highway climbed to the top of barren promontories with stunning views; where the road snaked through a forest of big-leaf maple and brought me to peek after peek of glorious waterfalls, always with roadside parking and enticing paths to explore.
For the highway’s design, Seattleite Hill teamed with Samuel Lancaster, a civil engineer who earlier created Seattle’s picturesque Lake Washington Boulevard as part of the city’s Olmsted-designed park system.
Sharing a grand vision, the pair traveled to Europe to study the continent’s most remarkable roads, aqueducts and tunnels, particularly the Axenstrasse in Switzerland (dangerousroads.org).
In designing the Columbia River route, Lancaster determined, in his words, to blend modern engineering with a sensitive aesthetic “so as not to mar what God had put there.”
A perfect intro
Lancaster wouldn’t unnecessarily harm a single tree or fern, according to the Troutdale Historical Society’s meticulously staged ongoing exhibition, “King of Roads,” marking the highway’s centennial. It’s a perfect introduction to a tour of the route (kingofroads.org).
“It was the first scenic highway in the country!” says Jeanette Kloos, president of today’s Friends of the Historic Columbia River Highway. “It was also the first highway with a centerline. Sam Lancaster looked for the gorge’s beauty spots and figured out how to take the road there.”
Thus the 18- to 24-foot roadway meanders from the base of waterfall after waterfall at river level to ascend more than 600 feet along sheer cliffs to its highest point at dramatic, treeless Crown Point, originally known as “Thor’s Heights” because of its exposure to wild thunderstorms.
The highway is marvelously fun to drive. Despite the landscape’s challenges, Lancaster vowed that no incline would exceed 5 percent. No bend would require less than a 100-foot turning radius.
It featured reinforced-concrete bridges, a patented type of pavement and graceful masonry walls built by European artisans, along with whitewashed, double-rail lumber guardrails that became the national standard for safety by 1920, the year Warren G. Harding was elected president.
Workers earned $2.25 a day using picks, shovels and horse-drawn scrapers. The first segment opened in just two years.
Ultimately, the highway would stretch 73 miles between Troutdale and The Dalles, with three tunnels, 18 bridges, seven viaducts and two footbridges.
The road drew visitors and praise from around the planet. “The best of all great highways in the world, glorified!” crowed the Illustrated London News. “It is the king of roads!”
Bypassed by progress
The 1916 motorist’s travel kit for the Columbia River Highway
• Canvas water bag to hold drinking water or emergency water for the radiator.
• Goggles, because many cars, like buggies, were open.
• Gloves, handy for changing a tire, gripping the wheel or hand-cranking the starter.
• Windbreakers or long coats to ward off wind and rain.
• Picnic hamper with Thermos, sandwiches, tablecloth, cups, silverware and napkins.
• Tire-repair kit, pump and jack in case of flats.
• Gas can with emergency fuel.
Source: Interpretive panel at Vista House on the Historic Columbia River Highway
By the 1930s, the scenic highway was more popular than its builders ever envisioned. But it was designed for the Model T, and as cars grew larger and traffic moved faster, a new riverside highway — built on fill where needed — replaced it as the primary upriver route.
Large sections of the original roadway, and the most dramatic tunnels, were abandoned or demolished by the 1950s.
But by the 1980s, a movement was afoot to preserve and restore the historic highway, and with establishment of the National Scenic Area in 1986, money became available to restore and repair it.
Restoration continues, with some stretches being reopened for bicycle and foot traffic only, including some tunnels. Today, all but 10 of the 73 miles of the original highway are open to travel by motor vehicle (Historic Columbia River Highway/Historic Route 30) or by foot or bike (Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail). Two additional miles of trail are to open in late September between Cascade Locks and Hood River.
I toured the most popular remaining drivable stretch of the historic highway, running from the Sandy River Bridge at the edge of Troutdale about 22 miles eastward before intersecting with Interstate 84 near Ainsworth State Park.
A perfect base for that tour: Just two miles west of the Troutdale bridge is the McMenamins Edgefield lodge, occupying the sprawling, lovingly restored Multnomah County Poor Farm, built five years before the gorge highway opened. It immediately puts you in the early-20th-century mindset — but with good beer and wine, mural-splashed hallways and a nice spa pool.
From there it’s easy to wend your way along the old road and back. If you’ve just a day, you’ve plenty of time to stop and inspect the gushing waterfalls.
Look around and appreciate the old-world craftsmanship of bridges and railings.
Pause at breathtaking viewpoints. Have a sandwich and berry crisp at Multnomah Falls Lodge, a vintage stone structure designed by Portland architect A.E. Doyle, who also designed Portland’s downtown library.
Better yet, spend several days along the highway, bring hiking boots and bikes, and branch out on upcountry trails and recently opened stretches of bikeable roadway.
After a few days, you’ll feel like the king of this road.
If you’re lucky, it might rain.
If you go
Celebrating the centennial
A 100-years-later rededication ceremony of the Historic Columbia River Highway is June 7 at Multnomah Falls. Because of limited space, the public is encouraged to observe other events through the year. A sampling:
• Gorge Ride cycling tour, 38-miles round trip from The Dalles on historic highway and trail, June 18, $15-$40; hcrh.org/events/2016-gorge-ride.
• Antique car tour on historic highway from Troutdale to The Dalles, 1949-or-older cars, period attire encouraged; July 23, bit.ly/271755L.
• “In a Landscape” multimedia piano project features classical music interspersed with text by Roosevelt’s Federal Writers Project. Aug. 20 at Vista House; Aug. 24 at Oneonta Tunnel.
• Details and more centennial events: 1.usa.gov/1T3aIAR.
McMenamins Edgefield lodge is ideally located near the start of the historic highway: mcmenamins.com/Edgefield
In Cascade Locks, a good lunch stop with riverview tables is Thunder Island Brewing, with a $10 burger or $12 chicken club sandwich. 515 Portage Road, thunderislandbrewing.com.
See 10-foot-long Herman the Sturgeon at the Sturgeon Viewing Center at Bonneville Fish Hatchery, Exit 40 off Interstate 84; bit.ly/1rAbBaS.
Also on exhibit
“Sam Hill and the Columbia River Highway” photos, through Nov. 15, Maryhill Museum of Art, Maryhill, Klickitat County; $3-$9, bit.ly/1QUqZUt.
• Friends of the Historic Columbia River Highway: hcrh.org
• Interactive online map: bit.ly/1dy9EnN
Attractions along the historic highway, mile by mile
(Miles are listed from McMenamins Edgefield lodge, in Troutdale, Ore.)
• Mile 1.5: Troutdale Historical Society’s Barn Exhibit Hall and “King of Roads” exhibit. 732 E. Historic Columbia River Hwy., Troutdale. $5-$8, kingofroads.org.
• Mile 2.2: Tad’s Chicken ‘n Dumplins offers tastes from the highway’s past. tadschicdump.com.
• Mile 10.3: Portland Women’s Forum State Park is one of the best photo stops, providing a premium view of Vista House, the observatory atop neighboring Crown Point.
• Mile 11.5: Vista House on Crown Point. Here, atop a 733-foot sheer cliff, highway designer Samuel Lancaster envisioned an “observatory from which the view both up and down the Columbia would be viewed in silent communion with the infinite.” The octagonal building of sandstone and marble, resembling the crown of the Norse thunder god, Thor, houses public restrooms, a gift shop and interpretive displays (vistahouse.com).
• Mile 13.9: Latourell Falls at Guy Talbot State Park. One of the gorge’s prettier falls, with startlingly chartreuse lichen lining a rock wall. Climb a steep (but short) paved path to view from above, or go west toward the bridge and find the (easier) trail down to the falls’ base. Bonus: a cooling mist facial.
• Mile 15.1: Shepperd’s Dell. This delightful grotto is reached by a stone stairway curling down from the roadside to an up-close waterfall view. It’s said the pioneering Shepperd family came here for spiritual refreshment when they couldn’t get to church.
• Mile 15.9: Bridal Veil Falls State Park, with a hike of about .3 mile to see the falls.
• Mile 19.3: Wahkeena Falls has a popular shaded picnic area and a number of footpaths.
• Mile 19.8: Of Multnomah Falls, Samuel Lancaster wrote, “There are higher waterfalls and falls of greater volume, but there are none more beautiful than Multnomah”(1.usa.gov/21FSXLA).
Falling 620 feet in two steps, it is one of the highest year-round waterfalls in the United States, 15 feet higher than the Space Needle.
Multnomah Falls Lodge, built in 1925, has a pleasant dining room with a large stone fireplace and a glass atrium through which the upper falls can be seen. Lunch ranges from baked mac and cheese ($11.95) to rainbow trout ($17.95). multnomahfallslodge.com
• Mile 22.1: Oneonta Gorge and tunnel. One of the original highway tunnels, abandoned in 1948, was reopened to bikes and pedestrians in 2009. To see Oneonta Falls, wade 1,000 feet upstream through a narrow cleft lined with rare wildflowers.
“We waded up in there earlier this morning and it didn’t really get much deeper than about here,” a passer-by told me, signaling thigh-deep. “But it was really cold!”
• Mile 22.4: Horsetail Falls, 176 feet high, is so close to the road that its spray often kisses the windshield of passing autos. A switchback trail leads to the top of the falls, with an added quarter mile to Ponytail Falls. Here the trail leads under and behind the waterfall, a great place to cool off on a hot day.
• Mile 24: Historic highway merges with Interstate 84. Continue east to Bonneville Dam and Cascade Locks.