Fall is a beautiful time to get outside for active pursuits, with fewer crowds and gorgeous autumnal colors. This route takes you down through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, home to one of the first counties to reopen under the Washington governor’s phased opening plan. The deciduous-and-evergreen treescape and carved mountains offer plentiful active pursuits ranging from hiking to ziplining.
Get your I-5 drive over with as quickly (and safely) as possible. Then turn east onto Highway 14, the slower, scenic route into the Columbia Gorge. You’ll pass Washougal, where you can pick up some rugged wool duds from the Pendleton Washougal Mill and Store. If you’re peckish, OurBar serves delicious, hot breakfast-centric takeout, including breakfast burritos and brioche-style French toast.
Then, it’s time to burn calories. Many visit the Gorge for the heart-pumping climbs that come with rugged peaks and plunging cliffs. Not long after entering Skamania County, you can take in the sights (and hopefully, plenty of oxygen) as you hike up Cape Horn Loop, a 1,500-foot, 8.3 round-mile single-track hike that provides views down the basalt-cliff Gorge, equally dramatic whether shrouded in clouds or sparkling from sunshine.
Highway 14 runs parallel to the Columbia River, and you’ll pass the river’s iconic, towering Beacon Rock. While Beacon Rock’s hiking trail is currently closed, you can still access the very challenging Hamilton Mountain. Use the Friends of the Columbia Gorge site to find a hike appropriate to your skill level and interests, whether you want to enjoy peak views, waterfalls, or Ice-age era geologic formations.
As well, the Ready, Set, Gorge! website provides more information about enjoying state and national parks, including any required passes or closures of trails and campgrounds. As the site notes, the Gorge’s spectacular trails are a popular getaway for many in the region, so have two backup hikes in mind if you arrive at a full trailhead parking lot.
Next, you’ll want to check into your overnight accommodations, whether camping, Airbnb, or a hotel. In Stevenson, the Skamania Lodge just added two new luxury treehouses to their collection. Altogether, these six treehouses are a high point in social distancing — private, stand-alone hotel rooms elevated amid Douglas firs. Each treehouse features a fire pit, outdoor deck, kitchenette and s’mores kit. Three different options are available, including a Tree House King, Tree House Double (for families) and Tree House West — the tallest (and newest) of the batch, set 40 feet high.
You don’t have to be a guest to take advantage of the resort’s Skamania Lodge Adventures, which offers two primary activities. The 2 1/2 hour Zipline Tour features 7 lines and 3 sky bridges. The ziplines run up to 1000 feet in length and up to 75 feet in height. The Aerial Park’s treetop maze is open on weekends only, for three loops of varying challenges spread out among 19 platforms. Most tours run in rain and snow for the all-season adventurer — but require reservations.
Back on solid ground, the Lodge’s gentle hikes include the recently renovated Gorge Loop Fitness Trail’s five stations and 17 activities, including TimberForm fitness clusters, which are workout stations made of coastal Douglas fir.
Free hybrid bikes are also available for road or trail rides. The Lodge’s golf course is under renovation for now but will reopen in spring 2021 with a new 9-hole short course and 18-hole putting course.
Just past Stevenson, the Carson Ridge Cabins are a collection of 10 quaint-yet-luxury lodgings, many of which feature fireplaces, front-porch swings and jacuzzi tubs. While the cabins are for 18 and up only, dogs are allowed in some. However, the cabins are so popular there’s a waitlist for weekends.
Stevenson and Carson are known for its sudsy scene and pub-style meals. Try takeout burgers from Big River Grill or fill a growler at the 16-tap Red Bluff Tap House. For outdoor dining, get a pizza and pint from Carson’s famous Backwoods Brewing Company or truffle fries and herb-roasted hazelnuts from Stevenson’s Walking Man Brewing.
The next morning, you have a choice. You could try out a new activity at the lodge; visit the remote Oldman Pass northeast of Carson (when open) for tubing and cross-country skiing in winter; or head out for more hiking on the up-to-25%-grade Dog Mountain Trail, which takes the intrepid above cloudbanks for views of Mt. Hood, on clear days.
If you’re looking for an extended trip, the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate bridge isn’t far. The steep Oregon Route 35 takes winter sports-lovers to Mt. Hood, which offers snowshoeing, nordic skiing, downhill skiing, and snow tubing at Timberline Lodge and Ski Area, Mt. Hood Skibowl, and Mt. Hood Meadows.
Moving further east along Highway 14, you’ll notice powerful winds — in summer, the region is a world-renowned hot spot for wind-based sports. The Port of Klickitat’s Sailboard Park is a popular launch location for expert windsurfers and kiteboarders, and a landing location for experienced paragliders.
If you plan to visit next summer, adventurers flock to the White Salmon area for whitewater rafting adventures (complete with a waterfall), offered by outfitters like Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys, which is already booking now. Perhaps your passenger can book next year’s sojourn on your way back to Seattle.
Note: This route takes you on a three- to four-hour drive from Seattle. Many rural communities lack the medical infrastructure to take care of tourists and locals, so exercise caution during your active vacation and avoid risks where possible. When going on a lengthy road trip, bring masks, a thermometer and other emergency medical supplies, noncash or contactless payment. Of course, don’t travel while sick, and make plans to turn back if someone falls ill. Always check websites or call ahead to hotels, restaurants, and parks to avoid disappointment. Pack for rapidly changing weather, road and trail conditions while visiting the Columbia Gorge, and check in advance for any necessary parking passes.
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