Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Columbia Gorge waterfalls. Hikes with the kids and their grandfather. Portland’s amazing food. Gardens galore. Sharing an iconic part of the Pacific Northwest with a loved one.
At least, that was the idea.
…It’s easy to explore many of Oregon’s Columbia Gorge waterfalls…
…To build a day trip around a scenic drive, waterfall hikes, and a sick belly on the mend…
…Portland’s Troutdale area is only about 20 minutes away from Oregon’s tallest waterfall, Multnomah Falls…
…An empty lot is a treasure trove of exploration, make-believe, and romping…
…Adjustments to our travel plans when Anthony wasn’t feeling well…
…Lots and lots of dry toast…
…Beautiful lifelong memories between two grandkids and their granddad…
…Imaginary campfires, big splashes in pools made for rock tossing, and an even bigger love of Oregon’s magical waterfalls…
Family travel video!
First family visit since COVID: Columbia Gorge waterfalls
When family comes to visit, you make plans. You hope everything goes well. Some of it does. And some of it… very much does not.
As we started coming out of COVID restrictions and isolation, Anthony’s dad was able to come from Virginia to visit us in Oregon. The feature presentation of his visit didn’t exactly go as planned, but we didn’t let that stop us.
Columbia River Gorge waterfalls make a perfect family-friendly day trip
Instead of the larger Portland trip we had planned, Anthony being ill with a stomach bug meant we had to compress our plans. Fortunately, the Columbia River Gorge area makes it easy to pivot yet still get in an amazing trip, full of memories and photos that parents, kids, and grandparents alike can treasure forever.
And yes, oh yes, it is GORGEous.
Aim to head to the Gorge early in the morning
Getting on the road around 8:30 a.m., we headed east in I-84, then for the rest of the trip wound our way back west via Scenic Highway 30, officially known as the Historic Columbia River Highway.
When it comes to visiting the Gorge’s attractions, morning visits are best, and the earlier the better. Parking lots are small and fill up quickly. With Anthony still recovering, we left out earlier than we originally planned, but we still managed to beat the worst of the crowds. We never had trouble parking—though there were times we snapped up the only available space.
Spring is a perfect time to see Gorge waterfalls
Visiting the Gorge in spring may mean being prepared for rainy weather. And yes, odds are the sky will be cloudy. But that’s the Oregon experience, y’all. Embrace it. Zip up that rain jacket, put on your finest fedora, and get out there.
The big bonus of visiting the Gorge in the spring? You see some of Oregon’s finest waterfalls at their finest. Spring rains and winter snow-melt combine to fill the falls with dramatic flows.
Can you visit the Columbia River Gorge throughout the year? Pretty much. Summer will tend toward sunnier skies, but you’ll want to keep an eye on wildfire reports. As you wind your way along Highway 30, you can still see the blackened remains of recent fires, such as the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.
Fall can bring fine colors and GORGEous light for photos. (Autumn would probably be our next-most favorite time to visit the Columbia River Gorge again, in fact.)
Even winter can bring opportunities to see one of Oregon’s most majestic sights, but definitely check weather reports and road reports. I-84 and Highway 30 can get hammered pretty badly by winter storms, so check conditions and pack appropriate safety gear before you head out.
Our Columbia Gorge day trip: 3 waterfalls down… 74 to go
After a bunch of ancient hardened lava gets busted up by ancient flood waters so deep they go over the cliff tops, it’s no wonder the Columbia Gorge is so deep, wide, and full of tall, gorgeous, misty, beautiful waterfalls. On the Oregon side alone, 77 waterfalls spill their sinuous, windy, beautiful ways to the Columbia.
On a misty Sunday morning, we left Fairview (near Troutdale), picked up I-84 east, and spent the about half the day exploring:
- Multnomah Falls
- Horsetail Falls
- Wahkeena Falls
- Vista House Scenic Overlook
When you’re driving Highway 30, be sure to do toilet stops when you’ve got the chance. There are restrooms at Multnomah Falls and Wahkeena Falls, so these are a perfect opportunity to have the kids do the ole potty checkin.
Food and drink
It’s also a good idea to bring snacks, meals, and beverages with you, or make sure you’ve planned out when you’ll stop for food as you make your way back toward Corbett, Troutdale, and Portland.
Accessibility varies, and different waterfalls and trails are going to have different difficulty levels. We did only these three short, waterfall round trip hikes. As an amputee who wears a prosthetic leg, Jodie felt like the walks were all doable, but elevation gains definitely add some exertion. Generally trails are paved and wide enough for wheelchairs too.
For Multnomah, Horsetail, and Wahkeena Falls, Jodie had no trouble making her way along the trails and reaching the overlooks. Naturally, your mileage may vary, but we would consider this area to have overall accessible trails and attractions for travelers who have disabilities.
The approach to Vista House Scenic Overlook has some slope, and depending on where you park you may need to cross Highway 30. The Overlook area overall has wide, paved areas, so travelers with disabilities, such as people who use wheelchairs or prosthetics, can expect to be able to get fairly well and take in the sights. When Vista House itself is open, there is also a ramp for you to reach the doors and the lookout areas from the top of the steps.
A Columbia River Gorge family-friendly road trip with waterfall hikes
Iconic Multnomah Falls is the must-stop, must-see, everyone-should-experience-this-place queen of Columbia Gorge waterfalls. East on I-84 to Multnomah Falls (exit 31, and it’s a left lane exit, so keep an eye out for that tricky one), your first stop is about 20 minutes from Troutdale in the northeastern Portland area.
Go to the lower viewing deck first to see the amazing pool. Then go up the short (.2 mile) but steep paved track to the famous bridge viewpoint. If you want more exertion and a higher-up view, a mile-long trail continues up Multnomah Falls. If not, you can turn around and head back down.
You never know what wildlife you might see around too. When we were there, a family of ducks—mama and ducklings—was out in the creek just downstream from the waterfall. They swam peacefully for a bit, then took off at a fast pace, as if Mama Duck had decided it was time to put the kids through sprints.
Head to the Historic Columbia River Highway/Oregon Scenic Highway 30
After leaving Multnomah Falls, get back on east I-84 and make your way to exit 35. From there you can access Historic Highway 30, the state scenic byway for the Gorge and its lineup of Columbia Gorge waterfalls.
Don’t let the “highway” in Highway 30 intimidate you. This is not a road for interstate speeds. From parking areas especially, you typically have good visibility when crossing the road, and often drivers are taking things slow to enjoy the sights. Naturally, practice road smarts and safe crossing. From our experience, crossing Highway 30 seemed no more challenging than crossing our street to go to the mailbox.
Aptly named! White ribbons of water flow down to a wide pool, and yes indeed, it does bring to mind a horse’s swishing tail.
The waterfall itself is right across the street from the parking area. The main parking lot and trail area are at an overlook, so it’s easy to take in this ribbony, silky falls right without going far.
However, Horsetail Falls is especially kid-friendly. Go down past the parking lot, through the brush, to the edge of the rocky pool at the bottom of the falls. The kids can do a little “rockour” parkour on the big stones, to a small rock island in the pool. It’s the perfect spot to plunk lots of rocks into the water—and for the kids to burn off some energy before resuming the car ride.
Similar to Multnomah Falls, you can view this waterfall from two main areas. Wahkeena Falls is also a good spot to do a toilet checkin, as there’s a restroom facility (with flush toilets) next to the parking lot.
The lower viewing area gives you a great view of this zigzagging waterfall. Instead of tumbling straight down like Multnomah, Wahkeena decided it wanted to bump its way along, tumbling left and right. Presumably this prevents the water from getting bored.
Also like Multnomah, a paved, .2-mile long track winds it sloping way up along a hillside to a higher outlook. This outlook has a wee bridge crossing over the flow. It’s a great spot for photos, videos, and selfies. You can also pick up a segment of a hiking trail to other points along the way.
Next time: Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil, and Angel’s Rest
We had originally planned to take in Bridal Veil Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls State Scenic Viewpoint as well. This is a slightly longer hike (both to the falls, or to Bridal Veil’s nearby Gorge overlook). After walking up and down for three waterfalls though, we were all feeling like we’d seen enough waterfalls for this trip.
We decided to save Bridal Veil Falls for another trip. However, it’s another iconic waterfall along the Gorge. The parking area is also across from the Bridal Veil Lodge B&B, a rustic, attractive building tucked into the cliff side, and that place alone looks worth a return trip.
Not far from Bridal Veil, Latourell Falls also will be on our “next trip” list. The popular Angel’s Rest trailhead was packed with cars. Angel’s Rest is a renowned Gorge hike, but it’s also the epitome of the wisdom of arriving early, lest there be nowhere to park.
Picnic and marvel at the Vista House scenic overlook viewpoint
If you’ve seen a photo of Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge area, odds are you’ve seen Vista House. The iconic structure sits near the edge of a cliff, and is surrounded by a wide viewing area. You can gaze east or west as far as the eye can see.
While there aren’t picnic tables or such as Vista House, you can easily bring a picnic or some steps. We “dined” at the back of our Outback, but other people sat on the Vista House’s steps and enjoyed both a snack and the scenery.
Tip: Bring a pair of binoculars.
As boats make their way inland or westward, you can try to see what type of boat is on the water, and what’s on deck. It’s a great game to keep the kids interested in this scenic stop.
Tip: Don’t worry about how loud the kids’ footsteps sound on the ramp.
Kids will love stomping around on the ramp. It’s going to seem louder than it is: Don’t worry about how much the sound travels. It’s likely less than you think.
Tip: Even if the building itself is closed, the view from the grounds is stunning.
We visited during the COVID pandemic, when vaccinations are ramping up and infections were ramping down. However, the Vista House building itself remained closed to the public for safety. Plus, sometimes the building is closed anyway, whether for maintenance or weather.
In the event the building is closed, don’t worry. The view from the grounds more than makes up for it. We visited on a day where the overcast sky gave a wonderful light—and where mist and rain soon blew in. A truly Oregon day to see one of the state’s most iconic—and yes, I’ll say it again—GORGEous views.
Interstate in, Scenic Route 30 back
A great approach helps you combine efficiency to get to the Gorge area, helping you free up time to wind your way more slowly back to Portland.
Take: I-84 to Multnomah Falls, then go down the interstate a couple more miles. Take Scenic Route 30 all the way back. Slow pace, easy to stop off wherever you want, and it’s a beautiful drive all the way back into Troutdale. Tip: As you make your way west, keep an eye out for where 30 turns left. Follow that turn to go over a beautiful bridge and continue on the scenic route, or keep going straight, and you can make your way to I-84 for a faster trip to where you’re heading next.
Stay in the Troutdale area for a great Gorge home base
Be close to Highway 30, I-84, the Columbia River Gorge, and its kid-friendly waterfall hikes
Some of the most well-known sights of the Gorge, such as Multnomah Falls and the Vista House Scenic Viewpoint, are about 20 minutes east of Portland’s Troutdale area. Combined, we spent the day exploring the Gorge—and only drove about 60 miles. However, even though modern-day Portland was close, we could feel like gone into Oregon’s forests, and back in time both to the 1930s and to millions of years ago.
And there were even a few waterfalls along the way.
We stayed in a vacation rental in the Fairview area. Just outside Troutdale, Fairview itself was minutes from I-84 (and only about 20 minutes from the Portland Airport). It was also easy to snag groceries, and to dine out at local restaurants such as the Italian restaurant Ristorante Di Pompello and the 20s-themed Bumpers Bar & Grill.
Visit the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Like so many things in Oregon, the Columbia River Gorge is one of those sights that doesn’t seem real at first. It’s the sort of thing that must have come from a movie set. Like some Middle Earth wow-vista from Lord of the Rings.
But the Gorge is real. Its views, cliffs, waterfalls, and the river are every bit as spectacular as what you’ve seen in photos and videos. Whether for a day, a week, or however long you want, you can go there.
And it will be amazing, for the entire family.