Washington Road Trip Through the Gorge

Highway 14 through the Columbia River Gorge is one America's most beautiful and dynamic scenic drives.
Washington State Vacation
Washington State Vacation

Looping Highway 14, featuring steep basalt walls on one side and the bright-blue Columbia River on the other, is a popular way to explore the gorge region. Start at the Maryhill Museum of Art, which houses a small but eclectic collection of historical treasures. Lewis and Clark paddled by here on their famed journey at the start of the 19th century, and Southern businessman-turned-town founder Sam Hill arrived in Maryhill a hundred years later, hoping to create a utopia in the West.

At the east end of the museum’s parking area there’s a concrete sculpture, The Maryhill Overlook, which offers up new perspectives of the sweeping view through boxy windows and along stark cement sightlines. Native plants and interpretive panels are incorporated into the sculpture. After a few hours in the museum admiring the delightful hodgepodge of treasures—think Native American artifacts, original Rodin drawings, and a room full of royal Romanian furniture—detour to Maryhill Stonehenge, a replica of England’s prehistoric monument, which was completed in 1929 as a World War I Memorial.

Hop back on the highway to head to Horsethief Butte, a hefty basalt formation rising up next to the river that was carved out by floods at the end of the last Ice Age. Hikers can either clamber up to the top of the butte or hike around the side—either route provides incredible views of the river and Oregon’s stately Mount Hood. Nearby at Horsethief Lake, find stunning Native petroglyphs as well as lovely camping spots. Further west around White Salmon, kiteboarders and windsurfers appear out in the water, zooming around at top speed. There are a few turnouts where you can pull over and watch the action. White Salmon’s North Shore Cafe provides a lunchtime refuel, just in time to continue on to Beacon Rock, an 848-foot-tall basalt column that was once the core of an ancient volcano. Lewis and Clark noted the imposing rock back in 1805, and in 1915, philanthropist Henry Biddle funded the trail carved into the side of the rock—52 switchbacks that get you to the summit in just less than a mile. From the top, look back on the road you’ve come down. 

From this natural marvel, continue on to an industrial one: Bonneville Dam. The visitor complex here puts the giant generators on display, while guided tours are offered daily from June to August. Peering out toward the massive powerhouses that harness energy from the Columbia, it’s easy to imagine how wild and wonderful this must have seemed to those famous explorers of yore.

--Anne Larkin 

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