Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Washington Side of the Columbia Gorge

From Washington, looking across to the more rugged Oregon side
Some say the best thing about the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge is the view of the Oregon side. Granted, Oregon has the dramatic waterfalls, precipitous cliffs, forested gorges, and historic highway. However, the less-visited Washington side can proudly boast about its own attractions, not the least being its sunnier, Southern exposure.

Highway 14 heads east from Vancouver passing the town of Camas. Over 100 years old, Camas has a history centered on its large paper mill. Despite the industrial appearance, the city has done an admirable job in creating a pretty downtown area with statues, restaurants, shops, and antique stores.

Up next is Washougal, best know for its Pendleton WoolenMill. Factory tours follow the process of creating fabric from bales of raw wool, through the dyeing, carding, spinning and weaving processes. An outlet store offers attractive discounts on clothing, blankets, and fabrics.

Cape Horn
A few miles beyond Washougal, the road enters the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Unlike the Oregon side with its fast-moving freeway, Washington’s road is twisty and two-laned, with no shortage of slow moving trucks. However, the stunning view from Cape Horn makes it all worthwhile. A small pullout on the right side of the road presents a sweeping panorama of the gorge and river that many consider the best view on either side.

Beacon Rock
Beyond the small town of Skamania, is Beacon Rock, the second largest rock in the world after Gibraltar. This core of an ancient volcano was named by Lewis and Clark who noted the spot as the first place they observed the ocean tidal influence on the Columbia River. In 1915, Henry Biddle purchased the rock with the idea of building a trail to the 848-foot summit. After his death, his heirs offered to donate the land to the state of Washington to be used as a park. The state did not like the terms of the donation, and turned it down. After the Army Corps of Engineers proposed blasting the rock to bits for building material for jetty construction, the heirs offered the property to the State of Oregon for $1. When Washington residents realized the possibility of an Oregon state park on their soil, they decided to accept the donation. Today, the big rock is safely in the Washington state park system and Mr. Biddle’s mile-long trail with 52 switchbacks still provides visitors a route to the summit and a great view.

Looming ahead and straddling both sides of the Columbia River, is the massive Bonneville Dam. The first of 14 federally funded dams on the river, it was built between 1933-37 as part of the New Deal’s Public Works Administration, providing jobs for the Depression’s unemployed and bringing electricity to the Northwest. Today, visitors can see underwater views of migrating fish, watch spinning turbines, and observe outdoor fish ladders.

Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center
A bit downstream from the dam is Ft. Cascades National Historic Site where a short, self-guided trail relates the story of the Cascades Massacre. In 1856, the fort here was attacked by local tribes, leaving six dead. The U.S. Army, under the leadership of Lt. Philip Sheridan, rode to the rescue.

In the nearby town of Stevenson is the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center, an impressive, modern building of steel and glass. Inside, exhibits and films explore the Gorge’s geology, Native American culture, and history. There’s a 37-foot high replica of a fish wheel, restored sawmill steam engine, and Corliss bi-plane that delivered the area’s first air mail. The second floor is dedicated to the history of Skamania County and includes such oddities as the world’s largest rosary collection.

It’s worth spending some time exploring the town of Stevenson and its collection of antique shops, historic buildings, and restaurants. Their waterfront park is a good place to watch colorful kite boarders racing along the river.

Bridge of Gods
The Bridge of Gods crosses the Columbia River here to Cascade Locks, Oregon. Built in the 1920s, its  name is taken from several versions of Native American legends all having to do with various love triangles, competitive brothers, rival tribes, and an angry Great Spirit.

From here, the interstate offers a fast route back to Portland with excellent views of the Washington side of the Gorge.

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