Oregon's spectacular Columbia River Gorge

When I was growing up in Oregon, I had a special place to go when I was happy or sad or just contemplative - the Columbia River Gorge. The mighty river splices through the Cascade Mountains for nearly 60 miles of grandeur just east of my home. And in that stretch, there are countless hiking trails, mountain stream waterfalls, and cool greenery which never fail to humble and refresh.

I've since traded my home among tall Douglas firs for an apartment with a few potted geraniums on the porch in Massachusetts. But I still make the trip to Troutdale at least once a year. And whenever I drop in, I always take at least one trek up the gorge.

The trip is beautiful year round. A hot summer day will begin to feel cool among the green firs, moss-laden hillsides, ivy, and shadows. In the spring, wild waterfalls of runoff from melting snow cascade down the basalt cliffs. In the fall, the deciduous trees at the bottom of the gorge turn in a blaze of color. When the fierce east wind blows, water streaming down the bluffs ends midair in misty apparitions as the winds refuse to let it fly down in a straight course. Even in the middle of the winter, vegetation is lush and green, and during rare freezing spells, thunderous waterfalls freeze over into glacier-blue formations on the walls of the gorge.

Visitors to Portland will find the journey up the old Scenic Highway an easy and enjoyable day trip. Go east on I-84 from Portland to Troutdale. Take the Lewis and Clark State Park/Scenic Highway exit and start the journey alongside the Sandy River.

As the road begins to rise up onto the bluffs of the gorge, the vegetation thins and picturesque farms predominate, with goats, horses, and cows watching serenely from the hillsides. On a clear day, there is a spectacular view of Mt. Hood, Oregon's highest peak, from the town of Corbett. Larch Mountain is straight ahead. Across the Columbia, the hills of Washington State are also dotted with farms.

The first stop for sightseers is Chanticleer Point, which is properly named the Portland Womens Forum State Park. It offers a good east view of landmarks such as Crown Point and Beacon Rock, which explorers Lewis and Clark climbed as they brought their entourage down the river. Take color film to record the blues and greens of the vista. It is hard to believe that this spot is so close to Oregon's major metropolitan area.

Continuing east, the Scenic Highway begins its descent into the gorge. The narrow road was started in 1909, but it wasn't until 1913 that full-scale construction began. It is a work of art to be appreciated almost as much as the delicate vegetation surrounding it. Sam Hill, a Seattle lawyer, took Sam Lancaster, an engineer, to the Axenstrasse Highway in Switzerland and Bingen-on-the-Rhine in Germany to see the construction and dry masonry walls. Craftsmen from Europe were brought over to work on the road, which was the first paved highway in the Northwest, and the major east-west highway until the modern Interstate was completed.

The highway was intended to be ''for the free use of all, in which tired men and women and their little children may enjoy the wild beauty of nature's art gallery, and recreate themselves,'' according to Sam Lancaster. He remembered his mother's warning to be careful of her ferns, and resolved that not one fern or tree would be unnecessarily damaged by construction. The care shows even today.

The drive down to Crown Point marks the reentry into the lush and ferny area. Crown Point, with the Vista House Gift Shop, offers both an east and a west view. One hopes there will always be a separation between the pretty but more industrial western view and the grandly tranquil eastern vista.

From Crown Point, the road winds downhill in snaking curves that allow speeds of no more than 20 miles an hour. Leafy limbs provide a refreshing canopy during the hot months. The steep drop-off overlooking the Columbia River is bordered by massive but exquisitely crafted barriers, rather than metal guardrails. On the other side is the columnar basalt, carpeted with green moss and ferns.

Be prepared to make plenty of stops along this stretch. One of the first will be Latourel Falls, named after Frenchy Latourel, an area pioneer.Stop at the parking lot and hike in to watch the waterfall gush out of the basalt and fan over the rocks below.

Shepperd's Dell, also named after a local, is delightful. There is no parking lot, but a sign marks the stream and there is a small turnout immediately after you cross the bridge. Walk back to the bridge and take the pathway down to the head of the falls. A view of the Columbia River is framed by the graceful curved legs of the road bridge.

Wahkeena Falls is a larger stop-off, with picnic tables and plenty of parking. Several trails start here, offering walks of one-quarter to one-half mile, or hikes of up to three to five miles.

The next stop is Multnomah Falls, the crown jewel of waterfalls in the gorge, falling 850 feet. It is a major tourist stop in the gorge, since Interstate 84 also has an exit. There is ramp access for disabled visitors and a lodge with a snack bar, gift shop, and restaurant. The Forest Service maintains a small exhibition center.

Multnomah Falls consists of an upper and lower fall. The hike up to the bridge over the lower fall allows a bird's-eye view of the roaring cascade. It is possible to hike behind the upper falls, although there is no path and the ubiquitous mist makes the rocks slippery. There is also a switchback path to the top of the waterfall for a spectacular view of the Columbia and a dizzying view directly below.

My favorite stop in the gorge is a crack in the lofty walls of the Cascades called Oneonta Gorge. This retreat into an ancient earthquake fault is pure refreshment. Don a pair of tennis shoes you don't mind getting wet and start up the creek that leads back to a splashing waterfall not visible from the road. During August and September the water is low enough to allow the nimble-footed to make the journey without getting wet. But if you make a slip, the cool mountain stream feels nice.

Upstream the creek narrows and the air becomes cool in the shade of the basalt walls. At one point the creek deepens and hikers must cling to the wall to get past. Well-worn footholds and several spikes driven into the wall allow a somewhat unsteady passage.

After that the creek once again widens, and visitors boulder-hop back to the piece de resistancem , Oneonta Falls. During the height of summer, the pilgrimage to the falls resembles an army of ants going in and out.

After Oneonta Gorge, follow the old highway east until it connects again with the Interstate. At this end the vegetation is already changing from lush ferns and moss to pines and grass. Follow signs to get on 84W back to Portland.

Another way to ''do the gorge'' is to breakfast at the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River. Early birds should skip dinner the night before to make room for a delicious farm breakfast that will allow you to forgo lunch and afternoon tea. Get up early for the hour drive from Portland.

The hotel was built in 1921 as a tourist resort by Simon Benson, a lumberman. At one point it was a nursing home, but it was refurbished as a hotel and restaurant several years ago. Stroll around back and look over the top of 207 -foot Wah-Gwin-Gwin Falls, which tumbles to the bottom of the gorge.

The large dining room, which looks out over the river, has regained the aura of its early years. Customers sit down to fresh fruit. A waiter or waitress will soon come by with a bowl full of oatmeal, which can be topped with sweet cream and brown sugar. As soon as you finish, out come eggs, ham, sausage, hash brown potatoes, and baking powder biscuits. In a bit of showmanship, the waiter coats each biscuit with honey by dripping it from a ladle he holds high above his head.

You settle back, content - when a stack of buttermilk pancakes arrives, thick maple syrup on the side. No matter that you've already loosened your belt; it's all too good to resist.

To get to the Columbia Gorge Hotel, takeI-84 to exit 62 and turn left off West Cliff Drive. Call for breakfast/brunch reservations.

''Bridge of the Gods, Mountains of Fire,'' by Chuck Williams (published by Friends of the Earth and Elephant Mountain Arts in White Salmon, Wash., $29.50), is a beautiful picture book full of fascinating historical information on the Columbia River Gorge. It also issues an eloquent plea for the future of the area , which is threatened by eastward development from Portland.

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