The World Famous One and Only Gorge

We all know how “gorge-ous” the Gorge is, but did you know that the Columbia River Gorge is the first and only congressionally designated national Scenic area in the US? 

But that’s far from the one and only award the Gorge could win. 

v In no small part, the region’s importance in the prehistory and history of the West is due to the fact that the Gorge is the only sea-level passage through the Cascade/Sierra Nevada mountain chain.  These ranges present a continuous high north-south wall of mountains stretching from Canada to Mexico, except where they are breached at sea level by the mighty Columbia. 

v The very identity of the Cascade Range itself has a Gorge origin.  The Cascade Range derived its name from “the cascades,” the rapids that once straddled the Columbia River near cascade Locks and Stevenson and that are now submerged under the backwaters of Bonneville Dam. 

v Due to its extreme topographic transitions and good access, the Gorge contains the largest concentration of high waterfalls in North America as well as the highest # visible from a roadside in North America.

v The Gorge’s Multnomah Falls is the most visited natural attraction in Oregon, drawing 2½ million visitors a year, as it is the second highest continually–running waterfall in the US.

v The Gorge is also home to 14 species of plants found nowhere else on the planet.  Due to the cold microclimate in the shadows of its high north-facing cliffs, the gorge also hosts over 30 sub-alpine plant species at elevations 2-3,000 ft. lower than anywhere else these plants can be found. 

v Despite its distance from the Pacific, tidal influence exists almost as far as Multnomah Falls.  The gorge was the first place Lewis & Clark encountered marine mammals and tidal water on their epic westward journey.  

v It is a 253,000 acre landscape managed by the U.S. Forest service, Washington & Oregon states and 6 local counties.

The beauty and grandeur of the Gorge awed the explorers of Lewis & Clark

Ø    In their journals, they described their spectacular passage through the Gorge, saying “the mountains through which the River passes…are high broken rocky, particularly covered with fir and white cedar, & in many places very romantic scenes.  Some handsome cascades are seen on either side tumbling from the stupendous rocks of the mountains into the river.”  

More Historic Firsts

v As we approach Maryhill Winery just a little ways away, you may be wondering where in the Sam Hill is Maryhill?  This little hamlet in the eastern Gorge is named for the mansion that railroad magnate Sam Hill built in the early 20th Century.  Hill, one of the movers and shakers in the “Good Roads Movement” of that era, was truly a transportation innovator. 

o       The historic “Maryhill Loops” covered with experimental paving mixtures in 1909, was the first paved road in Washington.  Parts of this road still survive today. 

v Hill was one of the visionary’s behind the “King of Roads”, the “Historic Columbia River Highway”.  This road possesses many historic firsts. 

o       It was the first major paved public road in the Northwest. 

o       It was the first American public road deliberately constructed as a scenic highway – with road alignments selected to highlight stunning vistas. 

o       It had the first painted highway centerline in the country, applied to the Rowena Loops section of the road. 

o       The two-rail, white wooden guardrail still seen in sections was first used here.  It soon became the national guardrail standard for decades thereafter. 

o       And finally, the Historic Highway is the 1st & only state highway in the nation listed as a national historic landmark.

v Wasco county, formed in 1854, in which The Dalles is located, was the largest county ever created in the U.S., stretching from the crest of the Cascades to the continental divide in Wyoming and Montana.

v The Granada Theater, located in The Dalles, was the first theater west of the Mississippi built specifically for “talkies”. 

v Just a few years after talkies became the rage, the federal govt. constructed Bonneville Dam, located just a few miles east of Multnomah Falls, and is the second oldest dam on the Columbia, and the first hydroelectric dam built under FDRs Public Works Administration.  Woodie Guthrie lauded these dams in songs like “Roll on Columbia” among the more well known anthems. 

v Slightly more esoteric firsts include the Eagle Creek Campground and “Big John”, the first flush toilet built on national forest lands in 1915.  The whole campground is the first organized campground on national forest land in the US.  They are both listed as a nationally significant historic place.

Sweet Superlatives in the Gorge

Who amongst you has yet to bite into a juicy piece of fresh fruit from the verdant orchards blanketing the valleys and terraces of the Gorge?

v Those in the know know that the Hood River valley is the nation’s #1 producer of winter pears, with over 50% of the country’s pears originating in this gorgeous valley. 

v And a short drive east finds you in the heart of cherry country, Wasco County.  Wasco County bills itself as having the largest sweet cherry crop in the world. 

 Tallest, Largest, Oldest, Smallest

v Smack in the heart of downtown Hood River you’ll find the International Museum of Carousel Art.  This unique attraction contains the world’s largest collection of antique carousel art. 

v Beacon Rock, located just east of Multnomah Falls, is a 848’ high remnant core of an ancient volcano.  It is the largest freestanding monolith in the US, and the 2nd largest in the world, after Gibraltar. 

v Looming on the North Horizon in the central gorge like a sleeping giant (or just taking a short nap), Mt. Adams brooding presence is hard to miss.  By far the largest and highest mountain in the “greater Gorge”, Mt. Adams sprawls over an immense footprint of 230 square miles, and is 4 times greater in volume than Mt. Hood. 

v Finally last, but definitely not least—our 1 entry into the smallest things award.  The bridal Veil, Oregon post office is the second-smallest post office in the US.  Due to the romance in its name, this tiny outpost mails out 80,000 pieces of mail a year, many of which are wedding invitations. 

View photos of the Gorge here.

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