Columbia Gorge, Washington and Oregon
By Amanda Castleman
Evergreens cover the foggy Pacific Northwest. But each fall, pockets of deciduous foliage burst into flames with colors rivaling the prime terrain of New England leaves. And the trees put on their most spectacular sight against a backdrop of rugged, snow-golden mountains along the largest National Scenic Area in the United States, the Columbia River Gorge.
This 80-mile corridor separates Washington and Oregon. Yet its mighty waterway rises farther north in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, ultimately discharging more water into the Pacific than any other river in the Americas. Along the way, the Columbia River flows under 4,000-foot cliffs and basalt spiers, past vineyards and rich farmland.
“With this beautiful fall light, you feel like you’re driving through a dream,” says Cheryl Lubbert, co-owner of Sakura Ridge, a newly renovated luxury bed and breakfast in Hood River, Oregon. “You get all the orchards changing color and you see Mount Adams and Mount Hood. It’s just a truly inspiring view that makes you feel connected to nature and the Northwest.”
The gorge has many moods. For a sagebrush experience in the high desert, look to its eastern reaches. The Grand Coulee Dam – the nation’s largest hydroelectric producer – welcomes visitors year-round. Attend its light show, which runs until the end of September, or take a free guided tour until the end of October. Don’t leave town without stopping at Gehrke Windmill Garden, where a folk artist has transformed found objects into whimsical kinetic sculptures.
Continue south along Banks Lake for 34 miles to Sun Lakes–Dry Falls State Park. Ice Age floods once raged here, creating a waterfall four times the width of Niagara Falls. Today the 3½ mile wide cataract is bare, exposing all of its magnificent torrent-carved geology.
As the Columbia River pours into central Washington, pause for a wine tasting and maybe a Labor Day concert or a grape shot in early October at Cave B Estate Winery. Other highlights include the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, where workers helped usher in the atomic age.
Heading west, Oregon’s Dalles and Hood River offer a sophisticated farm-to-table culinary scene, as well as world-class windsurfing. Hiking and mountain biking trails also abound for gentler outdoor experiences. Tip: The 35-mile Fruit Loop walk passes farms, breweries, cider houses and wineries, making it a very foodie tour.
Finally, as the Columbia hurtles into the sea 100 miles west of Portland, history buffs shouldn’t miss the national park that marks the turning point of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea, their guide Lemhi Shoshone. Their early 1800s expedition ended on this rainforest-covered coast, but for autumnal travelers, thankfully, the fun has only just begun.
Having dinner: In Troutdale, Oregon, a 1920s gas station now houses the Sugarpine Drive-In. Expect nostalgic American classics, from kiddos to a feta and muhammara whipped sandwich, to a cherry cola pie topped with Cocoa Puffs.
Stay: The SageCliffe Resort sits adjacent to the Gorge Amphitheatre, one of the most scenic concert halls in the world. Accommodations range from yurts situated for stargazing to suites with terraces surrounded by vines. Fall rates start at $279 (two- and three-night minimum).
Insider Tip: Cruise the only sea-level route through the Cascades with the American paddle steamer Queen Voyages, the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi.
Seattle-based writer and photographer Amanda Castleman covers culture and adventure for BBC Travel, National geographic and Sierra.
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