Two Days Exploring the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Byway
By Jennifer Coleman
Feeling a little restless as the summer was drawing to its close, I decided an impromptu getaway with girlfriends was in order. What better place to chase waterfalls and sip wine than the Columbia River Gorge?!
Thick forest hugs the roadside as you make your way along the Columbia Gorge Scenic Byway (Hwy-14) in Southwest Washington. To one side is a forest of hemlock, pine, and big leaf maple trees and across the roadway is the wide expanse of the Columbia River. The forest gives way to craggy oaks and desert sage, then finally golden hills, and basalt cliffs as you head east into the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area.
The 47-mile section of Hwy-14 that traverses through Skamania County (between White Salmon and Washougal) is considered by many to be the most scenic. Heading west from the town of Stevenson, it crosses the Cascade Mountains near sea level which means there are things to do year-round along this scenic stretch of the Gorge. We decided to home-base out of Stevenson at the cozy and adorable Artbliss Boutique Hotel. Made up of 4 a-frame style cottages, the Artbliss experience is a combination of minimalist meets luxurious with comfortable beds, fabulous shower heads and a well-equipped mini kitchen that was just the right size for a weekend getaway. The cottages feel very PNW, tucked among the trees with a nice outdoor gas fire pit on the deck and an ideal location within walking distance to downtown. Something special about Artbliss is that they feature local artists work throughout. Our cottage (#1) featured the beautiful works of Jen Smith who draws intricate images of wolves, horses, and many other creatures.
With waterfall hiking in mind, we grabbed bagels and coffee to go from Bigfoot Coffee Roasters before heading out. This place is conveniently tucked right beside a gas station along Hwy-14 and offers tasty breakfast sandwiches and pastries, along with their own fresh-roasted organic coffees. The Bigfoot theme is strong here, with a life-size carving of the furry fellow at the coffee pick up counter and lots of cute local memorabilia. This is Sasquatch country after all!
We decided to find two waterfalls on the first day, one with a hike and one with a short jaunt to a lookout. We headed out on the Wind River Highway to hike to Falls Creek Falls. The highway was wide and uncrowded as we made our way north along the edge of the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest. After about 20 miles we veered right onto a forest service road for another few miles to the trailhead. The gravel forest road is in great shape, there was lots of room for two-way traffic and only a few minor potholes. Along the way we spotted a copse of trees and an interpretive loop detailing the results of forest management in planting and spacing of the Douglas firs.
The hike to Falls Creek Falls is easy going and beautiful. As you make your way through the forest, the tumbling water of Falls Creek is your constant companion. There is a small cable suspension bridge across a rocky gorge that offers a view of the churning water below. The trail ends at the waterfall - we reached Falls Creek Falls after just 1.75 miles of hiking. The mist from the cascades of water creates an other-worldly sensation as you bask in the mossy and lush green surroundings while watching the water fall 250-feet to the pool below.
Next up on our waterfall trail was Panther Creek Falls. This is a short little jaunt; just 15 miles or so to drive from the Falls Creek Falls trailhead back down Wind River Highway to the paved forest road up to Panther Creek. There is a brief, somewhat steep little walk down to a viewing platform where cascading water moved down mossy walls of stone.
Feeling blissed out from our forest bathing adventure, we figured the day could only get better if we rewarded ourselves with lunch and a wine tasting at one of Washington’s top estate wineries. So, we entered our destination into the GPS and made our way to Maryhill Winery – a gorgeous scenic drive along the Columbia River. In the 60 or so miles from Stevenson to the winery we experienced the changing landscapes that make Washington so unique. From dense forest to desert cliffs, the drive is a spectacular way to experience the juxtaposition between the greener west side of Washington and her golden hued eastern slopes. There are several tunnels along the way, lining up with the train route on the river. Thanks to endless wind, the river itself is a playground for hundreds (no kidding!) of kite surfers with their colorful sails and acrobatics trying to steal your attention from the road.
Maryhill Winery sits perched above the Columbia River with acres of vineyards leading to the river’s edge. On a clear day the tasting room patio offers views of Oregon’s Mount Hood in the distance, as well as the rugged river shoreline. We opted for the full tasting and a sumptuous lunch on the patio. There are lots of other wonderful winery tasting rooms along the Gorge on both sides of the river, just make sure you plan ahead for their days of operation so you can get in to sample the local flavors.
Photo ©Maryhill Winery
Refreshed and ready for another day of exploring, we left our cozy lodgings at Art Bliss and ventured back up the Wind River Highway. This time we were looking for lava - specifically, the Lava Canyon Trail at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Just 63 miles from Stevenson, Mount St. Helens is super accessible to explore her southeast side. This area was largely spared from the massive 1980 eruption, but the landscape still holds her history. The Lahar Viewpoint on the way to the Lava Canyon is a remarkable sight and worth a quick pull over to stand in the majesty of an active volcano.
Lava Canyon Trail is very accessible and broken into three sections. The first is paved and gently heads down to a boardwalk to view the Muddy River as it makes its way through the old lava flows. The next section includes some uneven and rocky terrain along with a bridge up and over the tight gorge of lava rock that has been worn smooth by water rushing over its surface. The last section is somewhat uneven as it takes you over old lava flow and along an edge to peer down the canyon. There is a suspension bridge at the end of this section that is closed for repair; but from the trail there are many places to safely view the waterfalls as they rush through the canyon.
There are two cool places you should plan to stop at if you make your way up to Lava Canyon. Ape Cave Interpretive Site, which is the 3rd longest lava tube in North America, is just off the road and worth a quick visit. Adventure seekers can get a permit to enter the cave, or you can just walk up to the cave entrance and feel the cold air emanating from its depths as you stand on moss covered rocks at the end of the stairway. Another must-see location is the Trail of Two Forests, located just a bit further down the road from Ape Cave. This accessible boardwalk is a ¼ mile loop and leads you over a 2,000 year old lava flow that left tree wells formed by hot lava as it burned through the forest.
One of my favorite things about doing a road trip like this is pulling over whenever there is a sign that reads ‘interpretive site’ or ‘viewpoint’. Sometimes we focus so much on the destination that we miss out on the little hidden gems along the way. As we drove the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Byway, we found many Lewis and Clark interpretive sites that remind us of the historical significance of this route.
Beacon Rock State Park is a must-see stop along the route. You can’t miss it as you make your way west – the massive volcanic plug just over 800 feet above the river and has a breathtaking switchback trail to its top. From there you can see for miles in both directions as the river flows below. Another cool thing to keep an eye out for is the Bridge of the Gods – which is part of the Pacific Crest Trail and the gateway for hikers making their way from Oregon into Washington.
We ventured up to Skamania Lodge just outside of Stevenson for a glass of local wine enjoyed on the Adirondack chairs outside, overlooking the mountains and the river. We had a tasty dinner at Big River Grill – get the sweet potato fries if you’re looking for something sweet and salty. Oh, and be sure to find the interesting mermaid mural inside the restaurant…it kept us entertained with imagining its inspiration source.
This trip along the Columbia River Gorge in Skamania County was just what we needed for a getaway. Chasing waterfalls, sipping wine, and finding new places in our home state feels like a best-kept secret. Take the hike, pull off the highway, and prepare to be amazed at what you will discover.