Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Gorge/Wapinitia Loop, Part One: Portland to US Highway 197

This classic Oregon road trip leaves the city behind, passes through the dramatic Columbia River Gorge, winds through high desert country, and returns through the Cascade Mountains. The basic loop is only around 225 miles and could even be done in a day, but it offers numerous opportunities for exploratory side trips and deserves a multi-day investment. Be sure to bring food, water, and a detailed map, as some stretches offer few amenities.

Mitchell Point
Our loop starts by taking I-84 east out of Portland (it's possible to make this into an even longer and more scenic drive by taking the Historic Gorge Highway instead). As you reach the edge of the Metro area, the walls of the Gorge close in and the views begin. Follow the river eastward, and if time permits take Exit 44 to stop in the town of Cascade Locks. This little town has an excellent history museum and a lovely park on the Columbia river beneath the shadow of the skeletal Bridge of the Gods. If you like soft serve ice cream, you must stop at the East Wind Drive In for an enormous, creamy cone. Drive east on the main road in Cascade Locks to rejoin I-84.

Take Exit 58 for a quick stop at Mitchell Point. This little park offers a fully-accessible viewpoint over the Gorge, as well as restrooms and a trailhead for a steep hike if time permits.

Memaloose State Park
Continue to the trendy town of Hood River, a Mecca for windsurfers where  you can find supplies and lodging. There is camping west of town at Viento State Park and east of town at Memaloose; we recommend the latter for its high desert landscape and jaw-dropping views (watch for poison oak at either campground). Be aware that any stay in the Gorge will likely include noise from the railways on either side of the Columbia, as well as the ever-present Gorge winds.
As you near Hood River, notice the dramatic change from lush Western Oregon forest to Central Oregon desert. You have, in fact, driven through the Cascade Mountains, the dividing line between east and west in the state. It's easy to see why the pioneers were tempted to remove their wagon wheels and float down the Columbia rather than cross the rugged mountain range.  Even today, though, despite being tamed by dams, the wide river is a force to be reckoned with; it must have been a difficult decision for those weary travelers.

Mosier Public Library
Continue east along the river to Exit 69 and the little town of Mosier, first settled in 1854. There are several historic buildings here, including the still-functioning schoolhouse built in 1920 and the cutest public library we have ever seen. This is a fun town to explore, with well-preserved buildings and a few historic mysteries. Park near the train tracks for the Mosier Plateau hike; those who are able to negotiate the steep and dusty trail should at least go up the hill and find the scenic, wildflower-spangled Pioneer Cemetery.

Back on I-84, continue east to The Dalles, the last town of any size on our trip. Stop here to pick up any last-minute supplies and fill your gas tank. Head east briefly on I-84 to Exit 87 (US 197) and go south. Your last glimpse of the Columbia will feature a distant view of The Dalles Dam. 197 climbs quickly out of the Gorge, leaving the river behind and rising abruptly into high desert country. Now wide, rolling, wheat-carpeted and sagebrush-dotted hills extend as far as the eye can see. This is a land of extremes: roads are sparsely-travelled, distances are long, heat is oppressive, cold is frigid, and rain is torrential. You will be glad of your detailed map and full gas tank as you head down the highway. Now you are alone with US 197 and its ghosts.

Bridge of the Gods near Cascade Locks

Mitchell Point

Memaloose State Park
Train tracks and abandoned road bed near Memaloose

Mosier Post Office with a view of the Columbia
Abandoned Mosier general store

Abandoned... something? Maybe a light post? Also in Mosier.

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