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Cruising the Columbia

(page 1 of 2)

LEWIS AND CLARK would be shocked. The remote Columbia River Gorge they mapped for the United States in 1805 is dotted with hundreds of brightly colored sailboards. Windsurfers from around the globe are airborne over the frothing river that runs from the Pacific Ocean inland, dividing Oregon and Washington.

Alongside the tumultuous Columbia River, the Oregon Trail that later settlers carved out of the wilderness in 1843 is now smooth pavement under the wheels of my 2008 Audi TT coupe. What began with wagons pulled by oxen 150 years ago has become a stunning, 90- mile stretch of scenic highway.

Flying into Portland, I drove I-5 north, then exited east on I-84 to begin my scenic drive through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. I’m starting at Troutdale—an inexpensive place to fuel the Audi for more than 200 miles of driving over two days. My base camp is the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, Oregon, two hours from Portland. Known for its incredibly high winds, Hood River has become the wind- and kite-surfing capital of the country.

My sporty Audi is the perfect ride for the gusty gorge. A compact black bullet that hugs the road, it’s aerodynamic and sports a fin on the trunk lid for extra down force. The all-wheel drive keeps me firmly rooted to the road while the low body design keeps the high winds out, even with the windows down. Surprisingly roomy and quiet inside, the hatchback has plenty of space for my travel gear.

The first 40 miles of I-84 along the river are dotted with must-sees, so I’m allowing two hours for side trips on the way to Hood River. First stop is the Bonneville Dam and fish hatchery, where you can watch ships move through the massive locks right at your feet, while salmon jump the fish ladders. I don’t stay long, but some people linger here all afternoon, fascinated with the technology that both holds and moves the great river.

My next detour is an exit to U.S. Highway 30—a 7-mile scenic loop running parallel to I-84. The lush route is adorned with three dramatic waterfalls that cascade down dark rock beside the narrow road. The most famous, 620-foot Multnomah Falls, also can be accessed from the interstate below. But here on the old highway, I can drive by without leaving the car, and I’ll eventually rejoin the interstate.

Continuing east, thick rain-forest vegetation gradually subsides, and jagged cliffs begin to appear on the opposite bank. The wide, swirling girth of the Columbia River unfolds alongside the road, more awe-inspiring with every mile. Riverbank colors change from green vegetation to orange and cream cliffs, reaching as high as 2,000 feet.

Arriving in Hood River in late afternoon, I check into a fireplace room facing the river at the Columbia Gorge Hotel. My room’s high windows overlook the action below, where vivid sailboards fly over the river. Downstairs, a champagne-and-caviar reception is going on. Dinner is light, because I’m saving my appetite for the next day.

My drive includes two specifically planned meals—a charbroiled steak at legendary Hamley Steakhouse in Pendleton (where the beef is from cows fed wine grapes) and the five-course Famous Farm Breakfast served at the Columbia Gorge Hotel. It’s all the food I’ll need for 48 hours.

The breakfast is delectable. A table overlooking the water boasts Hood River’s bounty: blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, old-fashioned oatmeal, baked apples, eggs, potatoes, salmon, trout and a big dollop of “honey from the sky” dropped from a spoon onto a homemade baking-powder biscuit to represent the hotel’s resident waterfall. Packing some of the fruit, I roll out the door fueled for a day of driving.

Cruising through Hood River’s downtown, I find an inviting mix of art galleries, coffee shops, boutiques and stores catering to windsurfers, hikers, mountain bikers and kayakers.

Rejoining I-84, I take a quick 2-mile detour up State Route 35 to Panorama Point. High above Hood River, the viewpoint reveals a breathtaking showcase of Mount Hood, queen of Oregon’s mountains. A majestic 11,239 feet high, the snowcapped peak is spectacular and the highlight of every viewpoint today, on my way 120 miles upriver to Pendleton, Oregon.