A SHORT VISIT TO THE NW - #1 Columbia River Gorge & Mt. St. Helens

July 07, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

September 2015


A SHORT VISIT TO THE NW  - #1 Columbia River Gorge & Mt. St. Helens

In late September (2015) we took a road trip to visit our new grandson and his parents in Portland, OR.  As long as we were investing a 10 hour (each way) drive up to the Northwest we decided to tack on some sight seeing.  We drove through the Columbia River Gorge, went up the back (east) side of Mt. St. Helens, spent a night in Mt. Rainier National Park then spent 3 days in the Palouse area of southeast Washington and ended with a visit to the Hell’s Canyon area in eastern Oregon. 

This edition relates to the Columbia River Gorge and Mt. St. Helens portion of the trip.  Other editions will follow..

Map of day 01 route

14 2015-09-29a Map - Portland to Mt; St. Helens14 2015-09-29a Map - Portland to Mt; St. Helens


We left Portland in the morning and rather than follow our trusty GPS up I-5 and then hang a right over to Mt. Rainier we decided to take a more scenic route.  Out of Portland we headed east up the Columbia River Gorge.  As we had visited this gorge several times before we didn’t spend much time on this leg of the trip, but for those of you who have not visited this area, I’ll include it in this travel log anyway.



The Columbia river forms the border between Washington and Oregon and in this section it cuts through the Cascade mountain range.  While not a gorge in the sense of a narrow slot type canyon it is quite spectacular.  The 80 odd mile stretch from where the Deschutes River comes in all the way down to Portland is considered the “gorge” and it is as much as 4,000 feet deep in sections with vistas and wonderful waterfalls every few miles. 

The Columbia River Gorge dates from roughly 17 to 12 million years ago during which time the Cascade range grew up around it and the river slowly eroded the land.  But the real carving of the gorge happened at the end of the last ice age 15,000 to 13,000 years ago with what’s called the Missoula Floods.  These were a series of events as the ice age ice melted where ice dams holding back massive glacial lakes burst allowing epic amounts of water to rush down the valleys in biblical proportions.  Each of these floods dramatically reshaped the land, carved new canyons and deposited massive amounts of dirt and rock way down stream forming what is now many of the fertile farming valleys closer to the coast.  Geologists think there were a couple of dozen of these massive floods over a 2,000 year period.  While estimates vary, some of the floods are said to have a per minute flow 13 times that of the Amazon River and they raced down the valley’s at more than 80 miles per hour taking everything they bumped into along for the ride – including much of the land itself.  What is left is many land forms throughout the pacific Northwest including the Columbia River Gorge . 

There are 3 roads you can take to see this stretch of river.  The one on the Washington side (north side of the river) is mostly 2 lanes that sometimes is on the bluffs above the river and sometimes closer to the river itself.  This side is not all that scenic with limited views.  On the south (Oregon) side of the river there are two roads that more or less parallel each other.  There is good old I-84 which eventually leads you through Idaho and down to Salt Lake City and more or less hugs the river through the gorge.  If you want to make time and have views of the river and a few water falls as you fly by, this is the road for you.  However, if you want a more leisurely tour with plenty of places to stop and sight see, take the old 2 lane road now called the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Like on the Washington side, the old road sometimes winds its way high up on the cliffs above the gorge offering sweeping views of the gorge and cascade range in Washington, and at other times is down at river level where you can stop at a whole series of waterfalls.  The Historic Columbia River Highway is about 75 miles long and runs between Troutdale and The Dalles.  It was built between 1913 and 1922 as the first planned scenic road in the US and as such its route was designed to include the best views and go right by the most impressive landmarks.  In 1926 when the US Highway system was created this road became US-30 and in some places it is still marked as such.  But, mostly it’s a collection state roadways now.

One structure along this road is Vista House up on Crown Point 733 feet (223 m) above the river (several of the Missoula floods reached this level).  Vista House, built in 1918 is an observatory and memorial to Oregon pioneers as well as a comfort station for travelers on the Historic Columbia River Highway. The site offers good views and has very interesting architecture from that period


Vista House

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View to the North from Vista House

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View to the East, up the Columbia River, from Vista House

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Along the Historic Columbia River Highway are many great views of the river and surrounding mountains but also many great waterfalls.  Some of these have Inn’s and tavern’s from the 1920’s and 1930’s where you can stop for a bite or drink or stay the night.  Most all of these falls are only a very short walk from the road or parking lot so you do not need to be a hiker to get to them.  Compared to the waterfalls we saw in Iceland, the flow in these are quite meager, but their ribbons of water cascading down the sheer cliffs are quite impressive.

Latourell Falls

Latourell Falls, ORLatourell Falls, OR


Multnomah Falls

Multnomah FallsMultnomah Falls


Horsetail Falls

Horstail Falls 02, ORHorstail Falls 02, OR

As you travel along this old road you will stumble on other scenes worth taking a look at.  For example there are old bridges, forest glens, dams, fish hatcheries, and just plain grand views.

Moss covered trees in glen at Latourell Falls

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Bridge at Latourell Falls Historic Columbia River Highway

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Bridge at Hood River

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Famous Bonneville Dam

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Fish Hatchery at Bonneville Dam

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Kite Surfing at Hood River

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Getting back to this trip, we crossed the Columbia river at Cascade locks over the venerable 2 lane “Bridge of the Gods” and entered Washington State.  The lowest elevation on the Mexico to Candada Pacific Crest Trail is when it crosses this bridge.  This bridge is also where Cheryl Strayed ended her 1,100 mile, 94 day trek from Mojave on the Pacific Crest Trail as depicted in the movie “Wild”.  She originally planned to end at Ashland near the California-Oregon border, but once there decided to complete the Oregon section as well, stopping at the Washington border. 

Once over the bridge we headed north into the Pinchot National Forest on the aptly named Curly Creek Rd (WA-30) and then continued along WA-51 & WA-25.  These are winding 2 lane roads and together head almost due north passing on the east side of Mt. St. Helens.  You cannot see the crater from this side of Mt. St. Helens but rather you get the to see the shape of the mountain much as it looked before the 1980 eruption.  Even though you can’t see the crater doesn’t mean that this area was not affected by the eruption.  On this side most of the issue was falling ash (among other things) and the debris filled flood waters that came crashing down the valleys from the sudden ice melt. 

We visited this area east of the volcano in the early 1980’s four or five years after the eruption.  At that time much of the forest was still laid flat and the bottoms of the river valleys where a mess of gravel and dead trees.  However, now the forests once again look like forests and the valley bottoms are re populated with vegetation. 

Mount St. Helens is most famous for it’s 1980 eruption on May 18 which turned out to be  the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States – of course geologically speaking, our history is not all that long.  Fifty-seven people were killed; 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles (24 km) of railways, and 185 miles (298 km) of highway were destroyed.  Contrary to popular view,  the eruption was actually not the mountain blowing it’s top in the traditional manner, but rather an earthquake on the north side caused a massive avalanche.  This earthquake and subsequent landslide caused one whole side of the mountain to slide down into a river valley and the sudden release of all the weight allowed the internal volcanic pressure to explode out sideways.   This was much to the dismay (and surprise) of all the scientists who were there at the time as this volcano had never done such a thing before and accounts for the high casualty rate.

Before this eruption the summit was 9,677 ft (2,950 m)  and after it was 8,363 ft (2,549 m).  And, what had been a standard shaped mountain now has a wide horseshoe-shaped crater on the north side where the landslide took place.


Taken September 2014, on another trip, from the North Side of the mountain showing the crater.

Mt. St. Helens from Johnston Ridge - 07Mt. St. Helens from Johnston Ridge - 07


Mt. St. Helens from the SE at Curly Creek Rd Overlook (this trip)

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Mt. St. Helens from the SE at Curly Creek Rd Overlook

Mt. St. Helens from the SEMt. St. Helens from the SE


Mt. St. Helens from East along WA-25

Mt. St. Helens from the East side #2Mt. St. Helens from the East side #2


Mt. St. Helens from East along WA-25

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In the next edition we’ll re-discover Mt. Rainier.

- You can see images of this area on my website at
http://www.danhartfordphoto.com/wa-cascade-mountains and

- My websie home page

- You may also enjoy the very popular Trip Advisor review I published about the Mt. St. Helen's Visitor Centers (including Johnston Ridge Observatory)

Thanks for read

ing -- Dan


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