Columbia Gorge, Washington and Oregon
By Amanda Castleman
Evergreens blanket the misty Pacific Northwest. But each autumn, pockets of deciduous foliage ignite with colors rivaling New England’s prime leaf-peeping terrain. And the trees put on their most spectacular show against backdrops of craggy, snow-gilded mountains along America’s largest national scenic area, the Columbia Gorge.
This 80-mile corridor divides Washington and Oregon. Yet its mighty waterway springs from further north in the Rocky Mountains, in British Columbia, eventually pouring more water into the Pacific than any other river in the Americas. En route, the Columbia River races under 4,000-foot cliffs and basalt spires, passing vineyards and rich farmlands.
“With that beautiful fall light, you feel like you’re driving into 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 really inspiring view that makes you feel connected to nature and the Northwest.”
The gorge has many moods. For a high-desert sagebrush experience, look to its eastern stretches. The Grand Coulee Dam — the country’s largest hydropower producer — welcomes visitors year round. Catch its light show, which runs until late September, or a free guided tour through late October. Don’t leave town without stopping at the Gehrke Windmill Garden, where a folk artist transformed found objects into whimsical kinetic sculptures.
Continue south along Banks Lake 34 miles to Sun Lakes–Dry Falls State Park. Ice Age floods once raged through there, creating a cascade four times the width of Niagara Falls. Today the 3½-mile-wide cataract lies bare, exposing all its stunning torrent-gouged geology.
As the Columbia River pours into central Washington, pause for wine tasting and maybe a Labor Day concert or early October grape stomp at Cave B Estate Winery. Other highlights include the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, where workers helped usher in the atomic era.
Moving west, Oregon’s The Dalles and Hood River serve up a sophisticated farm-to-table culinary scene, along with world-class windsurfing. Hiking and mountain-biking trails also abound for more mellow outdoor experiences. Tip: The 35-mile Fruit Loop drive passes farm stands, breweries, cideries and wineries, making for a very snackable circuit.
Finally, as the Columbia surges into the sea 100 miles west of Portland, history buffs shouldn’t miss the national park marking the turnaround point of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea, their Lemhi Shoshone guide. Their early 1800s expedition ended on this rainforest-cloaked coast, but for autumnal travelers, thankfully the fun is only just beginning.
Dunes: In Troutdale, Oregon, a 1920s gas station now houses the Sugarpine Drive-In. Expect nostalgic American classics, from brats to a whipped feta and muhammara sandwich, alongside cherry-cola pie topped with Cocoa Puffs.
Stay: SageCliffe Resort sits beside the Gorge Amphitheater, one of the world’s most scenic concert venues. Accommodations range from yurts situated for stargazing to suites with vine-swathed terraces. Fall rates start at $279 (two- and three-night minimum).
Insider type: Cruise the only sea-level route through the Cascades with the American Queen Voyages sternwheeler, 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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