My wife gets nervous every time I drive down the Columbia Gorge from our home in Hood River, Oregon. And with good reason. I can't keep my eyes on the road when passing the many spangled waterfalls pluming from the cliffs. Or the dozens of canyons hiding still more waterfalls. When I drive by, they entice me to don boots and explore the 300-mile trail system. I've been known to swerve across traffic lanes while daydreaming.
But the Gorge isn't just about waterfalls. Massive, lichen-spotted Douglas firs dominate these chasms just a half hour from downtown Portland. You can switchback up a canyon flank to open view spots and eventually ridgelines, some of which lead high enough to lose the forest cover. My favorite viewpoint is the summit of Mt. Chinidere, which offers a sweeping vista of Mts. Hood and Adams in the near distance and the mighty Columbia River far below.
Many of the Gorge's best waterfalls and loveliest forest campsites, like those along Multnomah Creek past heavily touristed Multnomah Falls, lie outside the 39,000-acre Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness. And don't neglect the trails on the Washington side. The wildflowers in spring and the views from Dog Mountain will drive you to distraction.
Trail Info: Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, (541) 386-2333.