Oregon's Columbia Wilderness Area

Waterfalls and old growth in this gorge-ous Oregon hideaway.

A mere half-hour from the Portland city limits is the drop-dead-gorgeous 39,000-acre Columbia Wilderness Area on the Oregon side of the famous Columbia River Gorge. Trails lead into deep side canyons sliced by pellucid streams coursing through old-growth Douglas fir forests. The gorge is best known for its many waterfalls, and hiking is at its best during a good rain when countless silvery plumes plunge from every canyon wall. In summer, the higher-country trails traverse legendary wildflower fields along ridgelines with multiple-volcano views.

TRAILS: About 50 trails (many short connectors) link for 90-plus miles of hiking. One of the best routes is a 28-mile loop: Hike the Eagle Creek Trail (the gorge's most popular), climbing 3,600 feet in 13 miles to the campground at Wahtum Lake. Head back by going north along the Pacific Crest Trail about 6 miles to one of several cutoffs on the Benson Plateau, then down Ruckel Creek Trail to the Gorge 400 Trail and then east to Eagle Creek. Check with the land manager for trail status.

DIFFICULTY RATING: Gentle along canyon bottoms, but trails climb 1,000 feet per mile up some ridges.

WHERE: The Eagle Creek trailhead is about 40 miles (1 hour) east of Portland. Take I-84 to exit 41 (Eagle Creek); drive south a few hundred yards to the trailhead.

MAPS:Trails of the Columbia Gorge sells for $6.95 at the Multnomah interpretive center.

CONTACT: An interpretive center is located at Multnomah Falls (exit 31). Or write to: Multnomah Falls Lodge, 902 Wasco Ave., Suite 200, Hood River, OR 97031; (503) 695-2372. A $3 trail park pass is required.