Operation Oregon Trail, part 3

After a night under the vintage neon of Boise’s Cabana Inn, I finally emerged from beneath the sheets to start my third day on the road. Today’s leg would take me across the Oregon state line and into the immense canyon cut by the Columbia River. Portland would be waiting at the end, a destination in its own right. With my limited time, the largest city in Oregon would have to wait for its own trip. After Portland, only a quick run down I-5 and over to McMinnville remained, where my buddy waited with a cool 6-pack to welcome me to his new home. I broke camp at the motel and headed downtown for a quick breakfast before heading out on the road. I’d have two full mountain ranges to traverse before I hit the coast, so after a strong cup of Boise chai and a full tank of gas, I hit the highway with a mission.

Just over the Oregon state line on I-84, looking towards a bend in the Snake River.Ahoy there! I sound the horn as I pass the sailing vessel Chance, presumably headed for the Pacific.


The Oregon state line whizzed by, and on the other side of the twisting Snake River, I found a route that began scaling the fabled Blue Mountains through a gorge. These mountains are lower in altitude but just as rugged as the Rockies I had left behind. During the era of America’s overland trails, these mountains were a major obstacle on the road to the Oregon country. Their steepness and fearsome reputation for being totally inhospitable meant they needed to be tackled before the onset of winter, pushing wagon trains that lagged behind the rest to their breaking points. Settlements were limited to a few homesteads and way stations, but most of the route was (and still is) nothing but western wilderness. Interstate 84 now shares this mountain route with the Union Pacific Railroad, as the rough country dictates the path and room for infrastructure.

Driving I-84 through the Blue Mountains.


Just east of Pendleton, the road crests the mountains at a place called Emigrant Hill. 160 years ago, this is where wagon trains would finally exit the Blue Mountains, giving their drivers the first view of flat land they’d seen in weeks. Here the trail plummeted off of the ridge toward the valley below, sometimes at precariously steep angles. I took an exit off of I-84 just after the ominously named Deadman’s Pass, and found a two-lane route called Old Emigrant Hill Road. This path follows the original route of the Oregon Trail, descending down the crest of the Blues a few miles away from the spaghetti noodles of I-84. The road snakes back among a few homesteads and cuts long ‘S’es into the side of the ridge, sneaking in and out of the dense trees closer to its base. This old road loses over 2,000 ft. (609 m) of elevation in only two miles (3.2 km). I pulled off the road at a well-placed turnout and took in the view.

Click to view largerPanoramic view from atop Emigrant Hill. The Cascades are still hidden in haze beyond the grassy valley below. Click to view this image larger.


The sight from this mountain top is one to be remembered while life lasts. It affects me as did my first sight of the ocean, or again, my first sight of the seeming boundless treeless plains before we saw the Platte River. – John Minto, 1844

Before heading out, I investigated a few tracks I had seen from the other side of a hairpin turn. These tracks led right down a slope, bypassing the modern two lane road. They did not appear to connect to anything, and seemed to be just slightly too wide to be modern vehicle tracks. The profusion of trail remains in the nearby forest has led me to believe these are, in fact, original Oregon Trail ruts. As a Millennial, I remember a certain computer game which will be familiar to many of my vintage where one travels this trail, and when faced with a steep hill, the player was given a choice. Would you cruise down the hill as usual, lock the primitive brakes on your wagon, or use ropes to lower it down trailing an anchor log? All of my elementary school training and experience told me to do one thing with my wagon.

use ropes and chains or lock the wheels and continue?
I’d lock the wheels and continue.


After this, I headed down the mountain, past sleepy rural houses and old quarries to the town of Pendleton, where I rejoined the Interstate. Just a few miles ahead of me lay one of the most tremendous sights I have ever laid eyes upon: the Columbia River. This river is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest, giving its residents drinking water, hydroelectric power, recreational opportunities, and commerce – it cuts the only navigable route through the Cascades and allows shipping traffic as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho – 465 miles from the sea. It is as far across in places as America’s most famous river, the Mississippi, due to the huge dams built on the river in the 1930s and 50s. It is truly a sight to behold – I was initially under the impression that the huge river in front of my Hyundai was actually a long mountain lake as I would find back home in Colorado. This ‘lake’ of a river ended up guiding me all the way into Portland, but not before it dispensed with more than eighty miles of jaw-dropping natural beauty.

Entering the Gorge near Pendleton. The wind turbines on the hill take advantage of the canyon’s wind tunnel effect – the elevation drop and width of the canyon can generate winds of more than 35 MPH (56 km/h).

Mount Hood comes into view along a curve. It’s technically an active volcano, although the odds of it erupting in any capacity in the next 30 years are very low – between 3 and 7%.


I had been looking forward to this drive ever since I left Colorado, and the Gorge did not disappoint. As I drove farther into the Cascade Mountains, the hills along the river grew taller and steeper until the towns along its banks were clinging on to the sides of the canyon. The road weaved its way past the tiny towns of Arlington and Rufus, every turn and corner a vista on the rest of the gorge. This highway was cobbled together from bits of routes dating back to the 1870s, widened and realigned over the decades to accommodate modern vehicle traffic. The river, too, had changed drastically over the last 80 years. Until the 1930s and 40s, the Columbia was a fast-flowing Western river, wide enough for everything from the fur-trading voyageurs to early steamboat traffic but not much else. It was dangerous, too. The steep drop in altitude through the canyon and the underlying geology created several sets of waterfalls – cascades so dramatic they gave the surrounding mountain chain its name.

Dipnet fishing at one of the drops in Celilo Falls in 1957. This set of falls, the first in a long chain known as The Dalles, would be underwater by the end of the year. (USACE)


At the Dalles, the river squeezed itself through a channel as narrow as 75 feet (23m) in places, plummeting over 70 feet (21m) down over the hard volcanic basalt of the base rocks. The spring thaw would bring with it a rush every year to take advantage of the higher water levels in the Columbia. The falls would be passable for only a few months out of the year. At all other times, traffic would either have to roll the dice and shoot the rapids (arguably the best part of playing Oregon Trail as a kid) or remove the vessel and its cargo from the water and carry it up the steep banks and around the rapids – an act known as ‘portaging’. This practice continued until the construction of navigation canals in the late 19th and early 20th century, such as the Celilo Canal and the Cascade Locks farther down river.

These canals were made obsolete starting in the 1930s as a massive public works project got underway. FDR’s New Deal proposed a system of large dams on the Columbia for both power generation and river navigation. The slackwater created by the dams would submerge the many dangerous rapids on the river and make it easy to cruise up in any kind of vessel. By the 1970s, fourteen dams harnessed the rushing waters of the Columbia, from its upper reaches near Revelstoke, BC, to the immense Bonneville Dam 40 miles east of Portland. I couldn’t help but stare at these leviathans as I passed them, holding back just enough river to create an awe-inspiring display of brute power as they guided the whole of the Columbia through their spill ways.

The Columbia River churns through the spillway at the Bonneville Dam near Portland. (Wikimedia)


I finally stopped my canyon gawking in the town of Hood River, pulling into a gas station for a quick map check. Almost immediately, a man walked up to my car, pulled open the fuel door, and knocked on my window. Startled, I asked what this stranger was doing to my friend’s car. He replied by asking me if I needed gas, and pointed out that this practice of ‘full service’ was state law in Oregon – I legally could not pump my own gas. Oregon is one of only two U.S. states that still mandates this, the other being New Jersey. Reasons for keeping the occupation of gas jockey alive range from a desire to retain minimum-wage jobs to a concern that regular, untrained drivers will simply light themselves on fire if unsupervised.

Hood River is known for producing some of the Northwest’s best beer. Just around the corner from the well-known Full Sail brewery is its much smaller cousin, the Double Mountain, which was founded by former Full Sail employees. Inside, I found not only a fantastic Belgian Dubbel ale called Sacre Bleu, but one of the best compliments to beer I can think of – fresh bratwurst and sauteed onions. After chatting up a few friendly locals (including the owner) at the bar, I departed Hood River with a full belly and headed towards the sunset which was now urging me onward towards my destination.


A few miles up the road, I turned off of the interstate and onto old U.S. Highway 30 – the modern route’s predecessor. This twisty, two-lane road led me to a natural wonder hidden in a short canyon just a few hundred feet from the Columbia. The mountain streams that feed into the river below sometimes have to plummet more than a hundred feet from the crest of the canyon walls, a consequence of the hard, volcanic rock that makes up parts of the Cascades. These drops have formed a large number of waterfalls along the sides of the canyon, creating a huge natural show for the people who visit the gorge. As the sun fell below the walls of the gorge, I ventured out of the car and up a hiking path, seeking perhaps the best-known of the gorge’s cataracts: Multnomah Falls.

Water from Multnomah Creek falls about 620 feet (189 m) to reach the river in two dramatic drops separated by the 1914 Benson Footbridge.
A view of the upper falls. This drop is more than 542 feet (165 m) high!


After being in the car for so long, the deafening roar of water smashing into the rocks below was something of a refresher. Also, the normally busy footpath up to the falls was nearly devoid of people, lacking the usual wedding parties elbowing each other out for the prime position on the footbridge. I hiked to the upper falls, just far enough up the trail to make some photographs in the dying light, tempting me to hike the whole trail up to the falls’ source some 500 feet above. This waterfall is amongst the most photographed spots in Oregon, and it’s not hard to see why, even with the wind-driven spray from the falls sprinkling all over my lens.

Back down at the road, darkness had begun to descend on the gorge. Headlights on now, I drove west on Highway 30 and into a section of the road known as the Historic Columbia River Highway. This is a very old road, built from 1913 to 1922 in the early years of the automobile. It is carved from the cliffs and box canyons along the river, bending in and out of the increasingly lush forest in a series of sharp, narrow ‘S’ curves and hairpin corners. As I entered the forest, the bluish black sky turned jet black from the tunnel created by the overhanging forest. The boughs grew so thick over the roadway that they wove themselves into a roof in places, making me hit the high beams on my car to stay on top of the curves. The road wiggled up the side of the canyon, making the little Hyundai work much harder than it had yet on this trip. After what seemed like forever, the tunnel ended and I found myself looping up to a distinctively old building at the crest of a ridge overlooking the entire gorge. I had found the observatory at Crown Point, and from up here, the final leg of my journey was suddenly very clear.

Click to view larger
“…an observatory from which the view both up and down the Columbia could be viewed in silent communion with the infinite” – Samuel Lancaster


From the point, I could see all the way down the gorge to the lights of Portland and Vancouver, Washington, where the Columbia and Willamette rivers meet. From up here, the gorge which was so tremendously vast looked almost human in scale, and I felt that I could see all the way to the Pacific. Not true; the ocean was still about 90 mi (145 km) distant, and there was yet another mountain range in between myself and the sea, but it didn’t matter from the top of the ridge. From up here, I was like a great lion surveying my kingdom.

The next sixty-three miles went by fast, a blur of highway signs and neon as I cruised down I-84 until it ended at the Portland waterfront. The rivers and dense urban structure have forced Portland’s high-capacity freeways onto huge, serpentine tangles of bridges and viaducts above the city. Atop this lookout tower of sorts, I quickly saw that a closer look at this city would have to wait for its own trip. I had planned to spend at least a few hours exploring Portland before moving on to my friend’s house, but after being trapped by the sights of the gorge, darkness had overtaken me. It was now well past 11:30 PM, and I still had at least an hour of driving on various four-and two-lane roads ahead of me. I put Portland to the rear and got my right foot down.

McMinnville is a town straight out of the pages of an Americana novel, with a quaint main street and a hardworking industrial and agricultural base. It was the place that my friend had decided to call home for the next few months, a retreat of sorts from the pace of life on the far side of the Rockies. Off of the Interstate for the last time, things slowed down a bit. I reflected with a tired smile on my last four days and what driving alone across the great vastness that is America is truly like. I passed hidden, sweet smelling vineyards and orchards in the night, finally zooming up to the huge Cascade Steel mill that signaled my arrival. On the outskirts of the sleepy town is where I found Travis, rushing out the front door with excitement to see his old friend and his chariot. The beer that I had brought with me from Colorado went down easy between us, and we finally slumped out on the couch after a very warm welcome from my friend and his new roommates. With the car delivered, my mission was at an end, but the next day we’d wake up early to drive the last little bit of road to the Pacific.

We headed west from McMinnville to find a place that Travis had been with some friends a few months prior. Part state beach, part brewpub, the spot where we would find the Pacific was just a few miles away, north on the legendary Highway 101. The road took us into a forest straight out of a fantasy novel, full of ancient, sprawling trees covered in a bright green moss. I half expected an orc or a dragon to suddenly cross the road in front of us like a deer, stopping traffic only long enough to annoy the locals. Finally, another, smaller road took us a tiny bit farther west, until one final west-facing turn finally brought Travis and I to a parking lot which led down to the beach itself. We had finally done it. We had run out of road.

With cold beers in our hands, we took in the ethereal beauty of the Pacific Ocean. The whoosh of the incoming waves was punctuated only by the shouts of a few brave surfers, challenging the icy waters with full wetsuits. A few happy dogs sprinted up the beach, chasing far-flung balls until they disappeared into the surf. The beaches of the Pacific northwest are different than their better-known California cousins, trading the summer heat and long, sandy stretches of seaside for more isolated, calmer shores.

The next morning could only mean the end of my trip, and Travis and I headed back to Portland to use its airport. My return journey across the Rockies would cover nearly the same distance, but would take only two and a half hours. Modern travel has allowed people to cover vast distances in what would have taken weeks 100 years ago. However, one of the most important things to remember occasionally in traveling is this: slow down. My drive through the ‘flyover’ states of the west was one which was full of adventure – and I didn’t even break a wagon wheel doing it.


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