Updated: May 21, 2015
Columbia River Gorge - WaterfallsAnyone who has visited the famed Pacific Northwest knows it is a land of the outdoors, filled with miles of rugged coastline, snow covered peaks, giant forest, roaring rivers, and gushing waterfalls. And believe it or not, if you plan a vacation to the Columbia River Gorge near Portland, you can see all those things in one day! Lewis and Clark were the first white men to survey this rugged country, descending the Columbia River from Eastern Oregon all the way to the Pacific Ocean in simple canoes. While they were not impressed with the weather in the northwest, they were amazed by the natural landscape. And the Columbia River provided the only passage over or through the Cascade Range, making it the water highway for the region in years to come. Today, the 80 mile stretch of river (roughly from Portland to The Dalles) and environs that emcompasses the Columbia River Gorge is designated as a National Scenic Area, signed into law by President Reagan in 1986. You can see a map of the Columbia River and its surroundings below.
Columbia River Gorge Maps - CampingGeology has played a big part in forming the Columbia River Gorge. Volcanoes stretch up and down the Cascade Range of mountains in central Oregon and Washington, and in the past they blanketed the area in lava and ash and earth and mud, in places nearly 10,000 feet deep. The Columbia River itself (in the form of its tributaries) was dammed up in Montana over and over again during past ice ages, resulting in monumental floods that would send walls of water more than 1000 feet high surging towards the Pacific, ripping and tearing through the Gorge as it hollowed out the path that the Columbia now finds itself in (amazingly, during these floods, the Columbia emptied something like 10X as much water as all the other rivers in the world combined, into the ocean..and Portland would have found itself under 300-400 feet of water!). The result is a dramatic waterway that is lined by mountains and cliffs that extend as high as 4000 feet above the river surface, with walls lined by suspended tributaries that now cascade over the cliffs as waterfalls. These natural features make the Columbia River Gorge a prime getaway spot for hikers, campers, fishermen, and boating and windsurfing enthusiasts. For a great overall guide to the Gorge area, check out the PDF file offered by the USDA Forest Service here.
Let's start with camping in the Columbia River Gorge. Here is a list of Oregon State Parks - there are about 20 in the Gorge area. Some are just day use parks, but a few offer complete camping areas for tents and RVs. Some of the popular camping parks include Ainsworth State Park, Memaloose State Park, and Viento State Park. As locals who have camped at some of these Gorge sites, our main complaint is with the freight trains that come through the Gorge at all hours of the night. Ainsworth State Park is extremely close to the train, and the noise of the blaring train horns at 3AM and 4AM and 5AM are enough to pretty much destroy the peace and quiet of this magnificent place - be warned, and bring your ear plugs! Here is an additional listing of other Columbia River Gorge USDA Forest Service camp sites. These sites include Eagle Creek, Wyeth, Herman Creek Horse Camp, and Eagle Creek Overlook. Obviously, camping is not ideal during the drizzly wet rainy season in Oregon or Washington, but summertime brings some of the best weather in the country, with nice temps, blue skies, and no humidity.