Columbia River Gorge: Hiking, Rafting, and Horses

by Nancy Zaffaro
Columbia River Gorge

On first glance, you might think the rugged, high cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge, with the Columbia River flowing below, were formed by flooding. But the area is actually the site of volcanic lava flows some 14 to 17 million years ago. The basalt rock Gorge has 3,000 foot deep cliff walls, waterfalls hundreds of feet to the rivers below. The Gorge runs for some 80 miles, the 5-mile wide chasm creating a natural border between Oregon and Washington.


dsc_0193Spending time outdoors is a must in any trip to Gorge. The Columbia Gorge has always been a special close-to-home place for me (it’s just an hour to an hour-and-a-half from Portland), and my trips there have varied throughout the years. The area is home to one of Oregon and Washington’s best wine regions, and there’s hiking, fishing, boating, windsurfing, farmer’s markets, hot mineral springs, and numerous small towns to visit.

Leaving Portland on Interstate 84, the landscape changes around Troutdale and Oxbow Park. The trees become a little taller, basalt cliffs rise above the river, the winds become a little stronger. Around The Dalles, just past Hood River, the landscape changes once again, becoming drier, browner, with more scrub brush than trees.


The Columbia Gorge, near Maryhill, WA.

On this trip, I traveled with my daughter to enjoy a great hike, some horseback riding in the hills, and a whitewater rafting trip; activities I highly recommend in this beautiful area.

Take a Hike: Multnomah Falls

There’s great hiking throughout the Columbia River Gorge. A few of my favorites are the Eagle Creek Trail, Falls Creek Falls, Oneonta Gorge, some of the Pacific Crest Trail near Cascade Locks, and any of the trails around Multnomah Falls. Multnomah Falls is the top-visited site in Oregon, a favorite for locals as well as visitors.

Multnomah Falls

Enjoy Multnomah Falls from the base, Benson Bridge, or from the lookout at the top of the falls.


Multnomah Falls makes two drops; first, from 560 feet and then another 70 feet over a basalt ledge.

While most folks enjoy the wonder of the 620′ waterfalls from the base or from Benson Bridge, you can take the 1.5 mile hike up the top of the Falls.

Multnomah Falls

No, this photos isn’t incorrectly oriented; we’re looking down from the top of the Falls’ lookout. (Can you spot the people at the bottom-right?)

We hadn’t hiked Multnomah Falls in years, and continued on after the top of the Falls, taking the Multnomah Falls-Wahkeena Falls Loop, which comes out to about 6.5 miles. That hike treated us to Weisendanger Falls, Dutchman Falls, Ecola Fall, Fairy Falls, and finally, Wahkeena Falls.

dsc_0104   dsc_0105   dsc_0102   dsc_0081

The Rangers at the Visitor’s Center at Multnomah Falls Lodge have free trail maps and are great sources of information.


Multnomah Falls Lodge was built in 1925; take a look around or have lunch in the restaurant.

Explore Hood River

Hood River’s Oak Street and offshoots are perfect for wandering. Stop for coffee at Ground. Don’t miss Made in the Gorge, Waucoma Bookstore, Mystic Mud Studio, and other shops and boutiques.

Hood River

Downtown Hood River Hood River is a great place to shop, wander, and enjoy a meal.

dsc_0146Recharge with a brew, glass of wine, or cup of coffee at numerous welcoming coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants and brewpubs. We enjoy a pizza and beer at Double Mountain Brewery and slices of pie ala mode at Bette’s Place.

Hood River

Enjoy White Salmon

Just across the river from Hood River is White Salmon, a town of about 2,500 people, and a kick-off point for great outdoor activities on the Washington side of the Gorge. Jewett Blvd. has a number of great restaurants, brewpubs and shops.

Crossing Bridge of the Gods.

Crossing Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks.


Rafting the White Salmon River with Wet Planet

dsc_0276At Wet Planet in Husum, just outside White Salmon, 17 of us are ready for a half day trip rafting the White Salmon River. We strip down to swimsuits or athletic wear (basically anything not cotton) and don wet suits, foot gear, helmets, and flotation jackets. A few people take up our guides’ offer to borrow a fleece jacket beneath the gear as well. Admittedly, we look a bit silly and our guides’ gear was a little sleeker looking. They look like rock stars and we look a little “dumpy.” But while we’re looking forward to getting wet, we’re in for some cold water, and there’s the ever-so-small possibility of falling out of the raft, so the protective gear is just fine by us.

The White Salmon River is fed by the glacial waters of Mt. Adams, and much of the river flows between narrow basalt canyons, then forested valley, before emptying into the Columbia Gorge.

Our ride takes us over one Class III and IV rapid after another, with all the excitement and laughter that brings. There’s even an optional cliff jump at the base of EZ Falls, where one by one, (most of us) jump into the water and the waiting rafts below. Our guide Tyler has 11+ years of experience as a guide. His work has taken him throughout the U.S. and overseas, including to Africa. I’ve rafted before, and was impressed by his level of instruction and team building. And the high-5s with our paddles really made us smile.


Great fun on the White Salmon River. (All photos courtesy of Wet Planet.)



When water levels are right, like they were on our trip, we’re able to do an optional run down Husum Falls, with its 10-foot drop. For some, this is the highlight of the trip. For others, the highlight was the cliff jump.



Wet Planet owner, Jacomijn (“Jaco”) Klinkenberg, is originally  from Holland and has always loved and been dedicated to the outdoors.  Her company offers half-day, full-day and overnight rafting and kayaking trips. In addition to the guided trips, Wet Planet offers kayaking lessons and guide courses in both kayaking and rafting. Since 2006, Klinkenberg has organized the Annual White Salmon River Fest. They also offer kayaking and rafting trips on the Tieton and four other rivers.

There’s an espresso and snack bar, and before or after your rafting trip, grab a bite to eat at Wet Planet Café (in season). In White Salmon, try Everybody’s Brewing, which has great beer, great food, and a great view of Mount Hood from the outdoor deck.



View of the Hills, on Horseback

 The horses are eating lunch when we arrive at Northwestern Lake Riding Stables in White Salmon.

riding stables

Lunchtime at Northwestern Lakes Riding Stables.

dsc_0374Cindy Park, who runs the stables with husband Mike, has a bit of the stand-up comic in her. She kept me and my daughter laughing as she gave us the run-down on the horses, the trails, the rules and tips to keep us safe, all the while assessing our riding level. Tales of exercise balls, exploring boundaries, and using super balancing powers are spun, all to give customers a ride they’ll enjoy.

Northwestern Lakes is a family-run business that began in 1970, when Mike’s grandfather, Boyd Fitzgerald, bought the property, selling his ranch, Valley View Riding Stables in Utah, which had become a little too developed for his tastes. Boyd, and friend Bill Ledbetter developed the property from scratch, clearing land and putting up fences, digging  a well, building barns and everything else that went into making the place home and creating a places where he could take visitors out for rides.

dsc_0378Mike and Cindy eventually took over the property, where they live and raise their family. It’s their 16- year-old daughter, Alyssa, who takes us out for our ride. She’s the fourth generation of this family to live on the property and she clearly enjoys being on horseback. She’s a skilled rider who led her first riding group (while Dad supervised from the back of the line) when she was seven years old. Today, she’s riding one of dad Mike’s favorite horses, Olive, and we’re with Rudy and Churro (who Cindy describes aptly as a “sweet little Mexican pastry.”)

We head uphill away from the stables and into the woods. During the road, we’ll we cross and walk along creeks, and enjoy some shaded spots, some openly sunny spots. There are a couple of spots we’re able to trot and canter a bit and others where we make slow, careful ascents. The ride takes us past timberland, deciduous forest, along a logging road, and through open high prairie.





Along the way, there’s a great view of Mount Hood and several views at varying heights of White Salmon and the White Salmon Valley.


Spending time horseback is a wonderful, peaceful way to really feel you’ve seen and gotten to know the area a bit better.

Taking a ride with Northwestern Lake Riding Stables comes highly recommended; a good safe, beautiful ride on well-cared for horses who can tailor your ride to your group’s abilities. (Riding helmets are encouraged and provided.)


Healing Waters and Other Comforts

Soaking in the healing and heated waters from mineral hot springs at Bonneville Hot Spring Resort and Spa brought another welcome dimension to our trip. The area’s hot springs were used for centuries by Native Americans, and the property was bought by a miner, R. J. Snow in 1880, and sold to Thomas Moffett two years later. Moffett built the Cascade Springs Motel on the 50-acre property and it’s been a vacation spa site ever since. (Moffett even sold the mineral water for $.10 a bottle way back before bottled water was ubiquitous.) Pete Cam bought the property in 1991 and rebuilt it from the ground up.

The Resort, in North Bonneville, Washington, is only an hour from Portland and another 30 minutes on to White Salmon and Hood River.

The 74-room hotel takes further advantage of the waters by incorporating fountains and other water features as part of its lush landscaping. The 16,000 square foot spa has all of the expected treatments, including the traditional mineral water bathtub soak followed by a hot body wrap, where you can sweat out impurities before again immersing yourself in the healing waters.

Drinking water from the mineral hots springs can be found in the pool area, spa, and at the lobby, and I made a point to fill my water bottle before leaving for the day.

The sitting lounge, with its 45-foot tall river rock fireplace is definitely a place to relax, unwind and extend the living space of your resort room.

Bonneville Hot Springs

The 45′ tall river rock fireplace is a focal point of the comfy sitting area.

Rooms at the resort are comfortable and soothing, with quality beds, bedding, and towels, bathrobes, a fridge and a coffee maker with coffee and tea from Portland’s  Smith Teamaker. Our room featured a 6-person hot tub on the deck, which was great for a final dip at the end of the evening. The hot tub may be worth the splurge depending on your circumstances; definitely worth it if you’re there in winter weather, but maybe less so when the weather outdoors is nice.

Our room features a private spa on the outdoor deck.

Our room featured a private spa on the outdoor deck.

There’s dining in the Pacific Crest Dining Room and the Cascade Lounge and seasonally, outdoors at the Courtyard Terrace Patio.  Pick up an espresso at the coffee bar near the lobby.  We enjoyed a late night charcuterie plate and bowl of steamer clams in a light coconut broth.

charcuterie   steamer clams

The 25-meter indoor lap pool is paneled in redwood, with walls of windows and plenty seating. There’s an indoor, large jetted hot tub, and kiddie wading pool, as well as a large jetted soaking pool outdoors. Each are filled with water from the hot springs. The dry sauna is a wonderful addition.

The pool's redwood paneling--and mineral hot springs water--make the pool inviting.

The pool’s redwood paneling–and mineral hot springs water–make the pool inviting.

hot springs pool

The outdoor spa is the place to be.

The outdoor spa is the place to be.

Parking at the resort is included and no extra resort fees are added to your bill. Internet at the resort is free, although not very fast. Take the opportunity to take a media break, and just relax!

Dusk on the Columbia River.

Dusk on the Columbia River.

For More:

– All photos by Nancy Zaffaro, with the exception of river rafting photos. River rafting photos courtesy of Wet Planet.

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Elizabeth Rose September 26, 2016 - 9:08 am

Great article. I didn’t know about some of these opportunities!

Nancy Zaffaro September 26, 2016 - 9:17 am

Thanks, Liz. You were just in the area and found some great things to do yourself!


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