To Native Americans, the Columbia River Gorge was the great gathering place. To Lewis and Clark and Oregon Trail pioneers, it was the gateway to the Pacific. To first-time visitors today, the Columbia River’s enormous canyon carved through the Cascade Mountains is one of the Pacific Northwest’s most dramatic and scenic destinations.
The river, over a mile wide, winds through a 3,000-foot-deep gorge flanked by volcanic peaks and austere bands of basalt. Waterfalls tumble from the mountain’s edge and fall hundreds of feet to the river. Clinging to the cliff walls are deep green forests filled with ferns and moss. It’s the living rendition of a Northwest postcard.
While most visitors confine themselves to the cliffs and dense woodlands at the western end of the Gorge, a surprise awaits the newcomer venturing farther east. Halfway through this cleft in the Cascades, the greenery parts to reveal tawny grasslands and sage-covered deserts under an endless sky. This 80-mile-long, 5-mile-wide chasm has as much variety in climate, topography, and vegetation as terra firma can muster.
Visitors can revel in a cornucopia of attractions: the world’s largest concentration of high waterfalls, one of the planet’s most diverse botanical communities, and a wide spectrum of recreational opportunities that includes skiing, fishing, hiking, rock climbing, windsurfing, and much more—all in the same day.
Immediately south of the Columbia River Gorge rises 11,240-foot Mount Hood , Oregon’s highest peak. Mount Hood is an all-season outdoor playground for all of northern Oregon. Besides skiing at five ski areas , the mountain is popular with hikers , mountain climbers , and those who come to marvel at the extravagant Works Progress Administration–era Timberline Lodge .
If there’s one word to describe the forces that created the Columbia River Gorge, it’s cataclysmic. Volcanic activity, flooding, and landslides have sculpted the present-day contours of this fjord-like chasm between Oregon  and Washington . While eons-old mud and lava flows are visible throughout the Gorge, and ancient avalanche scars still mar the land, what has sculpted the Gorge more than these forces are recent floods of biblical proportions.
During the last ice age, a 2,000-foot ice dam formed Lake Missoula, a vast inland sea in what is now northern Idaho and western Montana . The collapse of the ice dam some 15,000 years ago released a wall of water that steamrolled westward at 60 mph. These torrents entered the eastern Gorge at depths exceeding 1,000 feet. The floodwaters submerged what is now Portland  and then surged 120 miles south, depositing rich alluvial sediments in the Willamette Valley . Scientists estimate there were at least 40 such inundations between 12,000 and 19,000 years ago.