The Columbia River Gorge offers moments of magical beauty when the sun and the clouds dance their shadows across the cliffs to create lasting memories for those of us who spend time here.
“Enough memories to last a lifetime,” I like to say.
Especially along the Columbia River Scenic Highway – stretching eighty miles from Troutdale to The Dalles as an unmatched scenic byway that came to life nearly one hundred years ago.
Back then, it was called “America’s Greatest Highway” and it was the vision of many people at the turn of the century, but the chief backer and promoter was Sam Hill, who hired engineer Sam Lancaster. Lancaster had traveled extensively throughout Europe and studied its roadways.
Oregon’s version of a scenic highway was built in 1916 and, by making the most of the Gorge’s size and splendor, it rivaled anything built in Europe.
The highway was designed for travel that followed the contours of the shifting landscape, with plenty of viewpoints and turnouts. It was enhanced with arched bridges, stone railings, and tunnels.
This magnificent achievement, the first paved road in Oregon, allowed Oregonians easier access between the eastern and western sides of their state. It also allowed them to visit many of the Gorge falls.
But over the decades much of it was bypassed for progress – and speed – called the Interstate Highway. It was a faster way to move people and commerce from this place to that and it left the historic highway in the dust.
Still, if you have the right guides who know where to look, you can touch history in the nooks crannies of the gorge where signs of the old highway still exist.
Recently, I joined Kristen Stallman, who works for the Oregon Department of Transportation – and Ernie Drapela, a member of the Historic Highway Advisory Committee.
The duo loves to hike into the backwoods and explore any sections of the old highway that can still be traveled.
“You’re walking thru the woods and it’s all trees,” noted Stallman. “Suddenly you come up to a section like this and say, ‘Wow-it looks like the old highway.”
Stallman and Drapela agree that there is treasure in the gorge – the old asphalt highway that is hidden under carpets of thick lush moss.
Drapela said that there are many places where Hill’s dream road lies waiting to be re-discovered and Lancaster’s engineering marvels wait for a second life.
“We have seen what happens when we neglect old sections of the highway and you kind of feel remorse over that. So, we want to put our arms around it and save it if we can. If you can design a use that makes sense – such as a trail for safety, for beauty, for fitness – well, why not go for it?”
Nearly twenty years ago the state launched an ambitious program to do just that as sections of the old highway we’re restored just for hikers and bicyclists along a new Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.
So far, eleven miles have been completed and include places like the Oneonta Tunnel.
Matt Davey is the Oregon State Parks Ranger charged with managing many of the trail sections and said that the tunnel restoration was a huge job, but it’s really paid off with visitors:
“It allows people to walk through the tunnel and it got them off the roadway into adjacent parking areas – so, it’s a much safer stretch for walking or biking now. It gives them a place to park and a safe way to access the Oneonta gorge too - a unique viewing opportunity and a slower way to experience the historic highway.”
Other completed stretches include six miles between Eagle Creek and Cascade Locks, the Mosier Twin Tunnels and just last summer, the newest section, Viento State Park to Starvation Creek, opened to the public.
Viento offers a mile long reach that people are now able to hike for the first time in nearly sixty years.
A gentle five percent grade makes the biking and hiking easy, plus there’s one particular feature that waits for your closer inspection: an original, four-foot tall mile marker with the number “58” carved into the concrete face.
Stallman added, “This is one of the last remaining original mile markers on the historic highway and this marked distance from Portland.”
There are more sections planned down the road too. In fact, the state has embarked on plans to convert Twelve Miles By 2016, so places like the spectacular Ruthton Point will be open for your enjoyment.
“I think Ruthton Point is one of the most incredible views of the gorge from this section of highway. It really shows the craftsmanship of the highway too; the rock walls and how they designed the roadway to capture the river and mountain views. It’s wonderful!”
Ernie added that it is all a legacy worth saving – places where visitors may hike and wear down their heels but build up their souls!
“You know, those original designers really understood the land – they didn’t want to disturb the land anymore than was necessary to build the scenic highway and yet still allow for people to pass through in their automobiles. We think that deserves another chance at life for a new generation of hikers and cyclists too. Those folks back then did such a great job!”