Columbia River Gorge Day Trip: A Scenic Highway with Waterfalls Galore!

I’m just back from my first trip to the Pacific Northwest (it definitely won’t be my last!) and while I planned the trip with the intention of exploring Olympic National Park, seeing an orca whale, and driving a bit of the 101 down the coast, one of my favorite days of the trip came about a bit unexpectedly. 

I had planned two nights in Portland at the end of the trip without much of a plan (everybody says you have to go to Portland!), but after doing some research there honestly wasn’t a ton to do in Portland itself that I was very excited about. 

So I started looking at more outdoorsy adventures in the area, and found out about the Columbia River Gorge. 

How did I not know about this???

The Columbia River separates Washington from Oregon and for about 90 miles east of Portland the river runs through a truly magnificent gorge. 

And there are waterfalls EVERYWHERE. Little confession here…I’ve seen the biggest and best waterfalls in Hawaii so I’m not easily impressed…and…I was impressed!

You could 100% stay several days in the area and spend time adventuring, hiking, enjoying wineries, etc (and I’ve added that to my travel wish list!), but it’s also really easy to see some of the highlights as a day trip from Portland. 

Columbia River Gorge Day Trip

I did this day trip from Portland kind of last minute without a ton of advance planning so first I’m going to fill you in on exactly how we spent the day and then I’ll give you some tips on what I would do in hindsight: 

The Columbia River Gorge runs about 90 miles, but the first 20 miles or so from Troutdale to Cascade Locks is called the Waterfall Corridor, and for good reason. There are over 90 waterfalls that flow down the gorge and into the river along this stretch. 

Well you can’t see 90 waterfalls in one day, so I decided to focus on just a few stops and see where the day took us. 

Multnomah Falls

After a little research, I knew I wanted to see Multnomah Falls. It’s one of the biggest, most magnificent falls in the area and therefore one of the most popular. Millions of people come to see these falls every year…and for good reason!

But here’s the deal…they’ve gotten soooo popular in recent years and parking is very limited so they’re now requiring reservations in the summer (May 26, 2023 to September 4, 2023) through

Reservations can be made about 14 days in advance and are for one hour increments from 9 AM to 6 PM. 

But reservations don’t guarantee you a parking spot and like I said, parking is extremely limited. 

Here’s what I did: Like I said, I didn’t plan this in advance at all. I only started researching it the night before and realized that we needed reservations to visit (it was after May 26th). The reservations wouldn’t load on my phone (it just kept saying they were unavailable) and my only experience with this is some national and state parks in Hawaii where reservations sell out in seconds as soon as they’re released. So I assumed that the reservations were all sold. 

I found the Sasquatch Shuttle that offers a shuttle service to Multnomah Falls from a location about 10 minutes away and voids the need for a reservation. So I booked our spots on the shuttle and we went that route.

For $15/person we parked at a site about 10 minutes from the falls and hopped on a shuttle and were there super quick. 

Once we got to the falls, it was a little confusing how the whole system operates. I had read reviews online that said not to show up without reservations because you would be turned away, but we were within the “required reservations” window and there was nobody checking anything anywhere and I’m not even sure how they would monitor traffic. 

The main road goes right past the falls (the falls and lodge are to your right and the limited parking is to your left) and it’s honestly all just a bit chaotic. 

I’ve checked a bunch since I’ve been home and it seems fairly easy to grab reservations even the day before, but parking is the bigger problem. 

So even though we probably didn’t need to take the Sasquatch Shuttle, I still think it ended up being a pretty easy option. The shuttle dropped us off right by the falls and picked us up in the same spot. They run about every 30 minutes and we ended up waiting almost exactly 30 minutes to be picked up. 

Another good option is the Waterfall Trolley. It’s $29/person but they do a full circuit with stops at a LOT of the major waterfalls in the corridor. If you’re going in the summer (busy!) and you’re going to make a full day of seeing the waterfalls, I think this is the best option. Plus we saw a lot of trolleys along the route so I think your wait times to go to the next spot are pretty reasonable. 

The Waterfall Trolley makes continuous stops at Corbett, Crown Point, Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Angels Rest, Wahkeena Falls, Multnomah Falls, Triple Falls, Horsetail Falls and Ainsworth.

Okay, once you get to the falls, here’s the scoop: they’re amazing! They’re really accessible too. You can walk right down to the bottom railing of the viewing platform in just a few steps. 

It’s a pretty short hike up to the bridge and then you can go even further (about 2 miles) to reach the top of the falls. We hiked up a ways and then detoured on another trail that went along the gorge. 

These falls are incredible and I’m so glad we opted to spend the day doing this instead of spending time in the city. 

We got on one of the first shuttles and were at the falls not long after 9 AM (when they open) so it wasn’t very crowded. 

After we finished hiking and looking around, we had breakfast in the Multnomah Falls Lodge because I’m a sucker for an old lodge. This isn’t a National Park, but it kind of has those vibes. The lodge was built in 1925 and has perfect, cozy vibes. 

Service was a little slow but very friendly and the food was very good. I’m a fan of anywhere you can have salmon for breakfast ; ) 

With hiking, breakfast, and a little shopping in the gift shop, we spent about three hours at the falls. 

We hopped on the shuttle back to our car and then continued on along the Columbia Gorge Scenic Byway. 

Because we spent so long at Multnomah Falls and we wanted to drive all the way through the gorge (90 miles), we opted to skip any more waterfall hikes, but we saw quite a few from the road. 

Vista House

Don’t miss the drive up to the Vista House for…you guessed it…views! Built in 1917, the Vista Point was built as a memorial to the Oregon pioneers and later served as a comfort station to travelers along the Columbia River Highway. 

The inside is open Friday through Monday (9AM to 5PM) and there’s a gift shop and small cafe, but even if it’s closed, it’s still worth the drive. 

Cascade Locks

The waterfall corridor officially ends before you reach the town of Cascade Locks, but you’ll want to stop and see Bridge of the Gods. 

We also stopped for burgers, fries, and shakes at Eastwind Drive In on our way back to Portland and besides their super cute neon sign, their ice cream (soft swirl cones) is very good. 

Hood River

We drove on to Hood River where we stumbled onto the Columbia Gorge Hotel. Built in the 1920s, this place hosted everyone from Columbia Gorge Highway travelers to movie stars. it’s been completely renovated and it’s definitely worth stopping by for a drink and to check out the view. 

Also the town of Hood River is super cute. It has a charming downtown and feels like a destination. 

Hood River to The Dalles

There’s still quite a bit of scenic road past Hood River (through Mosier), but by the time you come into The Dalles the “scenic byway” has officially ended. 

How Far to Drive on the Columbia River Scenic Byway

You could easily spend all day between Portland (the official start of the waterfall corridor is in Troutdale) and Cascade Locks, and if you’re wanting to see as many waterfalls as possible, you’re going to be BUSY. 

I would go all the way to Hood River and have dinner there before hopping on the interstate to head back to Portland. 

If you’re a big fan of scenic byways (I can’t not drive the last 15 miles ; ) go the last bit of the way into The Dalles, but don’t expect to see much when you get there. 

Where to Stay on the Columbia River Gorge

There are a lot of good hotel options in Portland, and it’s really only a short drive to the beginning of the Columbia River Gorge Highway so if you’re wanting “luxury” or more of a city vibe then that might be the way to go. 

I personally wasn’t a huge fan of Portland (I don’t know the area well enough to know which areas to avoid but now I know that downtown was not for me ; ) but good news because there are plenty of places to stay along the gorge that feel a world away from the city. 

Columbia River Gorge Hotel

I already mentioned this place, but I love a good historic hotel and this one is so scenic. If you like an isolated property (you’re not going to be able to walk to town) that feels like a destination, this is your spot. I have a feeling that the clientele here might skew a bit older though. 

Hood River Hotel 

This would probably be my number one pick in the area. It’s historic, but very stylish and right in the heart of the walkable mainstreet area. 

Ruby June Inn (White Salmon, WA)

I didn’t make it over to the Washington side on this trip, but I’ve been hearing a lot about White Salmon lately and it’s high on my list for a return trip. There are quite a few cute places in town, but I’d check out the Ruby June Inn. 

Want to read more posts about the area? 

Pacific Northwest 7 Day Road Trip Itinerary

Seattle vs Portland

2 Days in Olympic National Park

Places I Loved in Seattle

Hoh Rain Forest Hikes

Hole in the Wall Hike at Rialto Beach