Recreation opportunities abound in the Gorge

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photo Portland resident Phil Geffner kayaks down the White Salmon River between Husum Falls and Northwestern Park in September. The removal of Condit Dam opened the entire lower White Salmon River to paddlers for the first time in 2012.

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photo Hikers walk the Cape Horn Trail in the Columbia River Gorge in October 2012. The trail is one of the more popular hiking spots on the Washington side of the Gorge.

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photo The Cape Horn Trail is one of the more popular hiking spots on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. The trail includes a new observatory and pedestrian tunnels under state Highway 14.

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Just east of Clark County sits a world-renowned playground, within an easy day’s drive.

That would be the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, designated in 1986 to protect the scenic vistas and preserve the dramatic natural and cultural features of the river gorge that divides Washington and Oregon.

There’s a lot to see: Consider a new observatory at Pioneer Point atop Cape Horn, the premier Gorge viewpoint on the Washington side, or a much-improved Forest Service Cape Horn loop trail, complete with two pedestrian tunnels to carry hikers under state Highway 14 and up to the observatory. The observatory was designed and paid for by Friends of the Columbia Gorge to honor its founder, the late Nancy Russell.

For newcomers to Clark County, it’s worth getting acquainted with the Gorge, which begins just east of Washougal, spans the crest of the Cascades and extends all the way to the Columbia Hills near Goldendale — and that’s just on the Washington side.

In all, the scenic area spans 83 miles in two states and six counties, extending from the wet, green forests west of the Cascade Crest to the arid, open grasslands on the east. It offers a dizzying array of recreation opportunities, from windsurfing and sailboarding to hiking and mountain biking to museum and winery tours and strolls through picturesque towns, with an infinite number of photo ops.

It’s an open-air natural history classroom, with rare wildflowers and dramatic geological formations. Deep within Bonneville Dam, visitors can witness the annual migration of salmon and steelhead through a viewing window as biologists conduct fish counts to determine the size of the runs.

The Columbia River offers a chance to fish for giant sturgeon and spring and fall chinook salmon. The Little White Salmon River, a tributary of the Columbia on the Washington side, beckons kayakers with legendary white-water rapids and falls.

Just beyond, the “big” White Salmon River now flows freely from glaciers on Mount Adams to its confluence with the Columbia. In 2012, demolition crews removed the last traces of Condit Dam, the hydroelectric facility that had been breached the previous year.

The change allowed migrating salmon and steelhead to make their way to the waters above Condit Dam for the first time in nearly a century. White-water paddlers rode the White Salmon all the way to its mouth. Environmental advocates, recreational river users and tribal members all celebrated a new White Salmon River that continues to evolve.

The Gorge offers a rich trove of Northwest history and prehistory. Native people fished and traded along the river for millennia. The Lewis and Clark expedition came through here in 1805 and returned in 1806. History buffs can read the expedition journals and imagine what the Gorge was like before the river was dammed, the marshes drained and developed, and the forests logged. To protect scenic vistas, rural development in the Gorge is restricted by the 1986 National Scenic Area Act; most economic development is limited to the scenic area’s 13 cities and towns.

The Oregon side of the Gorge, which is mostly publicly owned, is laced with waterfalls that cascade from the rim, including Multnomah Falls, at 620 feet the second-highest year-round waterfall in the country. The Washington side features stark basalt escarpments carved by ancient ice age floods. The panoramic view from Crown Point east of Corbett, Ore., is the Gorge’s best-known vista.

Trails abound, from the easy walk that leads to lower Multnomah Falls to the steep trail that ascends Dog Mountain. One of the Gorge’s most popular trails for hikers and cyclists is Oregon’s historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. It follows the route of the original U.S. Highway 30, the first highway through the Gorge. The trail is open between Hood River, Ore., and Mosier, Ore., and between Cascade Locks, Ore. and Bonneville Dam.

Windsurfers from around the world converge on Hood River to enjoy its world-class gusts.

Guided walks at Columbia Hills State Park east of Dallesport allow visitors to view prehistoric pictographs and petroglyphs carved by Columbia Basin tribes, including the famous specimen of rock art known as “She Who Watches.” Nearby, the Dalles Mountain Ranch, now part of the same state park, preserves a sprawling working ranch that presents panoramic vistas to the south and east.

Artifacts both prehistoric and post-settlement are on display at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center in Stevenson and the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles, Ore.

About 100 miles east of Vancouver, just east of the scenic area boundary, the Maryhill Museum of Art offers an eclectic collection, including Rodin sculptures, American Indian baskets and beadwork and memorabilia from Queen Marie of Romania. The museum and the nearby Stonehenge replica are the legacy of Samuel Hill, the entrepreneur who promoted road-building projects throughout the Northwest.

Nearby, travelers can take in the vast wind farms that dot the Columbia Hills of eastern Klickitat County and northeast Oregon’s Columbia Plateau.

In recent years, the Gorge has become a magnet for more gentrified forms of recreation. City dwellers can take self-guided tours of wineries and vineyards in Klickitat County. Chic hotels and bed-and-breakfasts offer scenic backdrops for weddings and special events, complete with fine dining.