Tracing the footsteps of Lewis and Clark from scenic vistas atop the Columbia River Gorge

Riding historic Highway 30 in Oregon

By Shannon Parker

Well, folks, it’s getting to be that time in the Northwest; rain has arrived and, for most, the bike gets parked for the winter. I was set to join a beautiful ride out to Maupin to enjoy the fall foliage when the threat of a fall storm was all the buzz after a record-breaking dry spell. That “most” group cancelled with the threat of moisture, so I set out on my own quest for the splendor that rivals what one might typify with the back roads of Vermont or Maine. Searching for a scenic ride highlighting the beauty of autumn is not hard to come by in the Pacific Northwest, and one ride stands out above them all—historic Highway 30, just 14 miles to the east of the Rose City.Oregon Highway 30

Long before modern highways, the Columbia River Gorge was only accessible by boat. In the late 1800s wealthy folk would enjoy a day trip by steamboat upriver to hobnob with nature. Typically the ride involved quick stops to see the sights and retrace the steps of founding fathers Lewis and Clark. A quick look-see and the boaters would be whisked away to the next venue. This writer hates that type of travel. Rushing quickly from one site to the next, taking a picture rather than zipping down the road, stopping at little mom-and-pop shops or enjoying a vista at my own pace makes me want to chuck my camera at the group leader.

Historic Highway 30 in Troutdale, Oregon
Historic Highway 30 in Troutdale, Oregon

Fortunately, in 1916 the dedication of Highway 30 changed the looky-loo style of experience the Columbia River Gorge offered. Given my antisocial tendencies, and with the dream of keeping my camera functioning, I find myself absorbing the lushness the gorge offers all year long. Every season provides a different view, smell and vibrancy. If you seek less crowds and the chance for clearer roads, no time is better to visit then the fall. Development along the gorge is strictly monitored and, as a result, the area remains a dense natural mix of trees and shrubbery. Much of Oregon has been forested and replanted with acre after acre of Douglas firs; not so in the gorge. This river valley affords one an untouched landscape, and in autumn the yellow and scarlet leaves of maples and alders burst out in fiery color against the dark green of the firs.

I started my ride early in the morning with dark rain clouds looming above—a perfect day for a ride if you’re looking for some solitude. Starting in historic Troutdale, the hardscape quickly ebbs away and soon you are slipping into farmland under the watchful eye of Mt. Hood. Most crops are harvested, and the heady smell of freshly turned loam mixes with the sweet smell of overly ripe berries lining the road. No worries if you want to stop and try a little of what nature has to offer. The road is fairly well maintained and affords solid ground to lean on. Soon farmland disappears and you twist and turn alongside the mighty Columbia. Enticing you to stop, viewpoints are speckled along the road enabling the rider to witness such sights as an osprey diving deeply to rise up with a struggling salmon, or a group of windsurfers flying off the whitecaps of the river.

Plummeting 620 feet, Multnomah Falls is the second highest year-round waterfall in the U.S.
Plummeting 620 feet, Multnomah Falls is the second highest year-round waterfall in the U.S.

The Columbia River Gorge is best known for the more than 80 waterfalls along the 70-mile route. Most famous is the two-tiered drop of Multnomah Falls. Easy access and being the second tallest waterfall in the country make this a busy summer stopover. In the fall tourists dwindle, giving this rider a front-row parking spot and unobstructed view of Benson Bridge and the falls. The falls are about halfway through the ride and provide a perfect rest stop. Whether you just want to stretch your legs or enjoy a hot toddy by the roaring fire, the lodge provides a comfortable rest point to recharge. Once back on the bike you have the option of cutting your ride short and heading back to town, or continuing down the tree-lined road to enjoy more than a dozen remaining waterfalls that require not much more than a quick stop to enjoy the splendor of these natural beauties.

When the raindrops began to fall I headed west to civilization, leaving behind the quiet solitude of the blazing trees. Whether you ride alone or with others, this little jaunt is perfect for all that want to experience the beauty of the Northwest. A rider does not have to go far to witness nature untouched, and on a bike you have the full sensory experience. Killer views, but also the oddly comforting sensation of warmth felt while inhaling the mix of burning home fires and sweet apples and pears waiting to be picked—something a car could never afford. Riding down this old road you feel like you are a part of the landscape, enjoying the quietness and the last blaze of glory before we all settle in for winter and those steely grey skies. This ride reminds many of why we tolerate six months of grey—that rain sustains the forest so each year we can enjoy the foliage. As I head home I soak in the freshness of our long-needed rain, thankful for the chance to experience a full sensory ride rich with history. Thus, I will now be able to carry on through the winter and look forward to the burst of spring just a few months away.


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