Though our route across Oregon generally follows scenic US-26, the fastest route east from Portland is I-84, which races along the Columbia River, rejoining US-26 at the Idaho border. Freeway the whole way, I-84 is worth considering for its one incredible feature: the Columbia Gorge, the deep, verdant basalt canyon through which the mighty river and the freeway, not to mention a busy railroad, run. The heart of the Columbia Gorge is between the small town of Corbett, some 23 mi (37 km) east of Portland, and Cascade Locks, another 24 mi (39 km) further. Drive along the Historic Columbia River Highway—one of the oldest scenic routes in the country, built beginning in 1913 and still retaining all its old character.
The highlight (and approximate midpoint) of this historic highway, which here rises over 700 ft (213 m) above the Columbia River, is the aptly named and recently renovated Vista House, built in 1917. East of Vista House, tremendous waterfalls drop down along the road: First comes Latourell Falls, with water dropping about 249 ft (76 m); then the 242-ft (74-m) cascades of Wahkeena Falls; then, saving the best for last, famous Multnomah Falls, which drops around 620 ft (189 m) into a densely forested canyon, bridged by a delicate concrete arch. Each of these waterfalls is within a short walk of parking areas along the scenic highway, and many smaller falls can be seen cascading from canyon walls.
The Columbia River Highway rejoins I-84 a few miles east of Multnomah Falls, until the town of Cascade Locks. Another 20 mi (32 km) east, at the east end of the Columbia Gorge, the outdoorsy town of Hood River (pop. 7,806) is packed with brewpubs, espresso bars, bookshops, cafés, and moderate motels. Near the town of Hood River, the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel & Spa (4000 Westcliff Dr., 541/386-5566, $149 and up) preserves its Jazz Age elegance, with comfortable rooms and an excellent restaurant.