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 towns of Sandy and Cascade Locks, some 28 and 43 or so miles east of Portland, respectively, and is best experienced by driving the Historic Columbia River Highway—the oldest scenic route in the country, built beginning in 1913 and still retaining all its old-road character.
The highlight (and approximate midpoint) of this historic highway, which here rises over 700 feet 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 feet; then the 242-foot cascades of Wahkeena Falls; then, saving the best for last, famous Multnomah Falls, which drops around 620 feet 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, at the town of Cascade Locks. Another 20 miles east, at the east end of the Columbia Gorge, the outdoorsy town of Hood River (pop. 7,624) is packed with brewpubs, espresso bars, bookshops, cafés, and moderate motels. Near the town of Hood River, the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel (4000 Westcliff Dr., 541/386-5566, $149 and up) preserves its Jazz Age elegance, with comfortable rooms and an excellent restaurant.