Of all the beautiful natural features in Cascadia, one of the largest and most important is the Columbia River.  In this era of recession and the desire to vacation closer to home, we have one great natural wonder right here in our backyard.  It is well worth a visit.

The Columbia River is one of those places that is hard to describe, simply because the nature of it’s beauty is different depending upon where on it’s length you go.  A visit to just about any location along it’s 1,243 mile length is well worth the trip.  A trip along it’s entire length would be a great vacation by anyone’s standards, and would be an education in the history, geology, and ecology of Cascadia as a whole.

Over the years, I have seen most of it, at least up to a couple of km into BC. (And want to do the northern end sometime before I die.) The end by Astoria is it’s own marine type of environment, slowly blending from the ocean to more of what a person would consider being a river. From the mouth of the river to Astoria is an amazing area in itself, where one could spend a week exploring the unique area.

The Lower Columbia (to, say, Portland) is certainly quite impressive and different, but there are better things to come as you travel upriver.  Yet, there is an abundance of rich history here, in this relatively untouched land.  Yes, there is a lot of development, yet there is also quite a bit of natural area to be found.

The Columbia River Gorge is amazing for it’s views, with the river passing through the Cascade Mountains to either side. There are quite a few geological wonders, rock formations, waterfalls that come from seemingly nowhere. It is also an area where looking up a bit of the history of the area ahead of time (or lingering over the historical markers) will add a lot to the experience. Start by looking up Lewis & Clark and The Oregon Trail. Also, from West to East, the geology stays very similar, but the forest then the trees tend to go away.  The transition from the forested side of the Cascade Range to the sparsely-covered side of the mountains can be seen from the car windows within a few miles.  On the Eastern side of the mountains, the trees have mostly disappeared, but the land formations are better seen and enjoyed.

Around where the river bends to the North near Umatilla, the vastness of the river and the vastness of the land around it become apparent. The river irrigates the empty land around here, turning it into farmland.  It is obvious to see where we have tamed this formerly unproductive land.

Farther North, you come to the Grand Coulees, eventually to the dam by the same name, but first to the starkness of the cut through the land that the river has made through the centuries. It was originally formed through the cataclysmic Missoula Floods some 10 to 15 thousand years ago, another good thing to look up ahead of a vacation to enhance the experience.

Above Grand Coulee Dam is Lake Roosevelt. The wide and (relatively) shallow lake behind the dam is an oasis in an otherwise arid climate. My own experience there is with taking a boat out on the lake from one or another of the “resorts” along it’s length. Near the resorts, there is a bustle of activity with campers and boaters and swimmers. Taking a boat out and running a few miles up or down left me with the feeling of being truly in the middle of nowhere, with river and land to watch as far as the eye can see. The lack of human activity highlighted the sounds of water and wind and wildlife that one might not have noticed if you were just driving by.

Up in the Northern end of Washington, the trees return, but with a different experience than further down the river. The climate is different, the tree species are different, it’s a bit steeper in places. It’s also much less developed, which was a selling point for me.

The trip is well worth the effort. Knowing the history of the river really enhances the experience. And don’t try to do it all too fast. It is possible to drive the length in a day or two, but you would miss the point of going there.