Visiting the Columbia River Gorge from Portland by bus
As someone who lived on the East Coast for 5 years, and recently returned to the West Coast, I am quickly realizing in order to fully enjoy this area of the United States (really the entire western part of this country as a whole) you eventually will have to cave and purchase a vehicle.
But, also recognizing that not everyone has a car, and if you are an out of town visitor you may choose to not even rent a car, there are some things you can still do!
That being said your adventure plans may be slightly affected with your lack of motor vehicle, but lucky for you (and all of the rest of us carless humans) there are a handful of bus companies making it so people of the two leg only variety can get outside and see some of the awesome sights of the Pacific Northwest.
What is the Columbia River Gorge and why do I want to visit it?
If you stumbled across this post with zero, or a tiny bit of knowledge, about the Pacific Northwest and its natural beauty let me give you a little rundown.
In its simplest form the Columbia River Gorge is a canyon along the Columbia River which runs for over 80 miles between the states of Oregon and Washington. From hiking, to backpacking, to waterfall chasing (there are over 90 of them on the Oregon side alone!), to water sports, it’s an outdoor recreationalist’s paradise.
Throughout the 80 miles you drive along Interstate 84 or U.S. Route 30 (in Oregon) or Route 14 (in Washington) you can go from temperate rainforests to dry grasslands in this protected National Scenic Area.
For over 13,000-years people have lived in the gorge. Prior to the Oregon Trail (yes, that is a real thing) Native Americans used this area as a transportation corridor. Lewis & Clark traveled through the gorge in the early 1800s in order to get to the Pacific Ocean.
One of the bus companies I alluded to earlier is the Columbia Gorge Express, who are here to help people take day trips out to the gorge from the Portland area without having to stop by Enterprise, Avis, Zipcar, or one of those other rental companies.
One of the best things about the Columbia Gorge Express is the fact that it’s easy to find, the route is direct and it’s economical.
TIP TO NOTE:
The bus schedule is seasonal and changes from Summer to Fall. When the bus starts running in May they only operate on a weekend schedule. They start daily service around mid-June, and around the beginning of October they switch over to a Fall schedule running 7 days a week.
A thing to know about the schedule is that not every bus that leaves from Gateway makes all of the stops I listed above. And the bus can change based on the day of the week. The best way to know which bus(es) you want to be on for both your Eastbound and Westbound trips are to check the website HERE.
THE EASTBOUND ROUTE TO HOOD RIVER
(which runs in reverse when you return to Portland)
Gateway Transit Center
(accessible by a variety of metro/MAX lines and buses)
Rooster Rock State Park
(about 25 minutes from the Gateway stop)
(45 minutes from Gateway and 20 minutes past Rooster Rock)
(a little over an hour from Gateway and about 20 minutes past Multnomah Falls)
(an hour and 15 minutes from Gateway and 30 minutes past Cascade Locks)
So now that you’ve got the logistics down of how to actually make this day trip work how do you know where you want to stop? Do you do all of the stops, do you pick and choose (spending more time in the locations you pick)?
The way I went about this day trip is I decided to hop on the bus at Gateway in Portland, ride it all the way out to the end (Hood River) and get off at each stop as I made my way back to Portland. So this is the way the stops will be listed out below.
(one-way, round trip, and hop on/hop off day pass options)
Gateway to Multnomah Falls
$5.00 for both a one-way ticket AND a round trip ticket
**Service between Rooster Rock and Multnomah Falls is free**
Cascade Locks to Hood River
$2.50 for the one-way ticket; $5.00 for a round trip ticket
Gateway to Cascade Locks
$5.00 for the one-way ticket; $10.00 for a round trip ticket
Hood River to Multnomah Falls
$5.00 for the one-way ticket; $10.00 for a round trip ticket
Gateway to Hood River
$7.50 for the one-way ticket; $15.00 for a round trip ticket
Hop On/Hop Off Day Pass
$15.00 flat fee ($12.00 if you purchase it online)
Group of up to 4 people: $40 (Only available online)
If you forget to purchase your ticket in advance you can also purchase it at the bus by cash (exact change) or credit card.
TIP TO NOTE:
Buses are filled on a first-come, first-served basis, so just because you purchased your ticket online you are not guaranteed a seat.
COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE EXPRESS LOCATIONS
Hood River is lovingly referred to as the adventure capital of Columbia River Gorge, and it’s easy to see why.
There’s a beautiful and easily accessible (right through the parking lot from the bus stop) waterfront park which is perfect for picnics, people watching, stand-up paddle boarding, swimming and that famous activity that popularized the town in the 1980s, windsurfing.
Just up the road from the waterfront is the little downtown area full of shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. The historic Hood River Hotel was built in 1911, and you can easily get to the two main streets by walking up the road about 10-15 minutes and across the overpass.
This town also features the famous Hood River County Fruit Loop, 35-miles of scenic roadway through the valley's orchards, forests and farmlands, featuring 28-member wine, fruit, vegetables, flowers, ciders, and food stands throughout the year. I will be sharing with you all later this fall!
So I’m not going to lie, there isn’t a huge amount of things to see/do in Cascade Locks without a car, and the bus does drop you off in a pretty random location.
But that being said there is another great park just down the hill from the bus stop. You can check out the locks and the canal that are no longer being used (they were submerged and no longer used in 1938 when the Bonneville Dam was constructed, along with a new set of locks, downstream), cross the bridge over to the park which is its own little island, Thunder Island, and a pretty dead on view of the Bridge of the Gods (see fun fact below). At the end of the park is the Marine Park, the launching point for the 2-hour river trips on the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler.
The Bridge of the Gods is a 1,858-foot-long steel-truss bridge. It was first built in 1926 and was named after the much larger Bridge of the Gods that covered a part of the Columbia River around 1450 AD. That previous “bridge” was actually a blockage caused by the Bonneville Landslide, which filled the Columbia River valley with more than five square miles of debris up to 400 feet thick!
In addition to the Sternwheeler, the Marine Park also features a brewery (Thunder Island Brewing). This is where you want to stop in if you want a refreshing, cold glass of IPA, Kolsch, Pale Ale, Scotch Porter or Mosaic and awesome 360-degree views of the Columbia River and the island before you hop on the bus again.
If you head just up the road to the main road there are restaurants, an art gallery and some shops as well.
Ah, the Pacific Northwest’s most famous waterfall. Just 30 minutes outside of Portland you are about halfway back on your journey and in a location you don’t want to rush through – even though the hiking trail is closed due to 2017’s Eagle Creek Fire.
TIP TO NOTE:
In the Fall of 2017 the Eagle Creek Fire burned almost 50,000 acres throughout the gorge over the course of three months. The fire was fully contained by the end of November that year but still to this day (over a year later) a majority of the hiking trails on the Oregon side remained closed – this includes the Larch Mountain trail at Multnomah Falls.
If you are planning to do any hiking during your visit check out the sites below in order to have the most up-to-date information on what is open and what is not:
The falls roar at 611-feet-tall with the base viewing area being only a 5-minute walk from the parking lot/bus stop (which is right off of I-84). Depending on when you visit you can even see salmon in the creek along the path to the falls, and in the case of when I went in September it was salmon spawning season so there were babies everywhere!
If you want a closer look you can walk up the paved trail to Benson Bridge (which is the bridge you can see from the initial viewpoint and the bridge you see in all the photos) which spans the falls first tier. Once you are on the bridge you’ll have a perfect view of the 542-foot high top tier and overhead view of the 69-foot drop second tier – I recommend carefully sticking your head over the bridge to get the full effect.
The best part about Multnomah Falls is it is always roaring due to the underground spring and snow melt that feeds the falls through all four seasons. You can bring your four-legged friends (pending they’re on leash) and you don’t need a Northwest Forest Pass.
ROOSTER ROCK STATE PARK
Nude beach alert! Seriously though, this is one caveat I feel like people forget to put at the beginning of locations, because not everyone is on the lookout for the human body in all its newborn glory. But interestingly enough this eastern part of the park was the first clothing-optional beach in the U.S.
This is also the one stop, in addition to Multnomah Falls, that does not have a town area attached to it. The feature of the park is also what it is named after, a column of basalt that forms a natural obelisk. The best part about the name is the fun fact listed below.
TIP TO NOTE: If you are not taking this bus Rooster Rock is a state park which has an entry fee associated with it. I was running out of time on my journey so I opted to not get out and explore.
THE BEST FUN FACT:
This monolith that the park was named after was something explorers Lewis and Clark definitely noticed when they camped here on November 2, 1805, as it was originally named "Cock Rock" due to its phallic appearance. This reference also appeared in the word the Chinook used, iwash, which also refers to penis. In order to appease and not offend the public in general the name was changed to what we know now, Rooster Rock.
Within the park is a 2 mile Volkswalk trail where you can spot maples and oaks, Blacktail deer, sword-grass and mushrooms. It’s also a popular windsurfing spot in the winter, where wind speeds have been measured at 110 mph! There are also two disc golf courses and a boat ramp located in the lagoon, where people fish for bass, steelhead and walleye.
Alright so Gateway may not be the most scenic stop, and technically not even in the Columbia River Gorge, but it is one of the stops (the last and first stop) on your journey.
There’s definitely not a lot to do here, and the people you see can sometimes be somewhat questionable, but if you don’t decide to hop on transit right away there are a couple of places to grab a bite including an Indian restaurant, Vietnamese restaurant, and a Thai restaurant.
If you would rather get back into Portland as quickly as possible, and I don’t blame you if you do, there are three different lines right at the transit center including the RED, BLUE and GREEN, all of which will take you to some of the major sites including The Moda Center (where the Portland Trailblazers play), the Convention Center, Union Station, Old Town, Pioneer Courthouse Square and the general downtown area. You can also Uber/Lyft back into the city if that is more your style.
It may not be the easiest to visit places on the West Coast without a car but there are some locations that recognize they are becoming more of a tourist destination and in order to maximize what people can see offer up options and routes like this.
In addition to the Bolt Bus which can take you up to Seattle, I’ve noticed a couple more bus travel options that can take you out to the Mt. Hood area, as well as down to Bend in Central Oregon. Both of these places are definitely worth checking out if you have the time. Once I am able to experience them both I will give you all the full rundown!
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