If you want to give visitors a spectacular introduction to the Columbia Gorge, an excellent place to start is the Vista House atop Crown Point. Perched on an airy promontory over 700 feet above the broad river, the unique facility provides an incomparable view westward to Portland-Vancouver and eastward into the heart of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. One million visitors a year stop at the historic building to capture images – both digital and mental – of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most beloved and iconic views.
Vista House was built in 1916-1918 as an adjunct to the opening of the Columbia River Highway. Automobile travel was coming of age, and access to the very scenic Columbia Gorge in Portland’s backyard was given high priority. Multnomah County took leadership in developing the highway, and chief engineer Samuel Lancaster envisioned a grand viewpoint near the beginning of the adventuresome road. Architect Edgar Lazarus designed what would come to be named Vista House in the Art Deco style so popular in that era. The historic highway with its handsome rockwork looped right around the building and continued to Bridal Veil, Wahkeena Falls, and points east.
Vista House is octagonal in shape and stands 55 feet high. Originally built of sandstone with a green tile roof, the marble-floored building features an observation deck, museum, gift shop, interpretive displays, snacks and restrooms. It makes an ideal first stop before continuing eastward to the waterfalls and other natural wonders in the steep-walled gorge that separates Oregon and Washington.
Subject to tremendous wind, rain and ice over the course of over 75 winters, the exposed building came to require major repairs by the late 1990s. It was closed to the public in 2001 while it was extensively rebuilt and brought up to modern safety and accessibility standards. An upgraded Vista House was re-opened in 2006.
On a sunny weekend in the summer, Crown Point will typically be like an anthill of tourists taking photos, looking through the telescopes, and buying Vista House tee shirts and postcards inside the domed building. Between Halloween and Mother’s Day, however, visitation is much thinner, especially mid-week. From November 9 through March, Vista House will only open on weekends from 10:00 to 4:00, weather permitting.
To visit Vista House, drive east from Portland on Interstate 84 and take Exit 22. Wind up the hill and turn left at Corbett on the historic Columbia River Highway. Drive 2.5 miles eastward past the Portland Women’s Viewpoint (also highly recommended for photography) to Crown Point. Free parking is available all around the perimeter of Vista House.