Portland, Oregon and Denver should be sister cities. Both towns have a love of beer, bikes, and bookstores, with a strong appreciation of trendy food trucks. While Portland makes a great urban break for Denverites looking for something different, the pleasures of Portland are best enjoyed at night – only because there are so many better things to do in the day.
Within an hour or so drive of downtown Portland, there are true unique experiences very different than Colorado. You can walk along a stunning beach past tidal pools and giant rock formations; visit a reconstruction of a fort where Lewis & Clark spent a winter; hike to a dozen waterfalls; take in sweeping panoramas of the Columbia River Gorge; drive through rich farmlands bursting with pears, peaches, apples and berries; and hike on the ridge of snowcapped Mount Hood.
Daytripping on the Coast
You could spend a month touring the spectacular Oregon coast, but if you just want a taste, head west from Portland 1.5 hours on Hwy. 26 to Canon Beach, the most attractive and upscale town in the area. The village is filled with overflowing flower baskets, nice shops on brick courtyards, weathered shingle cottages and a main street of outdoor cafes. Flowers and seagulls are everywhere.
Dominating the beach is Haystack Rock, a black mountain of a boulder just offshore that juts up 235 feet into the air. At low tide, you can walk to the base to see a rare colony of Tufted Puffins and wander around tidepools filled with crabs, colorful sea stars, snails and coral. Docents explain the creatures above and below the surface.
Nearby, Ecola State Park has a twisting road through an old growth rainforest of ferns and moss to one of the most famous coastal views in Oregon -- a wild scene of pounding surf and coastal rocks, many forming small islands that are now home to barking sea lions.
Explorer William Clark and his Indian guide Sacagawea hiked here in January 1806 to investigate reports of a beached whale. Clark was wintering with fellow traveler Meriwether Lewis at a log fort, several miles away.
Today, the National Park Service has erected a replica of Fort Clatsop. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark and 31 explorers to follow rivers across the great American West to the Pacific Ocean. It took them a year and a half and they traveled 4,000 miles before they finally reached their goal. The explorers built Fort Clatsop as a winter retreat, but of the 112 days they spent here, it rained all but 12. The dampness rotted their clothes and made life miserable for the flea-infested men. Lewis and Clark skipped Colorado. Had they known about our 300 days of sunshine, they probably would have made a detour on the way back.
Into the Gorge and Around Mount Hood
Another big day trip from Portland is traveling the other direction, east to the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway, a 150-mile loop that takes you up the Columbia River Gorge and to the base of towering 11,239-foot, snowcapped Mount Hood.
For the best light on the waterfalls, do the loop clockwise, heading east on I-84 to the pretty village of Troutdale (Exit 17), where you pick up what’s left of the Historic Columbia River Highway.
When it opened in 1916, this highway was the first paved road in the Northwest. The engineering marvel had 18 bridges spanning rivers and canyons, and was built as a scenic tour for Model T’s to allow access to the incredible, and previously inaccessible, natural beauty.
Much of this 1916 road was destroyed or abandoned in the 1940s when Interstate 84 was built, but there is still a 22-mile section open. It’s an amazing drive, coming so close to some waterfalls that their spray will land on your windshield. There are pull-offs, vistas and plenty of short hikes. One of the first “must” stops is Vista House at Crown Point. Opened in 1917 as a “comfort station,” the house sits at an elevation of 733 feet and offers grand views of the road and gorge.
From here, the highway spirals down to the river and begins a stretch lined with seven huge waterfalls. First up is Latourell Falls, definitely worth the short hike. The showpiece, and the most visited natural attraction in Oregon, is Multnomah Falls. There are two falls here, the big one drops 542-feet into a pool crossed by a foot-bridge, with a second drop of 69-feet under it. If you combine them, the 620-foot drop makes this the third highest year-round falls in the country. The easy access means it’s incredibly crowded, certainly by Colorado standards, but hike up (straight up) and you lose most of the people.
Back on I-84, it’s 33 miles to Hood River, a pretty town and lunch stop with cafes, brewpubs and antique stores. From here, the loop heads south on Hwy. 35. Make a detour in a few miles to Panorama Point, a small hill that looks across farm country to towering Mount Hood. This fertile Hood River Valley produces 225,000 annual tons of cherries, pears and apples -- prized fruit that is shipped around the world. There are 30 farms, wineries and specialty stores selling their products in the valley on a route that is amusingly called, “The Fruit Loop.”
Continuing on, the road twists, climbs and circles 44 miles into the Mount Hood massive, gaining elevation through deep, Colorado-like, green forests of pine. Take a turn west at Government Camp and continue climbing to 6,000 feet and the Timberline Lodge. Opened in 1937, this wood and stone hotel was used as the location for the movie The Shining, even though the book took place in Colorado and was based on The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. The actual hotel is a far cry from the creepy one in the movie. Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Fraser, Colorado is based on the design with a 360 degree lobby fireplace. Trails lined with wildflowers lead to glaciers at the base of Mount Hood, where the late afternoon turns the snow shades of orange and pink.
But as the sun starts to set, remember, it’s 63 miles back to the pleasures of Portland…and all those waiting food trucks and brewpubs.