Pacific Northwest Oregon's Columbia River Gorge

Thank you for visiting my family vacations on a budget blog. My family loves to travel! However my husband & I are both teachers making a budget all the more important.  We have one child, our son is 13. I want to show him as much of this great world as I can before he is grown. This summer we visited the Pacific Northwest for our family vacation.  We traveled July 11th-20th throughout this beautiful area of the United States. In this blog post I will tell you about our day spent in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge: where we stayed, things we did, & travel tips to help you as you plan your next vacation. In the coming weeks I will feature a different destination or travel tip from our Pacific Northwest journey. Subscribe to my blog so you don't miss any of my posts from this fantastic family vacation (on a budget). 

Our trip began with a flight into Portland, Oregon (see my post Pacific Northwest Getting There). Three months before our trip I reserved a room in Troutdale, Oregon which is about 20 minutes from the Portland airport.  I was able to save about $75 my first night for lodging because I drove out to Troutdale as opposed to staying at an airport hotel. Even though our plane was delayed over an hour and we were late getting to our hotel (1 AM) I would still recommend staying in Troutdale especially since we were visiting Columbia River Gorge the first day.

Where did we stay?
Those who read my blogs know hotels must be clean first & foremost.  After pouring over reviews of hotels in and around Troutdale, Oregon I selected my hotel.  Just so you know, Troutdale is a tourist destination & we were traveling during the height of tourist season for the Pacific Northwest making it difficult to find affordable accommodations.  I booked the Comfort Inn Columbia Gorge Gateway Hotel in Troutdale, OR 3 months in advance of our trip. When I book hotels I always book from the hotel website & I NEVER choose the advance payment option.  You know the option where you pay now, it is somewhat less expensive but you cannot cancel or change anything about the reservation. I opt for the easy cancellation option because most of the time the rate will go down between the time I book it & my arrival date.  It does take some extra work on my part to check rates periodically but I have saved lots of money following this strategy.  For this particular night I saved $30 because the rate decreased that much from the date I booked it until arrival. 
We found the Comfort Inn Columbia Gorge Gateway Hotel to be clean, comfortable, had a great breakfast, & was just what we needed to start off our trip.  By the way this was our first time staying in a Comfort Inn hotel & it will not be our last! We highly recommend this hotel!
I like the sink is outside the bathroom so while my husband or son are showering in the morning I can get ready without fog on the mirror!

Shower had plenty of water pressure

The room was a bit small but had the usual 2 queen beds, desk & chair, TV on the dresser. I normally do not sleep well the first night of any trip but these beds were so comfortable that I had no problems sleeping. 

Located just off I-84 but we heard no road noise in this quiet hotel.
We stayed in a top floor room away from the elevator.
What did we do while visiting Oregon's Columbia River Gorge? 
If we had more time we could have easily spent 2+ days exploring this beautiful area east of Portland, Oregon. However, we had a limited number of days so we did as much as we could in just 1 day.  We really did not have a full day as we did not leave the hotel until 9:30 AM because our plane arrived so late the night before. Below is how we spent our day in the order in which it happened. At the bottom of this blog post you will find a Google Map with our stops marked you can use as you plan your trip. 

1. Our first destination was - Walmart just a few minutes from the hotel. I know what you are thinking... WHY would you travel thousands of miles to go to a Walmart? The answer is, they sell groceries usually less expensive than other chains. We needed water, Gatorade, snacks, & other necessities for the next 9 days that we did not carry in our luggage. We also picked up a tasty sub sandwich & a Hormel cracker tray for the picnic lunch we planned for that day. TIP TO HELP KEEP YOU ON A BUDGET: I brought 2 insulated lunch bags & Ziploc bags in our luggage to store our picnic food in each day.  I would get ice in the Ziploc bag each day as we left the hotel so our sandwiches & drinks stayed cool until lunch. The Walmart we visited had a special Transformer promotion going on & we were able to get our picture taken with a Transformer. Not sure which Transformer but it was a neat experience!

2. After we picked up all of our supplies we were ready to begin our journey along the Columbia River Gorge. We exited I-84 onto Old Highway 30 & our first stop was the Portland Women's Forum State Scenic Viewpoint. This is a relatively short stop, we spent a few minutes taking pictures & taking in the scenery & we were back on the road. I highly recommend taking Old Highway 30 to see the beautiful waterfalls & views such as this. It is slower than I-84 but worth your time. My only regret was part of Old Highway 30 was closed due to a forest fire so we had to turn around just past Multnomah Falls. 
Portland Women's Forum State Scenic Viewpoint is not to be missed.
The Vista House can be seen on the right side of the picture. 
3 Vista House. A short drive from Portland Women's Forum State Scenic Viewpoint on Old Highway 30 you will find the Vista House. The Vista House is open from 9 AM - 6 PM & is FREE. It offers a small museum with Oregon & the Columbia River history but the best thing you will find at the Vista House is the view.
View from the Vista House
4.   Bridal Veil Falls. Continuing on Old State Highway 30 our next stop was Bridal Veil Falls. We hiked a short distance to the falls & back, about 1/2 mile.  The trail was easy without much elevation gain. The falls were beautiful.  We noticed several people turned around when they got to the footbridge going across the creek.  They missed the falls altogether! Make sure when you get to the footbridge you cross it & take the trail to the right to a platform that will give you spectacular views of the falls. 
Bridal Veil Falls

5. Multnomah Falls. The tallest waterfall in all of Oregon, 2 million people visit each year. This must be some sight to see! I read the reviews, they said "get there early" to avoid the crowds.  That wasn't possible for us so we did not avoid the crowds, all 2 million of them it seemed.  I have been to Disney World five times & have not once waited in a line as long as it took for us to get into the parking lot for Multnomah Falls.  Think bumper to bumper traffic.

Traffic near Multnomah Falls was terrible.
It was a Wednesday in July around 12 noon I cannot even imagine how crowded this place must be on a weekend! We were hoping to hit parking space lottery & be able to get a spot as someone leaving the falls vacated their spot but no such luck.  To make matters worse Old Highway 30 was closed (due to a forest fire) just past the Multnomah Falls visitor center so traffic was being turned around causing even more congestion. So as we looped around the parking lot & headed away from the falls the picture below is as close as I came to seeing the actual falls.  I really wanted to hike up to the bridge or maybe even go beyond the bridge to the top of the falls, but not this trip. So this picture is all I have...
Multnomah Falls from my car as we turned around due to NO parking.

Bradford Island Visitor Center After we left the traffic jam of Old Highway 30 near Multnomah Falls we headed east on I-84 to Bonneville Lock & Dam near Cascades, Oregon. Follow the signs off I-84. Once you arrive you will have to go through a security checkpoint so do not be alarmed when they ask to see what you have in your trunk. Once through the checkpoint you will cross the Columbia River onto Bradford Island. The time was almost 2 PM when we arrived & lunch was in order. As luck would have it we found a picnic table overlooking the dam to have our lunch we purchased at Walmart that morning. The day was perfect for a picnic, sunshine & 75 degrees! Here is our view for lunch that day:

View of the fish ladder from bottom floor of
Bradford Island Visitor Center
After lunch we headed into the visitor center where we explored 4 floors of facts about the Columbia River. We discovered a dam tour was taking place in 30 minutes. We had never been on a dam tour so we thought, why not! While we waited for our dam tour, we explored the 2nd & 3rd floors of the museum, went to the 4th floor for some spectacular views of the dam & spillway, & went to the bottom floor of the visitor center to see the fish ladder. We had never seen one of those before either! All of the fish are diverted into this ladder so they can be counted.  Yes, a person counts fish as they swim past these big glass windows on the bottom floor of the visitor center. It was a neat experience to see different varieties of fish swimming past us. 
Fish ladder outside the Bradford Island Visitor Center
When it was time for the dam tour we headed back to the main floor (3rd floor) to meet our dam tour guide, Susan. 

Our dam tour took about 30-45 minutes starting with a brief history of the dam presentation in the visitor center.  From there we headed outside where Susan explained the workings of the fish ladder & answered questions.  From there we walked a short distance, maybe one city block, to the dam. Once inside we were permitted to walk around a platform overlooking the inner workings of the dam.  Our dam tour guide Susan answered questions & the tour was over.  I must say we were a bit disappointed we did not get to see the dam up close. Our dam tour guide Susan did tell us that if we went to the Washington State side of the dam we could get a closer view of the dam. Here is what we saw from the platform:
Inside Bonneville Dam
We spent more time than we thought we would at this destination but it was just so interesting & filled with things we had never seen! I guess you are probably wondering, so how much does this cost? The answer is nothing, not one red cent, absolutely positively FREE! How is that for a budget friendly activity? 

7. Bonneville Fish Hatchery. Just before the security checkpoint for Bradford Island you can take the road to your left to the Bonneville Fish Hatchery.  We chose to visit the fist hatchery after the dam but you could opt to do it in the opposite order just as easily.  This is a chinook and coho salmon hatchery.
Bonneville Fish Hatchery
The grounds are beautifully maintained with picnic tables & benches throughout. Make sure to get a brochure from the gift shop so you will have information as you tour the area.  We were not able to spend much time here because it was almost 5 PM & we had other stops to make before sunset. We did get to see Herman the 500 pound sturgeon.
Herman the 500 pound sturgeon
 We brought some quarters & fed the fish in 2 different ponds.  We spent less than an hour at this destination but you could easily spend a couple of hours or longer depending on your interest level.  You do not want to miss this location.  Oh yeah, did I forget to mention the cost? Nothing, nada, absolutely positively FREE!  
The only expense you will have at the Bonneville Fish Hatchery is 25 cents to feed the fish, but only if you want to...
8. Bridge of the Gods Cascade Locks, Oregon. This beautiful bridge spans the Columbia River between Oregon & Washington. The steel bridge is a sight to see not to mention the gorgeous landscape around it.  The first time I heard of the Bridge of the Gods was at the end of the movie "Wild". As I watched the movie two years before my trip I told my husband I must see it in real life. I was not disappointed!

There is a $2 each way charge to cross the bridge but the views are worth it!
Bridge of the Gods

View from Bridge of the Gods
9. Hood River Fruit Loop. Runs south of Hood River, Oregon for a 35 mile loop. We planned to drive the Fruit Loop, & visit the Apple Valley Country Store. Where you can pick your own fruit (cherries $5 per pound etc.). HOWEVER, the hours were 8 AM - 5 PM & we missed it by 30 minutes. Guess we will have to come back again since we did not experience it this year. 

10. Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles We PLANNED to visit the Discovery Center but we could not arrive prior to closing at 5 PM. If you are in the area it gets great reviews. Remember the hours of operation are 9 AM - 5 PM. The cost is $9 for adults & $5 for ages 6-16. The Center has excellent exhibits on the Columbia Gorge. Here is what some of the reviews said about Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. "They present information on the history of the area, the indigenous people and the settlers. All are beautifully done and with understandable narrative. In addition, there is a wonderful raptor show introducing the visitor to several native raptors of the Gorge. The building itself is magnificent, with the "waterfall" entrance and the expansive lobby and its "outline" in stone of the Columbia River on its floor, one feels a real part of the Gorge. This is a must see!"

Cousin's Restaurant serves down home foods at an affordable price.  The restaurant is decorated country style & even has a John Deere tractor in the middle of the dining room.  You drink from mason jars & the food will make you think your mama is cooking up dinner. We enjoyed our meal.  Our server was friendly and attentive. The atmosphere was appealing. We would highly recommend eating at Cousin's Restaurant The Dalles, Oregon.
Cousins Restaurant The Dalles, OR located just off I-84. Great restaurant with down-home style meals. Yummy!

Inside Cousin's Restaurant The Dalles, Oregon

My husband had the chicken fried steak & thought it was tasty.

My son had a burger & fries cooked to perfection.

I had the chicken pot pie that was the BEST chicken pot pie I have ever eaten! 

12. Stonehenge Memorial Maryhill, Washington. After dinner we stopped by this memorial on our way to our hotel. This replica of Stonehenge was the first World War I memorial in the United States.  It was built in 1918 in memory of soldiers who died in the war from Klickitat County. It sits high above the Columbia River offering some spectacular views. We were there a couple of hours before sunset but I bet the views are spectacular as the sunsets to the west. The memorial is a short drive off Highway 14 near Maryhill, WA.  It is open 7 AM to dusk & admission is FREE! If you are in the area you will want to check it out - unlike anything I have ever seen!
Stonehenge Memorial near Maryhill, Washington. World War I memorial.
View of Columbia River from inside Stonehenge Memorial
Columbia River as seen from Stonehenge Memorial near Maryhill, Washington

As we left Stonehenge Memorial we were an hour and a half from our hotel. Our day was filled with many things we had never seen before & landscape that was nothing short of awe inspiring. 
Here is a map of the places we visited during our journey through the Columbia River Gorge.  You could easily spend 2-3 days just visiting the sites we saw. Wherever your travels take you, may God bless you each step of the way.