Motorcycling on the Historic Columbia River Highway

This highway following the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon is a destination, not just a road, especially on a motorcycle. Story & photos by Tad L. Hetu.

Sometimes a road is more than just a road, more than an amalgamation of gravel, tar and asphalt over which you spin off countless miles. A few roads that can pull this off come to mind: Route 66, the Alaskan Highway and the Big Sur Coast Highway. And of course, we also have our favorite local roads that carry no national recognition yet trigger that state we seek as a motorcyclist of being one with our machine and the environment.

If you think this is unique to the 21st-century motorcyclist, think again. In 1913, Samuel Lancaster sought to embody this experience in the road he designed. Lancaster, uniquely qualified as both an engineer and landscape architect, is the man responsible for the oldest scenic highway in the U.S., the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH). An artist who worked in horizontal concrete, Lancaster created a work of art that allowed access to the Columbia River Gorge without marring its beauty. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Scenic Landmark, this little-known route is one of the original 13 federally designated All-American Roads. The first U.S. state historic highway to gain distinction as a National Landmark, it has also qualified as a National Scenic Byway, a distinction that requires the road itself to be considered a destination, not just a path to get you somewhere. But enough accolades. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case in the concrete, as two of us set out to rediscover and explore this unique ribbon of pavement on our Honda Valkyrie and BMW K100.

Riding in the Columbia River Gorge is a truly unique experience unmatched anywhere else in the world. The Gorge has been shaped by geological events over millions of years, most recently by floods during the ice age that sent monstrous walls of water scouring the countryside from Montana to the Pacific Ocean. The consequence of that event is evident today, as the river remains nearly at sea level while the basalt cliffs on either side can reach up to 4000 feet as the Gorge cuts a path through the Cascade Mountains.

The Columbia River Gorge, designated a National Scenic Area in '86, begins on the eastern edge of Portland and extends almost 100 miles up the Columbia River, bisecting Oregon and Washington state. Used for thousands of years by Native Americans as a major travel route, this canyon was the expressway of its time. Well after its discovery by Native Americans, Lewis and Clark used it to reach the Pacific Ocean. Later, migrants on the Oregon Trail removed their wheels and put their wagons on barges to float through the Gorge to the promised land of the Willamette Valley. Today Interstate Highway 84 continues to use this millennia-old route to connect the Pacific Northwest with locations east.

As we ride into the Gorge, we elect to skip the interstate and instead head up the old historic road. Almost immediately after completion in '22, the HCRH was obsolete. Too narrow and riddled with countless winding curves, the road was deemed unfit for larger automobiles and trucks, but for a motorcycle it's perfect! With the city and its traffic to our backs and our bikes carving up the path, ascending the walls of the Gorge on this road built more than 80 years ago, we realize why it received the tribute it has. Lancaster held to a European-influenced highway design philosophy that accepted no grades greater than 5 percent nor any curves with less than a 100-foot turning radius. Combining the stunning scenic environment with a perfectly engineered road makes for a fabulous road trip.

As we ride through the cool of the morning, we find ourselves intimately close to many waterfalls and other sites of natural beauty that offer magnificent views. We had slipped on our rain gear early in the morning as a wind break, and it offered extra protection as we found ourselves plowing through damp mist from waterfalls only feet away from the road. As we ride, we marvel at how the paths unique ecology allows you to experience frequent changes in smell, temperature and humidity as you progress east out of the damp Willamette Valley and into the high desert of eastern Oregon and Washington state.

The HCRH invites you to immerse yourself in views and vistas. You can carve the corners, but don't expect to make it much out of third gear. Your speed is kept down by the constantly snaking path and the other folks who chose this route over the superslab for the same reasons you did. From many of the view points you can see the traffic far below on Interstate 84 that, when built in the '50s, bypassed the old road. Today only about 70 miles of the original highway remains intact, and only about 40 miles are actually accessible by motor vehicles.

As you navigate the narrow and curvy path, be prepared to make frequent stops to take in the breathtaking scenery. One such vision is the Multnomah Falls, one of the more spectacular waterfalls along the HCRH. Tumbling 620 feet from its origins high atop the Gorge, Mult-nomah Falls is the second highest year-round waterfall in the U.S. and just one of the many waterfalls we pass on the HCRH.

At the City of Hood River we stop for lunch, where we enjoy grilled salmon burgers, a local specialty. As we eat we consider how traveling often exposes you to different culinary dishes that may be unfamiliar, such as it was for Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery in 1805 as they passed through the Gorge. Having newly arrived in this part of the country, hungry for food and near starvation, the expedition came upon countless dead fish with decaying pink flesh. Concluding that the fish were unfit to eat and that the locals were trying to pawn off rotting meat, they opted for a more traditional source of food: dog.

"I observe in assending great numbers of salmon dead on the shores, floating on the water and in the Bottom... the fish being out of season and dieing in great numbers in the river, we did not think proper to use them... Most of our people having been accustomed to meat, do not relish the fish, but prefer dogmeat, which, when well cooked, tastes very well."
--From the Journals of William Clark, October 17-18, 1805

Unfamiliar with the habits of native salmon, Lewis and Clark were unaware that they were observing the natural life cycle of these indigenous fish as they migrated from the ocean up the river to spawn. Imagine almost starving yet passing up the opportunity to eat your fill of fresh salmon. The Native Americans must have thought these newly arrived travelers crazy indeed.

However, it didn't take too long for the expedition to figure out that these fish were indeed a delicacy.

"One man giged a Salmon trout which we had fried in a little Bear's oil which a Chief gave us yesterday and I think the finest fish I ever tasted."
--From the Journals of William Clark, October 26, 1805

Sadly, the great salmon runs are almost gone, due in part to the many dams built on the Columbia River that block their migration up the river to reproduce. Although devastating for the fish, the dams provide energy and flood control and have eliminated the many dangerous rapids that Lewis and Clark had to deal with, as did the Oregon Trail pioneers who followed 50 years later. We make a stop at one of the larger dams on the Columbia River Highway, Bonneville Dam. After braving the long stretch of metal-grate roadway running along the dam that caused our bikes to swim just like salmon, we enjoy a rest stop to marvel at the dam and explore the visitor center. We meet a band of riders heading east for the 100th-anniversary celebration of a well-known motorcycle company. After exchanging opinions and recommendations on the best view and must-see points along the HCRH, the group mounts up and rides off, allowing us to once again hear the roar of the Columbia River and the turbines of Bonneville Dam.

Now on the other side of the Cascade Mountains and squarely into the arid high desert, we continue to slice up the many snaking turns of the HCRH. A great example of these twisties are the Rowena Loops. A section of the road that weaves in almost complete figure-eight circles at times, its design was intended to minimize the grade change while adhering to the Gorge's natural topology and curvature. All this technical engineering resulted in a magnificent set of curves for motorcycles. Completely unsuitable as a 21st-century "hurry up and get there" speedway, we find the HCRH with its many switchback loops, narrow bridges and frequent overlook turnouts perfect for a ride that leaves your anxieties behind.

Unfortunately, reality necessitates that we leave this historic highway and hop back onto Interstate Highway 84, where we quickly accelerate up to speed and into the 21st century. A short distance up the freeway we cross over the Columbia River at the Highway 97 bridge and enter Washington state.

We then reverse direction, turning west and heading back to Portland, now on the Washington-state side of the Columbia River. Sadly, we encounter increasingly thickening traffic as we near the origin of our trip.

As I pull my bike into the garage at the end of our journey, I am recharged by the experience of riding the HCRH. I think about how this road, laid out in '13 and built over the following nine years, quickly became obsolete for the evolving American automobile but has now emerged as absolutely perfect for a motorcycle experience. I thought about all the changes that occurred since the road was created, and how far we've come since Lewis and Clark first gazed 200 years ago upon the sights we saw today. As I arrived home I was comforted by knowing that I didn't have to chop down trees to build my shelter from scratch, and that I was assured of not having dog for dinner.

** Resources**

All-American Roads and the National Scenic Byways program

The Historic Columbia River Highway

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Exploring the Columbia River Gorge

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