Riding the Historic Columbia River Highway

The Columbia River Highway, known locally as The Historic Highway, is the nation’s oldest scenic highway. Built in the 1920s, it remains a marvel of civil engineering as it navigates the rugged terrain with sweeping turns leading to breathtaking views. Theoretically, it never exceeds the state-mandated 6% incline. That may be true in a 1930s touring automobile, but we know that number can feel double or more when cycling up a switchback.

Most of the climbing is relatively gradual, and much of it is shaded. The introduction of I-84 dismantled some of the old Highway, leaving it in three sections. The state is almost complete in linking these segments together for cyclists and walkers. The longest section starts in Troutdale, runs up to Crown Point, down past a series of waterfalls, and is interrupted just before Cascade Locks. This is the part we call The Historic Highway.

Vista House – Portland Century 2018

You can start in Troutdale or Gresham, depending on which bridge you choose to cross the Sandy River. Both are popular swimming holes, so expect summer activity. Sadly, the landmark Tippiecanoe recently burned down, but there are plans to rebuild. Leaving the canopied riverside, you’ll notice the first climb. But then it mellows, and you have some rollers up through the hamlet of Corbet. Make sure to stop at the market as it is the one and only. Plus, it’s more like a general store, and those are always fun to visit. At a slow yet steady pace you should reach the top in about 90 minutes. The view from the top is worth every pedal stroke. The Women’s Forum overlooks Crown Point and its Vista House. This is the crown jewel of the Highway, and its celebration of the Columbia River Gorge.

The road was built 18” wide, and parts of it are blasted out of the cliffs. It can feel pretty narrow between the cliffs and the original stone railing with today’s wider vehicles, still in place 100 years later. After Vista House, you descend straight from top to bottom. This extended series of switchbacks might boast more turns than any road in the country. And they continue as you enter into the verdant land of the waterfalls. There are 5 significant waterfalls, dozens lesser, and they culminate in the jaw-dropping Multnomah Falls, the second-highest in the US. The road continues east, parallel to the Highway. 

Rewards for climbing

And now you can ride the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail! Plus, the Oneonta Tunnel is back open too.

Most people meet up at Multnomah Falls, or the next exit, load their bikes, and get a ride back to town. Either way, the Historic Highway is a truly epic ride. It is one of the prettiest roads in the country, and the climbing helps you to appreciate the breathtaking views all the more.

3 thoughts on “Riding the Historic Columbia River Highway”

  1. When I get my strength back after two knee replacements I look forward to doing this again. I’m not a huge fan of the narrow roads past the Women’s Forum so I would turn around there and meet my wife and friends for breakfast or lunch at Tippecanoe. That was a huge loss. I hope the reconstruction plans come to fruition. Now, we’ll meet at McMenamins in Troutdale.

  2. One thing to consider in regards to the comment above would be the Gorge Shuttle that when running again can take you from several points including Multnomah falls, Cascade Locks and Hood river back to the Gateway Transit center. It makes much better and longer rides very doable in the Gorge.

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