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Thursday, April 12, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gorge-ous: Side trip takes center stage along the Columbia

Special to The Seattle Times

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The next time you're driving from Puget Sound to Portland, consider a detour through the gorgeous Columbia River Gorge.

Awaiting you are vistas on both the Washington and Oregon shores of the Columbia, close encounters with waterfalls taller than the Space Needle, Native American legends, a Lewis-and-Clark history lesson and a gourmet lunch.

It's an 80-mile circle drive from Vancouver, Wash. (on the state border) or Portland as far as Skamania Lodge in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge. With extra time, you could go another 20 miles and add Hood River, Ore., to your itinerary to watch windsurfers catch the Columbia's frisky breezes.

The main routes are:

• Highway 14, on the Washington side of the Columbia River, a sometimes narrow, twisting road with dramatic gorge views.

• Interstate 84, on the Oregon side, a freeway that leads to 620-foot Multnomah Falls, one of Oregon's top visitor attractions.

Keep in mind that there are two ways to cross the Columbia River in the gorge:

• The Bridge of the Gods, a toll bridge (75 cents), just east of Bonneville Dam, that connects Washington's Skamania County with the Oregon town of Cascade Locks.

• Another toll bridge (also 75 cents) connects the Bingen and White Salmon areas of Washington with Hood River.

To get your bearings, drive Interstate 5 south from the Seattle area for about 175 miles, then just before reaching Vancouver, turn onto Interstate 205, a bypass route around downtown Portland.

When you reach the junction of I-205 and Washington Highway 14, set your trip odometer to 0 and turn east onto Highway 14. The junction is at Exit 27 from I-205, marked "East, Camas." Using that mile 0 for starters, your log might look like this:

Mile 6: Camas, a Clark County pulp-mill town.

Mile 12.5: Begin a gradual climb on a curvy grade. A sign on the right announces the entrance to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Other signs note that Lewis and Clark trekked this way almost 200 years ago.

Mile 15: Leave Clark County. Enter Washington's Skamania County.

Mile 19.2: Cape Horn, a high-elevation viewpoint with camera-perfect scenes of the Columbia Gorge. Suggestion: Be there at sunrise in fair weather. Morning mist drifts like a curtain over the river as the sun peeks over mountains across in Oregon. Caution: Parking atop Cape Horn is limited and uncomfortably close to the highway.

Mile 25.7: Franz Lake Viewpoint, on the right. There is a viewing platform for sighting tundra swans and other migratory birds.

Mile 17: Skamania, a country town. There is an old-fashioned general store on the left side of the highway. It's time for a coffee break.

Mile 28.5: Beacon Rock State Park. Beacon Rock, straight ahead - 848 feet high - is the core of an ancient volcano. It towers like a dark spire over a bend of the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark logged the basalt landmark in their notes.

Rock climbers also are welcome - when peregrine falcons aren't nesting on the rock. When is that? Ask at the park office, on the left side of Highway 14. Staffers there also have information about camp sites and other hiking trails.

Mile 34.2: Bonneville Dam. There are powerhouses on both sides of the river. The visitors center in the Washington powerhouse features a gallery where travelers can view the dam's giant turbines. Children are encouraged to play with interpretive exhibits that demonstrate how electricity is generated.

Families also gather in a theater-like room to watch salmon and steelhead toiling up the dam's fish ladders on the way to spawning grounds. September is the peak month for viewing chinooks and cohos. April, May and August also are productive times.

Mile 36.7: Bridge of the Gods. A Native American legend says there used to be a natural-rock bridge on the site - until the area was rocked by a brotherly brouhaha over a beautiful woman. Two brothers fought over the maiden until the Earth trembled. Finally, their father turned his sons to stone. One became Oregon's Mount Hood. The other became Washington's Mount Adams. It's a reminder of how the gorge was created millions of years ago by fiery volcanoes and rampaging floods.

Mile 38.6: Turn left off Highway 14 at signs for Skamania Lodge and the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center. The $10.5 million interpretive center, operated by the Skamania County Historical Society, tells the story of the Columbia before hydroelectric dams plugged the great river. Exhibits recall how Native Americans harvested salmon with long-handled dip nets from sites such as Celilo Falls, drowned later by the dams. Also learn how fleets of regal paddlewheelers carried passengers and freight along the Columbia.

Stop for lunch at Skamania Lodge. The popular resort, opened in 1993, is now part of the Dolce conference-center chain. The lodge soon will add 60 rooms, for a total of 255. Rest awhile in the Gorge Room, a lounge just off the main lobby, with tall windows overlooking the Columbia. There is a handsome stone fireplace that thrusts through the Gorge Room ceiling to add fireplaces for some of the guest rooms. Try the smoked salmon chowder.

What next? Your choice.

Option No. 1: Continue east on Highway 14, through nearby Stevenson, the Skamania County seat, and a few miles later cross the Columbia to Oregon and Hood River. Ride the 95-year-old Mount Hood Railroad to Parkdale for a smashing view of Oregon's Mount Hood. If it's harvest time, drive through the orchards of Hood River's "Fruit Loop" route to sample apples, pears, wines and other produce.

Option No. 2: From Skamania Lodge, return to the Bridge of the Gods and cross to Cascade Locks, Ore. At Marine Park in Cascade Locks, board the Columbia Gorge, an old-fashioned sternwheeler, for two-hour river excursions. Mid-June to late September is the season for the paddleboat cruises.

From Cascade Locks, drive west on Interstate 84 toward Multnomah Falls. Take Exit 31 from I-84 to reach the Multnomah Falls parking lot. If you skipped lunch at Skamania Lodge, there is a cozy dining room upstairs in the Multnomah Falls Lodge. Ask for a table with a view of the falls.

After Multnomah Falls, continue west on I-84 to the junction of Interstate 84 and Interstate 205. Get in the center lane to turn onto I-205 for Vancouver and Seattle. Follow other signs at the junction for downtown Portland.

IF YOU GO

Dolce Skamania Lodge: Summer rates range from $179 to $385, double occupancy. Midweek packages that include some meals are available. Resort facilities include an 18-hole golf course. For information, call 800-221-7117.

Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center: Open daily from 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Tickets: adults, $6; seniors and students, $5; children (6-12), $4. Phone: 800-991-2338.

Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge: Two-hour excursions from Cascade Locks, Ore., are scheduled from June 19 to Sept. 30. Fares are $14.95 for adults, $8.95 for children (ages 4-11). Brunch and dinner cruises also are offered. Phone: 503-223-3928.

Mount Hood Railroad: Excursion trains from Hood River operate now through late October. Dinner and brunch trains also are available. Fares for four-hour excursions are $22.95 for adults, $20.95 for seniors, $14.95 for children (ages 2-12). Phone: 800-872-4661.

Additional information: Portland Oregon Visitors Association. Phone: 877-678-5263.

Stanton H. Patty, a Vancouver, Wash.-based free-lance writer, is former assistant travel editor of The Seattle Times.

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