The Columbia River Gorge is a scenic gorge located in northwestern Oregon and southwestern Washington where the Columbia River cuts through the Cascade Range. The gorge contains many significant natural, cultural, and historical features that make it one of the most important areas in the Pacific Northwest.
Geologically, the Columbia River Gorge is quite significant as it provides an opening through the Cascade Range allowing the Columbia River to flow to the Pacific Ocean. The volcanic forces that created the Cascade Mountains over time also contributed to the carving out of the gorge by the combined actions of erosion from the river and several glacial periods. The Columbia River Gorge was designated as a National Scenic Area (NSA) in 1986 for the purpose of protecting and enhancing its scenic, natural, cultural, and recreational resources while allowing for appropriate economic growth. The gorge cuts approximately 80 miles through basalt cliffs and features numerous waterfalls, forests, and diverse wildlife habitat. It contains the largest undisturbed temperate rainforest north of Northern California and provides critical habitat for many rare plant and animal species, some which exist nowhere else in the world.
Culturally and historically, the Columbia River Gorge has played an important role as a transportation corridor and gathering place for Native American peoples for over 10,000 years. Several tribes such as the Klickitat, Wasco, Wishram, and Chinook lived seasonally in villages along the river and inhabited the surrounding areas to practice subsistence fishing and hunting. They continue to consider the Gorge as integral to their heritage and places of commemoration. After the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through in 1805-1806, American settlers began entering the region in increasing numbers during the mid-19th century. Development of road and rail transportation through the Gorge further solidified its significance as a vital transportation route for travel, trade, and shipping. Several historic structures and sites remain that reflect the early pioneer era.
In more recent times, the scenic beauty and natural grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge has become nationally renowned as a recreational destination for hiking, biking, boating, fishing and has played a key role in local and regional tourism economies. It attracts over 9 million visitors annually who are drawn to marvel at spectacular views, waterfalls, and experience the dynamic landscape. Many world-class sites are contained within the Gorge such as Multnomah Falls, Crown Point, Bonneville Dam and numerous state parks. It has inspired artists, poets and provided the backdrop for numerous books, film, and other media over the decades. The unique beauty and accessibility also led Congress to establish the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, the first National Scenic Area in the United States, in order to protect its scenic, natural, cultural, and recreational values while allowing compatible economic development. This recognizes the Gorge as having national significance worthy of special protection.
As the gateway where the Columbia River exits the Cascade Mountains, the Columbia River Gorge carries immense hydrological importance as one of the greatest water resources in the Pacific Northwest. The river provides irrigation, hydroelectric power, transportation, and multitudes of recreational opportunities in the region from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. Dams along the Gorge such as Bonneville and The Dalles Dams help regulate flows, generate clean energy, and support large populations including the metropolitan areas of Portland and Vancouver. The entire region depends on water from the river for its health, prosperity and way of life.
The Columbia River Gorge holds tremendous natural beauty, ecological value, cultural and historical richness, and economic importance to the Northwest. It has served both Native American peoples and modern society as a vital transportation corridor and resource since time immemorial. The Gorge provides breathtaking beauty, crucial wildlife habitat, and inspiration for millions of visitors each year. It was fittingly recognized by Congress as having national significance, and its protection ensures these inspirational qualities will remain for many generations to come. The Gorge represents some of the most superlative scenic areas in the United States and the world, deserving of its status as an internationally renowned natural treasure.