When did you last drive Highway 14 on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge? For me, it had been too long, I decided Thursday when I needed to drive from Columbia Hills State Park to the Willamette Valley wine country, two destinations for upcoming travel stories.
I’ve always been in a hurry in recent years when on my way through the Gorge, so I took the freeway. (And you can’t complain about scenery, even zipping along Interstate 84 on the Oregon side of the river.)
But two-lane Highway 14 is a road worth seeking out, for a bunch of reasons:
- Narrow tunnels! Low clearance! The highway transits a half-dozen low and narrow tunnels, which are fun to drive through. (Honk your horn for the echo.)
- Fewer trucks to get stuck behind. (See “Narrow tunnels! Low clearance!”) Signs warn big westbound trucks to cross over at The Dalles because one tunnel has less than 13 feet clearance (a couple feet lower than allowed on freeways).
- Views of Mount Hood, which you can’t see from the Oregon side because it’s up high and behind you.
- Charming little towns, such as Wishram (the only place I’ve seen where an official highway sign points off the road to “Historic locomotive”), Lyle, Bingen and Stevenson, home to the Little Viking Drive-in.
- Pretty little lakes, formed where the road or rails cut off nooks of the river. Forgive the name of one, Drano Lake. It’s a lot prettier than it sounds.
- Many Lewis and Clark historical markers, where it’s easy to pull off to read them.
- Pretty river mouths, including the Klickitat, White Salmon and Little White Salmon, and multiple fish hatcheries, adding to the feeling of fecundity at this green and growing time of year.
- Popular launch sites for windsurfers, and a front row view on days when they’re out.
- Sections that wander briefly from the river into woods of maples draped in chartreuse flower clusters, fir, and white-blooming wild cherry. One small wall of fluted basalt, with its identical line after line of vertical shafts, suggested the shape of a pipe organ waiting for a player. (A talented raccoon? A Phantom of the Opera chipmunk, perhaps?)
At the end of my exploration, I crossed over to Oregon at the town of Cascade Locks, to the faster freeway, via the Bridge of the Gods (how could you pass it up?). The high, rather terrifyingly narrow bridge has a metal-grid roadbed through which you can see down to the river — disturbingly so. The speed limit is 15 mph, presumably because it is too rickety for faster speeds (or perhaps the Gods just don’t like rushing about). My take on it: The Gods were looking out for me; I got across before it collapsed.