Enjoy waterfalls? Try Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in Oregon

See my post Central Oregon-Eugene and Bend for information on those parts of Oregon.

Another scenic area to visit in Oregon is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area encompasses 292,500 acres, running from the mouth of the Sandy River to the mouth of the Deschutes River and spanning southern Washington and northern Oregon. The Gorge is unique in its natural and cultural history, as well as its designation as a National Scenic Area.

The National Scenic Area is home to the Historic Columbia River Highway, dubbed America’s first scenic highway by many. The original Columbia River Highway’s official dedication took place on June 7, 1916.  It was designed to bring travelers to the most breathtaking sights and scenes in the Gorge. Its iconic and innovative design included rock walls, bridges and structures such as Vista House and Multnomah Falls Lodge.

When the Scenic Area was created in 1986, the idea was to help reconnect the pieces of this unique highway to create the new “Historic Columbia River Highway.” You can explore the modern highway today with a combination of driving, biking, and walkways. Several of the most iconic spots, such as Multnomah Falls and Eagle Creek, were developed in conjunction with the highway’s construction, to bring motorists to the Gorge’s most beautiful areas.

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Today, this scenic drive remains one of the best in the nation. However, popularity comes at a price.  Stop-and-go traffic is common along the waterfall corridor most weekends from spring until fall.  To make the most of your visit and time, go on a weekday or early in the morning to minimize crowds and congestion.  From Vista House to the Portland International Airport is only a 30 minute drive without heavy traffic, so it’s easy to make this area a stopover to or from the airport even if you aren’t staying in the Portland area.  I would like to go back another time to explore the Portland area and west of there, including Cannon Beach.  Any other suggestions?

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Central Oregon-Eugene and Bend

Portland, Oregon had almost 9 million overnight visitors in 2015 according to travelportland.com.  On the other hand, in central Oregon, Bend had roughly 2-2.5 million visitors that same year.  While I couldn’t find an estimate for annual visitors to Eugene, I would guess it’s even lower than for Bend.  When I was planning a trip to Oregon, I chose the less-traveled areas of Eugene and Bend for the majority of our time in the state.  Although we would be flying into Portland, I left zero time there for exploring that area, and we picked up our rental car and drove promptly to Eugene.  I was going to run my 36th half marathon (leaving only 14 more to go for all 50 states) in Eugene so we were going to spend a few days in Eugene then drive to Bend to spend a week there.  Nothing against Portland but there’s only so much you can see in 10 days.

Eugene, Oregon is famous for being the birthplace of Nike and is nicknamed “Track Town, USA.”  They were the hosts for the Olympic Track and Field Trials for 2016 and many other years.  If you’re a runner, chances are pretty good you’ve heard of Steve Prefontaine.  While in the peak of his running career, he was killed at the young age of 24 in a car accident.  “Pre,” as he was called, helped spark the city’s running boom in the 1970’s.  Ask just about any Eugene resident about Steve Prefontaine, and they’ll tell you an earful.  Running is in these people’s blood.  I was seriously nervous about running a half marathon here (I might be dead-last running against all of these die-hard runners) but I somehow managed to win third place in my age group.

If you’re a runner, a must-do in Eugene is to run on Pre’s Trail, a nice loop on chipped wood in Alton Baker Park.  You can run past many water formations including a pond, creeks, and river as well as the famous University of Oregon stadium.  There are also many wineries in Eugene with not only tasty wine but also great people working there as well.  Everyone we spoke with at the wineries were all very friendly, down-to-earth, and not at all snobby like you find at wineries in other parts of the country.  Cascades Raptor Center is also a fun place to visit, even in the rain (Eugene experiences an average rainfall of 46 inches per year).  The Raptor Center is a working rehabilitation center and the birds on display could not be returned to the wild. Birds with the right disposition are used for educational exhibits.

When our time was up in Eugene, we drove to Bend and saw the landscape change from lush and green to dry, high desert.  The contrast was stark.  While Eugene is often rainy and overcast, Bend has an average of 158 clear days and 105 more that are mostly sunny, making it the city with the highest average sunny days in the state.  Bend has many places to hike and bike in warmer months and ski in the winter.  The largest beer trail in the West is also here, the Bend Ale Trail.  This is my kind of place!

For something other than the aforementioned activities in Bend, check out the High Desert Museum.  It’s like a zoo, history museum, and science exhibits all rolled into one place.  I always like checking out local history when I’m traveling and this was a good place for history of the Pacific Northwest.  There are temporary as well as permanent exhibits, some indoor and some outdoor.  Some favorites include the Miller Family Ranch, Autzen Otter Exhibit, Desertarium, and the Birds of Prey Center.

For some hiking, it’s hard to beat Smith Rock State Park and Tumalo Falls.  Smith Rock State Park is near Terrebonne and Redmond, Oregon and is a popular climbing spot.  One of the best trails here is Misery Ridge which takes you over Smith Rock, with a view of Monkey Face and views of the canyon and Crooked River.  To reach the viewpoint for Tumalo Falls you can walk 5 minutes from the parking lot and then there are multiple trails from here if you so desire.  The Tumalo Mountain trail is classified as moderate/difficult and is 1.75 miles one way.  It is a steep climb from 6400 feet to 7775 feet with a beautiful view at the top.  The trail starts at the Dutchman Sno-park on the Cascade Lakes Highway.

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Smith Rock State Park
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View from the top of Misery Ridge
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Tumalo Falls

It’s  easy to spend a week in Bend, but 2-3 days in Eugene is plenty.  It seems that so many people overlook these areas when planning a vacation in Oregon and just go straight to the ever-popular Portland.  They would be missing out on some unique scenery and fun things to do for the whole family in by-passing these areas.

 

 

Camping in Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville, North Carolina is perhaps best known for Biltmore Estate, the mansion built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895.  It is currently the largest privately owned house in the United States.  In 1956, portions of the house were opened to the public for tours and since then more rooms have been restored and opened for viewing.  I have toured the Biltmore several times, during different seasons of the year.  However, on my most recent visit to Asheville, the Biltmore Estate was nowhere on my agenda.  If anything, we would be doing the exact opposite of touring a huge mansion.  We would be camping in a tent and hiking for the weekend.

Where to camp?

Set in the western end of North Carolina very close to South Carolina, Asheville lies between Pigsah National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Dupont State Forest is a short drive away.  Hiking, biking, camping, and rock climbing are all extremely popular in this area.  We chose to camp at Lake Powhatan Recreation Area Campground based on a recommendation from someone who lives in Asheville.  Lake Powhatan is deep in the Appalachian Mountains with an elevation of 2,200 feet.  The campground has tent as well as RV sites, a bathhouse, and a lake that is suitable for swimming (in the roped-off section) or fishing.  That being said, my daughter and her friend swam in the lake for a while but pretty quickly were done, saying the water was “gross.”  I did not get in the water but it didn’t look very clean.  That didn’t stop several other people who were in the water while we were there.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a short drive from Lake Powhatan Campground, as is an arboretum, the Biltmore Estate, countless trails for hiking or biking, the French Broad River, and if you forget something there are several stores within a short drive.  We arrived late on a Friday and immediately set up our tent and got settled for the night.  The next day we drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway and found Mt. Pigsah Trail and a few other shorter trails nearby.

Hiking Trails

Mt. Pigsah Trail is at milepost 407.6 from the Blue Ridge Parkway and is in Pigsah National Forest.  At the parking lot for the trail, the elevation is just under 5,000 feet.  You’ll reach the summit at 5,721 feet after a 1.5 mile hike and be rewarded with panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains to the west and Asheville and Mount Mitchell to the north.  Other trails off the Blue Ridge Parkway include Skinny Dip Falls, Graveyard Fields, and Devil’s Courthouse. After hiking a few trails, we went back to our campsite and went to the lake for a while, then relaxed by a crackling fire until it was time to turn in for the night.

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Waterfalls

The next day, we decided to check out some of the waterfalls in the Brevard, NC area.  For our first stop, we drove to Looking Glass Falls on the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway in Pigsah National Forest.  There is easy access to this waterfall with only a short walk from the parking area, then stairs to get a closer look.  You can even get in the water and swim up to the waterfall to feel the power of the water pounding on your shoulders.  The water was quite cold in June but maybe it warms up later in the summer.  The waterfall is 60 feet tall and is beautiful.

Just a short drive from Looking Glass Falls is Sliding Rock.  There is a nominal fee to enter this area, but it was the only fee other than at the campground that we had to pay the entire weekend.  Sliding Rock is actually a waterfall along a large rock that is relatively smooth so you can slide 60 feet down the rock into the 6 foot deep plunge pool at the bottom.  The water was quite bracing when we were there, so when you hit the water, you’re breathless for a second.  On a hot day I’m sure this would feel refreshing but it was cooler and overcast when we were there so we only went down a few times before we were ready to dry off and get into some dry clothes.  Lifeguards are on duty here during the summer months, if you’re concerned about safety and there did seem to be lifejackets available.

Next on our agenda was Moore Cove Falls.  The parking area for Moore Cove Falls is one mile from Looking Glass Falls so we back-tracked a bit and parked here.  The trail is a short 0.7 miles and is listed as moderate.  It was a nice way to end our hiking in Asheville.

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Refuel for the Drive Home

For lunch we stopped at The Hub and Pigsah Tavern, a bicycle shop and tavern in Pigsah Forest, NC.  The Tavern only serves beer but has a nice selection of beers on tap, bottles, and cans.  Asheville is also known for its abundance of breweries and has been called “The Napa Valley of Beer” by NPR.  While we were at the Tavern, two food trucks were also there, Aloha Hot Dog Co. and Blue Smoke BBQ.  I got the Pulled Pork Sandwich on a bun and my husband got the BBQ plate from Blue Smoke BBQ.  We both agreed that was the best BBQ we had eaten in a long time.  We were pleasantly full and ready for the drive back home after a fun weekend in Asheville.