4 Oregon sights worth getting out of your car

  • By Beth J. Harpaz Associated Press
  • Friday, November 20, 2009 5:42pm
  • LifeLetters

HOOD RIVER, Ore. — I’m a city girl, the type of person who’s afraid to camp out in the wilderness because there’s no way to lock the tent door. But I try to appreciate the great outdoors, especially on vacation. And Oregon did not disappoint. From the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast, the scenery was astounding. And it cannot be fully experienced through the car window.

First stop for our family (two boys, me and my husband) was Multnomah Falls, which is part of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The narrow waterfall is 620 feet high, bisected by a picture-perfect footbridge. A woodsy trail to where the falls begin is a steep mile up Larch Mountain. You’ll pass lots of folks resting along the way. But the scenery is worth the exercise.

We overnighted at a hotel in Troutdale, then headed to the bike trail. If you do any recreational biking, you won’t find it challenging to bike from the town center of Hood River to the Mark O. Hatfield Trailhead west, about a mile away.

Within a few minutes, we were in the park on the 3.5-mile ride to the Mosier Twin Tunnels. The tunnels were closed in the 1950s but reopened in 1996 as part of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.

Cars are not permitted on the trail, which is mostly paved, making it a pleasure for bikers and hikers. The road winds past fragrant evergreens, but the real payoff comes when the trail opens up to stunning views of the wide Columbia River.

We picnicked in the park, returned our bikes to the shop and drove out of town on the Mount Hood Scenic Byway (Highway 35). As we rounded a bend, the snowcapped mountaintop came into view. We pulled over and snapped pictures.

The Mount Hood Scenic Byway is open year-round, but check weather conditions before you go. Traction devices could be required.

We wound our way back to Troutdale and then went south to Salem and spent the night before heading for the coast.

We arrived the next morning at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. The entertainment here in fall and winter is storm watching, but if the day’s decent, try out a dune buggy. We had no idea what to expect when we booked a half-hour ride with Sandland Adventures in Florence.

I noted that they were constructed from little more than steel frames, wheels and benches with seat belts. Enormous goggles were required to protect eyes from the desert storm as the buggies raced up and down towering dunes. They looked like roller coasters in the Sahara. I suddenly felt queasy, but within a minute, I was laughing hysterically. This was more fun than an amusement park.

Last stop on our itinerary was far tamer. A colony of sea lions lives in caves by the ocean north of Florence, a few miles from the dunes. While these sea lions don’t ham it up like the critters who live on the pier in San Francisco, they are still quite fascinating. And the Pacific Coast setting, including the drive along U.S. 101, is wild and gorgeous.

If you go

Multnomah Falls: trips.stateoforegon.com/multnomah_falls. Located 20 minutes east of Troutdale. Take the Historic Columbia River Highway exit from Interstate 84.

Biking the Columbia River Highway State Trail: www.oregonstateparks.org/park_155.php. Bike rentals available in Hood River for the trail to the Mosier Twin Tunnels. We paid $115 to rent bikes for a family of four. Hood River County Chamber of Commerce: hoodriver.org or 800-366-3530.

Dune buggy rides: Dune buggy rides in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area from Sandland Adventures, 85366 Highway 101 S., Florence, www.sandland.com or 541-997-8087; $25 per person for half-hour, $45 for an hour. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays in fall and winter months.

Sea Lion Caves: www.sealioncaves.com. Located 11 miles north of Florence on U.S. 101. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults, $10; children 3 to 12, $6.

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