The natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest is unmatched in this world. Within one day’s drive, you could be in the desert, play in the snow on the mountains, drink wine in the valley, and relax on the beach. All of this variety can be experienced simply by following the route of the Columbia River. And its not just scenery that makes the Columbia River region worth visiting. Trust USA River Cruises, the Columbia River experts. Everyone should be putting a Columbia River cruise on the top of their travel bucket list!
We’ll start with the breathtaking beauty that surrounds us here in the Pacific Northwest. Our mild climate may get the reputation for lots of rain, but that’s not really the case. We don’t even rank top ten for annual precipitation in the United States. But what rain we do get is put to good use. Washington is the Evergreen State, and the lush valleys and farmlands make it perfect for grapes, potatoes, apples, cherries, hops and more. Oregon is the Beaver State, and wildlife abounds! From the river otters to the mountain beavers and wild coyotes and wolves, the potential for having mammals cross your path when out exploring is high. And don’t forget the larger animals like sea lions, moose and cougars.
On the east side, the Columbia River winds thru our Northwest desert. Often Columbia River cruisers are surprised to find the tan and gold desert in the Pacific Northwest. If you’re from around here, you know that which side of the mountains you’re from means something. Waking up onboard a river cruise ship, and looking out of your balcony to see the golden, rolling hills of desert can be startling. But yes, a desert can be stunningly beautiful! Giant waterfalls, alien-looking rock formations, and juniper trees set the stage for desert fun.
The majestic mountain ranges in the Northwest are a highlight for visitors and locals alike. The Cascade Range cuts down the middle of Washington and Oregon, and include such famous peaks as Mt Rainier, Mt St Helens, and Mt Hood. The Columbia River Gorge is the pathway carved by the Columbia River thru the Cascade Range. Smaller local mountain ranges include the Oregon Coast Range along the Pacific coastline, and the beautiful Olympic Mountains near Puget Sound.
On the coast, the Columbia River pours into the Pacific Ocean. The Port of Astoria is as close to the mouth as your river cruise ship will get, but you can visit Cape Disappointment for a closer look! The mighty waves of the Columbia flowing out to the rest of the world is a spectacular sight to see (top left photo). Our coastline is mostly sandy beaches, and you can be at the beach in just 90 minutes from Portland.
Historic Importance of the Columbia
Long before the Corps of Discovery, the Columbia River was a meeting place, a fishing hole, a mythic living story of the creation of the world. Many stories tell of the beginnings of the Columbia River, telling of how Coyote wanted the salmon of the ocean to be brought to the human tribes who lived inland. Long before any Europeans came to the area, there was a landslide that blocked some of the river, creating a natural dam. In legend, its referred to as the Bridge of the Gods. This land bridge is strongly tied to the legends of Mt. St. Helens (Loowit) as well. Eventually, the Columbia River pushed thru the dam, and the bridge was washed out. Today, there is a Bridge of the Gods near Cascade Locks, OR and North Bonneville, WA. The modern bridge was completed in 1926, and Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis underneath it twice in 1927.
No Columbia River history would be complete without a discussion of the Corps of Discovery. The mouth of the Columbia had been discovered by Bruno Heceta in 1775, but not thoroughly explored til 20 years later. In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their mission west, an effort to find a water passage that would connect the east and west (the fabled Northwest Passage), and find ways to make the government’s Louisiana Purchase profitable. Only one member of the expedition died, and that was due to appendicitis. Mostly the Corps found many indigenous allies that helped them safely navigate their way west, including Sacagawea, the wife of Toussaint Charbonneau. The Corps built Fort Clatsop, just south of modern day Astoria, to winter on the coast before returning home.
As the Oregon Territory became more populated, the Hudson’s Bay Company became prominent and built Fort Vancouver. Named for explorer Captain George Vancouver, the fort is across the river from modern day Portland, OR. The fort became the hub of trade for the region. Furs were brought by trappers to the fort, and then shipped to China to be manufactured. Supplies were brought in from London to trade and sell with trappers and settlers in the region. It wasn’t until 1846 that the Canadian-U.S. border was moved to the 49th parallel, which made Fort Vancouver completely in US territory. Hudson’s Bay Company closed up shop and moved north, establishing the second Vancouver.
Attractions Along the River
There is so much to see and do along the Columbia River! It is an active vacation destination, and a favorite for locals as well. Let me preface this section by saying that every single stop along the Columbia River will have wine and/or beer. Wineries and craft breweries are almost as commonplace as coffee shops. So even if I don’t specifically mention a winery or brewery, they’re there.
Astoria has many pubs and unique museums, as well as the historic Astoria Column with gives a breathtaking view of the Columbia River. History buffs will want to visit Fort Clatsop, and those wanting a firsthand look at the mouth of the Columbia will want to visit Cape Disappointment.
Moving into the valley, Portland has a lot of favorite places that tourists love to visit, from Voodoo Doughnuts to the Japanese Gardens to the historic Pittock Mansion. If you’re visiting on a weekend, the Saturday Market is quintessential Portland. Across the river from Portland is Vancouver, where our office is located. Vancouver has been booming the last few years, and our downtown is a great hotspot for visitors. There are lots of restaurants and breweries, and the new waterfront development is a great place for a walk along the river. Also, it’s the location of the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Vancouver. There is a recreation standing and open for tours.
The iconic Multnomah Falls is nestled in the Columbia River Gorge, along with a few other stunning waterfalls that are equally deserving of a visit. The gorge is also a popular destination for water sports, especially windsurfing. In the mountain range, Mt St Helens, Mt Adams and Mt Hood are all spectacular, and close to the river. The region is also popular for its produce, especially yummy local cherries! A popular route to see the farms and fruit stands is to drive along the Fruit Loop. On the east side of the gorge, as you start to transition towards the desert, Maryhill Museum stands on the Washington side, a monument to history. And if you visit, you’ll see signs for Stonehenge – yes, Stonehenge. Definitely worth a stop to take pictures. It was built as a memorial to local soldiers lost in WWI.
The deserts of Washington and Oregon are wondrous. Pendleton is a fantastic stop, although a little ways away from the river. This cowboy town of the Northwest is fun for tourists and locals, with a world famous annual rodeo and tours of the underground. Pendleton is also famous for its woolen mills and the amazing textiles they make. On the Washington side, the Columbia goes as far as Tri-Cities before it turns north towards Canada. The Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick and Pasco) are a great historic destination. So much of that region was undeveloped until the Hanford Project began. They made the plutonium that was used by the Manhattan Project to create the first nuclear bomb. But today it’s just your normal river town with parks, art galleries, and cute shops.
Columbia River cruises that continue past the Tri-Cities do so on the Snake River, reaching Clarkston on the Washington/Idaho border.
Columbia River Experts
Our years in the small ship industry and local knowledge of the region make us the Columbia River experts. USA River Cruises has always been located near the Columbia River. Our cruise agents and office staff are either Northwest natives, or have lived in the Pacific Northwest for more than 20 years. Whether you want to visit the standard tourist stops or get a more local feel, our agents can help you see the sights of the Northwest that will most interest you. Give our Columbia River experts a call to learn which cruise and itinerary fits your vacation style: (800) 578-1479.
Columbia River Cruise Ships
American Empress | The largest riverboat in the Northwest, carrying 223 passengers. 9 day vacation packages traveling west from Clarkston to Vancouver, east from Vancouver to Clarkston, and roundtrip from Vancouver.
American Pride | The Pride is a paddlewheel with spacious staterooms and fantastic customer service.
American Song | The newest boat on the Columbia River, the American Song was built in 2018 and began operation on the Columbia River Spring 2019. The Song offers the standard 8-day cruise from Portland to Clarkston or reverse, but also an 11-day cruise that dives deeper into specific stops and their historic significance.
National Geographic Quest | Brand new in 2017, the NG Quest visits the Columbia River each Spring and Fall for 7-day cruises from Portland to Clarkston or reverse.
Northern Dream | This 6 passenger yacht is perfect for your small group of friends or family who want to get away, maybe celebrate an anniversary or mark on occasion like retirement. They specialize in an 8-day wine tasting cruise, roundtrip from Portland.
Queen of the West | Be powered down the river by the Queen’s paddlewheel. Choose the 8-day cruise from Portland to Clarkston or reverse, or choose the only 5-day cruise option on the Columbia River for a shorter excursion.
S.S. Legacy | The 88-passenger S.S. Legacy is one of the most distinctive boats on the Columbia River. It was built to emulate a turn-of-the-century coastal steamer, and has also had a focus on Northwest pioneer history, not just on the Columbia River, but also in Alaska.