GORGEOUS GORGE Once-fearsome stretch of the Columbia River is just plain awesome today


STEVENSON, Wash. -- Once, when Lewis and Clark passed this way in the early 1800s, there was a vicious 10-mile stretch of rapids in this river gorge on the Washington-Oregon border. Now, there is a lake.

The meanest part of those old rapids, a set of beastly rocks and turbulent caldrons called the Cascades, is buried under many feet of water, and where once humans risked life and limb to cross the mighty Columbia, there is a heavily traveled toll bridge.

Still, the river gorge is immensely beautiful. It runs from near Portland, Ore., all the way upriver to above the Dalles Dam, about 80 miles east. The river (really a lake) still flows beneath towering crags and low-swept hills, and enough of the river's once awesome and virgin power remains to give a hint of what the gorge must have been like before Franklin Roosevelt and subsequent presidents decided to dam it flat to produce hydroelectric power.

Near the small town of Stevenson, the river actually flows through the geologic formation that gave birth to the Cascade Mountains (named, in fact, after the rapids). Within easy driving range is Mount St. Helens to the north or, back south in Oregon, Mount Hood. The gorge is less than an hour from Portland and is a major sport and recreation target for residents of both states.

The gorge -- now officially called the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area -- is easily reached by taking Interstate 5 or Interstate 205 from the Portland area. You can then choose to drive fast along the river on the Oregon side (Interstate 84), or cross over to two-lane Highway 14 on the Washington side. Both offer great views of the gorge.

The major -- and almost only -- settlement on the Oregon side is at the town of Cascade Locks. Here you find many motels and some good restaurants, and it's a likely spot to use as a base.

One of the reasons we came calling on the gorge, in addition to looking at its splendors, was to check out a brand-new resort-conference center, Skamania Lodge, that opened this past spring just west of Stevenson on a bluff above the river.

Skamania is the result of a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service, Skamania County (Washington) and Salishan Lodge. (Salishan is a famous and fairly upscale lodge on the Oregon coast near Lincoln City, due west of Salem.)

The idea was to create the scenic area and build the conference center (including 18-hole golf course) as a way to increase employment and encourage tourism in the gorge area.

Skamania is unlike most lodges in other federal parks and areas, such as the Ahwahnee at Yosemite or the El Tovar at the Grand Canyon. These well-known lodges and others are generally designed for upscale travelers and often have a range of dining venues available, from white linen to cafeterias.

Skamania, on the other hand, was designed mostly as a conference center, apparently with large groups in mind. It is not really a romantic retreat, despite the growing number of honeymooners who are booking rooms.

The lodge has 156 standard rooms, three two-bedroom family rooms, 34 fireplace rooms and four parlor suites. Standard doubles are between $95 and $110; fireplace rooms $145, and parlor suites $185. We tried a standard, and found it quite acceptable. The resort has a nice gift shop, excellent pool and spa facilities, nice grounds and generally quick and polite service. Information: Skamania Lodge, P.O. Box 189, 1131 Skamania Lodge Way, Stevenson, Wash. 98648; (800) 221-7117 or (509) 427-7700.

Nearby, Portland's restored and renovated downtown area is an admirable example of urban renewal that worked.

The city is also home to our favorite seafood restaurant out west, Jake's. Some eschew the restaurant because it is well-known and normally full of tourists. But we say it's still excellent and always worth a stop, even if you're not staying in Portland.

We decided this time to sample a new hotel (for us) in Portland, the Heathman, recommended to us by folks who come from up that way. The Heathman, one of the two downtown "H" hotels (the other being the Hilton), was built in 1927. Recently refurbished and remodeled, it's now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It oozes elegance and charm and immediately went on our short list of upscale Pacific area hotels we will recommend to friends. ,, (It's also within walking distance of downtown stores and about 15 minutes by foot from Jake's.) It's probably the best hotel in Portland, which has a remarkably fine group of hotels for a city its size. Doubles are between $140 and $180; suites $225-$350.

As for Cascade Locks, there are several motels in town, the best of which are probably Shahala at the Locks (rooms up to around $125) or the Scandian Motor Lodge (rooms around $50). Make sure to try breakfast or lunch at the Charburger, just next to the entrance ramp for the Bridge of the Gods, the toll bridge to Washington. Great view of the gorge, fairly decent chow (much more than burgers).

If you really want to get a feel for the Columbia River, hang a left at Portland and drive up Highway 30 to Rainier, hang another left and go to Astoria. Take the toll bridge (Highway 101) across the river to Washington and drive out to the edge of Cape Disappointment.

Coming back on the Washington side on Highway 4, you drive right along the river. On a curve near Cathlamet on a clear day, you are suddenly greeted by a stark white volcano in the distance. From the truncated conical shape, you know it can only be one mountain -- Mount St. Helens.

See Page 8 for a locater map of some of the sites mentioned in this story.

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