This summer, book one of Amtrak’s four most scenic train rides in America. Ride through the Columbia River Gorge in the Cascade Mountains and enjoy an epic summer experience you won’t soon forget.
The Columbia River Gorge marks the state line between Oregon and Washington states. As one of only three rivers that run from the eastern watershed of the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the 90-mile long canyon river has always been an important waterway. In fact, there is evidence that it has supported humans for more than 13,000 years.
Native Americans used it as a trade route, the Lewis and Clark Expedition used it to reach the Pacific Ocean, and early settlers used steamboats through the Gorge to find their new home. Today, Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad runs along the Washington side of the Gorge, and Union Pacific runs along the Oregon side of the Gorge – both major commercial routes through the Cascades. Amtrak’s Empire Builder is the passenger train through the Cascade Mountains.
Before There Were Trains
By the time the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, arrived in the Columbia Gorge, nearly 90% of autonomous Native American groups in the Northwest had died from outbreaks of smallpox and malaria. Land claims began to be established by a trickle of immigrants who braved and survived the treacherous conditions of the Oregon Trail, increasing exponentially by 1845.
By 1853 George B. McClellan had surveyed a possible railroad route along the gorge through the Cascades. The first rail line to Portland, Oregon opened 30 years later in 1883. Over a century later, Congress created the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area to protect its natural beauty. Cheri Dohnal engagingly chronicles the colorful history of Gorge in her book Columbia River Gorge: National Treasure on the Old Oregon Trail.
Union Pacific on the south shore of the Gorge completed its line in 1884. The Spokane, Portland, & Seattle Railway, which was a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific railway, completed a line on the Gorge’s north shore in 1908. The railways opened up the Northwest for development, causing massive settlements along with flourishing timber, agriculture, and cannery industries.
Author D.C. Jesse Burkhardt tells the story of the early railroads in the Gorge with nearly 200 photographs and stories about the first steam locomotives, the grave weather challenges, and the people who were there, in his book Railroads of the Columbia River Gorge. These days, the area has transitioned from industries that take from the earth to a gentler tourism economy.
Visitors to Columbia River Gorge are greeted by spectacular steep canyon walls, plunging waterfalls, lush green forests, and high-desert bluffs. The unusual climate of the Gorge includes 14” of annual rainfall in the rain shadow of the Cascades to the east, and 100” of annual rainfall in the central Gorge! There are over 30 plant species in the Gorge, nine of which don’t exist anywhere else. All this beauty stretches out for miles through six counties and two states – undeniable eye candy to the modern day rail fan.
Summer Train Ride through the Gorge
If you only read one book about the railways of the Gorge before you take your own train ride, it should be Columbia River Gorge Railroads, also by D.C. Jesse Burkhardt. It’s a modern-day first-hand look at the scenic Columbia River Gorge. He discusses the natural beauty of this rugged landscape, the contemporary tourism industry, and, of course, the trains – Burlington Northern Santa Fe on the Washington side, Union Pacific on the Oregon side, and Amtrak’s passenger trains.
You can take Amtrak’s Empire Builder line all the way from Chicago, Illinois, to Portland, Oregon. If you are already in the Oregon/Washington area, the best route to take is the Portland-Spokane route in either direction. The passenger train winds its way through Columbia Gorge for 55 miles of exceptional views that are best observed from the train’s comfy glass-domed observation cars.
Some highlights along the way from Portland to Spokane include crossing a 2,806-foot drawbridge; taking a 2,369-foot tunnel through Cape Horn, the Cascade Mountain’s westernmost peak; and seeing Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest peak and Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s highest waterfall. You’ll travel through deep forests and arid desert. You’ll also see the Bonneville Dam, built during the Great Depression, and the John Day Dam with the world’s highest lock.
When planning your train ride through the Columbia Gorge, be sure to book your trip for summer with better views and weather conditions, and book early to ensure a ticket. If you take the Portland-Spokane route, it will be about four hours one way from Portland’s Union Station to Washington’s Intermodal Train Station. It’s the same for the other direction. Tickets can be purchased at either station or online.