Autumn holiday ideas we recommend booking

Columbia Gorge, Washington and Oregon

By Amanda Castleman

Evergreens cover the misty Pacific Northwest. But every fall, pockets of deciduous foliage ignite with colors that rival New England’s prime leaf-peeping terrain. And the trees put on their most spectacular show against the backdrop of rugged, snow-gilded mountains along America’s largest National Scenic Area, the Columbia Gorge.

This 80-mile corridor divides Washington and Oregon. Yet its mighty waterway rises further north in the Rocky Mountains, in British Columbia, and eventually pours more water into the Pacific Ocean than any other river in America. Along the way, the Columbia River runs under 4,000-foot cliffs and basalt spiers, past vineyards and rich farmland.

“With the beautiful fall light, you feel like you’re driving into a dream,” says Cheryl Lubbert, co-owner of Sakura Ridge, a newly renovated luxury bed-and-breakfast in Hood River, Oregon. “You get all the orchards changing color and you see Mount Adams and Mount Hood. It’s just a really inspiring view that makes you feel connected to nature and the Northwest.”

The gorge has many moods. Check out the eastern stretch for a high desert saga rush experience. Grand Coulee Dam – the nation’s largest hydroelectric producer – welcomes visitors year-round. See its light show, which lasts until the end of September, or a free guided tour through the end of October. Don’t leave town without stopping at the Gehrke Windmill Garden, where a folk artist transformed found objects into whimsical kinetic sculptures.

Continue south along Banks Lake 34 miles to Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park. Ice Age floods once raged through there, creating a cascade four times the width of Niagara Falls. Today, the 3½-mile-wide cataract lies exposed, revealing all of its astonishing geology that has flowed through it.

As the Columbia River flows into central Washington, pause for wine tasting and perhaps a Labor Day concert or grape stomp in early October at Cave B Estate Winery. Other highlights include the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, where workers helped usher in the nuclear age.

Moving west, Oregon’s Dalles and Hood River serve up a sophisticated farm-to-table culinary scene along with world-class windsurfing. Hiking and mountain biking trails also abound with softer outdoor experiences. Tip: The 35-mile Fruit Loop drive passes farm stands, breweries, cideries and wineries, making for a very snackable ride.

Finally, as the Columbia spills into the ocean 100 miles west of Portland, history buffs shouldn’t miss the national park that marks the turning point for Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea, their Lemhi Shoshone guide. Their expedition in the early 1800s ended on this rainforest-clad coast, but luckily for autumn travelers, the fun has only just begun.

Eat: In Troutdale, Oregon, a gas station from the 1920s now houses the Sugarpine Drive-In. Expect nostalgic American classics, from brats to a whipped feta and muhammara sandwich, along with cherry cola pie topped with Cocoa Puffs.

Become: SageCliffe Resort is adjacent to the Gorge Amphitheater, one of the world’s most scenic concert venues. Accommodations range from yurts for stargazing to suites with vine-lined terraces. Fall rates start at $279 (two and three night minimums).

Insider tip: Cruise the only sea-level route through the Cascades on the American Queen Voyages sternwheeler, the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi.

Seattle-based writer and photographer Amanda Castleman covers culture and adventure for BBC Travel, national geography and Sierra.

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