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A Day in Oregon - 6/7/2000

A river, a gorge, a mountain, waterfalls, and fresh fruit -- the reasons Oregon rocks.

PAUL GERALD

I call it the Full Ornamental Loop. There's a regular loop, for those with less time, but if visitors have an entire day and want to know why the Pacific Northwest is the best part of America, I take them on the Full Ornamental Loop around Mount Hood.

We start in my hometown of Portland, for which I left Memphis a few years back. The short answer to "Why?" is pretty simple: the average high in Portland during July and August is 79 degrees. The long answer starts to become apparent when we get to the Vista House. That's where we get our first view into the Columbia River Gorge, where a river nearly the size of the Mississippi flows between tree-covered walls as high as 4,000 feet for about 40 miles. The gorge is so pretty the government had to create a new designation for it: National Scenic Area.

Soon after we drop down from the Vista House, on a winding two-lane road with moss-covered stone guardrails and a thick canopy of trees overhead, we see our first waterfall. It's called Wahkeena Falls, and it might be the prettiest you've ever seen, for about 10 minutes. That's because Multnomah Falls, the highest west of the Rockies, is right down the road. The upper falls is 542 feet, the lower is 69 feet, the whole thing is in a tree-filled and mossy cove, and there's a bridge between them where you get constantly sprayed.

We also have breakfast at the lodge there, sitting by the fire and taking in the views while we munch world-famous smoked salmon omelettes. We cruise past a couple more falls before we get back onto the interstate for a few miles, then we hop off at Bonneville Dam. There's a fish hatchery where we can see 25-pound trout and 6-foot-long, 100-year-old sturgeon. We could also take the whole dam tour (pardon the pun); at the right times of year it's fun to watch salmon and steelhead swim up through the viewing area.

Next stop is the town of Hood River, the windsurfing capital of the world. It is such because the Columbia River Gorge encompasses one of the most extreme weather changes anywhere: Its eastern end is high desert, and 50 miles away at its western end is temperate rainforest. This means the weather is rarely the same on either end of the gorge, so wind is almost always whipping through it, and that in turn means as many as 200 people might be out boarding on the Columbia on a summer day. We admire that view as we stop in town for a mocha, or whatever floats your caffeine boat, then we start up Hood River Valley.

The Hood River flows north from the glaciers of Mount Hood into the Columbia. Along the way, it forms a valley filled with orchards and pick-your-own fruit places. Depending on the season, we can stop for apples, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, watermelons, apricots, you name it. We munch those as we head to the high country. State Highway 35 takes us from a few hundred feet above sea level at the Columbia to a few thousand feet up at the entrance to Mount Hood Meadows, one of several ski areas on the mountain. Right before that is a 1.5-mile trail through massive fir trees to another waterfall, one you can walk behind, but we usually save our hiking for later. After a few miles, with occasional views of the 11,295-foot-tall Hood, we turn up a winding, 6-mile road that leads to Timberline Lodge, built by the WPA in the 1930s as a recreational resort. It still has most of its original furnishings and one of the biggest fireplaces you'll ever see. It sits right at the top of the forest, at the edge of a canyon, and looks up a glacier at the peak. If it's clear enough, you can see forever, and for $7 we can take a chairlift up a thousand feet or so for a really serious view. Or we can hike through some wildflower-filled meadows to another canyon with another staggering view.

At this point most folks have had about enough, but the real hardy ones stroll up a mile-and-a-half hill on the way down from Timberline to Mirror Lake, a couple acres of heaven with a view further into it. Everybody else just heads straight for what I call Drinker's Heaven, also known as Edgefield. That's the 1911 county poor farm, now turned into a B&B/hostel with several bars, a pitch-and-putt golf course, two restaurants, a winery, distillery, and dollar movie theater. Many a Full Ornamental Loop has ended right here.

Or sometimes, if we make it back in time, I drive folks up a hill in town to look back over it all and watch as the setting sun paints Mount Hood pink.

Then I say to them, "See what I mean?" And they always do.

You can e-mail Paul Gerald at letters@memphisflyer.com.

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