From its source in the Canadian Rockies, the 1,200-plus-mile Columbia River makes its way south through Washington, then runs along the border between Washington and Oregon before emptying into the Pacific Ocean.
Columbia River itineraries focus on sights and attractions on its route through Washington and Oregon as ships sail through an awe-inspiring panorama of waterfalls, mountains, canyons and green hills. At stops along the way, learn the stories of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, Native American cultures and settlers who arrived via the Oregon Trail.
Here's a look at popular stops on Columbia voyages, starting at the Pacific end and heading east.
Astoria on the Oregon coast lays claim to being the oldest U.S. settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark sheltered nearby during the winter of 1805-1806 in the encampment they built, Fort Clatsop, and merchant John Jacob Astor established a fur-trading post here in 1811. Modern-day visitors may recognize the town as the setting for the 1985 film “The Goonies.” Astoria boasts a collection of well-preserved Victorian structures and great views from its 5-mile Riverwalk and the Astoria Column, which sits at 600 feet above sea level and has an observation platform at the top of its 164 steps.
Embracing a creative, independent spirit, Portland seems to have something for everyone: Craft microbreweries and teahouses. The enormous and inviting Powell's City of Books (famously taking up an entire city block) and lab demonstrations and interactive exhibits at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. The 8,000 blooms of the International Rose Test Garden and the 2,000 animals of the Oregon Zoo. Portland also has a number of distinctive neighborhoods worth exploring, such as the trendy Pearl District, which occupies a former warehouse quarter and rail yard.
A highlight of your Pacific Northwest cruise is the transit through the Columbia River Gorge, a stunning canyon cut through the Cascade Range. In Stevenson on the Washington side of the river, you can learn more about the geology and human history of this area at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center. Stevenson also is a gateway for visits to the Bonneville Dam; a Public Works Administration project and part of FDR's New Deal, its construction began in 1934.
Your Columbia River itinerary may provide an opportunity to visit Mount St. Helen's National Volcanic Monument, about 60 miles north of Stevenson. Here, a guide will recount the eruption that rocked the region on May 18, 1980.
The Dalles was a Native American trading area, and it's also where many pioneers who arrived via the Oregon Trail loaded their wagons and belongings onto barges and rafts and continued west along the Columbia River -- a dangerous journey until an overland route was established in 1845. Check out the downtown murals accompanied by “voice boxes” that describe historic events represented in the paintings, or see exhibits on the region's natural beauty and heritage at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center & Museum, housed in a beautifully designed building with scenic overlooks on its grounds.
Upriver lie the Tri-Cities of Washington -- Richland, Pasco and Kennewick -- at the confluence of the Columbia, Snake and Yakima rivers. Exhibits at The Reach Museum in Richland cover diverse topics like the geological effect of ice age floods, local winemaking and the region's role in World War II's nuclear Manhattan Project.
Sacajawea Historical State Park in Pasco marks the spot where Lewis, Clark and the Corps of Discovery camped for two nights and spent time with Native American communities; it's named for the Shoshone woman who worked with the expedition as an interpreter. Seven “story circles” by artist Maya Lin depict the area's natural history and Native American cultures and languages.
Columbia River itineraries can include a sailing on part of the Snake River. A common stop is Clarkston in Washington; sister city Lewiston, across the river in Idaho, is the West Coast's most inland seaport -- 465 river miles from the ocean. From Clarkston, passengers can visit the Nez Perce National Historical Park or Hells Canyon, America's deepest river gorge at nearly 8,000 feet.