ALONG HIGHWAY 14, COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, Wash. -- This river canyon looks majestic from the side of the road, with the sun outlining the Cascade Range in crimson hue and kayakers drifting lazily along the calm water below. It's quiet on this recent Tuesday morning. It's quiet later in the afternoon. And the day after.
It's often this way in the fall, or at least much less hectic than Oregon's side of the Gorge, locals say.
The magnificent Gorge stretches 80 miles between Oregon and Washington. Oregon is considered the sexy side, with tens of thousands of tourists annually visiting Multnomah Falls, Vista House and the windsurfing town of Hood River. Even the salmon-watching on the Oregon side of Bonneville Dam draws bigger crowds.
But the Washington side is no less spectacular -- and more serene. The river isn't flanked by freeway as on the Oregon side. It's mostly a two-lane road where you can cruise in solitude on long stretches of asphalt, the banks of the Columbia a stone's throw away.
On a recent road trip, I took the side less traveled, driving to Beacon Rock State Park, then to the belly of the Gorge, where the sun shines long and the vineyards are many, and finally to the desert landscape around Maryhill, getting acquainted with the many faces of this natural wonder.
The leaves were feathering in the air near the town of Stevenson as I approached Beacon Rock State Park, named for an 840-foot volcanic plug that you can't miss on the banks of the Columbia. The monolith is almost two-thirds as high as the Rock of Gibraltar.
Surrounding this landmark are more than 20 miles of hiking trails, including two new trails and seven new campsites, with 30 more campsites planned in the near future.
At the summit
I see a dozen hikers in the parking lot, grabbing their jackets and tying their shoes, preparing to hike a mile on a cliff-hugging trail to the top of Beacon Rock. But park ranger Karl Hinze had other plans for me. We were hitting nearby Hamilton Mountain, the park's highest peak, to view Beacon Rock and the 5,100-acre park from above.
We hiked by thickets of huckleberries and elderberries. From atop, by the sign, "Summit, Hamilton Mtn., Elev. 2480," I could look down and see the mighty Bonneville Dam, built under President Franklin Roosevelt, along with Cape Horn and Crown Point."You can catch little snippets of the Gorge if you drive on the road," Hinze said. But you can't get the vastness and beauty of it "until you get up."
Nor should you miss the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, nearby in Stevenson, to get a sense of how centuries of flooding carved the Gorge.
Back on Highway 14, as I head west toward Lyle and White Salmon, the road seems wider, with 300-foot cliffs farther back from the roadside.
Fewer evergreens obstruct the postcard view of the river. What a river, flowing 1,200 miles from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, and once so turbulent that it swallowed up countless canoes and fishermen, until humans tamed it with dams.
As I squinted at the view, it was easy to appreciate one big difference between the Oregon and Washington sides of the Gorge: On Washington's south-facing slopes, it's sunnier.
"We are right on the fringe of the desert. We are where the desert and the foothills of the Cascades come together," said Syncline Wine Cellars' winemaker James Mantone, whose vineyards and farmhouse sit high in the hills outside of Lyle.
Intimate -- or not
It's a more intimate wine experience in the Gorge, with mostly boutique wineries, where the winemaker, his spouse or his dog will greet you when you pull up in the driveway.
The exception is Maryhill Winery, the Chateau Ste. Michelle of the Gorge, with its 3,000-square-foot tasting room, covered picnic area and an amphitheater that features concerts by the likes of Lyle Lovett and Natalie Merchant.
I headed that way, nearing the east end of the Gorge, pulling over at Milepost 93 to peek at the Celilo Falls site, once one of the world's largest salmon fisheries, now obscured beneath deep waters behind The Dalles Dam. Interpretive panels tell the stories of this famed trading post for the Yakama, Nez Perce, Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes.
It was around here, on April 22, 1806, that explorer William Clark scaled the highest butte on this side of the river and remarked in awe at the view of mountains running south from Mount Hood "as far as I could see."
A century later, business magnate Sam Hill also gawked and declared it the most magnificent sight in the world, reminiscent of the Rhine River.
Art in the sticks
In 1907, Hill bought 5,300 acres and erected a Beaux Arts mansion that is now the Maryhill Museum of Art, named after his daughter, Mary.
Perched high on a bluff, the museum houses one of North America's most significant collections of the works of French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Also featured: a collection of small-scale mannequins fashionably dressed in post-World War II attire, once showcased at the Louvre in Paris.
By 2012, the museum will expand with a new 25,500-square-foot wing -- grand ambition for a remote museum surrounded by scrublands and looking out on a lonely river.
It was one of many surprises along the road. I left Maryhill's sculpture garden and circled back, retracing my route on Highway 14, cruising with the windows down, with hardly any cars in front or behind, nothing but a gentle breeze and the steady hum of my car on the open road.
IF YOU GO
WHERE: The Columbia River Gorge, in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, is about a 3 1/2-hour drive from Seattle. Best days to visit: Thursdays-Sundays when most restaurants, wineries and attractions are open.
WHERE: Get a good historic overview of the area at Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, 990 S.W. Rock Creek Drive, Stevenson; 800-991-2338, www.columbiagorge.org.
* About nine miles west of Stevenson, at Milepost 35, Beacon Rock State Park has more than 20 miles of trails spread across 5,100 acres, with camping, hiking and water recreation. 509-427-8265, www.parks.wa.gov/parks/?selectedparkBeacon%20Rock.
* Dog Mountain Trail, off Highway 14 at Milepost 53, is one of the favorite hikes on the Washington side, especially during the spring for wildflowers. Six miles round trip. See www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/recreation/trails/locations/mta-0147-dog-mountain.shtml.
* Maryhill Museum of Art is off Highway 14 just west of U.S. Highway 97 and the Biggs Rapids-Sam Hill Bridge. Closed for the season, reopens March 15. 509-773-3733, www.maryhillmuseum.org.
* Stonehenge Memorial, off Highway 14 three miles east of the Maryhill Museum. The replica of England's prehistoric Stonehenge -- this version intact -- was a memorial to local war dead.
MORE INFORMATION: The website for Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a great source of tips on history and attractions. See www.fs.fed.us/r6/columbia.