The drive from Madras, Oregon to Stevenson, Washington is one of the more scenic byways of the North West. It goes from high desert grasslands of central Oregon into the ponderosa forests of Mt Hood, then down the Hood River Valley filled with fruit trees into the beauty of the Columbia Gorge.
We decided to go to the Gorge Grass Bluegrass Festival again this year. The artist lineup is terrific and not only has good northwest bluegrass bands but also two of our favorite bands from the east. We have not heard Dry Branch Fire Squad or Clair Lynch since we have been living in the west. Ron Thomason from Dry Branch Fire Squad is one of the funniest comedians you have ever heard and he is also a great mandolin and guitar player.
So at the end of July, we headed out a day early to that we could enjoy the drive from Madras to Stevenson. The drive of 123 miles can be accomplished in a day, but to really enjoy the journey, several days of exploration is ideal.
Madras, Oregon is a town of 6,729 population and has become notorious this year because it is located in the center of the total solar eclipse of 2017. It is expected that there will be an influx of 200,000 people during the eclipse. Hotels and campgrounds have been sold out for 3 years. The town in partnership with NASA has planned a Solar Fest with camping, music, science, a kids zone, food and of course the great show of the total solar eclipse. https://www.oregonsolarfest.com
We headed northwest out of Madras on SR 26 toward Mt Hood. SR 26 crosses Oregon’s high desert grasslands, drops down into the Warm Springs Indian Reservation along the Deschutes River in a lovely canyon formed by years of river erosion of the volcanic lava fields.
The town of Warm Springs at the bottom of the canyon has a Museum, the Indian Head Casino, fishing along the Deschutes River and camping along the river. A short distance away is the Ka-Nee-Ta Desert Resort with a hotel, camping, and casino.
As you drive out of the Warm Springs canyon you continue on the reservation for another 20 miles as Highway 26 enters the ponderosa forest at the foot of Mt Hood. Lofty Mt Hood is visible in the distance when you come out of the canyon and gradually grows in size as you continue to drive west.
Eventually, you enter the forest and views of the mountain become infrequent, but each glimpse is a breathtaking surprise as you round a corner. If you continue toward Portland you come to Government Camp, Timberline Ski Lodge and Mt Hood Ski Village, but we turned off SR 26 just east of the mountain onto SR 35 toward Hood River Valley.
SR 35 runs along the east side of Mt Hood. The highway rises steeply to 4500 feet and then drops to nearly sea level at the Columbia River Gorge in the town of Hood River. You pass another ski resort, Mt Hood Meadows, at the top of the grade. Mt Hood becomes visible once more as you cross the White River and then you follow Hood River down the valley. There are several forest service campgrounds along the river. We stayed at Nottingham Forest Service Campground and had a lovely spot right on the river.
As you enter the lower elevations of Hood River Valley you start to see fruit trees on both sides of the road. Hood River Valley is known for its ideal growing conditions for fruit trees and has multiple fruit farms with their fruit stands. Depending on the season you can enjoy cherries, nectarines, apricots, peaches, pears, and apples. Out favorite fruit stand is Packer Orchards because it not only has fruit but also has delicious cookies, pastries, jams and jellies and ice cream. We always stop here on our way through the valley and indulge our addictions.
Leaving the fruit stand we continue into Hood River. This is one of the wind surfing capitals of the world because of the constant wind through the Gorge. On a good windy day, you can see hundreds of wind surfers on the river.
To get to Stevenson from Hood River, you can turn west in Hood River and go on I 84 to the bridge at Cascade Locks. However, because we are shunpikers, we choose to cross the narrow, toll bridge at Hood River and drive along the more scenic SR 14 on the north side of the gorge. I am not sure that you would want to try this bridge if you are driving a large motor home, but with a trailer or Class C, it is definitely doable if a bit nerve-wracking, especially if you meet a large vehicle coming the other way.
The drive along State Road 14 on the northern side of the Columbia Gorge is narrow and winds its way along the shore alongside the train track.
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There are several tunnels along the route, but all of them are tall enough for a 13.5-foot rig if you stay in the middle of the highway. You do have to be careful of the sloping side of the tunnels. The views of the Columbia River along the way are picturesque with the blue of the river, the green of the foliage and the tall cliffs made of lava flows. As you go by the town of Hood River you can see hundreds of windsurfers enjoying the ideal surfing conditions of the Gorge.
As you can see big 18-wheelers do travel on this road and have no problems with the tunnels.
Stevenson, Washington is a cute little town along the Columbia Gorge with a population of 1465 in the 2010 census. It has the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center, which focuses on several tribes that were once located near the Columbia River. The Skamania Lodge has hiking trails and a lovely golf course overlooking the river.
Skamania County is home to the most beautiful fairgrounds in the Gorge. It hosts multiple events including the Gorge Bluegrass Festival which was our destination this trip.
The festival was amazing as usual and we are looking forward to attending again next year.