Visit the best museum in Oregon's Columbia Gorge.
The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center is 1.5 hours east of Portland Oregon in The Dalles, on the shores of the Columbia River.
This beautiful museum has fascinating exhibits and theater presentations on the history and geology of the Columbia River Gorge.
You can learn how the Missoula floods carved out the Columbia Gorge in the last Ice Age, and see models of extinct creatures like a Columbian Mammoth. There's also some great exhibits on the 10,000 year history of Native Americans in this area, the Lewis and Clark Expedition that canoed through here in 1805, and a cool model of a pioneering town in Wasco County to walk through.
When visiting the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, stay overnight at the nearby Celilo Inn, and enjoy a meal overlooking the Columbia River at the fun Bargeway Pub (check museum hours & tickets).
10 best things to do at Columbia Gorge Discovery Center.
1. Admire the striking entrance.
The 48,000 square foot museum is housed inside a sleek modern building completed in 1997, that received multiple awards from the American Institute of Architects, with basalt walls and a 30-foot wall of windows.
2. Step inside the magnificent Discovery Center River Gallery.
The beautiful lobby of the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, depicts the Columbia River on its journey towards the Pacific Coast. This is a popular gallery for temporary exhibitions or talks. Don't miss the Birds of Prey show, for an up-close experience with a member of the raptor species, like an owl, falcon, hawk or eagle.
3. Walk through an 1850s township.
The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center has an impressive full scale model of a township modeled on The Dalles, where the museum is based.
The Dalles has played a pivotal role in Oregon's pioneering history, starting when Lewis and Clark passed through here in 1805 on their famous expedition to the Pacific Coast. This laid the groundwork for The Dalles to become the gateway to the Western frontier. The town grew in wealth as the last stop of the Oregon Trail, and then the 1850s gold rush. Further prosperity continued with the flow of cargo and passengers during the steamboat era.
4. Experience the best hotel north of San Francisco!
The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center has recreated the opulent Umatilla House hotel in The Dalles, known as the "best hotel north of San Francisco". It opened in 1857 near the steamboat landing, and was rebuilt twice after fires in 1878 and 1879. This giant hotel had 126 rooms, a massive dining room that could seat 250, and soaring views of the Columbia River. The hotel eventually fell into decline, and was razed in 1929.
5. Learn about the golden era of steamboats on the Columbia River.
The steamboat era arrived in 1850 with a series of independent operators, where wheat and wool were transported from inland farms near The Dalles, downstream to Portland and Astoria. Revenue was also generated from passengers like miners participating in the Gold Rush.
The monopolistic Oregon Steam Navigation Company was formed in 1860, controlling the lion's share of the steamboat business. At the height of its operations, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company had eighteen boats on the river. However, the steamboat era was shortlived, eventually supplanted by more efficient modes of transportation like the railways.
6. Ride along America's first ever scenic highway, in the Columbia Gorge.
Another great exhibit at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, focuses on the Columbia River Scenic Highway running from Troutdale to The Dalles. The highway was constructed as a scenic route for motorists, to experience the incredible waterfalls, soaring basalt cliffs, and lush interior of the Columbia River Gorge, and was the first scenic road in America. The first section of the highway opened in 1915, and was considered an incredible engineering feat.
7. Stand in awe of the Columbian Mammoth.
The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center has a popular exhibit on the Columbian Mammoth, that roamed these lands 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, and was eventually hunted to extinction. This huge animal could weight up to 10 tons, and stand 15 feet tall!
Each long, curved tusk on a Columbian Mammoth could be up to 13 feet long!
8. Learn about the tragic destruction of the magnificent Celilo Falls.
The Dalles Dam was constructed in the 1950s, tragically submerging the stunning Celilo Falls behind it. The Celilo Falls was a traditional fishing ground and ceremonial meeting place for Native Americans, spanning 140 feet long in a series of dramatic cascades.
The Dalles Dam is a major hydroelectric power, and part of the 400 dams in the Columbia River Basin that generate 50% of hydroelectric power in the U.S.
The Dalles Bridge is pictured in-front of the Dalles Dam. This steel cantilever truss bridge has a length of 0.6 miles.
The Spa at Water's Edge (551 NE Lone Pine Boulevard) once provided a closer look at the Dalles Bridge and Dam. The spa closed during the Coronavirus Pandemic in 2020.
9. Stop for a meal at the museum's Basalt Rock Cafe.
After touring the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, stop for lunch or a snack at the onsite Basalt Rock Cafe.
10. Stay nearby at a retro motel with a swimming pool and cool views.
The Celilo Inn is on a bluff overlooking the Dalles Dam, and is one of the most popular lodging options in town. The renovated rooms have soaring views of the river, and there's a refreshing seasonal swimming pool for a dip. Sit outside near the firepit on the shared patio, and watch the gorgeous sunsets.
10 other things to do in The Dalles.
- Stop by the Dalles Dam Visitor Center to watch a film on the dam's history, and see the fish ladder in action. Check hours.
- Visit the Fort Dalles Museum and Anderson Homestead. The museum is housed in the Surgeon's Quarters of the original 1856 Fort Dalles military complex, and the Anderson Homestead was built in 1895 by one of the pioneering families in this area. There's also a collection of thirty vintage vehicles and wagons. Check hours & fees.
- Take the kids to Sorosis Park to play on the giant fortress playground.
- Do a wine tasting at the fabulous Sunshine Mill Artisan Plaza and Winery, housed inside an old flour mill, with a vibrant, eclectic interior. Don't forget to sample from the small plates menu, including a delicious charcuterie board.
- Enjoy a meal overlooking the Columbia River at the fun Bargeway Pub, with loads of comfort food, beer flights, and a large, outdoor patio.
- Be dazzled at the National Neon Museum with 20,000 square feet of vintage, electric signs from the 1800s to 1960s, housed inside the historic Elks Temple (1910). Check hours & fees.
- Visit the Tierra de Lobos Winery for a wine tasting overlooking the Columbia River and Dalles Dam.
- Stop by the Wonderworks Childrens Museum for lots of hands on play. Check hours & fees.
- Step back in time at the Baldwin Saloon (1876), with a striking eighteen-foot long mahogany bar. This vintage building has a colorful history, used at different times as a pub, restaurant, brothel, and even a coffin storage depot.
- Walk along the paved Riverfront Trail near the Dalles Marina, for front row views of the Columbia River.
Fun things to do in other nearby areas.
Stay at the lovely Hood River Township and enjoy riverside restaurants like pFriem Brewery and Solstice Wood Fire Pizza on Portway Avenue. Just across the road is a fabulous playground. In summer the sandy river beaches are full of visitors soaking up the sunshine.
Explore different wineries along the Hood River Winery Loop. This incredible loop takes you along bucolic country roads with magnificent views of snow-capped Mt Hood. It feels like a slice of Europe in Oregon.
Finally, travel along the historic highway from Troutdale to Dodson to explore key sights along the Columbia Gorge, including spectacular Multnomah Falls.