Great Drive: Washington State
Columbia River Gorge and Mt. St. Helens
By Kevin Miller
Washington and Oregon have diverse geography which leads to an abundance of roads that are great fun to drive. When I lived in Portland I discovered the following route that follows the Columbia River Gorge east from Portland, and skirts Mt. St. Helens. I had the good fortune of finding myself in a 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR with several hours to spare in addition to the time I had allotted for a drive from Portland to Seattle, so I decided give the Evo a workout. Here’s the route:
From I-5, take Washington’s SR-14 east past Camas. After passing through Washougal, you enter the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, where SR-14 follows the Columbia along the route traveled by Lewis and Clark on their storied expedition. You will pass Beacon Rock, Skamania, the Bonneville Dam, and the Bridge of the Gods. About 3 miles past Stevenson, look for the left turn to Carson. Follow Wind River Road through Carson and on north toward Mt. St. Helens, you will enter Gifford Pinchot National Forest. About 27 miles north of Carson, turn Left onto National Forest road named Curly Creek Road (NF-51). This will lead you to NF-90, which you follow to its intersection with NF-25. Turn left to stay on NF-90 toward Cougar, and follow it until it leaves the National Forest, where it becomes SR-503 Spur. This state highway will lead you back to SR-503 which can be followed past Lake Merwyn to Woodland and I-5, about 22 miles north of where you started. On a hot day, a swim in Lake Merwyn (on SR-503) is incredibly refreshing after a couple of hours on the road. The entire route is around 130 miles, and will take about 3 hours.
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If you want to continue north toward Tacoma or Seattle on this drive, instead of heading back toward Portland, do the following: when you reach the intersection of NF-90 and NF-25, turn right onto NF-25 instead of turning left as described above. Follow NF-25 north (it changes names to SR-131 (Woods Creek Road) when it exits the National Forest). This will lead you US-12 in Randle, where you can head east to I-5 or east toward White Pass and Mt. Rainier. I had hoped to follow this route, but even on 23 June, the snow hadn’t melted off of NF-25, so it was closed about halfway between NF-90 and Randle. Which leads us to an important note about this route.
Many of the National Forest roads in this area will be snow-covered in winter and are subject to seasonal closures, so be sure to check conditions before setting out on this drive. Because you will be in a remote area which is lightly traveled and lacks cell phone coverage, be sure to prepare yourself by having a full tank of fuel, and packing snacks and warm clothing as well as a good map of the area, just in case you have any mechanical trouble. All of the roads on this route are paved, though the National Forest roads seldom have fog lines or guard rails, sufficing with only center-line striping and undulating pavement. The tight corners and narrow roadway make this best suited to a nimble, lightweight car.
On the Monday evening I traveled this route, I went over an hour without seeing another car on my route while on Wind River Road, NF-51, and NF-90. It was just me and the Mitsubishi, with its turbocharger whistling, brakes working, tires gripping, and suspension soaking up the uneven road. It was nearly perfect.
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