Columbia River Gorge: Interstate 84 & The Dalles Dam


After you’ve passed the old two-lane section of the Historic Columbia Gorge Highway, and you’re back on Interstate 84, you’re still following the path of the old historic highway.  You may see brief pieces of it, serving as frontage roads.  I tried a few times to follow these sections of road, but ended up at dead-ends.  Unless a brief section of the old highway is signed as a business route, there’s not much use in trying to follow it.

So, stay on the interstate and enjoy the beautiful Columbia River.  As you head east, you’ll see a turnoff for a viewpoint (there’s no exit in the westbound lanes).  Just off the highway, a road leads you up to a spot where you can see the highway and the river.

This is more than just a viewpoint, though.  It’s the former site of another significant part of the Columbia River Gorge Highway.  When the two-lane road was originally built, a tunnel was needed, to allow the highway to pass through the rock at Mitchell Point.

The rock wall dropped down directly into the river, leaving no room for a road to pass.  Construction crews came up with a beautiful solution to this problem–an attractive tunnel that featured five windows, looking out onto the river.

 You can see a picture of the old Mitchell Point Tunnel (and other old postcard views of the Columbia River Highway) here.

Unfortunately, the Mitchell Point Tunnel no longer exists.  It was blasted away in 1966.

I’ve uncovered several varying stories about the demise of Mitchell Point Tunnel.  One simply says that it was blasted away to make room for Interstate 84’s construction.  The other says that after the tunnel closed (when an wider alternative route was built) crews filled the tunnel with rock and closed its windows.  It sat that way for years, however concerns over the tunnel’s deterioration and possible rockslides caused engineers to destroy it in 1966. (Sources: 1 2  Tim from Portland writes: “The story of Mitchell’s Point Tunnel is a combination of the two stories you’ve heard. The tunnel was filled with rubble in 1948 when a new water route was built and in 1966 it was blown off the cliff face to make room for the widening of I84 (then US 30/ I80N)” 

The Dalles Dam

As you drive along Interstate 84 you’ll pass three huge dams, which generate electricity and control the mighty Columbia (it was much more wild when Lewis & Clark passed through here!).  You should definitely stop to check out at least one of the dams, and during this trip I chose the Dalles Dam, located astride the Oregon/Washington border just north of The Dalles, Oregon.

There’s a visitor center on the Oregon side.  From the parking lot you can enjoy this view of the dam.  The Dalles Dam doesn’t cut straight across the river, instead its mid-section runs parallel to the river (imagine if you straightened out a letter “Z” so it had 90 degree angles).  The water discharge you see above isn’t anywhere near the dam’s spillways.

Step inside the small visitor’s center to find out if any tours are available.  During my visit in 2006, tours inside the dam had been suspended, due to homeland security concerns.

Among the interesting facts about The Dalles Dam:
– It lies almost entirely in the state of Washington
– Its powerhouse is nearly 1/2 mile long, with 22 generating units, cranking out a maximum of 1.8 million kilowatts
– The locks next to the dam can handle a 650 ft. barge, lifting it up to 90 feet.
You can browse the US Army Corps of Engineers’ website for more information.

No surprise, there are plenty of power lines leading here.

What a surprise!  There’s Mt. Hood.  If you’ve been driving east, heading away from Portland, it’s likely you didn’t notice it there.  Westbound travelers, however, will find themselves staring at it for quite a while.

Also from the dam parking lot, you get a great view of the bridge that will take you across to the Washington side of the river.  You need to cross here to see the next attraction, Stonehenge at Maryhill, but even if you’re not stopping there, I’d still recommend jumping over to Washington Rte. 14–the 2 lane alternative to I-84 is absolutely great.
Cross over to Washington here.  As you pass over the bridge, you’re traveling on US 197.  Enjoy it, because the US highway ends at the north end of the bridge.
Between this point and Umatilla, Oregon, there’s only one other place to cross the Columbia River (at US 97, roughly 20 miles away).  There is virtually nothing on the Washington side, so make sure you grab some snacks and gas up on the Oregon side (where fuel is expensive, but at least the pumps are full service).

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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