After it was deemed impractical for cars, the old Columbia River Highway was closed to traffic, and opened to hikers and bikers! The winding route of this historic highway hearkens back to a time when roads were designed for Sunday drives, and the twists and turns of the highway make for a diverting hike or bike along the scenic Columbia River Gorge.
Begin from the Mark O. Hatfield Trailhead (not to be confused with the Mark O. Hatfield West trailhead). The elevation gain and loss are gentler going this way, and you're closer to the fabled tunnels, which make a good destination for kids.
Use the privy or buy a pass for your car (if necessary) and walk back out to the road. Cross Rock Creek Road and walk downhill for a few hundred feet, then turn left into a disabled parking area and go around a gate. You're on the trail!
Set high above Interstate 84, the old highway offers superior views in every direction, and it's hugged on both sides by greenery and flowers. As you hike (or bike) towards the west end, the landscape transitions from arid, desert surroundings to plants that like wetter climes. On your way to the tunnels, look for bigleaf maples and ponderosa pines. Towards the west side, evergreens emerge, and poppies add a little color to the understory.
A mile from the trailhead, the tunnels come into view. A marvel of engineering, the Twin Tunnels allowed cars to pass through from 1921 to 1950, when they were closed while the highway was retrofitted for foot and bike traffic. They were rehabbed once again in the late 1990s. More information about this process is available at the visitor center at the west end of this trail.
Be sure to go through both tunnels so you can hit the viewpoint. A short, rugged side trail leads off to your right to a nice overlook of the Gorge. It's nothing you haven't already seen on the hike, but it makes a nice turnaround goal for families.
If you'd like to continue, It's another 3.7 miles to the other trailhead. A general descent, you'll pass even more views, as well as a seasonal waterfall, stone railings and mileposts from the highway's former life, and head into a green, shaded tunnel; a merciful reprieve from the sun on a hot day.
Across the river, look for the town of Bingen and the rolling hills of Catherine Creek and Coyote Wall (as you head east to west). Towards the east trailhead, you'll also glimpse the hills of Columbia Hills State Park.