Monday, May 19, 2008

Most Beautiful Roads of the World, Part 1


This is a start of a new series, celebrating the most spectacular routes and backroads that you can drive on this planet; today we will feature only a couple from the US, next issues will cover Canada, Europe, etc. Text and images are by Avi Abrams, all rights reserved.

You can drive two of the world's most scenic roads - in two days, in Oregon.

Oregon is a state that has everything California and Washington states have - ocean, rainforests, mountains and flower displays - but feels somehow cozier and more user-friendly, perhaps due to the more laid-back attitude of those who live there.

It takes guts to live under the shadow of the most active volcano in the Pacific Northwest (info) and on top of a dozen wicked earthquake faults (each similar to the one that just terrorized China). But it also takes a certain appreciation and disposition to enjoy the beauty while it lasts - to "smell the roses", so plentiful in Portland and area.

Last week I had the privilege to drive the Oregon state's two most beautiful roads - easily among the most beautiful roads in the world, at the best time to visit them: late spring, when the weather (sometimes) is very good, everything blooms and the crowds are non-existent.

"Bridge to Terabithia" screenshot, Walt Disney Pictures, site

Let's start with:
Columbia Gorge Historic Highway 30

If you've seen the movie "Bridge to Terabithia", you might remember how the magic kingdom of Terabithia looks: a wondrous mountain river gorge, framed by the mighty waterfalls, a river leisurely flowing toward the distant ocean. Well, you might be surprised to discover that a part of Columbia Gorge (from Hood River to Troutdale) almost fits the above description.

If you coming to Portland from the east, you can stay overnight in the Dalles (home of the mysterious Google "server farms" - and hit the north side of the gorge in the morning (passing the quaint windy town of Stevenson, WA - and perhaps even hiking to the top of the Beacon Rock. The hike is surprisingly doable, considering how imposing it looks). The transition from high desert to temperate rainforests is nothing short of epic. Every single mile brings a change in eco-systems and vegetation.

The drive through the Columbia Gorge wine country is relaxing, perhaps too much so (make arrangements to visit some wineries). But don't allow yourself to get sidetracked - your adventure is only starting.

(image credit: Thad Roan)

The best part of the drive starts at the Bridge of the Gods (interesting enough to be included into our "Hall of Fame" of bridges) - make sure to cross the river to the Oregon side again and continue west on the interstate, until you come to the Historic Highway 30 turnoff.

The Biggest Concentration of Waterfalls

...awaits you on that winding, enchanting piece of road (once considered a pinnacle of road engineering). Every waterfall is unique, imposing and simply serene (no picture can ever give them justice, even though there are plenty of Multnomah Falls postcards going around). Each waterfall sits in the lush forest amphitheater, surrounded by gigantic cliffs and fanciful eroded stone.

Horsetail Waterfall & Shepperd's Dell rocks

Note how the spread of lichen on the right also "emulates" waterfall...

Multnomah Falls is the second-tallest waterfall in the nation (Yosemite Falls in California is the tallest) - with undeniable artistic (almost Old World) charm:

Spring is the best time to visit, to avoid crowds and to catch the brilliant-fresh vegetation. Be prepared to be greeted by the "Tunnel of Trees":

The Historic Columbia River Highway was built in 1913-1922 with multitude of bridges over the dizzying chasms. Over the years it was often called "The King of Roads":

Shepperd's Dell falls

The Mitchell's Point Tunnel and Hercules Pillars, source

A quiet forest walk to the Latourell Falls is the perfect medicine against modern day stress.

Latourell Falls with curious eroded rock formations

Don't miss the classic "Crown Point" where countless tourists take pictures of the same view over and over again. It is definitely an awesome view, though.

Once you've driven the stretch to nice little town of Corbett, you have a choice either to continue on to Portland, or embark on another scenic drive - around Mount Hood (where the famous Timberline Lodge stands - the eternally spooky location of "The Shining" movie fame)

If you come to Portland, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

It seems Portland (the official dwelling place of book, coffee, craft beer & outdoors fanatics) blooms like there is no tomorrow, in these early days of May. Some of the flower-scapes are from the world-class Japanese Gardens, but others are... just because:

Portland's Japanese Gardens:

A great way to explore Portland (which has a very compact and walkable downtown core) is to get on the Max Light Rail... but again, don't let the urban pleasures to swallow you up (it's awfully hard to tear yourself from this friendly and sophisticated city - though I admit, I did not check out San Francisco yet)

Get going to the Oregon Coast (touristy, but still great Cannon Beach). In less than a couple of hours you will be gazing on the enormous Haystack Rock and wonder how many tentacles anemones have. Again, the middle of May is great time to escape the crowds that descend there during summer.

(on the left is yours truly; on the right is 1940 Oregon Coast Tour)

Don't leave without checking out the mind-blowing Ecola State Park - and head along Hwy.101 to Tillamook - and the next "Most Beautiful Road in the World":

Three Capes Scenic Route, Oregon Coast

Here is a comparatively little-known Oregon Coast gem, off the main highway - an area where locals themselves go to unwind and get quality beach time. You can drive the whole loop in a few hours, or you can spend a week there - this is a quintessential Pacific Coast experience.

Ahhh... this is the life: a rare (admit it) sunshine spring day on the Oregon Coast, when after days of mysterious but still pretty annoying fog (or more gracefully "mist") the mountains and various off-shore rocks are coming into view - and the ocean asserts its magnificent presence.

First off, I have to warn you: the road from Cape Meares village (no services) to the Cape Meares Lighthouse is so full of potholes, that even animals might break a leg there. So drive carefully, it gets much better from there. Here is mile-by-mile info about this route.

The Lighthouse is quaint (built in 1890) and a bit on a smallish scale - but worth checking out:

The road will take you to three capes (with three distinct views to enjoy) - Cape Meares, Cape Lookout and Cape Kiwanda:

Ocean is such a huge, non-negotiable presence that any troubles or worries you might have swiftly shrink and run away (I do wonder how any business is done at all at such locations). The forest around the ocean beaches is unbelievably green, lush and soothing:

You will also pass sand dunes (no need to go all the way to Florence, Oregon, for that):

Added Bonus: Drive your car into the ocean

Sometimes called McPhillips beach, this is Cape Kiwanda nirvana+paradise. Happy cars frolic in shallow waters on the sandy beach, happy surfers happily surf - you get the idea. The beach features another "haystack"-kind of huge rock (just for added visual interest)

Continue on along the Oregon Coast - there are endless wonders and fresh vista to delight and astound, literally at every turn. In the next parts of this series we will feature most scenic roads in Canada, Asia, Europe, etc.

(image credit: 1940 Oregon Coast Tour)

Photography and text copyright Avi Abrams, IAN Media. Let us know about the roads and locations you'd like us to feature in the next article of the series.

Also read Most Dangerous Roads of the World Series

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