After a full day of hiking in the Columbia River Gorge we got in line for our chartered dinner cruise on the Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge, docked at Cascade Locks, Oregon. As we chatted in line, an imposing figure came up the gangway. It was Captain Tom Cramblett, also the mayor of scenic Cascade Locks. He greeted each of us and then headed to the wheelhouse.

Captain Tom - Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge

Captain Tom in the wheelhouse. Photo courtesy: Portland Spirit

Summer Cruises on the Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge

The Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge, spends the summer months taking tourists, diners and partygoers on the Columbia River. During each cruise, Captain Tom provides narration about the history of the area and points out any wildlife we might encounter. You never know when you might spot an eagle or a family of deer.

Osprey - Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge

We saw an osprey as we cruised the Columbia River. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

May through October, this authentic sternwheeler takes visitors on a laid back cruise around the river, under the Bridge of the Gods, past the Native American salmon fishermen and back to the dock. You can take a sightseeing tour, a brunch cruise, a dinner cruise or join in on a specialty cruise like the 4th of July Fireworks cruise. Our group chartered the boat for a buffet dinner. It was a party on the water.

Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge

The Sternwheeler dock is at Cascade Locks. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

The sternwheeler has a full bar so we made our way to the upper deck with cocktails in hand for a 360-degree view of the Columbia River. Since the boat doesn’t travel very fast and there was some sun remaining in the day, we settled into the seats on the open deck. An osprey flew overhead and we relaxed. It was a great place for socializing and taking photos. What a backdrop… the cliffs of the Columbia Gorge and the wide river.

Paddle Wheel - Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge

Even the sound of the authentic paddle wheel was relaxing. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

A Bit of Columbia Gorge History

Captain Tom told us about the people who fished the waters before the dams were put in the river. The area was rich with salmon and the native people speared them from platforms built over the rapids.

As we sailed, the staff set out the dinner buffet. We headed for the main cabin and sat comfortably at tables for eight. Since we were a group that knew each other, it was perfect. We stood in line a bit for our turn at the buffet. One of our friends, celebrating his birthday, purchased a bottle of wine for the table. As the sun began to sink behind the mountains lining the river, we enjoyed our small desserts.

After dinner, the vessel headed downstream and we returned to the upper deck with jackets. Captain Tom pointed out the Native American fishing platforms. Dusk is an ideal time for fishing, so there were Native families (they have fishing rights) out on the platforms fishing just as their ancestors had done.

Native Fishing - Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge

This family was fishing in the traditional way. Only tribal members have fishing rights in this area. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

As we passed under the Bridge of the Gods, Captain Tom explained that it was first built in 1926 but named after a natural Bridge of the Gods that covered a part of the Columbia River around 1450 AD. The original was actually a blockage caused by a massive landslide filling the Columbia River Valley with more than five square miles of debris.

Bridge of the Gods - Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge

It’s hard to imagine that there was once a land bridge here. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Legend has it that at one point the early inhabitants could walk across the river on this natural bridge. But then the Bonneville Dam was built and the area where we were traveling became wide and deep.

Bonneville Dam - Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge

The sternwheeler cruising near Bonneville Dam. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

After looking at the marvel of engineering that makes up the century-old Columbia River Historic Highway, the vessel turned and began the slow return to the dock. At that point the outlines of the mountains were dark grey and nightfall was imminent.

Columbia Gorge Evening - Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge

Columbia Gorge Evening. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

The cruise wasn’t long, but it gave us a different perspective on what people call “the Mighty Columbia.” And it was a relaxing way to enjoy dinner with a group. It was a quick 45 minute drive back to Portland.

Gorge Sternwheeler Cruise Options

The Sternwheeler operates in Portland from November through April. One of the most exciting opportunities is the repositioning cruise when the sternwheeler moves from Portland to Cascade Locks and vice versa. These twice-a-year cruises offer participants a chance to take a longer cruise on the Columbia Gorge and go through the locks at Bonneville Dam. The day includes a return bus trip.

There are shorter sightseeing cruises and brunch cruises with a 2-hour cruise, buffet featuring locally sourced breakfast, lunch and dessert items prepared fresh on board, champagne, ever changing views and, of course, a narration of the sights.

When You Go to Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge

The company that runs the Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge also owns The Portland Spirit, a more modern touring and dining boat based in Portland and the Portland Explorer Jet Boat. You can check out both of those online here.

You can get more information about the Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge on this website: Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler cruise information.

Dress is casual onboard the sternwheeler. Wear flat-soled shoes and take a jacket with you as the river can be windy at times.

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