The toll for a passenger car to cross the Bridge of the Gods is 50 cents, the same as when the span opened in 1926. The rare pedestrians who must brave the bridge's open steel grating in the traffic lanes are charged 25 cents. Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers are free.When you walk into Cascade Locks, you know you've just about hit rock bottom: You're 200 feet above sea level and will drop to an all-time-low of 140 in 1.5 miles.
The Cascade Rapids that once roared past here were a severe impediment to economic activity and travel in the Columbia River Gorge. A portage railroad -- with mules towing flatcars -- was built around the rapids in 1851. The monumental engineering struggle to build locks took from 1875 to 1896. The original cost of $1.2 million ultimately soared to $3.8 million, an unbelievable sum for the day.
Today, the remains of the locks are part of the city's Marine Park, a popular venue for outdoor weddings (and a very un-restful place to camp, thanks to the steady Union Pacific rail traffic). On the sides of the locks you can see the traditional wooden platforms still used by local Indians to fish for Chinook salmon and steelhead. The fish are often sold out of coolers by the roadside under Bridge of the Gods or in the nearby restaurant parking area, fishing being a major economic force for the Indians. In some years, the steelhead run may peak just as most thru-hikers are coming through town. If you purchase one of these beauties, make sure you have at least a half-dozen very hungry hikers to help you eat it.
Cascade Locks is a very compact town. Everything you need is on WaNaPa Street, the main drag -- with the Bridge of the Gods, the Charburger and the Best Western at the top of the hill on the west end and the hardware/liquor store anchoring the east.
The Best Western Columbia River Inn (735 WaNaPa St., 541 374-8777) is the top choice for lodging, located in the shadow of the Bridge of the Gods, just a few feet from the trail. We found a very friendly and accommodating staff, huge rooms and a great view of the river. It's not cheap by PCT standards, but we still believe it's a fair value, with laundry, hot tub and pool on-site, plus the usual free breakfast. Be advised to call the front desk directly for a reservation. In 2006, when several Web travel consolidators and the Best Western chain's own site reported no vacancies, a call directly to the hotel proved otherwise. There was a rumored PCT discount of 10 percent at one time.
The second-choice motel, Bridge of the Gods Motel and RV Park (630 WaNaPa St., 541 374-8628) is just across the road and down the hill a block from the Best Western. This older facility, with '50s-era motor-court units and more contemporary attached rooms, has been the scene of a couple of bad thru-hiker incidents over the years. The older units, with kitchenettes, are the better value. There is a third motel further down the strip, the Econo Inn (400 WaNaPa St., 541 374-8628). We don't recommend it.
Cascade Locks' most beloved eatery and social hall, the Salmon Row Pub (500 WaNaPa St., 541 374-9310), was purchased several years ago by the husband-and-wife team of Jeff and Connie Ganz, who promptly re-christened it the Pacific Crest Pub and Hostel. It remains one of the finest eating and drinking establishments on the entire trail.
The venerable restaurant's menu -- outstanding pizza, burgers, salmon specialties and sandwiches -- is largely unchanged. And you'll still find ten beers on tap, including two varieties of the Walking Man IPA (brewed right on the other side of the river), Black Butte Porter, Mirror Pond and Mt. Hood Cloudcap. Then there's the private-label extra-hot horseradish sauce, something of a local obsession. The restaurant, always hiker-friendly, had maintained an informal trail register in a loose-leaf notebook behind the bar. You might wish to inquire with the barkeep if it's still there.
This ramshackle boarding house is nearly 100 years old, built to house Bonneville Dam workers. The last time it housed overnight guests above the bar was in the bygone era when it was known as Suzie's Suds Shack. The Ganzes tried for several years to remodel the funkier-than-thou building and transform the upper floor into a hiker's hostel with dorm-style lodging. That plan appears to be stalled indefinitely by government red tape (disability access, fire codes and the like). As of April 2010, all mentions of the hostel plan have been purged from the Web site.
Charburger (735 WaNaPa St., 541 374-8477) is a gorge landmark, little changed over the past 50 years. Definitely go once (preferably for breakfast) just to see the incredible collection of artifacts and memorabilia on the dining room walls. But give it a pass for lunch or dinner. The cafeteria-style operation has a menu stuck in a steam-table-era time-warp. Not a good value.
Other food options on the main drag include the always-busy East Wind Drive In (395 WaNaPa St., 541 374-8380), a burger shack with soft-serve ice cream, legendary shakes and many fried temptations. Johnny's Ice Cream and Deli (424 WaNaPa St., 541 374-0080) runs the gamut from soup to espresso. The Cascade Inn (410 WaNaPa St., 541 374-8340) is a diner and cocktail lounge.
The State of Oregon has signed off on the highly controversial plan for the Warm Springs Indian tribe to build a major casino-resort complex on a parcel of low-lying industrial land in Cascade Locks. The casino is strongly backed by the city and opposed by environmentalists and competing gaming interests. The tribe still must secure federal approval for the new casino, which is many miles from its reservation. Groundbreaking could be years away.