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The Columbia River is the fourth-largest river in the United States. It rises from the Columbia Lake in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. From here it travels northwest for the first 200 miles then turns south crossing the US state of Washington, before heading west and forming the border between Washington and Oregon and finally flowing into the Pacific Ocean. This final stretch is particularly scenic as the river passes through the Cascade Mountains and forms the deep Columbia River Gorge. The river is 1,243 miles (2,000 km) long, and its largest tributary is the Snake River. It drains an area roughly the size of France which covers seven U.S. states and British Columbia.
Due to its heavy flow and steep incline, the Columbia River is a major producer of electricity. The 14 hydroelectric dams together with over 450 dams in the Columbia basin create almost one third of the hydroelectric power produced in the United States.
The Columbia was once filled with salmon but due to the numerous dams numbers have greatly declined. The river still hosts many species of anadromous fish, which migrate between freshwater habitats and the saline Pacific Ocean. Millions of water birds including waterfowl, herons, ospreys and eagles live in the surrounding wetlands. Deer, bears, and bighorn sheep are also common along the Columbia.
The Columbia River Basin is steeped in American history as the area has been inhabited by numerous Native American tribes for thousands of years. Natives of the region encountered foreigners during the 18th and 19th centuries with European and American vessels exploring the area around the mouth of the river. The Lewis and Clark Expedition, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, reached the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific coast and spent the winter near present-day Astoria before making their way back up the river.