Columbia River

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: North American Geography

Columbia River
Columbia River Basin, showing major dams and tributaries
Columbia River Basin, showing major dams and tributaries
Origin Columbia Lake
Mouth Pacific Ocean
Basin countries United States, Canada
Length 1,232 miles (2,044 km)
Source elevation 810 m (2,657 ft)
Mouth elevation sea level
Avg. discharge 262,000 ft³/s
Basin area 258,000 mi² (415,211 km²)

The Columbia River (French: fleuve Columbia) is a river situated in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. It is the largest river in volume flowing into the Pacific Ocean from the Western Hemisphere, and is the second largest by volume in North America behind the Mississippi. In rare years, the river’s flow may actually exceed that of the Mississippi. The mean total flow is 262,000 ft³/sec (7400 m³/sec). It is the largest hydroelectric power producing river in North America. From its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean it flows 1,232 miles (2,044 km), and drains 258,000 square miles (415,211 km²). Because of its large water volume, it has the nickname “the Mighty Columbia.” It is four times the volume of the Colorado River, fifteen times the volume of the Sacramento River, and over 100 times the volume of the Rio Grande River . The river was named after Capt. Robert Gray’s ship Columbia Rediviva, the first to travel up the river.


Columbia Lake forms the Columbia’s headwaters in the Canadian Rockies of southern British Columbia. The river then flows through Windermere Lake and the town of Invermere, then northwest to Golden and into Kinbasket Lake. The river then turns (the “Big Bend”) south through Revelstoke Lake and the Arrow Lakes to the BC– Washington border.

The river then flows through the east-central portion of Washington State. The last 300 miles (480 km) of the Columbia form the Washington-Oregon boundary. The river goes into the Pacific Ocean at Ilwaco, Washington and Astoria, Oregon forming the Columbia Bar.

For its first 200 miles (320 km) the Columbia flows northwest; it then bends to the south, crossing from Canada into the United States, where the river meets the Clark Fork. The Clark Fork River begins near Butte, Montana and flows through western Montana before entering Pend Oreille Lake. Water draining from the lake forms the Pend Oreille River, which flows across the Idaho panhandle to Washington’s northeastern corner where it meets the northern Canadian fork.

The river then runs south-southwest through the Columbia Plateau, changing to a southeasterly direction near the confluence of the Wenatchee River in central Washington. The river continues southeast, past The Gorge Amphitheatre (a prominent concert venue in the Northwest), and then past the Hanford Nuclear Reservation just before it reaches the confluence with the Snake River. This part of the river is called the Hanford Reach and is the only part of the river in the United States that is free-flowing, unimpeded by dams and not a tidal estuary. The Columbia then makes a sharp bend to the west where it begins to form the Washington-Oregon border.

Near the town of Hood River, Oregon, the river begins cutting through the Cascade Mountains at the entrance to the Columbia River Gorge. The west side of the gorge is marked by Crown Point. Constant winds of 15 to 35 mph (25 to 55 km/h) blow through this wide straight gorge. It was here in Hood River County, Oregon that windsurfing was originated.

The river continues west with one small north-northwesterly-directed stretch near Portland; Vancouver, Washington; and the confluence with the Willamette River. On this sharp bend the river’s flow slows considerably and it drops the sediment that would normally form a delta.

Columbia River Gorge, photographed from Angel's Rest
Columbia River Gorge, photographed from Angel's Rest

Major tributaries

These are the largest tributaries of the Columbia. For a detailed list of more than forty tributaries, see Tributaries of the Columbia River.

Tributary Discharge*
Snake River 56,900 (1611)
Willamette River 35,660 (1010)
Kootenai River 30,650 (867)
Pend Oreille River 27,820 (788)
Cowlitz River 9,200 (261)
Spokane River 6,700 (190)
Deschutes River 6,000 (170)
Lewis River 4,800 (136)
Yakima River 3,540 (100)
Wenatchee River 3,220 (91)
Okanogan River 3,050 (86)
Kettle River 2,930 (83)
Sandy River 2,260 (64)

* Average discharge, cubic feet per second ( cubic meters per second)

Missoula Floods

The Columbia River and its drainage basin has experienced some of the world’s greatest known floods. Towards the end of the last ice age, the rupturing of ice dams at glacial Lake Missoula resulted in discharge rates ten times the combined flow of all the rivers of the world. Water levels resulting from the Missoula Floods have been estimated to be 1250 feet (381 m) at the Wallula Gap, 830 feet (253 m) at Bonneville Dam, and 400 feet (122 m) over current day Portland, Oregon. In addition to their temporary inundation of the lower Columbia basin, these floods are responsible for many geological features still visible on the Columbia Plateau.


Cascade on the Columbia River
Cascade on the Columbia River

In 1775, Bruno de Heceta became the first European to sight the mouth of the Columbia River, naming it Bahía de la Asunción. On May 11, 1792, Captain Robert Gray became the first European to sail into the Columbia River. Gray traveled to the Pacific Northwest to trade for fur in a privately owned vessel named Columbia; he named the river after the ship. Gray’s discovery of the Columbia established a stronger belief that Americans had more of a “right” to the Oregon Country, which was also claimed by Russia, Great Britain, Spain, and other nations.

French explorers called the Columbia River “the river of storms,” ouragan, which is a possible origin of the name “Oregon.” Other possibilities have been suggested based on words from French and Spanish (since the region was explored by their nationals), but an official origin of the name is not known.

David Thompson spent the winter of 1807–08 at Kootenae House near the source of the Columbia at present day Invermere, British Columbia.

Lewis and Clark’s overland expedition explored the vast, unmapped lands west of the Missouri River. On the last stretch of their expedition they traveled down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition led the way in settling the west.

In 1825, on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company, Dr. John McLoughlin established Fort Vancouver (currently Vancouver, Washington) on the banks of the Columbia as a fur trading headquarters in the region. The fort was by far the largest western settlement of its time. Every year ships would come from London (via the Pacific) to drop off supplies and trade goods in exchange for the furs. For many settlers the fort became the last stop on the Oregon Trail to buy supplies and land before starting their homestead. Because of its access to the Columbia river, Fort Vancouver’s influence reached from Alaska to California and from the Rocky Mountains to the Hawaiian Islands.

On February 13, 1980, $5,800 (in bundles of $20 bills) was found by a family on a picnic five miles northwest of Vancouver, Washington on the banks of the Columbia River. The money is believed by FBI to be part of the 1971 Hijacker, D. B. Cooper’s ransom money.

On July 1, 2003, Christopher Swain of Portland, Oregon, became the first person to swim the Columbia River's entire length.

'Columbia River, Cascade Mountains, Oregon (1876) by Vincent Colyer (oil on canvas)
'Columbia River, Cascade Mountains, Oregon (1876) by Vincent Colyer (oil on canvas)

Hydroelectric dams

The mainstream of the Columbia River has 14 dams (3 in Canada, 11 in the United States) and 8 locks. Nearly half of all hydroelectricity in the United States comes from the Columbia and its tributaries. The largest of the 150 hydroelectric projects, the Grand Coulee Dam and the Chief Joseph Dam, are also the largest in the United States. The Grand Coulee Dam is the third largest hydroelectric dam in the world. The dams also provide a secondary benefit in flood control and irrigation.

On its north-south stretch through Eastern Washington, the Columbia spans a large desert created by the Cascade Mountains’ rain shadow. The dams provide water for the Columbia Basin Project, one of the most extensive irrigation projects in the western United States. The project provides water to over 500,000 acres (2,000 km²) of fertile but arid lands in central Washington State. Water from the project has transformed the region from a wasteland barely able to produce subsistence levels of dry-land wheat crops to a major agricultural centre. Important crops include apples, potatoes, alfalfa, wheat, corn (maize), barley, hops, beans, and sugar beets.

The path of the Columbia River from Canada to the Pacific
The path of the Columbia River from Canada to the Pacific

Although the dams provide clean, renewable energy, they drastically alter the landscape and ecosystem of the river. At one time the Columbia was one of the top salmon-producing river systems in the world. Previously active fishing sites, like Celilo Falls in the eastern Columbia River Gorge highlight the relative decline in fishing along the Columbia during the last century. The presence of dams coupled with over-fishing has played a major role in the reduction of salmon populations. Fish ladders have been installed to help the fish journey to spawning waters. Additionally each dam’s reservoir is closely regulated by the Bonneville Power Administration to ensure one dam is not hoarding water to the detriment of habitat for salmon and other fish.


The Hanford Site was established in 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project. It is located along the river in southeastern Washington on 586 mile² (1,520 km²) of some of the most fertile land in North America; at the time of its establishment, the area was considered a wasteland. The site served as a plutonium production complex with nine nuclear reactors and related facilities. Most of the facilities were shut down in the 1960s. The site is currently under control of the Department of Energy, and is a Superfund site. The Superfund cleanup is expected to be completed in 2030.

EPA studies and state monitoring programs have found significant levels of toxins in fish and the waters they inhabit within the basin. Accumulation of toxins in fish threatens the survival of fish species, and human consumption of these fish can lead to health problems. Many governments, communities and citizens have rallied to launch a long term and intense recovery effort to restore these remarkable fish.

Water quality is also an important factor in the survival of other wildlife and plants that grow in the Columbia River Basin. The states, Indian tribes, and federal government are all engaged in efforts to restore and improve the water, land, and air quality of the Columbia River Basin and have committed to work together to enhance and accomplish critical ecosystem restoration efforts. A number of important work efforts are currently underway, including Portland Harbour in the Lower Basin, Hanford in the Middle Basin and Lake Roosevelt in the Upper Basin.


Kitesurfing on the Columbia River
Kitesurfing on the Columbia River

With the importance of the Columbia to the Pacific Northwest, it has made its way into the culture of the area and the nation. Several Indian tribes have a historical and continuing presence on the Columbia River, most notably the Sinixt or Lakes people.

From the Woody Guthrie song “ Roll on, Columbia”:

Roll on, Columbia, roll on, roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

In the movies

  • Bend of the River (with Jimmy Stewart), has a river boat scene filmed on the Columbia River in 1952.
  • In 1967, the episode “Ride the Mountain” of the television series Lassie featured the Columbia River Gorge.
  • The Grand Coulee Dam was used in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984; Harrison Ford).
  • The exterior river boat scenes from the 1994 film Maverick with ( Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, and James Garner), were shot on the Columbia River, in the Columbia River Gorge, near the town of Hood River.
  • The dock scene for Snow Falling on Cedars (1999; Ethan Hawke) was filmed on the river at Cathlamet, Wahkiakum County, Washington.
  • The rock jetty Free Willy jumps over to gain his freedom is located on the Oregon side of the river in the Hammond Boat Basin.
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