Time-dependent buoyant plumes form at the outflow of tidally dominated estuaries. When estuary discharge velocity exceeds plume internal wave speed c, a sharp front forms at the plume's leading edge that expands from the time-dependent source. Using observations of the Columbia River tidal plume from multiple tidal cycles we characterize time-evolving plume structure and quantify front speed Uf, plume internal wave speed c, front curvature, and ultimate extent. We identify three distinct stages of propagation: (1) Initially, the plume is strongly influenced by shallow bathymetry near the river mouth. (2) As the front advances offshore the plume detaches from the bottom and expands as a freely propagating gravity current with relatively constant Uf, c and frontal Froude number F = Uf/c. Ambient currents explain intracycle variability in Uf and winds alter front shape. Variability in ambient stratification associated with previous cycles' plume remnants leads to complex fronts and internal waves. (3) Finally, the plume decelerates, adjusts toward geostrophy, and may radiate additional internal waves. Using a simple kinematic model, we suggest that constant frontal propagation speed, Uf = 0.9 ± 0.1 m/s, during stage 2 is primarily controlled by linearly increasing volume flux from the Columbia River mouth. As this discharge rate subsides, the plume expands as a fixed volume with decreasing front speed (stage 3). The plume's final extent is controlled by the Rossby radius, which scales with a length based on the total volume discharged. This provides an integral description of plume front evolution based on the time-dependent estuary discharge.