A river view from the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, a six-minute drive from the site of the new Bingen hotel, slated to open summer 2019

Image: David Gaston

For decades, Portlanders have flooded the city of Hood River for paddles in the Columbia River and Mount Hood apple loops. But while this Oregon burg has boomed (along with its housing prices), the pair of towns just across the Hood Bridge have stayed small. On the Washington side, White Salmon and Bingen offer visitors few lodging options and even less river access—much of it barred by a busy railroad line.

But come summer 2019, the team behind Old Town’s posh Society Hotel aims to change that. They’re betting big on Gorge's sleepier side with the Society Hotel Bingen: an Ace-meets-McMenamins boutique hotel and spa with room for nearly 150 guests, and plans for a daily shuttle from its hipster sister hotel in Portland.

The hoteliers, a quintet that includes Jessie Burke, owner of Kenton’s Posies Bakery & Café, have been hard at work since spring, transforming the small town’s vacant 80-year-old schoolhouse-turned-hostel into a chic, outdoorsy adventure lover’s basecamp.

The old entry of the 80-year old Bingen school (and Inn) will transform into a welcome area for the Society Hotel Bingen in summer 2019.

The school’s light-streaming former gym will become an event center and rumpus room for guests—complete with bleachers, basketball hoops, cornhole, and cocktails. The main school will house an airy lobby with snacks and drinks, tidy suites with shared bathrooms, and a pair of fancy summer camp-style triple-stack bunk rooms (the same high-end berths with which the Society made its name in Portland). Bunks will run $45/night, rooms $129/night in the high season—with deep off-season discounts.

Society enlisted Portland's Waechter Architecture to morph the old baseball diamond adjacent to the school into a ring of two-bedroom cabins ($159–299/night, depending on the season), with a hot tub/cold plunge spa in the middle. (Think Portland’s Knot Springs, but with peekaboo views of the Columbia River.) The hoteliers also have plans for courtyards, kombucha bars, and even a 30-foot diameter meditation dome buried in the yard, lit by a central skylight. Yes, they’re going big. Towering black locust trees dot the property, which sits a block north of Highway 14 just past Bingen's blip of a main drag. (Turn at Margie’s Pot Shop and you’re there.)

“I’ve been coming to Washington side of the Gorge for 30 years. I fell for it,” says Society co-owner Matt Siegel, an avid outdoorsman who also owns the Portland-based general contracting company Building Blocks. The East Coaster grew up summering at his aunt and uncle’s cabin 30 miles west in Skamania and encouraged his hotel partners to look beyond Hood River for a Gorge property. “What we’re doing with the hotel is going to be impactful. Hopefully, it’s impactful in a positive way.”

A rendering of Society Hotel Bingen’s plans for a luxe spa courtyard ringed by two-bedroom cabins—design work by Portland's Waechter Architecture and landscaping by Blossom Design.

It seems that everybody in and around Bingen (pop. 722) is buzzing about the hotel; on a recent visit, it was a topic of conversation at the tasting room at Cor Cellars in the vine-staked hills east of town, among parking lot lunchers at the town’s go-to food cart/obsession the Huck Truck, and with Bingen’s own Mayor Betty Barnes.

“There’s going to be a lot of changes coming along for Bingen as the Society Hotel opens,” she says. “Tourism is not something that’s been worked at very hard [around here]. What we’re lacking on this side of the Gorge is overnight and weekend lodging. A place for people to stay. So, Society will be a big, big plus. From looking at their plans and designs, it looks like a good place to kick back, relax, and have a good time—I bet we’re gonna have locals staying there too!” 

(One project she’s hoping to look into: a quiet zone for downtown Bingen and the new hotel. Currently around 35 trains blast past town each day, horns a-blarin’.) 

In addition to a slower pace and small town feel, the Gorge's Washington side has plenty of natural draws, from heart-pumping mountain biking to miles of trails winding through shady forests with picture-perfect waterfalls, or switchbacking up basalt formations with crazy views of the Mt Hood. With the Columbia River less accessible (pending some ongoing, long-term city negotiations with railroad companies), Society owners expect the White Salmon and Klickitat Rivers to steal the spotlight, with prime fishing for summer steelhead and fall Chinook and coho and rollercoaster-worthy white-water kayaking and rafting in the shadow of Mount Adams.

A mid-summer view along the Catherine Creek trail, just a 10 minute drive east of Bingen, Washington.

Image: David Gaston

Psst: Townies are still quick to share quirky directions to under-the-radar Columbia River beaches too, including an inky sanded kiteboarder spot accessed by a weedy path under a train trestle where the glacial White Salmon River meets the warmer Columbia a few minutes west of town. (For a more straightforward dip, head to Doug’s Beach State Park in nearby Lyle, where a broad sandbar lets you float with a heavenly panoramic view of the Oregon hills, kiteboarders whizzing by.)

The hoteliers expect the Society Hotel Bingen to be a year-round draw, especially as a potential conference spot for Insitu, the Bingen-born drone maker that now boasts a 120,000-square-foot headquarters and production facility on the town’s industrial riverfront—just past a lumber mill and fruit packing company. Insitu has brought an influx of white-collar jobs to this small timber town over the past decade, along with heightened demand for lodging.

The Society team also has designs on Hood River—in a way. Another Society co-owner, Carrington Barrs, bought Hood River’s popular event venue and live music spot The Ruins less than a year ago. The team hopes to use the funky space as Society’s de facto event space, shuttling revelers to and fro over the Columbia for weddings and other large gatherings.

“I’ve traveled all over the world, and still I think the Gorge is among the more spectacular places on earth,” Siegel says. “And the fact that we have it within an hour’s drive of Portland…now that’s incredible.”

The Society Hotel Bingen is accepting waitlist reservations for June, July, and August 2019 via frontdesk@thesocietyhotel.com. Long-term planners can also officially book rooms for fall 2019 at thesocietyhotel.com/bingen starting Aug 15.

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