The town of White Salmon, perched on a bluff 600 feet above the Columbia River, seems designed to ogle Mount Hood. You spy the postcard-perfect peak from the gargantuan deck at Everybody’s Brewing’s new HQ, catch snowy glimpses from the windows of the Inn of the White Salmon, and find it winking at you as you stroll the main drag. Hood might be in Oregon; but its majestic peak is best enjoyed from Washington. “We’ve got the better views,” says innkeeper Flo Niemesch proudly. “And we’re on the sunny side of the Gorge.”
That good-natured boast hints at a major change for this small city and Bingen, its mill town neighbor. For decades, Northwesterners have flooded Hood River for Columbia paddles and fruit loops, swelling that once-humble burg (and its housing prices) to its limits. The Washington side stayed small—with few lodging options and much of its river access barred by a railroad line. But with a clutch of farm-centric eateries and sharp wineries, white-water adventures, and the impending launch of the area’s first boutique hotel next summer, the tide is finally shifting to this sleepier side of the Gorge.
To get a taste of the changes for yourself, start with breakfast at Jure Poberaj and Nina Jimenez’s White Salmon Baking Company. The Hood River expats’ chic café, just off the main drag, revolves around a massive brick oven that delivers a parade of caramelly fruit tarts, addictive poppy spelt loaves, and (Monday nights only) char-edged pizzas, most everything made with cult Camas Country Mill flours and scores from nearby farms and orchards.
“White Salmon is a young person’s outdoorsy town, like what Hood River used to be 10 years ago,” says Poberaj, whose flake-salted double chocolate cookie is reason enough to pay the $2 toll to cross the Hood River Bridge. “There’s a new generation here, bringing the town up without losing the small-town feel.”
Indeed, you can explore White Salmon’s wee urban core in an afternoon. Window-shop pottery and glass studios, then swill a pint of lush Cryo-Chronic IPA and demolish legit fiery hot wings at Everybody’s Brewing. Peruse Sarah Morton-Erasmus’s silver bangles at M. E. Jewelry Co, then mosey next door to Henni’s, the restaurant she owns with her husband, chef Christiaan Erasmus, and the town’s default for vivid curries and burgers. Afterward, chat up locals over pours of dry, excellent gewürztraminer across the street at Le Doubblé Troubblé Wine Co, a chic tasting room run by a pair of urbane ski bums who traded the Willamette Valley for the Columbia Valley AVA.
Just 15 minutes east of town, along Old Highway 8 leading to neighboring Lyle, a handful of other wineries are making waves (often with grapes from hot, windy Horse Heaven Hills two hours farther east). Syncline Winery beckons with quirky Rhône varietals, bright, lemony Picpoul to wild Carignan-grenache, best enjoyed while swinging in one of its garden hammocks. Meanwhile, Cor Cellars flaunts a tasting room that looks like a Dwell mag cover (roaring fireplace, Hood view), with crowd-pleasing cab francs and a ripe red blend. “We have this extreme ability to delight and surprise,” says Cor wine club manager Cat Kaczynski. “Nobody knows about us yet.”
Rather sweat than sip? Access a patchwork of hiking and biking trails for every level along that same Old Highway 8—from heart-pounding mountain biking on Syncline/Coyote Wall to Catherine Creek, an easy 2.6-mile loop ramble through gnarled oaks (and seasonal carpets of wildflowers) that edges up the spine of a basalt gully to deliver a Cinemascope vista of Oregon’s hills and mountain. Everything smells of ponderosa pine and dry heat, more Bend than mossy Gorge.
Afterward, hunker down near the fire pit on the pretty back patio at the Inn of the White Salmon (from $129), a crisp, renovated base camp with a cozy family room, free yoga classes at the shala across the street, and a fully stocked library of hiking tomes you can use to plan your next adventure.
A four-minute drive down the hill putters you to White Salmon’s riverside sister town of Bingen, population 722. Its downtown is a quaint blip of a strip, home to gravity bike hub Doctor Roscoe’s Holistic Bike Repair and garden-fed food cart the Huck Truck. (The crispy pork sandwiches with “kraut-chi” are a town-wide obsession.) Must-visit Antiques & Oddities bursts with a rainbow of glass tableware, vintage records, and dusty furniture.
Bingen also is where the team behind Portland’s Society Hotel is plotting the Washington Gorge’s tourism takeover. The hoteliers, a quintet that includes the owner of Kenton’s Posies Bakery & Café and a historic restoration specialist, are transforming the town’s 80-year-old schoolhouse-turned-hostel into Society Hotel Bingen, an Ace-meets-McMenamins boutique hotel with room for nearly 150 and a daily shuttle from its hipster sister in Portland’s Old Town (reserve bunks from $45, rooms from $129 for summer/fall 2019). The school’s former gym will become an event center and rumpus room for guests; the main school, shared bathroom suites and triple-stack bunk rooms. The old baseball diamond will house a ring of two-bedroom cabins, with a hot tub/cold plunge spa in the middle. There’s also a skylit meditation dome ... yes, they’re going big. Towering black locust trees dot the property, which sits a block north of Highway 14.
“I’ve been coming to the Washington side of the Gorge for 30 years. I fell for it,” says Society co-owner Matt Siegel, an East Coaster who grew up summering at his aunt and uncle’s cabin 34 miles west in Skamania. “What we’re doing with the hotel is going be impactful. Hopefully, it’s impactful in a positive way.”
With the Columbia relatively tough to access (pending ongoing 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, as well as world-class white-water kayaking and rafting in the shadow of Mount Adams. April through September, book a half- or full-day trip with area outfits like Wet Planet Whitewater Rafting, which leads boat-as-roller-coaster expeditions down the White Salmon’s Class III and IV rapids, culminating in a 12-foot vertical drop over Husum Falls.
No matter the season, make like a local and grab a cushy bar stool at Bingen bar Chip’s, a dive institution seemingly glued together by wood paneling, yellowed newspaper clippings, and Christmas lights. Kite boarders, mill workers, and rafting guides pack the place. Scream-sing karaoke over pints of Boneyard IPA and baskets of fried things (jalapeño poppers, dill pickles ... gizzards) and count yourself proud you got in on this place, and its surrounding natural wonders, before the rest of Portland landed.
Travel Time: 1-hour drive from Portland