A Walk on the Dry Side

Uncrowded Wildflower Walks, German Lagers, and Neon Signs Abound in The Dalles

Take a long weekend on the dry side of the Columbia River Gorge.

By Julia Silverman April 1, 2020 Published in the April 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

Horsethief Butte

In the spring, many a Portlander’s fancy turns to thoughts of wildflowers, resulting in a stampede to the best-known arrowleaf balsamroot and lupine meadows at the Tom McCall Preserve, outside Rowena, or to Washington’s huff-it-while-you-hoof-it Dog Mountain.

Instead, thwart the crowds with a trip to The Dalles, a slow-paced town of about 14,600 people, and have the wildflower-bedecked trails of the Columbia Hills State Park just across the river all to yourself. The nine miles of trails include a kid-friendly side trip to check out a series of Native petroglyphs and a muscle-flexing climb up Horsethief Butte.

Lights at the Neon Museum

Image: Nick Benko

If you’re there the last weekend in April, hit up the four-decades-and-counting Northwest Cherry Festival, which includes a cherry pie eating contest. The namesake fruit won’t ripen for another few months, but you can still hit up excellent farm stands for cherry preserves, including Sandoz Farms, just a 10-minute drive from downtown. One overnight
option is the midcentury-modern motel Celilo Inn, which shares its name with the falls and rapids that disappeared with the construction of The Dalles Dam in 1957. (Make a note to return to the inn in summer for a dip in the outdoor mineral pool.)

Fuel up before your hike at Kainos Coffee and Pizza, a two-year-old outpost of the popular Northeast Portland roastery serving coffee and egg sandos on home-baked biscuits. Afterward, tuck in to pub food and German lagers at Freebridge Brewing, which opened in 2016 in a building that, for a hot minute about 150 years ago, was intended to be a branch of the US Mint thanks to Eastern Oregon’s gold rush.

Due to its location in the rainshadow of Mount Hood, The Dalles is often dry and sunny when Portland is trapped under a gray layer of drizzle. But there are plenty of indoor diversions, too. Poke around at the optimistically named National Neon Sign Museum (take that, Las Vegas!), and don’t miss the 19-foot-long centerpiece, a trimly-turned-out female diver repping Portland’s iconic Jantzen swimwear.

Cap off the stay with a glass of the 2016 viognier at Sunshine Mill downtown, located in a former wheat mill, once owned by the Sunshine Biscuit Company, makers of Cheez-Its. More elevated food is found these days at the on-site Boiler House Bar: try the cheese fondue, served properly with salami and toast points. After dinner, stroll over to the newly refurbished Granada Theatre, said to have been the first venue west of the Mississippi to screen a “talkie.” Now, it’s a movie and performing arts venue, showcasing classic rock tribute bands and jazz musicians up from Portland for a night. 

Wine at Sunshine Mill

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