Fifteen thousand years ago, massive floodwaters broke through ice dams in Montana, carving through volcanic basalt deposits like a hot knife through butter, before roaring down the Columbia River toward the ocean. The resulting landscape, the Columbia River Gorge, is a haven for adventure seekers, as well as an ideal location for growing a vast variety of wine grapes. Several towns cling to the Columbia’s banks on both the Washington and Oregon sides, but Hood River is definitely the epicenter of culture in the gorge. Word has it Hood River is where gold medalists go to retire, often snagging a real-estate license on the way into town. With so much to do, eat, sip, and see, it’s hardly surprising that the population swells from 8,000 to nearly 25,000 during peak tourist season. Fall is one of the best times to savor fresh foods. Take a delicious drive on The Fruit Loop — 35 miles of pretty farmland and orchards full of goodness just waiting to be sampled.
To get there
Drive 60 minutes east of Portland via I-84 for maximum speed, but we suggest the meandering Highway 30 — otherwise known as the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway. It snakes through rain forest and past several waterfalls, including Latourall Falls (a quick walk from the parking lot), Horse Tail Falls (visible from the road), and the much-photographed Multnomah Falls (check out the infamous “wedding splash” photo in the day lodge!). Additionally, Amtrak operates a train line to Bingen, Washington (directly across the river from Hood River), that leaves from Vancouver, and Portland. A 10-minute taxi ride from the Bingen station will get you to your final destination.
Perched on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River, the Columbia Cliff Villas offer a wide range of options, from cozy Euro-style rooms to a three-bedroom penthouse suite affording a glorious view of the river. Next door is the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel, which has even sheltered presidents on a night or two. Farther east is what must be the pinnacle of Best Western hotels, the Hood River Inn. The rooms are comfortably appointed and pet-friendly; riverfront patio dining is available; and a sparkling pool overlooks the river below. And don’t underestimate the deals to be had on vrbo.com!
Tucked between sister wine regions in the Willamette Valley and Walla Walla, the Columbia Gorge offers the best of both regions. Rainfall decreases from 36 inches in the western foothills to a mere 8 inches per year on the east end — that’s an inch of rain decrease per mile, allowing the region to produce everything from Pinot Noir to Syrah.
On the way into town, stop off I-84 at Viento Wines tasting room for a sip of the Brut Rose before checking out the downtown wine destinations like The Pines 1852 and Naked Winery (psst … clothing is definitely required). Hood River is also home to many great brewery options, including tours at Full Sail Brewery or a waterfront pint at Pfriem Family Brewers. To learn more about the winemaking process, spend a couple of hours at Phelps Creek Vineyards, touring the 30-acre vineyard and winery, and tasting wines of 90+ scores (Wine Advocate, 2013). For wine tasting outside of Hood River, don’t miss the adorably intimate tasting room at Analemma Wines (Mosier) or the grand scale of Maryhill Winery across the river. Need caffeine? Step into Doppio Coffee & Lounge on Oak Street, one of many coffee shops in town.
Hood River has options from fast food (Taco Del Mar) to fine dining (Celilo Restaurant & Bar). Down on the waterfront, Solstice Wood Fire Café is a fantastic choice for families looking for original pizzas (like award-winning cherry, chorizo, and goat cheese) and entrees. Ask owners Suzanne and Aaron Baumhackl about the amazing Kickstarter campaign that funded their business. Don’t forget to snag a gelato next door at Cicci — an ice cream stand so cute, you’ll find more than one excuse to go back.
Autumn ushers in the Hood River Hops Fest (Sept. 26) and the Harvest Fest (Oct. 16-18). The Harvest Fest is a chance to enjoy Hood River’s goodness, from berries, pears, and apples to chocolate-covered cherries and smoked salmon. Sip wine, beer, and cider and get your holiday shopping done early by snagging some local arts and crafts.
The fall is also a great time to drive The Fruit Loop, a 35-mile adventure though farmlands and orchards where you can get wine, produce, fresh eggs, and more directly from farms. Expect pumpkins, gourds, chestnuts, pears, and apples.
Work it all off (if you went for the chocolate-covered fruits) at the Columbia Gorge Marathon (Oct. 25). In December, the “Holiday Town of Oregon” transforms into a classic holiday setting, with a kickoff event early in the month.
Wine tasting is always a fashionable activity throughout the gorge, but the area also offers so many ways to physically engage with nature. Hood River is a popular landing area for skiers and snowboarders carving up the “pow” at Meadows Ski Resort on Mount Hood. For sweeping views of the Columbia, drive up to Rowena Crest overlooking The Dalles. Bonus points for taking the short walk to the edge of the bluff.
Trails abound for hikes and bikes. Try the 14-mile round-trip (1,050 elevation gain) Hood River to Mosier trail through twin tunnels — fully paved, largely shaded, and car-free. Or wind through scenic orchards with views of Mount Adams and Mount Hood on the 21-mile round-trip (1,295 elevation gain) Eastside Loop. The easy, family-friendly 2-mile loop trail of the Catherine Creek Arch Hike rewards travelers with wildflowers, woodlands, and a stunning rock arch. Eagle Creek to Punchbowl Falls takes hikers through a lush narrow canyon to the waterfall in just 3.8 miles out and back. Continue on to Tunnel Falls if you fancy a long day hike (12 miles out and back).
Hood River is a family-friendly town, but those looking for some time alone can obtain childcare services at Our Children’s Place (teacherjanet.com) or Rachel’s Corner, LLC.