The Best Way to Explore the Columbia River Gorge
If there’s a prettier spot in the Pacific Northwest, we’re not sure we’ve seen it. Located within both Oregon and Washington State, the Columbia River Gorge is home to dramatic cliffs, towering waterfalls, and too many windsurfers and kiteboarders to count. Beyond the physical beauty and water sports, there’s a wine scene that’s grown into one of the most promising in the region.
Once here, it’s easy to honor the comparisons. Some even equate it to places like the Mosel. The sheer topography of the place is incredible, carved out by a massive river that scores of wild salmon and water enthusiasts call home. Up in the hills away from the river, vineyards join orchards and small farms, basking in the sun of the rain shadow cast by nearby Mt Hood. If you like sipping with a view, few places in the U.S. offer a wine experience quite like the Gorge.
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For Spanish varietals, head to Analemma Wines. Situated between Hood River and The Dalles in the charming farm town of Mosier, the winery is biodynamic and occupies a simply stunning setting. Check out ultra-intriguing wines like Mencia, Albarino, and some of the best Oregon sparkling outside of the Willamette Valley.
Hiyu Farm has garnered a bunch of great press and deservedly so. This bucolic spot seems removed from the modern world. It’s a working farm where some of the state’s most interesting wines are being produced. The blends (including some multi-vintage and some involving some 50 varieties) are inventive and made with minimal intervention and there’s even cider. If you really want to enjoy the splendor of the land, try one of Hiyu’s dining options, like the farmer’s lunch or feast.
Phelps Creek Vineyards is a proper standby along Hood River’s so-called fruit loop. It’s a trek through the fertile bench above the town, where there are scores of orchards, vineyards, and tasting rooms, most of which enjoy terrific views of Mt. Hood. The place nearly burned down a few years ago during colossal fires (started by fireworks), but it is still at it, making world-class Pinot Noir. They offer a handful of picnic and vineyard experiences, all framed around winemaker Alexandrine Roy’s elegant wines (she’s of the beloved Domaine Roy family out of Burgundy).
Across the river in Washington is Jacob Williams Winery. The family-owned operation in Wishram presents a sweeping view of the dramatic transition that takes place as you head east through the Gorge (it’s been reported that you lose an inch of annual precipitation for every mile you go, starting around Hood River). It’s dry and geologically wondrous, with so much to gawk at. The wine is good too, accented by the cheese and charcuterie items if you’re hungry. Look out for a refreshing Rosé of Cabernet Franc, balanced Viognier, and delectable reds like Sangiovese and Syrah.
While in Wishram, Cascade Cliffs is a worthwhile stop as well. The winery turns out great Italian varietals like Barbera and Nebbiolo from some of the oldest vines of their type in the region. West about 30 miles along Highway 14 is Loop de Loop, one of several wineries occupying the town of Underwood. The fruit is sourced from an estate vineyard set at 1,200 feet, planted to Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Grüner Veltliner. The winery even has a highly-experimental side label called Wallflower Project that should be on any wine fan’s radar.
Farther east and back across the river in Oregon is Sunshine Mill, a must-visit for anybody in the region. Self-described as an artisan plaza and winery, the mill is housed in a 130-year-old facility formerly owned by The Sunshine Biscuit Company (where Cheez-Its were made). It’s an incredible structure and even houses a Thomas Edison-built motor, used to power the building in its early era.
Today, it’s home to a pair of labels in Quintet Wine and Copa Di Vino. The former is a bit more formal with offerings like Zinfandel, Riesling, Merlot, and more. The latter is, as the name suggests, a wine-by-the-cup outfit. These portable offerings are ideal for those hiking and camping their way through the Gorge. There are great events here too, depending on the season, including drive-in movies.
Hood River is a great home base, boasting great stays at places like the waterfront Columbia Cliff Villas Hotel. The hip Society Hotel is right across the river in Bingen, Washington. If a resort is more your speed, Skamania Lodge is relatively close and touts all the creature comforts. For a more remote stay, consider the Old Parkdale Inn or The Lyle Hotel. Campers will find all kinds of options here, great for a single night or extended stay.
If you fancy a road trip and prefer luxurious accommodation with dramatic views overlooking the Columbia River Gorge further north in Washington State, we highly recommend using Sagecliffe Hotel Resort and Spa (formerly Cave B Resort & Winery) as a home base. It’s located in Quincy, within the Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley AVA. While the hotel itself was recently rebranded under new ownership, it’s still one of the nicest properties with a restaurant in the Pacific Northwest. Cave B Estate Winery and the famous Gorge Amphitheater are both within walking distance.
Hiking in the Gorge is a major draw, with many trails skirting along the steep rock formations that frame the river. These trails afford exceptional views, going in and out of forests, behind waterfalls, and to scenic lookouts. Dog Mountain is among the most popular, and for good reason, as it zig-zags up the Washington side of the Gorge to a stunning perch. On the Oregon side, Eagle Creek is a great out and back, perfect for those just looking for a quick hike along some freshwater or those wanting a full or multi-day excursion (it runs almost 30 miles).
Multnomah Falls is typically crowded and easy to see why. It’s worth a visit and if you’re willing to climb to the top and hike along the creek, you’ll lose most of the tourist traffic. Don’t forget to look down, as depending on the year, it might be wildflower or mushroom season. Ask around, get a map, and explore the many trails (and historic highway roads) of the area.
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