Travel

Oregon’s Best Small Town Has Mountains, Waterfalls, and Ridiculously Good Beer

Step aside, Portland!

The Columbia River Gorge cuts a rugged path through the foothills of the Cascade Range, separating Oregon and Washington as if an enormous deity cleaved the two apart with an 80-mile-long axe blade. Cliffs rise hundreds of feet from the blue waters— some bare and charred from wildfire, others blanketed in emerald fir. Around its dozens of bends, waterfalls burst forth behind a blanket of trees.

It’s one of the most gorgeous drives in the country, a scenic wonderland that was capturing imaginations for centuries before Lewis and Clark ever laid eyes on it. Many people simply drive through, stopping for a quick photo on Multnomah Falls' famous bridge at the midway point. But haste means missing one of America’s greatest small towns, tucked dead center in the Gorge before it opens its mouth eastward: Hood River.

An hour east of Portland, this tiny town of around 8,000 rises from the shores of the Columbia River like the flannel-clad distant cousin of Italy's coastal hillsides. To the south, snow-capped Mt. Hood looms in the sky. On the water, boats and kitesurfers crash into waves. The streets ascend like a tiny, friendly San Francisco forged by lumberjacks with a particular love of beer, art, music, food, and community.  

The neverending stream of cityfolk has landed the city an unfortunate—and derided—nickname: Portland's Backyard. But this is no Stumptown satellite. Hood River holds its own by doing pretty much everything right, and many things better than cities exponentially bigger. It's a paradisiacal place whose spoils seem a mystery to all but invading Portlanders, dedicated outdoors-people, and Sasquatch. But once you’ve discovered its charms, you’ll find it's just as worthy a destination as any vista point or vertiginous waterfall in the Gorge.

Stroll through America’s best little beer town

It's well known that the Beaver State has excellent beer. But it's not exclusive to Portland or Bend. In idyllic Hood River, you’ll find a city-sized beer scene crammed into arguably the best small town in the state

Full Sail, the second landmark you see from I-84 (the first is the towering interstate bridge stretching across the water), is one of Oregon's most successful breweries that kicked off Hood River's craft renaissance in 1987. The huge brewery is a must for first-timers, if only to get a flight overlooking the Columbia on the sprawling deck.

On a smaller scale, the waterfront pFriem Family Brewers is universally considered one of the best breweries in Oregon—which also means in the US—thanks to its impeccable sours and crisp ales made with German, Belgian and American influences. Downtown's Double Mountain, home to a killer Imperial red and a secret stash of brewery exclusives, also shells out some of Oregon's best pizza in the form of blistered, New Haven-adjacent pies. Meanwhile, newcomer Ferment Brewing brings old-school farmhouse techniques courtesy of a former pFriem brewer. 

What’s more, Hood River—part of the larger Gorge Beer Trail— has no open-container law, meaning you can explore the waterfront, downtown, or sandy beaches with a beer in hand. Just make sure not to skip the many, many dive bars lining the streets; after all, even the best beer isn’t a great well shot chaser, especially if you've somehow ventured to the outskirts of town and chanced upon the rickety local haunt Red Carpet Inn.

apple farm
Photo courtesy of Visit Hood River

Farm-fresh food and Fruit Loops

Farm-to-table has become a cliche, especially in Oregon. Blame Hood River: much of the fresh produce that hits plates in Portland actually comes from here.

As the roads of the Hood River Valley twist skyward to Mt. Hood, they take on a new name: The Fruit Loop. Along the 35-mile scenic drive, you'll come across seemingly-endless berry farms and orchards growing both apples and pears—so many pears, in fact, that Hood River accounts for 30% of America's wintertime supply of the fat-bottomed fruit. 

There are also vineyards, which establishes Hood River as a slept-upon wine region hiding in plain sight east of the Willamette Valley. You'll find vintners like Wy'East, Marchesi, Cathedral Ridge, and more, all with great views to pair with the wine.  

So when a great Hood River restaurant like the seasonally focused fine-dining spot Ceilo touts farm-fresh bites, or experimental wood-fired pizza spot Solstice starts putting cherries on its pies (trust us), they'll surely be from down the street. And when pFriem launches its seasonal apricot sour, it's a good bet that the brewer threw back a couple test rounds with the farmer who grew the fruit.

kayaker
Photo courtesy of Visit Hood River

An outdoor experience unlike anywhere else

You’re here to get outside, whether in the temperate-but-busy summer or the rainy-but-chill fall and winter. For some, that just means grabbing a growler for a cliffside sunset. For others, it means working up a sweat.

The Gorge's towering rock walls turn the river into a wind tunnel, making it a worldwide destination for kitesurfing—and pros flock here by the dozens to vie for space with kayakers. For more earthbound amateurs, multiple local businesses offer lessons, including Cascade Kiteboarding.

The surrounding Gorge wilderness is circuitously connected with near endless trails, making it among the hottest areas for hikers and climbers of all skill levels. The most popular day-trip area is the Old Gorge Highway, a short drive west of HR and home to dozens of waterfalls ranging from the heavily touristed Multnomah and Oneonta to smaller falls best discovered by accident. 

Jordan Siemens/Stone/Getty Images

In the hills above the city, you'll also find some of the best mountain-biking trails in the PNW, rife with wild mountain streams and lakes as you climb perilously in elevation en route to the snow-capped face of Mt. Hood. 

But you needn't be too hardcore to commune with nature here—simply walking the streets can be its own outdoor experience. Stick around past sunset for a stunning cosmic panorama (a stay at an Airbnb anywhere nearby, or the historic Hood River Hotel downtown, will put you front and center for the star show). 

Nowhere else can you simultaneously experience the ideal river town, friendly mountain village, secret beer spot, hidden wine country, and outdoor wonderland. In Hood River, pretty much everything is special, no matter how many times you experience it.

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Andy Kryza is a former Thrillist editor and longtime Oregon resident who could really go for a bottle of pFriem right about now. He currently resides in southern Sweden, the Oregon of Europe.
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