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Pilot Getaways: The heart of the Columbia GorgePilot Getaways Hood River Oregon

Hood River, Oregon

Editor's note: We asked the GA travel experts at Pilot Getaways to share some of their favorite fly-out destinations. This article originally appeared in the Pilot Getaways magazine and was updated Aug. 17 to reflect TacAero as the only FBO at the facility. Want more? We've secured exclusive AOPA members-only discount pricing for a subscription.
The Columbia River Gorge, flanked by 4,000-foot cliffs, is one of the most scenic landscapes in the country. Impressive views of Mount Hood and Mount Adams, as well as myriad hiking trails and cascading waterfalls, are not to be missed. At the eastern end of the gorge sits Hood River, Ore., a town of 7,000 people where you can enjoy juicy apples and pears, one of the Northwest’s oldest vineyards, tasty microbrews, friendly people, and an air museum.
  • An Aeronca LC based at Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum takes to the skies. Photo courtesy of WAAAM.
  • Majestic Mount Hood keeps watch over the many orchards, vineyards, and scenic landscapes of Hood River. Photo courtesy of Hood River County Chamber of Commerce.
  • The winds of the Columbia Gorge make Hood River a windsurfing and kiteboarding paradise. Photo by Jennifer Reinhard.
  • The Mount Hood Railroad is a great way to experience the scenic wonder of Hood River and the surrounding areas. Photo by Erin Willison.
  • The juicy grapes of The Pines vineyards are used to produce their renowned Zinfandel wine. Photo courtesy of The Pines.
  • The historic charm of the Hood River Hotel helps welcome the holidays. Photo by Peter Marbach.

Subscribe to Pilot Getaways at a special AOPA members-only rate.The steep cliffs form a wind tunnel in the summer months as the westerly Pacific winds rush through the gorge to replace the rising warm air of eastern Oregon and Washington’s high desert. The winds reach their peak intensity of up to 40 mph at Hood River, the gorge’s narrowest point, earning it the title, “windsurfing capital of the world,” for about 30 years. More recently, kiteboarders have also been drawn from around the world. If you are not a windsurfer, there are still numerous reasons to explore this town in any season. Celebrate Christmas with Hood River Holidays and take a train ride on the Polar Express. Shop for something uniquely Oregon from talented artists, hit the slopes of Mount Hood, or dine in a restaurant bursting with Northwest flavor.

Flying There

Ken Jernstedt Airfield (4S2) is a 3 1/2-mile drive south of Hood River, and about 45 nm east of Portland International Airport (PDX). It sits at 638 feet MSL at the eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge, flanked by 11,239-foot Mount Hood to the south and 12,276-foot Mount Adams to the north.

With prevailing westerly winds, the Willamette Valley to the west is frequently cool and moist, which often results in low stratus or fog in the Portland area. To the east are mostly high deserts that are usually dry and sunny. First check the 4S2 local AWOS at 134.375 MHz. You can also check the ASOS on 135.175 MHz at Columbia Gorge Regional/The Dalles Municipal Airport (DLS), about 16 nm east of Hood River, and the ATIS at Portland-Troutdale Airport (TTD), about 37 nm west, on 135.625 MHz. If ceilings are low at TTD and you’re tempted to sneak through the gorge, keep in mind that the weather can deteriorate quickly and there isn’t much room to turn around, potentially leaving you in the clouds, surrounded by mountains, with no options. If the visibility is sufficient, you can fly relatively low, but be cautious of the cables at 440 feet extending across the river about 3 nm southwest of Cascade Locks State Airport (CZK). It’s also advisable to avoid the area during high winds that can swirl through the gorge and create strong turbulence.

To the east of Hood River, the terrain is gentler, and the riverbanks rise about 1,000 feet from the Columbia River. You’ll need to avoid the R-5701 restricted areas and the Boardman MOA, just west of Hermiston Airport (HRI) and watch out for the numerous windmills dotting the banks, the highest of which reaches 3,534 feet MSL.

Aerial view of Ken Jerstedt Airfield (4S2) facing southwest. Photo courtesy of Port of Hood River.

Ken Jernstedt Airfield is in a little valley, and, due to gorge winds, can often be bumpy on approach. Runway 7/25 is aligned to reduce difficult crosswinds, but they do still occur. The friendly staff at TacAero will ensure you have everything you need, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. (Oct–Apr), 8 a.m.–6 p.m. (May–Sep), 844-359-2827.

History

Lewis and Clark passed by present-day Hood River in 1805 on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean, but the area remained unsettled until the mid-1850s. Among the first European settlers were Nathaniel Coe and his wife, Mary. They planted the first fruit trees, mainly apple trees, and strawberry bushes in the fertile, volcanic soil. Mary changed the name of the river that flows down from Mount Hood from “Dog River” to “Hood River.” Apple orchards flourished from the 1890s to 1919, when a devastating freeze wiped most of them out. Many farmers then opted to plant pear trees, and Hood River is now one of the world’s largest producers of Anjou pears, though apples are still prominent.

In 1881, the Union Pacific Railroad completed the transcontinental line from Portland to Omaha, Neb. The town of Hood River was laid out that same year. The Mount Hood Hotel was constructed just up the street from the downtown railroad depot to accommodate commercial travelers and weekend tourists; an annex built in 1911–1912 is now the Hood River Hotel (see Where to Stay). An early advertisement labeled Hood River as “the sort of place you’d bring your wife or best gal.” The city was incorporated in 1895.

In September 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew up the gorge from Portland in his legendary Spirit of St. Louis and even flew under the newly constructed Bridge of the Gods connecting Oregon and Washington near today’s Cascade Locks Airport. Mail planes were already flying through the gorge as their main thoroughfare heading east through the Cascades, but there were very few places to land. A field west of town and even a sandbar served as airports until the Hood River Airport was built in 1945. In 2001, the airport changed its name to Ken Jernstedt Airfield, in honor of the World War II Flying Tiger hero whose family still resides in Hood River.

At the turn of the 21st century, Hood River reinvented itself; it refurbished downtown and capitalized on the unique blend of local artists, wineries, microbreweries, orchards, and history that shaped this region.

What to Do

The airport is 3 1/2 road miles south of Hood River. Once you get to town, most activities and restaurants are within walking distance of places to stay. The only activity in this article requiring a car ride is the 35-mile Fruit Loop along scenic Highway 35.

Right at the airport, you can travel through the “Golden Era of Transportation” and experience an air museum with more than just airplanes. The Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum (WAAAM) boasts a collection of 118 aircraft, 140 cars, and 37 motorcycles. About 90 percent of them are flyable or drivable. See first-hand the only flyable Aeronca LC, a 1917 Curtiss Jenny (Serial No. 1), a rare Boeing 40C, a 1910 Curtiss Pusher, a 1912 Indian motorcycle, Model A and Model T Fords, and a 1966 Ford Mustang, just to name a few. Hanging in the lobby is the Curtiss Pusher replica that, in 1995, together with the Director of Restorations, recreated the 1912 flight by Lincoln Beachey off the roof of Portland’s Multnomah Hotel to Pearson Airport in Vancouver, Wash. On the second Saturday of every month, activities include antique airplane flights and antique car rides. You may even get to ride in a Model T. (It’s more complicated to operate than you might think.) The second weekend of September, WAAAM hosts a fly-in with upwards of 300 airplanes in attendance. Hours are 9 a.m.–5 p.m., admission $6–$14, 1600 Air Museum Rd., 541-308-1600.

Ride a train and wind through orchards, lush forests, and fields of wildflowers on the century-old Mount Hood Railroad. Take an excursion to the historic town of Parkdale, or experience the dinner or brunch train. You can also dine on the Murder Mystery Dinner Train where anyone can be a suspect. Or ring in the holidays aboard the Polar Express; wear your PJs, enjoy caroling and hot cocoa, receive a silver bell, and meet Santa. Prices run $30–$85, open year-round, 110 Railroad Ave., 541-386-3556 or 800-872-4661.

The WAAAM houses a unique collection of airplanes, cars, and motorcycles. Photo courtesy of WAAAM.

Hood River highlights local artists and offers a unique downtown shopping experience. You’ll find jewelers with exquisite creations, stores with stylish garments hand-crafted with alpaca wool, and bookstores stocked with terrific selections. There are stores with items for your furry friends, and shops to buy local jams, honey, and smoked salmon. A shop aptly named “Made in the Gorge” features jewelry, pottery, handbags and other items made exclusively in the local area. Stores are generally open 10 a.m.–6 p.m., and most are on Oak Street, downtown’s main thoroughfare. For a listing of shops and information on local activities, contact the Hood River County Chamber of Commerce, 720 E. Port Marina Dr., 541-386-2000 or 800-366-3530.

Hood River boasts seven wine tasting rooms downtown. The Pines is one of the oldest vineyards in the Northwest. It is renowned for its Zinfandel, but also has noteworthy Merlot and Syrah. The vineyard was originally planted in the late 1800s by an Italian stonemason, Louis Comini, from grapevines he brought from his hometown of Genoa. Their downtown tasting room is the place to be on Friday nights with live music, friendly staff, and of course, wine tasting. Wine tasting is $10 per person, reimbursed with a bottle purchase, tasting room open year-round, Oct–May hours: Thu noon–7 p.m., Fri noon–10 p.m., Sat–Sun noon–7 p.m., 202 Cascade Ave., 541-993-8301.

Wine-tasting tours with Martin’s Gorge Tours include a sampling of some 40 wineries among orchards and vineyards. Or to experience the scenic wonder of the gorge, waterfall and wildflower hiking tours range from easy to challenging trails, tours $49–$99 per person, 503-349-1323. Explore the Gorge offers adventure excursions that follow the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, visiting unique rock formations, Native American petroglyphs, and other historic sites. On the West Gorge tour, you’ll feel the spray from 621-foot Multnomah Falls and visit the historic Vista House. Tours are customizable, so call for prices and times, 1360 Barker Rd., 541-386-2384 or 800-899-5676.

Many festivals throughout the year celebrate the seasons and feature talented artisans and agricultural enterprises from around the Pacific Northwest, including pottery, jewelry, wood sculpture, food, and more. In April, the Blossom Time welcomes the arrival of spring and blossoming of the fruit trees. The Hood River Hop Fest in September celebrates local beer. In October, the Harvest Fest lets visitors savor the abundance of luscious apples and pears. The magic of Christmas shines December 2–24 during the Hood River Holidays. Enjoy the city’s holiday parade and the lighting of Oak Street and the city tree on the first Friday of December, followed by cookies, cocoa, caroling, and a visit from Santa.

Oregon’s iconic 11,239-foot Mount Hood offers skiing, snowboarding, and snow-tubing just a 30-minute drive from Hood River. Many accommodations sell discounted lift tickets, and shuttles are available during ski season (see Transportation). On the southeastern flank of the mountain, Mount Hood Meadows is the most easily accessible from Hood River. It is the largest of the resorts, with 2,150 skiable acres served by 11 lifts, five of which are high-speed quads, and an annual snowfall average of 430 inches. You can also enjoy 140 acres of night skiing, lift tickets $25–$74, 9 a.m.–4 p.m., night-skiing Wed–Sun 3–9 p.m., 503-337-2222.

The Timberline Lodge Ski Area at the 6,000-foot level offers year-round skiing, 3,690 vertical feet, and a historic lodge that is a prominent Northwest landmark, day lift tickets $33–$70, 9 a.m.–4 p.m., 503-272-3410 or 800-547-1406. Ski-bowl is the nation’s largest night-skiing mecca with 34 lighted runs, 90-acres, and 1,500 vertical feet, lift tickets $27–$70, Mon–Thu 3–10 p.m., Fri 9 a.m.–10 p.m., Sat 8 a.m.–11 p.m., Sun 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Their snow-tubing hill is open weekends and holidays, 10 a.m.–6 p.m., $19–$29 for two hours, 503-272-3206.

When locals say “fruit loop,” chances are they are not referring to the cereal, but rather the 35-mile scenic loop around Hood River that showcases the orchards, forests, farmlands, and friendly people. Driving the loop takes about 40 minutes. In Lavender Valley, the fragrant blossoms of 15,000 lavender plants contrast brightly against the blue sky. A gift shop with bath products, culinary treats, essential oils, and hand-painted home décor provides that perfect souvenir, open 11 a.m.–5 p.m. (end of May–Labor Day), 5965 Boneboro Rd., 541-386-1906. You can experience a century-old working farm, an exquisite historical home, and local fruit, wine, flowers, and mountain views at the Gorge White House, Fri–Mon 10 a.m.–6 p.m. (Apr, May & Oct), Fri–Sun 10 a.m.–6 p.m. (Nov), 10 a.m.–7 p.m. (Jun–Sep), 2265 Hwy 35, 541-386-2828.

Hood River is a good location for windsurfing, kiteboarding, kayaking, and stand-up paddling. Many locals windsurf in the gorge year-round, but the warmest and most reliable winds occur from June through September, and are usually strongest midday. Hood River is at the narrowest point in the gorge, and typically has the strongest winds. The Hook, at the west end of the Hood River waterfront, is a protected lagoon great for learning and perfecting windsurfing skills. As you progress, you can graduate to the west side of the Hook that has more action but is still protected from the large river swells and is outside the barge channel. Once you master the water start, the Event Site is a good intermediate area. Then, it’s out into the river where swells can reach 4–6 feet. Kiteboarding has also become increasingly popular. The Sandbar is the only sandy launching spot in the gorge, but inexperienced kiteboarders should take lessons first. For lessons and equipment rentals, visit Hood River Waterplay, lessons $79–$283, Port Marina Park, 541-386-9463 or 800-963-SURF. Big Winds also provides lessons, rentals, and supplies, $79–$179 for lessons, 207 Front St., 541-386-6086 or 888-509-4210.

Where to Stay

Several bed and breakfast inns dot the area, each with its own distinctive charm. For a listing of vacancies at 18 local B&Bs, contact the Columbia River Gorge – Hood River Bed-and-Breakfast Association, 541-386-6767. The three B&Bs featured here are just blocks from downtown.

Housed in a spacious 1909 cottage, the Hood River BnB exudes country charm. The deck boasts a great view of Mount Adam’s snowy peak and the mighty Columbia River. Gorgeous hardwood floors adorn the main living area, and plush carpet elsewhere feels great on tired feet. The large guestrooms are cheerfully painted, and colorful quilts with plush pillows and linens cover the queen beds. The Sky Room has walls that match the clear blue sky, and the bathroom displays blue tile on the sinks and huge whirlpool tub. Just off the bathroom is the “ultimate” walk-in closet. Wake up to a tasty breakfast of crêpes, served family-style, which you can fill with fresh fruit and local jams. Innkeepers Jim and Jane Nichols are fellow aviation enthusiasts and past owners of a Cessna 172 and Turbo 210. Jim keeps busy developing software for aerial photography. They came to Hood River to leave the hustle and bustle of California, and, as Jane says, the minute she set foot in Hood River, she was home. You will be too, and you’ll leave feeling like family, rooms $85–$135, 918 Oak St., 541-387-2997.

In the 1940s, a timber executive lived in a 1908 Queen Anne-style house a 5–10 minute walk from downtown. When he was called to active duty as a Naval Officer during World War II, his wife remained at the house. She turned the three upstairs bedrooms into apartments, complete with kitchens, which she rented to other wives whose husbands were deployed. The house became the Inn at the Gorge in 1987; the current owners, Michele and Frank Bouche, bought it in 2007. The bold colors, detailed artwork, and intricate design of the furniture make it a great place to relax. Check out the secret passage to the attic if you stay in the Cascade Suite. You can unwind on the wrap-around porch and explore the shade garden on the house’s west side. Breakfast includes a delectable menu of fresh Northwest ingredients, rooms $119–$159, 1113 Eugene St., 541-386-4429 or 877-852-2385.

The Villa Columbia is housed in a large, luxurious 1911 dwelling with views of the Columbia River. Rich wood tones, soothing colors, plush sofas near the fireplace in the Great Room, and antiques combine to make it an elegant, European-style retreat. True to its namesake, the Columbia River Room has the inn’s best river view. Relax in comfort and enjoy the marble-topped fireplace, six-foot Jacuzzi tub, plush linens, and a tasteful array of antique décor. A gourmet, three-course breakfast is expertly prepared with local ingredients, rooms $169–$219, 902 Oak St., 541-386-6670.

The River Rooms at the Hood River Hotel combine history, elegance, and wondrous views of the Columbia River. Photo courtesy of Hood River Hotel.

The Hood River Hotel combines historic charm with modern luxury in the heart of downtown. This iconic landmark was constructed in 1911–12 as an annex to the Mount Hood Hotel, which was built in the 1880s to accommodate railroad travelers, but was demolished in the 1920s. The lobby showcases vintage architectural detail with a large fireplace, tapestry curtains, and crown molding. Oversized leather couches add a modern touch. Ride the antique elevator, complete with a brass gate, and enjoy one of the River View rooms with a four-poster bed, Victorian-style desk, and view of the Columbia River. The hotel is only about one block away from the railroad, so if you’re a light sleeper, you might want to bring earplugs, as trains run throughout the night. Or you can try the interior Courtyard Rooms that overlook the Rooftop Garden. Nine suites have extra amenities like kitchens/kitchenettes and living areas. There is no parking lot, but a pass for street parking can be purchased, $3 per half day, $5 per full day, rooms $109–$209, 102 Oak St., 541-386-1900.

Where to Eat

The dining options in Hood River range from the casual diner to the upscale restaurant. There are also three microbreweries. Tasty breakfast entrées prepared with fresh local ingredients are a great way to start the day at Bette’s Place, a family-owned, diner-style eatery since 1975. Traditional diner fare includes French toast, pancakes, eggs, and the works. There is only one word to describe their delicious, six-inch diameter cinnamon rolls with the perfect ratio of frosting to sweet cinnamon bread: Awesome. They’re made fresh daily. Homemade soups, burgers, and fries are on the lunch menu, entrées $8–$15, 5:30 a.m.–3 p.m., 416 Oak St., 541-386-1880.

The colorful, street-side awning of the Trillium Cafe is a reflection of the informal atmosphere inside. You’ll find brick-red walls, sturdy wood-planked tables and benches, and generous portions. Even menu names are light-hearted. Try the “Uranium Burger” topped with roasted garlic and bleu cheese on a ciabatta roll, or start off with an appetizer of Scooby Snacks (mini-corn dogs). The hummus platter overflows with warm pita bread and hummus expertly seasoned with peppers and spices. The Caprese Sandwich with chunks of mozzarella cheese lightly drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar are light on the stomach, but heavy on the taste-buds. There is also a sandwich version on ciabatta bread, menu items $6–$13.50, 11 a.m.–1 a.m., 207 Oak St., 541-308-0800.

The Double Mountain Brewery and Taproom features a family-friendly atmosphere (at least until 8 p.m.), and tasty brick-oven pizza based on pizza masterpieces from New Haven, Conn. The 16-inch thin-crust creations are crafted with local Shepherd’s Grain Flour and slowly fermented to add richness to the flavor. Then they are baked at 700° F, so they cook quickly and have a hint of crispiness. Mozzarella and goat cheeses, portobello mushrooms marinated in white truffle oil, and green onions top the Truffle Shuffle, $22. Among the many featured microbrews, the “Hop Lava” IPA is a big, powerful IPA packed with assertive Northwest hops that are floral, citrusy, and resinous. A healthy dose of Munich malt helps provide backbone and balance against the hoppy attack. The “Black Irish” is rich, creamy, roasty, and beautifully bitter. Menu items run $7.50–$22, open daily at 11a.m., 8 4th St., 541-387-0042.

Enjoy views of the Columbia River as you dine inside or outside at 3 Rivers Grill. Photo courtesy of 3 Rivers Grill.

The 3 Rivers Grill combines an upscale dining experience with a come-as-you-are atmosphere. You can get warm and relax by the fireside bar or savor Northwest ingredients infused with French flair as you enjoy magnificent river views from any table. The Roasted Delicata Squash Primavera is linguini topped with mushrooms, spinach, carrots, Parmesan cheese, and red onions in a pesto sauce. Or indulge in the Pan Seared Sea Scallops served over black lentils with sautéed spinach and onions accompanied by a bacon jalapeno cream sauce. The grilled Pork Loin chops are served with sweet mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetable ragout. The award-winning wine list features the best Northwest wines, including Hood River’s own The Pines, to complement any menu selection, entrées $15–$30, 11 a.m.–10 p.m., 601 Oak St., 541-386-8883.

Transportation

With advance notice, the inns can pick you up at the airport; once you’re downtown, most activities are within walking distance. Gorge Yellow Cab charges $12 from the airport to downtown, 541-490-2497.

For a rental car, Enterprise can pick you up at the airport during business hours but cannot leave a car for you. Rates start at $33 per day, Mon–Fri 8 a.m.–5 p.m., 3100 Cascade Ave., 541-386-6160. Apple City rents cars for $35 per day; cars need to be dropped off at their office but they can pick you up at the airport during their business hours, Mon–Fri 8 a.m.–5 p.m., 3250 Bonneville Rd, 541-386-5522. Finally, D&S Frame and Body Shop rents compact cars for $34 per day. They can leave a car at the airport for you for $20 and you can also leave the car at the airport for them to retrieve later (another $20), Mon–Fri 8:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., 2755 Cascade Ave, 541-386-4039.

Martin’s Gorge Tours provides round-trip shuttle service to Mount Hood for $99 per person, three-person minimum, 503-349-1323. Explore the Gorge is about 1 1/2 miles from the airport and provides shuttle service for $45 per hour (4-hour min), 541-386-2384 or 800-899-5676.

Deep in the Columbia River Gorge, ride a train, ski, wander around an air museum, sink your teeth into a juicy Anjou pear, and savor fine Northwest cuisine while sipping on world-renowned Zinfandel or a microbrew. Then, find the perfect Oregon souvenir to commemorate your adventure. Celebrate the past; celebrate the future; celebrate the seasons against the backdrop of snow-capped peaks and the mighty Columbia River. You can do it all in the windsurfing capital of the world, Hood River.--by Erin Willison

Topics: US Travel, Travel

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