The Dalles: a Hidden Gem in the Gorge

Bobbie Bustamante at a beautiful pinnacle known as Rowena Crest above the Columbia River.

Bobbie Bustamante moved to The Dalles a year and a half ago. She had lived 130 miles east in Pendleton and 975 miles south in Anaheim, California before that. “The Dalles is a place where people really get out of their cars and get outdoors,” says the recreational runner. While the hills surrounding The Dalles offer challenging running workouts, the Columbia River is a relaxing sanctuary for her, her boyfriend and their kids.

The mighty Columbia River has long played a defining role in the history of The Dalles, including its name. French Canadian traders saw the basalt columns that the river had carved and named the area after its dalles, or flagstones. The earliest known citation of this name came in 1814 from a French Canadian explorer working for the fur-trading empire of John Jacob Astor.

Today, The Dalles is a hopping town with a new wave of wine washing over old structures, orchards in its hills and a multimillion dollar industrial secret on its river banks.

Its buildings range from early American Neoclassical to Art Deco and modern LEED. Some of these structures, such as a courthouse and post office, still serve in their original capacities. Others, though, have taken on renovated functions that are making the town bustle with energy. For more than 100 years, the Sunshine Mill had been an enormous wheat mill that stood 125 feet tall and was powered by energy from its own hydroelectric dam and motors designed by Thomas Edison. These motors, and much of the machinery, are still displayed at the old mill, only now it’s a wine and cheese bar renovated with postmodern brilliance.

Clock Tower Ales, a pub and restaurant, also found a great home by revamping another stately courthouse on Union Street, built in 1881. The renovation brings publicans flocking to a building that was once an injustice at the city’s center.

The Dalles Arts Center on Fourth Street, a former Carnegie Library, is a Neoclassical masterpiece with its red brick, decorative corbels and original fir floorboards. The other Wasco County Courthouse on Washington Street, still serving in its official capacity, is a majestic work of Greek Revival, popular among early American government buildings.

Although much gentrification has come to The Dalles, its economy is firmly rooted in agriculture. The Dalles has 6,000 planted acres of cherries. Like many destinations along the Columbia Valley Gorge, the ancient Missoula Flood is likely responsible for the area’s fertility. Orchard View Farms is one of the beneficiaries and one of the largest cherry producers in the Northwest, bringing in almost 10,000 tons of cherries from 2,000 acres in the hills above The Dalles.

The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center lies just down river from The Dalles. This beautiful building houses a historic photo archive of Celilo Falls and the Gorge, a huge collection of baskets made by American Indians of the Northwest and an ongoing raptor education program, to name a few treasures.

Getting out in The Dalles isn’t hard to do. The Dalles Riverfront Trail will eventually cover ten miles, west to The Gorge Discovery Center and east to the The Dalles Dam. For road bikers and runners, there’s the historic Columbia River Highway winding west out of town and up to Rowena Crest for more beautiful vistas of the Columbia Gorge. The river, of course, brings out sailboats, people with fishing poles and boats, paddlers, windsurfers and kiteboarders.

Finally, there’s the secret on the shores of The Dalles. The $600 million Google data center comprises three nondescript buildings along the banks of the Columbia just south of town. “I drove out there one day to see if I could see anything that said ‘Google’ on it,” Bustamante recalls, wanting to send a photo to her relatives. “Not one little sticker, nothing. I guess they don’t want people to know they’re here.”

When the last boat is moored, however, The Dalles is still about stunning views of the Gorge and a history whose structures are being creatively renovated for the future.


Population of The Dalles

Population growth
42% (2001-2011)

Median household income

Median price of a single-family home


What To Do

Enjoy wine and cheese at the Sunshine Mill Winery

Run or bike the Historic Columbia River Highway to Rowena Crest

Visit the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Klindt’s Booksellers

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