Your AAA Magazine

The Dalles

Journey to eastern Oregon to savor
the pioneer spirit of the West.

After reaching The Dalles, wagons were floated down the Columbia River on rafts.
Photo caption
After reaching The Dalles, wagons were floated down the Columbia River on rafts.

From a bluff overlooking The Dalles, Ore., the landscape resembles the set of a John Wayne shoot-'em-up. With the sun setting behind a high ridge, buzzards wheel about like beady-eyed stringless kites. Below, the Columbia River cuts an oxbow through a scrub-filled desert.

Portlanders may forget that they're in the same state. Oregon laws still apply, but you must cross an unofficial boundary to get here. Both climatically and culturally, The Dalles lies just beyond the line that separates the Pacific Northwest from the West.

The transition is startling because it happens so suddenly. Drenched by storms that roll in from the Pacific, the western end of the Columbia Gorge abounds with waterfalls and forests. But with the Cascade Mountains blocking those storms from traveling farther inland, the scenery along I-84 changes from lush forests to rain-starved mountains in about the time it takes to pop in a new CD.

The Dalles' personality is heavily flavored by its rich frontier past. Located along a main access route between the Pacific and the interior, The Dalles sits on land that was for centuries one of the main indigenous trading centers in North America. Tribes from as far away as North Dakota and California came here to barter.

It is also where Oregon Trail pioneers confronted perhaps the most difficult decision of their transcontinental journey: whether to make an arduous detour through the Cascades or a one-day raft trip down the then-treacherous Columbia River on their way westward. (More than 10 percent of those who opted for the river drowned.) Taking its name from a French term meaning flagstone, the town rose in status in the 1850s when it became the seat of Wasco County, the largest ever formed in the United States, stretching to Wyoming and covering an area more than twice the size of Florida. (The county has since shrunk considerably.)

The Dalles has preserved dozens of elegant 19th- and early-20th-century buildings from its heyday. To explore these architectural gems, take a stroll through the city's walkable downtown. Along the way, be sure to stop inside the county's original courthouse (now a museum complete with old-time jail cells) and at the stained glass-bejeweled Old St. Peter's Landmark, with a 176-foot-high spire that has been a local fixture since 1897. St. Peter's also has a rare tigerwood pipe organ and a life-size statue of the Madonna, carved from the keel of an 1850s shipwreck.

Just don't expect to find a host of Birkenstock outlets and espresso bars. The antithesis of trendy Hood River, The Dalles veers more toward cowboy boots and shops as genuinely Western as an old saddle. In fact, you can actually buy an old saddle at Honald's 2nd Street Place, eastern Oregon's biggest antique mall. Its selection includes such Ponderosa-esque items as leather pillows, horse halters, and even a galvanized tin bathtub.

Get in step with the local fashion at Tony's Town & Country Clothing, which stocks enough Western wear to outfit an entire rodeo. If you've been looking for a pair of iguana-hide cowboy boots, look no further. Tony's has boots made from every critter imaginable—including shark, ostrich, and kangaroo.

The Dalles is also home to Oregon's oldest bookstore. Klindt's, which has been in business for 131 years, mixes new best-sellers with an array of out-of-print books.

To feel as if you're dining in a bygone era, drop by the Baldwin Saloon, where a gallery of late 1800s "bar nudes"—large oil paintings depicting winsome women who'd have been excellent candidates for a job at Miss Kitty's Long Branch-adorns the exposed-brick walls. The menu features steaks, pasta, and seafood, and on weekend evenings, guests can enjoy live music from what may be the original piano bar—an 1894 mahogany piano.

If you'd rather not change out of your jeans, make a beeline to Cousins' Restaurant & Saloon, where the home-style cooking includes everything from omelets to pot roast and where an electronic cow moos when you walk in.

Though the city's pioneer roots are plainly visible, its Indian heritage is more submerged—literally. In 1957, the creation of The Dalles Dam permanently flooded key Indian fishing sites that had been in continuous use for 8,000 years. Hop the free shuttle train at The Dalles Dam Visitor Center for a breezy, one-mile ride to the dam itself. There, you can tour its inner workings, which include a row of massive power-generating turbines and a maze of fish ladders where you may catch sight of sturgeon as big as sharks. The dam also has a collection of rock slabs bearing ancient Indian petroglyphs.

Learn more about the region's history at the jointly housed Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Wasco County Historical Museum, which has a vast assortment of Indian artifacts, including a "time ball"—a calendar made from string and beads. For a quirkier glimpse at the past, visit the Fort Dalles Surgeons Quarters—the last remaining building in the town's old fort. In its catchall collection are a wreath made from human hair and a hand-cranked roulette wheel.

Don't leave town without a pilgrimage to holistically oriented Mid-Columbia Medical Center to see its outdoor labyrinth. Patterned after the one at Chartres Cathedral in France, the labyrinth is intended to foster contemplation by leading you along a circuitous yet uninterrupted terrazzo path toward the center—and then out again. Blending New Age with Old West, it's the place in The Dalles where cowboy boots and Birkenstocks are equally appropriate.