► Population: 729 • Location: 3.75 hours from Seattle
The heart of a small town can be in a historic library or loud tavern, or, if the Friday Night Lights vibe is especially strong, the 50-yard line of a high school football field. The heartbeat of the tiny burg of Bingen is loudest in the airy interior of Dickey’s Farm Store (509-493-2636), the retail arm of acreage first homesteaded in 1867 and now operated by the fifth generation of Dickeys.
On the highway near the bridge that links Bingen to Hood River, Oregon, across the Columbia River Gorge, the farm store is a veritable garden of potted plants. Bins of farm-fresh vegetables lack that Whole Foods sheen, like pear-shaped yellow tomatoes and “ugly peaches” that go for 99 cents a pound. Locals come here for coffee and homemade pies and maple bars with weightless whipped topping that suggests a high-end bakery.
In the store’s cold case, another local treat: Cascadia Creamery (cascadiacreamery.com) cheeses pull from a history of using volcanic caves that dot the region. A hundred years ago, locals chipped ice from one cavern, almost year-round, and used others for storing butter and aging cheeses. Almost 75 years after the local cheesemakers abandoned their operation, Marci and John Shuman found a new cave under the shoulder of Mount Adams to age their raw organic wares, like a buttery Sleeping Beauty and salty Glacier Blue.
If the store on one end of town hides delicious secrets, the new Society Hotel Bingen (thesocietyhotel.com/bingen) on the other keeps leisurely ones. Built into a historic schoolhouse—which spent subsequent decades as a windsurfer’s hostel—the Society offers, well, society. The old school gym has shuffleboard and basketball, plus Pendleton lounge cushions on the old wooden bleachers (pet owners will recognize them as the company’s luxe dog beds). Firepits and hammocks dot the property. Hostel beds get an upgrade into bunk rooms that hide single beds behind sleek wooden slats and thick curtains; a series of hot, warm, and cold pools cluster in the spa and bathhouse next to an indoor-outdoor cafe.
The concept felt at odds with blue collar Bingen residents at first—the hotel is partner to a similar one in Portland—but $20 spa day passes and an open invitation to the gym have helped incorporate the hotel into local life. Just uphill in the sister town of White Salmon, bustling Everybody’s Brewing (everybodysbrewing.com) lives up to its name by bursting at the seams with diners and drinkers, even on weeknights. With mountain bike trails just out the door and Mount Hood looming a few miles away, this railroad stop along the Gorge has a not-so-secret bright future.