Stevenson, Washington

by Foster Church on August 16, 2011

Stevenson straddles State Route 14 on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge about 45 miles upriver from Vancouver. The views from town are some of the most satisfying in the Gorge, particularly on a winter day when clouds billow around cliffs and drop down the canyons in wooly shreds. On a hill above the town is one of  Washington’s signature hostelries, Skamania Lodge, which opened in 1993  and put Stevenson on the map.   

The Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge towers over Stevenson across the river

 The town: Highway strip downtowns can become dispirited and worn. Stevenson’s is right on Washington 14,  but it’s a real place where people shop and exchange the days’ news. Many of the businesses angle to tourists, but there’s also a grocery, an auto parts shop, a florist, a barber and a bank. It also benefits from the Skamania County Courthouse, which anchors the street. The building  isn’t old or atmospheric, but its straightforward, simple lines express the gravity of its purpose.  The area down the hill from the highway and across the railroad tracks was once Whiskey Flats, named for the seven saloons that flourished there. The saloons are mostly gone, and now it’s a park, a place to launch kite boards, a boat launch and a cruise ship landing. There’s also a curious work of public art, a kinetic sculpture, Galaxy by Seattle sculptor Andrew Carson, that spins and revolves and appears to play with the wind rather than the other way around. 

Downtown Stevenson

 Look this person up: If there’s one person who personifies the current spirit of the place, it’s probably Bob Craig, founder of  Walking Man Brewing.  Afternoons, he can often be found at the brewpub, one street down from Main Street.  He’s not hard to recognize: a lean guy with a bushy white goatee. He had brewed beer at home for years, when it occurred to him to brew it for a profit and create a place in Stevenson where he could hang out. He found a big house and created a pub downstairs with an outdoor terrace for rare sunny days.  He succeeded on both counts. He loves sipping beer and talking with customers who come from all over the world. And a beer appreciation website, ratebeer.com., named Walking Man one of the best of the world in 2010. His own favorite brew? He likes Knuckle Dragger, a strong pale ale. “We are not afraid of flavor or alcohol,” he says. “We believe in flavorful beers – big, in your face beers.” 

Brewer Bob Craig

 City of Celebration:  Just about every small town in the Northwest likes to celebrate itself, both for profit and fun, and Stevenson is always up to something. Two of the best are Christmas in the Gorge in early December and the Gorge Brews and Blues Festival in June.  The Christmas event starts with a Starlight Firetruck Parade, which is an exciting event for kids and fun for adults.  Saturday, several downtown shops offer free cookies, coffee and cocoa.  My favorite event is the Methodist Church Luncheon, held from 11:30 until 1 p.m. as a benefit for United Methodist Women in Missions. A hundred or more people attend who are a mix of generations and occupations.  They have their fill of the casserole of the year, wear mostly red and support the propositiion that there is no finer place on earth to spend Christmas than the Columbia Gorge. The Blues Festival brings in blues artists to sing and brewers to pour. It’s a lively summer event, and the location, on the edge of Rock Cove with grand views of the Columbia River Gorge, is the finest backdrop any blues player could wish for. 

Sleep, eat and drink: The Riverside Lodge is a cozy place to stay. They leave earplugs in the rooms to muffle the roar of trains that run past it. An inexpensive alternative is the Econolodge on the east end of town, which is clean and comfortable. Naturally, Walking Man is a good place for a drink, the Rio Mexican Cafe has an intimate bar and serves food, and the are several other places including the 130 Bar & Grill, The Crossing and The Big River Grill.

   

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