Guide to Skamania, Washington

by Adam Sawyer

The Pacific Northwest attracts explorers. It always has. From native tribes, to foreign ships, to frontiersmen and women, the allure of the region has always proved strong. Today, locals as well as tourists are keeping that spirit of exploration alive. The quest continues for new places to find solitude, adventure, beauty, relaxation and inspiration. In this part of the world there is always a new discovery around the next bend: a hidden gem of a trail, waterfall or wilderness. 

Today, the intrepid also seek out new restaurants, breweries or wineries. The county of Skamania is a treasure trove of all these things and more. It is one of Washington’s best kept secrets, and it’s practically begging to be explored.

“Skamania” is the Chinook word for “swift water.” Skamania County is situated on the north shore of the Columbia River in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, less than an hour east of the Portland-Vancouver metro area. It extends north to include the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, and travels east to the base of Mt. Adams. It is bisected north to south by the Cascade Mountain Range, and nearly 90 percent of the county is encompassed by the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. This excess of natural riches provides the county with some of the best outdoor recreational opportunities the Northwest has to offer. And with a population that just tops 11,000, it is wide open.

One could spend a lifetime exploring the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Considered a mecca by many for its hunting, fishing, hiking, backpacking and camping opportunities, the vastness of the wilderness ensures the ability to find your own corner of the woods. It also contains some unique locations that should be at the top of any visitor’s list.

Wind River Highway

Wind River Highway is the access gateway to a number of spectacular waterfalls. The confluence of a giant natural spring and a rushing creek, 136-foot tiered and twisting Panther Creek Falls is one of the most distinctive waterfalls to be found anywhere in the U.S. Not far down the road, the hike to the five-star, equally stunning Falls Creek Falls is a classic. These falls cascade in tiers from a height of 207 feet for a final, straight plunge into the pool of a moss-lined grotto.

Indian Heaven Wilderness

With roughly 175 swimmable and fishable lakes, wildflower meadows and a legendary huckleberry harvest, Indian Heaven Wilderness manages to live up to its lofty title. The sub-alpine volcanic plateau has been a gathering place for native tribes for the last 10,000 years. Late summer/early fall is the best time to visit Indian Heaven, when the area’s mosquito population has faded, the fall colors are coming into prime, and huckleberries, as well as blueberries, are everywhere. Pick one of 17 different trails, classified from easy to difficult, to explore this pristine wilderness.

Around Mount St. Helens

In the northwestern corner of the county, Coldwater Lake was formed when the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens dammed Coldwater Creek. In 2012, the Forest Service loosened recreational restrictions and approved only two outfitters to lead guided kayaking tours on the lake. In May through October, Northwest EcoExcursions offers remarkably informative and breathtakingly beautiful kayaking trips that start in Cowlitz County and pass into Skamania County, with about an hour of paddling and awe-inspiring views of the volcano and re- emerging landscape.

South of Mount St. Helens, Ape Cave was formed about 2,000 years ago when basaltic lava came pouring from the volcano. As the flow proceeded, the surface cooled, forming a crust. The lava beneath the crust continued moving through the tube for months. When the eruption finally ceased, it left a 13,042-foot lava tube undisturbed and undiscovered until 194 7. As the longest lava tube in the continental U.S., the cave is now a popular destination for hikers and sightseers.

The Local Cuisine

Skamania County is not all wilderness, tents and Douglas firs. The small towns of Stevenson and Carson sport dining options capable of satisfying discriminating palates and a couple of serious craft breweries.

A favorite for locals as well as Gorge-loving day-trippers, the Big River Grill in Stevenson has been the destination restaurant in Skamania County since 1993. A balanced menu of well-executed comfort food and inventive Northwest cuisine, such as Goat Cheese and Sun-dried Tomato Torta, has kept this modern-day roadhouse thriving for nearly 20 years. Also in the town of Stevenson, Walking Man Brewing has been producing some of the most well-respected beer in the nation since 1999.

There is, however, a new brewer on the block just up the road in the town of Carson. The Backwoods Brewing Company began when the Waters family decided to purchase and reopen the long- closed General Store, and make good use of its extra space. Brewmaster Kevin Waters’ beer is phenomenal, a clue that the place won’t be a local secret for long.

The west-of-the-Cascades climate and geography blesses Skamania County with the ability to produce wine grapes that thrive here. Rachael Horn of AniChe Cellars recently snagged a Gold and Bronze medal in the 5th annual International Women’s Wine Competition. Since she’s capable of discussing tartrates, sediment, and protein instability one moment and telling colorful jokes the next, a trip to AniChe Cellars in Underwood is about as enjoyable as a wine tasting can get.

Luxury on the Wild Side

The lodging options in Stevenson and Carson range from rustic to lavish, or combinations of the two. The top employer in the county, Skamania Lodge, was built in 1993 to resemble the great lodges of the early 1900′ s. In true Northwest fashion, resource reclamation was at the heart of construction. The Cascade- style Skamania Lodge features giant timber columns taken from the old Bumble Bee cannery in Astoria. The 254-room lodge offers fine and casual dining, golf, a spa and fitness center, and even an on-site U.S. Forest Service Information Center.

On a more intimate scale, the Carson Ridge Private Luxury Cabins makes an excellent base camp from which to experience the best of Skamania. Each cabin is one of a kind, featuring handmade beds, gas fireplaces and satellite televisions, among numerous other amenities. A soul-satisfying gourmet breakfast is served up every morning in the main dining room or hand delivered to your cabin.

Whether your reason for a getaway is to experience some of the Northwest’s wildest, most scenic country or to relax in an atmosphere of rustic luxury, Skamania County is a secret escape that will invite exploration for a very long time to come.

The Bigfoot Ordinance

Skamania County has been a hot spot for Bigfoot sightings in the U.S. for decades. In 1969 the county passed a law declaring that “Any willful, wanton slaying of such creatures shall be deemed a felony.” The fact that this legislation was passed on April 1, or April Fool’s Day, caught the eye of many. But County Commissioner Conrad Lundy said, “This is not an April Fool’s Day joke … there is reason to believe such an animal exists.” The ordinance was amended in 1984, however, reducing the offense to a gross misdemeanor. No Sasquatch has been maimed or murdered, testimony to the law’s effectiveness.

Visiting Skamania County

  • For more information about exploring Skamania County, go to ska mania.org
  • To find information about recreation and conditions in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, visit fs.usda.govlgijfordpinchot.
  • The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum is located near the access road to Skamania Lodge, 990 Rock Creek Dr., Stevenson; 800-991- 2338; columbiagorge.org.

Guides:

Beds: 

Chow: 

  • Big River Grill, 192 SW 2nd St, Stevenson; 509-427-4888; thebigrivergrill.com
  • Cascade Dining Room or River Rock at Skamania Lodge

Suds:

  • Walking Man Brewing, 240 1st St., Stevenson; 509-427-5520

Vino: 

  • AniChe Cellars, 71 Little Buck Creek Rd., Underwood; 360-624- 6531; anichecellars.com