On Site: Exploring "The Dalles" on American Empress

American Empress, docked at The Dalles, Oregon(Photo by Susan J Young)

Centuries ago, French fur traders exploring the Columbia River in what is now Oregon encountered a long, treacherous rapid with large basaltic rocks. They named it “Grand Dalles,” from the French word “dalle” or a type of stone. Today, it's called The Dalles

Exploration by Lewis & Clark and pioneer journeys over the Oregon Trail (which ended at The Dalles) also put this destination on the map. Pioneers had a difficult choice -- finish their journey westward by rafting the treacherous river or go overland via a longer, yet no less hazardous route. 

Today, cruise travelers arrive at The Dalles in a much more pampering fashion. Last week, Travel Agent arrived here during a pampering, four-night cruise on American Queen Steamboat Company’s (AQSC) 223-passenger American Empress.

Several other river/small ship lines, including American Cruise Lines and UnCruise Adventures, serve this port, too. 

On this AQSC voyage, we sailed roundtrip from Vancouver, WA (near Portland, OR), and the itinerary also featured calls at Astoria, OR, and Stevenson, WA. At The Dalles, the paddlewheel-style vessel docked within sight of the entrance to downtown. 

Exploring Downtown

From the cruise ship gangway, it’s a walk of just a few blocks into The Dalles' downtown area. Tell clients to walk out the gangway, up the slight grade and just look for the highway underpass that proudly boasts, "The Dalles.” (see photo below).


Downtown, cruisers will discover restaurants, art galleries, breweries, wineries, the historic Granada Theatre, parks, lovely murals, a historic courthouse, pioneer cemetery and many historic or eclectic museums.

One fun way to see the sights and create a fun souvenir? Check out The Dalles' Sunsational Charm Trail.

Visitors can pick up a bracelet and signature charm for $5 at the Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce, 404 West 2nd Street; Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, 5000 Discovery Drive; or the Cousin’s Country Inn, 2114 West 6th Street.

A good way to start is to pick up the Sunsational Charm Trail map at the brochure rack within American Empress’ Paddlewheel Lounge in the brochure rack, or ask the shore excursion manager for one.  Once downtown, then look for yellow Sunsational door signs to find the "trail stops." At those, they can add other charms for $1.50 each to complete their bracelet.

Designated Sunsational Charm Trail stops include the Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum, the Fort Dalles Museum & Anderson Homestead, Klindt’s Booksellers and the Dalles Art Center, among many other businesses and cultural attractions.

Easy tip? If history is the prime interest, cruisers should pick up two pamphlets on American Empress prior to arrival; one is “End of the Oregon Trail,” and another "Historic Downtown The Dalles." Both give historical points of interests for those walking around town.   

Complimentary On-Off Shuttle

For those who like to explore independently but desire transportation into the heart of town, American Empress’ complimentary “On-Off Shuttle” service is a great option.

Just look for the shuttle motorcoaches, sporting American Empress river boat graphics. They line up on the West First Street road just above the dock/gangway at The Dalles.

Inside, guests will find a clean, comfortable motorcoach and an expert guide and driver. The coach makes a route loop around town, stops at designated places and attractions, and then returns to the ship.

Guests have total flexibility to get on or off at those stops. 

That said, we also noticed that this shuttle was helpful for those who liked a bit of touring structure; there's a comfort level with stops being within sight of major attractions and sidewalk stanchions designing those official stops.

Other options? Some guests chose not to get off at all -- simply using the shuttle as a motorcoach tour around town to see the sites and listen to the expert commentary about history, culture, ecology and more. 

Alternatively, some guests hiked from the boat into town in the morning, then later boarded the On-Off Shuttle at a downtown stop to return to the boat. 

AQSC's guests should pick up a free paper map of the day's route at the Purser’s Office. The map shows all official stops, key sites, recommended eateries and “included attractions” for which the line has arranged free entry for guests.

It also has the schedule for departure times. Typically, in the morning, shuttles run every 15 minutes or so, while in early afternoon, often every hour.

Listening to unsolicited guest comments, it's clear the On-Off Shuttle concept is one of the best perks of the AQSC experience. "This is a fabulous way to tour," one guest remarked on the coach. "I absolutely loved this," said another, talking about how easy it was.

Low-Down on the Stops

So what's to see in The Dalles?  Stop 1 is probably the most frequented stop – the multi-media, interactive Columbia Gorge Discovery Center & Museum; normally, admission is $9 for adults, but AQSC’s guests receive free entry, showing the inclusive value for guests.

This museum is a great place to delve into Ice Age geology, Lewis and Clark cargo, indigenous culture and native basketry, the Oregon Trail and more.

For example, some exhibits focus on the volcanic upheaval and raging floods that shaped the gorge, 11,000 years of cultural history as well as the flora and fauna of the region.

During raptor program activities, “live” birds of prey are shown to visitors daily. Cruisers also can hike local trails and take a pond walk to view the native plants.  

Stop 2 is the 1854-era Original Wasco County Courthouse Museum (entry is free for AQSC guests), the oldest courthouse west of the Mississippi River. Wasco County during the territorial era encompassed more than 130,000 square miles from the Cascades to the Great Divide in the Rockies.

Stop 3 is the Fort Dallas Museum (another free entry for cruise guests), located in the former surgeon’s headquarters; it’s the last building remaining from the 1850's fort.

What’s to see? Visitors will view pioneer and military artifacts, along with antique vehicles such as a stagecoach, pioneer wagons, road building equipment, horse-drawn hearses and more. They can also explore the adjacent Anderson Homestead’s hand-built log buildings, including a pioneer house, granary and barn.

Stop 4 features two museums with complimentary entries – the City Hall and Fire Museum, plus the National Neon Sign Museum. Some guests also disembarked here to visit the nearby Dalles Art Center

From cruisers who visited, the word is “don’t miss” the quirky, 20,000-square-foot neon sign museum, where visitors can view the earliest of light bulb signs (1880-1920) and colorful neon signs, introduced to the U.S. in 1923.

Stop 5 for the On-Off Shuttle is the Granada Theatre, built in the Moorish Art Deco architectural style. Opening in 1929 to great fanfare, it was the first theater west of the Mississippi designed and built to present “the talkies” (when sound movies replaced silent flicks).

When it opened in 1929 to great fanfare, it was an oasis for entertainment and gatherings. Famous performers have included Judy Garland and the Von Trapp Family, for example.

If cruisers have the time to visit, one highlight to see is the interior’s floor-to-ceiling Art Deco wall murals.

This stop is also popular for a local artisan gallery and downtown shopping. Other fun downtown activities include visits/tastings at wineries and breweries.

Murals Around Downtown

The Dalles features lovely street art --multiple murals, which depict moments in history illustrated by Northwest U.S. artists.


Around town, visitors can walk (with a brochure to provide the stops) to see the Lewis & Clark Expedition; ancient native fishing grounds (see the photo above); Umatilla House and a steamboat coming into port; wheat harvesting; a robust trading center; Hudson Bay Company; the Peace Treaty of 1855; and much more.  

A tip? While we did glimpse a few of the murals from the On-Off Shuttle, it wasn’t sufficient for good photos or to really look at them. We’d suggest getting off at one of the downtown stops to check these out. 

Aircraft & Auto at WAAM

AQSC also offers three premium tours at The Dalles. We set off on “Vintage America,” a 3.5-hour tour costing $69 per person. It featured a comfortable motorcoach ride out of town, a scenic drive along the Columbia River and transit through the trendy Hood River, a lovely town with antique stores, eclectic shops, art galleries and venues for having coffee, wine and brews. 

But the tour's highlight was time spent at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum. For anyone who loves antique cars or historic aircraft, this tour is a “must.” Plus, we had spectacular views of the snow-capped Mt. Adams from the front of the museum.  

One unusual feature? The museum has one of the largest collections of antique aircraft that still fly regularly and antique cars that can still be driven. 

In fact, AQSC's guests touring the museum are offered a fun ride in a historic automobile. Guests I spoke to described it as "a hoot" and a highlight of their museum visit. 

But the star attraction here is clearly the museum itself with several large halls. What's nice is that aircraft and cars as well as related memorabilia, engines, motorcycles and other fare are grouped and displayed by era. 

In addition, civilian and military equipment are split in different halls. Visitors kept going ‘round and ‘round to look at the commercial, military and personal aircraft and cars, along with motorcycles, Jeeps, engines, uniforms and memorabilia of all types.

Antique aircraft included a 1910 Curtiss Pusher;  a 1928 Stearman C3B; 1931 Stinson W; a 1928 American Eagle 101; and a 1917 Curtiss JN-4D "Jenny," among many others. Flight fans will also see a variety of gliders.


Another plus is the opportunity to watch historic aircraft restoration in progress in a separate building.

After time spent at the museum, the tour offered guests two options. They could stay longer at the museum or take the coach to Hood River for exploring downtown. Then the coach picked everyone back up for the drive back to the boat.

AQSC also offered an optional Premium Bundle tour at $299 per person; that included both the museum visit and a “Flying Experience Enhancement,” a private plane ride in a Cessna aircraft over nearby Mt. Hood.

Art & Vines 

Another premium AQSC shore trip offered for guests touring The Dalles area is “The Art of the Dalles: From Maryhill Museum to the Vineyard.”

During this premium tour, cruisers will see the extensive, eclectic collections of the Maryhill Museum of Art, visit a re-constructed Stonehenge and conclude the day with a tasting at the Jacob Williams Winery.

In other ports along our short cruise route – Stephenson, WA, and Astoria, OR, the cruise line also offered one or two premium options in addition to the On-Off Shuttle.

For more information visit www.aqsc.com.

Also look for Travel Agent's upcoming review of the onboard American Empress experience including our accommodations, service, dining, entertainment, activities and more.  

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