Journey to Mt. Hood

10/11/2016

Oregon’s Cascade Mountains Abound in Dramatic Views

Oregonians have a special place in their hearts for Mt. Hood. I should know: After more than a decade away from the Pacific Northwest, I eventually settled in Portland, where mountain-spotting is almost an obsession. Cloudy days can hide Hood so thoroughly it’s hard to recall exactly where it should be. But when the skies clear, the sight of this snowy, soaring peak never fails to swell your heart and lift your spirits, no matter how many times you see it. It’s a feeling so intimate, so personal, that it seems to belong to you alone. In fact, I’ve heard several of my friends, all transplants from other places, refer to Mt. Hood as “my mountain.” 

While Oregon’s highest peak is easy to admire from a distance, it’s even more meaningful when experienced up close. You can make it your mountain with a driving getaway that leads you via the Mt. Hood Scenic Byway past miles of orchards, up corridors of dense evergreen forests, and - if you’re lucky - with plenty of eye-popping mountain vistas along the way. 

Panoramic Preview 

Your route to the mountain starts in Hood River. On your way out of town via Oregon Route 35, take the short drive up to Panorama Point County Park. The road winds past bucolic farms and tidy rows of fruit trees and ends with a truly stunning view of Mt. Hood, along with the thousands of acres of orchards and vineyards that carpet the landscape around it. A paved path, restrooms, and picnic tables make this a great way to start a road trip, and it’s nearly impossible to take a bad photo from this vantage point. Linger with the view for a while, then get back in the car and start your journey to the mountain.

Drive along Oregon Route 35 on a clear day, with Mt. Adams in your rearview mirror as Mt. Hood looms closer with each turn, and you’ll realize why Oregon’s natural beauty is so revered by tourists and transplants. This scenic wonderland is incredibly fertile farm country, with a history of apple-growing that dates back to 1890. Today, the Hood River Valley produces the bulk of the world’s Anjou pears. But that’s not all: Starting in June, the valley brims with strawberries, raspberries, apricots, blueberries, and peaches. And the harvest continues through October with pears, apples, and chestnuts. Keep your eyes peeled for u-pick produce and flowers, lavender and alpaca farms to visit, and fruit stands that make for great rest and photo stops. A short drive out of Parkdale, and you’ll notice the evergreen trees on the hills lining the road start to get thicker. It’s a sign that you’ll soon be entering the Mt. Hood National Forest, which extends 60 miles east from here to the Cascade Range. 

Panoramic View.
Panoramic View.

Majestic Mt. Hood 

Even in the driest summer months, this dormant volcano’s peak is perpetually snowy, thanks to 11 glaciers that shrink and expand seasonally. A half dozen ski areas make the area a mecca for snow-sports lovers, including summer skiing on Palmer Glacier. If you’re itching to get out and attempt to summit the 11,240-foot mountain, or even just take a brief hike through the amazing scenery, Cooper Spur Mountain Resort is a logical starting point for short jaunts or longer treks around the mountain’s northeast side. Hop back in the car; as you continue along, sharp eyes will notice signs for campgrounds named Nottingham and Sherwood, proof that the Forest Service has a sense of humor. Then take the turnoff for this trip’s undisputed highlight, Timberline Lodge

Timberline Lodge

This lodge at 6,000 feet is a marvel of engineering and craftsmanship and a testament to the American can-do spirit. This massive stone and timber structure, built by the Works Progress Administration at the height of the Great Depression, employed hundreds of local workers who spent a year and a half constructing the building, handcrafting the works of art that decorate its interiors, and often using cast-off materials. Mosey in and admire the incredible details, both grand and subtle: the soaring stone fireplace on the ground and first levels; the original tables, chairs, and sofas handmade in the 1930s; newel posts crafted from cedar utility poles, hand-carved to depict owls and other wildlife; fireplace screens made from old tire chains; and many more stunning examples of beautifully executed rustic lodge style. Don’t miss the history display off the lobby, which traces the truly fascinating origins of this National Historic Landmark, from its planning and building through its role in pioneering U.S. ski culture. Artifacts on display include the armchair that furniture craftsmen made for Franklin D. Roosevelt during his visit in 1937. Each of the lodge’s guest rooms is unique and brimming with details and history, making Timberline a memorable home base for Mt. Hood adventures year-round. 

Timberline Lodge.
Timberline Lodge.

Hiking the Mountain 

Mere steps from Timberline Lodge, you can explore the mountain via a number of trails to match any level of ambition, from 15-minute ambles to all-day treks. Choose the easy, 4-mile Zigzag Overlook or continue on to the lush meadows of Paradise Park for a more challenging 12-mile loop. For knockout views with less exertion, ride the Magic Mile chair lift to 7,000 feet and walk or ride back down the mountain. Or, you could claim bragging rights back home and hike a portion of the renowned Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from east to west just north of the lodge. For short hikes with postcard views, drive from Timberline to either of two nearby lakes. The 2-mile Trillium Lake loop trail offers nonstop views of Hood, while the path around aptly named Mirror Lake, 2 miles west of Government Camp just off Highway 26, is another easy hike with mountain views reflected in its clear, calm surface. The campground here is a hit with families, and like others in this area, fills up quickly in summer − best to reserve in advance. 

Government Camp

Downhill from Timberline, on the mountain’s south slope at 4,000 feet, this little village thrives by serving the snow sports culture on and around Mt. Hood. Driving down the main street, a loop just off Highway 26, you’ll see ski and snowboard shops crowded around Bavarian-style eateries and rathskellers that serve hearty food to hungry shredders. “Govy” is a popular home base for winter skiing and summer hiking alike, with dozens of lodging options ranging from bare-bones to luxurious. One of the newer complexes, Collins Lake Resort, is great for families, with modern amenities and packages that include discounted lift tickets and free mountain shuttles in winter. For an overview of the region’s history, stop by the Mt. Hood Cultural Center and Museum, housed in an alpine-style building. Exhibits trace the settlement’s origins as a stop on a new wagon route around the south side of Mt. Hood in 1846. 

Salmon River Wandering 

Coming down from the mountain, drive west to Portland along the forested highway, through tiny towns with fanciful names like Rhododendron and Zigzag. If you’re yearning for one more wooded hike, keep an eye out past Wemme for the Wildwood Recreation Area, a beautiful 550-acre park with trails through moss-strewn forests of old-growth Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. Two easy trails here are perfect for helping kids appreciate the importance of the unique woodland and wetland habitats along the rushing and incredibly picturesque Salmon River, with educational displays and an underwater viewing window. Stroll quietly along the trails and boardwalks, and you might see such iconic Oregon wildlife as the rough-skinned newt in spring and spawning salmon and steelhead in late summer through October. 

One Last View

By now you’re no doubt as smitten with Mt. Hood as any Oregonian. For one last look, drive through the town of Sandy and turn right on Bluff Road to the Jonsrud Viewpoint, where interpretive signs trace the history of settlers to this area. Take in the view of the Sandy River as it winds its way through the green, forested valley and, towering majestically above it all, what has surely become your mountain, too.