Warning: this spectacular loop drive is responsible for tens of thousands of visitors deciding to sell the house, quit their job and move to Oregon! Done as an overnight adventure or a long day trip, this classic 165-mile road tour takes you past many of the state’s most iconic features: towering waterfalls, fir-draped basalt ramparts, abundant fruit orchards, a one-of-a-kind historic lodge, and Oregon’s tallest glacier-carved mountain.
Begin early and drive eastward on I-84 from Portland past Troutdale and into the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area where the largest river in the American west cleaves the Cascade Mountain Range. Take Exit 22 at Corbett and wind steeply up the hillside, turn left on the Historic Columbia River Highway and stop at Crown Point for a postcard-perfect view of the Gorge. The monoliths of Rooster Rock and Beacon Rock stand on either side of the broad river like stone sentinels.
Drive further east on the narrow historic highway enveloped in a canopy of green. Pass noisy waterfalls and stop for a stroll at the base of the granddaddy of them all, Multnomah Falls, 620 feet high. Get a cup of hot coffee in the historic stone lodge, built in 1925. Continue eastward and rejoin I-84. Pass Bonneville Dam and the community of Cascade Locks. In Hood River, you might want to stop for a hearty breakfast at Egg Harbor or Betty’s Place, known for fresh pastries.
The Hood River Valley is as beautiful as anything in Bavaria or Switzerland. Leave the Columbia River and the town of Hood River behind and drive south on Highway 35 into the splendid valley where you begin passing through miles of commercial pear and apple orchards. In April-May, the orchards are dressed in fragrant blossoms. Later in the season, roadside fruit stands do a brisk business in fresh-picked cherries, apples, pears, huckleberry jam, fruit smoothies and other treats.
With every mile, the magnificent north face of Mount Hood, like a North American Matterhorn, grows larger in the windshield. Out of the direct sun, the glaciers on this steep face are impressively large and deeply crevassed. Pull over and snap pictures of this 11,235-foot-high snow-covered beauty. Don’t forget to turn around and look north where ice-capped Mount Adams, another giant dormant volcano, stands across the river in Washington State.
Highway 35 continues gaining altitude around the heavily forested east side of Mount Hood. Pass the side road to Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort and proceed over the crest of Barlow Pass. In the hamlet of Government Camp, leave the highway and take the road that loops and climbs to Timberline Lodge.
You will feel the altitude – and possibly a chill, even in summer – when you get out of the car at Timberline. Situated at the 6,000-foot level on the mountain’s south slope, the lodge commands a fantastic view of endless forests and distant Cascade summits. Completed in 1938 by WPA craftsmen using native materials, the 70-room lodge is an architectural masterpiece of massive wood beams and stone. Its soaring lobby, towering fireplaces, and tall picture windows framing the snow-covered mountain make an unforgettable impression. Unique hand-hewn furniture, tapestries, carvings and oil paintings give the lodge a museum-like quality. A number of films have been shot at Timberline, including Lost Horizons and The Shining.
The lodge’s rustic Cascade Dining Room is a great choice for lunch – or dinner if you’ve chosen to spend the night. Seated with a window view of distant Mount Jefferson, you might want to start with the Hood River pear and hazelnut bisque. The entrée selection emphasizes Northwest specialties such as Oregon lamb chops, bison, Dungeness crab, wild salmon, mussels, etc. The award-winning wine list includes outstanding vintages from the region’s Columbia, Willamette and Rogue Valleys. Try the Tillamook cheesecake or the local fig and hazelnut bread pudding for dessert.
Rooms in the historic lodge, appointed in rustic furniture, run from $110 to $290 per night. Many north side rooms afford views of the ski slopes and icy summit, which often turn a glorious orange at sunset and sunrise. If the weather is fair and the annual snowpack has receded, put on your hiking shoes and day pack and tramp westward for a mile or two on the Pacific Crest Trail that crosses above the lodge. In July and August, the mountain wildflowers along this famous trail put on a splendid show.
If your driving tour is a day trip and time is short, however, be sure to explore the public areas of the lodge, snap photos, buy a souvenir or two, and toss a snowball before heading back down the road. After the dizzying descent to alpine Government Camp, turn west on Highway 26 and begin the 55-mile return to Portland. The highway drops through miles of evergreen forest and past mountain villages with such names as Rhododendron and Zig Zag.
Day trippers who only nibbled at Timberline Lodge have an excellent early dinner option at the Rendezvous Grill and Tap Room in Welches, Oregon. Boasting “serious handmade food” the Rendezvous dinner menu features Willapa Bay oysters, sockeye salmon, alder smoked chicken, wild mushroom risotto with butternut squash and a half-dozen other very tempting entrees.
Returning to the lights and congestion of the city, you and your guests will be tired but stimulated by the plethora of sights and experiences on your grand circumnavigation of Mount Hood. The impressive Columbia River Gorge, gorgeous Hood River Valley, miles of wooded wilderness, the glorious glacier-clad mountain itself and the historic lodge high on its south shoulder – hopefully you have captured these unique images of Oregon in camera and memory.
What & Where:
Egg Harbor (1313 Oak St; 541) 386-1127)
Betty’s Place (416 Oak St; 541) 386-1880)
Timberline (Timberline Rd, Government Camp; 503-622-7979)
Rendezvous Grill and Tap Room (67149 E HWY 26 at Mile Post 40, Welches; 503-622-6837)
John grew up in Oregon. Before entering college he spent a year hitch-hiking around the world, visiting 40 countries. He earned a degree in English from Colorado College and a master’s in Outdoor Recreation Management from Oregon State University. He has worked as a landscaper, climbing instructor, park ranger and freelance writer. In 1992 he formed Skyline Communications, providing writing, photography, editing and publication design services to corporate clients. In his free time, John enjoys hiking, river-running, photography and travel. He and his wife, Carol, live in West Linn, Oregon.