Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A decade ago, Eugene businessman Chuck Shepard purchased Hoodoo, a mid-sized Oregon ski area near the summit of Santiam Pass. Long since neglected and at risk of going out of business, Chuck immediately started work to revive Central Oregon‘s oldest ski area. He spent millions of dollars on news lifts and a massive day lodge. Some years have been challenging with skimpy snow, but overall, attendance has perked up and the vibe is positive. While he’s still waiting for a financial return on his Hoodoo investments, Chuck and his team have already succeeded in creating an affordable and friendly place for families and locals to enjoy a mountain experience. Hoodoo is here to stay.

I am only familiar with the “new” Hoodoo, having never skied there until just a couple of years ago. Being nearly 2.5 hours from Portland, I usually choose to ski at one of the several Mount Hood options that are far closer to home than Hoodoo. But on several occasions when driving to or from Bend, I’ve stopped at Hoodoo and skied for several hours – never to be disappointed.

On this particular day during the winter holiday vacation period, I was on my way home from Bend. My plan was to arrive at Hoodoo in time for the 9:00am lift opening… ski several hours… and then hit the road for Portland in the afternoon. Santiam Pass and the Hoodoo parking lot are a quick 50 minutes from downtown Bend. I pulled into the parking just as planned, shortly before 9:00am. And sure enough, Chuck Shepard was there to greet the arriving guests. Chuck has got to be the only ski area owner in the country who assigns himself to direct cars into the proper parking spots in the lot each morning. And let me tell you… the parking lot is organized and the parked cars perfectly line-up. Chuck settles for nothing less! It was especially important on this day, however, since the parking lot filled to capacity. It was a busy day at Hoodoo.

But a busy day at Hoodoo is a light day at many other ski areas. Despite a full parking lot and one of the higher attendance counts of the season, there weren’t any liftline mazes set up at any of the lifts – because there weren’t necessary. The three quad chairs, a triple chair and double chair offer more than enough uphill capacity to prevent liftlines even during the busy holiday period. For the third day straight, I never waited in a liftline.

The weather and the snow were similar to what I experienced at Mount Bachelor the day prior: Partly cloudy with temperatures in the 20s and little wind. The groomed snow was firm and fast. Off the groomed was variable with areas of packed powder, small moguls and spots of ice.

I loaded the Green Machine quad, Hoodoo’s base-to-summit lift, shortly after 9:00am. Off the top, Hoodoo has a magnificently groomed black diamond run, named Dive, that is steeper, wider & smoother than most of the cruising runs anywhere on Mount Hood. It’s fairly short, however, and it leads to what t I call a “bench” in Hoodoo’s terrain – a flat area at mid-mountain. Along the bench, the runs are gentle or even flat… and one can follow that gentle terrain around the western edge of the ski area into the novice runs served by the Manzanita chair. Dropping away from the bench to the east are the short blue-square runs that lead to the Ed Thurston quad. And following the bench beneath the Green Machine lift leads to the Headwall, the final steep drop into the base. Sometimes the Headwall is groomed; on those days, it’s a steep screamer not unlike Dive off the top… except that on the Headwall, there’s an audience of Green Machine lift-riders watching from above. On this day, the Headwall was left natural – it was a technical descent of small moguls and icy patches.

If there is a valid criticism about Hoodoo’s terrain, it’s that the steeper front-side runs are fairly short. There are few long, sustained pitches. But I find there to be enough variety to keep my attention for a day. The Ed Thurston quad serves some cruisers that have the perfect blue-square pitch. The Manzanita chair has some gentle green circle runs for novices mixed with some slightly more difficult pitches for those who want to take the next step. Advanced and expert riders should head for the summit on the Green quad. With sufficient snow, one can drop from the top of Hoodoo butte in just about any direction. Areas such as Crater and Chuck’s Backside (yes, that’s the name of the south-facing area off the backside of Hoodoo) aren’t spectacularly steep… but they require some technical maneuvering. And when there’s new powder, the riding is awesome… and few people are back there to chop it up. On the west side of the Butte is the Hodag lift & trail cluster. Needing more snow, the Hodag lift & runs weren’t open the day of my visit. Aside from the short runs down to the Hodag base, each route off the top of Hoodoo butte & the Green Machine lift eventually leads back to the Hoodoo base… making it difficult for one to get lost.

Chuck Shepard and his team recognize that one of the keys to Hoodoo’s long-term success is to keep lift ticket prices reasonable and affordable. To that end, they offer – without question – the BEST lift ticket deal in the state: “Tightwad Tuesdays” feature $19 lift tickets! Other discounts are offered through corporate sponsor partnerships on other midweek days as well. Peak day tickets are obviously a bit higher and are not discounted, but the prices aren’t unreasonable.

For Portlanders, Hoodoo may be a little too far away for regular visits. But for an affordable and friendly Oregon skiing experience, stop by Hoodoo sometime. And be sure to say hello to Chuck in the parking lot when you arrive!

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