US-26 parts a verdant forest of fir and hemlock en route from Portland to Mt. Hood, climbing steadily through the Mt. Hood National Forest along the mountain’s southern flank. For outdoor pursuits, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches: splashing salmon streams; hidden lakes; bountiful campsites; miles of hiking, biking, ski and snowmobile trails; and the alpine ski resorts of Timberline and Mt. Hood Skibowl. You choose the sports and the season; communities along this scenic route lay out the welcome mat 12 months a year.
Two nationally designated Wild & Scenic Rivers, the Salmon and the Sandy, flow down from the glaciers of Mt. Hood and meet near Brightwood. The Salmon tumbles over falls, through canyons and under magnificent old-growth firs in the lush Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness. Explore the river’s mellower lower reaches at the Wildwood Recreation Site, where trails follow along the river’s banks, overlook wetlands rich with bird life and even descend to a below-surface viewing chamber on the Cascade Streamwatch Trail. Wildwood is also the jumping-off point for the Boulder Ridge Trail, a 5.3-mile hike that heads into the wilderness area and scales 4,000-foot Huckleberry Mountain.
Continuing east, the Fly Fishing Shop has the local beta and any gear you may need for fishing the Sandy River basin. Owner Mark Bachmann and his guide team lead walking and float trips year-round for salmon and steelhead. Across the highway, The Rendezvous Grill serves up wild salmon fish and chips, along with other unexpected treats like from-scratch soups and homemade butternut squash ravioli.
The Cabins Creekside caters to anglers and other outdoor types, with secure storage for gear, including a spot to dry your waders. The Resort at the Mountain brings civilized comforts to the woods. This rambling complex includes an array of guest rooms and villas, two restaurants, a spa, a pool, tennis courts and year-round play on three 9-hole courses. Both lodging properties offer special ski-and-stay packages that include discounted lift tickets for Timberline and Mt. Hood Skibowl.
Lolo Pass Road leads north out of Zigzag, climbing through the forest to plenty of campsites and trailheads. Pick up information, maps and a Northwest Forest Pass at the Zigzag Ranger Station. Great options include the former fire lookout atop West Zigzag Mountain, the basalt beauty of 120-foot Ramona Falls and the wildflower meadows high on Mt. Hood near McNeil Point. Refuel at the Skyway Bar and Grill, where chefs smoke and cure pork and brisket in-house and the mac ’n’ cheese approaches legend. A popular après-ski spot, it features live music almost every weekend.
This stretch of Highway 26 roughly follows historic Barlow Road, the 19th-century pioneer wagon route that skirted Mt. Hood. Weary westward pioneers reached the last tollgate near what is now the Tollgate Campground, where a replica of the gate stands between two century-old maples. The terrain that proved so treacherous for wagons today makes for great mountain biking. Catch the Mt. Hood Express shuttle to Timberline for a 15-mile, 4,400-vertical-foot downhill ride. Gravel riders can follow Still Creek Road up to Trillium Lake. In winter the lake area is high enough in the snow zone for cross-country skiing. Nearby Government Camp buzzes with activity all winter, with ski shops, the Mt. Hood Brewing Company and comfortable condo-style accommodations like The Grand Lodges.
Getting There: On this road trip, you don’t even need to drive. The Mt. Hood Express runs regularly from Sandy to Timberline Lodge, with room to carry bikes and other gear, and schedules coordinated with TriMet. So wonderfully Oregon, no?