Anyone who has ever coasted down Interstate 84 or driven the twisty roads up to Timberline Lodge understands why the fantasy-like Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Hood have lured motorists since the first highways were built more than a century ago.
A year-round base camp for recreationists, this is the perfect outdoor destination for a breath of fresh mountain air on a serene hike, fun in a snowy wonderland or a delicious bite to eat from a seasonal menu. In fact, few places in the country pack as many historic sights, waterfalls, scenic viewpoints, vineyards, breweries, ski resorts and more into a compact area.
The folks who live in this area — the ancestral home to the Chinook peoples, who’ve relied on the region’s rich resources for more than 10,000 years — will be the first to share their love for their towns, from quiet Troutdale to the villages strung along the base of Mt. Hood. We’ve asked a few to show us around some of their favorite spots. Of course, we can’t divulge all of their secrets, but we’ve got enough to inspire your next slow adventure.
Worth the Trek
The Gorge and Mt. Hood are favorite summer spots, but many locals prefer the chillier seasons, when the crowds thin and the dewy, mossy landscapes are quintessentially Oregon. Yes, you’ve heard of the popular Multnomah Falls, where you’ll find crowds of tourists vying for the best selfie. But the Gorge is also home to even more waterfalls and hikes for all skill levels.
The Wahclella Falls Trailhead will lead you on an easy hike over Tanner Creek to reach its namesake waterfall. Hikers will be treated with the bonus Munra Falls, which cascades so close to the footbridge path, you can reach right into the frosty waterfall. “Wahclella Falls is a great, short hike in the waterfall corridor of the scenic area. It’s gorgeous, family friendly and open all year,” says Becky Brun, a Hood River-based writer who is an avid trail runner and mountain biker. The trail winds through a slot canyon and is less than 2.5 miles long with the tranquil flow of the nearby creek, and it ends with a grand view of the Wahclella Falls standing at 350 feet tall. (Make sure you purchase a $5 Northwest Forest Pass and for your safety, respect all trail closure signs; the upper section of the trail’s loop remains closed due to damage from a 2017 wildfire.)
Renee Tkach, a project manager with the nonprofit organization Friends of the Columbia Gorge, suggests the Mosier Plateau Trail, which is part of “Gorge Towns to Trails.” By linking trails to local communities, the Friends of the Columbia Gorge project aims to build a wider loop trail that helps sustainability for both the wildlife and the residents of the area. The Mosier Plateau offers stunning views of the Gorge and takes you toward Mosier Creek and its waterfall. The best part of the Mosier Plateau Trail is that it can be a “wiking” trip, says Tkach, “when you pair it with a visit to one of the Mosier wineries.” Many of us can raise a glass to that.
Before heading out for a hike, be sure to check out Ready, Set. GOrge! for up-to-date information on trail closures and weather advisories, along with preparation tips for making the most out of your scenic trip.
From snowboarders itching for the first snowflake to those who enjoy a low-key afternoon of snowshoeing, Mt. Hood is the go-to destination in the Pacific Northwest. Many skiers and snowboarders head to the five resorts in the area, such as Timberline Lodge & Ski Area, which is known for having the longest ski season in North America. Locals know that traffic on the mountain can back up on snowy weekends, so they opt for car-free connections from Portland, Hood River, the Willamette Valley and more.
For those who enjoy more playful snow days, Sno-Parks are the way to go for winter fun with sledding, snowshoeing, tubing and more. Sno-Parks are especially perfect for families, kids and adults who play like kids. “People like to haul their barbecues out there to tailgate in the parking lot. It’s kind of like a big party that is BYOS: Bring your own sled,” says Sachi Arakawa, an urban planner who has worked in the Gorge. “I recommend just recycling the old inner tube you used to float the Sandy [River] last summer — easy to pack and provides lots of padding for your bum.”
With more than two-dozen Sno-Parks around Oregon’s tallest peak, there’s plenty of powdery terrain to explore. Where to start? Seek out one of the lesser-crowded Sno-Parks around the mountain. If you head to one of the more popular spots such as White River West Sno-Park — one of Arakawa’s favorites for showshoeing and sledding, with more parking than other busy Sno-Parks — visit during a weekday in mid-winter for the best conditions and to avoid crowds.
If you find yourself falling in love with the Mt. Hood National Forest and wish you could spend a rustic night out there, you can try your luck at booking the Fivemile Butte Lookout, which in winter is only accessible via a 3-mile snowshoe, ski or snowmobile trek from Billy Bob Sno-Park. The lookout cabins in the area are famously booked out months in advance, but if you’re flexible and persistent, you might be able to book a stay if a slot opens up. The fire-lookout towers were built by the Forest Service in the early 20th century, offer spectacular views of the landscape and are an unmatched home base for hiking nearby.
Eats & Drinks
It must be all that mountain air and access to nearby farms — which you can tour on the East Gorge Food Trail and Hood River County Fruit Loop — that makes the eating so good along the Columbia River.
One newcomer has quickly become a favorite among Gorge residents. Troutdale’s Sugarpine Drive-In is located just off the Historic Columbia River Highway as you’re about to head east toward the Gorge or if you’re on your way back to Portland; there’s a convenient drive-thru, and you’re welcome to dine in, as well, seated outside beneath a cozy tent. This charming spot has old-school aesthetics and mouthwatering seasonal menus led by owners and chefs Emily Cafazzo and Ryan Domingo. Recent seasonal specials include smoked potato clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl, Mama’s meatloaf sandwich, and à la mode sundaes topped with pumpkin and pecan pie filling. Domingo says their specials are updated every couple weeks, and they’re open through winter, so no matter when you drop by, you’re in for a treat.
For those who imbibe, Domingo recommends pFriem Family Brewers. He says they’re “the beer sweetheart of Oregon. They’ve won all the awards out there in Hood River.” While you’re in Hood River, go downtown to Kin Eatery, owned by Roman Deingruber and Amy Kaefer. “It’s probably the most exciting restaurant in Hood River right now,” says Domingo. “They do a lot of Pacific Northwest seasonal items in a cute, quaint, beautiful space.” The couple had purchased an older restaurant and transformed it to Kin Eatery, introducing diners to their version of Pacific Northwest fare with an Eastern European flair.
Where to Stay
The sheer topographic diversity of the region means you could spend the night in a rustic cabin in the Mt. Hood National Forest; at ski areas such as the lesser-known Cooper Spur Mountain Resort or the historic Timberline Lodge; a luxe bed and breakfast like the R&R Guesthouse in The Dalles; regal waterfront rooms at the turn-of-the-century-era Columbia Gorge Hotel & Spa; and at dozens of roadside inns and hotels situated throughout the Gorge and around the base of Mt. Hood. Search here for places to stay.