Besides epic high-mountain skiing on the face of Mount Hood, you start and end your day at classic Timberline Lodge.
TIMBERLINE LODGE, Ore. – From 7,000 feet up the side of Mount Crumpet (so it seemed), I was flying down the mountain’s unblemished cheek on a wide-open snowfield above the tree line, a 20 mph wind in my teeth. At my back, the 11,245-foot peak – OK, it was actually Mount Hood – was a knife-edge cockscomb of white slashing a sky as blue as Crater Lake.
It was a bright and sunny Monday in February, and I had a big slope at Timberline ski area all to myself as my careening ski tips cut in and out of little snowdrifts created by winds that have no barrier at this elevation.
The cold edged on bitter. The snow was a challenging mix of powder and ice. And I could see every peak and bump of the Oregon Cascades.
It was a huge kick in the snow pants.
I’m a Pacific Northwest skier, born and bred. Learned at Snoqualmie and Stevens. Skied Utah powder once, almost spoiling me forever. But this high-mountain thrill gave me new appreciation for the winter adventure to be found a few hours from home.
“This is true mountain skiing!” I heard from a Portlander named Gary, a Timberline regular who was my seatmate on the Magic Mile chairlift. “Sometimes they have a bus running, and you can ski the canyon glades all the way down to Government Camp (at the base of the mountain). It adds 3 miles to your ski run.”
As I skied the Magic Mile again and again, until my toes froze, I couldn’t help but think, “This is definitely a place to ski at least once in your life, on a perfect bluebird day on Mount Hood.”
More than meets the eye
There’s far more to Timberline skiing than I knew from my past summertime visits to tour Timberline Lodge, the historic inn at the mountain’s 6,000-foot level. From a cursory look, you see the Magic Mile chair that heads up from the lodge. Beyond that is the Palmer Lift, which soars on up to 8,500 feet and often enables skiing in every month of the year – the longest ski season in North America, on Oregon’s highest peak.
But many more ski trails and lifts thread the subalpine woods below the lodge, down to the 4,850-foot level. Spread over 1,415 skiable acres served by seven chairlifts radiating out from the Wy’East Day Lodge, half the area’s 41 runs are rated intermediate, with the rest split evenly between beginner and advanced.
Timberline boasts the most vertical feet – 3,690 – of any ski slope in this corner of the United States. There’s a lot to like.
And that’s not even mentioning what might be the best thing about the place: starting and ending your day at Timberline Lodge.
Best in Northwest
With all due respect to Mount Rainier’s Paradise Inn, and with fond memories of a cozy rainy weekend at Lake Quinault, I have to say Timberline is hands-down the best classic lodge in the Pacific Northwest.
For one thing, it was built as a ski lodge, and unlike Paradise Inn it stays open throughout the snowy winter.
A Works Progress Administration project that employed artisans and craftsmen during the Great Depression, the lodge was constructed (by 90-cents-an-hour workers) and furnished between 1936 and 1938. President Franklin Roosevelt came for the dedication; the chair built specially for him is displayed in the lower lobby.
The lodge was furnished throughout with hand-forged wrought iron, handmade wood furniture, hand-woven fabrics and hand-hooked rugs incorporating three major design elements: pioneer heritage, Indian motifs and native plants and wildlife. And over the decades, restorations have been faithful to the original quality and designs.
That means stairways feature gleaming, lacquered newel posts in the shapes of an owl, a beaver or other Oregon wildlife. On the lodge’s front door is a wrought-iron ram’s-head knocker. In the lobby and mezzanine, you can write a postcard or dash off an email from one of the knotty-pine writing desks decorated with carved rosettes.
Rooms range from the modest to the relatively palatial, some with wood-burning fireplaces. Rates aren’t modest (generally in the $250-$350 range; look for their “Stay the Night, Two Ski Free” package, good Sunday-Thursday starting Dec. 1). Call it a splurge you won’t forget, with a year-round heated outdoor pool and hot tub.
When I was out photographing the stunning evening light on the mountain, I found Alida Baudoin, 22, and Bryan Rogers, from Vancouver, Wash., doing the same. They came to celebrate Rogers’ 25th birthday.
“I think it’s beautiful; our room is like, right there, looking at the mountain,” Baudoin said, gesturing to a corner of the lodge.
If you’d rather stay cozy in the lobby, sit in a vintage wooden sofa by one of the fires crackling in the soaring, multisided stone fireplace that rises in the center of the lodge and look out a many-paneled window framing Mount Hood.
On a clear day, sunset turns the peak rose-petal pink. As dusk sets in, the mountain looks colder and colder, framed by a gunmetal-blue sky that slowly turns to purple.
In the Ram’s Head Bar, my wife liked the mushroom soup served in a bread bowl.
“That was the best mushroom soup I ever had! There were huge mushrooms in there. I think they used portobellos, with ground hazelnuts on top.”
My clam chowder came with clam chunks the size of a quarter, tender and fresh, alongside a tasty Mount Hood Brewery beer.
From our table, we could open a small windowpane to let in pure, crisp, snow-cooled air as we looked out on snow-laden firs and an untracked bank of white.
My day of skiing started with a breakfast buffet in the lodge’s Cascade Dining Room, where the overhead lamps resemble Indian drums, their colors echoed in heavy woven drapes in stripes of raspberry, plum, greens and blues. Our server pointed out which of the Oregon Cascades could be seen from our window table.
“It’s a nice day, and Mount Jefferson is out right there, and The Sisters are just to the left, and then Broken Top, the brightest white in the distance; as the crow flies, I believe it’s 46 miles,” he said, adding a menu suggestion as we rose to head for the buffet: “Be sure to try our signature egg cups, wrapped in crispy bacon with a touch of garlic.”
At $15.95, the buffet is as good as what many restaurants in the city might price at $35. There were house-made sausages and hardwood-smoked ham, griddle potatoes with yellow peppers, French toast, Belgian waffles and much more.
We finished with a house specialty, a “shrub”: a post-meal digestive drink, served in a liqueur glass, made from apple-cider vinegar and brown-sugar molasses boiled down with minced ginger.
“I add a little nutmeg,” our server, Michael, told us. “It gets you going for the ski slope.”
And it did. Until my toes froze.
If you go
Timberline Lodge is about a 90-minute drive east of Portland and about four hours from Seattle, at the 6,000-foot level on the south side of Mount Hood.
Besides Timberline Lodge, there’s Silcox Hut, above the main lodge at 7,000 feet, suited to groups looking for a private overnight hideaway with bunk beds. Minimum rental 12-18 people depending on time of season. Stay includes dinner, lodging, breakfast, and round-trip transportation from the main lodge; $165-$215/person per night.
Timberline also manages The Lodge at Government Camp, with six condominium units six miles down the mountain.
For winter visits, carry tire chains, often needed on the steep and winding road to reach Timberline Lodge and the ski area.