A trip east on Hwy 26 out of Portland takes you almost in a bee-line straight for Mt. Hood – the iconic pointy-topped volcano that is ever-present as you drive around the metro area. It is not as far away as you might think – and makes a great summertime day trip out of the city. If you time it right, you might stop in Sandy on your way and enjoy an early lunch at a Le Happy – a creperie where you can dine on either savory or sweet filled crepes. I tried the Fromage de Chevre et Onion which was very good (caramelized onion, goat cheese, mixed spring greens with a lemon vinaigrette.) If you are earlier, you might try Joe’s Donut Shop – it is hard to miss with its red and white tiled exterior right in the heart of downtown. They have been serving up donuts in the same spot since 1974 and are a favorite stop for skiers fueling up as they near the slopes.
Leaving Sandy and heading further towards Mt. Hood you pass through three small towns one right after the other – Welches, Zig Zag, and Rhododendron. If you are in need of a pick-me-up, I’d recommend swinging into Coffee House 26 in Welches. They’ll be on the left side in a nice little business park. The friendly barista made a fantastic iced chai (you can choose sweet, strong, or they will mix it half and half if you prefer like I did.) They have a small selection of gifts, local artisan pieces, and a selection of books if you are on vacation and need something during your down time. They have indoor or outdoor seating which was nice, as the weather can be hot during the day and cold at night. They had some nice watercolors of Mt. Hood that were pretty tempting too…
A nice side trip is to head north on Lolo Pass Rd out of the next town of Zig Zag. You’ll follow a curvy road which, after a few miles, will change from a pretty decent paved road to one, while still paved, is one you’ll need to drive slowly on and watch for potholes. The signs say it will take you all the way to Hood River, but the road is marked that it deteriorates and is not recommended for passenger cars. We found plenty of viewpoints that begged for the car to stop and let us get out to take photos before the road ended. Wildflowers lined the road, it was so peaceful and quiet, and well worth driving to. You can access the Pacific Crest Trail at one stop if you’ve ever wanted to say you’ve walked on the PCT. It is a marked trailhead and the trail is lined with volcanic rock and native rhododendrons. Volcanic rocks are everywhere, actually – still lying in place where they landed thousands of years ago during Mt. Hood’s last eruption.
Head back the way you came towards Zig Zag. You’ll turn left and head back on Hwy 26 towards Government Camp. You’ll see amazing views as you get ever closer to the mountain. Once at Government Camp you’ll have several options – you can head up the mountain and visit the famous Timberline Lodge for a great lunch, stunning old lodge architecture, and great views. Another option is to exit into Government Camp village – an alpine-like village filled with mostly restaurants and small hotels. We stopped for a beer at Glacier Haus and did a beer & cider flight. Another option is to stop and do the Alpine Slide at Mt. Hood Adventure Park. They run the ski lift in the summertime which takes you up quite a ways and you can ride a slide that curves its way down the hill. You can control the speed of your ride, the views on your way down are spectacular, and it was a lot of fun. Tickets cost $25 for two times down the slopes. They have many other options that will appeal to the younger family members including miniature golf, horseback rides, and go-kart racing. You can buy an all-day pass, or purchase tickets individually.
At this point you’re only at 4,000 feet, so you’re still not even half way up the mountain.
Leaving Government Camp, keep heading east on Hwy 26. It is worth a stop at Trillium Lake if you’ve never been. During summer there is a day-use fee, as it is a popular lake for paddle boarding, kayaking, and swimming. You can only walk part way around the lake, but oh, what views! There is something special floating out on a lake with a view like that as your backdrop.
Leaving Trillium Lake, turn right onto Hwy 26 and follow signs to Hood River which puts you on Hwy 35. You’ll be circling the mountain and see it from all sides. This lesser-traveled highway is nice and offers great views. You’ll notice on the northern side of Mt. Hood, the landscape changes somewhat. You may smell the pine in the air. As you get closer to Hood River, you’ll have several options for side trips. You can dive off the highway at Parkdale and stop for a beer at Solera Brewery, or just enjoy a drive through the orchards for which this area is famous. Head towards Odell and you can find Hood River Lavender, Stave and Stone Winery, or loop back towards Hwy 35 heading North. There are several more wineries you can choose from for a visit including the lovely Marchesei Vineyards which makes you feel you are sipping in Tuscany.
We stopped at the Gorge White House which is on the right side on Hwy 35 and well worth a stop. It is a 100+ year old house/farm/cidery/winery. During summer it is a popular stop for lunch with many choices for outdoor seating. Sit on the patio under the shade of an ancient oak tree. Or sit in the orchard overlooking the flower garden and nearby hills. They may not have a traditional restaurant, but their food cart is exceptional and I highly recommend the flatbread with pear and caramelized onion, Everything looked good and it was hard choice between the caprese sandwich, the pear quesadilla, or a charcuterie box. They also have burgers, BLTs, and salads among other offerings. Being a fruit orchard, they have specialized in fruit ciders and wines. I enjoyed the lemon pear cider while others tried the honey lavender or cherry. A half-pour was only $5 which was a wine glass full. They are known for the heritage pear wine. A flight of 7 wine tastings is $14.
As you continue down into Hood River, there is a view as you come out of the hills and overlook the Columbia River and the city which is fantastic – have someone in the car with a camera ready! From Hood River you have views of both Mt. Hood behind you and Mt. Adams across the river. Once in town, there will be a multitude of options for dinner or getting out for a stretch before hitting the road. Gas up the car if needed and head west on Hwy 84 back towards Portland. It won’t be long until you are in the midst of the Columbia River Gorge with towering walls of granite and stone pillars all around you. The river will be on your right all the way where you can see windsurfers, sailboats, and river cruise paddleboats. One day it will be nice to see the views from the water point of view on a leisurely river cruise! You can get info on river cruises at USA River Cruises based just down river in Vancouver, WA.
You could write an entire book (and many have! Find one on our book reading list here.) about just exploring the Columbia River Gorge, but in short…. it’s gorgeous. While the scars from the recent Eagle Creek wildfire are sadly clearly visible, the upside is that it is much easier to see the geology of the rocky faces while they are temporarily uncovered. If you’ve traveled this route before the fire, you will be amazed at what you can see now that was hidden before. Soon it will be lush and green again, but for now we can still marvel at the many different waterfalls both short and powerful and tall and elegant. Multnomah Lodge is a beauty and you’ll have to make time to stop here for breakfast some day before hiking to the bridge that crosses the waterfall midway up. You might stop at Bonneville Power Dam and see a tour of the fish ladders, or stop by the fish hatchery and visit Herman the Sturgeon. If you have time, drive the winding old Historic Columbia River Highway up to Crown Point for a view overlooking the river that is stunning. Continue on the winding road that will bring you out at Troutdale, or hop on the highway again and head back into the traffic and concrete that comes with big metro cities. Or just may turn around and head back up into the mountains again….