It took me years to fully appreciate Hood River, the outdoor recreation fairyland just an hour east of Portland, Oregon. Since moving to Portland in 2010, I’ve been drawn to the wind-carved canyon of the Columbia River Gorge, the quick access to Mount Hood’s year-round snowy runs, and the Hood River area’s abundant apple orchards and vineyards. But it wasn’t until 2016, when I made the one-mile crossing over the Columbia from Oregon into the neighboring town of White Salmon in Washington, that I was able to grasp Hood River’s beauty; from that vantage, it looks like some ancient Swiss mountain village—vibrant, tree covered, etched into the side of the river gorge, and set against a backdrop of Mount Hood’s craggy, 11,240-foot peak.
For the uninitiated, Hood River isn’t exactly a mountain town, at roughly an hour by car from its namesake summit. Since the 1980s, it’s earned a reputation as one of the world’s premier wind-sport destinations, thanks to its wind-tunnel effect. Warm, dry desert air from eastern Oregon pulls cool, wet weather from the Pacific through the Columbia River Gorge, giving this stretch of river Goldilocks conditions and violent whitecaps. Every summer, brightly colored kiteboards dot the river’s edge. “It’s a unique dynamic that doesn’t exist in many other places in the world,” explains TJ Gulizia, a wind-sports expert at the Big Winds shop in town.
Forty years after the birth of windsurfing, international diehards and curious tourists still come for gusty thrills. Most visitors, though, are drawn to Hood River’s proximity to downhill skiing, world-class whitewater, view-filled hikes, and precipitous mountain-biking trails in the gorge and the Mount Hood Wilderness. The area also happens to be nestled in the center of Oregon’s orchard country, which produces apples and cherries that will redefine the fruits for you entirely.
With a slew of new boutique hotels and a blossoming food and drink scene on either side of the Columbia, there’s never been a better time to explore this Portland-adjacent adventure mecca. The biggest challenge when visiting Hood River for the first time, it seems, is knowing where to start.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting
Prepare for the occasional trail closure and hiking permit: Many of the gorge’s most popular trails remain closed for rehabilitation after 2017’s historic Eagle Creek Fire scorched 48,861 acres of forest on the Oregon side of the river. No need to despair: although the waterfall corridor is a crowd-pleaser, it makes up only a small fraction of the 293,000-acre Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. If you’re headed west from Hood River into the corridor, check the Forest Service website’s handy map of fire-affected trails. Outside the burn area, one of the gorge’s buzziest treks—nearby Dog Mountain—requires a special day-use permit during peak wildflower season on weekends from April to June.
Watch for ice: Hood River’s steady westerly gusts are a double-edged sword for travelers during the shoulder season and winter months. Locals are easily identifiable by their studded snow tires, and for good reason: the combination of heavy precipitation, just-around-freezing temperatures, and intense winds can turn Hood River and its main artery, Interstate 84, into an ice rink. Visit the Oregon Department of Transportation’s website beforehand.
Take a shuttle: You don’t need to find your way through peak summer traffic, thanks to Columbia Area Transit’s (CAT) next-level public transportation. It offers shuttles from Portland to Hood River, with multiple stops in the gorge and free winter trips from Hood River to Mount Hood Meadows, one of the area’s biggest downhill ski areas.
How to Get There
The vast majority of visitors drive east from Portland on I-84, which runs along the border between Oregon and Washington. The one-hour trip takes you through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and past the state’s most impressive waterfalls, from Multnomah to Wahkeena.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit Hood River?
Summer: This is prime time for the area, when average daytime highs hover in the low eighties, meaning you can wear nothing but swim trunks or a bathing suit while windsurfing or paddleboarding. Mount Hood, meanwhile, typically thaws out by early August, opening up a wealth of high-alpine backpacking and mountain-biking trails. That said, you’ll still find plenty of snow atop Palmer Glacier at Timberline Lodge—one of North America’s only year-round ski areas. The rub, of course, is that everyone else is out there with you. Expect heavy traffic en route to and around the mountain.
Fall: There’s a sweet spot in September when the crowds thin and before the weather turns. Expect temperatures ranging from the forties at night up to the seventies during the day. A major bonus is the Hood River Fruit Loop, a 35-mile scenic drive through farmland and forests when produce is at its ripest, with endless acres of apple orchards containing heirloom varieties from Arkansas Black to Northern Spy.
Winter: In-the-know powder hounds use Hood River as their home base between December and March. Typically, there’s minimal traffic on the way up to the mountain on bucolic Route 35 coming from Hood River, especially compared to the daily jam that clogs Highway 26, which runs directly from Portland to Mount Hood. Regardless of the weather, always bring chains in the winter if you don’t have snow tires.
Spring: Even if it’s pouring in Portland on a spring day, it’s likely you’ll find reliable sunshine in Hood River and eastward, thanks to Mount Hood’s rain-shadow effect: prevailing winds rise, cool, and condense in the form of rain (or snow) on one side of the mountain, leaving dry, warm air on the opposite side. March through May is peak wildflower season in the gorge, and the 3.5-mile Mosier Plateau, four-mile Dalles Mountain Ranch, and five-mile Lyle Cherry Orchard Trails all put on stunning displays of lupine, paintbrush, and phlox, just to name a few.
Where to Stay in Hood River
The past few years have seen a wave of redesigned hotels in the area. The circa-1912 Hood River Hotel (from $99), located downtown, got a retro-chic face-lift in 2017 from the team behind Portland’s swanky Jupiter Hotel. Exclusive perks include the 420 in the Gorge package, a partnership with neighboring cannabis dispensary Gorge Greenery, and an in-house outpost of Portland’s popular Scandinavian-brunch restaurant Broder Øst. Across the river, the Society Hotel Bingen is a transformed 80-year-old schoolhouse. It now boasts a thrifty outdoor clubhouse with communal bunk rooms ($45) and a small settlement of cabins (from $159) encircling a sprawling spa and bathhouse. Warm and cold pools, a sauna, a fresh-juice café, and an underground meditation room known as the Sanctuary are free to guests.
For a more agrarian experience, Sakura Ridge (from $225), just seven miles south of Hood River, is a luxurious farm stay with five rooms, 30 acres of pear and apple orchards, 20 beehives, grazing sheep, and perfect mountain views. Those wanting to car-camp close to Hood River can pitch a tent near the Columbia at Viento State Park (from $17), eight miles west of town, or right along Hood River’s namesake at Tucker Park ($25), six miles south.
What to Do While You’re There
There’s a reason Hood River hosts the Association of Wind and Water Sports Industries’ Board Sports Expo every year and is the home base of some of the biggest names in wind sports—it’s the ideal place to be hauled across the water by nothing but a stiff breeze. For those still mystified by the wind-sports industry, here’s a brief history: the 1990s were all about windsurfing, the early 2000s saw the advent of kiteboarding, and kite and wind foiling kicked off in the 2010s, allowing riders to levitate above the water at faster speeds than were previously possible due to a finlike hydrofoil jutting beneath the board. You’ll find every permutation of wind sports still thriving in Hood River today, but wing foiling (utilizing an inflatable, handheld detached “wing”) is the current industry darling.
For plucky first-timers, Big Winds, one of five outfitters perched on the edge of the Columbia, offers lessons (from $49) in nearly every iteration of the niche sport that you can imagine, from mellow stand-up paddleboarding to cutting-edge wing foiling. Those starting out will likely practice inside “the hook” just off the main promenade. Veterans packing their own gear will quickly discover that the best wind isn’t directly in front of Hood River but four miles west on the Washington side at the Hatchery. For a detailed lay of the land, check in with any of the rental shops, outfitters, and guides lined along the waterfront.
Whitewater Rafting and Kayaking
A massive confluence of designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, from the Salmon to the Klickitat, flows through this section of Oregon and Washington. Several outfitters operate out of White Salmon, one mile north of Hood River. A local favorite, Wet Planet, offers trips in both states, including a full-day Class III–IV roller-coaster rafting adventure for kids and adults on the White Salmon River (from $140) that ends with a 12-foot nose dive down Husum Falls.
Hood River is a short distance from dozens of view-gifting gorge hikes. Catherine Creek, a two-mile loop, is an easy option across the river and excellent for wildflower spotting in the spring, while the 12.2-mile round-trip Mount Defiance and 2.6-mile Mitchell Point routes are both heart-pumping straight shots up to dramatic cliff panoramas. Driving westward back toward Portland gives you access to the famed waterfall corridor (though be aware of possible trail closures), from the much Instagrammed Multnomah Falls to Oneonta’s narrow, one-mile basalt wade, both of which have trailheads just off the highway.
In summer, the entirety of Mount Hood’s alpine trail system is open. The mountain’s east-side treks are most accessible from Hood River. Elk Meadows, a six-mile round trip hike, gains up to 5,120 feet in elevation and takes you through an old-growth Douglas fir forest and across glacial streams right up to Hood’s craggy face, which looms over an aster- and parnassus-strewn meadow. For a shorter, year-round jaunt only 30 minutes from Hood River, hike the 3.4-mile out-and-back Tamanawas Falls, a wide cascade that flows from Cold Spring Creek over a 110-foot lava cliff. The backpacking possibilities in this national forest are endless, from an 8.5-mile round-trip day hike to Bald Butte to the bucket-list Timberline Trail, a 40-mile, round-the-mountain loop offering jaw-dropping scenery in all directions.
Blame the occasional windless day for the city’s endemic mountain-biking scene. “In the old days when there was no wind, we would just hang out in the parking lot and not know what to do,” explains Tim Mixon, president of Hood River Area Trail Stewards, a volunteer-based organization responsible for building and tending to many of the area’s mountain-bike trail networks. “As trail building and bike design have kind of merged to where 50-year-old guys like me can go ride with 20-year-olds, it’s just exploded around here.”
Post Canyon, a nearly 40-mile network of trails with up to 3,400 feet of vertical descent from the Seven Streams staging area to the berm-filled segment of Borderline, is the holy grail of mountain biking in Hood River. From spring through fall, riders of all skill levels and styles can explore routes that range from labyrinthine cross-country trails (Spaghetti Factory) to precipitous downhill sections (Dirt Surfer). Sixteen miles south of Hood River sits 44 Trails, the largest network of singletrack in the region, and just across the river in Washington are the wide-open, boulder-strewn Syncline Trail system and the wildflower-abundant Nestor Peak ride (a 12-mile out-and-back). Hood River Mountain Bike Adventures hosts tours (from $100) led by guides with encyclopedic intel of the area, while a tune-up at Dirty Finger Bikes downtown is a great excuse for a breakfast-burrito break at neighboring Kickstand Coffee.
Skiing and Snowboarding
There are three main players on Mount Hood when it comes to downhill snow sports, each with its strengths and flaws. Timberline Lodge, a wood and iron fortress, is the only ski-in, ski-out resort on the mountain. It’s also known by out-of-town visitors as the filming location for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. At 8,540 feet, Timberline is the highest serviced ski area in the region and nearly guaranteed to be snow covered year-round ($72 for a day pass). Closest to Portland on Route 26, Skibowl is prized for being both steep and cheap. Runs are comparatively short, but with the largest collection of black diamonds in the state and 34 floodlit night runs, it’s a steal at $53 for an adult day pass.
Finally, on the southeastern side of the mountain, Mount Hood Meadows (from $82 for a day pass) is a Goliath best suited for those with a “bigger is better” mentality. It features 2,150 skiable acres, six high-speed quads, a three-mile-long run, and 2,777 feet of vertical drop. Be prepared for regularly icy conditions. Those who have little ones in tow can opt for smaller runs and smaller crowds at either Cooper Spur Mountain Resort, on the north side of the mountain, or Summit Ski Area, right inside Government Camp, which is a glorified bunny hill and the second-oldest continuously operating ski area in the country.
The Best Places to Eat and Drink in Hood River
Between top-notch access to produce, a serious wine scene, and influence from Portland’s scrappy, forward-thinking chefs, Hood River has become a veritable dining destination. The aforementioned Broder Øst, located in the Hood River Hotel, offers up photogenic Swedish hash, cardamom-scented fika pastries, and Norwegian potato crepes without the lines you’ll find at its Portland outposts. Then there’s Celilo, an Italian eatery with hyper-local leanings, and Solstice, a wood-fired pizzeria, two longtime stalwarts with heavily seasonal influences.
Hood River is a heavyweight beer city in an already beer-obsessed state, with breweries like O.G. Full Sail Brewing, established in 1987 and known for its amber ale, and pFriem Family Brewers, a modern titan of craft beer that’s won nearly every industry award and accolade. Ferment Brewing Company, which opened in 2018 a few doors down, serves IPAs and Czech lagers alongside kombucha brewed with sencha, Assam, and oolong teas.
Five miles southwest of Hood River, Hiyu Wine Farm has made a name for itself in recent years as one of the most exciting, high-end wine-tasting experiences in the Pacific Northwest. Nate Ready, a former sommelier for Napa’s French Laundry, grows 80 different grape varietals on his 30-acre biodynamic vineyard that’s maintained only by grazing pigs, cows, and chickens. It all comes together in a tasting room where funky, raw vintages meet piperade-coated house sausages.
In the town of White Salmon, the White Salmon Baking Company is known for its chewy, tangy loaves exclusively made with flour from small-scale Pacific Northwest mills in its custom-built wood oven. Poppy spelt and fig-barley bread make for exceptional sandwiches, toasts, and tartines, while an onslaught of pastries from croissants to polenta cake take full advantage of the region’s glut of fresh berries and stone fruits.
If You Have Time for a Detour
If you’re vehement about avoiding crowds or in search of wild, alpine wilderness sans ski lifts, the Mount Adams Recreation Area, just an hour north of Hood River in Washington, is home to one of the more magnificent glaciated peaks in the Pacific Northwest. The second-tallest mountain in the state at 12,281 feet, Mount Adams sits a good distance from both Portland and Seattle, making it relatively secluded, even in the summertime. Make your base camp Takhlakh Lake, a 53-site campground (from $18) whose swimming hole often acts as a pristine mirror for Adams, looming just seven miles away. For a quick, up-close encounter with the peak, hike the steep, 2.6-mile round-trip Sleeping Beauty, which winds around a tight, rocky spire to an old fire-lookout-tower platform.
For backpackers, instead of attempting the five-day circumnavigation that combines the Round the Mountain, Pacific Crest, and Highline Trails (not to mention a treacherous bushwhack and glacier traverse), opt for Foggy Flat, an easy overnight trip with many of the longer route’s best qualities. This ten-miler along the mountain’s north face offers stunning sights (and wildflowers in July and August) as you ascend up to Foggy Flat, a grassy expanse perched below Lyman Glacier. Mountaineers flock to Mount Adams’s South Climb, a nontechnical 12-mile round-trip assault. From May to September, most climbers make their summit attempt over two days, stopping at the relatively flat, boulder-strewn Lunch Counter on the first night. The final two-mile leg up to the summit affords incredible views of Washington’s five volcanoes.
How to Be a Conscious Visitor
For anyone who didn’t experience the emotional and environmental devastation of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, Rachel Pawlitz, the Forest Service public-affairs officer for the Columbia River Gorge, likes to remind visitors that despite the region’s reputation as soggy and moss covered, summers are “inherently quite dry, starting in late June.” The baseline is, “if you don’t need a fire in the summer, don’t set one,” says Pawlitz. If you do happen to encounter early signs of forest fire and have cell-phone reception, call 911 and report the fire, she says. “If it’s already been reported, authorities might be able to give you more information on where to go next,” she adds. “It’s important to hike with a map and compass so you can look for an alternative route that can get you back to your car.” For more local safety tips, visit Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
Lead Photo: lfreytag/iStock
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