A roundup of ski areas and tubing hills around Government Camp, Ore., and slopes of Mount Hood, with a list of spring specials.
What’s arguably the Northwest’s most diverse skiing scene is just half a tank of gas from the Seattle-Tacoma area and a quick drive from Portland.
Located at the foot of Mount Hood, Government Camp, Ore., is the birthplace of resort skiing in the Cascades, home to the nation’s largest night skiing operation and the Northwest’s tubing hotbed.
“There is no other destination I can think of that has such an interesting cluster of ski areas,” said Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association. “It’s not appreciated as a winter destination.”
But with gas prices soaring, local ski hill operators hope more people around the Northwest choose to visit Mount Hood this spring.
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Government Camp is one of the few places where visitors can reach five ski areas in 40 minutes or less.
Summit Ski Area is on the edge of Portland and has been running since 1927, making it the second-oldest continuously operated ski area in the United States. Mount Hood Skibowl, a mile west down state Route 26, offers the most night skiing terrain in the U.S. High above, at about 6,000 feet above sea level, Timberline, with its famed Timberline Lodge, is North America’s only year-round ski area.
On Hood’s east side, Mount Hood Meadows is the mountain’s youngest ski area (it opened in 1967) and is loaded with diverse terrain and high-speed lifts. Cooper Spur is another small beginner hill that opened in 1927.
“You can find whatever you’re looking for on Mount Hood,” said Jon Tullis of Timberline Lodge.
Mount Hood 101
Mount Hood’s winter sports scene is packed with history. Kaden, who lives in nearby Hood River, Ore., says you could call the area the cradle of resort skiing in the Northwest.
Summit and Cooper Spur became the first ski areas in Washington or Oregon in 1927.
People skied there before the designated ski areas opened, Kaden said, but the U.S. Forest Service wanted designated ski areas because so many people were getting injured skiing on their own. Portland residents started the ski areas, which originally included ski-jump hills, Kaden said.
Mount Hood Skibowl opened in 1928 and the mountain’s most famous ski area, Timberline, opened in 1937.
Timberline Lodge, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, was dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and still draws as many visitors as the snow.
“The lion’s share of our business is as a tourist attraction,” said Tullis. “People that just come up to see the lodge and grab a meal.”
The Forest Service offers free tours of the lodge, which has been used in several movies, most notably the 1980 horror classic “The Shining.”
“It is the quintessential ski lodge,” Tullis said.
While Mount Hood might still be overlooked as a winter ski destination, that’s not the case in the summer, thanks to Timberline Lodge. With its lifts running all year, professional athletes and gear testers from around the world travel to Mount Hood for summer training.
“It’s an international destination in the summer,” Tullis said. “Probably the best summer operations in the world.”
Skiing the mountain
All five Mount Hood ski hills have distinct personalities.
Summit and Cooper Spur are family playgrounds ideal for beginners.
Timberline has the most vertical drop (3,690 feet) of any ski area on the West Coast, but most of the winter terrain is mellow. That can change on weekends when snowcats haul visitors to the top of the Palmer Snowfield for steeper runs.
The most challenging terrain can be found at rustic Skibowl or on the slopes serviced by the high-speed lifts at Mount Hood Meadows.
“We all have our niches and that’s a good thing,” said Mark Deen, Skibowl’s assistant operations manager. “There really is something for everybody here.”
Tullis describes the Puget Sound area as Mount Hood’s “primary secondary market” and says most out-of-the-area guests visit more than one ski area.
“The typical (out-of-town) visitor skis a day at Timberline, a night at Skibowl and a day at Mount Hood Meadows,” Tullis said.
Tubing hills, too
They take their sliding seriously on Mount Hood.
Cooper Spur draws a steady stream of tube riders. “If you stand in the base area all you hear is constant giggling,” said Dave Tragethon, Meadows’ executive communication director.
Government Camp is the epicenter of the Northwest tubing scene, with three tubing hills within two miles.
Kaden says the mountain is packed with tubing opportunities because it is only an hour drive from the outskirts of Portland.
“Typically, when you are so close to a large urban area, people are going to come out and do it anyway and it can be very unsafe,” he said. “Then you have your ski patrol responding to these accidents.”
Designated tubing areas eliminate many of the risks and generate an additional revenue stream for ski areas. The ski areas, which charge $10-$30 for tubing tickets, provide the tubes for sliding.
“It touches another sector of the market,” Kaden said of tubing. “You don’t need any special clothes or equipment. And all ages can do it.”
Skibowl, which has a conveyor belt lift so tubers don’t have to hike up its hills, started offering Cosmic Tubing last year. On Friday and Saturday nights through April a $15-30 ticket gets you three hours of sensory overload on a hill lit up similar to a dance club as techno music blasts over the sound system.
“As far as I know we are the only ski area in the country with Cosmic Tubing,” Deen said. “And it’s been pretty popular. People love it.”
Before the economy collapsed in 2008, getting a room at Timberline Lodge was no easy task.
“You needed to make your reservations at least six weeks in advance,” Tullis said, “but not anymore.”
Now, Tullis said, you can often make reservations the night before your trip. Rooms start at $165 per night, but Tullis said the lodge is currently offering second weekday nights for $75 in order to lure more visitors to the area.
There is no shortage of deals on the mountain this spring.
Most of the hotels in the area offer discounted lift tickets. Tragethon said 14 hotels offer discounted lift tickets to Mount Hood Meadows. At Cooper Spur Resort guests staying midweek before April 30 score free lift tickets to Meadows.
Those planning to ski two or more days at one of the three big ski areas can buy a spring pass good for the remainder of the season. The passes are $149 at Meadows, $110 at Timberline and $99 at Skibowl. The ski areas typically operate into late May and sometimes June.
While Northwest skiers have a habit of winding down their season in late February, Tragethon said in recent seasons late-arriving snow has delivered some of the best skiing in late spring.
“We still have great skiing on Hood in April,” he said. “April is the new March.”