Can a winter road trip in Oregon prove the US is home to the world’s wildest ski adventure?

Between the home-cured beef jerky, the 9mm handgun sale, and the vegan strip club, pulling over for pit stops is an ongoing temptation. We are en route to ski five different Oregon areas in a week – Hoodoo, Mt Bachelor, Mt Hood Skibowl, Mt Hood Timberline and Mt Hood Meadows.

After spending arrival night in Oregon’s capital city Portland, in the funky Jupiter Motel – charming 60s vintage meets hipster heaven – and hitting the food carts, our morning mission is to load up on road snacks. Opposite a giant ‘‘Keep Portland Weird” mural, we join a half-hour outdoor line for the 24-hour destination bakery, Voodoo Donuts. A medley of maple bacons, cream puffs and chocolate-covered voodoo dolls provide Grade A American snack food – and ironically the only queue we encounter all week.

Before hitting the slopes, it’s de rigeur to stop at iconic Cannon Beach where signature Haystack Rock juts majestically above the surf. So on our first day we drive for two hours to reach, mile on mile of near-deserted shore flanking the Pacific, and spend  an hour beachcombing shoeless in the sand – a rare luxury on a ski holiday.

Beach stop over, we drink in the unfurling sunny ocean views as we continue driving on Highway 26: lighthouses, arty towns and seafood restaurants speckle the beaches. We spend our second night on the edge of the Pacific at Hallmark Resort in Newport, a surf symphony playing in the background.

The following day we cut inland for ski country and the radio stations veer from grunge to country as the snow-capped volcanic peaks of the Cascade Mountain Range draw ever closer. Rolling two-lane roads sweep through cattle, horse and sheep country, piercing enchanted forests of old-growth spruce draped in emerald moss. In three hours, we climb from sunny sea level into wet winter snowstorm. Negotiating a slightly hairy Tombstone Pass at 1,290m – the rental car doesn’t come with snow tyres but it isn’t quite greasy enough for chains – it’s a quick parking lot change from beachwear to ski clothes for a cheeky little afternoon ski at Hoodoo.

A trip down Highway 26 provides views of the Oregon coastline

With the state’s only night skiing  – and plenty of RV hookups in the parking lot for travelling families and dedicated ski bums – this is a true local’s hill. We ski all five lifts serving 300m of vertical in a couple of hours. Winding trails and small glades are full of little natural gulleys and jumps. From catching air on Leap of Faith to cruising top to bottom on Art’s Alley, runs trace two faces of the mountain creating interesting, varied aspects and a fun amuse bouche of a ski before reaching our next stop, the central Oregon city of Bend, 45 miles away.

In the early 19th century, thousands made the great American migration from east to west  – their mantra: Oregon or the grave. More recently, people have flocked to Bend, an outdoor playground for skiers, mountain bikers, hikers – even a river-wave that’s cool enough to attract the likes of pro surfer-snowboarder Jerry Lopez. From sandals to ski boots to Wranglers and checked shirts, we’re in rodeo-ski country where mountainous high desert is punctuated by dramatic snow-capped volcanic peaks – including Mt Bachelor, sixth largest ski area in the US.

The following  day we click into bindings on top of Mount Bachelor a 360 degree giant snow-cone beneath our skis. The  first runs through the trees are a revelation: warm March sunshine, soft snow and old growth hemlocks too broad to hug and too well-spaced to hit. Afterwards we enjoy dozens of long wide bowls funnelling  and weaving down a triangular page of white. It’s an expansive offering, increased last season with the opening a new high-speed Cloudchaser chair accessing 13 new runs and 635 acres of skiable terrain – nearly the size of two Hyde Parks. We appreciate the joy of volcano skiing where the average slope runs are between 25-30 degrees  which combined with Oregon’s high-desert altitude means dry snow and easy cruising plus its share of powder, too

Mount Bachelor at sunrise

Credit:
James Dustin Parsons

Despite best efforts and all the turns my legs could handle, the 11 queue-free lifts that crisscross the frontside and the one, Summit Chair, leading to the backside, prove more than I can cover in a day. People have been skiing for half a century on this dormant volcano and it‘s effectively still a secret.

While there’s no great surprises on the lunch front – expect the usual nachos and burger fare so common in the US – back in Bend, the restaurants and gourmet food trucks are hopping. Cuisines from around the world pepper the walkable downtown blocks. Deschutes Brewery is where the local brewvolution began in 1988; more than a dozen craft breweries have bubbled up since. A day in Oregon isn’t complete without a splash of pinot noir either, the notoriously tricky grape on which this State forged an international reputation. We close the evening with a stylish jazz set downstairs at the boutique Oxford Hotel, with the smoky-voiced stylings of Lindsey Webster, Billboard’s Smooth Jazz Artist of the Year.

The following evening, after a beautiful 110-mile drive through arid high desert (we make it a non-ski day and stop en route to admire the sheer red cliffs of Smith Rock and plunging river canyons of Ogden Wayside) the haute Americana atmosphere at Mt Hood could hardly be more different. What with 95-year-old Vanya leaping from her chair in striped leggings to perform the can-can while belting out to the dining room at large “I’m going skiing in the morning!”, iconic Timberline Lodge, where we are staying, makes its own fun. Two hours from Bend, minus the stops, the ski-in ski-out National Historic Landmark hotel is a US institution, built in 1937 by President Roosevelt as Depression-era make work project. Timberline famously featured in The Shining – even Jack Nicholson could learn something from Vanya about cameos.    

No queues and pristine powder

Credit:
Brian Becker Photography/Brian Becker

Timberline Lodge is a perfect base from which to sample three adjacent ski areas. We spend an evening at floodlit Skibowl, with the most black diamond runs in Oregon and the largest night ski area in the US; a full day at Mt Hood Meadows, where 430 inches of snow across undulating valleys and bowls create a more big-mountain vibe; and lastly, perched halfway up an active volcano, we ski from our hotel door straight onto Mt Hood itself.

With the hotel located mid-mountain, from the door you can click in and either ski down through a variety of glades and groomers, or ride up as we did on the Magic Mile chair to the highest point accessible by lift in winter. (In summer, a T-bar accesses the top snowfield, delivering the wide-thighs of international World Cup ski racers to guaranteed snow for training from July through September). From here we lay out our own Lindsay Vonn-inspired version of Super-G turns and cruise the wide rolling slopes, eventually following signs through the trees down the longest run in the American Pacific Northwest: 1,124 vertical metres from Palmer Glacier to the bottom of Still Creek Basin.

From nearly every aspect, the horizon stretches for miles before us, Mt Jefferson rising conically in the near distance. We sashay the beautifully groomed slopes that weave through craggy Douglas fir and Ponderosa pines. No fewer than six freestyle parks pop up en route. For lunch we stop at the charming Phlox Cabin. Hidden in a stand of trees, it was built in 1930 as an overnight shelter for Boy Scouts and now serves 30,000 tacos a year on Oregon’s tallest mountain. Sadly, our timing is off by a day for one of the other treats of this active volcano. On winter weekends, there are free cat rides to the top where the perennial Palmer Glacier sparkles year-long above Timberline Lodge – though whatever day of the week you find yourself on Mt Hood its other prime USP is practically guaranteed: by definition, there are no queues – when 1,000 cars fill the parking lot, they simply close the road at one-third of skier capacity.

Those are kinds of bonus moments that pop up in a culture fostered by traders, trappers and frontier spirits. Our final stop at Timberline has it all. From the austere bedrooms to the hidden bar that once housed a brothel and speakeasy, you have to admire a Depression-era resort with an 360,000 kilo stone chimney and its own curator – the same curator – for the past 41 years. Even the beef served in the dining room comes from a herd butchered on site in order to make use of every possible body part. Like an Oregon road trip, it’s something to sink your teeth into.

Need to know

Ski Safari offers a 10-night room-only holiday with one night at the Jupiter Hotel, Portland, three nights at Best Western, Hood River or Government Camp, one night at the Timberline Lodge, Mt Hood and five nights at Sunriver Resort, Bend from £1,735 including flights from Heathrow to Portland, and SUV car hire. Based on two sharing.

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