HOOD RIVER, Ore. – This town full of extreme-sports nuts owes its late-20th century renaissance to windsurfing and other water sports – things you might think of in summer. Add four craft breweries and you get a town of sports nuts and beer nuts.
When word got out that you could also ski or snowboard pretty much year-round on nearby Mount Hood, snow nuts came, too.
With cozy brewpubs, good restaurants and a walkable downtown that festoons itself in lights well beyond the holidays, Hood River – whose front yard is the Columbia River – is growing a reputation as a getaway for winter as well as summer.
“We’ve gotten written up in a couple of ski magazines, and while a lot of people (heading for Mount Hood) stay in Portland, here we get that small ski-town winter vibe,” said Nikki Guerra-Smith, 33, who moved 12 years ago from Los Angeles after she heard about that summer snowboarding. “Sometimes we’ve had a couple feet of snow on the sidewalk.”
Now she works the front desk at Doug’s Sports on downtown’s main drag, across from the charmingly old-fashioned, redbrick Hood River Hotel, which is listed on the National Historic Register (the elevator’s wire-cage door is a blast from the past).
Hotel guests can rent snow gear at a discount from Doug’s and shop staff will cross the street to retrieve it after-hours. Other perks: At this and other area lodging, ask about discounted tickets for nearby ski areas (up to $24 off the usual adult lift price for Mount Hood Meadows).
Besides the commercial slopes at Mount Hood’s Timberline, Hood Meadows and Cooper Spur – all within 30 minutes to an hour’s drive of town – sports shops send visitors up scenic Highway 35 for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing on a variety of winter-wonderland trails.
Perhaps most popular is the Teacup Lake trail system, with more than a dozen miles of groomed trails and a warming cabin. A $10 daily donation supports grooming efforts by the Teacup Lake Nordic Club (teacupnordic.org) and a Sno-Park permit is required (Oregon honors Washington permits).
The 200-space lot can fill on winter weekends, reports Stephen Schneider, president of Oregon Nordic Clubs, of which Teacup is a chapter. “On those days, on the trails closer in, there are always lots of skiers of all types – racers, beginners, family outings, couples, you name it. … You’ll see many families skiing together, with many of them pulling a child behind in a sled.”
Prefer solitude? Go during the week (they groom on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, too). Those days, the only sound you might hear is the swish, swish of your own skis and the occasional plop of snow dropping off ice-coated boughs.
“Weekday traffic counts at Teacup average about 75 skiers per day, which when spread over those trails over an eight-hour period can make it seem like you are alone most of the time,” Schneider said.
Pick up a waterproof Mt. Hood Winter Trails map ($14.95 at Doug’s) for a topographic guide with detail maps of popular trail systems.
“At some you can cross-country ski and take your dogs, or a lot of people like to take their dogs snowshoeing – just go wandering with the pups,” Guerra-Smith said.
One place to do that, at no charge, is on the edge of Timberline ski area, said Robbie Walsh, 30, at Second Wind Sports, up the street from Doug’s. He said another favorite place for snowshoers is Tamanawas Falls, a 3.6-mile round trip from the Sherwood Trailhead near Milepost 72 off Highway 35.
“It’s very popular in summer for hikes, and it’s absolutely gorgeous in winter.”
Walsh, with shoulder-length hair sprouting from beneath a wool cap, came from Minnesota three years ago to teach snowboarding on the mountain. He likes Hood River for “the adventures and the awesome people to do it with – a lot of awesome people come here because they really want to be here.”
And when you’re happily worn out at day’s end, wander up Oak Street, Hood River’s main drag, past Mystic Mud Studio, with handmade pottery; G. Williker’s Toy Shoppe, with a crystal-growing kit in the window and nary a video game in sight; or Rivertap restaurant, with a blazing “Beer to Go!” neon sign shaped like a growler jug.
If you’re back from the mountain early enough, save time for a free 30-minute guided tour in the steamy, hop-scented halls of worker-owned Full Sail Brewery (506 Columbia St.), the town’s craft-brewing pioneer, named for the 1980s windsurfing craze that spawned the town’s renewal. Daily tours are on the hour from 1 to 4 p.m., no reservations needed.
Full Sail started with an output of 287 barrels in 1987 and now sells about 100,000 barrels a year in 29 states, guide Carrie Sidwell told me – making sure to emphasize the brewery’s very-Oregon focus on sustainability. (Used grain mash goes to Tillamook, Ore., to feed cows, “and we use Tillamook cheese in our brewpub, so it’s a nice relationship.”)
Other after-the-snow choices for brewpub tours and noshes include Double Mountain Brewery, 8 Fourth St. (with Fa La La La La winter ale), Big Horse Brew Pub, 115 W. State St. (with MacStallion Scotch Export) and a 2012 addition, Belgian-influenced Pfriem Family Brewers, 707 Portway Ave., near the Columbia River shore.
Sidwell, who came at age 20 from New Hampshire for the skiing, works the terrain-park crew at Mount Hood Meadows in winter. She calls Hood River “an ageless town.”
“I’ll meet some 50-something guy who parties way harder than I do, and I’m 25. The old windsurfers are amazing! With biking, kayaking, windsurfing – all the extreme sports coming together - you can’t be bored here.”
With a choice of good restaurants, I end my day in the firelit, red-and-black dining room at Brian’s Pourhouse – couldn’t resist the name – with a platter of tilapia tacos and a pint of pumpkin ale in a comfy old house at 606 Oak St.
When morning comes again, it’s time to stop by a bakery called Knead, 102 Fifth St., with a hardworking young crew rolling dough in the front window, to pack a knapsack with warm cinnamon rolls, then blaze the way back up Highway 35 to the snow.
It’s how winter works in Hood River.