MOUNT HOOD, Ore. – The sun is hanging near the horizon as I click into my skis at 6,000 feet on the flank of this snowy volcano.
If you’re summer skiing at Timberline, you need to hit it early.
And I do. The slopes are deserted as I shred soft snow to the base Stormin’ Norman, one of three lifts still open at Timberline. It feels like my own private ski area.
I will start on the lower slopes, but spend most of my time on the highest lift, the Palmer Express, which ascends to 8,540 feet on Mount Hood’s south side.
It’s this high-elevation lift that makes Mount Hood ground zero for summer skiing in the United States. The resort has the longest ski season in the country, operating into September.
Ski and snowboard teams spend their summers at Timberline, more so this year in advance of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The U.S. Ski Team is one of 120 organizations training on the slopes of Mount Hood this summer.
But of course, recreational skiers like me are here too, enjoying something truly rare: year-round access to snow.
As I ride up the Palmer Express the first time, I’m struck by the sheer size of the snowfield. It seems to go on for miles.
“Wait until you see the top,” says Nancy George, a skier from the Boston area that I’ve joined for a few morning runs. “You won’t believe how much snow there is.”
Sure enough, as George and I reach the off-loading station, we enter an ice-encased cavern, with 35 feet of last winter’s snow still piled above. So much snow falls on the Palmer snowfield that the lift is completely buried and doesn’t operate during the winter months. This year, it didn’t open until May.
We hit our first turns, and the race is on. The snow, which is groomed nightly, is soft and fast. The Palmer runs are rated advanced, but they feel more like long, perfectly pitched intermediate cruisers.
George and I quickly reach the bottom and lap No. 1 is done. By this time, a few others are on the slopes, but it’s still wide-open skiing.
We hit the repeat button two more times before George has to leave for a conference she’s attending at Timberline Lodge. I return to the Palmer lift for a few more laps, all fast and mostly deserted. Then it’s time to try something different.
I climb above the off-loading station and get a good look at the summit of Mount Hood (elevation 11,245 feet), looming just 3,000 vertical feet above. It feels deceptively close, like you could swing your skis onto your shoulder and hike to the top in a couple of hours.
In fact, many visitors do climb the snowfield much higher, heading toward Crater Rock and Steel Cliffs, two of the largest near-summit features, before skiing back down.
I decide to ski out west along the snowfield, marveling at the views toward Portland and south along the Oregon Cascades, where I can clearly see 10,000-plus-foot Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters. The scale is huge as the slopes wind around the mountain out of bounds and into the nearby wilderness area.
It’s a warm day, and the skiing in the non-groomed out-of-bounds area is a bit mushy, so I make my way back to the base of Palmer and continue the cruising.
By late morning, the sun gets higher, the snow gets slower and that run I’ve done 15 times is starting to feel a little too familiar. By 11 a.m., it’s time to call it a day.
But no, the activities aren’t over yet. That’s one of the great things about skiing at Timberline in the summer: Your time on snow ends early, leaving room for many other activities.
“We get a lot of people here who want to do two or three sports in one day,” says John Burton, director of marketing at Timberline Lodge. After finishing at Mount Hood, many skiers will head down to Hood River, Oregon, to windsurf, go kayaking or take a bike ride in the area, Burton says.
I decide to spend the afternoon on my bike and experience Mount Hood in a different way.
In Government Camp at the base of the Timberline Highway on U.S. 26, I strip out of the heavy ski clothing and into my cycling gear.
Over the next couple of hours, I ride back up the highway to Timberline, climbing about 2,000 vertical feet over six miles. Traffic is fairly light, the scenery is beautiful. It’s a great grind, one that puts me back into magical world of year-round snow on Mount Hood.
Stay and Eat
Timberline Lodge: If you can score a room, it’s worth it. The 1930s-era building is a classic, built using funds from the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Exterior shots were featured in the 1980 horror movie, “The Shining.” Most rooms fall into the $250-$350 a night range, and views of the mountain are stunning. The lodge has a heated outdoor pool and many luxury hotel amenities, including a high-end restaurant and a scenic bar.
Silcox Hut: The spectacular rustic stone building at 7,000 feet (a full 1,000 feet above Timberline Lodge) is perfect for groups renting out its entire facility. Special July and August rates are $150 per person, including dinner and breakfast.
Government Camp: The skier/hiker/biker-friendly town at the base of Timberline Highway has many options for condos, bars and restaurants. There’s also a well-stocked grocery store there.
Hood River: The windsurfing capital of the Northwest is about an hour’s drive from Timberline. It has a wide variety of lodging and dining in all price ranges.
Camping: One of great things about Timberline is that it’s surrounded by Mount Hood National Forest, with a number of very nice campsites available nearby. Once your ski day is done, you can switch over to hiking or biking with ease. I stayed at the Nottingham Campground on the east side of Mount Hood, a scenic and secluded spot just 20 minutes from Timberline.
John Nelson is a freelance outdoors writer based in Seattle. Follow his blog at skizer.org.