The Rural Oregon Travel Guide
Clackamas & Multnomah counties, Northwest Oregon
Mount Hood Highway, U.S. 26
Don’t let the name fool you.
Mount Hood is the largest mountain in Oregon. You can see the immense, sleeping volcano in the distance from the city streets of Portland and along the busy highway. But the sight becomes much more intense the closer you get to its base. Most people associate Mt. Hood with skiing, snowboarding, and maybe the Mt. Hood Brewing Co. While driving out on the Mount Hood Highway – U.S. 26 – most people are so distracted by glimpses of the mountain and thoughts of the day ahead, they fail to notice the towns they pass along the way.
U.S. 26 intersects with I-5 in Portland and I-205 in Gresham. To reach the Mount Hood Hwy from I-205, take the Division Street. exit in Gresham. You’ll follow Division Street through town for about 10 or 15 minutes before 26 leads you out into the country.
The namesake of the Mt. Hood Highway just about always has some snow on it, and is popular for outdoors lovers both Oregonian and traveler.
The first must-see town along the way is Boring. The little town is actually located a few miles off of 26, so watch for signs right outside of Gresham. Boring is one of those towns that’s easy to miss if you happen to be changing a CD, blowing your nose or maybe just blinking as you drive past.
But if you are paying attention, you won’t miss the welcome sign: “Welcome to Boring Oregon”. If anything could give our state a bad name…
The center of town consists of a general store, an Exxon Jackpot Food Mart and Paola’s Corner Restaurant and Lounge. Paola offers “family dining”; she serves steak and lobster on Fridays and Saturdays for $19.95, but the place is basically a smoky bar, where you’re sure to find locals hanging out before noon, a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other.
Back on 26, Sandy – “Gateway to Mt. Hood” – is the next town you’ll pass through. Sandy’s a lot bigger than Boring, with over 5,000 residents. This typical ski town is five or six blocks long with bars, ski/snowboard rental shops and ski bums everywhere you look.
Interestingly enough, a Paola has made her mark in Sandy as well as Boring. Paola’s Pizza and Pasta, connected to My Country Heart antique and gift shop, is one of the first restaurants you’ll hit on 26. I almost changed my mind about Paola’s when I walked into the Lounge. It occurred to me that the Sandy Paola patrons and the Boring Paola patrons would get along quite nicely. But walk through the lounge into the back room, where there is no cigarette smoke and the lights are brighter. The back room is the pizza parlor. I must admit I was wary of ordering pizza from a ski town in Oregon. I’m from New York City, where we set pretty high standards, but Paola makes some of the best pizza outside Brooklyn. I had a mini veggie, which was loaded with fresh peppers and tomatoes, mushrooms, black olives and onions. Yum.
While Sandy is approximately 25 miles from the first ski area in Mount Hood, it is the gateway to the Mount Hood Wilderness Area. After you leave Sandy, the highway roams through the forest, and every once in a while you’ll get a fantastic view of the mountain directly in front of you. Every car that passes will have skis or snowboards attached; it is safe to say that nearly everyone who passes through the wilderness area is priming for a great day outdoors.
Care to put in an offer on the Brightwood Inn?
Brightwood (population 788) is one town over from Sandy. Follow the signs from 26 to find the little town, which is actually more like a “hamlet.” Downtown Brightwood is the requisite Brightwood country store, Brightwood mini-storage, Brightwood Mountain Retreats, Inc., and the Brightwood Inn, which is currently for sale.
The town is located deep in the woods, next to the Salmon River. The main back road runs through the “residential” side of town and hooks back up to 26 after a few miles. Old barns, neat country houses and lush forest line the sides of the road, making for a beautiful, short drive.
Stop in to the Zigzag Mountain store – and don’t forget to get yourself rolled.
Zigzag is even smaller than Brightwood. To hang out in Zigzag, you have two options. On one side of the road is the Zigzag Mountain store, where you can buy firewood, groceries and a canvas bag with the town’s motto: “I got rolled in Zigzag, Oregon.” Directly across the highway is the Zigzag Inn, where I’m told you can get a good pizza (go figure).
The last stop on the way to Mount Hood is Government Camp. The town received its name in 1850, when emigrants traveling below Mount Hood set up camp beside some abandoned government wagons, left behind by the Oregon Militia, which was caught in a storm the previous season. The town was officially established in 1899.
The Village of Government Camp is really a base for skiers and snowboarders. The main street, which runs parallel to 26, contains the Village Store, a couple of restaurants and inns, ski/snowboard rental stores, Charlie’s Mountain View espresso and gift shop (where they don’t believe in sugar substitutes) and – most importantly – the Mt. Hood Brewing Co. The brew pub, which offers only its own micros, serves good bar food, burgers, dinner entrees and – following the theme of the Mount Hood Highway – great pizza.
Government Camp is the place to stay if you want to spend your day on and off the slopes. But if you’re looking for a more isolated getaway, the small towns on the way to the mountain are perfect for a night away from Portland or wherever you want to escape from. And if you’re in the mood for a drive – or just a good slice of pizza – the Mount Hood Highway is the place to be.
During winter remember to check road conditions before you set out. Some areas of rural Oregon may be completely impassable due to snow; some areas require chains or snow tires – and believe me, you’ll want them. For current road conditions, call (800) 977 6368 (inside Oregon) or (503) 222 6721 (outside Oregon). Or click here for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Highways & Travel Information page.