Back in the good old days—say, five years ago—weekend ski bums and boarders could leave Portland at a relatively leisurely 7:30 a.m., and still snag a spot in the parking lot at one of Mount Hood’s flagship ski areas.
Fast forward to 2020: US 26 at Government Camp is bumper to bumper by 7 a.m. on every snowy Saturday, and the lots at Mount Hood Meadows and Timberline fill by 8 or 8:15 am. The early bird gets the parking; the rest of us are out of luck.
It’s not just anecdotal. Data from the Oregon Department of Transportation shows the number of cars on the road to the mountain, approaching from both Portland and Hood River, on winter weekends in January has significantly increased since 2017. For example, in 2017, the average Saturday in January saw 13,130 cars pass through Rhododendron on their way to Government Camp; by 2020, that figure jumped to 16,769.
Of course, multiple factors can influence how many people trek to the mountain for the day, including how much snow there is on the ground. But year over year, the numbers show a clear increase in cars on the road, meaning that you’ve got to get out of bed earlier than ever to avoid the traffic and score a spot in a lot.
“I think it is the growing number of people relocating to the Northwest with the intention of enjoying outdoor recreation,” says Dave Tragethon, the longtime marketing director at Mount Hood Meadows.
It’s true that people do keep moving here. But a number of other factors have contributed to the parking squeeze.
- Meadows used to allow overflow parking along its access roads, but discontinued that several years ago due to safety concerns. That eliminated around 400 spots, Tragethon says.
- Unlike Bend, which runs frequent shuttles between downtown park and rides and Mount Bachelor, there’s no single public transit option that takes skiers and boarders from Portland to the mountain resorts. You can drive to Sandy and catch the Mount Hood Express to Timberline for just $5 round trip, or drive to Hood River and then take a free shuttle to Meadows, but there’s limited service and no reserved seats, raising the possibility that you can get stuck waiting for a seat on a bluebird powder day. There is a for-profit shuttle between Portland and Mount Hood Meadows for a steep $29 per person.
- Even if you do snag a seat on the bus, it’s just as likely to get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic as your car, because there is no dedicated bus lane on US 26. Putting one in, says Tragethon, would require significant funding and buy-in from ODOT.
- Deals on multi-resort passes are driving more and more skiers to the mountains. These passes allow holders to ski or board at multiple different mountains at discounted rates. For example, buying an $800+ “fusion pass” for Timberline and Skibowl gets you lift access at both resorts, plus bonus free ski days at a handful of other resorts, including Schweitzer in Idaho and White Pass in Washington.
The traffic and parking crunch isn’t unique to the Portland metro area, and there are efforts underway to address it. Meadows opened a new lot this year with 250 spaces and will add another 250 next year, in a lot that ultimately has room for 1000 cars, Tragethon says.
Discussions about extending the Mount Hood Express bus from its current terminus at Timberline Lodge all the way to Hood River, with a stop at Mount Hood Meadows are also ongoing, Tragethon says, and the hope is to have that service up and running by next ski season.
In the meantime, there are a few hacks. Pay attention to both tripcheck.com, which has live camera feeds on the roads, and to the social media feeds of the resorts, which offer live updates on the parking situation. Staying up at Government Camp or Timberline Lodge helps, or bypass the big resorts entirely for a weekend at smaller Cooper Spur, which is outside the traffic nexus on the mountain’s eastern flank. Avoid traffic back to Portland by routing through Hood River at the end of a ski day. If you can swing it, ski midweek, when there’s almost no competition for prime parking. Or just suck it up, get up before the sun, and get on the road.