It’s easy to feel stuck in Portland right now. The days are short, the dark comes fast, the rain falls in sheets, and no one’s coming over.
But only an hour and change away up past Government Camp, all that rain in town translates to a bonanza of early-season snow, making for a very welcome change of scenery, plus plenty of room to safely roam outdoors.
The giant parking lot and sledding hills just a few feet from the White River Sno-Parks make that area the traditional first stop for many mountain-bound Portlanders, but this early in the season you’ll have better luck heading to higher elevations. The Bennett Pass Sno-Park, just two miles farther north on Highway 35, near the entrance to Mt Hood Meadows, does the trick and already has a solid snowpack. The parking lot, with space for only about 30 cars, fills quickly, so try to arrive by 11 a.m., or earlier as the season picks up.
The trail is open to snowshoers, cross-country skiers, skijorers, sledders, sled dogs and their humans, and (much more noisily) snowmobilers, although on a recent Saturday snowshoers and cross-country skiers far outnumbered those on motorized vehicles. The trail starts off down the Bennett Pass Road, wide enough for even the most stringent definition of social distancing, with expansive views of the mountain giving way to snow covered forests and plenty of undisturbed snowbanks for snow angel flopping.
You can stay along the main route, or fork off on any number of side trails in search of a little more solitude and a picnic spot. Recommended: stay to the left at the first major junction, about a mile in, and head about another quarter mile to where the trail forks again, then take the smaller, side trail on the left for five minutes more to a spectacular overlook of Mt Hood Meadows and views into the Badger Creek Wilderness Area.
That particular ridge is evidently a well-known spot for brave back-country skiers and snowboarders, who bushwhack (snow-whack?) their way up the steep and ridge and then glide back down through the trees. Who needs a chairlift, anyway?
If you’d rather stick to the main route, keep right at that second junction, and choose your own adventure—in the summer, Bennett Pass is part of a network of unpaved forest service roads, and you can keep going for miles on end.
If You Go: You’ll need a sno-park pass. Stop at the general store in Government Camp (or most any grocery or outdoor store on the way up the mountain) to pick one up if you don’t have one. You can buy an annual permit for $25 or a daily one for $4. (Or add it to your holiday wish list.)
There’s a pit toilet at the trailhead that’s reasonably well maintained.
Dogs are welcome. (Consider outfitting them in little doggie socks for maximum coos from other winter enthusiasts.)
For more info and to check snow levels: Hood River Ranger District Office, 541-352-6002
On the way home, if you’re hungry, consider grabbing a pizza from al Forno Ferruzza, which relocated to Rhododendron from NE Alberta Street in Portland a few years ago. The incredible thin-crust pizzas are just as tasty as we remember. Ask about mushroom toppings, which might have been foraged nearby. 73285 E Highway 26, Rhododendron