overnment Camp may be Portland’s favorite mountain getaway, but it’s no one’s hidden secret. From the town’s single main drag, it looks just about the same as it has for years, with time-warp landmarks like the Huckleberry Inn and the Ratskeller.
But in the past 20 years, new lodging has sprung up and new homes, many of them vacation cabins, have begun to fill the once sparsely developed foothills on the town’s north side to keep up with an ever-growing influx of visitors.
Now, the unincorporated community boasting fewer than 200 permanent residents is poised to face some of its biggest challenges yet, particularly with a new gondola running from Summit Pass to Timberline Lodge slated to go in at some point in the next several years.
So, is the mountain town doomed to overdevelopment, like many of the communities surrounding Lake Tahoe, or Park City, or countless other once-low-key ski towns? And is that what anyone who lives there actually wants?
Already the town is showing signs that its infrastructure cannot hold pace with the number of people—many from the metro area—visiting or passing through on winter weekends. What was once a two-hour drive can easily turn into a six-hour marathon on bluebird winter weekend days.
Skiers, snowboarders, local residents, and business owners alike call the inordinate delays and mayhem on Highway 26 “The Govy 500,” exacerbated by the lack of chains and traction tires among the clueless.
“I’ve called it that for years,” says Conlan Joy, a 15-year resident of nearby Zigzag. “My friends were like, ‘That’s genius. You need to do something with this and make an Instagram.’”
Nearly two years later, Joy’s page, @the_govy500, has more than 13,000 followers and has amassed tens of thousands of likes by posting content that makes light of the traffic conditions on Mount Hood.
“A lot of people who have moved up from Tahoe say Mount Hood feels like it did there 20 years ago,” says Wynn Berns, a resident of nearby Welches and owner of Goodwynns, a local retail space catering to outdoor recreation on the mountain that’s expanding to include a food cart pod and three vacation rentals.
“Something’s going to have to change from a safety standpoint just to keep up with everything without having any huge infrastructure improvements,” he says.
At the center of discussions around whether the mountain is fit to handle all the traffic are plans for the new gondola. The idea is to ease traffic on Timberline Road, one of the main chokepoints in the sprawling lines of traffic that stretch through Government Camp.
Timberline purchased the Summit Ski Area—which sits at the east end of Government Camp and was previously best known for its bunny hill and snow-tubing operation—four years ago in hopes of redeveloping the minute resort’s facilities into a satellite location from which mountain visitors can park and ride to the top via the gondola or shuttles. The US Forest Service, which issues Timberline’s federal land permit, reviewed and accepted those plans in the spring of 2022.
“It takes traffic off the road, it’s safer, it’s more efficient, it’s more sustainable and environmentally conscious,” says John Burton, director of marketing and public relations at Timberline. “I don’t think changing people’s mindset is going to be a heavy lift.”
Joy agrees the gondola will provide relief for mountain lovers, but he’s concerned about the impact of the new parking facility, and overflow from the lot spilling over into Government Camp.
“It’s only so much this town can take,” he says.
Before any ground is broken, though, the resort needs to solve a knotty problem: where to relocate the existing Summit Pass rest area, built in the 1950s and now the town’s de facto public restrooms, in addition to being a key pull-over point for trucks making the trek between Portland and Bend.
The Oregon Travel Information Council is currently engaged in planning efforts with the Western Federal Lands Highway Division, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Forest Service, local tribes, and residents of Government Camp to figure out how to move the rest area so it’s more efficient for users and opens space for Timberline to move forward with its gondola and parking plan.
“We’re trying to help the community arrive at a clear pathway for how to address this challenge,” says Doug Decker, project manager with Oregon Solutions, the organization tasked with leading the several organizations and stakeholder groups trying to move the rest area. “It’s in a very busy place. It’s on national forest land adjacent to a permit held by Timberline. And if you go to the gas station to use the bathroom, they’ll send you to the rest area.”
Decker’s group is currently working on an application for $2.1 million in federal grant funding for the planning effort to move the rest area before going out for additional funding to design and build the replacement rest area. All told, the process will probably take another couple of years before it is built and four to six years until Timberline can move forward with their plans for the gondola.
For the time being, traffic on Mount Hood is unlikely to relent, and congestion in Government Camp will continue to vex locals and travelers alike.
“I think the community is very much for taking pressure off of Timberline Road,” says Lesli Bekins, a third-generation Government Camp resident, local real estate agent, and owner of the town’s water utility.
Bekins says the town continues to grow out of necessity to keep up with the number of people who want to move to the mountain or purchase investment properties. She estimates that, at press time, there were at least eight new dwellings under construction.
That doesn’t include Mt Hood Meadows’ plans to exchange 603 acres of private land at Cooper Spur, a petite resort owned and operated by Meadows on the mountain’s less-populated northeastern flank, for 67 acres of federal forest land near Government Camp’s west side. If that deal, brokered by Congress, goes through, that opens up yet more housing development opportunities in Govy. (Meadows purchased Cooper Spur back in 2001, with the goal of eventually connecting the two resorts, but after years of litigation over their expansion plans, the resort’s owners agreed instead to the land swap with the Forest Service. Plans for that swap were finalized in May of 2022.)
While many in Government Camp are happy to see a booming economy and signs that relief on the roads and in the housing market may be on the way, they’re under no delusion that these problems will be solved overnight.
“The Meadows land exchange is going to be very positive in terms of more housing units,” Bekins says. “I’d say as a community, we are pro development... But the last land exchange we had in Government Camp took nearly 20 years.”
Rendering at top courtesy Timberline Lodge