Find your winter bliss in a newly shined-up but still low-key Oregon ski town
It's dusk when we drive into Government Camp on the slopes of Mt. Hood. The edges of the shops and cabins are softened by a deep snowpack, and streetlights have already switched on, catching fine flakes of swirling snow in their wash of light.
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If location means anything ― and for a destination ski town, it's almost everything ― then the scenic enclave of Government Camp has always had it made. An hour's drive east of Portland, OR, at 4,000 feet elevation, it's just inside the winter-long snow zone.
Just six miles farther up the mountain is Timberline Lodge, one of Oregon's architectural crown jewels. And between resort powerhouses Timberline, near the top of the mountain, and Skibowl, at 4,000 feet, skiers and boarders have access to more than 5,000 feet of vertical elevation ― on par with Whistler, Aspen, or Tahoe.
Think of it as Tahoe for the low-key crowd. Miles of trails lead cross-country skiers and snowshoers through Mt. Hood's pristine national forest. Long backcountry trails lead adventurous downhillers through local forests from the timberline to town. And the town of Government Camp ― long the hub of Mt. Hood recreation but never much more than a wide place off the highway ― is finally coming of age in a very big way.
Growing up in Portland, I'd spent a lifetime of weekends on Mt. Hood. But this winter, as my husband and I drive into town, we pause: Handsome streetlights ― that's something new.
So is the big building, gabled and stout, looming ahead on our left. Its tall, wood-framed windows shine like beacons ― a mini version of the historic Timberline Lodge, 2,000 feet farther up the mountain. A small wooden sign announces: Govy General Store.
Inside, we take a few steps and then stop, a little stunned. Here are glistening roast chickens and fresh bread; there, organic chocolate and a wall of fine wines. We wander to the far corner, where a liquor store displays cognac and eaux-de-vie. I'm dumbstruck. We could almost be back in Portland.
Well, not quite. It's just one store, not a whole upscale neighborhood. But it is a sign: Government Camp is finally becoming more than just a place to bed down for a night.
We're up early the next morning in search of snowshoes to rent. Across the street from Govy General, we stop at Valian's Ski Shop, where the merchandise ranges from, as owner Betsy Valian put it, "everything from 'I forgot my parka' to 'I want something unique for my cabin.' " Betsy's husband, Bud, opened Valian's in 1968; he was the first to stay open through the summer after Timberline's Palmer Lift extended the Mt. Hood ski season to September.
We love the top-of-the-line Rossignol skis, the hand-knit Icelandic sweaters, the Pendleton blankets. The shop itself, originally a concrete block Sno-Cat garage, is now sided with tamarack wood, its newly grand entrance framed with rough tamarack pillars.
Across the road, we strap on snowshoes and head toward the Crosstown Trail through a forest of fir. Icicled creeks are nearly drifted over with white, and the trees are so heavily laden with snow that to brush against a bough is to invite a featherweight avalanche from above. We stop to pull snacks from our packs at one creek crossing and quickly have company. A party of black-winged Clark's nutcrackers materializes out of the winter sky and settles into the nearest branches: silent sentries, hoping for handouts.
Government Camp owes its prosaic name to members of the First U.S. Mounted Rifles, whose abandoned wagons stood for years as evidence of an ill-fated 1849 trek to Mt. Hood. Skiers flocked here long before the first rope tow was installed at Skibowl, on the south side of town, in 1937. In the late '60s, Mt. Hood Meadows opened on the mountain's sunnier southeast side, 10 miles away. The Meadows has since grown to become the mountain's biggest ski resort, but there's no lodging on-site; most still stay in Government Camp.
Timberline, built at the treeline 2,000 feet above town by Depression-era artists, was dedicated in 1937. Chairlifts are just steps from the entrance, making it the only true ski-in/ski-out lodge in Oregon. Its 70 guest rooms stay full nearly year-round with those drawn by the views, the gracious service, and the nostalgic ambience. That, and The Shining.
"Literally, everyone mentions The Shining," Jeff Kohnstamm says with a laugh. Second-generation concessionaire at Timberline, he grew up riding his tricycle in the lobby; he was a teenager when the exterior was filmed for Stanley Kubrick's horror classic.
But it's what's inside Timberline that guests remember most. "It's got a lot of history," Kohnstamm says. The newel posts polished to a shine by generations of passing hands, the massive stone fireplace soaring to the vaulted ceiling and surrounded by comfy sofas for lingering with books or board games, the original artwork hung seemingly everywhere, the hand-loomed textiles and hand-built furniture. Skiing in for chili in the Cascade Dining Room, or ending the day with a pint of Govy-brewed Cloudcap Amber Ale overlooking that big fireplace. And patrolling it all, indoor and out, a pair of genial Saint Bernard dogs.
If your skills and stamina are up to it, there's an experience right outside the front door that trumps even petting the Saint Bernards by the fireplace: skiing the Alpine Trail from Timberline down to Government Camp. It's a three-mile-long run that drops 2,000 feet ― four miles and another 1,000 feet if you start at the top of Timberline's Magic Mile chairlift. We do. The sky is clear, granting views of the next volcano to the south, Mount Jefferson. Once we hit the treeline, the forest closes in again. On the trail, snowboarders ahead of us have effectively groomed the route with their wide turns, and we follow their tracks down the mountain, stopping now and then for a breather, before reaching the loop road.
We shoulder our skis for the short walk to closet-size Three Sisters Coffee, its shelves stuffed with specialty foods, original art, local authors' books, and, tucked among it all, an espresso machine. Owner Carolyn Rogers has watched Government Camp's transformation from behind her counter, and she's philosophical about the growth spurt. "New things have come," she says. "Old things have gone."
And some things stay the same ― like the sweet fatigue that comes at the end of a winter day's escape on Mt. Hood.