Driving the Mount Hood Scenic Byway: The Best of the Pacific Northwest

Written by Brad Lane
Mar 15, 2024
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The glaciated slopes of Mount Hood shimmer on all sides of this dormant stratovolcano, the tallest in the state of Oregon. Over one million acres of Mount Hood National Forest surrounds these slopes, endowed with wild rivers, old-growth forests, and rich agricultural valleys. These scenic vistas are worth the drive to Mount Hood alone, but the mountain, jutting 11,240 feet above the horizon, is always the focal point of any trip.

Mount Hood
Mount Hood | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Mount Hood Scenic Byway is the ultimate Yellow Brick Road leading to the world of adventure surrounding Mount Hood. This 105-mile byway skirts the south and east sides of the mountain, starting and ending at two separate points in the Columbia River Gorge. Either way you travel, starting from Troutdale near Portland or Hood River in the Gorge, the entire route's nonstop beautiful scenery will surely astound.

How long does it take to drive the Mount Hood Scenic Byway?

At just over 100 miles long, driving the Mount Hood Scenic Byway takes 3-4 hours. And it's a beautiful drive. Prominent mountain views expose themselves en route from Troutdale and all along the Hood River Valley, revealing the mountain's eleven glaciers.

But if you want to really experience Mount Hood and savor the Pacific Northwest flavor, plan to spend at least two or three days with a stay at a campground or resort in between. Tons of available overnight options allow you to enjoy beautiful sunsets and a certain stillness not found with daytime traffic.

Places to Stop on the Mount Hood Scenic Byway

Hikers on the Timberline Trail
Hikers on the Timberline Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Plenty of pull-offs and views of Mount Hood line the Mount Hood Scenic Byway. From trailheads to small towns and historical points of interest, finding your favorite spot is a fun experiment. Check out these popular points of interest to get started.

1. Sandy

Great views of Mount Hood

Sandy is a small town 30 minutes east of Portland with a long history. Pioneers passed through here nearly two centuries ago on the Oregon Trail, utilizing the still-present Barlow Trail. Check out Jonsrud Viewpoint in Sandy for one of the best views of Mount Hood and a look at the Barlow Trail leading toward the mountain. Visitors can also catch a glimpse of the town's namesake natural feature, the Sandy River.

Planning Tip: Sandy is also a good base camp on this side of the mountain, with hotels, restaurants, and gas stations along Highway 26 passing through town.

2. Wildwood Recreation Site

Best for family-friendly hiking trails

Wildwood Recreation Site nestles into a bend on the Wild and Scenic Salmon River near Welches on the Mount Hood Scenic Byway. This year-round, day-use area offers easy access to nature with various trails, including the ¾-mile paved Cascade Streamwatch Trail, featuring interpretive information about the trout lifecycle. This family favorite route also features a fish-viewing window for an underwater look.

It's not just family strolls at Wildwood Recreation Site. The public land encompasses 550 acres near the Salmon River shoreline. Longer trails, like the Boulder Ridge Trail ascending Huckleberry Mountain, test the legs of more experienced hikers. The Salmon River also provides stellar summer outlets for fishing and swimming.

3. Timberline Lodge

Timberline Lodge
Timberline Lodge | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Crown Jewel of the Mount Hood Scenic Byway

Timberline Lodge, dedicated by F.D.R. in 1937, retains its storied legacy as a longstanding ski lodge and mountain resort. All those years resonate off the hexagonal Main Lobby centered on a massive fireplace, radiating throughout the historic rooms, dining spaces, and fantastic window views of the mountain.

Timberline Lodge sits at an elevation of 6,000 feet, and its parking lot is the highest you can drive up Mount Hood. This elevation is apparent when you park a vehicle, with the steep slope of the mountain's south side overtaking the horizon. These views are even better from the Lodge's back patio space, with abundant Adirondack chairs to sit and enjoy the landscape.

Several hiking trails span both directions from Timberline Lodge, including the Pacific Crest Trail, and it's a common starting/ending point for the 40-mile Timberline Trail, circumnavigating the mountain. For those interested in shorter hikes, follow the PCT east or west as far as you like from the Lodge, keeping in mind that you'll have to trek back.

4. The Lavender Farms in the Hood River Valley

Best seasonal attraction along the highway

A sea of summer color erupts through the Hood River Valley on the mountain's east side. This agricultural region is home to several aromatic lavender farms that hit peak blooming season around early July. Several farms, including Glacier View Lavender, Hope Ranch Lavender, and Hood River Lavender Farms, celebrate this time of year with well-stocked gift shops, weekend events, and plenty of U-pick opportunities.

5. Mount Hood Railroad, Hood River

The most fun way to experience the history of the Hood River Valley

All aboard the Mount Hood Railroad! This 22-mile historic short line offers scenic passenger rides on the weekend between April and October, departing and arriving at a famous railroad depot in Hood River. The traditional Scenic Ride spans approximately three hours with a layover at The Fruit Company in the Hood River Valley. The historic railroad also offers two-person railbike adventures, holiday-themed rides come winter, and e-bike rentals for hopping on the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Author Brad Lane at the Timberline Lodge
Author Brad Lane at the Timberline Lodge

Make the Scenic Byway a Loop with the Columbia River Gorge

The sights and scenery of the Pacific Northwest continue beyond the Mount Hood Scenic Byway. Traveling the nearby Columbia River Gorge makes for an excellent Oregon road trip loop. Visitors can connect Troutdale and Hood River with a combination of Interstate 84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Several of the best waterfalls near Portland line this corridor, including the iconic Multnomah Falls, plunging over 600 feet to a base near the iconic Multnomah Lodge.

Camping on the Mount Hood Scenic Byway

Several designated forest service campgrounds line Mount Hood Scenic Byway, offering campsites for tents and RVs. Recreation.gov is the best way to find a campground and make reservations (if reservations are available). The Interactive Map published by the Forest Service is also useful for identifying campgrounds.

Free, primitive camping is also available throughout Mount Hood National Forest, typically on the side of a dirt Forest Service road. Primitive camping means no water, electricity, or bathrooms, just a spot in the woods. Adhere to the Leave No Trace principles when primitive camping, and utilize already established spots (i.e., where someone has camped before). Contact one of the Mount Hood National Forest Ranger Stations for more information.

Skiing on the Mount Hood Scenic Byway

Mount Hood Skibowl
Mount Hood Skibowl

Mount Hood is a great place for skiing in Oregon, featuring five ski spots streaming down its slopes, including one nearly year-round run for those who can't let go of winter. And the Mount Hood Scenic Byway is the figurative rope tow to them all.

The three most prominent resorts on the mountain include Timberline Lodge & Ski Area, Mt. Hood Meadows, and Mt. Hood Skibowl. Ask anyone their favorite, and the answer depends on the day, with each spot offering a healthy slice of downhill action and lodge culture. Timberline Lodge, elevation 6,000 feet, has skiable terrain almost year-round.

Cooper Spur and Summit Pass are smaller skiing spots lower on the mountain. Cooper Spur Mountain Resort is on the mountain's northside, offering intermediate terrain, budget-friendly lift tickets and lodge amenities. Timberline's Summit Pass, formerly Summit Ski Area, operates a friendly tubing hill and a learn-to-ski space closer to Government Camp, perfect for first-timers and beginners.