Chasing waterfalls (and Sasquatch) all the way to Hood River
words :: Feet Banks
Note: This is part two of Mountain Life editor Feet Banks’ slow season road trip adventure to Oregon. If you missed part one (Bend) check it out here.
Hood River Oregon — Tuesday
Going in, about the only thing I knew about Hood River, Oregon, was that about 40 minutes before midnight on November 30th 2019, motorists on the I-84 highway called Oregon State Police claiming…no, swearing they’d seen a Bigfoot walking down the side of the road near the Hood River exit. By their account, the thing “dwarfed the guard rail” while walking upright, and was “too big to be a bear!”
Thinking fast, State Police dispatcher quickly checked the Oregon Department of Transportation highway cam and lo and behold….
So when Paige and I limped her vehicle into the Government Camp Chevron (running on fumes and plowing fresh through an early season snowstorm) the official-looking “Sasquatch Crossing” road sign pumped my spirits almost as much as knowing we could fill up with gas and actually make it to Hood River, thirty miles to the north. We weren’t specifically heading there for Sasquatch hunting, but if those buggers are known to be out and about…all the better.
Built just west of the confluence where the waters of Hood River join the mighty Columbia, the City of Hood River is a historical logging town turned fruit orchard/agriculture centre that’s better known these days as an epicentre for kiteboarding/windsurfing/foiling on consistent river winds, it’s also carved out a reputation for mountain biking, steelhead fishing, hiking, and shredding pow on nearby Mount Hood, the highest peak in Oregon. Hood River is the also only city in Oregon where the consumption of alcohol on sidewalks or in parks is totally unrestricted. So, obviously a leader in mountain town culture and a bang-up place to close out a slow-season Oregon adventure. If there were late autumn steelhead (or bigfoots) to be found, all the better.
“That zone is fantastic to fish because there is such an incredible variety of rivers and species to target in a relatively small, easily accessible area,” explained Cortney, an old Squamish fishing friend who has put in a couple seasons at Hood River. “In a single day you can fish smallmouth bass, steelhead, and even salmon. Many of the rivers feeding into the Columbia are within a 40-minute drive from town, or you can travel upstream for miles and get lost in the remote watersheds.”
Sounds perfect. Paige and I rolled into the Hood River Hotel around 2:30 and yes, it’s true the desk clerk mistook me for “some kind of influencer or something” (as outlined in the beginning of Under the Influence: Part 1). The (deserved) sting of being labeled something I feel much too old to properly understand didn’t last long however, as the hotel’s meticulously restored history quickly drew our attention.
The original Hood River Hotel dates back to 1888, where it stood as the centre of the newly founded town of Hood River. Known as place for settlers, loggers, and wanderers-through to come together for drinks and wild tales, the hotel expanded in 1912 to create the space that holds the hotel today.
An elevator with a sliding metal gate is cool in any era (so are real brick walls) and as we entered, I caught myself wondering when was the last time I unlocked a nice hotel room with an actual metal key? Tangible, real-world nostalgia, even for times we only remember from movies, cuts more potently in the new metaverse/screentime era. Hood River Hotel for the win.
That historical vibe flows out into the downtown core—a grid of brick-building lined streets punched into the sloping hillside the Columbia river has carved into the mountains over millions of years. Hood River is easily walk-able and boasts (at least) five ski/shred/bike/kite outdoor shops, and no shortage of shops my mom would call “funky”, eateries (a bagel joint), wine bars, brew pubs, and the Trillium Café, Hood River’s version of a hole-in-the-wall local downtown dive bar that serves stiff drinks, has pictures of awesome rock’n’rollers on the wall, and gets down to live music on the weekends. Nearly empty at 4 pm on a weekday afternoon in slow season, the Trillium is a good place to talk with locals about such universal mountain town topics as rent and real estate prices, how much snow we’re gonna get this season, the costs (and charitable community) around getting good gear for your kids, and why slow season is, “kinda the best, even if you can’t afford to head to the Baja.”
Oregon is the land of craft beers (and drinking cocktails and cider out of mason jars) and Hood River, with a permanent population just shy of 9,000, can see upwards of 20,000 visitors flood in each weekend when the winds are blowing. Or at least that’s what the hostess at the Ferment Brewing Company explains as she shows us over to our heated, private patio yurt. “Yeah, you guys came at the right time…no private yurts in the summer. No private anything.”
The yurt, one of four or five set up near a fire-place on the expansive Ferment patio, is certainly private and we promptly dig into some damn fine fried brussel sprouts, salt and vinegar fries, and house fermented sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles (four stars recommend!). The winning beer of choice, this evening, is the Prismos Pale Ale which apparently uses a special yeast to give the beer more tropical fruit character without relying so heavily on hops. Ferment will also make cocktails with their house-made kombucha for those wanting to skip the hops altogether (‘bucha, kraut, kimchi…Ferment, get it?)
Paige and I didn’t see any Sasquatches looming higher than the guardrail near exit 64a when we crossed over the highway that separates the newer, reclaimed waterfront district from historical downtown proper. We didn’t see much of anything or anyone— gotta love slow season.
Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood— Wednesday
The howling winds cut deep through the parking lot of the Timberline Lodge, and the snow is already starting to pile up. We’re basically at treeline, 6,000 feet (1829m) and winter is rummaging through the closet for her best winter coat. A National Historic Landmark built from 1936 to 1938, the four-storey, 40,000 square-foot lodge (3700 square meters) is home to year round skiing and snowboarding, bonkers views on a clear day, and 2 million visitors each year. Many (or at least some…well me for sure) there simply because Timberline served as the location fro all the exterior hotel shots in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 horror flick, The Shining.
Disappointing film geek fact—there is no hedge maze at the Timberline, those shots from the film’s conclusion were actually shot in England where Kubrick had a façade of the south face of the lodge built in the background (few hedges would be able to survive that elevation anyhow).
Speaking of trees, the larch needles are popping orangey-gold on the drive back down the mountain. Larch are a coniferous species with needles and cones, but they are not evergreen (like pines or cedar). Each autumn the larch ditches it’s needles to save nutrients, much like the pear and apple trees in the orchards below lose their leaves. Wintering without needles protects the larch branches from becoming overburdened in big snow months, and also makes them more resistant to fire. Originally established as forest reserve in 1892, the Mount Hood National Forest now covers 1,067,043 acres (4,318.17 km2) of wilderness featuring 170 developed recreation sites, including Lost Lake, which features trophy brown trout up to 18 inches and 6-8 pound hatchery steel head. You can rent a boat from the Lost Lake Resort, but not in slow season—everything winds down and closes in November.
As our fishing plans dissipated (our guide had to cancel and I didn’t bring a spey rod for the larger steelhead) so Paige and I decide to catch some of that alpine fresh air instead and go chasing waterfalls, right in the centre of bigfoot country. Or just right of centre actually—Oregon’s highest concentration of bigfoot sightings happens on Route 224, on the western flanks of Mount Hood, but we figured the three-and-a-half mile hike into Tamanawas Falls would offer up a solid consolation prize view if no ‘squatches materialized.
“I heard you smell them before you see them,” Paige says, leading us over a freshly-snow covered footbridge.
“I heard that too but also, I don’t think they smell as bad as some people think. Actually I’m pretty sure Bigfoots go to the bathroom in rivers and streams— like nature’s bidet.” I’d never laid this theory on anyone before but had been thinking about it for a while. “No one has ever found bigfoot droppings, even fossilized ones. And also, if you’re walking around all day, you want to keep your ass fur clean.”
Although some “experts” suggest there may be upwards of 1200 Sasquatch living in Oregon, we didn’t see any 7-foot beasts washing themselves in Cold Spring Creek on the hike into the falls. Instead we meandered through old growth cedars and firs and eventually blasted through into a stunning natural amphitheatre of volcanic rock cut deep by a 100-foot vertical waterfall. Standing in the chilly mist and spray, I can’t help but think of how the falls must create impressive ice formations mid-winter. (Editor’s Note: A google search later one reveals that Mt Hood’s most popular ice climbing zone is actually Pollallie Falls, one drainage to the north).
Safely off the mountain, the plan is to eat, then double-up on waterfalls and find famed cliff jumping spot Punchbowl falls, then maybe throw some flies into at the confluence of the East and West forks of Hood River. But first, pulled pork smoked over local cherry wood at the Apple Valley BBQ.
Part of the Mount Hood “Fruit Loop,” a circular drive through rural agricultural and orchard lands south of Hood River, the town of Parkdale is kind of place where the old timers wear leatherman multitools on their belts and the high school kids sometimes start their afterschool jobs before school even lets out. The Apple Valley BBQ is a single-story building with a simple sign and a hearty reputation for dishing up “Northwest style” smoked ribs, chicken, and pulled pork. It smells like nirvana the moment we step out of the car.
Another thing about Oregon eateries—beyond the endless beers, mason jar glasses, and friendly staff—the music is always better than almost any joint in Canada. Apple Valley has some kind of country funk playlist bouncing off the corrugated steel ceilings, but there’s a soulful jazz hint in there too. And it suits the food perfectly. Corn fritters, mac and cheese, and multiple sauce options on each table means we can tailor our meals exactly to our taste buds. The blueberry cider isn’t bad either, and Paige and I spend an extra half hour digesting and basking in the meaty perfection of big taste in small town.
Which, of course means, we’re behind schedule. Which is ok because Punchbowl falls is in the shade by the time we arrive and the vibe is almost creepy, with a derelict wooden staircase clinging to the opposite edge of the river gorge. As the daylight dwindles, we forgo our last chance to maybe throw some flies at fish and unanimously decide that this, our last evening in Oregon means it’s time to embrace the food, the beverages, and the relaxation.
And the way to start that off is with a soak in the hot/cold plunges at The Society Hotel Soaking Pools. Actually located on the north side of the Columbia River in Washington (where gas is way more expensive), the Society Hotel is built around a fully renovated historical schoolhouse (complete with a library in the lobby and a stunning wood-floor gymnasium. The Spa tacks a decidedly Scandinavian course—cedar sauna and wood-walled ambiance with an outdoor hot pool, a cold pool, and an indoor tepid/warm soaking pool. Insider tip: prime relaxation hours are 8:30-10:30 PM when children are banned from the spa.
Back on the Oregon side of the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge (which is scary narrow and costs two bucks to cross), our drive for pre-dinner drinks takes us first to the Hood River Common House, a lounge and bottle shop (buy the wines!) built in the basement of a an iconic family-owned business building that includes Mike’s, Hood River’s premiere ice cream shop since 1986, The Ruddy Duck clothing store, and now the Common House, which supplements their beverages with sides of olives, almonds, sardines, and other canned seafood delicacies. (Sardines and herring are about to have a cultural moment, you heard it here first).
One way to get to know a town, in slow season or any season, is to get down with some of it’s best pizza. In downtown Hood River that means a trip to Double Mountain Brewery for a Salami Pie finished with fresh arugula. Pizza perfection.
Over post-drink cocktails at Camp 1805 (they distill their own vodka, rum, and whiskey), Paige and I learn that the famous bigfoot sighting just yards away on the I-85 was actually later disproven—a trick of the night. In the morning daylight, that giant, looming, bigfoot in question was still visible on the highway cam. It hadn’t moved an inch because it was, in fact, a large shrub with a light-coloured sign in front of it that gave the impression of two legs.
We drowned our cryptozoological sorrows in a couple of Hibiscus margaritas and headed back towards the light, the neon glow of the Hood River Hotel sign and the comforts of holiday living.
Broder Øst, Hood River Hotel — Thursday morning
Coffee is essential, especially the morning after your last night in a mountain town. Broder Øst, adjacent to the hotel lobby, has good coffee and super tempting Aebleskiver Danish pancake donut things. But for my last mean in America, I needed something with a bit more gas in the engine than a Danish pancake…
Witness, “The Ricky Bobby” at Kickstand Coffee — “Two eggs, organic fried chicken, longanisa sausage gravy, melted cheddar and green onion served open-faced on house rustic bread.”
Don’t worry about the fact that no one knows what “longanisa” means (it’s kinda like chorizo) because all that matters is it is a flavourful, thick gravy that could potentially clog your arteries if you ate it every day for a year (I kinda want to, though). And if you don’t get those eggs fried don’t even bother calling yourself a local.
Kickstand owners Nick & Kim Hardin have spent the last ten years building their coffeeshop and a community with the kind of care, creativity, and passion that always finds a way to shine light through the cracks of even the busiest, most priced out mountain towns. Avid mountain bikers, they’re quick to share beta, happy to give advice, and also make the best donuts in town. Added bonus, famed outdoor retailer EVO (started by longtime friend of Mountain Life Bryce Phillips) is right next door. Gear shopping is a digestive aid right?)
Driving west out of Hood River, out of Oregon, out of slow season and into winter in my own home/ski destination, I can’t help but ponder the idea of the mountain town “bubble.” How many times are us mountain folk scolded for not knowing exactly what’s been on the news that week, or for basing life decisions on local weather systems before anything else? For thrusting ourselves into adrenaline-chasing groundhog-day routines punctuated by as little work (and as much partying) as possible? For our reluctance to venture into “the city” and the unspoken anxiety that to leave “the bubble” will almost certainly lead to “The rat race, man. The race to the bottom.”
This is of course, hyperbole. Mountain locals can, and often do, leave the bubble—we go surfing. But we also, or at least we should, venture over to other mountain towns. If only to draw comparisons and gain perspectives on the places, and communities we call home. Mountain towns are special, and they attract special people. And for those of us unable to fly to Cerritos or La Ventana to celebrate slow season on the beach, there’s no shortage of cool mountain towns closer to home, or just over the border, with kickass people, adventures, and insights to give. Sometimes escaping the bubble means thinking outside the box.
Special thanks to Visit Hood River, Visit Central Oregon, the Hood River Hotel & the Campfire Hotel, as well as all the freindly locals and businesses that hosted us and made this trip special. The first part of this adventure is here and thanks everyone for reading, a gen z influencer probably could have told this story in 15 photos (of themselves) and a zillion hashtags. It took me 5000 words…old dogs, new tricks, etc etc etc. Oregon is a fantastic place in the autumn, but these days Hood River residents are looking more like this, go get some!
– Feet Banks