Unforgettable Portland Area Day Trips, Part 1: Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge

Day Trips - Mt. Hood

Sometimes I just want to hop in my car and get away for the day for some peace and a quick recharge. If you love driving and exploring Oregon as much as I do, then you can’t miss what Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge have to offer. What’s great is that Mt. Hood and every other adventurous destination on this list are within 2 hours (and most are within only an hour and a half) from Portland!

The Beauty and Natural Wonder of the Mt. Hood Region

Mt. HoodWhen you visit Mt. Hood, you’re in for a real treat. Mt. Hood is the tallest mountain in Oregon and a potentially active stratovolcano, but it is considered dormant due to it’s extremely low odds of erupting over the next 30 years.

Oregon’s mightiest river, the Columbia River, runs along Mt. Hood and forms the Columbia River Gorge, which is largest national scenic area in the United States. The areas that can be found in this region include rain forest, desert, sea-level passage and alpine meadows. The vast network of hiking trails in and around this area climb from lowland forests to mountainside ridges on both sides of the Gorge.

Though you won’t be able to see and experience all that this area has to offer during a single day trip, you can narrow down your choices based on the info below and enjoy exploring Oregon’s majesty.

What to See and Do at Mt. Hood

(Approximately 1.5 – 2 hours drive from Portland, depending on your final destination | map )

Winter (and Spring) Wonderland

Skiing Mt. HoodMt. Hood is home to a total of six ski areas, so if you are into skiing and/or snowboarding, this is a perfect day trip from Portland. Mt. Hood boasts the longest ski seasons in the country, with some lifts running all year long. Mt. Hood skiers and riders are often found in T-shirts in the late part of the season. If you enjoy the slopes but prefer sledding or tubing, you can find that here as well.

Mt. Hood is also the home of the Timberline Lodge (1 Hour, 28 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map ), where The Shining was filmed in the 1970’s. This historic lodge was built in the late 1930’s and was built from wood and stone from the forest surrounding it. The beautiful lodge is a popular tourist attraction which boasts the architectural style Prairie School which is carried out in chairs, columns, draperies, pendant lighting fixtures and more. The lodge also contains commissioned murals, paintings and carvings from local artists.

Summer and The Warmer Months

During warmer months, you’ll enjoy walking among the wildflowers, spot wildlife and enjoy various outdoor activities.

Hiking trails

Hiking Trail

There are approximately 1000 miles of hiking trails in the Mount Hood National Forest! Here are some of the top picks:

  • Elk Meadows and Sahalie Falls Trailhead (1 hour, 26 minutes drive from Portland via US-26 E | map )
  • Top Spur (McNeil Point) Trailhead (1 hour, 22 minutes drive from Portland via US-26 E | map )
  • Timberline Trail #600B  (2 hours drive from Portland via US-26 E | map ) – If you want a breathtaking view of Eliot Glacier, hike along the North face of Mt. Hood, where it ties into the Timberline National Historic Trail. If you want to go above and beyond, you can attempt the highest peak by going up Cooper Spur, which is the highest trail on Mt. Hood that does not require mountaineering experience.
  • Gorge Trail #400 Trailhead (43 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map ) – If you want a shorter hike, this trail will bring you to a 289 foot waterfall known as Elowah Falls. It has a decent sized pool at the bottom where you can swim, though it’s important to remember the water here is almost always chilly.
  • Paradise Park / Pacific Crest Trail (1 Hour, 25 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map ) – You can start at Timberline Lodge and reach the most abundant wildflower meadows in the area. 
  • Burnt Lake Trail #772 (1 Hour, 16 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map )
  • Ramona Falls Trailhead (1 Hour, 10 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map )
  • Mirror Lake Trailhead (1 Hour, 10 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map )

Biking Trails

TMountain Bikinghere are some trails that are perfect for mountain biking. Though the terrain may be challenging at times and you should keep to the more populated spots that are designated for riding if you aren’t an expert rider. You’ll have a great time trekking into the wilderness of this pristine landscape. Here are some of the most popular bike trails:

  • Timberline to Town, also known as “T2T” (1 Hour, 45 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map ) – The most popular biking trail in Mount Hood National Forest starts near Timberline Lodge and ends in the town of Rhododendron.
  • Surveyors Ridge trailhead (1 Hour, 26 Minutes from Portland via I-84 E | map )
  • Sandy Ridge Trail System (55 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map )
  • Hood Adventure Park at Skibowl Mountain Bike Park (1 Hour, 16 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map )
  • Timothy Lake Loop at Oregon Skyline Road (1 Hour, 37 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map )

Family Fun

At the base of Mt. Hood, you will find Mt. Hood Adventure Park at Skibowl (1 Hour, 16 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map ), which offers activities for the whole family. The main attraction is the Alpine slide, where you can slide down the ½ mile track in a cart at average speeds of around 20 mph. Other attractions include sky chairs, rock climbing walls, summer tube hill, bungee trampoline, kiddy and Indy karts, kids play zone and more.

The Columbia River Gorge is Prime for Hiking, Boating, Sightseeing and More

Since there are so many amazing options, it’s quite the challenge to decide where to go when you’re hiking, biking, or otherwise traveling in the Columbia River Gorge.

Multnomah Falls (37 Minutes from Portland via I-84 E | map )

This breathtaking, picturesque waterfall is the tallest in Oregon at 620 feet and is the most-visited natural recreation site in the Pacific Northwest. The waterfall flows all year, so anytime is a good time to visit, but beware that occasionally the winters are cold enough to freeze the falls. When that happens, it is a unique and beautiful site worth experiencing if you’re prepared for the chills.

If you want the closest view of the falls, walk on Benson Bridge, which spans the Falls by the first tier. While you’re there, visit the Multnomah Falls Lodge so you can stop into the gift shop, visit the upscale Northwest-style cuisine restaurant, and the U.S. Forest Service Information Center where you can find trail maps and more.

Trillium LakeTrillium Lake (1 Hour, 24 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map )

Trillium Lake is a beautiful place to swim and picnic for the day. This lake is situated with a perfect view of Ht. Hood.  Also, a variety of wetland wildflowers can be observed in the summer.

If you’re looking for recreation beyond swimming, Trillium Lake offers a fishing pier, small boat ramp, and hiking and biking trails. There are various historic tours that may be going on while you visit, as well.

Other Noteworthy Spots to Check Out on Your Trip

Mt. Hood Cultural Center & Museum (1 Hour and 13 Minutes from Portland via US-26 E | map )

Learn about the history of Mt. Hood and its surrounding areas. This includes its early exploration and settlement, arts, oral histories of important people, and about the winter sports.

In addition, you might want to schedule your visit around one of the many events held at the cultural center. This includes Heritage Night, Snowvana, and Social History Happy Hour that are regularly occurring.

Mt. Hood Scenic Loop (AKA Mt. Hood Scenic Byway)

Oregon vineyardTake in a little bit of everything the Mt. Hood area has to offer and drive the Mt. Hood scenic loop. The loop is on US-26 E and OR 35 and generally starts at Hood River (1 Hour and 8 Minutes from Portland via I-84 E | map ), although you can start in Troutdale (25 Minutes from Portland via I-84 E | map ) and go the other direction.

  • Hood River & Hood River Valley (1 Hour and 8 Minutes from Portland via I-84 E | map ) – Orchards, vineyards and farms in this fertile region not only offer pleasant views, but a variety of fruits from what is known as the Hood River Country Fruit Loop.
  • Government Camp, Zigzag, Wildwood Recreation Site (Approximately 1 Hour from Portland via I-84 E | map ) – Snowcapped mountain views, wooded mountainsides, flowing creeks and an abundance of various pine trees make this area a dream to experience on your drive.
  • Sandy to Troutdale (24 – 43 Minutes from Portland via I-84 E | map ) – These agricultural lands are rich with plant life. Just north of Sandy, stop at Jonsrud Viewpoint where you can look out across the expansive Sandy River Valley.
Map: Mount Hood Scenic Byway
Image Courtesy of US DOT Federal Highway Administration

Preparing for the Road Trip

VW in ForestNo matter where you travel and what you do on your day trip from Portland, make sure your vehicle is in good working condition and ready for the drive. Before you go, here are some tips to prepare your vehicle for a trip:

  • Fluid Check – Check the oil, brake fluid, coolant and windshield wiper fluid and the power steering and clutch fluid levels if this applies to your vehicle.
  • Tire Check – Use a pressure gauge to check for optimal tire pressure.
  • Light Check – Check to ensure all signals and lights are functioning properly.
  • Belts and Hoses Check – Heat and age can deteriorate belts and hoses, therefore, they should all be thoroughly checked for signs of leaking or cracks.
  • Battery and Cables Check – Ensure your battery is in great condition before embarking on your road trip because a dead battery is one of the most common reasons for a breakdown.
  • Windows and Windshields Check – Be sure that the windows are clean and free of cracks or chips to optimize visibility.
For more details on preparing for road trips, check out our article:

Hitting the Road Soon? How to Get Your Car Road Trip Ready

Woman looking at mapWhile road trips are usually fun and adventurous, being ill prepared can put a damper on things quickly and turn a fun trip into a nightmare. When embarking on a road trip, be sure to carry these necessities:

  • Emergency Kit – including extra fluids, tools, flares, reflective warning cones/triangle, drinking water, jumper cables, tire gauge, flashlight, extra batteries and blanket
  • First aid kit
  • Audio books and/or music to keep you more alert, but also to make the journey more enjoyable
  • Car charger for your cell phone
  • GPS navigation that is separate from your cell phone – your phone’s data is likely to be limited in remote areas and the GPS satellite connection is more dependable
  • A paper map in case there is a failure in technology
  • Snacks and other foods that support a natural boost in energy and alertness (avoid tiring junk food)
  • If applicable, take along your roadside assistance ID card or contact information
  • Last, but not least, don’t forget to fill the gas tank and be sure to pay attention to distances between gas stations in remote areas

May you have safe and happy travels and enjoy best that Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge has to offer.