With majestic Douglas Fir stands, frozen lakes and the mountain towering overhead, Mt. Hood National Forest in the winter is nothing short of magical. And one of the best ways to experience it is with a pair of snowshoes, tromping through fields of untouched snow.
Starting in Portland, snowshoes can be rented from Next Adventure on Grand Avenue. To rent a pair of snowshoes and a pair of poles costs roughly $25 per day. Their phone number is 503-233-0706.
If starting near Mt Hood, we suggest renting snowshoes from Timberline Lodge. At Timberline, the gear rental office is in the lower building, the Wy'East Day Lodge. Timberline charges a little bit more for rentals than Next Adventure does, but may be more convenient.
The other option of course is to purchase a set of snowshoes. The equipment is very affordable and easily pays off if you plan on going snowshoeing multiple times.
We've included an Amazon link to a few of the different snowshoe products we've used in the past and have had success with.
Starting in Portland, take Highway 26 to Mt. Hood. Because it is such a well-traveled highway, the road is typically well maintained and navigable, even without a 4WD vehicle. The big exception to this is in the event of freshly fallen snow or winter storms. Watch the weather forecast leading up to your planned trip. For live updates, use tripcheck.com, which has an excellent webcam feature that shows exactly where you'll be driving.
The parking lot for Trillium Lake is right next to the highway, so you won't have to drive down any sketchy forest roads. It's called the Trillium Sno-Park, and it's pretty difficult to miss. To legally park at Trillium Sno-Park during the winter season, you will need a Sno-Park parking permit. A single-day permit costs only $5, and can be bought at many places around town, including Next Adventure. There are other convenient options on the way to the mountain, including the Arco gas station in the town of Sandy.
The road up to Timberline Lodge can be a little bit more treacherous. Watch for Department of Transportation signs that indicate whether 4WD or traction tires are required, as they often are during the winter. In the event of good weather, the road may be entirely clear and free of snow. In bad weather, we strongly advise against attempting the drive to the Lodge without a properly equipped vehicle and experienced driver. On weekends, there is a shuttle that runs from the Highway 26 Government Camp rest stop up to Timberline, which can be a convenient option as well.
Snowshoeing sounds intimidating, but is a pretty easy activity to get the hang of. Depending on what you end up renting, the binding on the snowshoe may be different. Have the employee at the gear rental location demonstrate how to take the snowshoes on and off properly.
When snowshoeing, try to take relatively wide, flat steps. The advantage of the snowshoe is the large surface area, which allows the shoe to "float" on the deep snow. To achieve this advantage, however, the snowshoe has to come down roughly flat on the ground. It usually takes beginners about 10 minutes to get a hang of it and get the cadence right, but it might be helpful to try walking around in the parking lot with your snowshoes on ahead of time.
From the Trillium Lake parking lot, proceed to the trailhead/road that appears to be an extension of the parking lot entrance. In the summer, this is an open road that leads to the lake and adjacent campground. In the winter, the road is closed and becomes a multi-use winter recreation trail. The road goes down a modest hill for about a quarter-mile, then diverges to the left and right on the Trillium Loop Trail. We recommend a slightly different route. From this junction, veer right as if you are taking the road, but then turn immediately left into the clearing between the two directions. Across the clearing there is a large sign that says "Trillium Lake Bike Trail." This is the trailhead. Follow this trail through the woods for a more secluded, scenic experience. The trail is usually well-defined, but in the event of fresh snow, pay attention to the blue diamonds attached to the trees. These trail markers are spaced about 100 feet apart, and are difficult to miss. If you ever get truly "lost," remember you are inside the loop trail, and thus walking about a half-mile in any direction will put you back on the main road.
The bike trail goes on for about a mile and a half until it reaches the north end of the lake, at a junction amongst a stand of old growth Western Red Cedar trees. At the junction, take a left onto a boardwalk. Note: If it has snowed a lot recently, it may be difficult to tell that it is indeed a boardwalk, but go left anyways.
Follow this trail for another half-mile until you end up walking along the main body of the lake. Congratulations, you've made it! Look over your right shoulder to the North, and on a clear day you'll see Mt. Hood. Continue on the same trail in the direction you're going along the lake for about a mile or so until you reach the far South end and encounter the road. From here, you can go either direction and make it back to the parking lot.
The last part of the Experience is the "frosty ale" at Timberline Lodge. This is of course optional, but can be a nice touch to end the day. From Trillium Lake Sno-Park, Timberline is about a 10 minute drive. The easiest thing to do would be to enter it into Google Maps for directions, but I’ll add them to the document as well. From the Trillium parking lot, take a left like you’re going back to Portland. Drive about 1 mile, then turn right at the sign that says Timberline Lodge. This road is a little steep and windy, and is about 5 miles long.You’ve now arrived at Timberline! There are two main buildings here, the Wy’East Day Lodge and the Historic Lodge. The Day Lodge is the building closer to the parking lot, is made of concrete and doesn’t have a whole lot of appeal. The Historic Lodge, built in the 1930s as a public works project, is where you want to be.Enter through the tunnel shelter here, and immediately go up the stairs to your right. This is the “grand entrance” into the main floor, with the central fireplace and cathedral ceilings. Take a minute exploring the artwork and craftsmanship of the lodge. It’s a national historic landmark and is really impressive. It also was featured in The Shining!The third floor of the lodge contains the Ramshead Bar. This is the spot to be, in my opinion. I recommend getting a table here, maybe splitting an appetizer and each getting a beverage. The lodge serves beer from Mt. Hood Brewing on tap, and I am a big fan of their Ice Axe IPA, or Cascadian Pale Ale. If you’re looking for a cocktail, many of their Apres Ski Drinks (warm drinks) are really good, especially the Broken Weather Vane and Hot Buttered Rum. The Bruno’s Brownie is also a classic, and is pretty extravagant.When you’re driving back down from Timberline, put the vehicle in 1st gear and leave plenty of space between you and the car in front of you. Try your best to only brake on the straightaway leading into a turn, and only brake gently. If you do skid, pump the brakes - don’t slam on them - and try to “accelerate out” of the skid to regain control of the vehicle. If worst comes to worst, try to direct the vehicle into the snowbank so you do not risk hitting other cars.I’ve driven up and down the Timberline road many times and never had a problem, but it can be challenging in bad weather. If you’re unsure whether or not you can do it safely, it’s probably not worth the risk. Mt. Hood Brewing Company has a taproom in Government Camp right off the highway, which is much more accessible than the lodge is. Similarly, Portland has a ton of great bars and brewpubs which can make for just as nice of an after-snowshoe drink.