Sometimes at dusk, on clear evenings, you can get off the Lower Bowl chair at Skibowl, face downhill, and see all of Oregon’s Mt. Hood. When moonlight makes the snow-covered peak glow, the mountain looks like a radiating monolith. A testament to the gods.
That’s when the ski day is really just getting started at Mt. Hood Skibowl. Midweek, the lifts spin from late afternoon until 10 p.m. That means you can drive an hour from Portland after work and still catch first chair. You can ski among its 39 open, glowing runs for several hours, then get dinner at the Warming Hut, and keep skiing for a couple more hours before driving home. If it’s been snowing all day, this routine might, in fact, just lead to the best skiing of your season.
To ski lift-accessed powder all night, on a Tuesday, with no one else around, is to feel like you are getting away with something. It’s unlike skiing powder anywhere else. I’ve had a few of those days. More often than not, I made the trip alone. And when I pulled my dusty Subaru, Lola, into the parking lot, it was usually just me booting up in the empty expanse of snowy pavement.
One night, after it had been dumping all day and a foot of snow had accumulated, the lifts had just opened. I was still processing the work day as I skied past a few kids waiting for their friends and right onto the Lower Bowl Chair. On the lift it was easy to get lost in the beauty of the heavy snowfall driving through the stadium lights.
Above the shack for the summer alpine slide, the lift enters a narrow corridor of dimly lit trees. Your outline, and the shadow of the chairlift, glide along the tops of the Douglas firs.
Once off the lift, I slashed a couple turns on the side of the slope to the Upper Bowl chair, another old-school, royal blue double. The lifties, all bundled up, were just opening the lift, knocking snow off the bullwheel, dropping the seats of chairs and dusting them off. Up here, I felt the full effects of the storm. In the heart of the bowl, I saw nothing but untracked lines.
I pushed off the chair and knew exactly where to go—right back under the lift to a run called Cliffhanger, where a series of five- to 15-foot rocks pepper a steep face. It was knee-deep, and I slashed and popped and whooped until I pointed it back toward the two-seater. The laps here are short but rowdy. I skied the same run a half-dozen times.
As a few more skiers showed up, I explored the more distant rope lines on the ridge, from God’s Wall to Carolyn’s Woods. Out there, there’s no direct light, just enough distant glow to see the snow in front of you. I avoided the rocks and skied briskly through the trees.
Eventually, I ducked inside the Warming Hut for some soup and a beer. The massive stone fireplace monopolizing the tiny, cozy space made the place pulse with warmth.
This was one of those days where everything finally lined up. But, if I’m being honest, a part of its endearing appeal is that a lot can go wrong at Skibowl, too. It’s located, somewhat cruelly, at 3,600 feet, so it’s perpetually plagued by rainy days, splotchy snowpacks, and the uncaring brutality of climate change. Often, the old lifts break down, too. So even if it does snow, the goods can remain out of reach. Still, Skibowl has the most soul on Mt. Hood. For me, the skiing conditions are always secondary, anyway. More importantly, Skibowl is home.
Last year, because of pandemic travel limitations, I didn’t make a single turn at Skibowl. I used to ski there every winter with my parents. They’re 70 now, and I worry that we’re running out of time. Between Covid and shortened seasons due to melting snowpacks—including seasons when Upper Bowl doesn’t even open—it’s been a challenging run.
It’s where my mom, as a high-school student catching the ski bus from Portland, first learned to make a turn. It’s where my Mighty-Mite team had many of its ski races and where I first skied steep terrain. It’s where I went off my first cliff. Later, it’s where I participated in my first “extreme skiing” competition—as part of the State Games of Oregon. Twenty years later, the bottom of Skibowl’s free magic carpet is where I bribed my 2- and 4-year-old nephews with gummy bears to get them to take just one more lap. I’ve had class reunions at Skibowl. I’ve been to weddings at Skibowl.
This season, I just want to get back to my favorite haunt. Rain or snow, I’ll pull into that parking lot where I don’t have to put forth some heroic effort just to navigate the line of cars on the way to the mountain, the line of cars trying to park, and the line of people hoping to get lift tickets. Because Skibowl is a throwback—an authentic blue-collar diamond in the rough amid chronically overcrowded slopes, with reasonably priced lift tickets and old-school frozen French fries. A place that holds secrets that are slowly revealed.
On the weekends, Skibowl is open during the day, too. The area toward Tom Dick Peak, on the ski area’s western boundary, is full of thrilling, beautiful chutes. It’s unlike anything else in Oregon. After making the traverse out there, you might be standing in the big, steep bowl all alone. Below the chutes, nearly 1,000 feet of perfectly spaced evergreens, foot-long moss dangling from branches. That’s when you’ll get the feeling again—like you’re getting away with something.
The truth is—you are.
Mt. Hood Skibowl Trip Planning
For Skibowl newbs, the Lower Bowl chairlift and Multorpor side of the mountain offer great, cruisy, low-angle runs. For those who like it a little spicier, explore either side of the ridge on Upper Bowl. Be sure to stop into the Warming Hut for a snack and a beer—or, if it’s raining, a hot coffee or cocoa.
For breakfast, get a booth at the Huckleberry Inn, or, if you’re in a hurry, a breakfast burrito at the Shell station in Sandy. Joe’s Donuts across the street also has tasty morning cakes. Charlie’s is the spot for a burger, a beer, and good people-watching.
Get your skis tuned at Valian’s, a tiny shop with a big heart. Owners Bud and Betsy are true Mt. Hood legends.