WEEKEND AT:Hoodoo

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It's one of those Saturday mornings when the drive to the mountain feels like a chore. You're sure the snow will stick to your goggles and your boots will feel too tight. But as you pull into the Hoodoo parking lot, your mood begins to change. Because there, to your surprise, a distinguished-looking gentleman-no surly teenager-is directing traffic. Spinning tires are flinging muddy slush his way, but he's grinning infectiously.

He's been up since dawn, but you see him again at lunchtime, energetically table-hopping, shaking hands, chatting merrily. He's everywhere with that broad grin: selling tickets, overseeing the construction of a new tubing area, and later, laboring behind the wheel of a snowplow. Chuck Shepard, the ubiquitous man with the irrepressible smile, might be the hardest-working resort owner in the industry. He also might be the happiest.

Even in inclement weather, it's easy to see what Shepard loves about Hoodoo. It has the ideal ski hill layout: a free-standing cone of snow (a 1969 forest fire cleared many of the trees), with lifts running up its north face. The name Hoodoo is a misnomer. A hoodoo is a column-shaped geological formation with straight sides and a flat top. Hayrick Mountain, which abuts Hoodoo to the south and whose name means haystack, is shaped like a hoodoo, but some misguided mapmaker accidentally switched their names.

Ask a local what he knows about Hoodoo, and he'll reply, "steep, deep and cheap," because it's the kind of challenging small hill that breeds champions, like 1964 Olympic double medalist Jean Saubert. "It's got a good, solid, steady fall line," explains Donna Sanders, who taught here for 24 years and is still a regular. Expert skiers revel in the steep, ungroomed southeast side of the mountain, while beginners happily confine themselves to the Manzanita triple chair, Easy Rider double chair and the Pinnochio ropetow, tucked into a gentle foothill just above the lodge. Intermediate skiers have the run of the mountain, but if they aren't aggressive, they might find the steep pitches of the cruisers intimidating.

But is it deep? Thanks to plate tectonics, yes. Weather traveling east from the Pacific is funneled through Santiam Pass, the only break in a long line of Cascade volcanoes, dropping snow as it goes. Hoodoo sits at the edge of this pass, and last season it received a sweet 550 inches.

And when you compare Hoodoo's $32 lift tickets with the $44 price tag at popular Mt. Bachelor 62 miles to the east, it sure is cheap. Of course, Hoodoo is pint-sized-806 acres to Bachelor's 3,683-but unlike at Bachelor, it's impossible to lose track of your companions here. Experts can explore the raw southeast side and still meet friends and family at the bottom, because Art's Alley, a wide nordic trail that doubles as a cat-track, descends around the foot of the mountain, depositing off-piste explorers at the base.

To top it off, this small ski area offers big views: the Three Sisters and Mount Washington standing tall just to the south; Three-Fingered Jack and Mount Jefferson to the north; and the Cascade foothills to the west.The Good ShepardBut views alone do not a ski area make; and until recently, Hoodoo had little to offer its skiers but some nice scenery. Founded in 1937, Hoodoo is the second-oldest alpine area in Oregon, and by the early '90s, this was dreadfully apparent. Two chairlifts were more than two decades old and the two similarly outdated base lodges were dark and cramped. Skiers snickeringly dubbed the place "Doodoo," and Forest Service officials began pressuring Hoodoo's owners to make improvements.

The owner, a ski club co-op, responded with an aggressive master development plan-a stack of paper full of promises-that convinced the Forest Service to renew Hoodoo's lease. But club members were in over their heads: By this time there were some 600 co-owners, the leaders of whom were in their 70s and 80s. No one was willing to take the risks, find t funding or invest the energy necessary to put the plan into action.

Then Shepard appeared in May 1999, armed with a large personal fortune, a love of skiing and a desire to build a business that he, his wife, Tish, and their six children could enjoy as a family. He was Hoodoo's white knight.

He was soon put to the test. "I didn't have the slightest idea how to run a ski area," Shepard recalls. But with his characteristic gusto, he threw himself into his new venture, working 100-hour weeks as a jack-of-all-trades, learning as he went along and sleeping on a cot at the office. He taught himself the business by simultaneously working as marketing director, GM and accountant that first season, all while overseeing a slew of improvements. Crews installed a new fixed-grip quad, the Hodag chair, that first summer, added five new runs, then went on to replace the water and septic systems. Shepard purchased new snowcats and snow-removal equipment and taught himself how to use them.

Skiers noticed. The initial investments, Shepard says, nearly doubled the number of visits per season, to a respectable 60,000 by 2002. Shepard pressed on, replacing two additional chairs last summer with fixed-grip quads. Next, he started on a $6 million, 60,000-square-foot base lodge. A large space for the small resort to grow into, the lodge can seat 1,000 people. The luxuries you'd expect from bigger resorts-heated walkways, day-care center, cyber cafe and a conference room with a fireplace-are all here. There are even spacious locker rooms, with showers, in the basement. Meanwhile, improvements continue. A tubing area is in the works, and still on the drafting board is expanded terrain and an additional chairlift, to be installed when Hoodoo achieves a consistent 70,000 skier visits per winter.

In just over three years Shepard has invested $12 million for upgrades and improvements. "I have not spent a lot of time thinking about breaking even," Shepard says. "I do not see getting back my investment in my lifetime, but I have tried to build up a company that will be fun for my heirs to run." Daughter Tasha McFarland and her husband, Matthew, currently manage Hoodoo, and Tasha's siblings pitch in, as well. Hitting the HaySummer is the only season in which Hoodoo offers its customers a place to sleep (albeit in a tent). Winter visitors are mostly day-trippers from Salem, Corvallis, Albany and other nearby Oregon towns. Some travel from Bend and Portland, swearing that the drive is easier than the fight through traffic to their home mountains of Bachelor and Hood.

Then there's the hardcore motor-home contingent, who station their RVs in the parking lot; and, as the weather warms up, the teens who cave-camp alongside them in massive parking-lot snowbanks, obsessed with first tracks.

Those who prefer more civilized accommodations can try Black Butte Ranch, 13 miles down the road and a swanky resort, where in the winter, it's possible to rent a timeshare (a $150 ski package gets you two nights' lodging and two lift tickets) and live the champagne life for a while. Another option is the village of Sisters, a pleasant 20-mile drive east. A main entry point to the gorgeous Three Sisters Wilderness, Sisters basks in the sunshine and dry air of central Oregon.

Shepard doesn't have a house in Sisters or Black Butte, though. His new lodge at Hoodoo includes a VIP retreat in the garret-a grand penthouse where he and his family can cook, entertain and sleep in comfort.

These days, Shepard awakes refreshed on Saturday mornings, having seen the last of that office cot. He looks out and sees his perfect little mountain and heads for the parking lot to welcome the day's arrivals. He can't help but be happy with Hoodoo, and the moment you pull into the parking lot and see what Hoodoo has become, you'll be feeling happy, too. ESSENTIALS | Hoodoo Ski AreaVITAL STATS Summit elevation: 5,703 feet; vertical drop: 1,029 feet; skiable acres: 806; average annual snowfall: 340 inches; lifts: three quads, one triple, one double, one ropetow; trails: 30.

LIFT TICKETS $35 on holidays; $32 on weekends; $29 midweek.

A GOOD DEAL $135 will buy you the Anycard, a five lift-ticket pass transferable between family and friends. Also, parking at Hoodoo is free: No Oregon Sno-Park permit is required in the parking lot.GETTING THERE Hoodoo is 120 miles from Portland, 85 miles from Salem and 83 miles from Eugene. From I-5, take Highway 22 east to Highway 20. Continue five miles east on Highway 20. The Hoodoo turnoff is on the right.

SLEEPING IN Black Butte Ranch: 800-452-7455 or 541-595-6211; black-butteranch.com. Black Butte Resort: 877-595-6514 or 541-595-6514; blackbutte-resort.com. Cold Springs Resort & RV Park: 541-595-6271; coldsprings-resort.com. For lodging in Sisters, call the Sisters Chamber of Commerce: 541-549-0251; sisterschamber.com.

DINING OUT At Black Butte Ranch: The Restaurant at Black Butte Ranch (fine dining; 541-595-1260). In Sisters: Bronco Billy's Ranch Grill (burgers, barbecue, margaritas, beer; 541-549-7427). Depot Deli (breakfast, coffee; 541-549-2572). El Rancho Grande (Mexican; 541-549-3594). Sisters Bakery (fresh-baked doughnuts, scones and other goodies; 541-549-0361).ACTIVITIES The World Cup Atta Boy 300 dog-sled race will bring 40 mushers and many more dogs to the Sisters area in early January. For more information, call Cheryl Rhea at 541-382-8711 or visit attaboy300.com. Also check out the Hoodoo Winter Carnival on Feb. 8 for games, live music, a dummy ski race and more. INFORMATION 541-822-3799; hoodoo.com. Snow report: 541-822-3337.SLEEPINGINMammoth Country InnMammoth Lakes, Calif.(Near Mammoth Mountain)Somehow, it's become known (lovingly) as Mammoth's ghetto, though the pine-forested part of town in which you find the Mammoth Country Inn is a far cry from the textbook definition. In a rustic neighborhood characterized by A-frame homes and enough snow to regularly bury first-floor windows, it's the perfect setting for a B&B. The two-story inn is fashioned after a Bavarian Alp chalet. Exposed rafters, pine paneling, bamboo floors and a stone fireplace shape the common room's ideal ski-house setting. Above all, the mood is homey. Guests enjoy a full-service, gourmet breakfast and wine-and-cheese social hour daily. The common area is furnished with cushy love seats and a well-equipped entertainment center. Each of the seven upstairs rooms ($75-$155 per night) is uniquely decorated, and two feature jetted bathtubs from a recent renovation. Larger rooms have queens with hideaway daybeds for children, and a few rooms accommodate pets. Get-ting from the inn to Mammoth's new village gondola requires only a 30-yard walk to the shuttle, and skiing is only one stop away. In fact, the inn is so close to the slopes that you'll wake on powder days to the booms of avalanche bombs. Maybe that's why they call it the ghetto. Information: mammothcountryinn.com-Rob Reed

Inn at Sand CreekSandpoint, Idaho(Near Schweitzer)Inn at Sand Creek is a petite, exclusive auberge, decorated with period pieces and tucked into one of the turn-of-the-century brick-and-limestone buildings that are prevalent in this Idaho frontier town. The three guest rooms range from a simple retreat to a massive suite decked out with a state-of-the-art kitchen. Downstairs, a chic gallery space displays contemporary Northwestern art, and the exhibition continues throughout the building. Sharing the ground floor is the acclaimed Sand Creek Grill, where white tablecloths, rich wood and fresh flowers create an air of elegance. Executive Chef Ian Wingate of the luxe Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Wash., designed the innovative, light French-Asian menu. Sounds like Sun Valley, doesn't it? But it couldn't be, considering the room rates, which range from $75 to $195 per night. Sandpoint has caught up with Sun Valley culturally but not economically. Get hrage annual snowfall: 340 inches; lifts: three quads, one triple, one double, one ropetow; trails: 30.

LIFT TICKETS $35 on holidays; $32 on weekends; $29 midweek.

A GOOD DEAL $135 will buy you the Anycard, a five lift-ticket pass transferable between family and friends. Also, parking at Hoodoo is free: No Oregon Sno-Park permit is required in the parking lot.GETTING THERE Hoodoo is 120 miles from Portland, 85 miles from Salem and 83 miles from Eugene. From I-5, take Highway 22 east to Highway 20. Continue five miles east on Highway 20. The Hoodoo turnoff is on the right.

SLEEPING IN Black Butte Ranch: 800-452-7455 or 541-595-6211; black-butteranch.com. Black Butte Resort: 877-595-6514 or 541-595-6514; blackbutte-resort.com. Cold Springs Resort & RV Park: 541-595-6271; coldsprings-resort.com. For lodging in Sisters, call the Sisters Chamber of Commerce: 541-549-0251; sisterschamber.com.

DINING OUT At Black Butte Ranch: The Restaurant at Black Butte Ranch (fine dining; 541-595-1260). In Sisters: Bronco Billy's Ranch Grill (burgers, barbecue, margaritas, beer; 541-549-7427). Depot Deli (breakfast, coffee; 541-549-2572). El Rancho Grande (Mexican; 541-549-3594). Sisters Bakery (fresh-baked doughnuts, scones and other goodies; 541-549-0361).ACTIVITIES The World Cup Atta Boy 300 dog-sled race will bring 40 mushers and many more dogs to the Sisters area in early January. For more information, call Cheryl Rhea at 541-382-8711 or visit attaboy300.com. Also check out the Hoodoo Winter Carnival on Feb. 8 for games, live music, a dummy ski race and more. INFORMATION 541-822-3799; hoodoo.com. Snow report: 541-822-3337.SLEEPINGINMammoth Country InnMammoth Lakes, Calif.(Near Mammoth Mountain)Somehow, it's become known (lovingly) as Mammoth's ghetto, though the pine-forested part of town in which you find the Mammoth Country Inn is a far cry from the textbook definition. In a rustic neighborhood characterized by A-frame homes and enough snow to regularly bury first-floor windows, it's the perfect setting for a B&B. The two-story inn is fashioned after a Bavarian Alp chalet. Exposed rafters, pine paneling, bamboo floors and a stone fireplace shape the common room's ideal ski-house setting. Above all, the mood is homey. Guests enjoy a full-service, gourmet breakfast and wine-and-cheese social hour daily. The common area is furnished with cushy love seats and a well-equipped entertainment center. Each of the seven upstairs rooms ($75-$155 per night) is uniquely decorated, and two feature jetted bathtubs from a recent renovation. Larger rooms have queens with hideaway daybeds for children, and a few rooms accommodate pets. Get-ting from the inn to Mammoth's new village gondola requires only a 30-yard walk to the shuttle, and skiing is only one stop away. In fact, the inn is so close to the slopes that you'll wake on powder days to the booms of avalanche bombs. Maybe that's why they call it the ghetto. Information: mammothcountryinn.com-Rob Reed

Inn at Sand CreekSandpoint, Idaho(Near Schweitzer)Inn at Sand Creek is a petite, exclusive auberge, decorated with period pieces and tucked into one of the turn-of-the-century brick-and-limestone buildings that are prevalent in this Idaho frontier town. The three guest rooms range from a simple retreat to a massive suite decked out with a state-of-the-art kitchen. Downstairs, a chic gallery space displays contemporary Northwestern art, and the exhibition continues throughout the building. Sharing the ground floor is the acclaimed Sand Creek Grill, where white tablecloths, rich wood and fresh flowers create an air of elegance. Executive Chef Ian Wingate of the luxe Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Wash., designed the innovative, light French-Asian menu. Sounds like Sun Valley, doesn't it? But it couldn't be, considering the room rates, which range from $75 to $195 per night. Sandpoint has caught up with Sun Valley culturally but not economically. Get here fast, before inflation does. Information: innatsandcreek.com. -Katherine Cole

diningoutStony Ridge CaféTahoma, Calif.(Near Homewood, Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley)Housed in a funky red clapboard building on Lake Tahoe's West Shore, Stony Ridge Café was opened eight years ago by Doug Baehr and his wife, Dawn Bliss. A classically trained chef, Baehr had a dream of offering locals unique food at down-to-earth prices. Locals responded in a big way. Now, scores of smart visitors are following suit, and the café, with its hand-painted murals of Lake Tahoe and the stars above, is bustling. At breakfast, mainstays are available-or you can be adventurous and try the Asian Scramble with mushrooms, cabbage, tofu, garlic, ginger and cilantro ($7). The lunch menu includes salads, homemade soups and sandwiches. The Asian-inspired dinner menu-offered Thursday through Saturday-changes weekly, with items such as Vietnamese five-spice pork tenderloin ($19) and a spicy Thai vegetable and chicken dish dubbed the Evil Jungle Prince ($18). Information:stonyridgecafe.com. -Ann Lindemannet here fast, before inflation does. Information: innatsandcreek.com. -Katherine Cole

diningoutStony Ridge CaféTahoma, Calif.(Near Homewood, Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley)Housed in a funky red clapboard building on Lake Tahoe's West Shore, Stony Ridge Café was opened eight years ago by Doug Baehr and his wife, Dawn Bliss. A classically trained chef, Baehr had a dream of offering locals unique food at down-to-earth prices. Locals responded in a big way. Now, scores of smart visitors are following suit, and the café, with its hand-painted murals of Lake Tahoe and the stars above, is bustling. At breakfast, mainstays are available-or you can be adventurous and try the Asian Scramble with mushrooms, cabbage, tofu, garlic, ginger and cilantro ($7). The lunch menu includes salads, homemade soups and sandwiches. The Asian-inspired dinner menu-offered Thursday through Saturday-changes weekly, with items such as Vietnamese five-spice pork tenderloin ($19) and a spicy Thai vegetable and chicken dish dubbed the Evil Jungle Prince ($18). Information:stonyridgecafe.com. -Ann Lindemann

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