written by Peter Murphy | featured photo by Peter Murphy
There’s something almost magical about this drive. Oregon Highway 35 offers an escape from urban noise and congestion, into the colorful and fruited hills of Hood River Valley. Here, east of Mt. Hood, Oregon’s crowning peak, savor sweeping views and Mother Nature’s bounty. Green apples, purple pears and red cherries ripen—depending upon the season. Evergreen trees dot the landscape beneath a blue sky and white mountaintop, all coming together in a kaleidoscope of color. If there were ever a Shire or Hobbiton in Oregon, surely it would be along Highway 35, under the gaze of the north face of Mt. Hood.
The northern portal of Hood River in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a destination of its own. Home to windsurfing, kayaking, fishing, craft brews, shops and more, it’s a hub for the adventurous. But don’t stop there. Get on 35 and head south out of town. Hood River Valley abundance awaits.
Danielle and Rashad Kramer of Portland visited the area and, it was “more than I expected,” she said as she sorted through the produce bins at Rasmussen Farms. The farm is a little more than five miles south of Hood River, then a short trek to the east with big blue signs to lead the way. “We heard there were peaches,” she said, “and these are awesome.” It also happened to be Salsa Sizzle Day, complete with local kids dancing to Latin music. Rasmussen has been a farm for sixty-nine years, said owner Julie Milling. People visit from mid-April to December 23 for the fruit, the pumpkin patch, the corn maze and more.
The nickname for this route—the Fruit Loop—derives from the vast acreage planted with fruit trees, including pears, Oregon’s top-selling fruit. The cherry, pear, and apple industries pump in a lot of money and bring many jobs into these communities. Local growers ship this fruit throughout the United States and across the globe to markets in South Korea, Japan and, until a recent embargo, Russia.
It’s not a very long drive from start to finish on 35, just forty miles or so, but it’s what you find along the way that makes it worth taking. Heading southbound out of Hood River, the highway is a gentle, but constant, climb. Along the way to its junction with Highway 26 on the southeastern shoulder of Mt. Hood, you can jump off to one of the quaint small towns that give the valley its flavor. Odell, for example, was named for early pioneer William Odell, a native of Tennessee by way of California, who settled in the area in 1861. It is now home to major fruit producer Duckwall Fruit. Farther uphill, you’ll pass the numerous fruit stands and even a vineyard or two. Eventually, you’ll hit Parkdale before the highway leaves fruit country and enters the forested land of Mt. Hood.
There are plenty of places to stop and sample the fruit of the vine or of the tree. Take the Gorge White House, just a bit south of Hood River. They’ve mastered a comprehensive packaging of the area’s bounty, with pear wines, wines from local vineyards, and hard ciders from their own blueberries, plus fruit, flowers and the experience of a fruit farm that has been continuously cultivated for more than 100 years. Four generations down the farming family tree, Mary Beth Kennedy helps run the Gorge White House and welcomes visitors to sample local wines and hot food not offered anywhere else along the highway.
Hospitality runs deep in the Hood River Valley. The Draper Girls Country Farm invites you to come pick your own honey crisp, gala, golden supreme, and McIntosh apples and pears. This farm is open seven days a week and year-round. “People come here for the diversity of activities,” said Theresa Draper. “We’ve got diversity in our fruit crops and diversity in recreation.” Even though the fruit goes into cold storage in the winter, you’re still invited to browse, to pick some and to leave payment if no one is around.
As you drive south, higher up the north face of Mt. Hood, beyond the towns of Mt. Hood and Parkdale, the highway rises to the Mt. Hood National Forest. It’s here that you’ll find myriad trails, snow parks and campgrounds.
If you share the spirit of adventure, you might head to Lost Lake, which lies southwest of towns on the southern edge of the Fruit Loop. Rural Highway 281 can help get you there. Actually, 281 starts at the west side of Hood River heading south, but you can connect to it from local roads that cut to the west through the heart of the Hood River Valley. It’s known locally as the Dee Highway. You’ll find Lost Lake Road at an intersection with the Dee Highway. Follow it south to the lake. Snake your way along some primitive roadways. Eventually, about forty-five minutes south of the intersection with the Dee Highway, you’ll come to Lost Lake. Blue, fresh and enticing, it’s a picturesque sample of life in the Oregon Cascade Range where you’ll find campsites, fishing, a store and more.
Above Parkdale, Highway 35 rises steeply onto the northeast shoulder of Mt. Hood. Signs for campgrounds, trails and ski areas line this corridor: Polallie Trailhead, Sherwood Campground, Tamanawas Falls, Little John Sno-Park and many more. Some of Oregon’s best ski runs are on this face of the mountain at Mt. Hood Meadows and beyond.