Great Drive: Oregon
Clackamas Highway and Mt. Hood National Forest
By Kevin Miller
Having lived in Portland, Oregon, for several years, I had the opportunity to explore many of the state’s back roads that are within a day’s drive of town. Finding myself in Portland with a free evening and a 2008 Saab Turbo X SportCombi, I had to seek out one of my favorite roads and let the Saab stretch its legs.
The route in question is Oregon State Highway 224, the Clackamas Highway. It follows the Clackamas River from Portland’s southeast suburbs all the way to Mt. Hood National Forest. Its sweeping turns combined with breathtaking views of the river and canyon walls are tough to beat. OR-224 ends inside of Mt. Hood National Forest, where a series of National Forest Roads head off in different directions. Though I had never gone farther from this point, my map showed that it is just 27 miles on NF-57 from the end of OR-224 to US-26 on Mt. Hood near Timberline Lodge. Outfitted with a county map, snacks, my Garmin GPS, and a full tank of gas, I set off around 5:30 PM on my trip.
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The drive as far as Carver can be a slog from downtown Portland, but after Carver the traffic lightened and the speed limit went up to 55 MPH, which is Oregon’s maximum speed on non-divided highways. After a quick stop for a burger in Estacada, I headed out the Clackamas Highway. The Clackamas River runs through a fairly deep canyon for much of its length, so a lot of my drive was in late-afternoon shadows, with glimpses of the shimmering river through the trees. The temperature in Portland was in the low 90s as I left town, but fell to the upper 70s out along the river as I drove along with the windows and sunroof open. Beyond Estacada, I encountered few vehicles; most of them were parked beside the road and their occupants were visible swimming in the river. The sound of the turbocharged V6 echoing off of the canyon walls made the trip worthwhile, as did the experience of driving the Turbo X on one of my favorite roads.
When I reached the end of OR-224, I turned left onto NF-57 toward Timothy Lake and US-26. NF-57 starts as a nicely paved road with stripes but no shoulders; the road provides access to wilderness and primitive campsites. I did see a few groups of people camping on my Tuesday evening drive. The road was curvy and hilly, and was giving the Saab a good workout. At the intersection with NF-58, NF-57 becomes a nicely-maintained- but very dusty- gravel road. This wasn’t indicated on either of my maps, which indicate the road to be “improved.” Knowing that I was most of the way to US-26, I pressed on very slowly. The Saab’s all-wheel drive made driving on gravel a non-event, but I’m not a fan of taking nice cars (especially ones that aren’t mine) on gravel roads. Additionally, the Turbo X has a compressor and tire sealant under its trunk floor instead of a spare tire, and I was a bit worried what I would do if I suffered a puncture. After about 5 miles (and nearly 30 minutes) , I reached Timothy Lake and the pavement resumed. I was very happy to see that asphalt.
The rest of the trip to US-26 was very quick, as NF-57 (which becomes Skyline Road when passing through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation) widened when the pavement resumed which allowed speeds which may have been a bit over the posted limit. Skyline Road intersects with US-26 about 12 miles east of Government Camp, which is near the turnoff to Timberline Lodge. I headed that direction.
Timberline Lodge is accessed only from US-26 via the Timberline Highway, a six-mile series of switchbacks which crawl up the side of Mt. Hood to the historic lodge and ski area. The posted limit is 35 MPH, but as I was flying up just moments before sunset I may have exceeded that speed. While the temperature at the bottom of the Timberline Highway was 71 degrees, it was just 49 degrees six miles up the road; the cooler air, which is more dense and therefore oxygen-rich, did wonders for the turbocharged V6 as I raced up the mountain to catch the sunset from the lodge. After driving back down from Timberline, I followed US-26 all the way to downtown Portland.
The entire trip was about 150 miles, and took around 5 hours including stops for dinner and photos. I returned to Portland via the congested, heavily-policed US-26 because it was growing dark. With extra time, a more enjoyable return to Portland can be made by following OR-35 from Mt. Hood to Hood River, and returning from there along the Columbia River Gorge.
The Clackamas Highway, Timberline Highway, and US-26 between Mt. Hood and Portland are all extremely busy on weekends throughout the summer, so this drive is best to do on a weekday, or during September/October when fewer people are out. Many of the National Forest roads in Mt. Hood National Forest are closed during the winter when they are blocked by snow, and only re-open when the snow has melted, so be sure to check conditions before you head out. As always, when traveling in remote areas be sure to pack snacks and warm clothes in case you encounter a mechanical problem.
Gravel segment aside, this route was quite enjoyable, giving me a chance to try the Saab Turbo X someplace other than suburban roads and interstate highways. Empty, curvy roads and beautiful scenery are always a good mix, and are what make this a great drive.
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