Its peak barely discernible from the parking lot of our hotel in Hood River, OR, Mt. Hood was a constant, albeit, distant presence. This majestic, commanding, snow-capped mountain loomed beyond us like an ever-watchful sentinel, all 11,240 rugged feet of it.
It became a much more visible companion during our drive on Highway 35 en route to Portland. As we drove along the rolling hills toward the city, we played a continuous game of hide-and-seek with the mountain, our sightline closing and then suddenly reopening for more revealing and breathtaking glimpses.
Mt. Hood wasn’t the only standout feature of this scenic drive, however. We decided to explore the farmlands, fields, and forests of the Hood River County Fruit Loop. Organized in 1992 to promote sustainable agricultural diversity, the Fruit Loop is a 35-mile route through the fertile Hood River Valley. Famous for its orchards, the valley is comprised of more than 14,000 acres of trees bearing pears, apples, cherries, and peaches for commercial purposes. Chestnuts, blueberries, nectarines, plums, apricots, and honey are among the other edibles for sale.
While we were there, the harvest of pears and apples was fully underway. According to the Hood River County Chamber of Commerce website, the fruit grown there “is of such exceptional quality that the county leads the world in Anjou pear production, and 50% of the nation’s winter pear crop comes from Hood River.”
Members of the Fruit Loop produce a map highlighting the various farm stands, animal farms, U-pick fields of seasonal fruit and flowers, bakeries, and wineries. Although we planned to see just a few of the 30 designated locations, a longer stay in the area could have included hiking, picnicking, seasonal celebrations and festivals, and overnights in quaint communities.
Our first stop was Fox-Tail Cider, which is owned and operated by a multi-generational family farm. They produce crafted hard and sweet ciders. Like wine, the taste of the cider each year depends on the growing season. The alcohol content of their hard cider falls between that of beer and wine. The family has a saying – “When cider gets turned into alcohol, it becomes happy apple juice.”
Not being a beer drinker, I couldn’t warm up to any of the hard cider varieties we tasted, but Bill and our friends had no trouble appreciating the beverages’ unique qualities.
Cody Orchards’ Farm Stand, our next stop, has been voted best fruit stand of the Columbia River Gorge two years in a row. Housed in one of the valley’s oldest packing sheds, it has the feel of an old-time general store. We stepped inside and found hand-made goods, artworks, pottery, antiques, cards, and, of course, the ubiquitous produce.
Then it was on to Hood River Lavender Farms. This was a lovely, serene locale gently perfumed with the distinctive scent of lavender and with an excellent view of Mt. Hood. It’s a certified organic farm, growing some 70 varieties of lavender available for picking. Whenever I walk past a lavender bush, I can’t resist carefully squeezing a branch so the scent transfers to my skin. I bought some culinary lavender to make lavender biscotti once we returned home (see recipe below).
I’d never met an alpaca before, but our stop at Cascade Alpacas and Foothills Yarn & Fiber remedied that gap in my background. Both the alpaca parents and their babies were adorable, docile, and totally unfazed by our admiring stares. The shopkeeper told us these alpacas were bred from the Vicuna camel. The retail shop next to the animal pens was stocked with a bright assortment of luxurious hats, scarves, sweaters, and socks spun from their soft fleece, along with yarn, spinning wheels, and looms. Alpaca yarn is naturally hypoallergenic, she said, so it doesn’t itch like wool tends to do.
Lastly, we stopped at Packer Orchards & Bakery. Their specialty appeared to be giant cookies and sweet rolls. Many of their baked goods featured – you guessed it – pears from their orchards.
The teasing views of Mt. Hood we’d enjoyed all morning had their expected effect. We decided we needed a more up-close look, and lunch in the Ram’s Head Bar at Timberline Lodge gave us that face-to-face encounter. Constructed in 1937 and dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt, the dramatic lodge stands on the south slope of Mt. Hood at an elevation of 6,000 feet above sea level. It’s a National Historic Landmark and is still used for its original purpose as a ski lodge and mountain retreat. On the opposite side of the lodge was an entrancing panoramic vista of the Cascade Range that included Mt. Jefferson and The Three Sisters.
Then it was time to bid goodbye to nature and continue our drive to the more urban environment of Portland.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Lavender Biscotti (makes about 2 dozen)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
3 tsp. dried lavender
½ cup coarsely chopped nuts
2 large eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup melted butter
2 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. grated lemon rind
Juice of 1 lemon
3 tbsp. milk
½ tsp. vanilla or lemon extract
Optional: melted chocolate for dipping
Preheat oven to 325°. In large bowl, combine all dry ingredients, lavender, and nuts. In a separate bowl, use whisk or hand beater to mix together eggs, sugar, butter, honey, lemon rind, lemon, milk, and vanilla. Add to flour mixture. Stir well. Dough will be soft and sticky. Spoon onto cookie sheet into 2 log shapes, each approximately 2” wide. Bake 35 minutes until golden. Remove from oven. Cool 10 minutes. Place on board, cut into 1”-wide slices. Place on sides on cookie sheets. Return to oven and bake about 15 minutes longer, turning once. Cool on rack. Optional to dip or decorate with melted chocolate.