Eugene, Ore. — The best snow at Mount Hood is arguably not at the crowded, expensive Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort, nor even at historic Timberline Lodge, but rather high on the dry east side of the mountain at Cooper Spur, where skiing and snowboarding are free.
You can even spend the night up here at the Tilly Jane A-Frame, a cabin as historic as Timberline Lodge, for a mere $25.
Each April this secret snow getaway is home to a Split-Board Festival that draws about 40 diehard snowboarders in search of excellent snow on Cooper Spur.
The key to this area’s charm, and its lack of crowds, is that you have to trek 2.5 miles up a steep trail, gaining 1,900 feet of arduous elevation, to reach the cabin. From that base, the best snow slopes are another mile uphill.
In summer you can drive a winding, badly paved road almost to Tilly Jane Campground near the shelter, but in winter that route is unplowed. It’s gated at a Sno-Park at the bottom. There is a tiny Cooper Spur Ski Area down there, but it only has one short chairlift, so it’s not much help for those intent on climbing to the powder-snow Shangri-La two miles above.
This eastern side of Mount Hood may be off the beaten track now, but in pioneer days Cooper Spur was the preferred route. Mount Hood was known to the local tribes as Wy’East. Mountaineers would take a wagon road up from Hood River to a timberline camp named for Tilly Jane. She was the mother of prominent Portland banker and outdoorsman William Ladd. In 1890 Ladd built the Cloud Cap Inn nearby, a shake-roofed log cabin that became the inspiration for Timberline Lodge.
Today Cloud Cap Inn is owned by the Crag Rats, a private Hood River group that rarely opens it to the public. But in 1893 the inn was the launching point for the most famous of Mount Hood’s many climbing expeditions, when 155 men and 38 women scaled the peak, convened a meeting on the summit, and elected William Gladstone Steel as president of the Oregon’s first mountaineering club, the Mazamas.
These days 10,000 people a year climb Mount Hood, most of them embarking from Timberline rather than from Cooper Spur. Mount Hood is the second most climbed snowpeak in the world, after Japan’s sacred Mount Fuji. Hood has been climbed by a woman in high heels, a man with no legs and a gibbon named Kandi.
Timberline Lodge was completed in 1937 as a Depression-era make-work project for the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The next year the young men of the CCC turned their attention to Cooper Spur, near Cloud Cap Inn. They redesigned the Tilly Jane Campground and built a log shelter over a cookstove that had been used for American Legion summer camps since 1924. The next year, in 1939, the CCC raised the 30-by-60-foot two-story Tilly Jane A-Frame.
The historic Tilly Jane cabin, now maintained by the Oregon Nordic Club, can be rented for $25 per person per night online at www.recreation.gov. Occupancy is limited to 20 people, first come first served. Dogs are not allowed.
The main downstairs room has a concrete floor, a cavernous wood stove, two small propane lamps, two picnic tables, and 10 small windows that are often covered by snow drifts. Two steep staircases lead to a big upstairs sleeping loft. Bring a pad and a warm sleeping bag to throw on the planks.
A sign inside begs visitors to PLEASE pack out ketchup, mustard, anchovies, batteries, and anything else they may have brought.
There is no plumbed bathroom, but unlike most shelters, this one has an outhouse with a pit toilet under the roof of the entrance foyer, where you’ll also find stacks of dry firewood.
The lock on the front door had been smashed open so many times by vandals that the Oregon Nordic Club installed a prisonlike gate of welded bars in 2018, with a protected padlock. After you place your reservation you will be sent the lock’s four-digit code. Winter weekends are booked long in advance, so it’s best to plan a weekday trip, if possible.
The Tilly Jane Sno-Park is a full three-hour drive from Eugene via Oregon City, Boring and Government Camp. The route includes my favorite highway exit sign, for “Boring Oregon City.” Continue around Mount Hood toward Hood River. Just before Milepost 74, turn left on Cooper Spur Road for 2.3 miles.
On the left you’ll see the turnoff to Cloud Cap Road, but on the right is a possible rest stop, the Crooked Tree Tavern. Originally just a pub with a big snow-bent pine tree, the tavern now has rental cabins and a restaurant with excellent barbecue-smoked chicken wings — as well as the snow-bent tree.
Cloud Cap Road is plowed only for the first two miles to a small lot with a locked gate. You will need a Sno-Park permit for your car here.
The Tilly Jane Trail takes off uphill through the woods, marked by blue diamonds for winter use. Although the route gains elevation relentlessly, it manages to cross three seeps in the first quarter-mile, known to locals as “The Swamps,” where springs melt the snow to mud. Logs make it possible to traverse this hazard on snowshoes, but not on skis.
After a mile the trail enters the Tilly Jane Burn. A 2008 wildfire burned up this ridge to within a 100 feet of the A-frame cabin, which firefighters protected with a wrap of aluminum and fireproofing. By now the dead tree snags have weathered to silver, resembling thousands of inscrutable totem poles. For skiers, the burn is actually an improvement, reducing the danger of tree wells and opening up constant views of Mount Hood, a snowy pyramid dead ahead.
As soon as you leave the burn, puffing from the climb, the ridgetop trail delivers you to the door of the A-frame cabin.
For the best snow, continue straight uphill through unburnt woods an additional 0.7 mile to where the trees peter out. In summer this is the route of the round-the-mountain Timberline Trail. But in winter such trails are hidden. Continue straight onto Cooper Spur, which stretches up toward the mountain as broad and bare as any groomed ski slope.
After heading uphill just 0.3 mile above timberline look for the 10-foot-square Cooper Spur Shelter, also built by the CCC in the 1930.s With a tin roof and no door, the stone hut fills with snow in winter, but it commands a breathtaking view across the crevasses and ice falls of the Eliot Glacier to Mount Hood.
To the right, Mount Adams floats on the horizon above the patchwork orchards of the Hood River Valley. Far to the south look for the tiny white cone of Mount Jefferson.
Cooper Spur may not be the top of the world, but when you climb there in winter it feels like the top of Oregon. And those who venture there can look forward to a spectacular downhill run through the best snow at Mount Hood.