Timberline Lodge & Ski Area is perhaps America’s most unique snowsports destination with year-round skiing on one of the Lower 48’s largest volcanoes. Operated for the last fifty years by RLK & Company on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service, Timberline offers lift-served skiing twelve months a year on 1,400 acres of Mt. Hood. Two million people visit the Lodge and ski area annually which are under 60 miles from Portland, the tenth fastest-growing city in America. Timberline’s ski operation expanded in 2007 to accommodate growing numbers of visitors by adding the Jeff Flood Express in Still Creek Basin. The ski area now has seven lifts with a vertical rise of 3,690 feet, the largest in the Pacific Northwest.
Timberline is also unique in that much of its terrain lies below the Lodge and access road. Visitors drive halfway up the mountain just to leave their car and ski below. Although the mountain offers more alternative transportation options than ever, Timberline’s two-lane access road and relatively small parking lots remain woefully inadequate. Building more parking at 6,000 feet within a National Historic Landmark is not consistent with RLK’s sustainability goals nor those of the Oregon Department of Transportation and U.S. Forest Service to minimize development around the historic lodge.
RLK & Company debuted a vision for the future last year that calls for a shift to off-site parking and a gondola to Timberline from the bedroom community of Government Camp. In the vision, the company notes, “our biggest challenge for the future is in Timberline’s growing popularity. When coupled with a growing population, and an arterial highway and parking system that already exceed their comfortable carrying capacity, we believe future planning must present alternative transportation and local parking solutions that create a connectivity to US Highway 26, the town of Government Camp, and the overall Mt. Hood National Forest.”
While a re-configured road would remain, a gondola from Government Camp would transport the vast majority of guests and employees the final six miles to Timberline much of the year. It would follow the alignment cut for the Skyway that operated in the 1950s that remains clear of trees today. RLK notes, “this exciting proposal employs modern technology to provide a clean, alternative method of travel to Timberline, while also providing an attraction in and of itself. This alternative transportation can be provided with minimal environmental effects and would provide a long-term carbon offset by taking vehicles off the Timberline Road.”
While the vision doesn’t pin down a particular type of gondola, this would be an ideal site for America’s first tri-cable gondola (commonly called a 3S.) Tri-cable gondolas have two high-tension track ropes that reduce the number of required towers significantly. The three mile line from Government Camp to Timberline Lodge would probably have six towers or fewer. 3S gondolas can operate in high winds like those that frequently shut down Timberline’s above-tree line chairlifts. The top terminal would be west of Timberline Lodge and connected to it via an underground tunnel to reduce visual impacts. The base station would be north of Government Camp where there is ample space to build off-site parking and an indoor storage facility for gondola cabins. An optional second section of the gondola could connect to the heart of Government Camp where many of the mountain’s employees live and visitors stay.
Of course 3S gondolas are expensive. Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak cost CDN$51 million and Oregon knows a thing or two about expensive lift projects having built the Portland Aerial Tram for $57 million. Any large gondola to Timberline would almost certainly have to be paid for in part by taxpayers. But keep in mind it would largely replace a road and parking lots maintained at great expense by the State of Oregon on federal lands. The challenge for RLK & Company to convince the people of Oregon that an improved experience for millions of visitors is worth it and that a gondola is infrastructure just like roads and bridges.