Oregon’s highest peak, Mount Hood (or “Wy’east,” as the region’s Native Americans knew it), rises 11,239 feet above sea level less than an hour’s drive from Portland and dominates the city’s eastern horizon. Like Japan’s Mount Fuji, California’s Shasta, and Washington’s Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens, Hood is a composite volcano (or stratovolcano), a steep-sided conical mountain built up of layers of lava and ash over millennia.
Mount Hood was formed about 500,000 years ago and has since erupted repeatedly, most recently during two periods over the last 1,500 years. Centuries before the first white explorers entered the region, native people of the Pacific Northwest witnessed the mountain’s eruptions, and the retelling of the events became lore handed down over generations.
According to one legend, Wy’east and Pahto were sons of the Great Spirit, Sahale, who both fell in love with a beautiful maiden named Loowit. She was unable to choose between the two, and the braves fought bitterly to win her affection, laying waste to forests and villages in the process. In his anger at the destruction, Sahale transformed the three into mighty mountains: Loowit became Mount St. Helens, Pahto became Mount Adams, and to the south, Wy’east became Mount Hood.
The first white man to report seeing the mountain was British Navy Lt. William E. Broughton, who viewed it in 1792 from the Columbia River near the mouth of the Willamette River. Broughton named the peak after the British Navy’s Admiral Samuel Hood, who would never see the mountain himself.
Hood’s most recent volcanic episode ended in the 1790s, just prior to the arrival of Lewis and Clark in 1805. On October 18, 1805, William Clark sighted Mount Hood, and made this laconic entry in his journal: “Saw a mountain bearing SW conocal form Covered with Snow.” They named the peak Timm Mountain after the Native American name for the waterfall area near The Dalles before they learned that it had already been named by the British.
As the Corps of Discovery passed farther down the Columbia River, they encountered a wide shallow river still clogged with sediment from the recent eruptions and named it the Quicksand River. Today, it’s the Sandy River, which flows some 50 miles from the flanks of Mount Hood to the Columbia. About 40 years later, on the south side of Mount Hood, Oregon Trail pioneers opened the Barlow Road, the first wagon trail over the Cascades, leading down to the Willamette Valley.
Since record-keeping began in the 1820s, no significant volcanic activity has been noted, though in 1859, 1865, and 1903 observers noted the venting of steam accompanied by red glows or “flames.” Although the mountain is quiet, volcanologists keep a careful watch on Mount Hood.
Today, the mountain is the breathtaking centerpiece of the Mount Hood National Forest, which embraces 1,067,043 acres of natural beauty and recreational opportunities right in Portland’s backyard. Five downhill ski resorts and numerous cross-country trail systems, 1,200 miles of hiking trails, dozens of jewel-like alpine lakes, and more than 80 campgrounds are just the beginning.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel