When you spend the night in a ski area parking lot during a snowstorm, there’s a point in the early morning hours when the soundscape inside the van shifts. The quiet huff of snow and wind is broken by the distant thunder of avalanche bombs, and the beep and scrape of snowplows.
Those were the sounds that woke us one morning in the Sunrise lot at Oregon’s Mount Hood Meadows, the ski resort on the southeastern flank of the snowy volcano, an hour and a half from Portland. For the price of a $4 Sno-park permit, we had snagged one of the 18 overnight vehicle camping spots and participated in a great northwestern ski tradition, one that’s existed since the 1960s and become even more popular in pandemic years: van camping in the ski area parking lot.
You can sleep in your vehicle in nearly every major ski area in Oregon and Washington, thanks to a combination of Forest Service regulations that restrict the building of lodging on the mountains, and a history of camping-friendly resort ownership.
There are downsides. Lack of nightlife, for one, and winter van life is probably not for people who are particular about where they go to the bathroom. But camping, with its mellow, first-chair mornings, easy access to the lifts and long evenings of parking lot après, can be an affordable, accessible lodging option, and a taste of the vanlife hashtag.
Ollie Stevenson, 4, in his family’s camper at Mount Hood Meadows, where you can ski back to your van at the end of the day.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Bare bones, but that’s the appeal
In December, with our eyes on the atmospheric rivers rushing in from the Pacific, we left Portland in my partner’s van, and pointed it toward Mount Hood Meadows. We were part of a trend. The 2022 North American Camping Report from Kampgrounds of America found that, since 2019, the number of people van camping has increased by 1.6 million. The report also tallied 2 million new R.V. renters — vans are considered Class B R.V.s. A range of rental companies has ramped up in the past few years to serve those new renters. In the Portland area you can rent from boutique rental companies like Escape or Roamerica, or peer-to-peer rentals like Outdoorsy.
At Mount Hood Meadows, we backed the van up to the snowbank on the edge of the lot. Camping at Meadows is first-come, first-served; you can stay for three-day-long stretches, and it’s free, although you do need an Oregon Sno-Park pass (you can pay by the day or get a $25 season pass; some mountains may add fees).
From the Sunrise lot it’s a short walk or shuttle ride to the Sahale Lodge at the base of the high-speed Mount Hood Express Quad, which puts you in the center of the resort’s 2,150 acres of highly varied terrain. The ski runs follow the rippling downslope of the volcano, which makes the skiing at Meadows diverse and playful. You can head for the rocky alpine chutes of Heather Canyon, or hit the cruisey blue groomers off the Shooting Star Express, a detachable quad. At the end of the day, you can ski back to the van from the bottom of the Vista Express.
It’s bare bones, the only facilities are portable toilets, but Brad Bateman, who often drives up from Milwaukie, Ore., with his wife and two kids, said that doesn’t detract from the appeal. “I love the diversity, you have families next to ski bums next to broke college kids,” he said. “There’s a community scene for sure. After the lifts close, dogs are running, kids are running, fires are going and everyone meets up.”
At Meadows, camping has existed in an unofficial capacity since the ’60s, but when it started to become popular in the early 2010s, said Dave Tragethon, the resort’s vice president of communications, they moved the parking to the Sunrise Lot, to accommodate Forest Service regulations and state-run snowplows.
Those regulations are part of why van camping has proliferated in the Northwest. Many of the major ski areas are on Forest Service land, and their special use permits don’t allow for building lodging. In fact, at Meadows, Mr. Tragethon said, the original permit did allow for potential lodging, but they removed the option in 1998, because the idea was unpopular with their guests. “There was so much resistance to the concept of overnight development on the mountain that we took it out,” he said. “We have no future plans for developing any kind of slope side lodging.”
Now, camping has become so popular that the mountain is looking at increasing the number of overnight spots, because there’s occasionally tension when people have to be turned away.
It’s easy to understand why would-be campers might be frustrated. At the end of the ski day, as other skiers head down the hill in a snaking line of brake lights, we got to stay and watch the forest turn quiet and dark from the mellow glow of the van. By nightfall it was snowing heavy wet flakes, and in the morning, it was an easy walk to the first chair.
Fire pits and French fries
The next day, we skied the steep, numbered bowls under the Mount Hood Express lift until our legs felt like they were melting, and then headed south on Highway 26. We crossed the high desert plains through the Warm Springs Reservation and drove along the curve of the Deschutes River toward another snowy volcanic cone: Hoodoo Butte, home to Hoodoo Ski Area, just outside the town of Sisters.
At Hoodoo Ski Area, a smaller-scale hill in the central Cascades, the terrain ranges from steeps at the top of the mountain to gentle rollers lower down. Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
At Hoodoo, a smaller-scale ski hill in the central Cascades, the camping is both more organized and more relaxed than at Meadows. To camp, you book a site for $45 a night, with all-night access to the resort’s bathroom and the option to get R.V. power hookups. The camping spots abut the lowest ski runs, and the resort offers season-long camping options, which creates a neighborhood feel. After we backed into our reserved spot, we were invited to play cornhole around a neighbor’s bonfire. We watched day trippers drive out of the icy parking lot as the lights for night skiing clicked on. After dusk, we put our boots back on and skied down Headwall under those lights, gliding right back down to the row of vans via the Home Run trail to make tacos on our camp stove.
Hoodoo packs five lifts and 34 runs into 800 acres of skiing, which sprawl around three sides of a steep cinder cone butte. From the top you’ll see spiky Cascade volcanoes to the north and south and from there you can drop into lightly treed black diamond faces. Down low, you can ski rolling green groomers off the Manzanita chair, where we watch families congregate.
At Hoodoo, lift ticket prices top out at $79, with steep discounts for children and locals, and the lodge has affordable gear rental and fries. And while it can be easy to make fun of the rise of #vanlife, the scene feels like the antithesis of Instagram. Many of our fellow campers were families with small children, who stay there regularly, as a way to get their kids outside and on the mountain. They say it’s great, but it’s changing. The spots, particularly the seasonal ones, fill quickly, and a few of the locals didn’t want to talk about it, because they don’t want Hoodoo to garner any more attention. They like the slow lifts and minimal crowds.
Is it a #vandemic?
One place embracing vanlife is Mount Bachelor, just on the other side of Bend, Ore. To see how big camping could get, we headed there next.
We checked in for our reservation with a parking attendant at the West Lot. The resort has 30 slots with power hookups, and innumerable spots without power. Reservations run between $45 and $75 a night, you can stay for up to seven nights in a row, and 3 percent of the camping fees go back to the Forest Service. Johnny Sereni, the resort’s director of marketing and communications, said that during their signature van event, a four-day camping weekend called RendezVan in April, they’ll park more than 500 vehicles in the lot.
Mount Bachelor is big in a lot of ways. It covers 4,323 skiable acres — the most in the Northwest — and gets an average of 462 inches of snow a year. From the Summit Lift you can ski 360 degrees around the mountain, including into the Cirque Bowl at the top. The mountain gets mellower as you head down, and there’s plenty of green skiing near the base. There’s terrain for almost any kind of skier across Bachelor’s bulk.
Mr. Sereni said offering camping is a way to attract more visitors, but camping, and the culture that goes with it, is also part of Bachelor’s identity as a ski hill. “It separates us from the Vails of the land that would have built this out into luxury condos. Instead we have 28 acres of parking,” he said.
The facilities, including a bathhouse with showers, feel the most fleshed out of any mountain we’ve been to so far, and the scene is more vibrant. As the chairlifts stop turning, circles form around fire pits and dogs bound between the rows of vehicles.
Mount Bachelor gets an average of 462 inches of snow a year and offers extensive opportunities for overnight camping, with both power hookups and nonpowered spots. Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Sixty percent of customers come from Bend — for instance you might park next to the resort’s general manager, John McCloud, who camps with his family on weekends — but the mountain is seeing more out-of-town campers. The resort is working with the Forest Service to make sure noise and light pollution are low, while still building out its camping facilities, including another row of power hookups slated for next year.
There’s some tension in that growth. I heard a Bend local complain of a “vandemic” along with the pandemic, and it can be hard to reserve the existing power spots.
But in the morning, we woke up to the grind of the plows, stuck our heads out of the sliding door to check the snowfall, and walked a couple hundred yards to the Pine Marten chair as the lot filled up behind us.
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