When the MAX Blue Line pulled up to the Gresham Transit Center on a recent Friday, almost no one who got off was there for the bus to Sandy. And as I sized up my fellow passengers as we bumped along inside the big, blue vehicle on Highway 26 toward Mount Hood, I concluded I was the only one there who had come to drink.
My goal was to get to the top of the mountain—or at least, as high as I could via public transportation—and pub crawl my way back down.
Even with the aid of two bus fleets and a well-planned schedule, it'd be nearly impossible to hit every bar between Timberline and Sandy in a single day. But here are some of my favorites that are worth a pit stop and a far preferable way to wait out homeward-bound ski traffic than sitting in your car.
To ride: Starting in Gresham, catch the Sandy Area Metro ($5 for an all-day pass good on the Mount Hood Express) across the street from the light rail platform. In 25 minutes, you'll arrive at the Sandy Transit Center. Keep an eye on time for the next shuttle, hop on board, and in about an hour, it'll take you to Timberline Lodge, the mountain's man-made gem. This is your first bar stop.
Ram's Head Bar
Long before stimulus spending became a pejorative term, programs meant to jolt the economy produced magnificent structures like this alpine palace of stone and ponderosa pine. Drink in the craftsmanship of laborers employed by the Works Progress Administration while sipping what's likely an overpriced beverage in the Ram's Head Bar, which takes up the entire hexagon-shaped mezzanine. The centerpiece of the room is a 400-ton chimney column constructed out of rock slabs that soars from floor to ceiling. There are stellar views of the peak thanks to windows that extend skyward from the bottom level. But if you're done staring at the landscape, steal away into one of the nooks on either side of the bar complete with wrap-around booths and dim lighting.
Blue Ox Bar
Though not yet open for the season on my visit, Blue Ox Bar is another option deeper in the bowels of Timberline. This was actually a last-minute addition when construction was nearly finished and thankfully someone noticed the lodge didn't have a bar. The small archway entrance rimmed in stones with a wrought-iron gate gives it all the charm of a dungeon at first glance. But inside you'll be greeted by a brightly colored mosaic of a smiling Paul Bunyan embracing Babe.
Government Camp looks like one of those ski resort towns from movies in the '80s where you imagine everyone is either getting drunk or getting laid when they're not in their bindings. Though there are several bars, the best nightlife is at Ratskeller, which is tucked inside a chalet-style building where a carving of a menacing rodent in cowboy boots stands guard at the door. The dark, sunken rec room with beer taps lining the walls tends to attract families by day, as parents linger over pints and their kids escape to the second-story arcade. But come evening, the adults-only, heavier-drinking crowd arrives. The soundtrack is rock and the big screen shows sports. But the true draw is the pizza, known as the best on Hood.
Charlie's Mountain View
When I walked into Charlie's, there might as well have been a loud record scratch accompanying my entrance. The bar fell silent and everyone stared (maybe leered?) for a moment. This is where the locals hang, which also means it's rich with history and they'll share some of it after they warm up to you. Everything there has a story—from the knotty blond wooden walls to the pool-playing guitarist who knows exactly how many sets he's played in bars like this one around the mountain (it's 792). While most pubs in these parts are decorated like a hoarder's starter home (nearly every inch of space is covered with schlock), the accessories here have significance. For instance, giant wood carvings of skiers turning and jumping are actually depictions of local Olympians like Bill Johnson and Debbie Armstrong, with their signatures etched alongside their likeness. Portraits of King Winter honorees, chosen for their community service and dating back to 1956, are displayed on two beams. And behind the bar you can raise a glass to photos of old patrons who've passed. The memorial wall includes the pub's namesake and founder, Charlie Spurr, who also opened the Ratskeller across the street.
Skyway Bar and Grill
Zipping by Skyway on Highway 26, you'd never realize the old red building was like a carnival funhouse inside. The one-of-a-kind space had a former life as a fine-dining restaurant but received an eclectic makeover in 2000 under new ownership. It's split in two, marking dual personalities: the red bar, defined by string lights and bulbs that bathe the area in a hot glowing hue, and the chandelier room, which has as many fanciful fixtures dangling from the ceiling as your average McMenamins. In both you'll find antiques repurposed in clever ways. An old boiler stamped with the year 1906 was rescued from Portland, and now its massive doors hold in roaring fires come winter. An array of ornate windows take up an entire wall—most were reclaimed from buildings set to be demolished. One thing you will notice from the road is the letters "BBQ" emblazoned on the roof. And they're shouting about it for a reason. The chef is a Texas transplant who makes succulent pork sliders that are a steal at $3 each.
Barlow Trail Roadhouse
Step back in time in almost every way at this joint. There's old-fashioned kitchenware on the walls, old-timey rock on the stereo and oldies in the seats—most of them holed up in the video lottery corner or waiting for someone to lose enough money and free up a stool. The building itself is an antique—the Roadhouse occupies a log cabin that dates back to 1926. Despite today's tame activities of slot-style gambling and eating the prime rib special, what was once the Barlow Trail Inn had a much livelier past as a rollicking brothel with the best food around. The sign outside still proclaims that last part. But the inside, with its rocking chairs, black-and-white photos and record player, says the girls are out, and Grandma's moved in.
Donny's Gateway Pub
39100 Pioneer Blvd., Sandy, 503-826-0309
Back where your bus tour began in Sandy, just about a block away from the transit center, your final stop awaits. The marquee above the door reads, "Biker Friendly," but the line of Harleys outside already told you that. Neat rows of framed motorcycles cover all four walls, there's a motorcycle from a carousel suspended above the bar, and at least half the customers are donning road-ready vests and chaps. Scuzz Twitty's "Keep Your Hands Off My PBR" is just one of many songs with groping-friendly lyrics that played during my visit. Still, my bartender insisted, "It's an everybody bar." Everybody should, however, try Joe's Donut Burger made with glazed pastries from a nearby bakery that hug a three-quarter-pound patty, cheese and an egg over easy. And if you've made it this far, it's about time to eat anyway.