Mountainside Classics: AMC Eagle And “New Look” GMC Buses Still Working on Mt. Hood

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I make the trek up to Mt. Hood (near Portland) once or twice per winter for a day of skiing with son Edward. The season has been a bit iffy this year, but all last week the snow really piled up. Friday morning looked to be the perfect day, with over a foot of fresh overnight powder awaiting us. In addition to the fantastic skiing, there were a couple of bonuses: this fine Eagle wagon in the parking lot, perfectly posed with the 11,249′ volcano summit behind it (and sporting a lovely cloud cap), and some fine vintage GMC buses.

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Historic Timberline Lodge, just barely visible behind the Eagle’s roof rack, was built between 1936 and 1938 as a WPA project, and sits at about the 6000′ level on the slopes of Mt. Hood. It became one of the pioneering ski destinations, with runs and lifts both above and below the lodge. A number of movies have been shot here, including The Shining.

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Here’s the lodge, or the parts that aren’t buried, like the whole first floor. Ed and his GF have season passes, so they’re up here every week, and weekdays, when he’s playing hookie. The lunch buffet in the dining room puts every other ski lodge burger joint to shame, never mind the ambiance.

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I already knew about the Mt. Hood Express and its little fleet of vintage GMC “fishbowl” New Look buses, because CCer Teddy posted these pictures of the buses at the Cohort a while back. These are the exact same buses I drove back in the mid seventies in Iowa City (story here). They’re 35′ TDH 4523 transit buses (CC here), and its very rare to see them in regular service anymore.

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Teddy obviously rode in them too, and I’m jealous. I was hoping to catch one down the mountain and ride to Government Camp in it, but the timing was off, as I saw it leave the mountain just as we were riding the lift back to the lodge for the last time. I assumed that it was just a shuttle from Government Camp, but Mt. Hood Express is a more ambitious undertaking, running along Hwy. 26 from Sandy and picking up riders at all the little villages along the way. It’s a public-private partnership, taking over what started out as a little private shuttle between the various ski resorts on Hood.

The website says that they have also received a grant for new buses to be purchased, so it would seem that this will likely be the last year for the old GMCs. Boo-hoo. I’m making  a point to go back up again in a month or so, both to ride the Magic Mile lift up to the 7,000′ level (it was closed due to winds), as well as ride the bus. It might well be the last chance to ride one in actual transit service.


Somewhat ironically, these old GMC buses are essentially replacing Mt. Hood’s famous Skiway, which operated between Government Camp and Timberline Lodge before the road was improved. Yes, these are literally “flying buses”, as the Skiway used the Kenworth buses’ engines to power themselves up the cableway. Our story (with video) on Mt. Hood’s Fabulous Flying Buses is here.

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Because of all the fresh snow and wind, the upper lifts were not open on this weekday, but that left plenty of lower runs to cavort in. I have never skied much in powder, so this was a new experience for the most part. Ed took me through some trees, where I wiped out, and getting up out of almost two feet of that fluff is no joke. And if you lose a ski, good luck finding it again! But skiing straight down an almost vertical drop into a bowl of powder is amazing, as it slows one down so gently; like dropping into a pile of down pillows.

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We’re just about to get off the lift here. On the right is the famous Magic Mile Lift, which in its original version was the world’s longest ski lift. It takes one up to the 7,000 foot level (green arrow). Above that, the Palmer lift goes up even higher (to red arrow), which allows skiing almost all summer long on Palmer Glacier.

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When built in 1938, Magic Mile was not just the longest ski lift in the world, but only the second ever passenger ski chair lift, and the first with steel towers. The roof of the Lodge can be seen below.

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My mouth was too frozen to smile properly, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t having a great time.

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The only regret was missing the bus. And perhaps not being in my early 20s, in which case I’d get a job driving the bus, and skiing on days off. Now that would have been a dynamite way to spend a winter.