The Fruit Loop of Hood River
You’ve probably driven the Fruit Loop without knowing it. That summer Saturday when you threw the kids in the car and took off for a scenic drive around Mount Hood? Yes, you remember now.
You came down Oregon 35 on the east side of the mountain, lower and lower, and suddenly the tall dark firs and white mountain streams fell away and a valley opened out around you, with rolling hills and red barns and marching rows of orchard trees. And you said to the kids, “Huh. They must grow fruit around here.”
A big white sign announcing FRUIT flashed by, and you turned around and crunched into a gravel parking lot and — depending on the summer month — loaded up on blueberries, cherries and apricots, or peaches and early apples, or pears and late apples. You munched your way home, cores and pits scattered around the car, and you thought, “Pretty place. Nice fruit.”
Well, that was the Fruit Loop — at least, the zippy Oregon 35 segment of it. The loop’s quieter western half meanders through the small towns of Parkdale and Dee and Oak Grove; the entire loop, all 35 or so miles of it, crosses the Hood River and its forks at least four times and connects 36 stops throughout the Hood River Valley. Most folks spend an afternoon tooling from stop to stop, but it’s easy to turn a few hours here into a few days.
Cherries for sale in the Hood River Valley.
Loop members don’t just pick and sell fresh fruit. They also make wine, raise alpacas and grow tall sunflowers. They bake pies and tarts and stir up vats of jam. They distill their lavender blossoms and make perfume, soap, and honey from the fragrant results. They dry their fruit and press it into juice. And some of them will even let you do the harvesting yourself.
Fences aren’t prominent in the Hood River Valley, and neither are “No Trespassing” signs. If you roll up to one of the U-pick operations, you might have to sign a liability waiver and clamber up a ladder before picking and lugging your own fruit. But that’s about as tricky as it gets. Farmers are friendly and easygoing toward visitors, encouraging tourists to stop by neighboring farms and trusting U-pickers to treat their fruit kindly.
“I won’t be there when you visit, but you should stop by and walk around my orchards anyways,” one farmer told me over the phone. “Have you been to McCurdy Farms yet to see their pears growing in bottles?” another asked me. “Nobody’s there right now, but you should go take a look.”
The Hood River Valley is small, and so are most of its farms. Many are run by families in their third or fourth generation of farming. They tend 2.4 million fruit trees on 13,800 acres, accounting for nearly one-third of the fruit-tree acreage in Oregon. More than two-thirds of the state’s pears are grown in the valley, and Hood River County grows more winter pears than any other county in the nation.
Fruit has been the valley’s predominant industry since farmers started planting orchards here more than 150 years ago. But the Fruit Loop itself dates back only to 1992.
“We were having a hard time of it back in the early 1990s,” recalls Kaye White, one of the loop’s founders. “The bottom had fallen out of the market for Red Delicious apples; people had stopped even picking the trees. And the organic orchards were just coming into being. It was a real transition time.”
White and her husband had moved to the valley in 1989. He farmed, while she tried to sell fresh produce at their country store. But there were no customers. “We were buying organic produce and couldn’t sell it and it started going bad,” White says. “So we started to preserve it, and it turned out that was what everyone wanted to buy.”
As tasty as a paper bag full of cherries can be, fresh fruit damages easily. A jar of apricot jam, on the other hand, lasts much longer, transports more easily, and makes more money for the farmer.
White also realized that, while farmers had always boxed up and shipped their produce to customers, it would be easier to have some of the customers come to them. Together with Thom Nelson, then the executive director of the Hood River Grower Shipper Association (now the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers), she found grant funding to organize the first Fruit Loop. The loop printed its first map in 1993; today the members pay to have 125,000 maps printed every year.
A view of Mount Hood, framed by cherry trees.
Loop festivals held throughout the growing season spotlight the area’s produce: cherries and lavender in July; sunflowers, early apples, huckleberries, and peaches in August; pears and apples in September and October; and pumpkins and chestnuts in November. The visitors council also sponsors a blossom festival in the spring and a harvest festival in the fall.
Justin White has taken over the family business from his mother, and what used to be called the River Bend Country Store is now the Apple Valley Country Store. “We do close to 70 different varieties of jams, syrups, and jellies now,” he says. “We pump it out all day long in our little kitchen.”
Before returning to Hood River, White put in a decade as an executive chef at restaurants around the country. “I learned to cook from my mom, and even when I was a chef, I’d use her dessert recipes,” he says. In 2007, he started serving barbecue at the store — pulled pork, ribs, chicken — and now the smoky stand is a big draw on the loop. That, and the rich shakes made from ice cream, wild huckleberries, and huckleberry jam.
At the loop’s southern end, Randy Kiyokawa runs Kiyokawa Family Orchards, tending 80 acres of pears (including Asian pears), 20 acres of apples, and seven acres of cherries, peaches, and plums. His cousin and uncle farm the land his grandfather started farming in 1911 in the town of Dee, while Kiyokawa farms the land his father bought in Parkdale in 1951.
“I’m the last orchard up in the valley, so I need to get people to make the trek all the way up from Hood River, to do the U-pick and try all the different varieties of apples and Asian pears,” Kiyokawa says. Most of the valley’s fruit trees are planted close together and not allowed to grow very tall; density makes for easier harvesting and higher yields. But Kiyokawa’s dwarf apple trees, planted 10 years ago just for U-pickers, are shorter than everything else around them.
Having people come through his farm, Kiyokawa says, has pushed him to offer a wider variety of fruit than he might otherwise have planted. “There are all kinds of apples, for example, that have good flavor but maybe don’t look appealing, and you never see them in grocery stores,” he says. “Like the Elstar, or the Swiss Gourmet.”
A customer gave Kiyokawa twigs from a Glocken apple tree that her grandfather had brought over from Switzerland. Kiyokawa grafted the gift and now, he says, it’s one of his favorite apples.
But if you want to try it, you’ve got to go to his farm. So pile the kids back in the car and head out to Hood River again. Just be sure to drive south this time on Oregon 35, so you can see the gray ribbon of road unrolling right up to the feet of Mount Hood, the mountain whose volcanic soil and glacial melt make all that fruit possible.
Where to stay
Because Hood River is a popular destination — windsurfing, kiteboarding, hiking, biking, and fishing are just a few of the summertime activities — it’s a good idea to book ahead.
Sakura Ridge, 5601 York Hill Drive, Hood River, 877-472-5872. John and Deanna Joyer have run this Adirondack-style bed-and-breakfast since 2001. A short drive west of downtown Hood River, the lodge is surrounded by cherry orchards and John Joyer’s flocks of sheep and geese. Guests breakfast on Deanna’s creative cooking (onigiri, radish salad, freshly caught trout) and can help out on the farm if they wish, herding the sheep from orchard to pasture and back again.
Hood River Hotel, 102 Oak St., Hood River; 800-386-1859. Recently renovated, this Victorian box sits right in the middle of downtown Hood River.
Columbia Gorge Hotel, 4000 Westcliff Drive, Hood River; 800-345-1921. This big 1920s hotel, just west of downtown Hood River along Interstate 84, has both river views and historic glamour.
Where to eat
Downtown Hood River is dense with cafes, brewpubs, pizzerias, bakeries and restaurants.
South Bank Kitchen, 404 Oak St., Hood River; 541-386-9876. Stop here to pick up ready-made sandwiches (roast beef with horseradish on ciabatta) and baked goods (chocolate banana bread) for a picnic lunch on the Loop.
Elliot Glacier Public House, 4945 Baseline Drive, Parkdale; 541-352-1022. At the southern end of the Loop, this brewpub (try one of the three types of burritos) has a rotating roster of several housemade brews on tap. Get a sampler (six small pours, from light to dark) or a mug of the homemade root beer and sit out back by the meadow for the view of looming Mount Hood.
Celilo Restaurant and Bar, 16 Oak St., Hood River; 541-386-5710. Nobody in town does gourmet, elegant and locally sourced food as well as Celilo. This is the place to go to taste the best the region’s farmers, ranchers and vintners have to offer.
Before you hit the road, pack these U-pick essentials.
Footwear: Sandals aren’t allowed on orchard ladders. Don’t even ask about high heels.
Gear: You’ll need buckets and bags at the very least; a cooler with ice is a good idea on a hot day.
Dough: Many of the farms accept only cash or local checks. Some U-pick operations might not have anyone around when you stop by, asking only that you weigh and pay for what you pick on the honor system.
Map: Bring your Fruit Loop map (PDF), available at the Hood River County Visitors Council, hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, and all 36 Loop stops. You’ll need it.