The Mount Hood Timberline Trail

We camped in the shadow of the mountain and a split rock on our first night.
We camped in the shadow of the mountain and a split rock on our first night.

After spending a few days sight-eating-and-drinking in Portland, we were ready to head back to the wilderness. We picked the Timberline Trail, a ~40 mile loop around Mt. Hood through forests, alpine meadows, and alpine vistas. The mountain is about 90 miles south-east of Portland. Camping on the trail is dispersed, so you can set up anywhere, though preferably in an established spot. We took three days to complete the trail. While challenging, the views were stunning and the terrain was highly varied as you loop up and down the mountain over ridges and through streams. It was one of the best hikes we’ve done so far on the trip. Just look at this face:

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Since this was such a great hike, it turned into a very long blog post. You can jump to: Trail Basics, Mt. Hood General Activities, or Our Trip.

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The Trail – Basics:

TLT_Rough_MapThe trail weaves in and out of the timberline, ranging in elevation from about 3,500 feet to 7,300 feet high. Permits are needed and available via self-registration at the trail heads. There are no fees for access. We purchased a map from the gift shop of the ski lodge for $12, and left our car parked at the Timberline Lodge overnight area of the parking lot.

Adam really appreciated that this park was largely unsupervised, so we were responsible for your own plan, safety, and enjoyment.

Officially, a section of the Timberline Trail has been closed since a 2006 wash out at Eliot Crossing. The current version of the topographic hiking map published in 2012 does not include the 5-mile section which goes from Coe Creek crossing to Cloud Gap. Fortunately for ambitious hikers like us, there are high-level maps posted on some trail heads and the path to the washout is well trod and easy to follow.  Crossing, however, is another story. We have heard that there are ropes in place a few hundred yards upstream from the path, as described here and here, but we did not do our research well ahead of time and just attacked the washout straight on.

TLT01_MeltingGlacier

As the trail winds up and down the mountain, you pass through a number of different terrains: glaciated ridges at the top, that become sandy rock-strewn plains lower down, green meadows, and thick forests.  You cross snow, ice, rivers, creeks, streams and waterfalls. Some of these are small trickles and others are raging rivers.

As with most loops, you can attack the trail from either direction. We went clockwise from the lodge, but in retrospect, I would have preferred to go counterclockwise, since we would have avoided a sandy, brutal final ascent to the lodge, and we would have faced the Eliot crossing only 15 miles in, rather than 25. We also would have hit Paradise Park last, which was a pretty area that would be good for a final night of camping had we gone the other direction.

Mount Hood – General Activities: 

In addition to the Timberline Trail, there were a lot of other hiking trails around and up the mountain. You can’t get to the top without ice climbing gear, but there are walkable spurs and trails to viewpoints along the way.

Additionally, you can ski year round at the Mt Palmer snowfield, and you can also bike, whitewater raft, kayak, camp and fish in the Mt. Hood area.

We saw some fun new wildflowers and a bullfrong hanging out in one of the slow moving creeks.
We saw some fun new wildflowers and a bullfrog hanging out in one of the slow-moving creeks.

Our Route:

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Leaving the Timberline Lodge and heading clockwise, we hiked about 5 miles the first day, not including a two-hour, ~3 mile detour up and down the side of the mountain due to terrible navigation. (Yes, this inspired the how not to get lost post.)   We camped just past the Paradise Park by Split Rock, in an incredibly windy spot after dark and in the morning. The second day, we hiked 15 miles to Elk Prairie, and camped there in a nice wooded spot with a good number of mosquitos. On our third day, we hiked 20 miles over 11 hours and then camped at the Best Western in Mt. Hood.

Our Story:
TLT1_LeslieStart

We arrived at the Timberline Lodge at about 1 pm on a Tuesday. It was a little surprising to see skiers everywhere on a beautiful summer day. Having just come from Portland and made a grocery stop, we proceed to take almost everything out of the car and spread it out in the parking lot in order to repack our backpacks for the trip. I will spare you these gory details about gear and food and packing (for now!)

TLT1b_AdamEarlyWe came into this hike pretty unprepared, so we spent some time wandering up to the lodge to find a topographic hiking map and complete our self-registration permits. The permit registration form asked for information about your hikers, gear, route, and preparation taken. This form would be more important for those taking the summit route, where snow and ice increase the complexity and danger. There were numerous signs stating that no one will try to rescue you based on these forms alone, instead, a member of your party or your emergency contact would need to report you missing. After texting our plan to my emergency contact, (Thanks, Dad!), we were ready to take off.

...
Our first snow field, where in typical form, Adam went over while I walked around.

 

What went wrong?
What went wrong?

The first 2-3 mile segment of the trail was quite moderate. It winds its way under a few ski lifts. We did get lost here at about mile 4, when we completely lost ourselves and began hiking up a side mountain trail instead of continuing on the path. We should’ve known in a number of ways that we were off – we reached the crossroad at least 30 minutes too early, there was no trail sign, the hike pretty quickly became very steep and overgrown, and the general cardinal direction didn’t really match up. However, it took us almost an hour of traveling up, before we lost the trail and figured this all out. I bit the dust a few couple of times on the way down. Not how you want to start a trip.

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Sometimes when things aren’t going well on the hike, I find Adam grabs the camera and starts taking more pictures because that is usually one way to make me smile. This was one of those times

 

After getting back to the correct path, we continued on our merry way towards Paradise Park. This part of the trail is relatively flat. We came to our first real stream of the trip, too, where we spent a little time wandering up and down the bank looking for a spot to cross. This one was pretty easy, and we were able to hop from rock to rock without even getting our feet wet.
TLT4_AdamFirstX

From there, we entered Paradise Park. This area is full of meadows and waterfalls, all with great views of Mt Hood.  It was about 6pm by this point, and we had read that was one of the most beautiful areas of the hike, so we started keeping an eye out for a spot to camp. We found a spot near a large lonely boulder before too long. I was a little worried that we had only covered 5 miles of the 40 mile loop, but we figured if we didn’t get far enough on the second day, we could always just turn around.  We also had plenty of food if we needed to stretch out the trip to four days.

TLT5_CampSplitRock

While our campsite was a good bit breezy in the evening, the wind picked up substantially overnight and into the morning. Yes, you’ve heard this story before on the blog. We broke camp in a hurry and hustled down the mountain. Adam promised we could stop for early elevensies and have coffee then.

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It’s hard to tell from this photo but that water is fast and cold.

The Sandy River was one of our more challenging crossings. The water was very cold and the current was fast. We didn’t see any good rock paths, so Adam tried it first barefoot with a big walking stick. When that seemed to work, he did it again with his pack, and then I came over with mine. It was slow and tough going fighting for footholds against the water. I was terrified one or both of us would end up in the river and soak our pack and sleeping bag.

Ramona Falls
Ramona Falls

After that crossing and coffee break while our feet returned to normal temperature, the trail led us into the forest and we soon came to Ramona Falls, 10 miles into the total trip. The next section was an area that was burned out a few years ago, leaving dead white trees everywhere.

We did get lost once again in another meadow area of the trail where there’s a very well-trod side path next to the less well-trod real path. Once we ran out of path though in the woods, we backtracked to the cross roads and met some hikers who confirmed that yes, the path was very confusing, and the second trail was the right one to get back to the Vista Ridge trail.

TLT_BurnedForestSection

From there, we wound our way across the NW corner of the mountain along the trail, and eventually came to a stop for the night in the forest near the Elk Creek Meadow in a wooded spot that was largely sheltered from the wind.  Although grassy meadows look like good camping, they are usually a little soggy and spongy, and they are also ecologically delicate, so we avoided those. There are signs all over the mountain reminding you to avoid these areas. After our 15 mile hike, we were asleep before the sun set at 9 pm.

Some areas of the trail were narrow.
Some areas of the trail were narrow.
Just penciling in our course here...
Just penciling in our course here…

On our third hiking day, we planned to cover the section of the trail from where the trail crosses with Pinnacle Ridge to Coe Creek and then to Cloud Cap Camp. Unfortunately, that part of the trail includes the crossing at Eliot, which is washed out, and therefore our topographic map excluded about 5 miles of trail that’s technically been closed since 2006. I was worried about two things here – first that we wouldn’t be able to follow the trail at all and have to head roughly southeast until we found the other side, and second that we would get to Eliot, be unable to cross, and then need to circle back the full 25 miles we’d already covered.

A gentle forest obstacle.
A gentle forest obstacle.

Fortunately, my first fear was unfounded, because the trail was very well trod through the forest from Coe to Eliot. Unfortunately, the crossing deserved every bit of worry because a giant section of the mountain was missing. Mt Hood is has many glaciers, and in 2006, a big chunk of ice, rock and dirt washed out. What’s left there is a soft, sandy, gravelly crevasse, which is challenging to go up and down. We hadn’t passed anyone on the trail who had successfully made the crossing, and our best guidance was from a hiker online who said you could go up the mountain, cross the glacier, and then come back down to cross the path. At this point, if there are any ogre mothers or grandmothers reading the blog, please just go find a different post!

TLT_DontDoIt
When we got close to Eliot Crossing, we passed this faded sign in the woods.

We followed the trail as long as we could, and it got extremely overgrown down to the washout. We reached a point where there was no more trail, at which we were still probably 100 feet above the river below. Backtracking, we did find a place that looked less steep and with more large boulders that we thought we could make it down. The path up on the other side looked less steep and more manageable.

Fortunately, not only did we make the climb, we took turns taking pictures. TLT_adamDescent

This was the stupidest thing we’ve done so far on the trip. Spoiler alert – we did make it down, across the river, and up without incident, but it was a little dicey. Adam went first on the first 25 feet or so of the scramble, leaving me at the top of the cliff with our packs. All the surfaces we climbed were relatively unstable, so half the surfaces we touched sent bits of rock, sand and gravel down the cliff.

Once Adam made it about half way down and to a good stopping point, I tied our packs onto a rope and gently lowered them down to him. Ha ha! No I didn’t, I heaved them over the mountain and jerked them around when they got stuck on things, collecting rocks in the outside pockets of the packs and losing some peanut butter snack crackers in the process.

It's less steep from the bottom.
It’s less steep from the bottom. Can you find me in this pic?

Then, with the packs safely with Adam, I scrambled down to join him. It was slow going, and not helped by the fact that all the gravel and rocks I was kicking lose were bouncing down towards Adam. From there, the cliff went from very steep to only pretty steep, so we were generally able to scoot down to the bottom.

Of course, getting down was only a third of the problem. From there, we had to travel about 100 yards downstream to get across and then get back up. This walk was treacherous because we traversed big sharp stones that had all been deposited by the washout or later by the snow and glacier. Despite being large stones, many of these rocks were wobbly and unsteady. They were real ankle breakers waiting to happen, so we went slowly and tried not to stand directly above or below each other and in the line of fire.  The river crossing wasn’t too bad once we found a flat spot, and from there we found a moderate scramble back up the mountain on the other side. I was so relieved when we got back to the plant line, above the washout, because the ground was much more firm and the rocks were largely stable.

TLT_Idiots

It wasn’t until we were almost back to the lodge and ran across three others backpacking that we learned there were ropes for rappelling up and down just a few hundred yards upstream of where we had crossed. Once we knew what to look for, this information was easier to find on the internet as well. Next time, before heading into a known trouble spot like this, we will do our homework better. As I’ve mentioned before, our phone service rarely works in parks or on mountains. While this is generally a good thing, it does make just-in-time planning impossible.

On the other side of the Eliot crossing, we arrived at Cloud Cap Camp, a small campground with picnic tables, a value toilet and a water pump. After our escapade, we were thrilled with these amenities.

This was about the point when we started thinking about completing the hike on the third day. We knew that would be a total distance of ~20 miles, including a few potentially time consuming river crossings. This was at noon, with about 14 miles left to go, and at our usual pace that meant we’d get to the parking lot at 7 pm at earliest. Of course we could stop pretty much anytime to camp, and sunset wasn’t until 9 pm, so that part wasn’t a particularly risky decision for our health, just potentially for our sanity.

Once we left Cloud Cap, we spent about 2 miles going up a sandy hill, which was definitely the worst part of the trail. It didn’t help that this was in the post-lunch stiff-muscle food-coma heat-of-the-day time period, so I handled it with my typical style and plodded up the mountain at the slowest pace possible that could still be called forward movement.TLT_AdamGnarl

TLT_LeslieGnarlFortunately, that path flattened out after a while and then became one of the most awesome parts of the trail, as we started to cross snow fields and parts of the glacier on the Gnarl Ridge Trail.

Near the highest elevation on the Timberline Trail.
Near the highest elevation on the Timberline Trail.

 

We passed one hiker with skis on his back, he’d hiked to the top and then coasted down. The rock cairns at this part of the trail were giant hills of rock with small logs popping out, so you’d be able to see them over a few feet of snow.  Adam loved this part of the hike because of the otherworldy terrain. I thought it was fun because Adam’s boots have no traction left, and he was much more slow and clumsy than usual. There aren’t many times in life that happens, so I really enjoyed watching him struggle through the snow, fall a few times, and even take the long way so he wouldn’t go sliding down the snow. This was the highest elevation portion of the trail, about 7,300 feet, and the views were stunning.

 

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After climbing up and around to the top edge Gnarl Ridge, we hiked along that formation for a few miles. After making such slow progress around the mountain at lower elevations, it was very satisfying to see how quickly we were circling the top of the mountain. The whole trek would’ve been a lot shorter if we could have just done it up at 7,000 feet instead!

Unfortunately, we soon came to another giant canyon in the mountainside and sound found ourselves heading back down the mountain. There, we snaked in and out of the woods, until finally we reached our last significant crossing of the trip, at the White River. This was another area that looked as if it had been washed out at some point in the past. The river was in the middle of a very wide and flat crevasse, with very little plant life. The trail through here was soft and sandy and terrible. We were also nearing exhaustion for our final river crossing, leading to this….

TLT_BeachedWhale
Just made it. Believe it or not this was an extremely successful crossing.  It’s hard to get up once you get down under your pack.

 

The last 2-3 miles of the trail returned us to civilization. We saw ski lifts and the access road as we climbed back through meadows and around one final ridge.

After a day like this, we were feeling too tired to find a campsite for the night so we grabbed a room at the Best Western in Government Camp and hit up the Mount Hood Brewery for celebratory beverages and burgers. The food, service, and beers were only just adequate, so I would definitely recommend an alternate location if you are in the area.

Overall, this was a really fabulous hike. We handled the Eliot crossing in a very stupid way. Good specific hiking information can be hard to find on internet, and it wasn’t until we met some people on the trail after the crossing that we realized there were ropes in place.  Next time, I will route-plan far better for a trail like this to ensure we’re not putting ourselves in such an unnecessarily dangerous position.

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Ok, one last thing. I compiled the distances and approximate elevations of points on the trail just in case someone else wants to be better planned than we were. Here it is!

From (To next Row)X means crossroads withDistanceto next CrossingTotal Dist.Est. ElevationComments
Timberline Lodge0.60.66,000
X Mountaineer Trail0.71.36,000
X Hidden Lake Trail2.23.55,700
Paradise Park Loop Trail1.04.55,000
Trail 778 Crossing1.56.05,700Camped along here 1st night
X PCT Trail 2000 / Trail 6003.59.55,400
X Trail 600 (To Ramona Falls)0.510.0
Ramona Falls0.710.73,500
X Yocum Ridge Trail 7710.711.43,900
Crossroads at Bald Mt.4.816.24,400
X McGee Creek Trail0.716.94,400
X Cathedral Ridge Trail2.319.25,600
Cairn Basin0.719.95,600
X Vista Ridge Trail1.121.05,750
X Pinnacle Ridge Trail0.321.35,500Camped here night 2
Coe Crossing / End of Trail Map1.522.85,150
~ to Cloud Cap (not on Map)3.426.25,900
X Tilly Jane1.427.65,600
X Gnarl Ridge Trail3.731.35,650Goes up to about 7,200 in the middle (highest trail point)
Along Gnarl Ridge Trail1.132.45,600
X Newton Creek Trail3.335.75,100
X Umbrella Falls2.338.05,800
X PCT1.539.55,350
Timberline Lodge6,000Phew! Made it!

8 thoughts on “The Mount Hood Timberline Trail”

  1. Wow. I’m feeling a combination of exhilaration, envy, awe, and relief! Your pictures are amazing. Your story is great. Your guts/stupidity know no bounds! Looks like fun – glad you have that emergency contact. xo

  2. Great stuff, very inspiring and interesting thanks for continuing to create this blog. Hope you enjoy the 4th of July . All the best. CIC

  3. Thanks so much for your play-by-play of the circumnavigation! This is one of the more useful posts I’ve found about tackling this beast – this circular beast that actually looks more like a Pac-Man (what with the piece missing). I say this mainly because most of the information I’ve read has been written by the more ‘gung-ho’ – ‘this-ain’t-no-thing’ – ‘I-don’t-see-what-you’re-whining-about’ type individual that likes to sprint it. …this is not me. I think I’m more like you.

    I’ve been toying with the idea of trying this over a 4-day weekend, though all attempts point me in the direction of doing it solo. …that missing piece makes me nervous. You’re descriptions and reports make it sound more reasonable, though I’d love your input on how either (any?) of you would have felt to do it on your own. Thoughts? I’d love to hear ’em!

    Thanks again – great job! Cheers!…

    Jason

    1. Hi Jason, thanks so much for the comment. The pacman part was still the silliest thing we did all summer. We thought we would run into someone who had done it, we just didn’t find them until we passed the spot. They said there were ropes up at a safer crossing. I think it’s described here: http://www.oregonhikers.org/field_guide/Eliot_Creek_Crossing If we did it again, and I hope we do sometime, I’d try to find the ropes before doing what we did. If ibwere solo, I might also hike the loop CCW so you hit this part when you’re 15 miles in rather than 25 and could turn back if it really looked ugly, and maybe bring an extra rope to get you down. The biggest thing I was worried about was falling and hurting an ankle/knee, but Cloud Cap is pretty close as a place you could get to and get help. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

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