Summer’s going to fade fast. We know it is.
So around here, we do our best to make the most of all that we can, even if it sometimes makes us a little rough around the edges. Case in point: A three-day weekend on Mount Hood at the close of the first week of school.
We headed to a favorite area near the Sandy River and Zigzag, which was super crowded but not entirely crammed. It served as our home base for the weekend, which found us doing everything from picking early huckleberries, shooting BB guns and exploring a now-off-limits Sandy River beach to taking in “The Princess Bride” at Mt. Hood Meadows, hiking Tamanawas Falls and enjoying a tribute to the Grateful Dead at Timberline Lodge during their annual Mountain Music Fest.
The weather was amazing, the mountain bare but scenic and all of us having an escape that we’ll be thinking about once all this sunshine fades and we’re bundled up inside on a sofa in late January.
A few photos to illustrate the weekend:
Four years ago, we saddled up and took the kids, then six and two, up to one of our favorite spots on Mount Hood — Cooper Spur.
Back then, Madeline was a little less jaded about uphill hikes, and Spencer? Well, he had it pretty easy at the time, hitching a ride on my back and cruising in relative comfort.
This summer, we decided to head back to our spot on Cooper Spur. It might have been a little harder on Madeline, and Spencer may have had to motor up on his own two legs, but they did it just fine. Like I noted when we did it the first time around, it wasn’t always easy. But the weather, the views, the company, and the fact that Spencer hiked with me all the way to the end of the Cooper Spur day hike made anything that seemed at all hard all the more worth it.
We’ll be back to Cooper Spur, I’m sure.
A rare sunset shadow cast on the cloud layer above, which almost makes it seem like the mountain might be erupting.
Spence making his way up Cooper Spur with a smile.
Topping out at about 8,500 feet on Cooper Spur.
Down we go.
Anyone who’s hiked the Timberline Trail in its entirety in the past eight years or so knows that crossing the Eliot Creek on the north side of the mountain can be a bit dicey. That’s because a massive debris flow in November 2006 wiped out the established crossing, which for years had been susceptible to the mountain’s fancies anyway.As a result, the Forest Service closed the crossing, officially, if not exactly completely, rendering an uninterrupted circuit of the mountain impossible.
The closure, however, didn’t stop people from crossing the creek; it just forced them to find other ways to get across, usually heading high up onto the Eliot Glacier or dropping way down one side of the unstable moraine, crossing the icy cold creek, and then heading back up the other side.
It’s doable if a bit dangerous. We did it in 2013 and found the approach to be the most difficult part. Crossing the actual creek was frigid, but all in all it wasn’t any more difficult than some of the other creeks and rivers along the 41 miles of the trail.
Now, however, the Forest Service is looking for a fix. Original plans called for a pretty substantial suspension bridge across the Eliot, but those have, thankfully, been dropped. Plan B is a reroute of about 1.5 miles of the Timberline Trail. The new leg would head west from the Cloud Cap Saddle Trailhead and switchback down to the Eliot. There are no plans for a bridge at this new crossing, so hikers would still have to find their own way across the creek. The lower elevation of the crossing, however, would theoretically make for a better if not safer crossing than higher up.
As part of these plans, the Forest Service is also proposing the removal of existing segments of trail that have for years led to the washout crossing on both sides of the moraine. The eastern portion of that trail is actually a fantastic alternate route for going up or coming down the Cooper Spur Hike, as it affords incredible views out over the Eliot and up the north face of Hood. To lose that option would be unfortunate, even though it would probably still hang around as an unofficial footpath.
The Forest Service is currently accepting comments on its plans for the Timberline Trail, but only until 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30, so if you have thoughts to share, now’s the time to do it. They can be emailed to Casey Gatz in the Hood River Ranger District at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the project is also available here.
It’d been two years since we had stood there together, high on the northeast shoulder of Mount Hood near the stone shelter at Cooper Spur. The first time was day three of a circuit around the mountain on the Timberline Trail and we’d just made a pretty epic crossing of Eliot Creek. Then, though, we’d already been hoofing it for a few hours and still had another five or six miles to knock off before we could call it a day — and not all that much sunlight left before the day would be called for us.
We — myself and my writerly friends Mark Pomeroy, John Morrison, Joanna Rose and Morrison’s son, Jackson, the Stubborn Writers — stumbled into a darkening camp that night back in 2013, spent and hungry and barely able to enjoy a cocktail and a fantastic pasta dinner before crashing. We’d hiked hard that day, all four days of the trek, actually, and it felt like we didn’t really get to soak in Cooper Spur or Gnarl Ridge the way we should have.
So this summer, we went back. Only this time, we took it relatively easy, hiking briefly up from Cloud Cap Saddle Campground, finding a site and setting up a base for two nights.
And up there, with no real schedule, no set number of miles to log to make sure we were winding our way around the mountain in decent time, we were able to relax, to gaze at the sunset and watch lenticular clouds flow over Mount Rainier and Mount Adams, to ponder Jim Harrison, to spend time there, together, high up on Mount Hood again.
Sunset and dinner.
Breakfast and Jim Harrison.
A stroll over to Gnarl Ridge.
Lunch and Gnarl Ridge and Newton Creek.
A panorama from a solo hike up to Tie-In Rock on Cooper Spur.
Mark laughing big on Mount Hood in 2015.
Mark (and the rest of us) laughing big on Mount Hood in 2013 at the end of the Timberline Trail.
It is a spell that comes once you’ve finished walking all the way around Mount Hood. I’ve experienced it twice now, and I’m pretty sure that’s the right word for it. A spell.
When you are done, or maybe just before, as you’re swinging one foot in front of the other for the last quarter mile or so before you get close enough to Timberline Lodge to start crossing paths with folks out for a leisurely stroll, you are in a mental and, really, a physical place that belongs only to you and those who are there with you. This is your mountain. This has been your four-day, 41-mile trek. The rest were not part of this experience. As much as you may want a cold beer and a hot meal, you don’t want to hear the cars, see the iPhone-locked gazes, think about the work and the responsibility and the real world that awaits.
You want, instead, to drop your pack in the parking lot and crumple to the asphalt. You want to listen, all of you together, to the ice that is somehow still slushing around in the cooler and taste the cold Tecate. You want to prolong the sensation that you’re still on the Timberline Trail, under that spell, and so, even though it is bound to break at some point, you do.
By the time I set my foot on the Timberline Trail just behind Timberline Lodge again in August 2013, it had been eight years since Amy and I set out on the very same trip back in 2005. Not the exact same trip, though. One thing I realized after the second time around: you’ll never have the same experience on the Timberline Trail, no matter how many times you do it.
This one came about thanks to Portland writer Mark Pomeroy, a lifelong Mount Hood fan who’d connected with me after reading On Mount Hood when it first came out in 2011. At work on a novel set largely on the mountain himself, Mark invited me early to accompany him on a circuit of the mountain along with a few other writers: poet John Morrison and novelist and writing teacher Joanna Rose, someone I’d gotten to know through Brave on the Page.
When Amy and I finished the Timberline Trail in 2005, it felt like something I’d crossed off my list, that I’d never need to do again. But in Mark’s invite, there was a pull to revisit that I couldn’t resist.
We set out on August 24, an incredible summer day on Mount Hood — but not as a team. I’d been invited to a book signing event at Timberline the same day, so my plan was to catch up with the crew at the first night’s campsite along the Sandy River. Morrison’s 21-year-old son, Jackson, who joined in as well, had accidentally grabbed the wrong boots that morning. I picked up the right ones for him before I left Portland, and after the book event, he and I set out.
We got a late start, not hitting the trail even until 3 p.m., so we hoofed it but still took in so much: incredible scenery, stories from friendly PCT and Timberline hikers, unreal moments of natural beauty. A few of the latter, before we met up with the crew on the other side of the Sandy River:
The beginning of day two dawned cloudy and heavy, not like a normal August morning in Oregon. But on the mountain, you never know. Breakfast and breakdown got us on the trail a little later than we’d idealized, but at that point, we had the whole day in front of us: Ramona Falls, the Muddy Fork, McNeil Point, Cairn Basin.
I’d not been back to Ramona Falls in years. It was every bit as majestic as I remembered. We stopped to fill our water bottles and soak it in. Morrison chose just the right word to describe the falls: luminescent.
The first 7 or so miles that we initially set out to hike that second day were quiet and enjoyable. We clambered across the Muddy Fork on a huge double-tree bridge and broke for the first of many canned meats just after the first sprinkles had started then stopped.
Our lone glimpse of the mountain for the day came just before we hit McNeil Point. By then, the rain had stopped altogether, and it felt good to take a load off and gaze up, even though it wasn’t the most comforting of mountain views.
Now, I have been in the rain before. Light drizzles, sudden downpours, one 24-hour deluge in the Gorge that sent Amy and me running for the car. I have been in whiteouts, too, wandering around Mount Adams for hours in search of camp, knowing that I was on the summit of Mount McGloughlin only because I had a GPS in hand. But the elements that blasted us on the Timberline Trail over the next 12 hours were among the most trying I’ve been through outside.
The cold rain started just beyond McNeil Point. It came down easy at first but soon soaked and chilled. There was a distant clap of thunder that we tried to ignore. We passed a big group crossing Ladd Creek who looked like they’d had enough already. On the other side of the creek, we topped our waters and pressed on, yet to be stifled by this tightening storm. The whipping wind, the chill, the water, it always has a way of invigorating me. Such conditions engage the senses so acutely that you can’t help but feel completely alive. Throw in the eerie scenery created by the fog and the remnants of the Dollar Lake fire, and the entire experience became nearly surreal.
No worries, however, as we were close to the stone shelter at Cairn Basin where, if we were lucky, we’d be able to step out of the rain, fire up the stoves, and regroup. It should have showed up any minute there as we marched on and on.
It never did.
When we stopped at the next trail junction and finally lifted our heads up, we realized we’d plowed right past Cairn Basin without ever seeing the shelter. By then, we were a mile beyond it.
Gigantic thunder clap.
Cold, soaked, and nervous, there was nothing to do but power on to Elk Cove and hope for the best.
We knocked off the mile-and-a-half or so to Elk Cove in relative silence — I think Morrison and Joanna maybe were chatting about the meter of some line in some poem — and in no time came to the sign I remembered directing us left to the campsites off in the woods on the edge of the meadow. Ideal thoughts of a couple empty sites sheltered by fir bows deflated as we strolled up to find two other campers already buttoned up in what should have been our spots. We chatted briefly, scoured the surrounding area for a plan B, then came back and, in so many words, crashed the party.
Thankfully our hosts, Angela and Heather, were incredibly inviting and accommodating, sharing not only stories but hot chocolate and hand warmers as we rushed to set up our tents in the pouring rain and swelling puddles. There would be no dinner that night, no cocktail hour, no star gazing. I know my main goal was to get out of the rain and get dry. It was not an easy thing to do. My pack was soaked, as was just about everything in it: sleeping bag, long underwear, fleece. I for some reason have always scoffed at the pack cover, but there in my soggy tent, with a damp and heavy sleeping bag and a fleece that felt like it’d just come out of a washing machine, I saw the light. My night — all of our nights — would have been a lot different if we’d had them.
We didn’t, though, and so we spent 12 wet, cold hours wishing for a little relief from the morning and catching soggy fits of sleep. I have spent many a night outside, and I can say with full certainty that this was one of the very worst I have ever endured. I am usually one to accept and endure, to find something positive to see me through. On this night, I just about surrendered and accepted the despair. Just about.
They may not know it, but Heather and Angela helped save the day for us. Their willingness to let us crash their space, their eagerness to share advice and hot drinks and friendly voices — I never even saw the friendly face that matched Angela’s sweet voice until she unzipped her tent the next morning — added the best possible end to the afternoon that we could have hoped for. Sometimes, a little unexpected optimism and some stripped down, genuine human interaction is all it takes to persevere.
Thankfully, day three dawned dry and, though not normal Oregon August, blue enough here and there to allow a regroup.
Dried out as best as we could be, we hit the trail that morning an hour or so behind Heather and Angela, glad for the sun breaks and scenery. From Elk Cove east, the Timberline Trail winds endlessly in toward the mountain, over streams, back out over a ridge, and back in again, over and over. It’s repetitive, but it’s a kind of sameness that’s not hard to appreciate.
Though the weather was much more promising than it had been the day before, something else weighed on my mind, adding a touch of dread and uncertainty to the day: the Eliot Creek crossing. Back in 2005, the bridge over the creek had long been washed out, but getting across the creek was still manageable. But in 2006, a massive washout rearranged the terrain up there so much that the Forest Service rendered it off limits, thus eliminating any legal way of completing the entire Timberline Trail without setting up some lame car shuttle and bypassing the off-limits section.
But as the years passed, reports sprouted up that the crossing was again doable. Some said to go up high onto the Eliot Glacier itself to cross; others shared pictures of ropes down into and up out of the gully. Some hikers made it sound like it was no big deal; some turned back because they couldn’t make it across. Had we encountered something that turned us around, we had no plan B other than to stop and hoof it back to Timberline.
What we found when we finally made it to the edge of the crossing was not very encouraging.
Beyond that sign, however, was a very prominent trail, and it led (at least it did in August of 2013) very steeply to the way across the Eliot. We trudged up and up till a small clearing to the left revealed one of the rumored ropes illuminating the way down. Picking our way down one at a time took a while — the rock and scree are so loose that to descend in a group would invite unnecessary danger — and finding the right place to actually cross the creek added some time. In the end, however, crossing the Eliot was possibly more time-consuming than some of the other crossings, but it seemed no more perilous than anything else we did on the entire trail. That said, I crossed the actual creek three times to help shuttle packs, and I can safely say that no mountain stream has ever chilled my feet to the point of numbing pain the way the water of the Eliot did.
Instead of sticking to the Timberline Trail up out of the Eliot, we trudged up the incredible ridge on the creek’s east side, an exposed, amazing spine that puts the glacier and the mountain in full perspective. Up high, you can cross-country it over to the stone shelter below Cooper Spur, merge back in with the Timberline Trail, and head on around the northeast side of the mountain on your way to Gnarl Ridge.
Breaking out onto the ridge gave us a taste of some burly, frigid winds. When, not a few minutes earlier, we had been stepping along in still air, now the winds whipped and gusted like freight trains, knocking us off balance and drowning us in the sounds of ocean surf.
We ticked off 10 miles this day, ending up in a campsite just across Newton Creek at dusk. Heather and Angela were just off in the woods nearby. Despite the long and late day, Morrison immediately whipped up one of the best and most memorable backcountry meals I’ve ever had: pasta with wild mushrooms and a red sauce with red wine. Talk about comfort.
The final day’s hike was a warm and sunny one; mild initially in terrain, marked by some musical conversations, a joke about the Pope driving a cab, and a couple startled grouses scaring the bejeezus out of Mark — and giving the rest of us a nice, big laugh.
Lunch as we passed through Meadows. We’d carried the SPAM the entire way, so I insisted on opening it.
From there, it was on to White River, the last major river crossing, which was little more than a step or two across, but amazing nonetheless.
I’ve always related how the hike up from White River to Timberline, even though it’s just a couple miles, is the longest of the Timberline Trail because you can see Timberline Lodge, the cars in the parking lot, the people milling about, almost the entire way. But the elevation and the sandy terrain and the fact that you’re knocking off the last 2 miles of a 41-mile trail somehow make all that distance last and last. By that point, there wasn’t a whole lot of chitchat. More of a determined march to get those last steps behind us, take the packs off, and savor the accomplishment. I remember passing the first tourists out for a little stroll east of Timberline and catching their curious glances as we clopped by, smelly and set on nothing more than being done hiking for the day.
And then, as we stepped and stepped our way up to Timberline Lodge, we were done with hiking for the day. A few people milled about, heads drooped to their phones, and someone in our group asked if that’s all we’d been missing. Maybe we should just turn around and do it again.
We didn’t though. We posed for a picture. We closed in as a group on our walk back to the cars, not wanting to invite anyone else in to break the spell and to just prolong that sense that we all were sensing. We’d been gone just four days, but being back felt different just then; odd, and as if we’d been overseas, somewhere foreign, and were just getting back.
Morrison had iced Tecates in the car, but on our way back to them, we heard voices from across the parking lot. Angela and Heather. We’d just caught up with them.
Then it was to the car, the asphalt in the parking lot, then the bar in Timberline. Inside, it all seemed so loud, so unnecessary, so threatening to the spell. Because that’s what comes once you’ve finished walking all the way around Mount Hood.
Endnote: I publish this now, nearly two years later, as the stubborn writers and I head back up to Mount Hood this week for another escape, this one more measured, possibly less epic and, hopefully, much drier.
I may have fibbed just a little, telling them the hike to my favorite waterfall on Mount Hood was two easy miles.
But I figured the scenery along the way — the mountain views, the river, a stream or two — and the promise of just how majestic Ramona Falls truly is, would be enough to mask the real effort enough that my kids wouldn’t notice. The hike is actually closer to 3.5 miles one-way. In my defense, however, it’s been long enough since I’ve done it that I didn’t really remember. What I did recall was that the effort was more than worth it.
So we set out up the trail on a Sunday morning, before 11 a.m. because we’d camped at the McNeil Campground the night before. I worried a little about the Sandy River crossing, as not only had the Forest Service not yet installed the bridge for the season, but someone actually got swept away there last summer during a flash flood of sorts. Not one to risk too much, I knew we would turn around if it was at all unsafe.
But when we got to the crossing, a natural bridge, complete with a handrail, greeted us, and so we crossed.
Some mixed messaging on the signage led us to take the somewhat longer leg of the loop, though in retrospect I don’t think it’s all that much longer. It’s about 7 miles roundtrip one way, 6.8 the other. When you’re low on water and trying to convince a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old that the most amazing waterfall is not that much farther, though, it seems like much more.
Even so, when we at last rolled up on the falls, they got it.
The first time I ever hiked to Ramona Falls, my first Mount Hood backpacking trip back in 1998, I remember how incredible the water from the falls tasted. Like the newest snow. Back then, we had a filter with us; this time around, we didn’t. It was a gamble, but we had played up the water to Madeline too much not to indulge; we filled our water bottles straight from the falls. It tasted just as I remembered.
The hike down was longer than the kids would have liked, but I enticed them with ice cream and a return to Trillium Lake to catch newts.
That sealed the deal for them, so the belly aching on the way back down was minimal. And yes, we went back to Trillium to catch even more newts than we’d caught the day before, so to them, it was worth it.
I, personally, was just glad that they got to take in Ramona Falls. It truly is an incredible sight to see. Two years ago, when I passed it on the Timberline Trail with a few writer friends, one of them, John Morrison, had described it as luminescent. Exactly.
And when, a few days later, Madeline took a drink from her water bottle on the way to her horse riding lesson and said she could still taste Ramona Falls, I knew our hike had made its mark.
Because of the snow still piled on the Timberline Trail and the looming high clouds above, and just maybe because of the far-off thunder in the distance, I had my eyes focused on my GPS, which was supposed to be guiding us toward Dollar Lake, a tiny tarn tucked into the northwest shadow of Mount Hood. It’s a lake I’ve always wanted to explore but that in 18 years of traipsing all over the mountain, I never have. It’s not that hard to find, but it’s not super straightforward either. No matter, I had my GPS and we would find it.
“There’s a cairn right back there,” said my friend, Wyatt, pointing out a tidy pile of rocks marking a side trail that I’d just completely blown past, Hmmm. Yeah, that’s probably the way.
We’d decided to hike to Dollar Lake on Sunday as a way to have a cooling destination to counter the heat that’d been baking the metro region for the prior few days. Thanks to a quick change in the weather, we didn’t really need the cooling off, but we headed for Dollar Lake anyway, setting out up Hood’s Vista Ridge trail, one of the classic access points to the mountain’s northwest reaches.
The trail slopes up a scenic ridge marred by the 2012 Dollar Lake fire — marred, or rejuvenated, depending on how you look at it. There were just a few avalanche lilies on display.
Higher up, we ran into plenty of snow and some ominous clouds, but they were high and the mountain was out, so we pressed on, determined to find the lake.
The GPS pointed us in the right direction, and Wyatt’s keen observation found the trail up to the lake. It was just a ways beyond a sign that brought back a very clear memory from our hike on the Timberline Trail last year. I’ve not written about that yet, but it’s coming.
We thought the lake might have still been frozen over or buried in snow. It was, but only partially. In fact, the lingering snow and ice actually made it even more of a sight than we’d expected.
The views of the mountain from up near this little lake are also pretty amazing.
Oliver, too, seemed to enjoy it. I knew he would. He always does.
We didn’t tarry, though. Not only were the mosquitos happy to see what might very well have been their first meal of the season, but the looming clouds and thunder ceased to loom and actually started to rumble. There wasn’t much else we could do other than high-tail it back down the ridge to the car, where the lightning cracked, the hail pelted and the icy lagers refreshed.
Last summer, the morning that we kicked off our 2013 hike around Mount Hood on the Timberline Trail, I had a quick book signing event at Timberline Lodge with a few other mountain writers. One of those was Sonia Buist, a physician whose book, “Around & About Mount Hood: Exploring the Timberline Trail, Access Trails, and Day Hikes,” is one of the most detailed guides for the trail.
She’s giving a presentation on her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 2, for the Mazamas and has graciously invited me to share a few pictures and stories from our epic trip around the mountain last summer. The free event will be at the Mazama Mountaineering Center at 527 SE 43rd Ave.
If you’ve ever wanted to hoof all 41 miles of the Timberline Trail in a single backpacking trip or explore this classic trail in digestible segments, this night should provide information — and inspiration — aplenty.
Put in a few pretty miles on this classic year-round trail today. It’s the Salmon River Trail out in the shadow of Mount Hood – a great place for old-growth trees, pure alpine water and little hiking legs.
The details in case you want to do it:
It’s kind of interesting, to think of all the miles we’ve tread on and around Mount Hood — all the way around it, up to its summit, out to its waterfalls and up to its grandiose viewpoints — and realize that still, 16 years later, there’s plenty that we’ve not tread.
Case in point: the Mazama Trail, a roughly three-mile path that unfolds up one of the mountain’s most prominent spines, Cathedral Ridge, along its northwestern face. Apparently it was long a popular trail until the Forest Service found itself unable to maintain it in the mid 1980s. Luckily the Mazamas stepped in, got it back up to speed, and officially dedicated it in 1994 to celebrate the club’s 100th anniversary.
Oliver and I set out this past weekend to revisit an absolute trademark Mount Hood locale, McNeil Point, a prominent and scenic overlook that perches high up on the mountain’s northwestern side and affords overwhelming views of Hood, the Sandy Glacier, cascading waterfalls, St. Helens, Adams and Rainier on good days, and so much more. We’d been there before — a few times, actually — but it had been years. It had been too long.
Rather than take the more standard route up to McNeil, however, we decided to tread new ground on the Mazama Trail. It takes a little longer to drive to, but it’s much quieter — we were just one of two cars at the trailhead — and it also shares a different take on the route up to McNeil, especially since the Dollar Lake fire of 2011. Now, rather than pass through forests of fir, you slog up Cathedral Ridge and stroll through not only the remnants of the fire, but the beginnings of what’s next to come.
The fire had its way with the ridge, but that’s nature. And really, as much as I love big, tall trees, forest fires can make for some pretty fascinating hikes.
The big payoff for slogging up four-plus miles and a couple thousand feet of elevation, however, has nothing to do with the remnants of a forest fire. It’s all about the mountain when you get to McNeil Point, which is named for Oregon journalist Fred McNeil, a huge fan of the mountain, author of the 1937 classic, Wy’east The Mountain, and one of the inspirations behind my own Mount Hood book.
The view from here, the fresh air, the feeling, is not easy to describe. Unless you’ve been there yourself, I’d say imagination works best.
Sunday on McNeil Point was an immaculate day. Warm and breezy, sunny and blue, the day was just what you hope for — and expect, really — of a July day on Mount Hood. McNeil Point is a popular place, to be sure, but that’s a relative term. I crossed paths with maybe 15 people up that high, and all were there to simply enjoy the day. Oliver, too, despite the stiffness that would set in the next day, relished not only every inch he covered, but the hourlong respite we enjoyed up high.
Hard as it was to leave, we had to, so we set off back down from the point, down across some incredible and colorful alpine meadows, across a few snowfields, past a seasonal pond or two, and back down toward the ridge. Oliver cooled off in the snow and drank from the streams. I took it all in as much as I could, and kept turning around to get one more last glance of the mountain before we descended into the trees, back toward the rest of the world.
There’s no doubt about the views from atop Hood River Mountain.
The hike up this little hill just outside of downtown Hood River covers just under 2-miles roundtrip and goes up 600 feet or so pretty steadily. So it’s not going to blow you away in terms of exertion or exhaustion.
The view from up top, however, is another story.
Yet sometimes, despite the grand views like this, there are other, more subtle sights that can have just as big of an impact.
We hiked up to the top with the kids a few weeks ago, and even though the day was gorgeous, the flowers in bloom, the mountain and all of the Hood River Valley in big, full view, it just wasn’t enough to keep the little girl happy.
But then she started looking around a little more and found something much more enchanting than a jaw-dropping mountain view. And all of a sudden, Hood River Mountain became a much better place.
(Thinking this is a Western Fence Lizard; knowing that it is inside an empty Stack Wines glass — great for the trail!)
For starters, let me tell you this: It is completely possible to go backpacking on Mount Hood — or anywhere for that matter — with kids who are 2 and 6 years old.
Let me also tell you this: it is not easy.
And thirdly, I will say this: backpacking on Mount Hood with kids is not easy, but it is worth it. Entirely.
We started our recent excursion with a night up at the Cloud Cap Saddle Campground, where we explored the remnants of the Gnarl Ridge fire, which came close to roasting not only the campground but also the historic Cloud Cap Inn, the Snowshoe Club Cabin, and a few other irreplaceable gems back in 2008. Thankfully, crews back then were able to halt the fire just outside the historic structures while also allowing nature to run its natural course.
The next afternoon, we loaded up and started up the trail toward Cooper Spur, quite possibly the best day hike on all of Mount Hood. With Spencer on my back, heading above 30 pounds even before I added any gear and leaning this way and that, I do believe I can say I’ve carried the heaviest and most cumbersome pack I ever will. But the going was slow and steady, and eventually he fell asleep, which added a nice touch of stabilization.
Madeline’s gripes started about 15 minutes up the trail, but a little break and the promise of a stone fort just up ahead kept her spirits in check.
We made the camp site in decent time and set up for an evening of bouldering, sunset and mountain gazing, and simply soaking in the greatness that is life more than halfway up Mount Hood. It sounds relaxing and idyllic, and in a way it was, but let me also say that it was so nice to have an attentive aunt along for the ride.
The next morning, we set out for a little walk up the spur, knowing full well that not all of us would make it. The kids are troupers, to be sure, but all the way up Cooper Spur is not exactly a walk in the woods. It’s tough, it’s scrambling, and it’s a touch dangerous if you’re not completely careful. Even so, when I turned around with them at about 7,600 feet to head back down, I couldn’t help but think: Wow, how cool is that?
I wish I could say that every minute up on Hood was a smile and a grand view, but these pictures, they lie. Or at least they leave out the parts of the trip that weren’t incredible. The burden of the packs, the tantrums, the tumbles off the rocks, the spilled milk . . . But though we may remember those bits of this and any trip, there are other images, like those captured here, that we remember most, that make us smile in retrospect, entirely glad that we made the effort and the trip in the first place.
A few weeks ago, back before these hot and sunny days, back in mid July, when morning mist and clouds hung around far too long and blocked true summer’s appearance, my friend, Wyatt, and I headed east in search of some mountain sunshine. And we found it. Not, however, on Mount Hood.
Instead, we drove out of a Portland drizzle, Hood socked in behind a curtain of gray, and made our way over and up to the east side of Mount St. Helens. Up there, at Ape Canyon and all the way up to the Plains of Abraham — 13 miles roundtrip for us — we caught plenty of blue sky, sunshine, and giant if only partly cloudy views of the mountain.
The next weekend, it was still gray in town and there was April-like rain in the air. Still, we headed out, for if you only ventured out on clear, bluebird days, you’d surely be missing too much. This time, we headed to Hood and a standby favorite: Zigzag Mountain via Burnt Lake.
The clouds lifted once for a nice far-off view of the mountain about halfway up and then just again — just — before we topped out. (Look hard. It’s there.)
We didn’t get much else in terms of mountain views that day, but I’m not sure we really needed much more. Sometimes just being out and about, rambling in the hills, is more than enough.
Today, resident Mount Adams expert and photographer Darryl Lloyd sent out an interesting map of a unique and unofficial wildflower trail out in the Columbia River Gorge in between Hood River and the Dalles. I’ve never done it, myself, but it sounds pretty nice — and it’s got at least one incredible view of Mount Hood along it’s 6.5-mile way. Thanks for sharing Darryl!
The first time we did the beautiful Tamanawas Falls hike on the northeast side of Mount Hood, about seven years ago, our loads were a little lighter than they were this past weekend. Back then, it was just the two of us and a black lab puppy.
I remember the hike being pleasant enough, the falls pretty and natural. For some reason, though, what really stuck in my mind from that first time was a guy who had hiked the two miles back to the falls and was taking a break on the side of the trail. On his back was a pack full of his, I don’t know, maybe one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. At the time, I was pretty impressed and glad to see that he was still hitting the trail even though he had a little one in tow. It wasn’t an easy concept for me to grasp back then, pre-kids and all.
Not too long after that, however, I became that guy myself, heaving my daughter and then my son on my back to hit the trail at places like the Salmon River, Wind Mountain, and an all-time favorite, the beach near Bandon. Fast-forward a few more years, and the cycle’s progressed even a little further. The dog’s still bounding like he was in 2005, the boy’s still on my back at 2, but his big sister is now making her way down the trail and to the falls on her own.
The hike to Tamanawas Falls is a great one. Just under two miles one way and with less than 600 feet in elevation gain, the trail pretty much just ambles along the crystalline Cold Spring Creek through a quiet and, at times, dense fir forest. A couple stout log bridges make for easy stream crossings, and the cascading creek, towering trees, and easy, scenic terrain keep the mind on what’s important out in the wild. It’s an ideal Mount Hood hike for anyone looking to get out for a quick stretch of the legs and the senses. As I’ve come to learn over the years, it’s an even more ideal hike for those who are just learning how to stretch out their little legs and enjoy a walk in the woods.
When it comes to hiking, I’m ideally a fan of the alpine environment. I like to start out in the trees and hike up out of them, above timberline, to where the mountain views are widest. High up places like the Goat Rocks in Washington, Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, and on Mount Hood spots like Cooper Spur, McNeil Point and Gnarl Ridge, define my kind of a walk in the woods.
In the winter, however, a lot of the alpine country is much harder to access. And so, for hiking, we’re pushed downward to the river trails, maybe out to the Gorge or just east of the Cascades. This past weekend, we logged a few easy miles among the towering cedars and firs along the Salmon River trail in the Mount Hood National Forest, and while its views are much more subtle and understated than, say, the top of Old Snowy Mountain —
— it’s still among the best winter hiking to be found around Mount Hood. A few to consider:
- Salmon River Trail — An easy stroll along a beautiful and wild river — one of the only ones in the nation to be designated a Wild and Scenic River for its entire length — the Salmon River trail makes for a nice winter walk no matter the weather. It’s relatively flat, so it’s great for kids, and the moss-draped old growth Douglas firs and western red cedars that rise from the forest floor absolutely tower overhead, making you feel as if you’re walking through some kind of prehistoric era. The trail can be up to 7 miles long and there are lots of good places to stop for a break and turn around. To get there, take Highway 26 east from Portland to the town of Zigzag. Turn south on Salmon River Road and drive five miles to the trailhead on the left, just before a bridge over the river. More info.
- Hood River Mountain — This one’s a little ways away from the mountain, just outside Hood River, but its view of the peak and the entire Hood River Valley is simply jaw-dropping. Just three miles roundtrip and 600 feet up, Hood River mountain affords you a view that usually takes a lot more effort to attain. From Hood River, drive south on Highway 35 for just under a half-mile to East Side Road and turn left. According to Doug Lorain’s book, Afoot and Afield, “follow it 1.5 miles to the turnoff for Panorama Point County Park. Keep straight on East Side Road, and .4 mile after the park turnoff, turn left on Old Dalles Road. Drive east . . . for 2.1 miles to a saddle beneath a set of power lines. Park on the side of the road.” More information.
- Lower Creek Falls (Wash.) — Even farther from Mount Hood but still within reach for a day hike from Portland, Lower Creek Falls follows a serene Falls Creek, heads over a stunning suspension bridge, and tops out at the three-tiered Lower Creek Falls. Another great hike for kids and hounds. From Portland, head east on Highway 14 (in Washington) to milepost 47 and turn north toward Carson. Drive 14.5 miles on Wind River Road, pass the Carson National Fish Hatchery, and stay right on Wind River road for another 3/4 mile. Turn right on FS 3062 and drive 1.5 miles to the trail head. More information.
There is a place on the southern Oregon Coast where a cool Pacific breeze blows almost constantly off the steel-blue waters of the ocean, fanning out over fine brown-gray sand, bending and swaying long green blades of dune grass, brushing and bowling through stubby shore pines and tall inland Sitka spruce, reflecting off tawny sandstone cliffs that rise and tower over the wild shore. It is a place where purple and orange starfish and green anemones linger in salty tide pools, where seals spy and brown pelicans soar; a place where gray whales spout off in the distance and blue herons sail overhead.
Gazing from some lookouts, a near glimpse of the earth’s graceful curve; from others, waterfalls and crashing, foaming surf. There are occasional, subtle, tolerable signs of man: forest trails, colorful, far-off kite surfers, a small fishing boat, the clockwork pulse of the Cape Blanco Lighthouse under black skies spilling with stars.
Otherwise, this place, a sliver of shoreline south of Bandon near the tiny town of Langlois, is about as wild and as beautiful and as natural a place as is to be found along the entire Oregon Coast.
And yet, if commissioners from Curry County have their way, this place — it’s not hyperbole to summon the sacred here — would be cleaved and cleared, paved and pounded, planted with rough and greens, pocked with bunkers, soaked in poisons, manicured, homogenized and standardized, all in the name of a little white ball and a big green dollar bill.
Yes, the commissioners from Curry County, fearing for the solvency, maybe even the very existence, of the entire county, want to develop some of the most pristine and breathtaking land on the entire West Coast into . . . golf courses.
This so far informally proposed travesty came to my attention, coincidentally, on the very night that I returned home after an annual three-day backpack to this stretch of Oregon Coast with my family in late August. We’d just spent days in the sunshine, strolling the familiar sands — we’ve been coming back here for close to a decade — taking in the fresh ocean air, flying kites, slowing down, simplifying, refreshing. Late that night back at home, a headline in the Oregonian caught my eye. Its story dropped my jaw.
The short version: Curry County commissioners want to swap 68 acres of county land for 627 acres of Floras Lake State Natural Area, which has been part of the Oregon parks system since 1943. Through the swap, the county would create a new, 1260-acre county park. The land would be leased to a developer, who would then ransack it with two golf courses. One rendering shows a manicured green and two bunkers squarely on top of a dramatic sandstone plateau overlooking the Pacific. It is a landmark we know well.
The proposal also imagines an interpretive center — for what is a natural and scenic area without a center to interpret it? — and “improved” trails. Based on the county’s concept plan, that appears to mean paved.
All of this, the county supposes, would “create accessibility to public lands” and showcase “ecologically sound land management” and “preservation of native species.” It would also, in bold red letters, lead to “job creation” and “direct revenue for the general fund.”
To me, the entire idea is absolutely galling. Nonsense.
Thankfully, I am not alone. Public opposition seems to far outweigh support. Conservation groups such as the Kalmiopsis Audubon Society, the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, and the Portland-based Crag Law Center, all have lined up in opposition. And not only do people question the financial projections and oppose the destruction of this one-of-a-kind treasure, but there is a fishy odor in the air — and it’s not coming from the Pacific.
For months, the commission kept its proposal — and its work with potential developers — behind closed doors. In late June, the Oregon State Parks Department discovered 16 pits within the Floras Lake State Natural Area that had been illegally excavated with heavy equipment. The pits were discovered over an 8-mile section of trail between the southern edge of Floras Lake and Blacklock Point, which just so happens to be the area under consideration for development. No one seems to know who did it; as of today, Oregon State Police are still investigating.
This misguided proposal seems like a long shot for another reason, as well. According to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, projects that transfer state park property out of the park system are rare and must meet a high standard — providing “overwhelming benefits to the state park system.” This proposal does not meet that standard at all.
Still, the very fact that this idea is out there and that it’s being given official attention is, at the very least, troubling. It’s also an idea that you hear over and over again. Repackaged, maybe, but the gist is always the same: Develop — i.e. destroy — our most wild, pristine and beautiful places in the name of economic progress and increased access. It’s been tried on Mount Hood. It’s been suggested for Mount Adams. It’s come again now to the Oregon Coast.
Well, not this time. Not this wild, beautiful and scenic place. This one is too close to me. It’s too important. It is too much to lose.
Every time I come here, I am awed. We’ve been bringing our kids here practically every year since they were born. We will keep bringing them here, and one day — imagine — they may bring their kids here, too.
And it won’t be to play golf.
The Curry County Commission is holding an informational meeting at 5 p.m. today, Sept. 14, in Docia Sweet Hall of the Curry County Fairgrounds in Gold Beach. Members of the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Commission will be in attendance to hear details of the county park proposal.
Opposition comments can be submitted at any time to Chris Havel at the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department (email@example.com) and to Curry County Commissioners George Rhodes (firstname.lastname@example.org), Bill Waddle (email@example.com) and David Itzen (firstname.lastname@example.org).
It had been a long time since I’d been up to Gnarl Ridge on Mount Hood’s east side. Almost six years, to be exact.
In fact, the last time I was up there, Amy and I were coming around the mountain from Cooper Spur on day four of our trip on the Timberline Trail. It was the first time I’d really been up that high on that side of the mountain and taken in such a unique perspective of it. From up there, Hood is massive, sprawling and broad, not at all like the textbook spire you see from the west or north.
And if there’s a ridge more aptly-named than Gnarl Ridge on the entire mountain, I have yet to find it. Its craggy spine is littered with crumbling gray, black, and red volcanic rocks. Its steep southern edge ends in a sheer, unstable plunge hundreds of feet down to the canyon of Newton Creek below, and the stunted trees — whitebark pines — that cling to the ridge just at timberline have been ravaged by the wind and the snow up there. The live ones look perpetually bent and braced for the next gust; the dead ones, bleached and stark, look like boney hands reaching up out of the ground.
I ended back up on Gnarl Ridge this past weekend almost by accident, as the original plan had been to walk the mostly leisurely two-and-a-half miles to Elk Meadows and spend the night there. (I’d not been there since our Timberline Trail trip in 2005, either. The spot played a big role in how that hike ended up playing out, which I write about in my book.) But once Oliver, my friend Wyatt, and I got to the sunny meadows, we still had plenty of energy and daylight to press on, so we did.
We walked through the woods up from Elk Meadows and just enjoyed being outside in the finally summer-like weather. Just a week earlier, we’d hiked to the top of Silver Star Mountain through rain, mist, clouds, and a chill that was more mid-March than mid-July. Right about 5,500 feet, we hit some snow, but the trail revealed itself just often enough that we were able to keep on track. (A little GPS assistance kept us true as well.)
There were some decent campsites with partial views of Hood that would have worked fine if there’d been nothing else, but after Wyatt headed back down, Oliver and I trudged up to the top of Lamberson Butte — named for early Mazama Lewis Lamberson — surveyed the incredible views, and found some even better spots to pitch a tent.
So we spent a quiet night on Gnarl Ridge, watching the sun set on Hood, Jefferson, the Sisters and Bachelor, listening to the creek shush and the valley slowly erode with the rumble of a random boulder every so often.
The nighttime stars were immaculate. Off to the east, a Gorge wind farm pulsed faintly every ten seconds, puncturing the distant darkness with red pinpricks like Christmas tree lights. And in the morning, I somehow woke up just as the sun was rising, coloring the mountain and everything around it in a clear, golden glow.
It was good to be back on Gnarl Ridge.
After an insufferable amount of gray sky this spring, including an impenetrable bit last weekend that kept my Atlanta friend and his wife from seeing Mount Hood during a three-day visit, the sun has finally won out. It’s beautiful in Portland today, it looks bluebird up at the mountain, and at least as of today, the forecast looks like more of the same for the next few days.
Time to go for a hike.
But because this year has been such a precipitation-filled one, many of the best hikes around the mountain are still buried under feet of snow. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which monitors snow levels among other meteorological statistics, there’s still more than 12 feet of snow at 5,400 feet on Mount Hood, more than 7 feet at 4,400 feet on the north side, and still close to 3 feet south of the mountain at 3,800 feet.
Not to fear. There are still plenty of low-elevation walks close to the mountain that can scratch the hiking itch. And if you don’t mind a little snow (or a lot) and are confident and capable on snowshoes, there shouldn’t be much to keep anyone off the trails now that some good weather is at least temporarily here. (Disclaimer: This blog is for information only. Hike at your own risk and only within your own abilities and comfort levels.)
A few of my springtime favorites:
Palmer Snowfield: Nothing like a slog up the lower end of Hood’s South Side climbing route to take in the mountain on a clear day and wake up the climbing legs. It’s a mile and about 1,000 feet in elevation up fromTimberline Lodge to Silcox Hut, and another mile-plus and about 1,500 more feet up to the top of the Palmer ski lift. Start from Timberline and walk up along the east edge of the ski area.
Salmon River: An easy stroll along the pristine Salmon River, one of five major rivers that call Mount Hood as their source, the Salmon River trail cuts through a massive old growth forest with cedars of unfathomable girth. The entire trail runs about 7 miles, but you can hike in just as far as you’re up for and still get the wilderness gist. More information.
Hood River Mountain: This one’s a little ways away from the mountain, just outside Hood River, but its view of the peak and the entire Hood River Valley is simply jaw-dropping. Just three miles roundtrip and 600 feet up, Hood River mountain affords you a view that usually takes a lot more effort to attain. More information.
While there really aren’t that many books out there that tell the story of Mount Hood — Jack Grauer’s essential “Mount Hood: A Complete History” and Fred McNeil’s “Wy’East: The Mountain” notwithstanding — there are quite a few great hiking books that can really show people how to get to know the mountain through exploration.
Among my favorites are three from Oregon author and lifelong hiker Douglas Lorain.
I first saw one of Doug’s slideshows probably 10 or 12 years ago at a regular meeting of the Ptarmigans, a Vancouver mountaineering club that has since gone on indefinite hiatus. It was all about his newest and maybe first book, “Backpacking Oregon.” Filled with trips all across the state, it also contains the definitive description and itinerary for the Timberline Trail on Mount Hood. Even though that hike, as mentioned yesterday, is supposedly no longer possible as a single loop, it was still in good shape in 2005, when Amy and I did it. “Backpacking Oregon” helped us plan our trip, stay on track, and have a memorable time.
Lorain is also the author of “Afoot & Afield: Portland/Vancouver, A comprehensive hiking guide.” It’s a thick tome of more than 200 hikes within an hour’s drive or so of the Portland metro region. I’ve barely tapped into it myself — there’s nearly 50 trips around Mount Hood alone — but it’s got some great, little-known excursions. Among my favorites: Cape Horn, a light 3-mile walk to the edge of some amazing cliffs on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, and Hood River Mountain, an easy 3-mile loop just outside of Hood River with jaw-dropping views of the Hood River Valley, Mount Hood’s north face, the Columbia River, and St. Helens, Rainier, and Adams.
When I first got to Portland in 1997 and started backpacking every weekend, Amy and I talked about doing a backpacking guidebook full of the best trips you could fit into a single weekend. It seemed like the perfect guidebook for people who had just the standard two days off every week to get out of town. I missed my opportunity, but Lorain nailed it with “One Night Wilderness Portland: Quick and Convenient Getaways within Three Hours of the City.” Filled with more than 60 trips, including 12 on Mount Hood, this book is just what I’d had in mind — and what true weekend backpackers had been looking for.
The hiking on Mount Hood is all quintessential Cascade rambling: scenic lakes like Burnt and Mirror, pristine rivers like the Salmon and Sandy, wildflower meadows and expansive vistas like McNeil Point and Paradise Park.
Mount Hood from White River.
More than 1,000 miles worth of hiking trails wind their way all around the mountain, from the forested Badger Creek trail on the mountain’s southeast base to the little-known Owl Point trail in its northwest shadow. There’s also the storied Timberline Trail, a classic, 41-mile circuit around the entire mountain. Massive flooding in 2006, however, wiped out the trail’s crossing at Eliot Creek, supposedly to the point that it’s no longer possible to safely cross the creek nor, as a result, complete the entire Timberline Trail in one go.
But of all the hiking on Mount Hood, there is one hike that, for me anyway, truly rules the day: Cooper Spur.
Quite possibly the most amazing hike on all of Mount Hood, Cooper Spur is about as close as you can get to climbing the beast without actually donning crampons and an ice ax. And that’s not because it’s physically such a kicker. The trail’s rugged three-and-a-half miles do gain more than 2,000 feet of elevation, but somehow it’s not as grueling as it sounds.
What really gives this hike a mountaineering feel is its height. By the time you break out of the thinning hemlocks and firs above the Cloud Cap Saddle campground on the Timberline Trail, you’re already well above the 6,000-foot level. From there, you pass an old stone shelter and then slowly wind your way up broad, sandy switchbacks that eventually lift you up onto the spur itself. The ridge becomes fairly narrow before the trail comes to a halt at Tie-In-Rock, where climbers rope up before moving on. You’re now at about 8,500 feet, and with views stretching from Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and Mount St. Helens to the desert of Eastern Oregon and the massive Eliot Glacier right there on Hood’s dramatic north face, it’s hard not to feel like you’re sitting atop the mountain itself.
For more information on hiking Cooper Spur — it’s usually best from late July through mid September — read this Forest Service sheet.