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.