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:
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.
On we go into 2015, but not before a quick look back at some of my favorite Mount Hood times of the past year. Here’s to all of them — and to all those that lay ahead in the new year.
Well, not officially, anyway, but it was the last official weekend before the start of school, so that’s a kind of ending at least.
We sent the last school-free part of summer off in style with a weekend on the mountain at our regular Sandy River hot spot. Surprisingly, not only was one of the prime campsites actually available on Labor Day Weekend, but it actually wasn’t a pigsty when we rolled up. The stars were aligned for us, I suppose.
The rain did little to dampen the spirits, nor could it interfere in the slightest with all the huckleberries that needed picking.
The sun returned in time for an afternoon hike along the Sandy River toward Ramona Falls.
We didn’t make it to the falls — hadn’t planned to — but turned around where the trail crosses the Sandy River. It was here, a few weeks ago, that a flash flood washed out a bridge, swept away one hiker and stranded 23 others.
We tried not to dwell on that too long but instead enjoy the walk and the woods and the water. We did.
The last few hours of the weekend we spent up at Timberline Lodge, where the Mountain Music Festival was in full swing. Eli West & Cahalen Morrison offered some sweet old-time harmonies, while the Black Lillies, who we’d just glimpsed at Pickathon last month, brought some tasty country flavor to the high alpine meadows surrounding the lodge.
Not a bad way at all to (kind of) end the summer, though it’s not truly over yet . . .
The Sandy River starts high up on Mount Hood as runoff from the Reid Glacier, gathering side streams and the Salmon and Zigzag rivers on its way to the Columbia. It’s a wild river that’s played a big role in how we’ve enjoyed the mountain over the years, whether we’ve been crossing it on the Timberline Trail, camping alongside or cooling off in its silty waters high up, or exploring its confluence with the mighty Columbia at the west end of the Gorge.
The Sandy is a river that a lot of people care about, including the Western Rivers Conservancy, which over the past few years has done much to protect the river. In 1999, the nonprofit partnered with Portland General Electric to help restore the Sandy and the Little Sandy, which led, in part, to the removal of the Marmot Dam and returned both rivers to complete free-flowing status. The conservancy has also purchased properties along the Sandy to help ensure its protection.
A few weeks ago, the WRC contacted me to see if they could use one of my Sandy River photos for a commemorative poster they were issuing. The poster commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has provided funding to WRC over its decade-long effort to create a wildlife and recreational corridor along 13 miles of the Sandy and the Little Sandy.
The picture they used of mine was from our trip on the Timberline Trail last summer, right when we were crossing the Sandy, Mount Hood in the background, with a Pacific Crest Trail hiker who was four months into his trek.
When I heard about what the WRC has done for the Sandy over the years, of course I sent the picture over right away. That, indeed, is work that’s worth it.
Summer’s back. Sweet! Sunshine, riversides, campfires, trails and, of course, trashed campsites on Mount Hood.
We headed out for this year’s first night in the tent a few weeks ago, that beautiful first weekend of June that felt like the last weekend of July. Since the Forest Service closed our favorite Sandy River campsites a couple years ago after John Q. Public couldn’t seem to stop using them as trash pits, we’ve branched out a bit and found some other keepers.
We spent the first 20 minutes or so cleaning up the pit that the prior campers had left behind: broken glass, cheap beer cans, shell casings, a rusty grill grate, blah, blah. It’s always the same. This site, a nice one with plenty of room, privacy and a killer Sandy River beach, was actually one of the cleaner ones around. It makes no sense to me the way people treat these incredible places. It’s so trashy, so redneck, so downright piggy.
The Forest Service will end up closing these sites pretty soon, too, I’m sure. But no matter. After we’d cleaned ours up, we were able to settle in for a great weekend on the mountain, along the river. We soaked in some sun, hiked for the first time to Little Zigzag Falls and broke in the kids’ new pie iron.
When it was at last time to head home, we packed up and, as most civilized people would do, cleaned the site almost spotless. Almost. We did, after all, leave one thing behind:
Gorge Owned presents Sense of Place Lecture Series featuring author Jon Bell
Gorge Owned and sponsors Hood River Valley Residents Committee and Mt. Hood Meadows welcomes author Jon Bell to the Columbia Center for the Arts on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Bell is the author of “On Mount Hood: A Biography of Oregon’s Perilous Peak.” He will present slides about Mount Hood, the volcano in our backyard that has shaped the local landscape, provides valuable drinking water, and lures adventurers from far and near. Bell will tell the story of Mount Hood through its trails, wines, fruits, forests, glaciers, accidents, triumphs and much more. Hikers crossing the Sandy River on Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail, August 2013.
Bell, an outdoor enthusiast whose work has appeared in Backpacker, The Oregonian, The Rowing News and Oregon Coast lives in Lake Oswego with his wife, two kids and a black Lab. He is co-author of the climbing guidebook, Ozone, and is a former president of the Ptarmigans Mountaineering Club. Waucoma Bookstore will be selling copies of his book at the lecture.
Sense of Place is an annual lecture series sponsored by Gorge Owned that seeks to foster a deeper understanding of and connection to our landscape and to one other. All lectures are held at the Columbia Center for the Arts, 215 Cascade Ave. in Hood River. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the lecture begins at 7 p.m. Come early to enjoy a glass of wine or beer and meet others in the community.
What: GO! Sense of Place Lecture Series featuring author Jon Bell
When: Wed., March 5, Columbia Center for the Arts, 215 Cascade Ave., Hood River
Cost: $5 (free for GO! members)
Gorge Owned is a 501.c.3 member-supported organization based in Hood River. With more than 160 individual and business members, GO! delivers year-round programing that informs and inspires people to invest in a vibrant community, healthy environment and strong local economy. Programs include the Gorge Green Home Tour, Gorge Green Drinks, the Sense of Place lecture series, GO! Local Month and Gorge Earth Day. Sense of Place is an annual lecture series sponsored by Gorge Owned that seeks to foster a deeper understanding of and connection to our landscape and to one other. Learn more and find a full listing of Sense of Place lectures at GorgeOwned.org
Time flies by, especially at the end of the summer, with out-of-town guests, back-to-school prep, and cramming in as much fun as possible while the days are still warm and bright.
It’s great, of course, but it also makes it a little tough to get some things done, like writing about our epic trip on the Timberline Trail nearly a month ago. I will get to it — and all my pictures — soon, but in the meantime, here’s another sneak preview from that trip. This is one of those views of the mountain you only get if you work for it . . .
Before we camped in the McNeil Campground along the banks of the Sandy River with some friends from Atlanta last weekend, before I hiked the Timberline Trail with four other adventurers a week earlier, and before Oliver and I returned to McNeil Point up the Mazama Trail back in July, I felt like I knew a decent amount about Fred McNeil.
A journalist for The Oregon Journal for nearly 45 years, from 1912 to 1957, McNeil was a huge fan of Mount Hood. According to the preface of McNeil’s Mount Hood: Wy’East the Mountain Revisited, a 1990 re-issue of McNeil’s classic Mount Hood book, the Cascade Mountains captivated him from the day he arrived in Portland from Illinois in 1912. He “pursued and reported events on the peaks with a passion” and “became personally involved in their protection as well as their development, especially for skiing.” If something happened on Mount Hood — someone got lost, a plane crashed, a fire broke out — McNeil would instantly turn his news focus to the mountain, no matter what else was going on.
He also enjoyed the mountain, hiking all over it and climbing to its summit long before the road was blazed to what would become the site of Timberline Lodge. He was a member of The Mazamas, the Cascade Ski Club, the Wy’East Climbers and other mountain organizations.
According to the preface of McNeil’s Mount Hood, written by journalist Tom McAllister, McNeil made sure that a story about the long closure of Lolo Pass Road landed on the front page of The Oregon Journal. The closure had been designed to keep people out of the original bounds of the Bull Run Watershed. Even after those boundaries changed, however, the closure remained, blocking access to some of the mountain’s most incredible west-side geography. After several stories and photos and a supporting editorial, the gates to Lolo Pass were opened.
Which is a great legacy, because otherwise it would be much harder to get to places like McNeil Point and the quiet McNeil Campground, both, of course, named for Fred McNeil.
Most of this I kind of remembered from my own research. But I’d forgotten something else about McNeil.
As we rolled out of the campground last week, headed toward Timberline Lodge and then Lost Lake, I stopped to read a plaque near the campground’s entrance. It sums up nicely McNeil’s life and his love of the mountains. It also notes that McNeil “rests four miles eastward and upward at McNeil Point.”
His friends hiked up to the point and spread his ashes there in July of 1959.
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.
They’re everywhere, really. Flying into Portland, driving up I-5, from the chicane at Portland International Raceway or the tram at OHSU, out in Hood River, from the top of Mount Adams or halfway up Hood itself. The list of incredible views of Mount Hood is seemingly endless.
There’s one that I came across recently, though, that I’d long seen in photographs but never taken in myself over my 15-plus years as an Oregonian. I don’t know how many people know about it, even though it’s actually a formal, designated viewpoint. There are no signs for it as you pass through the town of Sandy on your way to or from the mountain, but the name of the road it’s on — Bluff Drive — hints at something.
It’s called the Jonsrud Viewpoint — named for a local family who helped establish it — and to get there, you head north on Bluff Road off of Highway 26 in Sandy for just a few minutes. It’s on the right, but don’t worry. You can’t miss it.
It was bound to happen.
We called it last year when, after a night in a favorite campsite along Mount Hood’s Sandy River, we had to clean up piles of trash and clothes and broken glass and all the other debris that a rowdy group of partygoers had left in their wake in the site next to ours. This, despite the fact that the Forest Service had been monitoring the area and had posted signs warning campers that these popular sites would be closed if people didn’t start taking better care of them.
The only surprising thing, really, is that the sites stayed open as long as they did. We returned earlier this summer for a night, and though it was nice, there was enough garbage about to make the entire area unpleasant, if not downright repulsive. Luckily, we have a secret spot that takes a little more energy to get to, and so the appeal that originally drew us to the Sandy River is still attainable.
Even so, it was kind of a bummer to pull up for our annual family camp with a bunch of friends last month, expecting to find our favorite site and instead finding this:
The Forest Service had, apparently, finally had enough, and sometime between mid August and mid September, they’d gone in and rendered the sites and the access roads to them completely unusable and impassable.
We were all a bit deflated at first, but we’d all known it was probably coming to this. And really, it was getting out of hand and the Forest Service had to do something to keep this place from becoming a summertime landfill. It’s too bad, but that’s what happens when people don’t care. And luckily for us, we’re pretty crafty about finding other great campsites — and taking care of them.
Just like that, the chance of any really nice, warm, Indian summer-like weather here in the Pacific Northwest has left us. While that may be a little bit of a drag, it’s also fairly fine. Not only have we so far had a relatively mild and enjoyable autumn, but we also had a warm and sunny stretch near the end of the summer that almost made up for the lingering gray that hung around far too long early in the season.
And from that last leg, we also have the fond and bright and warm recall of a few of those days. One we spent on the banks of the Sandy River with a stunning view of Mount Hood.
Another found us in pure summertime mode, rowing a leaky rental boat around the picturesque Lost Lake — also with an unmatched shot of the mountain — soaking in every bit of the fleeting season, as if storing up the sunshine and winds and refreshing waters for the inevitable days ahead, the cold and drizzly days, when nothing sounds more inviting than rowing a leaky boat around an amazing alpine lake in the middle of the summer.
The Mount Hood National Forest was host to one hell of a party a few weeks ago.
We’d pitched our tent in a favorite area out near the rushing Sandy River, a place we’ve spent many a night over the past few years. The specific spot that we usually favor was already taken when we rolled up, but no worries. There were a few other options nearby, and the one we landed in boasted a nice view of the mountain through the trees and more shade than the old faithful spot.
This place has been great to us ever since we stumbled on it a few years ago. Because it’s not a campground, but instead a handful of dispersed sites, it’s relatively free of the crowds that flock to the more developed areas. And though you don’t have to hike in to get to it, it’s got a measure of serenity and beauty that almost hints at wilderness. Plus, the river’s just a short jaunt away.
Once we had our camp on in the late afternoon hours, the cars started rolling by. First one. Then another. And another. A Jeep with four young guys in it. A pickup truck rumbling with bass. A little sedan that had no business on such a rough road weighted down with folks.
The party, in the site a couple down from us, kicked off as the first cars pulled up. A car door would slam, some loud greetings would exchange, and then the beverages would crack open. I know how it works. I’ve been to my fair share of those, especially back in the pre-21 days. This was one of those.
It raged throughout the night, as the sun set, the mountain faded, the stars shone. Loud laughter, obnoxious machismo, breaking glass. Because we were a few sites away — and because we remembered what we had been like at that age — it wasn’t so bad. Just different than our normal escapes up there. Louder, mainly. And surprisingly, we just about outlasted the rowdies. By the time we retired from our own quiet campfire, it was pretty close to silent throughout the woods.
The next morning, the same cars we’d watched roll in the night before rolled back out in the early morning sun. My five-year-old daughter and I took a walk down the dusty road to survey the damage. And that’s when I changed from a slightly annoyed but somewhat understanding neighbor into an incredibly disappointed and perturbed curmudgeon. There was trash along the road, broken glass in the bushes. A pair of pants with who knows what on them sat crumpled up under a tree. Toilet paper streamed from the manzanita, camping chairs lay broken and bent on the ground, and the last car to leave loaded up the fire pit with trash, set it ablaze and drove away.
It was not pretty.
It needed to be cleaned up. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew we’d probably be back up for another weekend sometime this summer. I also knew that the Forest Service had been tolerating these unregulated sites, but that they were beginning to rethink that approach. Posted on all the sites in the area, for the first time since we’d camped there three or four years ago, were some unfortunate signs.
After mulling it over at breakfast and not being able to leave it alone, my daughter and I grabbed some plastic bags, headed back over to the trashed site, and cleaned it up. Five garbage bags, two wrecked camping chairs and a couple bucks worth of returnables later, it looked hospitable again. Probably still needed a good rain before I’d pitch my tent there again, but it was on its way.
I’d like to think that when I was that age, I would have been a little more conscientious about the things I did and didn’t do, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would have. Back then, a lot of it was about having new fun and, sometimes, not holding onto any evidence. I understand that. But years later, my perspective has swung over to the other, more adult and responsible side; the side that cannot fathom how anyone could leave a campsite just a few hundred yards away from the Sandy River and with a lovely view of Mount Hood in such littered disarray.
Who knows how many more scenes like that the Forest Service will have to walk up on before they do actually close those beautiful sites to everyone. I consider myself lucky to have found a place like this, to be able to enjoy an escape like this.
It’s easy to take these places for granted. It’s best not to.