Wilson River Trail E2E2E

  • Date: January 27, 2018
  • Location: Tillamook State Forest
  • Start: Elk Creek Trailhead
  • Distance: 42 miles (only completed 39-ish)
  • Duration: 10 hours 15 minutes (breaks not included)
  • Elevation gain: 3950 feet (one way)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: Oregon Hikers

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. That was the only word (minus a certain descriptive expletive preceding the word “stupid”) racing through my head as we stumbled through the Tillamook State Forest in the pitch black. Our inadequate sources of light barely lit up the trail a few feet in front of us. I became more and more paranoid with each step, terrified that I would take a fall and injure myself, or that we’d have a surprise encounter with any of the nocturnal predators that lurk in the forest. The rain was coming down hard at this point, but it was fear that saturated me, seeped into my skin, resonating deep within my bones. Why had I thought this would be a good idea?

We started late in the morning just before 7 am. It seems silly to call that “late” since the sun had yet to rise, but 42 miles was a very new distance for us. We weren’t entirely sure what to expect but I anticipated needing the entire day. It was already raining when we started up the first hill leading out of the campground parking area. Once we were in the trees we were somewhat protected. Mack had me lead so he wouldn’t end up running too far in front of me. My legs were still getting reacquainted with this sport. Mack had been doing a fantastic job of keeping up his big mileage weeks over the past couple of months since our previous race in November. I, on the other hand, stopped running entirely for 20+ days in December and early January. I could blame that hiatus on my busy schedule but, at the heart of it, was lack of motivation and feelings of defeat. My hope was that Wilson River would light a fire under my ass and reignite the spark that had been missing from my most recent attempts to get back into it.

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A cloudy dawn in the forest

We weren’t greeted with sunshine, just cloudy skies and fog, but daylight allowed us to put away our headlamps and pick up the pace. Silhouettes and shadows were replaced with a sea of green. Sword ferns, salal, and Oregon grape blanketed the slopes while moss coated the trees and rocks. Despite being the dead of winter, the forest was already exhibiting signs of spring. Even from a few of the viewpoints from up high along the route, snow was nowhere to be seen as we looked out over the forested mountains of the coast range. At least it was one less obstacle to deal with. Although the trail itself offers some of the best (if not the best) tread for running, its constant undulating elevation profile makes it deceptively challenging. The first 9-10 miles alone (from Elk Creek to Diamond Mill) gain 3500+ feet!

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Lots of mini-falls and creek crossings

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One of the Lester Creek Pinnacles

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The Diamond Mill suspension bridge over the North Fork Wilson River brought an ironic sense of relief. We weren’t quite halfway through our end-to-end (and barely a quarter of the way done with the entire run!). I think the relief I was feeling stemmed from my memory of running the Elk-Kings 25K back in 2015. At this point in the route, there were less than 3 miles left to run. If only the same could be said about our current situation. We took a short snack break after crossing the deceptively slick bridge then continued on more mellow terrain past Lester Creek Falls (which we’d never noticed until this run), Jones Creek Day Use Area, and the beautiful Tillamook Forest Center. Another false sense of relief swept over me when the Wilson River Suspension Bridge came into view. If this were the Go Beyond Racing event, we’d be running across that bridge to a victorious finish, nourishing food and refreshments, and warm and dry clothes back in the car. On the contrary, all was silent. There was nobody and nothing waiting for us across that bridge. We were alone, and the comforts I was fantasizing about were miles away at Elk Creek Trailhead.

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Suspension bridge at Diamond Mill
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North Fork Wilson River (looking south from the bridge)
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North Fork Wilson River (looking north from the bridge)
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Just my luck…
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Lester Creek Falls
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Wilson River Suspension Bridge and Tillamook Forest Center

We enjoyed a few more miles of minimal climbing, taking in the views of Wilson River now that the trail was practically hugging it. The rain continued off and on, and the seemingly endless creek crossings left our socks perpetually soaked. Continuous movement was the only way to stay warm. There were some upsides though. I absolutely hate running in the heat (basically any temp above 70-75 degrees), so the cool 40-50 degree weather kept me from burning out too fast. In addition, the cold and wet kept potential crowds–well, Wilson River Trail never gets that crowded per se–at bay. I’m pretty sure I could count the number of people we saw all day on one hand.

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Particularly lush section along Wilson River
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Wilson Falls
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New favorite adventure running sustenance

The final stretch between Wolf Creek Road and Keenig Creek Trailhead saw another 1000+ feet of elevation gain over the course of six miles. It wasn’t much compared to that of the first 9-10 miles, but we were very much ready for a break (and to be halfway done). I was starting to feel a bit of pain in my right knee, which made the miles go by even slower and caused my level of stress to skyrocket. Thankfully, as soon as we hit Cedar Butte Road, the pain seemed to subside (or was just overshadowed by my immense excitement that the rest of the way was downhill). We flew down 1.5 miles of switchbacks before bursting through the trees and into the empty parking lot, exhilarated and exhausted. 21 miles down, but 21 to go…

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Wolf Creek
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Wolf Creek
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And more Wolf Creek
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Keenig Creek Trailhead = halfway done!

What goes down must come up. After a fairly brief snack break and some reluctance to begin again, we headed back up the switchbacks I’d been so ecstatic about earlier. Now I was groaning as I forced my tired legs to hike uphill. High spirits resumed once we reached Cedar Butte Road again and were able to pick up the pace. I took my final photos of our run–though I was still under the impression I’d be taking a couple more back at the car when we finished–shortly after we crossed Wolf Creek Road.

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Crossing the footbridges at Wolf Creek
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Yeah…can’t get enough of Wolf Creek apparently
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Still many miles to go

Reaching the Wilson River-Footbridge Trail junction (just over six miles in) felt like forever and definitely hampered my will to continue. It was already getting late into the afternoon, too. Sunset was about an hour away and we still had 15 tough miles remaining. I can’t speak for Mack, but my body started to shut down at this point. I shuffled along the best I could but ended up having to walk–more like crawl–at a time when we really needed to be moving fast.

The sun was already beginning to set by the time we reached the Tillamook Forest Center. At the pace we were going (because of me), I knew it would be hours before we reached Elk Creek Trailhead. Of course, we’d forgotten to bring along our Garmin inReach and had absolutely no cell service to call and let our emergency contact know that we’d be running very late. I could feel the panic start to fester in me (mainly because I didn’t want SAR called on us due to lack of communication). I even suggested to Mack that we bail at the Jones Creek Trailhead and run along Hwy 6 to Elk Creek Trailhead (which would’ve cut our remaining mileage in half) so we could return at a reasonable hour and get in touch with our contact. He thought it would be more dangerous, so we stuck to the trail.

It was completely dark when we crossed the North Fork Wilson River and headed back into the forest to work our way through the most difficult/strenuous section of the route. It was primarily uphill so I wasn’t running. Hell, I was barely able to power hike. Emotions began to pour out of me. I was angry and frustrated with my abilities, as well as the fact that we’d forgotten to bring such an important piece of equipment (that we’d specifically purchased for situations like this!). At some point it started raining again. We picked our way carefully up and down the trail, depending primarily on Mack’s handheld flashlight since my headlamp was completely inadequate. We ran whenever possible, but moving in the pitch black was slow going to say the least.

At long last,–literally, we’d been moving for over two hours since crossing the North Fork–we reached the junction with Kings Mountain Trail. Our trailhead was still nearly four miles away and it was already 8 pm. We decided to head down to Kings Mountain Trailhead (a short 0.1 mile away). Upon reaching the parking lot, every last ounce of energy that I’d sustained with adrenaline for the previous two hours suddenly left me. My entire body seemed to go limp. I could barely see straight or stand up. Mack headed down Hwy 6 in the rain to pick up his car at Elk Creek about 2.5 miles away. I was too drained to move and sat in the rain shoving Goldfish into my mouth. I finally picked myself up and spent the remainder of my time shut inside the toilet, shaking and shivering in the 30-something degree weather. This image, sitting in a trailhead toilet, beat down and unable to even complete the final 2.5 road miles to the car, felt like the epitome of failure in that moment. I sat dazed in the car on the way home, staring at the streaks of water splash across the window, dreaming of BBQ and pineapple pizza to take my mind off of my immense disappointment.

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Smith Rock State Park

The second adventure of our weekend in Central Oregon commenced with me missing our alarm (or it failing to go off). Thank goodness we were camped at Tumalo State Park, located a mere 30 minutes from Smith Rock. We packed up and hit the road in under an hour, arriving at the Smith Rock parking lot just after 9 am. We were only one of two cars there. The sky was a dark, moody gray and a mixture of snow and rain was falling. I’d anticipated this since I’d checked the National Weather Service forecast just before we left the previous morning and kept my fingers crossed that the “mostly sunny after 10 am” part came through. We decided to wait it out and use the time to prepare our running packs, don our trail shoes, and get in our bathroom breaks. When I emerged from the restroom just a few minutes into our decision to wait out the weather, I was greeted with a complete cease in the snowy-rainy precipitation and a little bit of sunshine peeking through the clouds! What a turnaround from the previous day at Tumalo Falls! We slipped on our microspikes and headed down Canyon Trail.

After crossing the bridge over Crooked River we came to our first endeavor: the notoriously steep Misery Ridge Trail. I’m still amazed that we decided to start with this, especially since our legs weren’t warmed up at all yet. It was definitely more of an alternating slow jog/power hike than an actual run as we gained 700+ feet in 0.7 miles. The combination of loose rock, ice, and snow didn’t make it any easier. However, the views we gained as we rose higher and higher helped to ease the struggle. We could see across the way to the other big hill we’d eventually tackle: Burma Road Trail.

Heading up Misery Ridge Trail; you can see Burma Road Trail in the upper left corner
Final section of elevation gain on Misery Ridge Trail

We stopped for a few minutes at the top to take in a glorious view of the park, including the iconic Monkey Face. (Guess it was a good thing that I’d missed my alarm or we might have been up at the top while it was still snowing/raining!) During the summer I came here a few times to attend some climbing seminars, but we’d never ventured up this way. I’ve got to say it’s definitely a spot you don’t want to miss if you visit Smith Rock. Totally worth the elevation gain! And, since it was still early in the day and the weather hadn’t completely cleared up yet, we had this incredible spot all to ourselves.

View at the top of Misery Ridge

Monkey Face

Seeing as we were barely a mile into our run, we decided to get a move on after snapping a few pictures. Now, it’s easy to assume that running downhill will be a lot faster than the uphill. Unfortunately, our descent of Mesa Verde Trail was just the opposite. The deep snow and patches of ice made it impossible to move quickly. At least we got a more complete view of Monkey Face (see cover photo)!

After getting to the base, we headed back to the Misery Ridge Trail junction on the River Trail. Finally some relatively flat terrain! My legs already felt like jelly and we weren’t even a quarter of the way into our run. Now that we weren’t hugging any steep drop-offs, I thought it would be nice to let Cassie off-leash for a short while. I should mention that the rule at Smith Rock is that dogs need to be kept on leash. I knew this, but I figured a few minutes wouldn’t be harmful, especially since 1) she’s been very good about staying on trail and close to us on past adventure runs, 2) there was no one on the trail yet, and 3) we planned on putting her back on leash as we neared the bridge or if we saw hikers up ahead on the trail. Big mistake. At first, Cassie was behaved and jogged close in front of me. Then, after barely a minute or two, she just took off down the trail at breakneck speed! Crap. As we rounded the bend up head, we saw her run straight into the river after a duck. (Maybe that stuffed duck toy we bought her a few weeks back wasn’t such a good idea?) Ugh. She wasn’t caught in the river’s current yet, but she was still trying to make it out to that damn duck! Mack quickly removed his pack and went in after her, picking her up by her pack’s handle and carrying her out while she flailed her legs in the air. We breathed sighs of relief and put her right back on leash. Lesson learned. Needless to say, she stayed on that leash the rest of our run. And I think it’s time we invested in some obedience training.

Fishing Cassie out of the river

The rest of our run on the River Trail went smoothly. We passed the Misery Ridge Trail junction and continued on the Wolf Tree Trail on the east side of the park. Like the River Trail, this Wolf Tree is mostly flat and continues along Crooked River. After a mile though, we started uphill again to the junction with Burma Road Trail on BLM land. The clouds were starting to part at this point, revealing blue skies and sunshine behind them.

Running on the Wolf Tree Trail
Heading up to Burma Road Trail

Although not as steep as Misery Ridge, Burma Road ended up being far more difficult because of the trail conditions. Not only was there a lot of snow, but the quality of the snow was unpredictable all the way up! Sometimes it was firm enough that you could run over it without sinking. Other times you’d end up post holing a good 7-10 inches. Little did we know that this wouldn’t be the end of our battle with the snow conditions. It wouldn’t even be the worst part. At least the skies were clear now. We could see several Cascade volcanoes in addition to Smith Rock!

View from Burma Road

At the top of Burma Road, we took another short break before starting down the Summit Trail, which would wind its way through the north end of the park and eventually drop us back down on the River Trail on the west side.

View from the top of Burma Road

The trail switchbacks down nearly 1.3 miles before reaching a junction with the Summit Trail viewpoint. Of course, the entire trail was under deep snow. We spent most of this section tip toeing through post holes or side stepping across angled snow slopes. Not sure we got much running in until we made it past the viewpoint junction. Even then the conditions didn’t improve all that much, but the likelihood of slipping and sliding down a long, steep hill had decreased at least. The view at the junction wasn’t half bad either.

Post holing on the Summit Trail
Beautiful view along the Summit Trail

After the top of Misery Ridge Trail, my next favorite spot (particularly now that the sun was shining high in the sky) was the final descent to the junction with the River Trail. Monkey Face, Christian Brothers, and Crooked River all in a single view? Absolutely perfect.

Summit Trail/River Trail junction

We had a little over 2 miles left on the River Trail before reaching the bridge again. It felt so good to actually run again now that we were out of the deep snow. It’s incredible how different the area seemed now that the weather was completely different than when we’d run on the River Trail earlier that day! I hardly recognized it! We didn’t see a lot of climbers, but there were definitely an increased number of people hiking the trail now.

Heading back to the parking lot on the River Trail

After crossing the bridge we had one final hill left: Canyon Trail up to the parking lot. My legs were spent by the time I was half way up (especially after a few days of being sick and not running at all). Mack and Cassie pushed on while I stayed behind and fast hiked up the last section to the parking lot. Not the strong finish I was hoping for. We decided to continue on the Rim Rock Trail for about a half mile to cool down our legs and get one final view of the park. As an added bonus, I got to finish strong since we didn’t end on a hill.

View of the park from the Rim Rock Trail
Running the Rim Rock Trail

Mack, Cassie, and I had such an amazing time exploring this geological masterpiece. Not only was it fun to see it in a different season, but I love that we got to explore so much of it via trail running! It was the perfect end to our Central Oregon weekend adventure. Now we are even more stoked to return in March to do some actual climbing.

Mount Thielsen/Crater Lake Weekend

(Original post date: August 9, 2015)

Date: August 6-8, 2015

This past weekend, Mack and I shared a mini-adventure (our final trip of the summer) at Crater Lake National Park to participate in the Crater Lake half marathon (http://www.craterlakerimruns.com/). Since driving to Crater Lake isn’t exactly convenient, we decided to make the most of it by turning our single event into a three day adventure. Below is the itinerary we ended up with:

  • Day 1: Mount Thielsen climb; camp at Broken Arrow Campground near Diamond Lake
  • Day 2: Crater Lake exploration/relaxation day; camp at Mazama Village Campground
  • Day 3: Crater Lake Rim Runs!

Preparing/packing for this trip was a little more complex due to the activities comprising the trip (day hiking and road running), as well as the fact that we planned on car camping instead of backpacking. In my opinion, preparing for a backpacking trip is much easier because you’re limited on what you can carry. Without that boundary (and a giant backpack to organize everything), things get a little chaotic. Nonetheless, it was nice not having to worry about pack weight for a change.

 

Day 1: Mount Thielsen climb (9.7 miles round trip, 5 hours 26 minutes, breaks not included)

With its notable horn-shaped summit and nearly vertical slopes, Thielsen is easily distinguished from other peaks in the area. It is also notorious for being struck by lightning more often than any other peak in the Cascade range; it’s known as the “lightning rod of the Cascades.” With that in mind, Mack and I headed out early to avoid the possibility of getting caught in an afternoon thunderstorm.

The first 3.8 miles of the Mount Thielsen Trail were a cakewalk. Although mostly uphill, the gain was gradual. Along the way we got lovely views of nearby Diamond Lake. That all changed in the final 0.9 miles. The views remained stunning (and continued to improve the higher we got), but the climb became a grueling task following the junction with the PCT. If I hadn’t brought my trekking poles, I probably would’ve been crawling on my hands and knees. The climb was that steep. And the terrain was comprised of scree. Above timberline, the terrain became rock slabs and boulders. The near vertical climb in this section was the closest we’ve ever come to rock climbing. We were constantly searching for handholds and footholds to pull ourselves up.

View of the West Ridge
Scrambling up the ridge

It took us nearly an hour and a half to reach Thielsen’s summit pinnacle. The first 3.8 miles took less than that. When I first researched the Mount Thielsen climb, most of the photos show people roped in while attempting this final portion. Mack and I don’t have any sort of rock climbing gear and had our fingers crossed about being able to attempt the summit without it. However, once we were at the base of this 80 ft rock spire, staring up at the vertical mass in front of us, common sense trumped ambition. We made it to 9,100 ft. Risking our lives for the last 80 ft just didn’t seem worth it. We enjoyed lunch—at least Mack did; I lost my appetite after gazing over the drop off on Thielsen’s east face—on the “chicken ledge” and watched two other hikers (with obvious rock climbing experience) successfully complete the summit.

After descending back down to the trailhead, we headed over to Broken Arrow Campground to car camp for the night. We rewarded ourselves with hot showers at the campground’s (surprisingly clean) bathrooms. I’m pretty sure it was the first time either of us went to bed feeling squeaky clean while camping.

Attempting the summit pinnacle
Lunching on the “chicken ledge”

Watching other hikers climb the pinnacle

Chicken ledge

Diamond Lake

 

Day 2: Exploring Crater Lake and “glamping” at Mazama Village Campground

With a relaxing day ahead of us, Mack and I took our time to get ready and pack up. Mack even spoiled himself with another shower. As we drove into Crater Lake National Park, we saw several PCT-ers along the highway (and many more once we got to Rim Village and Mazama Village). It got me very excited about our own PCT thru hike that we hope to do in a few years! We made it onto West Rim Drive around 9:30 am and were greeted with our first view of the lake. Needless to say, pictures will never do it justice. After making a few more stops along the rim to bask in the magnificence that is Crater Lake, we arrived at Mazama Village.

First view of Crater Lake

Wizard Island
Phantom Ship

Now, glamping (or “glamorous camping”) probably means different things to different people. The presence of a decent restaurant, bathrooms/showers, and a camper store was enough to consider this our first glamping experience. After setting up camp, enjoying a hot meal at Annie Creek restaurant, and letting our food settle, we hopped in the car and drove along the East Rim to Cleetwood Cove Trail. If one of your goals is to swim in Crater Lake when you visit, then Cleetwood Cove is a must on your “to do” list. Most people, especially parents with their children, tend to swim close to the boat ramp, so it can get pretty crowded. However, if you venture further left along the rocky shoreline—like we did—it’s easy to find a more secluded spot.

Following our short swim break, we trekked back up to the car and continued our drive along the rim. We stopped for a few more pictures at the Watchman Overlook, then headed back to Mazama Village, where we indulged in yet another hot meal at Annie Creek restaurant (and even splurged on some candy and ice cream at the camper store) before turning in for the night.

Swimming at Cleetwood Cove

 

Day 3: Crater Lake Rim Runs!

Since we needed to make the 6 am bus that would shuttle us to Watchman Overlook (the starting line for all the races), our day began early at around 4:30 am. I was happy we brought our Osprey Rev 1.5 hydration packs to run with. They were just spacious enough to fit our base layer shirts after we no longer needed to wear them; it was freezing up until the start of the race at 7:30 am, so the shirts were a definite must.

Although we hiked up to 9,100 ft two days prior, Mack and I never acclimated our bodies to running at the elevation of Crater Lake. I was actually kind of nervous when the 0.25 mile run to the bus wore me out. Fortunately, our bodies were so cold when the race finally began that it actually felt good to move fast. In fact, I can’t recall having any sort of negative reaction to the elevation—other than that 0.25 mile jaunt to the shuttle bus—throughout the entire race. Nonetheless, I know that going for a short run the day before would’ve been a smart thing to do.

The Crater Lake 13 miler extends from Watchman Overlook to the Whitebark Pine picnic area. It is an incredibly scenic run (all on Rim Drive) and the weather was downright perfect. However, it also proved to be incredibly difficult. Not only does the run take place at an altitude above 5,900 ft (nearing 8,000 ft by the end), but it gains about 2,000 ft. Nearly all of that gain is in the final 3 to 4 miles, which felt like one giant, endless hill. Despite all my uphill running in Forest Park, nothing could’ve prepared me for that final 3 to 4 mile stretch. At mile 11.5, Mack and I went our separate ways since we both deal with uphill running differently. Ironically, we still placed side by side (25th and 26th out of about 130) with only a minute separating our finishing times.

At the finish line, we were greeted with the works: Gatorade, bagels with peanut butter and/or cream cheese, bananas, graham crackers, and watermelon. (Sidenote: watermelon is the best post run snack ever.) We received our tech shirts and medals, and I found out that I placed 2nd in my age group! All in all, it was a successful race. Mack and I both agree that we’d definitely do this race again, and maybe next time run the full marathon!

Another note: we saw a PCT thru hiker (carrying all of his gear!) run past the 13 mile mark as if heading towards the marathon finish. We found out that he had been running the entire course! Wonder if he actually finished…

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Post-race at our Mazama campsite