Timberline Trail

  • Date: September 15, 2018
  • Start: Timberline Lodge
  • Location: Mount Hood
  • Distance: 42 miles
  • Duration: 14 hours 46 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Loop

Each downhill stride shot searing pain through my knees, as if they were on the verge of bursting. We were 30+ miles into our Wy’east circumnav and thoughts of self doubt were running rampant in my head. The sound of rushing water was the light at the end of the tunnel at the moment. Ramona Falls was just ahead and we’d be taking our last “big” break before pushing through the final ten miles. But it was still ten miles. Ten more miles on knees that could barely take baby steps with trekking poles let alone run. Once at the falls, I watched the water cascade down the moss-covered basalt columns before me, breathing deep, massaging my aching knees, and reminding myself that despite this current low point, our day so far had been one of the most fulfilling of the summer.

We pulled into Timberline following a mostly sleepless night. It was about 4 am and sunrise wasn’t for another couple of hours. Stepping out into the stinging cold to finish organizing our gear was unmotivating to say the least, so we curled up in the front seats with the heater on for a little while longer. We finally got our legs moving just before 5 am, heading out counter-clockwise toward White River. Despite running downhill as we dropped into the canyon, it was slow going in the dark. Crossing White River was a surprisingly easy rock-hop (unlike the previous time just a few weeks earlier) and soon we were power-hiking uphill to reach the Mount Hood Meadows area. Now a few miles in, the need for headlamps gradually diminished as we watched the sun light up Wy’east, bathing it in that pink alpenglow that I’m so fortunate to have witnessed time and time again.

We picked up our pace now that we could see more clearly, seemingly racing the sun as it began to flood Wy’east’s lower slopes and canyons with daylight. It was the final weekend of summer and fall colors were already starting to transform the grassy hillsides that we ran alongside. We crossed a few more creeks, following the trail as it dipped up and down into the various canyons housing them [the creeks] until we began the longer ascent on Gnarl Ridge, moving through a dense forest of mountain hemlock and subalpine fir, then thickets of my favorite tree in the area, the rugged and mysterious whitebark pine, a sign that we were nearing treeline.

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Soon enough we were out of the forest and face-to-face with Wy’east, looking out at the Newton Clark Glacier encompassing her southeast flanks. Newton Creek flowed far below in the depths of the canyon. It was almost incomprehensible that we’d crossed it only a few miles prior! The blue skies with a smattering of streaky watercolor-esque clouds were a hopeful sign that we’d at least get decent weather during the most exposed and somewhat more technical part of the route. We finally got to enjoy some mellow downhill as we traversed the barren, rocky terrain of the mountain’s east side. The views from this side have always been some of my favorite as well, so I was even more grateful for the current bluebird conditions.

From the trail we could make out the Cooper Spur route we’d climbed back in May, as well as the magnificent Eliot Glacier sprawled out below Wy’east’s intimidating north face. After passing below the Cooper Spur shelter we continued on the spine of the Eliot east-moraine to get in some proper ridge running. At Cloud Cap Saddle Campground we decided to pause for a quick snack and bathroom break before tackling the next section that would take us to our halfway point. Fifteen or so miles in and still feeling fresh! I couldn’t believe we were actually doing it! Of course we still had a marathon to go.

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If we had tried to do this run a couple years ago, I would’ve planned our entire route around crossing the Eliot at a “safe” time of day. Thankfully, with the new official trail that was cut on either side of it, I didn’t lose any sleep over it. From the campground we sped down the switchbacks, crossed the Eliot on a log,–so much easier and faster than the crossing we made back in 2015!–then power-hiked up the switchbacks on the opposite side. The next few miles to Elk Cove, our halfway point, are kind of a blur in my memory. Nothing about these miles was a bore of course, but I only really remember being very focused on reaching Elk Cove so I could finally have lunch and refill my flask. As we ran, the afternoon forecast finally came true and dark clouds enveloped Wy’east. At least we’d enjoyed some stellar views on the east side!

The usual view of the mountain from Elk Cove was non-existent due to the cloud cover, but we were thankful that it wasn’t raining. We’d run over 20 miles now, so it felt great to sit down, stretch out, and enjoy the veggie burritos Mack had made for us. It was also cold though, so we ate quickly, refilled our flasks, and got moving again. The next ten or so miles to Ramona felt clumsy, slow, and then painful near the end, like a switch had turned in me at Elk Cove. I took a spill while running through Cairn Basin and split open the small gash I already had on my knee from when I’d climbed Black Peak a couple weekends earlier. I patched it up with a band-aid, but I was definitely a little grumpier after that.

I’d been looking forward to running downhill along the Bald Mountain ridge as it was an area I was very familiar with. By the time we got to it though, my knees were already starting to act up, and I’d also somehow forgotten how technical the trail became with all the gnarled tree roots covering the path in sections. There’s a good chance I was moving even slower downhill than I had when we’d been climbing uphill. I was able to push a little more once we were on smoother, less technical single track past the Top Spur Trail junction, but less than a mile out from Ramona my knees had had it and I was forced to hobble it in from there despite the totally runnable terrain.

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Ramona was a sight for sore eyes and, in my case, very sore knees. I was reluctant to leave, especially in the pain I was in. Fortunately, after crossing the Sandy, much of this part of the Timberline was uphill to Paradise Park  on the southwest side of the mountain. Seeing as we’d already put in over 30 miles, we decided to power-hike rather than run this portion, giving the ibuprofen I’d taken at Ramona a chance to kick-in and alleviate the swelling and pain in my knees. I was finally on my second wind and even Mack had a difficult time keeping up with my uphill hiking pace (a rarity I definitely savored).

The dense forest eventually gave way to open slopes carpeted in bright red mountain ash berries and their yellowing leaves mixed with the crimson tint of late season huckleberry bushes. We were back in another autumn wonderland for a brief moment before stepping back into the forest. At this point we were basically paralleling the Paradise Park trail. No longer moving uphill, we started to run again, passing the junction with the Paradise Park Loop Trail, equally ecstatic and exhausted about the five or so miles we had left. Once we dropped down into Zigzag Canyon and crossed the river, we knew we were in the homestretch.

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The climb up from the river to the Zigzag Canyon overlook felt grueling and never-ending (although it was really nothing compared to some of the day’s earlier climbs). Fortunately, it was our last bigger climb of the day. The final 2-2.5 miles would be mellow undulating. Although the iconic view of Wy’east from the overlook was obscured by clouds, we enjoyed witnessing the final light of day pierce through the overcast skies to the west. With that, we scampered off down the trail, waiting anxiously for Timberline Lodge to come into view and let us know we were near the end.

I grew incredibly impatient after a few minutes of not seeing it. My view was consistently blocked by trees or a small hill. At least when you approach from the opposite direction you can see the lodge and the parking lot for the entire last mile! Only in the final minute or so of our run did the those inviting, glowing windows finally appear, guiding us down as night began to fall on the mountain. Without stopping we continued across the parking lot until we reached the car, our official starting point and now our official stopping point. Our summer had now come to an end with the setting sun, but new goals for next season were already brewing between us. Despite being famished and in dire need of a nap, all we could talk about was how we could incorporate the Timberline Trail into an even bigger adventure. I guess we’ll be back in 2019!

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Timberline Trail

(Original post date: October 9, 2015)

  • Date: October 3-4, 2015
  • Location: Mount Hood
  • Start: Timberline Lodge
  • Distance: 41 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Type: Loop
  • Map: Adventure Maps: Mount Hood Area
  • References: Backpacking Oregon by Douglas Lorain; Oregon Hikers

The Timberline Trail was not really on my radar until earlier this summer when I completed a few hikes on Mount Hood with the Cascadia Women’s Mountain Group. All of our hikes began from Timberline Lodge, so signage for the Timberline Trail was fairly heavy. After doing more research on it and finding out that it’s a relatively “short” long distance hike (41 miles, more or less), Mack and I decided it might be another fun addition to our summer adventures. Unfortunately, between the Wallowas trip, the Mount Thielsen/Crater Lake trip, and my NOLS Trip Leader Seminar, the prospect of hiking it during the prime month of August diminished over time. By the end of the month, we’d decided to let the notion go until the following summer.

Once September began and my Fall teaching schedule filled up, I started getting restless. I desperately wanted to be back out on the trail—not the Timberline per se, just a trail—even just for a weekend. The Timberline popped back into my head again. About three weeks ago, on a whim, we decided to set aside the first weekend of October to make it happen.

Now, most people take 3-5 days to complete it. When broken up into that many days, the hike is actually pretty moderate. Due to our schedules and the difficulty of taking a weekday off, we decided to hike it clockwise in two days (20 miles the first day, 21 miles the second), spending our one night at Cairn Basin. Initially, I wanted to hike it counter-clockwise so that the greater mileage and more difficult terrain would be on the first day, and we would end with the less strenuous section. However, after studying the river/creek crossings, I realized we wouldn’t reach the most serious of these (Eliot Branch) until late afternoon/early evening the first day. Ideally, we wanted to do this one (and most of the other crossings) much earlier in the day, so we switched to a clockwise itinerary.

Despite being a short overnighter, Mack and I still packed all of our layers (puff/insulated jacket, fleece, rain jacket, and rain pants), as well as sandals for water crossings. All of these—except maybe the rain jacket—ended up being necessary, so we didn’t regret bringing the extra weight. In general, it was much easier to prepare for this trip because we only needed to pack enough food for two days. In fact, the most difficult part of the preparation was researching the navigation over/around Eliot Branch because the area has been closed since the bridge was washed out in 2006. Not knowing what to expect, even after reading several articles and trip reports, left me feeling anxious. But, as you’ll read in my trip report below, the navigation didn’t end up being an issue.

In the end, our Timberline Trail weekend left us haggard, sleep deprived, and unable to take two steps without groaning. But—and I can’t stress this enough—it was totally worth it. We pushed ourselves mentally and physically in a way we hadn’t done before; we got to immerse ourselves in the incredible beauty that is the Mount Hood Wilderness; we completed our first thru-hike of a long distance trail; and, above all, we had fun doing it and can’t wait to attempt our next long distance trail.

Timberline Trail 2
Adventure Maps: Mount Hood Area Hiking, Riding & Climbing Map

 

Day 1: Timberline Lodge to Cairn Basin, clockwise (20 miles; 8 hours 15 minutes, breaks not included)

We arrived at Timberline Lodge around 5:15 am. It was still pitch black outside and the outline of the mountain was barely discernable. After taking care of some miscellaneous tasks (wilderness permit, bio breaks, last minute organizing), we finally hit the trail at 5:45 am. Despite feeling a little more on edge because it was still dark out and only our headlamps lit the path in front of us, we were fortunate to have such a peaceful, private morning trek—one of the upsides of hiking the Timberline in the Fall rather than the Summer.

Rays of light streamed through the trees as the sun rose behind them sometime after 7 am. I was looking forward to getting a glimpse of Mount Hood, but it remained shrouded in clouds. After crossing Zigzag River and climbing back out of the canyon, we ended up at a junction with the Paradise Park Loop Trail. As recommended by Douglas Lorain (who provides a Timberline Trail trip report in his Backpacking Oregon book), we opted for the more scenic Paradise Park way. There’s no loss of mileage by taking this alternative and it eventually meets up with the Timberline Trail after you leave Paradise Park. This area is very popular in the summer months because it’s blanketed in wildflowers. Although we arrived too late to experience the flowers, the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows of Fall completely made up for it. After filling up with a second breakfast—our first one was at 3:30 am—at the junction with Timberline, we continued on to our next stop, Ramona Falls.

The 4 miles to Ramona Falls were pretty uneventful; a nice, easy stroll through the forest. We reached our first major water crossing at the Sandy River. Despite the warnings and cautionary tales, it ended up being one of our easier crossings since someone had placed a downed log over it. I’ll admit it wasn’t as secure as I’d hoped it would be, but it got the job done. We lunched at Ramona Falls (mile 10 of 20) and enjoyed the spot with a few other hikers/backpackers who were equally mesmerized by the numerous trails of water cascading over the massive rock wall.

Paradise Park

Sandy River

Ramona Falls

The hike to Cairn Basin from Ramona Falls continued to stay on the less strenuous side. It didn’t even feel like we’d already hiked 10+ miles! We faced a little more difficulty once we reached Muddy Fork. After walking up and down for a few minutes, we concluded there was no safe way to rock hop across. We spent some time changing into sandals and, instead of clipping our boots to the outside of our packs, threw them across the river. It wasn’t very wide, so I didn’t feel uneasy about it. In general though, it’s probably not the smartest thing to do. The water was ice cold when we stepped in, but, fortunately, wasn’t very deep. We took a few more minutes to dry our feet before stepping back into our socks and boots. The overall process of crossing probably took 20 to 30 minutes.

Soon after the Muddy Fork crossing, we came to a junction with the PCT and began our last leg of the day—3.7 miles left until Cairn Basin! Of course, I hadn’t looked closely at the contour lines for this final section before we started it. It was all uphill. The going was slow (and our patience ran thin near the end), but we did end up getting some beautiful views of Hood’s magnificent glaciers as we traversed the exposed Bald Mountain Ridge. We also got to walk through some golden meadows and small watering holes as we continued to climb higher. We finally arrived at Cairn Basin around 5 pm.  It was completely empty. We set up camp within a grove of widely spaced trees, adjacent to an eerily beautiful burnt forest area. Although the sun was still up, Mack and I were both so exhausted and sleep deprived that we quickly ate dinner and immediately turned in for the night.

Mack almost stepped on this little guy because he blended in so well!

Muddy Fork crossing

View from Bald Mountain Ridge

Stone shelter at Cairn Basin
Cairn Basin campsite
Timberline Trail through Cairn Basin

 

Day 2: Cairn Basin to Timberline Lodge, clockwise (21 miles; 11 hours 1 minute, breaks not included)

Gale force winds kept us up most of the night. I was constantly peering outside to make sure the rainfly was still staked down. The wind was still going strong when we woke up around 4 am to get ready. In an effort to stay warm, we packed up as fast as we could and headlamped it out by 4:45 am. Not five minutes later, we reached our first water crossing of the day. It was still pitch black outside. The crossing itself ended up being pretty simple, but finding the trail on the other side was a bit more difficult. Fortunately, it didn’t take too much scouting to pick it up again and we continued on to Elk Cove.

We passed the Vista Ridge and Pinnacle Ridge trail junctions in good time and made it to Elk Cove just before sunrise. Elk Cove is a beautiful meadow area; I imagine it’s absolutely stunning during wildflower season. There are several nearby campsites, too, so I would definitely consider staying here on our next backpacking trip in the area. In addition, the meadow offers incredible, unobscured views of Hood, so we were able to see the sunrise over the mountain. After breakfasting here, we continued to Eliot Branch. Vibrant red, yellow, orange, and green foliage lined the trail much of the way. It was like walking through a painting!

Elk Meadows

Coe Branch crossing

The Coe Branch and Compass Creek crossings were quick and painless. Eventually, though, we made it to the top of the west moraine overlooking the Eliot Branch. Thankfully, the descent, as well as the ascent on the east moraine on the other side, are well marked with numerous cairns. I didn’t even need to look at the various printouts that I’d brought along just in case. However, executing the descent, and the crossing itself, was a totally different story. Descending the steep, scree slope of the west moraine was terrifying and tedious, even with the rope made available to us. I slid much of the way down, breathing a huge sigh of relief once I reached the base.

We hiked quite a ways upstream before attempting to cross. The first didn’t work out too well; I fell into the Eliot Branch, but, fortunately, the current wasn’t strong enough to pull me further downstream. Following that scare, we walked up further and found a spot with enough stepping stones to make it across. The tediousness continued once we made it to the other side. The rock field we had to navigate through was treacherous, with lots of loose boulders. We finally made it to the base of the east moraine and quickly ascended. It was not nearly as steep as the west moraine. Overall, the entire crossing (including the descent and ascent of the moraines) took 75 minutes and covered almost no miles.

After lunching somewhere between Cloud Cap Inn and the Cooper Spur junction, we began the long and uneventful stretch of trail to Lamberson Butte. The terrain was comprised of rock and scree rather than packed dirt, so it didn’t feel great on our already sore feet. We did have 360° views since there aren’t any trees on this part of the trail. We could see for miles and miles east of us into the dry, desert part of Oregon and, to our right, views of Eliot and Newton Clark Glacier on the slopes of Hood. Getting to the Gnarl Ridge Trail junction felt like forever and we were nearly out of water with 8 miles left to hike. This was the low point of the entire trip for me, where I questioned why I thought it would be a good idea to do this trip in two days.

Descending the West Moraine

Attempting to cross the Eliot Branch

Ascending the East Moraine

Cloud Cap Inn located in the lower right corner

I felt slightly better when we arrived at Newton Creek. Mack and I stocked up on water despite the fact that it was silty. Ironically, after crossing Newton, we found a natural spring with CLEAR water just a little ways up the trail. My spirits were still a little low when we forded Clark Creek,—which we had to do in sandals, so it took more time than expected—but then we reached this beautiful waterfall surrounded by the Fall colors I hadn’t seen since the morning. The hike suddenly became much easier at this point.

We passed through the golden fields of the Mount Hood Meadows Ski Area, hiking fast seeing as it was late in the afternoon already. At 5 pm, we reached the junction with the Umbrella Falls Trail. Just 4 miles left! We were pretty famished at this point, so we took a short break to snack before hauling ass to Timberline Lodge. It was mostly downhill, but after crossing White River, the grade became steeper as we climbed out of the canyon. The final 1.5 mile stretch was basically all uphill, but we did get our first view of the lodge since leaving it the previous morning! The sun began to set as we rounded the final curves of the trail, basking the mountain in a pink-orange glow. We reached the parking lot at 6:57 pm with just enough light left to get celebratory pictures in front of the lodge.

One of the most beautiful sections of the entire trip

White River crossing

First view of Timberline Lodge since leaving the previous morning
Mount Hood at sunset
Mount Jefferson