Timberline Trail Route

Timberline Trail Route

The Timberline Trail circumnavigates Mt Hood mostly at timberline. The trail follows ridges, fords wild glacial creeks, traverses meadows and provides a look at Oregon’s largest mountain from every angle (assuming you have clear weather everyday! Eric and I have wanted to do this 40.2 mile trek since we moved to the Northwest three years ago. However, weather and wildfires got in our way on our first two summers here. We watched the forecast closely leading up to Labor Day weekend. A 60% chance of showers wwas predicted when we first looked on Monday, but by Wednesday evening it was down to 20%. We decided to go for it as the chances of have perfect weather for four days in a row is almost unheard of anyway. Below I give a day by day account of the Timberline Trail and current conditions. Overall, the trail is beautiful and offers enough forest crossing to escape the heat. Views of Mt Hood are splendid. I do not think the terrain is as rough as folks make it out to be, but this might be because I am an alpinist and used to much worse. The elevation gain involves so many switchbacks that it is hardly noticed. Creek crossing only required me to remove my shoes once and I did not find the flows dangerous (but this might have to do with  time of year and luck). Camps are dispersed even in places they did not appear on our beta, but they were mostly waterless in those cases.

Day 1: Timberline Lodge to Muddy Fork ( 13.8 miles/ 2335 ft gain)

We spent Thursday night in our car in the overflow parking lot of the Timberline Ski Area as per our normal pre-trail habit. At 6:00am the Friday morning we hoisted our packs and walked to the famed (and expensive) Timberline Lodge. The trail is located behind the lodge… in fact does of dirt and paved baths begin behind the lodge. Basically choose one and look for signs that Mount to either the PCT or The Timberline. Follow them until you reach one that provides arrows in both direction. Go left to follow the Timberline (and PCT) clockwise or right to go counter clockwise. Traditionally the trail is done clockwise (or so I read, but we saw many folks going counter-clockwise later) so that is the itinerary we chose.

About a mile into the pretty level track at timberline and meadows is a self-registration box where we picked up a free permit. We then carried on through the sparse trees and wildflowers we perfects views of the mountain. The junction are well marked. There is an area a few miles in where you can take the PCT (stock route) or the Paradise Loop Trail on the right which, though longer, is more scenic. We took the Paradise Loop trail and were treated to scores of wildflower meadows and lovely views of MT Hood from Paradise Park. This is a must do! We trail then loops back into the forest and rejoins the PCT.

We reached our first ford after switchbacking do the Little Zigzag Canyon. No need to remove shoes here. Just used some rocks. We then climbed back up a few switchbacks and continued through the forest until we reached the edge of the much larger Zigzag Canyon. It looks like the trail disappears here, but if you look left along the edge of the canyon you will see a sandy path. Follow it through some overgrown thick blueberries. Sometimes the trail branches. Just choose a direction… you will know it is wrong because it just dead-ends in a few feet. Eventually we camp out to a clean trail (not sure where it came from). We just followed it down to the Zigzag River over lots and lots of LONG switchbacks. The crossing, again, was not difficult. The climb back to the top of the ridge on the opposite side was said to be difficult, but the long switchbacks made the elevation gain negligible to us.

The trail then wanders through the forest until it reaches the Sandy River. Some had died when the bridge crossing this river (on a nearby trail) had gone out while he was crossing several weeks before in a flash flood. The river was not as stormy now and, though wide, it was easy to get across using rocks.

We climbs to the top of a bench, past a huge camping area to Ramona Falls. We could have camped here at the 11 mile mark, but decided to press on since it was only noon. The trail went up through the forest and crosses some slide areas. Go through the sides quickly, but carefully. Finally we reached the Muddy Fork. There is a big camping area just before the corssing. However, there a smaller single camp on the far side after crossing a few little steams near a rock pile. This is the camp we stayed at.

It had grown misty and the terrain looked like Iceland to me. However, Mt Hood broke through the clouds for a little bit while i was out scouting the next River crossing since we’d be starting before daylight the following morning. A group of teenage boys accompaided by two adults came by. We had passed them on the trail earlier as they trudged slowly along. I told them (it was 4pm at the time) that the next marked camped at Carin Basin wasn’t until another 7 miles. The lead teenage boy talked a bit with his group and claimed that they had several more hours of daylight and they would press on (the adults looks unhappy about this). I took Eric to the next creek ford to show his where thought we should cross about 30 minutes later…. the group was just finishing the crossing. I don’t know what became of them as we never saw them again (but they were only doing an overnight).

Day 2: Muddy Fork to Elk Cove & and McNeil Point side-trip (10.5 miles/ 3868 ft gain)

We packed up our camp in a heavy mist in the darkness of early morning. After crossing two more creeks a light rain begin to fall. We covered our packs and donned our gore-tex shells. We expected some moisture from the 20% chance of rain anyway, so we weren;t surprised. Besides, the rain didn’t matter too much as we climbed switchbacks up the side of the ridge since we stayed in the forest. We did come out into the open as we traverse just below the summit to Bald Mountain. The rain was much harder by then, but we went back into the forest quickly.

It seemed to have stopped by the time we reached the unmarked junction to the McNeil Point via a scramble path. This scramble path is on about mile 18 of the Timberline and right after 4 switchbacks up a slope. It is says to be obvious, but I don’t think i would have noticed if I wasn’t watching for it. We hid our packs in the forest off the trail and headed up the scramble path. It was mostly a very steep hike (no switchbacks here!) with maybe 2 class 2 scramble moves near the top near the shelter. The mist was heavy, so we could not see Mt Hood. However, we could see the lowers glacier and crevasses along with the valley floor. There are a few trails that lead to the McNeil Point Shelter (indeed we’d pass a marked trail junction from the Timberline a  few hours later). There was also a trail the followed the ridge to higher ground. We began to follow this trail to get a better look at the glacier. We began to walk up noting that the sun seemed to be trying the break through the clouds. Fifteen minutes later the rain began.

This wasn’t the same light rain from before. No. This was a freezing, heavy rain that drenched us in a mater of minutes. We trudged up for a little while longer before giving up and heading back to the shelter. We took refuge in the stone struction for about ten minutes, but resigning to the fact that it wasn’t stopping. We headed back to the Timberline Trail.

Our pants were soaked through while we reached our packs. We saw folks passing using them tent flys as rain protection. Our gotetex coats were still holding up luckily. We tossed on our packs and began to walk again. We passed many folks going the opposite directs. Many commented on the 20% chance of “showers” that had been forecasted. No one expected this kind of freezing rain. Rain that eventually made our jackets fail and somehow go beneath our gaitors and goretex boot soaking our socks. We crossed a few creeks and traversed meadows and glens filled with every color wildflower imaginable. I found beauty in this even in my drenched state. The mountain views are known to we wonderful in this section too, but i can’t report on that; it was hidden is mist.

We arrived at Elk Cove, a lovely wildflower meadow at about 1pm. We took a side trail leading to a large campsite under a stand of trees. We chose to put up our tent in a narrow stand of the trees were the branches were thickest hoping for some protection. Be positively leaped into the tent once we had it up and peeled off our sticky, wet pants. We hung the pants on the tent under the rain-fly as best we could. Walks poured from my socks as a squeezed them out. nothing but water everywhere. We slithered into our sleeping bacg listening the the rain and, a new guest to the party, heavy wind.

Several hours later after snacking in the tent (a huge no-no for me but I made an exception as long as we were careful with crumbs) and listening to the weather we decided that the next time there was a break in the rain (and by break I mean slightly lighter rain) we go out to cook and get water. This occasion occurred at 4:30pm.

Eric and I quickly slipped into our rain pants (the only dry pants we had ironically) and bolted outside. I got the stove started and eric headed from the creek. A backpacker with a dog passed by and asked if he could please share our site, no other s were left. Of course I said. He set up his tent and disappeared inside.

We ate dinner inside the tent… another exception. With nothing else to do we rearranged our soaked clothes for attempted drying and turned in. The rain stopped at around mid-night (I didn’t sleep well). But the wind howled on..

Day 3: Elk Cove to Newton Creek (11.9 miles/ 3054 ft gain)

On the third day we woke up at our normal 4:30am to wind, but not rain. We broke camp at 6:30am, late for us but Eric wanted to wait for the winds to calm more. As we left Elk Cove the sky was clearing. We the sun began the shine as we wove through a burn area in the timber and, when we rounded a corner, Mt. Hood’s North face loomed in from of us with seldom seen Cle Glacier covering the face. It was a great way to begin the day. Plus, now our still wet pants might dry int he sunshine!

We were going to have to cross the reported treacherous Eliot Creek that day and wanted to do so during the morning when the water level was lower. We scampered over Coe Creek just above a massive waterfall (an easy crossing through I’ve heard it can be horrible). Then we crossed Compass Creek just below two gorgeous waterfalls and some melting snow.

Indeed we reached the infamous Eliot Crossing at 9:30am. There was once only a small creek here, but in 2007 a massive slide & flood took out the bridge and created a truly massive gulley (perhaps 800 feet down) and much to wide for a bridge. The trail was closed, but someone installed a rope where the bridge was and folks used that. Then antoher slide too our the rope and made the gulley wider. I’d read and saw photos of the ways to get around this. Some folks follow the edge of the gulley up the the glacier and cross there to the other side. I had also read reports of a new rope installed further up the gulley.

A few logs blocked the trail at the crossing. I piece of wood nailed to the tree had “Don’t do it” carved into the wood. I assume it was once a more official sign. A very obvious trail takes off to the right. We followed this very steeply up for about .25 miles. There are lots of carins and the trail is clear. We turned off this trail at a tree with a pink ribbon where we also saw carins heading down the gulley. We could see a trail on the other side switch-backing up the slope. I had read this method of crossing was difficult and dangerous. I do not agree that it was difficult. It was no different than dealing with crappy talus and steep slopes on mountain ascents… but it might be for an everyday hiker/backpacker. It could be dangerous as there is lots of loose rock and unstable ground. I agree there. There was a white rope to help with some of the descent. Carins marked the way clearly to the bottom. I did take off my shoes for this crossing, though Eric opted to make some big leaps from rocks.

Once on the other side we followed the carins up switchback and another rope to the top meeting with the Timberline again. There was, indeed, a “trail closed” sign here. No one paid attention to it though.

The trail wanders through rocky and sanding ground passing Cooper Spur. It leaves the Timberline and weaves though rocky slopes (the trail is not rocky though). This is alpine land and snow fields lingered into September. They can be more dangerous early season I’ve heard. But we did not feel the need to take out our our  ice axes this late in the year. The mist had cloaked the high slopes at this point giving the trek an eerie alpine feeling. Large rock piles with stocks marked the way for such heavy mist (and snow early season I predict). The elevation gain was again gradual. The highpoint is 7300 feet.

We descended from there to Gnarl Ridge which had lots of day hikers and some views of lower Mt Hood and its glacier creeks. It was pretty even in the mist and must be breathtaking when the mountain is fully out. After following the ridge for a bit the trail descents int he timberline again and cuts through Lamberson Butte before it sidehills for about one mile down the Newton Creek. A rope assists in getting up the steep slope on the other side. There are several camps just in the trees here near a flowing creek. We took a camp further back from the trail and met up again with the man and his dog who had camped beside us in the rain.

We laid our clothes that were still damp on some logs hoping they would dry a bit overnight. The mountain revealed itself as we ate our final dinner in the back country.

Day 4: Newton Creek to Timberline Lodge (8.3 miles/ 2315 ft gain)

On our final day we began walking at 5:30am. Eric was moving slow as the calorie deficit caught up with him, but I was still strangely still moving fast (at least for me). We gradually climbed the side of a ridge and wove around the other side of it (common on this trail). We descended briefly to Clark Creek and crossed without any problems. Mt. Hood glowed in the early sunlight. We them climbed again and crossed through Mt Hood Meadows Ski Area. The meadows, full of flowers and ghostly ski lifts seems to last forever. At least stand of trees separating the different ski tracks provides some shade from the bright sun. Finally we re-entered the forest after crossing a dirt road. There is a creek just before this road and it is the final creek that you can get water from before the White River Valley (the White River is too silty to drink from).

The trail switch backs down the ridge for a very long time before finally coming to the bouldery, sandy bottom of the White River Valley. We followed a clear trail and carins through the valley and used rocks to cross two branches of the White River. Mt Hood’s south face loomed above.

From here the trail goes back into the forest and follows the ridge up. Mt Hood is almost always in view and the shade is sparse here. You can see the ski lifts from very far off and the Timberline Lodge comes into view opposite the ridge you are on about .75 miles before we actually reach it. The Timberline Ski Lifts were running and people we skiing down the Palmer Glacier. We found our way through the maze of trails behind the Timberline Lodge and were greeted my hordes of tourist visiting for Labor Day. They probably did not enjoy our smell as we made our way back to the cart thinking of showers and  sandwiches!