As middle age was approaching, which happened to sneak-up on me way too fast, I started thinking about personal things that I really wanted to accomplish. I guess you could use the term ‘bucket list’, but that seems cliché. Plus, I’m not even near as old as Jack Nicholson or Morgan Freeman. Anyway, one of the things I regularly enjoy is hiking. I do dabble in backpacking, but I’ve never done an extended trip. For me, I’m fine sleeping in the woods with minimal crap for one night. The thought of setting up and tearing down every day after putting in many miles sounded daunting. However, the Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood has always been appealing. I read it’s one of the finest backpacking loops in America. I’ve also seen many photos and they left my eyes wanting more. About a year ago, I decided to do it in 2020. My friend, Art from Philly was supposed to be joining me, but COVID put a damper on that. I really wish we could’ve experienced the adventure together.
I set my alarm for 6 am on Sunday, August 9th. Living in Portland, I’m only about an hour and twenty-minute drive to Timberline Lodge where I was set to begin my adventure. I ended up getting to the parking lot around 8 am. It’s a huge lot and you don’t need to pay or have a permit. You just need to remember where you parked your rig so you can find it when you return. I did a few stretches, took a couple more sips of coffee, put my boots on, and strapped on my pack. This was it. I headed to the starting point, which is a short jaunt up the hill above the lodge. I was hearing voices in my head saying, “Are you really doing this?”, and “you brought to much stuff”. Yes, I’m doing this, damn it, and yes, my pack should be lighter. With those questions laid to rest, the plan was to tackle the route clockwise. The only reason I decided to do it clockwise was that most of the information I read said it was the most popular route. On that note, I highly recommend doing research when setting off on any type of hike or backpacking trip. Get to know the area, the terrain, the trail conditions, etc. Here are some sources that were very helpful for me when preparing for the Timberline Trail:
- Oregon Hiker’s ‘Timberline Trail Around Mount Hood Hike’
- Clever Hiker’s ‘Timberline Trail Backpacking Guide’
- Halfway Anywhere’s ‘Guide to Hiking the Timberline Trail’
- USDA Timberline National Historic Trail #600
- Section Hiker’s ‘9 Expert Stream Crossing Tips’
- The Adventure Continues ‘Timberline Trail 2020’
- Green Trails Map
- Gaia GPS App
I started the trail with about a half-dozen other people, some day hikers, some backpackers. We all had to sign-in at the permit box that was located not far from the trailhead. This broke up the group as it took a few minutes to fill-out the free, self-issued backcountry permit. The views were already stunning. The mountain was right there and the sky was so clear that you could see for miles. This was the case for most of the trip.
I read the first leg of the Timberline trail is a warm-up. I thought it was slightly more than that, but I’m an old, grumpy gramps. I will say it is much easier than the 2nd and 3rd leg. It wasn’t nearly as challenging, but there’s still a fair amount of elevation gain. My first real obstacle was the Sandy River, but the rock cairns across the wide, rocky river bed led me to a few logs that someone spent some time placing to help make the crossing easier for the rest of us. Once crossed, I set -up camp for the evening. There are a number of nice camping spots on either side of the river. Of course, I chose the site where someone had recently dug a cathole nearby. I only noticed this after I was set-up and a breeze blew in an unpleasant smell. Fortunately, the winds calmed, and sleeping odor-free was in my forecast. On that note, please don’t poop where you eat and sleep.
I woke up later than I wished on Monday. I think all of the prepping and restlessness the night before beginning the trail wore me out. I was back at it around 8:30 am. My first pit stop was right up the trail. Ramona Falls. Man, she’s a beauty. I’ve been to a lot of areas on Mt. Hood, but I’d never seen Ramona. Pure loveliness.
From Ramona I knew it was going to be a long, slow-footed, up-hill ascent. I think it was approximately 2500-3000 ft. in elevation gain. Once again though, the beauty that surrounds you keeps you stimulated and helps fuel you on. On this leg, there’s a Timberline Trail short-cut to shave off about a mile if you want. I highly suggest not taking it. The views on the one-mile stretch are definitely worth the extra steps.
It was on the second leg that I came across another solo hiker named, Zoe. I immediately noticed her full-frame camera. That sparked-up a nice conversation. I told her I was this close to bringing my full-frame, but I rented a smaller camera instead. It’s always cool to meet other Photogs. We’d ended up playing leapfrog for the remainder of the trip.
I made it to my second, ‘top secret’ camp destination. Most people camp at Elk Cove on this leg, but I choose a place that I had previously camped at on a one-night outing as I knew there would be fewer people. It was as beautiful as I remembered. I even saw a Marten! I’ve never seen a Marten. He was curious about me, but soon scurried away. That night the wind howled. My tent made so much noise that it made sleeping difficult. I wish I’d brought earplugs.
The next morning, I was on the trail at 7:30 am. This is where I ran into Pilgrim. He was retired, had a nice sized, beer-like belly, and later I found out he completed more than 1,000 miles on the PCT before running into snow. He was an inspiration. He ended up trading leads with Zoe and I for the rest of the day.
So, today’s big challenge was the Elliot Creek crossing and the section after Cloud Cap. However, I first found out that the Coe Creek Crossing was going to test my leaping abilities. As I approached Coe, I saw two folks cross. One person walked right through the creek with their boots on, and the other jumped some very spaced rocks. I choose the rock jumping option. I figured my long legs could get it done and I wouldn’t have to deal with wet boots. Well, that didn’t happen. I slipped off one rock and one of my boots got soaked. I was thankful that only my boot got wet and I didn’t take a spill. It could’ve been worse. Kids, don’t do what this idiot did. I learned my lesson.
Onward to the roar of Eliot Creek. The sound only intensified as you descended the long, switchback trail into the canyon. The butterflies in my stomach wanted out. I was hopeful that the large log mentioned in The Adventure Continues ‘Timberline Trail 2020’ was still there. Thankfully it was. However, getting to the log was the challenge. The banks were steep and the gravel was loose. One wrong move here and you could be hanging out with the crash test dummies. Zoe was ahead of Pilgrim and I. We saw her route and followed. Zoe made it across safely. I was behind Pilgrim. He made his way into the canyon and crossed the log. I followed suit. We all made it up the other side of the canyon and continued the long, laborious uphill climb to Cloud Cap.
Cloud Cap has a small picnic/camp area. Pilgrim and I took a break and sat at a picnic table. We both ate some food and I filtered some water that was in my pack. The upcoming journey across Mt Hood’s NE side was going to long and hot. There would be no shade and little water. Be sure you have plenty of water before you arrive at Cloud Cap. After lunch, the adventure continued. I parted ways with Pilgrim. He left shortly after. I came across Zoe eating lunch up the trail. As much as I like being alone at times, it’s nice to be around good people, plus it adds another layer of safety.
After a short hike through the forest, I was greeted by vast openness and a very sandy and rocky trail. Nothing like hiking in sand. Wholly shit. The entire section of the trail was grueling. I nicked-named it’ ‘Beautiful Hell’. The sun was hot, and every time you thought you were almost at the top you were handed a big laughing emoji and a billboard that read ‘SUCKER’. I used several choice words throughout the day. Zoe told me one fellow hiker said she was almost there. That was not the case. Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut. I ended up getting close to running out of water too. Thankfully, there were a few trickling glacier streams to refill my bottles. As much as this section was physically and mentally challenging, it did present us with beautiful scenery.
Once we all finally reached the high point it was mostly downhill to Newton Creek. This would be our final camping spot, but before arriving we had to cross Newton. This time I wasn’t going to play chicken with logs or rocks. The river was moving swiftly. There was a janky, log crossing that looked sketchy. I picked a calmer area and tested out the depth of the creek with my hiking poles. All seemed good and across I went. My boots and socks got soaked, but camp was right on the other side. They had the night to dry out, which they never completely did.
Before crashing that evening, Pilgrim said he’d offer me a cigar, but that he only had one left. He did offer me some Brandy though. I thought that was very nice of him, but I politely declined. I did check out his super-lightweight, Zpacks tent. It was fantastic and you could tell Pilgrim clearly loved it. I’ll have to add it to my ‘Future Gear to Buy List’.
Rain. WT%! That was my wake-up call. I heard sprinkles on my tent and immediately jumped out of bed to avoid having the rest of my gear get wet. When I came across Zoe later that morning on the trail she said the same thing. The rain made her jump out of bed. She also said Pilgrim woke up super early and high-tailed it out of there. I was hoping to say goodbye. It was a pleasure sharing a few moments with him.
There was one more river crossing to complete after Clark Creek. The White River. This was pretty easy in terms of the water portion, but getting up the other side of the +/-10ft., steep embankment was a doozy. I followed Zoe’s lines. I was worried about both of us, but we both made it out safely. The remainder of the hike was pretty much all uphill and crossed through the Mt. Hood Meadows ski area. There were some beautiful wildflower displays here and on the rest of the leg. Come to think of it, there were tons of gorgeous wildflowers to take-in on the entire trip.
Soon, I could see the Timberline Lodge ski lifts come into view. Next, the parking lot and the lodge itself. The end was near. I felt so happy and proud, but it was also bittersweet. Four of us had made it back at the same time. One guy said jokingly, “are you ready to go around again?” I think we thought about it for a hot second. Zoe and I cheered each other with our hiking poles and we all went back to find our wheels. The drive home was a blur. I was super stoked at first about what I had accomplished, but then I felt a stoned-like feeling. This changed when I pulled up to the house. I was excited to see my wonderful wife, Wendy and our little, 17-pound canine critter, Daisy. I also was looking forward to talking with my family. A pie from our neighborhood haunt, Ranch Pizza topped off the evening before retiring to a much welcomed, real bed.
THINGS I LEARNED
1. Don’t rely on cell service:
I looked at a Verizon Coverage Map and felt pretty comfortable that I’d have service for most for the trip. This was not the case. I should’ve rented or purchased an emergency locator/messenger, like the Garmin inReach.
2. Only pack what you need:
I probably could’ve dropped at least 5 pounds. I took way too much food, a camera tripod (only used it 1 time), a giant, brick power bank (still fully charged after the trip), and a Bear Vault 450. A note on the Bear Vault. I love it for organization and it sure beats hanging a sack from a tree limb, but it weighs slightly over 2 lbs. I know, 2 lbs. doesn’t sound like much, but it all adds up quickly. If you enjoy trying to hang a sack in a tree than go that route. I don’t want to deal with that at the end of the day, plus I always seem to forget to put some food or waste inside and need to access it again. Next time, I’d opt for a critter-proof bag, like an Ursack. To be honest, I only saw one other person with a Bear Vault and I never did see any sacks hanging from trees. I’m not sure what others did with their food. At any rate, that’s your only food, protect it, and protect the wildlife.
3. Stream/River Crossings:
No matter what you read. Stream and River crossings are always changing. Be prepared to cross them safely. Shoot for morning crossings as the water levels are generally lower at the time. Less melt from the snow above. When in doubt, get your feet wet. Don’t try jumping to distance rocks or balancing on unstable logs. Be smarter than my dumb ass. Also, if you don’t like wet boots and don’t mind the extra weight, bring sandals or shoes that won’t fall off and provide protection.
4. Hiking Boots:
I wore heavy hiking boots, but now I kind of wish I wore some low-top trail running shoes. The ankle support was great with the boots, but I think my feet would’ve been way more comfortable in trail shoes, plus they dry out fast. I’m still undecided on this.
Miles Trekked: 42.37
Elevation Gain: 9,339 ft.
Total Moving Time: 21:34:27
People Seen: +/-100
Injuries: Misc. scraps on legs from going over logs, blister on toe
Major Critters Seen: 1 giant buck, 1 Marten (my first ever sighting)
Favorite Dehydrated Meals: Good-to-Go Thai Curry and Smoked Three Bean Chili
Favorite Snack: Turkey Jerky
Favorite luxury item packed: Havaianas
Favorite part of the trail: Can’t pin it down. The entire trail offers so much.
The hardest part of the trail: Cloud Cap up Gnarl Ridge (Beautiful Hell)