Mount Hood – Timberline Trail

Mount Hood – Timberline Trail

Location:  Oregon, Mount Hood
Distance & Gain: 39 miles, 9,000 feet
Difficulty:  Strenuous
Type: Loop with 3 overnights
Season: Summer, Fall
Description: A beautiful 4 day trip around Mount Hood on the historic Timberline Trail.

The Timberline trail was one of my first backpacking forays into the Pacific Northwest, and what a trip it was.  Mount Hood is a magnificent mountain, with thick forests, pretty alpine meadows, big glaciers and waterfalls.

While beautiful, this trail is not for the faint of heart.  It wraps around the entire mountain, descending into deep canyons and climbing over massive ridges.  Each day includes at least one long climb.  There are also a number of  creek crossings that can be dangerous and slow going.  When I did it, a massive 2006 washout along Elliot Creek had essentially destroyed the trail, and travelers had to use a dicey, unofficial crossing to complete the loop.  This section has since been repaired, but hikers should not underestimate the crossings.  They can be unpredictable and dangerous.

Day 1 – Timberline Lodge to Ramona Falls

I did the Timberline Trail in mid-July 2016, while on a road trip through Oregon.  I drove up the preceding weekend and did some exploring the in the Colombia Gorge before starting this leg of my trip on a Tuesday morning.  I camped in my Prius in the parking lot of the Timberline Lodge on the south side of the mountain the night before.

The Timberline Lodge is the most common starting point for the Timberline Trail, as it provides many amenities at the start and end point, including restrooms, hot food and parking.  If you are visiting from out of state, it is worth taking a few minutes to check out this historic lodge.  It has a lot of cool stone and woodwork, historical information about the lodge, and great views of the Mount Hood summit.

Starting out at the Timberline Lodge

Timberline was busy the morning I started.  The lodge hosts skiing year round, so there were many people gearing up for the slopes, plus other hikers prepping for the trail.  Pokemon Go had also just came out, so there were lots of people with their phones out trying to catch Pokemon in the parking lot.  Silly right?  Just beyond the lodge area, however, the crowds thinned out and I had the mountain to myself.  There were great views of Mount Jefferson here. Starting elevation was around 5,900 ft.

Mount Jefferson from Timberline Lodge.

The initial section of the Timberline Trail crosses through a few melted out ski runs before passing into mixed trees and canyons.  About 3 hours in, the trail opens out into Zigzag Canyon, with this great view.

Zigzag Canyon

The trail descends Zigzag Canyon about 700 feet via a section of switchbacks, ascending the opposite canyon wall with more switchbacks.  I opted to take the Paradise Park side-trail on the other side, a trail that parallels the Timberline Trail, but climbs higher through a stretch of alpine meadows west of Zigzag Canyon, topping out around 5,800 ft.  The meadows were pretty, but I was a few weeks early for peak wildflower season.  Still, there were a lot of blossoms coming in and I had pretty views of the surrounding mountains.

Climbing into Paradise Park

At the west end of Paradise Park, the trail rejoins with the Timberline Trail and begins a long decent down through the trees into the the Sandy River Canyon.  There were some very beautiful overlooks along this section.

An overlook into the Sandy River Canyon

I climbed the rock outcropping on the right in the photo above, and got an amazing view of a falls in the canyon below.

Great view of the falls from the rock outcropping.

There was a great set of falls along the creek above it as well.  The view here was really impressive, and I hung out here for about an hour, taking pictures and enjoying the sights.  It was an amazing spot.

Waterfalls in a side canyon near the Sandy River Canyon.

The trail descended down into the forest from here, bottoming out on the Sandy River near Ramona Falls.  Ramona Falls is a popular day hike and there were a number of people here enjoying shady spot when I got in.

Ramona Falls

I set camp near the falls around 7:00 PM, making a quick dinner before passing out early.  Camp elevation was around 3,440 ft.  Total distance for the day was about 10 miles.

Campsite at the end of Day 1.

Day 2 – Ramona Falls to Elk Cove

I was on the trail by 7:00 AM the following morning, after some breakfast and coffee.  I climbed immediately up through the forest about 400 ft over Yocum Ridge and back down the other side into the Muddy River Canyon.  There were thick willows in the canyon, but the trail was clear, and the crossing at the creek was uneventful.

Muddy River Canyon

From here the trail veers away from the mountain in one long switchback through the trees up to Bald Mountain, turning around again at the ridge to climb back up toward McNeil Point.  About a mile from Bald Mountain, at around 5,400 ft, the forest opens up to a hillside meadow with a great view.  I made it up here around 1 pm, where I broke for a snack and pictures.

Mount Hood and the Sandy Glacier from the Bald Mountain Ridge.

About a mile past the hillside meadow, the trail turned north, contouring through a nice set of meadows that were filling out with bear grass.  Wildflower season was definitely getting into swing on this side of the mountain.

Bear Grass in the meadows.

From here the trail passed through the Cairn Basin and an old burn area.  I briefly considered exploring the Eden Park side trail at this point, but the afternoon was starting to wear on and I was feeling ready to get into camp, so I kept moving.  Still, the Timberline trail had great displays of wildflowers through this area.

Wildflowers in the Cairn Basin

Eventually, the trail wrapped around the Barrett Spur ridge, dropping down into Elk Cove were I set camp for my 2nd night.  Elk Cove was shaded and cool, and had nice views of the Coe Glacier and its jagged ice fall.

The Coe Glacier above Elk Cove.

There were a few other campers in secluded sites in the area, but Elk Cove was otherwise quiet.  I had a nice dinner of instant broccoli and cheese rice that night, and went to bed shortly after sundown.  Camp elevation was around 5,450 ft, and distance for Day 2 was about 10 miles.

Dinner prep on the 2nd night.

Day 3 – Elk Cove to Newton Creek

I was up by 6:00 AM the next day with clear skies and good views of the north face of Mount Hood.

The Coe Glacier on Hood’s north face.

I headed out from Elk Cove, passing through more burn area.  At the time that I did this, the section of trail between Elk Cove and Tilly Jane was officially closed due to the Elliot Creek washout, so there was a fair amount of tree fall that had not been cleared out, and I found myself stopping frequently to climb over logs.  Meanwhile, Mount Adams was waking up in the distance.

Mount Adams from the Timberline Trail.

Around 10:00 AM, I arrived the Elliot crossing.  As mentioned earlier, a massive washout in 2006 had destroyed the trail through this canyon, making this the most dangerous crossing on the whole loop.  When I arrived, the canyon was a large barren landscape full of rocks and loose debris.  A use trail was available, however, and while not as robust as the official trails, it was passable with a fair amount of caution.

The Elliot crossing

The trickiest part of the Elliot crossing was negotiating the steep slopes and loose soil that made up the walls of the canyon.  While not too complicated, it still made sense to take things slow here.  In one section, someone had left a rope tied to a large boulder to help hikers climb down a particularly steep slope.

Hikers using a rope to descend the west wall of the canyon.

From rim to rim, the Elliot crossing took me a couple hours to complete, although I stopped to talk to a couple other hikers crossing the other direction and made a few stops to take some photos.  By noon, I was back on solid trail and on my way to Gnarl Ridge.  I crossed the connection to Cooper Spur, and briefly considered exploring it, but needed to stay on schedule so I continued on.

Cooper Spur Trail near the Elliot crossing

The trail between the Elliot crossing and Gnarl Ridge includes the high point of the Timberline Trail at somewhere around 7,340 feet.  This section is well above treeline and had expansive views of Hood River, Mount Adams, and eastern Oregon.

High above treeline between the Elliot crossing and Gnarl Ridge.

Around 4:30 PM, I came into Gnarl Ridge with nice views of the Newton Creek drainage and Lamberson Butte.  From here, the trail descends down Gnarl Ridge toward Elk Meadows before making a long switchback down into Newton Creek Canyon.

Newton Creek Canyon from Gnarl Ridge

I camped in the trees south of Newton Creek.  Some of the clouds that developed that afternoon had progressed into rain clouds, which lit up nicely at sunset, but dropped heavy showers after the sun went down.  There were even dramatic displays of lightning and thunder for a while before it tapered off for the night.  I camped under trees and didn’t get wet, but the next morning my neighbor said he got rained on pretty hard.

Sunset over Gnarl Ridge and Lamberson Butte.

Camp elevation was around 5,400 ft, and total distance for Day 3 was 11 miles.

Day 4 – Newton Creek to Timberline Lodge

I was up the next morning at 6:00 AM, hitting the trail after a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee.  The trail climbed 400 ft over the ridge to the south, descending down into the Clark Creek drainage on the other side.

Climbing over to the Clark Creek drainage.

There was a nice waterfall near the trail at Clark Creek.  I stopped here for a while and tried to climb up to the base of the falls, but the rocky slopes were unstable, and after some quick pictures I moved on.

Falls on Clark Creek.

From Clark Creek the trail passes through the Mount Hood Meadows ski area.  The ski slopes were completely melted out here, and the area was closed to skiers, but the lifts were quiet signs that I was returning to civilized life again.

Ski lifts in the Mount Hood Meadows area.

Beyond the ski area, I had one last creek crossing in the White River Canyon, before a final climb back up to Timberline Lodge, and back to the world of parking lots, election news and Pokemon Go. Total distance for Day 3 was 8 miles.

After dumping my pack at my car, and trading my boots for some flip-flops, I made the short walk up to Timberline Lodge to stuff myself on waffles at the Cascade Dining Room Buffet.  The buffet is a little pricey (~$25), but I still recommend it after a long trip around the mountain.  The restaurant has nice views of Mount Hood and tasty food, while the lodge provides great historical context to the Mount Hood area.

Pigging out at the Cascade Dining Room Buffet at the Timberline Lodge.

The Timberline Trail is often considered a classic American hike, and I am in complete agreement.  Circumnavigating a mountain, especially a majestic one like Mount Hood, is an excellent theme for a trail, and the 39 mile distance works well for a longer backpack, without becoming too much of a slog.  The trail loosely follows the tree line, but often descends into deep pine forest or ascends high into open alpine zones, allowing for wide diversity of environments.  Hikers will find intimate meadows and creek canyons full of pretty wild flowers, or soaring views to distant snow covered peaks.  I highly recommend the Timberline Trail.

Additional Information

Map of the Timberline Trail

While the Timberline Trail is a beautiful trail, completing the full circuit should not be underestimated.   The trail is long and there are hefty climbs every day.  The total elevation gain for the trail is over 10,000 ft, which can be tiring with a full pack.

The creek crossings can also be challenging.  These crossings are usually without bridges, (the winter flows would wash these out every year), so hikers typically have to ford the creeks.  Theses creeks are usually rocky and the flows are muddy, so navigating with a pack can be difficult.  People have actually drowned crossing these creeks, so hikers should use a generous amount of caution when making each crossing.  Sturdy water shoes and poles are very much recommended for the crossings.

I did this trail in 4 days, a typical duration with good camp sites available every 10 miles or so.  Still, there were a lot of times where I had wished I’d planned 5 or 6 days, as there were a lot of side trails would have been fun to check out.  The trail can also be done in shorter durations, but this obviously requires longer distances each day and a more compressed schedule.  Many trail runners have actually completed the circuit in a single day, but that is a level of insanity better suited for another blog.

I carried a National Geographic map (#820) during this hike, but have since come to prefer the Green Trails Mount Hood Timberline Trail map (462S) which is a little smaller,  more manageable, and in my opinion, somewhat easier to read.

Overnight camping on the Timberline Trail also requires a permit, which can be picked up for free at various kiosks along the trail.

More information can be found on the excellent wiki-based website, Oregon Hikers:

Oregon Hikers – Timberline Trail

Official information can be found on the Mount Hood National Forest website as well:

Mount Hood National Forest – Timberline Trail


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