(Original post date: 10/9/2015)
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.
Day 1: Timberline Lodge to Cairn Basin, clockwise (20 miles, 8 hours 15 minutes)
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.
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.
Day 2: Cairn Basin to Timberline Lodge, clockwise (21 miles, 11 hours 1 minute)
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!
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.
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.