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 ParkΒ  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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