The Cliff Notes of the Timberline Trail for 4th of July weekend is as follows:
- There’s still a decent bit of snow on the north & northwest side of the mountain between McNeil Point turnoff and Cloud Cap Campground. It’s all pretty manageable in my opinion. We did use our microspikes and trekking poles were really nice to have. There are a couple spots of exposed snow fields with consequential runout paths if you did slide, but again, pretty manageable.
- There are patches of snow in other places around the mountain as well, especially heading towards Paradise Park from Timberline Lodge.
- The river crossings were all pretty manageable. Time of day does help. The crossings in the morning were relatively easy. After the snow starts melting from the sun later in the day, we typically had to remove our shoes to get across to avoid getting our shoes wet. I included details about each crossing in the saga below.
- The trail (when not covered in snow) is in pretty great shape. There were probably 15 or so logs we had to climb over, but speaking for a 42 mile trail, it was pretty clear!
- Water was plentiful from the creek crossings. The driest stretch was from the Eliot Creek crossing over to Newton Creek. There were some littler streams that we scrounged up and filtered water from between those points. From the White River crossing to the Zigzag River was also pretty dry but this section passes Timberline so if desperate & masked you could probably grab some water from the lodge!
- Bugs were surprisingly nonexistent!
Like all good holiday weekend adventures go, Karly and I packed up our cars with skis, tents, climbing gear, some beers, and an assortment of backpacking items - some might say we threw the kitchen sink in the back of our cars. We initially planned to ski South Sister, camp at Illumination Saddle to watch fireworks, maybe do some skiing off Barrett Spur, and just play in the mountains for the majority of the weekend.
Now for the full tell-tale story of how the weekend adventures unfolded...
With a “Depart Town Time” of 7 pm Thursday and neither of us feeling super confident in the remaining snow on South Sister nor stoked about the 3+ hour drive to the trailhead, around 6:30 I threw out an idea of backpacking the Timberline Trail. It’s something I’ve wanted to run for about a year now, and Karly knew she’d want to backpack it at some point. Karly had backpacking knowledge, and I knew both of us were totally capable of making it the 42 miles and 10,000+ feet of elevation gain and loss. What the heck, let’s go for it!
So we packed our backpacks, hit up my favorite burrito truck on the way out of town, and headed to Top Spur trailhead Thursday night under an almost full moon. Pro tip - burritos are the best hiking, camping, backpacking, climbing meal for day one. Pre-rolled goodness packed full of calories and carbs makes for a delicious big-day in the mountains meal!
Friday morning we were up with the sun, re-packed our packs, and on the trail around 6:30am. From Top Spur trailhead, it’s about 0.5 miles to the Timberline Trail which makes for a nice warm up to the starting point. We reached the junction and headed clockwise to see how much snow covered the trail around the north side of Mount Hood. We stopped on Bald Mountain to scarf down some breakfast burrito and then trudged on, no snow so far!
About 3.5 miles in, just before the McNeil point turn off, we started to hit patches of snow. Initially more trail than snow remained visible, but that quickly transitioned to mostly snow. Still being early in the day, the snow remained firm to cross delicately while trying not to slip on its icy surface. We crossed a few tiny creek crossings as the snow continued to plague the trail, all still totally manageable up to this point. My dog Cooper’s stoke levels skyrocketed every time we reached a new snow field. You could say this section of the trail was a “snow” field day for him!
While snow covered a lot of the trail on the northwest side of Mount Hood, footsteps from previous day-hikers, circumnavigators, and fellow snow-covered trail lovers remained visible to follow through this section. We did get off course a little right after we passed the Cairn Basin Shelter (yup, there’s another stone shelter in addition to the McNeil Point & Cooper Spur stone shelters!). I would highly recommend using some kind of navigation device or app like Gaia, with a previously viewed or downloaded map and the route if possible, to help with some trail navigation through this area. Cell service is almost non-existent and the trail oscillates between snow and ground quite frequently through Cairn Basin!
None of the snow fields up to this point scared us off so we continued on. That being said, some of the snow fields had a great bootpack up and down them while others did not. As the snow continued to soften throughout the day the snow field traverses started to feel steeper and more consequential. We armed our feet with a pair of micro-spikes, I took one and she took one (we had 2 pairs but didn’t want to take the time to fish out the second buried pair in my pack) and trudged on.
There were also quite a few downed trees. As this was my first time on a “real”, non-summit, backpacking trip, climbing over massive logs with a massive and heavy pack on my back turned out to be quite a challenge. So be prepared! All of them are passable, we did complete the loop, but not without a few scrapes and scratches on our bare legs! Cooper excelled at the tree crossings. This dog might be part cat, hard to say.
Every turn of a corner stuck us with a different view of Mount Hood. From here we could see the Ladd Glacier and the location of the new ice routes (during colder months) deemed the Cirque of Tears that my partner, Noah Kimmes, and his ice climbing partner, Erik Richardson, put up in November of last year. Needless to say, these routes are not in this time of year!
We crossed the Coe Creek with relative ease. Still being early in the morning, the snow runoff remained low. Pro-tip from someone other than me, as the day goes on and the mountain bakes in the sun, the run-off increases and the creek crossings get gnarlier! This makes total sense, but I never put it together for myself until someone else pointed it out. Thanks Ingmar!
A couple more snow field crossings and then a big descent down and down and down some more and we found ourselves at the ominous Eliot Creek crossing. It didn’t look all that bad but finding a spot to cross was tricky. I didn’t think Cooper would make the jump or tread across so I lifted him up and over to the other side, dipping his tail and butt in the water as I underestimated the amount of reach and how heavy he could be with my arms fully extended. But all three of us made it across and stayed mostly dry, sorry Coop! We scrambled up the other side of the drainage and of course spotted a nice big cairn, trail up the bank, and perfectly large and dry log about 100-feet further down the creek… Oh well, here’s your beta! Learn from our mistakes!
What goes down must come back up. We ascended the trail from the Eliot Creek up to Cloud Cap Saddle Campground and after a stout thousand or so feet of climbing took some time to relax at a picnic table. Ah how nice, a solid seat! Since it was only 3:30pm, plenty of daylight left, and some somewhat still fresh, day-one legs, we decided to knock out some more trail and elevation, trudge on up to Cooper Spur, and maybe go a little further to find camp for the night.
We made it to Cooper Spur stone shelter and Cooper came almost full circle with his name - he’s going to have to ski the lower part of the route with me to complete the circle! Being such a trooper during this “hike”, he napped (like a cat) at any chance he’d get. None of these 3 days would top his longest day or most elevation gain in a day!
We topped out at the high point of 7200-ft on the Timberline Trail and were greeted with whipping winds just before reaching the northeast walls of the Newton Creek Canyon. Warned by oncoming hikers to hold onto our packs and brace ourselves as we approached the ridge, we looked left and saw a perfect alcove under some trees and decided to call it a night there.
After dinner before crawling into our sleeping bags at 6:30pm, we took one last little walk around our camp spot to admire Mount Hood illuminated from behind by the slowly disappearing daylight.
Day 1 Stats: 16.5 miles, 5500-ft of elevation gain, 3100-ft of elevation loss. Woof, our feet were tired, legs were sore, and tummies were grumbling. Perfect time to call it a night!
We woke up on Saturday to perfectly calm weather, totally dry tents, and a comfortable air temperature to pack up camp and hit the trail again, quite a contrast to when our heads hit the pillow, err stuff sack full of puffy jackets and clothes, the previous night.
We descended down for what felt like forever eventually reaching Newton Creek and scampering across some logs with minimal effort - again, first thing in the morning the creek crossings seemed to be much milder. Up and over another ridge, we reached Clark Creek. This one seemed like it would be tricky for Cooper to cross so I slipped off my shoes and waded into the icy water to help him get across. I assume fearing the previous day’s dip when I tried to help him, he scoffed at me as I froze my toes off in the glacial runoff and jumped from one rock to another across Clark Creek to the safety of the other side. Clearly I underestimate this adventure dog’s abilities!
As we climbed back out of Clark Canyon towards Heather Canyon (yay we’re in Meadows!), we found this awesome looking hollowed out snow bank straddling around a waterfall. Almost picture perfect until we looked more closely and noticed a Mountain House meal lodged in the middle of it. What a terrible photo bomb! Karly took initiative and scurried up into the snow cave and retrieved the trash that I hope innocently and accidentally blew away from someone’s camp.
I want to note that a couple of these minor creek crossings still had snow bridges built up across them that look to be thinning out quickly. What is usually an easy hop across a creek when everything is melted out, might be a comfortable snow bridge with footprints and a bootpack to follow, or it could be a very thin snow bridge when you cross over. Evaluate snow bridges across creeks before jumping right onto them and tread with caution! Just because footprints are on it doesn’t mean it’s going to hold you. A fall through one of these snow bridges could create wet feet or worse a slip down the creek bed towards not so friendly terrain. Many of them can be skirted around safely above or below, but just use good judgement when picking your routes!
Onwards and upwards we moved up out of the bottom of Heather Canyon and into Jack’s Woods (for anyone not familiar with Meadow’s ski resort, this is a popular and difficult area of steep & tight tree skiing in the winter!). We emerged from the woods out of Heather Canyon through the “Ho Chi Minh” gate under Shooting Star lift. Pro-tip - In the winter, you can avoid taking Shooting Star lift after taking the Heather Canyon lift to access Heather Canyon by traversing the Timberline Trail to the Ho Chi Mihn gate to drop down into Jack’s Woods! I felt very proud when I put this together during the Timberline Trail hike.
We ate lunch under Mount Hood Express lift and enjoyed the peacefulness of Meadows during the off season. We dropped down into White River Canyon and as we got close to the bottom a daunting sign of guidance greeted us: “White River - A violent glacial stream. Trail leaves canyon in timbered draw on opposite side.”
Sweet! Only a hop, skip, and a jump across White River and a hefty climb out the other side would land us at Timberline Lodge. Traversing through White River canyon proved to be exciting, toe chilling, and eye-opening. I spotted a couple ski lines I’d descended during my AIARE 1 course in February. They appear much steeper without snow on them! For crossing both forks of the White River, we removed our shoes to keep them dry. Cooper daintily hopped across rocks for the first one and waded with ease behind me across the second one. What a champ.
Through meadows of bear grass and a lot of tread hilling (it’s like a treadmill where you put in a ton of effort and barely make any upward progress) we reached the top of what seemed like a never ending sandy trail.
Finally, we looked down at Timberline Lodge from the trail instead of longingly up at it. We passed the cutest cairn that ever existed. Some might call it a snow-cairn-man. Cooper begged us to go find our foot sticks (skis) to go up and down in the snow instead of continuing on the trail. I promised him we’d find more snow on the trail - which definitely wasn’t a lie at all.
The trail to paradise park drew in everyone and their mothers. To say the trail was packed is an understatement. Luckily everyone, including us, had face coverings to pull up over our mouths when passing others on the trail. This was by far the most crowded section of the trail. We reached the Zigzag River and again removed our shoes. We refilled our water bottles and sat and people watched as many struggled to figure out just which rocks they had crossed hours ago and stayed dry. The sun had struck again with the snow melt!
Over the river and through more woods to Paradise Park we went. Coop knew the way to carry the sleigh. Oh wait, we didn’t have a sleigh. But one sure would’ve been nice as we found much more snow up there! It remained patchy and passable though. A couple slips and slides here and there, but we eventually made it to Split Rock where we dropped our packs to make some dinner with a view! Checking out my Mountain House meal that I had shoved into my pack before we left and figuring it would still be good even though it’s a couple years old, I was relieved to see it was well within its best by date of July 2048.
After dinner we somehow still had some energy left and of course plenty of daylight. We knew the next 5-6 mile section would be about 2500-ft to 3000-ft of descent down to the low point of the trail and that gravity could get us through a lot of it. I knew about a perfect camp spot down near the Sandy River and wanted to get there that night. Karly was game for an ambitious after dinner descent. Some baby toe blisters for me, tons of blooming rhododendrons, and about 2-hours later we found ourselves at the perfect little spot along a creek to make camp for the night.
Day 2 stats: 20 ish miles, 3000-ft of elevation gain, 4500-ft of elevation loss. Legs less sore today, but each of us had a swollen ankle from sprains suffered during previous adventures that week. Soaking those in the icy creek by the tents felt wonderful!
The next morning felt colder and damper than our night up high on the east side of the mountain. It was shocking to feel the difference in the climate between the two sides of the mountain. Our tents felt mostly dry but with some moisture soaked into them. We tore down camp for the last time on the trip and decided to make breakfast at Ramona Falls about a mile further down the trail. We found the log crossing marked by giant cairns to cross Sandy River and made our way towards the falls.
We knew our last day would be a short and sweet one to end the trip. Only 6 or so miles, about 1500-ft of climbing, and a couple river crossings separated us from moderately cold coconut waters and beers to pair with my fresh bag of kettle cooked chips that awaited our arrival at the car. We climbed up from Ramona Falls to the Yocum Ridge turnoff and then down to our final river crossings at the Muddy Fork River. The first of the two had logs staged across it making for an easy crossing. The second one had a hollowed out half a log across it that wasn’t quite a cake-walk but made it pretty manageable - although not sure how long that one will stay planted there. Views from the Muddy Fork ravine were moody, but still stunning. The sandy glacier and headwall played hide-and-seek behind clouds for most of the morning, but the brief glimpses of it were breathtaking.
The home stretch! Up a little ways and around Bald Mountain we reached our final views of the mountain before entering into the woods for the remainder of the trail. So close to the end we could taste it.
We did it! How do I feel? Accomplished for completing the trail. Awakened by the many facets of Mount Hood. Closer and more intimate than ever with the mountain. And very aware of the few extra pounds I could lose in my pack before I hit the trails again. Trail-running long distances is hard, but backpacking is a whole other ball game. I loved seeing all the different sides of the mountain. Next up for me, running the Timberline Trail in a day. I honestly feel like it might be easier than carrying that heavy pack for 3-days!