Timberline Trail Loop (the full loop around Mt. Hood) has long been on my bucket list of hikes for the very simple if not terribly rational reason that Backpacker once ranked it as the hardest dayhike in America. Plus, it was supposed to be pretty. So, when a meeting landed me in Portland with an extra day on my hands, it was inevitable that I was going to try it, planning or not, prepared or not, ready or not here I…
There was none of this sissy planning stuff. I bought a simple map, some food and an environmentally friendly bug spray from REI in Portland. I asked a few salespeople if there were a lot of bugs on the trail, and the general answer was no, not really, but there are some. Meaning some no-see-ums and occasional mosquitoes, but no big deal. Perfect.
The one question I did try to have answered was how best to get around the washout on one part of the trail that is officially but not really “closed”. No one really had a good answer, and the information I got from two people was amusingly contradictory. YouTube was equally unhelpful. All I knew was that at some point there would be a large hole where there was supposed to be a trail, and if I looked carefully, I might find some fixed ropes to help get down and back up the other side. How hard could that be?
What I knew about Timberline at this point was pretty basic; it is a 37-40 mile circumnavigation of Mount Hood, zig-zagging its way around the mountain by contouring across ridges and canyons at an elevation between 3k’ and 7k’. The total elevation gained and lost on the hike is about 8,000′, which is not bad at all given the distance. The fastest known times are nearly the same as for the Grand Canyon R2R2R, meaning 6.5-7 hours. The GC is higher and longer, with more elevation gain, which told me that Timberline was probably a bit rougher and slower-going, but that was about it. Unlike the GC, there was plenty of water at almost all points on the trail, even if required treatment, so that wasn’t a concern.
I started from the Timberline Lodge parking lot (below guest parking) at 4:15am and headed up the “Climber’s Route” to the trail–which crosses the ski resort a hundred feet or so above the Lodge itself. The temperature was a brisk but pleasant 46, with clear skies and no prospect of rain. Given some good luck on health and energy levels, I was hoping for a roundtrip time of 12-16 hours (a wide range) with target or 14-15 hours. The one concern I had was that there might be a lot of snow on the trail still, but the trail was clear when I reached it, so prospects were good.
Timberline to Clark Creek (4:15 – 6:15 am)
Having no idea what to expect, everything was a pleasant surprise. The trail was well marked and easy to follow (overlapping at this point with the Pacific Crest Trail), with large cairns and frequent signage at spur trail junctions. Moving counter-clockwise from the lodge, the trail is pretty level with minor ups and downs. Really quite pleasant.
At sunrise I was trapsing through the aptly named Mount Hood Meadows ski resort, crossing small streams and verdant meadows. Sunrise cast a soft orange light on the summit of Mount Hood, birds were singing, the grass was dancing in a light breeze and I had clearly had too much coffee or sugar. But it was quite nice; I could see why runners would make good time on the trail, and why they’d want to. The views were ever more stunning.
The trail descended rapidly into the first glacial stream canyon, and after a quick “rappel” down a very short and somewhat extraneous fixed rope and some rocky walking, I was at the side of a small but chilly looking stream. I had seen pictures online of people crossing these streams in flip flops, but it didn’t occur to me that I’d actually have to take off my shoes; surely there was some way to rock-hope across it. Nope. Off came the shoes. I hiked up my pants, waded across the freezing water, put the shoes back on and then headed back to the trail, which was…hmm. Where was the trail?
I looked for cairns, wandered around a bit, and probably wasted 15 minutes dilly-dallying around the rocky canyon. Then I got frustrated and headed toward the only logical place in the canyon wall — a forested cleft — where the trail would logically start up again. Sure enough, it was there, and I was off again. But in varying ways, the streams would constantly pose these problems. Sometimes the cairns were there but highly misleading. Sometimes cairns and crossing points were entirely different. Nothing was all that problematic, but it meant slower going than I’d hoped and that anyone doing the trail for the second time would move much faster than the first.
Permit Box Thingy (7:11 am)
After climbing up out of the canyon, still feeling pretty darn peppy, I ran into a big sign asking me to fill out a permit and carry it on my person at all times. I looked around; I was a on a trail in the middle of the forest. Sure, an earlier sign had kindly told me I was crossing into the Mount Hood Wilderness (with a very nice you-are-here indicator on the map), but it seemed like an odd place for such bureaucracy. I dutifully filled out the form, but have to wonder what the compliance rate is given the location.
From here the trail continues to rise up toward Lamberson Spur at 7,300′. The climb is steady, passing through forest and glade with wildflowers in abundance, and by abundance I mean there are a ridiculous number and variety of wildflowers on this trail. If I knew what they were, I’d tell you, but rest assured they are quite nice. Yellows and reds, pale yellow and white stars and diamonds, purple and pink and more. Not really a flower guy, to be honest, but it’s hard to think about lying down in a colorful meadow for a nap until the pixies arrive.
As you near the high point of the Timberline Trail, you emerge from the trees and onto Gnarl Ridge and turn left through some high bush and stunted trees. In a short time you reach Lamberson Spur itself, or so the map says, but as I have no picture or recollection of it, I’ll only say that it is a mysterious place cloaked in dark magic.
From there, the trail is rocky and bare, marked by massive cairns and wooden posts, and for a while I jogged down the less rocky bits. The views, weather, trail and temperature were perfect. It was that moment on every long hike when I started to think, hey, thinks is no problem; I’ll be done in no time and sprint to the finish. This is inevitably followed by some karmic humiliation, but why ruin a good bout of morning hubris. In what felt like minutes, I was past the junction with the Cooper Spur trail and descending back into the woods.
Detour (9:35 am to Noon)
I reached the promised sign for the trail closure just after 9:30am and dutifully ignored it, heading up the trail toward the much vaunted chasm of doom. Up ahead, the Eliot Glacier had released a mudslide that took out 1,000′ of trail and much of the canyon to boot in 2006. When I got to the edge of the new canyon, marked with a tiny red ribbon on stick, the deep-walled valley looked enormous. I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had been there when it happened, actually seen it. It must have been an amazing site.
I followed what remained of the trail down to the level of the mudslide, then continued down the path of a developing social trail down to the steeper part of the canyon wall. A few minutes later, I found the red fixed line some one had kindly put in place, and seconds later I was standing about 20′ feet over the stream looking at a series of cairns that made no sense at all; they led upstream in a set of rising steps leading away from the stream. I followed them, then turned back, then wandered around the stream for a bit, face planted in a nice bit of loose rock (ouch), and then found another cairn downstream from my initial starting point that marked the actual stream crossing point. What the other cairns are for, I have no idea.
Once on the other side (after an easy crossing), I took a short food break and refilled my water bladder. And then I started searching for the next fixed line marking the trail up this side of the canyon. I didn’t really care about the rope — it wasn’t necessary — but I did want to find the trail sooner than later. Upstream and nothing. Downstream and nothing. Then I just got frustrated and climbed up the first layer of rockfall to a flattish saddle about 1/3 of the way up the canyon wall. From there, I easily found the next fixed rope a few hundred feet downstream. In a few minutes, breathing hard, I was on the spiny ridge marketing the top fo the canyon wall. All told, I had probably lost 30 minutes looking for trail and rope, but I felt good and didn’t care that much. Onward!
I followed the trail up the ridgeline, walking along the narrow ridge, higher and higher, waiting for the trail to cut off and continue it’s march around the mountain. I hadn’t looked at the map in a while, but the trail was clear and visible up ahead of me, so I kept climbing, and climbing. At some point in this I started to have misgivings, but the trail was so clear I didn’t pay them much head. Then it was less clear. Then I was scaling up a boulder field under a shattered rock craig, assuming that we were climbing this way to avoid the slick snow field to the right of the trail.
I suspected at this point that I was off trail, but that some people had decided to traverse above the snowfield to avoid a dangerous slide. Once I reached the top of the ice and its mini bergschrund, I realized how stupid this was; the traverse itself meant clinging onto shattered, rotten rock where a fall would toss you under the snow field or down its face. Neither option was good, and certainly no one with a heavy pack was doing this. So when I reach the other side and found a nice viewpoint, I brought out the map.
I had to confirm using GPS, but my mistake was pretty obvious. The trail itself had contoured directly away from the canyon wall far below, never climbing the ridge at all. Due to sheer stubbornness, I had climbed nearly 2,000 feet above the trail and above the Langille Crags . The view was lovely. The realization that I was far off course, miles off the trail, and generally an idiot was not quite as pleasing.
As they tell you in Boy Scouts, never compound your troubles by making more mistakes in an effort to make up for the first mistakes. So, for instance, don’t try to find a clever shortcut to make up for the time you’ve just lost and avoid having to backtrack all the way down to the trail.
But I was never a good listener; according to the map, the opposite side of the Langille ridge line offered a cliff-free if steep downhike to the trail, saving me the backtrack and cutting off a mile or more of trail. I walked down to peer over the nearest edge to see if the map was right, and it was — the downhike was covered in loose rock and scree, but doable. The concern was all the snowfields, which were dangerously steep and threatened to cover the entire route.
I started working my way down, easily at first, traversing west and down around the first snowfield, then cutting east across a small neck in the field itself that offered rocks to hope across, toward the last obstacle; a steep rockfall leading down the treeline. This is the part that sucked. I have never walked across such a raw rockfall. None of the rock was stable, no matter what its size, and every step threated a landslide, broken leg or worse. It was nerve racking. Even the more enjoyable scree skiing toward the bottom was too exposed for comfort. I was hyper focused, but realized that getting down this was as much about luck as skill. One wrong step…
Toward the bottom, I worked my way over to a lower-angled snow field and skied the rest of the way down through the trees — which was a blast after all the loose rock. Then a short plunge through the trees and I was back on the trail. The soft, clear, flat, wonderful trail. I hadn’t realized how pumped I was until I was back on the trail and practically running down it on adrenaline (a bad sign, given the inevitable energy crash), but it was a great feeling at the time.
All told, I’d climbed up and down 2,000′ for no reason, added a few miles to the hike, taken several unnecessary risks, and blow about 2 more hours of hike time. Clearly, my target of 15 hours was out of the question, but I didn’t care at the time. What was a few miles more or less? These little misadventures are always the things you remember later.
A good deal of the trail from this point until past Elk Grove offers fantastic views of vast sections of forest burnt by the Dollar Lake Fire back in 2011. I didn’t know this time, and for a while it looked like a mass of exceptionally thorough beetle kill.
The trail leads directly into the burn and you can see the both the devastation of blackened trees and the recovery of tenacious undergrowth. It’s a beautiful contrast, in some ways, but good to see the forest recovering.
After a while, I found myself in the beautiful meadows of Elk Cove, which was full of people sitting about and enjoying nature or something. Slackers.
At about the same time I made the mistake of looking at my map and my heart sank. Wow, I thought. Wow. Yes, I thought “wow” twice in a row; that’s how surprised I was. I still had at least 16 miles to go. All the adrenaline left my legs. I sat down and sucked on some lukewarm water. I’m not sure why I was so surprised or demoralized, and suspect my blood sugar crashed about that time. And it was hot. Shawn + Heat = Whining. But the meadows were really pretty.
Time for a Pop Tart; a delicious, cinnamon and brown sugar Pop Tart. I carefully unwrapped my partially smooshed but still tasty tart two-pack and began, well, eating it. Eating might be too polite a word. I opened my–censored–and that was all I needed. Suddenly life was better.
So, turns out that there are many, many bugs on the timberline trail. Like the wildflowers, they are abundant, varied and available in all shapes and sizes. Unlike the wildflowers, they are mobile and really like biting things. Mostly my things. From roughly noon to 6pm, if I stopped to sit and rest anywhere, I would suddenly find myself covered in biting flies, small mosquitoes, and more biting flies.
No problem, I thought. I’ve got bug spray. Spritz. Spritz. Flies were initially surprised, then appreciative; they appeared to be lapping up the spray like dogs on peanut butter. So I spritzed one dead-on and they didn’t like that. So as long as I could laser target each bug and then squish it before it recovered, I was golden.
And then he arrived. There was a loud buzzing, more like the rumble on old cargo plane coming in for landing then the buzz of a fly. I looked around. Nothing. Then — and this was so sudden I almost laughed — the biggest biting fly since Mothra was doing high power, heavy-g turns around my head like Superman trying to turn back time…
I ran out of time to write up the rest of this, but sufficed to say the rest of the hike involved beauty, dehydration, more beauty, many biting flies, a badly twisted ankle, Ramona Falls, nausea, a low phone battery and some lost pictures, really loud bugs, a dark death march to the back of the Timberline Lodge, a hard moment stuck in a wedding reception, some limping, and then at long last the waiting softness of my rental car seat. Happiness and joy.
I was shaking so badly at the counter of the Best Western that the old guy kept looking at me like my head was going to explode. Then my teeth were chattering. Then he told me there was no room at the Inn and there was only silence; that sudden, absurd silence in all movies just before the volcano blows or the bomb detonates or the fat kid farts.
No room? I parroted back to him.
No room, he confirmed.
I was shaking again by the time I got back to the car. I cranked the heat and started dialing for rooms. There were no rooms in the area. There were no rooms in Sandy or Boring or Gresham. Why, I asked? What’s going? Nothing, just a lot of reunions and weddings and such. But here’s where things went full Twilight Zone. There were no rooms in Portland, nor Vancouver (WA) across the river. No beds and breakfasts, no motels, no hotels or inns or lodges. According to Marriott, there were no rooms available within a 100 mile radius of Portland.
I couldn’t process it. This is America, and the free market was going to give me a damn bed. I drove by motels, I woke up B&B owners, I called the hotel I’d stayed in the night before and they said sure, we have a room, the Presidential Suite for $600. I looked for RV centers and campgrounds with showers. Nothing.
I hung up and stared at my phone, a device with more computing power than all computers in existence just a few generations ago, and I lost faith in the entire networked world it gave me access to. There would be no warm shower, no iced ankle, no big clean bed and room service pizza. There would only be the back of my rental, my Nissan Sentra, a car the size of a taco.
After some aimless driving through Sandy and Boring, a chocolate shake and Egg McMuffin for dinner (bleh) I found what I thought was an empty lot outside a residential neighborhood. I parked, turned off the car, crammed myself into the backseat, and settled in for a night of luxurious if somewhat stinky sleep.
Bright flashing lights. “Get off’a my land, you goddamn hippy!”
I kid you not. I think the bright light was some sort of handheld flasher, but the invisible man behind it was determined to get me outta his lot. Fair enough–flashers in Oregon are often attached to guns–plus, it was really bright. I crawled into the front seat, started up, and drove off… as he chased me down the road at a full run with his flashy thingy.
I realized the only place I could safely park, that I knew of, was back at some mountain trailhead, so I headed back toward Hood. Along the way I came across what seemed to be a rest area / really large shoulder, so I pulled over and slept on the side of the road.
I Smell Dead People
At some point, I started cramping up and the car was so small I couldn’t unfold. I had to start the car, roll down the window and stick my leg out while suppressing the urge to scream. Fortunately, the humid stench of my unshowered body soon knocked me unconscious again. I hope whomever rented the car after me had a chance to light it on fire first.
In the morning I had a great breakfast at a diner in Sandy full of people who clearly didn’t like hippies, Mexicans, Russians, liberals or people with high school diplomas but really liked bacon, so it all worked out. I limped out on a badly swollen ankle and aching joints, not having peed in 16 hours, moving so slowly I might have been a slow motion scene cut from The Hangover, and looked toward Mount Hood.
Nice mountain. I’d like to climb that someday.
Note to self: I waited too long to write this report, and found it hard to find the energy or narrative rhythm. Plus, I forgot stuff. Write sooner!