Mooney Tarn via Elk Cove.

This route was not the most direct way to this stellar curiosity on the northeast slopes of Mt. Hood, but I had just been hiking around Cloud Cap Inn and the Eliot Moraine, and I wanted to visit the verdant Elk Cove. Therefore I started at the Elk Cove trail head just up NF-2840 from Laurance Lake. The whole adventure would follow suit in not being the most direct way to anywhere, but a large, 20+ mile figure eight that brought me through a variety of some of Mt Hood terrain. The first, and primary goal for the day was to visit Mooney Tarn, a glacier cirque below Langille Glacier.

The drive up toward Laurance Lake from Hood River presented a stunning dawn with Mt. Hood looking gorgeous. The Elk Cove trail head has a few spots on the side of the road, and the trail takes off by crossing Pinnacle Creek and heading up an old but easy walking logging road. After about a mile and a quarter the trail leaves the road and starts to head up the ridge.

The trail climbs steadily, passing through a clear cut and up to a great overlook with views Mt. Hood. The trail was lined in places with bushes bursting with huckleberries which slowed my pace and filled my belly. I came across a few spots with perfectly ripe black cap raspberries- a real treat.

Back into the woods, surrounded by the impacts of the 2011 Dollar Lake fire and vibrant displays of wildflowers, the trail crosses Coe Creek and continues uphill. There is some sporadic blow down across the trail, but nothing to much to impede the way. I knew I was nearing Elk Cove when the terrain became more grassy and I could hear the voices of campers and Timberline Trail hikers having breakfast. Elk Cove hosts a lot of dispersed campsites and is certainly an alluring spot to camp if you’re backpacking. A little more than 4 and half miles in, I arrived at the Timberline Trail.

Here I took a right, passing east on the Timberline Trail through Elk Cove. Over the next two and a half miles the trail drops 300 feet to cross the west branch of the Coe River then switch backs and climbs to cross the east branch before climbing up the side of ridge to the first branch of Compass Creek.

There are multiple ways one could go about reaching Mooney Tarn, mostly revolving around heading up ridges along the different branches of Compass Creek, and all of the involve off steep off trail travel. The risks involve coming up to impassable cliff areas, steep jumbles of scree, and misplacing yourself along the way and heading the wrong direction. I headed up the edge of the field to the ridge left of the waterfall and found it to be a steep, scree and wildflower filled romp.

Once I got into too thick of a growth of pines with too steep of fall off below and had to back track a moment, to cross the ridge, but then I came up into a lovely valley with a a creek flowing through and occasionally disappearing among moss covered scree. Vibrant displays of red paintbrush covered the hill side.

Eventually the slopes of wildflowers gave way to rockier scree and up ahead the giant pile of talus of the moraine with a visible cleft. That the tarn, and the eventual goal. Before heading up though, among the rocks, lies the flattened wreckage of the 1975 Mooney plane crash for which the tarn is named.

From here a scramble up the boulders brings you to a stunning view looking down into the tarn, across Langille with the summit of Mt. Hood peeking up behind, and the Langille Crags bordering the area off to the left. Down at the north end of lake, the cleft through which the tarn drains lines up perfectly with Mt. Adams.

After spending some time enjoying the views at Mooney Tarn I headed up the scree covered field beyond, heading towards the ridge up above the Langille Crags.

On the ridge there is a small flattened area, a little bowl. I headed up the ridge to a view of the Eliot Glacier and the valley directly below between Langille Crags and Eliot West Moraine.

From here I crossed down along the rocky slope ahead of the prominent cliffs to scramble down on the large boulders of the moraines end. This was sketchy and introduced me to a good deal of exposure, definitely setting me on edge and fueling some adrenaline. I choose the route that looked safest, but at points it was an all points contact and scuttle.

Now I was back on territory familiar to me on the Eliot West Moraine. I followed the ridge of the moraine down, walking above the great slope down to the vast expanse of the Eliot. Across the way Copper Spur is prominently visible, and up ahead Cloud Cap Inn can be seen on the other side of the Eliot.

Ahead of where the edge of the Moraine becomes overrun with low growing pines I dropped down and traveled along the paths lined with lupines before returning up to the open ridge. Eventually the well worn path juts into the woods and through some burned areas before heading down the ridge and connecting with the Timberline Trail. 4 miles along the trail and I was back to Elk Cove, but I kept going past the junction I had arrived on and headed up and out of the Cove, staying on the Timberline.

Another mile of hiking through forest and area burned out by the Dollar Lake fire and I arrived at the Pinnacle Ridge Trail #630 and headed down. The area around the junction and the first bit of the trail was ripe with some immense Boletes.

After a half mile the trail reenters the Dollar Lake burn and I was happy to find the trail in overall great shape with little obstruction. A few parts are muddy and stomp around some lovely marsh bits.

The trail weaving down the ridge passes through miles of white standing dead burned out trees. The fire damage was pretty total through here and the area is dusty, with little undergrowth in places other than berries and wildflowers. At this point in the afternoon, it was starting to get hot and I was yearning for some shade that wasn’t available.

After about 3.25 miles and over 2000 feet of descent I arrived at the trail head which left another 1.75 miles along the gravel road to reach my vehicle parked down at the Elk Cove Trailhead. The odd figure eight of a route around the northeastern flanks of Mt. Hood ended up being 20.7 miles with 5187 feet of elevation gain in just over ten hours.

Published by Jim Wilson

An avid hiker and outdoor enthusiast, I settled in Oregon after years of working on hiking trails in Southeast Alaska with the USFS and exploring the Pacific Northwest and rest of the country in the offseason.

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