Timberline Trail Loop 2021
Note: If you haven't yet heard about the alterations to the route neccesary this year due to the destruction of trail above the Muddy Fork, visit this Detour Information Page
July 7, 2021
With significantly lower temperatures, and even some clouds in the forecast, on Tuesday evening I headed up to Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood to have an early start to the next day. I spent some time walking around the trails above the lodge while sun settled down with warm orange and purple accented stretches of clouds on the horizon before settling onto the Thermarest in the back of my car. I woke up a bit before 4 am, listening to the wind whip around the parking lot outside. I got my gear together, shoes and gaiters on, ate a banana and some caffeine seltzer, and decided I’d start with my lightweight pants on over my shorts and wind breaker on. Outside the car a crescent moon was cutting through the layers of clouds dancing about the clouds to the east.
I climbed the way up to the Timberline Trail, and set out, going counterclockwise down towards White River with my headlamp on the trail. After maybe a quarter mile I was too hot and took off the pants and jacket layer. The fast, soft sandy descent, open to air and views up the mountain and over the river with warm gusts in an invigorating start to the day as the darkness slowly drains out of the sky and canyons.
The White River has reshaped its channels some through the sandy, rocky deposits over the winter, and has a closer slight drop down to the rushing waters. I crossed the first branch of the channel and then ended up following its course a bit downstream until I found a spot with rocks grouped close enough that I didn’t get my feet too wet.
On the other side, where the trail heads up the hillside, the initial couple dozen feet of ascent on the trail has become further gullied out. Ate some protein cookie breakfast on the way up, reflecting on how this section of forest becomes vibrantly alive with lupine in August, but was relatively low key. This was the earliest in the year I have done the loop (and the first time without a bag of Joe’s Donuts, hence the protein cookie breakfast). Clouds hung over the expanse west as I came into Mt. Hood Meadows, wispy colors spilling around the layers. Bear grass is at an explosion right now, with some great sections where it dots the hillside. I received a couple polleny, fragrant bear grass “kisses” leaving yellow splotches on my arms or pack. The Meadows are a lovely place to experience dawn and the trail is very casual throughout the area, with a couple good flowing water sources. If you are going clockwise, be sure to fill up on water at one of the streams cutting through the meadows before descending down to White River, it’s the only nice water until back at the Timberline Lodge.
Traversing northwest through the meadows, the next significant water crossing is about a third of mile after leaving the ski area behind, where the trail crosses the creek flowing out of Heather Canyon just before it tumbles over the first, and larger of a series of falls. I think this fall spilling out of the canyon is my favorite on the mountain, and Heather Canyon beyond is lovely place to explore when the flowers are blooming. Staff at the ski resort have told me to always look up when exploring the area, as anecdotally once was found a full jug of whisky tied to a tree by forgetful camping backcountry skiers. What was once at arm’s length had become a very high dangling bottle after the snow had melted.
Clark Creek is next, with the immense moraine of the Newton-Clark glacier rising up and confounding ones sense of scale. It was a relatively easy rock hop. The clouds had been separating, thinning out, and blue sky was taking over by the time I reached Newton Clark after curving around through the forest at the base of the Moraine. I ended up traveling further upstream than I have in the past to find a spot were a thin, stripped down small tree had been placed across the channel that I balanced my way across. Now begins the long climb up and around Gnarl Ridge. In the forest before the junction with the Gnarl Ridge Trail I caught my first sunbeams cutting through the forest. Once past Lamberson Butte where the trail encounters the edge of the Newton Creek Canyon and vast open expanse of the mountain and Newton Clark Glacier, I did not linger long with the exceptional views because the ripping wind, the same that sculpted the pines edging the trail, was fitfully throwing dust kicked off the moraine at me. Some of the snowfields remain throughout the eastern expanses here, on the way up to the Timberline Trail high point with its lofty cairn.
Some of the trickling streams that follow the drainages here were obscured by the snowfields. The open rocky expanse of through here is breathtaking with views leading off to Mt Adams in Washington above the trail. Also breathtaking- the strong winds coming down off the mountain was carrying sulfur gasses from the mountains fumaroles far stronger than I have experienced at that low of an altitude. I made some good speed descending down past Cooper Spur Shelter, and chatted with some hikers filling up on water from the headwaters of Tilly Jane Creek along the trail. It’s worth noting that going clockwise between Cloud Cap and the clean pure waters near Heather Canyon, there was only a one shallow stream, and the silty Newton and Clark Creeks.
Campers and vehicles at Cloud Cap confirmed for me that the road was open, and I headed down to where the trail crosses the Eliot Branch. Waters fed by the Eliot washing out the road to Laurance Lake under the influence of the HEAT DOME made me expect the canyon here to be transformed some, which it was. The creek is constantly cutting away at the deposits in the canyon walls, knocking out boulders and shifting sands. The giant boulder overhang upstream is still there, continuing to be undercut. The log that I have used to cross for the past couple of years is also still there, but the channel has cut into the far side of the canyon, and it now is mostly dry and doesn’t cross the creek. Since it’s early in the season, a bench on the far side hasn’t yet been set yet, but with backpackers finding the path of least resistance down, a route will typically get established as summer winds on. The crossing was not too fun, was wet and cautious and nervous, and I’m not keen to do it exactly how I managed it this way again. In wandering around looking for a spot to cross be extra aware of the earth behind you- slight adjustments are enough to dislodge the smooth rocks barely locked into the sediment, from where they would like to seek out an ankle to obliterate. The crux of the hike as far as risk and mental drain.
The north side is still melting out in places, and there are several drainages that have snow bridges melting out, and while they are solid now, over the next weeks they will thin to the point of being more of a hinderance, before they vanish completely. Some patches of snow to scramble over, or along, and one section where the angle was severe and the fall away far and fatal that I simply scrambled up into the brush right above it and meandered along for a snippet of trail before dropping back after the section. Crossing the Coe wasn’t too bad. Still snow around Elk Cove creek, and evidence of an avalanche that has knocked down and moved about some trees over the winter. The whispy wizard beards of the Western Pasqueflowers were abundant around the Cove. Avalanche Lilies too were blooming the forest sections continuing on. At Cairn Basin, some of the remaining non fire scared trees have been toppled, brushing up against the Shelter there.
Filling up at one of the water sources around the McGee creek headwaters is also a good idea, the next reliable clear water not the Muddy Fork is the creek on the way to Ramona Falls. At the open viewpoints on Bald Mountain Ridge, you can see well the expanse of the devastation along Yocum Ridge above the Muddy Fork, and the section that the Timberline Trail has been detoured to avoid. You can also see the landslide chute where chunks of the mountain have started to fall off into the mountain. Looking at progression of landslide scarps down the ridgeline, this area certainly seems like it could be poised for future movement.
I had known that there was damage and trees down along Bald Mountain Ridge once past the exits for McNeil Point, and was pleased to find that crews had already tackled what looked like the most annoying parts to navigate. Otherwise, it’s mostly a meander around things on paths that are getting established and stepping over small and medium logs with a sprinkling of larger ones.
I did start to encounter more day hikers here, and talking with them and other backpackers throughout the rest of the day discovered most weren’t aware about avoiding the large amount of old growth blowdown on the north side of Bald Mountain. There exists a Cutoff Trail, at the point where the legs of Timberline Trail pinch together before looping around Bald Mountain. It is signed in both directions, but remains missing from most maps. By utilizing this and then only using the Timberline Trail on the south side of Bald Mountain, all of that is avoided and you get the incredible view of the Sandy Glacier and Mount Hood from its exposed flanks.
North Side Cutoff Trail Sign
South Side Cutoff Trail Sign
Since the Timberline Trail is destroyed beyond the Muddy Fork, the next step is onto the detour via the Pacific Crest Trail, direction Mexico. This next image shows the worst of it over on Yocum Ridge. The Timberline Trail used to go through that expanse of downed old growth forest, above where the landslide is starting to chew away at the slope.
The nice soft trail, shady, snow free forest and only one log to avoid let me catch up on some movement. The lower Muddy Fork crossing is easily covered by a large set of logs. I then left the PCT for the Ramona Falls Trail where the low elevation and sun baking the exposed trail (even more so now that a lot of the pines fell to the wind last fall) made for a hot bit. Pressing forward the reward is the lovely mossy creek that drains out of Ramona Falls along the rocky cliffs of Yocum Ridge. I took a moment to fill up on water and snack there before continuing on, to pass by the falls and make my way to the Sandy River.
Gone is the ramshackle assortment of sticks and branches that spanned the river last year, and in trying to find a spot where I wouldn’t have to outright ford the river I wandered upstream a good way, all the way to where the lone charred tree hangs on upright in the middle of the canyon. There are two logs stuck upright in the river and rocks close together enough that I barely got my shoes wet. The towering walls of deposits with precariously perched boulders serve to remind you of the volcanic nature of the landscape. Where the PCT/Timberline Trail reenters the forest on the other side has seen a good toppling of trees around the nice creek there and the trail where it begins the climb. And oh the climb. In going clockwise, this climb out of the valley, even though it’s well graded and nicely shaded is an energy draw, and those nearly 3 miles to near the Paradise Park area feel like some of the longest miles. I was feeling the last 30 miles and probably would have had a bit more push in my legs if I hadn’t only given myself 2 days to recover after a 29 mile route in the rough Badger Creek Wilderness on the 4th. So, a slowed down trudge uphill.
Parts of the forest after the overlooks on the way up has had a good layer of fine dust settle over everything, blown in from the high winds recently and sadly no rain to wash it off the coated mosses. There are some patches of snow here and there, and some logs to step over or around, but nothing that is a large impediment. The amphitheater like section where Rushing Water Creek pours down from Paradise Park on its way to the Sandy River, now 2000 feet below is one of the spectacular features of the western part of the trail.
The descent down to the Zigzag River is a relief to be going downhill again and knowing that the next climb is the last significant canyon you will be exiting before the lodge. Late in the afternoon now, the Zigzag river wasn’t very high at all, and a log just upstream kept my feet dry. On the climb back up there are some larger trees to crawl over and around, but they have been limbed smooth and its clear that crews are working on clearing them out. A tricky spot because the trail switch backs back and forth, and cutting large trees out on such a steep section with busy traffic to control could be slow going. I said the miles coming out of the Sandy were the longest? Maybe I should take it back and say the ones from Zigzag Canyon rim are the longest. Or that they always seem so quick when I’m just heading out to rim from the lodge and back. If you’re traveling the loop clockwise, this feeling is also achievable on the way up from White River. Descending that two miles at 4:30 in the morning flying down the soft sandy hill seems to take but a moment, but slogging up it in the afternoon after 39 miles is a different warping of time, mind, and movement.
It’s quite satisfying to get back to car and put sandals onto well used, volcanic sediment covered feet.