Seeking Water on the Dry Side of Mount Hood


For mapping the Timberline Trail route around Mt Hood as a summer hiking map, part of my process has involved ground truthing the hydrology to try and give a much better portrayal of where water may be found while hiking in summer than the current maps. The National Hydrology Dataset from USGS is the standard in maps, and while generally good, shows a huge amount of possible flowlines, not representative of conditions hiking in summer months when most backpackers hit the trail. For planning purposes, it will be nice to have a better idea of where water is actually likely to flow. On the east side of Mt Hood, water is scarce along the trail in summer once the snowfields have melted. From Gnarl Ridge north to the Timberline Trail High Point, the area is drained by the many forks and tributaries of Cold Spring Creek, which flows north to tumble over Tamanawas falls before reaching the East Fork Hood River.

Current maps show the South Fork Cold Spring Creek as a non-intermittent stream originating just below the trail, 0.4 miles north or the Gnarl Ridge Trail Junction. For hikers that may have underestimated their water needs, it would be good to know how close reliable water was to the trail here, in case a short trip down the drainage would be an option instead of waiting the 1.2 miles to the reliable clean water stream just west of the Newton Creek crossing. So finding this point was my first goal of the day.


USFS Classic Topo

I set out just around sunrise from Elk Meadows Trailhead, taking the lower crossing Newton Creek and heading up the switchbacks before heading up the Gnarl Ridge Trail. At the Timberline Junction, instead of heading onto the trail, I went north, keeping at the same elevation and following deer and elk paths before cutting to the west and finding the drainage after just about a quarter mile, dry here. I crossed it, and continued down along it, as the canyon walls grew steeper, until I started to hear water.


Following some well used game trails, I descended into the flowing creek, then up just a touch to where the creek began flowing out from under a boulder, at a spot where a tributary joins. Lush vegetation, and just a short way downstream the flow was very strong and some large pools. This spot is a bit more than 0.4 miles down from where the trail crosses the creek drainage, so not really a great option unless desperate, but this is where I’ll mark the stream start.


Next I wanted to investigate a nice flat area to the north, so I headed that direction. The forest is delightful through here, pretty clear undergrowth, spaced out trees and easy travel, especially when encountering some of the veritable elk/deer highways. The flat area had some wide spaced trees with smaller trees growing up. I took a moment for a snack on a log while nuthatches screamed all about.


Continuing on, I wrapped along the wide ridge and into the North Fork Cold Spring Creek drainage, keeping to a band of moderately sloped forest, here with denser undergrowth, between two sections of steepness. I found myself at the base of field of large boulders strewn about, nicely mossed over throughout. I detoured and explored them up the hill, getting a look at the cliff origin through the forest at the above the field before dropping back down. Just as I was exiting the field and thinking that it would be a nice home for Pikas, one gave me a grumpy MEEP, bidding me good riddance. Just through the forest, I came to the base of cliffs, a nice grassy spot, little more than a tenth of a mile away from the Timberline Trail but 150 feet lower. The landscape through here is a set of steps of steep then flatter sections heading downhill toward the creek.


Keeping at the same elevation but heading toward the creek, I came to some deep cut finger drainages not on the maps (though well visible on lidar) with flowing water, and peeked over the edge where one of them poured down a scarp. The creek had a high and loud flow 100 feet below. The creek is steeply banked here.


Gaining elevation along the shoulders of the creek here was steeper, and as I gain over 750 feet of elevation, the forest began to thin out and become replaced with pines and open sections, the high rocky terrain characteristic of near timberline on the east side.


I found water in the southernmost tributary, flowing out of a heavily vegetated area. More details about this spot later from when I visited it on my return journey, from the Timberline Trail, but for now I continued north, climbing the ridges then descending into he dry drainages. The open terrain allowed me to view down the drainages in sections, and the dense vegetation strips along the creeks cues where water is to be found or seen flowing down stream.


The terrain here is incredible and diverse. I was discovering series of tall dry falls, fields of giant talus, and the significant bowl feature where glaciers must have carved out a sudden drop, breaking through resistant layer of rock. On the north side of this bowl the rocks are polished smoothed by glacier action with deep striations, features that remind me more of spots around Mt. Rainier and I’ve seen less of around Mt Hood.


Finding wonderful spots like this are why I love off trail exploring. Pressing onward, in and out of a drainage with faint water, I came to a steeper descent down to a strongly flowing creek and a series of tiny falls and pools over boulders. Here I found mylar balloon for the day. In most every long deep off trail exploration I come across at least one of these. Today’s was directly in the creek and shed glitter paint all throughout the water on onto my hands as soon as I disturbed it to haul it out. Don’t release balloons.


My northward journey was halted at another such incredible geologic feature, the ridge separating the Cold Spring Creek drainage from the Pollalie Creek drainage is a sharp and sudden drop into a wide scarp filled with a scattering of thin jagged plates of rock. The ridge is a assembly of these plates stuck together, loose here at the surfaces rising vertically up from the ridge, scattering down the sides.   This is along the off trail end of the uncompleted Lamberson Spur 644 route.


It’s about 0.3 miles up to the Timberline Trail, a bit north of the trails high point. Just south of the high point, the Timberline Trail scatters and into a set of trails due to user trails in reaction to the snowfield that lingers here. All snow gone from on the trail now, I found barely a trickle of water around the leg that follows east at the highest level, turning at a campsite along the drainage, but the direct route straight south that is slightly more scrambly and looses then gains elevations crosses spots with better flowing water, and even small pools available, and much better and audible flow just down drainage. This is the most reliable on trial spot to collect water along the middle of the east side late into the dry season, and good to not pass by.


Timberline Trail high point cairn

Not yet through with exploring, and so close to one of my favorite spots on the mountain, I headed onwards and upwards, skirting the loose and steep edges to climb up between two landmark mounds of glacial deposited material and up onto the lip overlooking the furthest north arm of Newton Creek, where it emerges from the glacier and collects water from Cooper Spur Falls.


Cooper Spur Falls, Tie-in Rock above

A muddy torrent, I found a spot to cross and forded, then climbed up to gain views of the “Football Field” flat and Bandit Boulder, debris from a large 2001 landslide that broke off the mountain and deposited all the orangish debris around. I marveled in its immensity, checked out the glacier and large rocks precariously perched on it while listening to cracks and rockfalls, spotting tiny dots of people migrating along Cooper Spur.


Bandit Boulder


Tie-in Rock on the saddle along Cooper Spur


I dipped down to the south to stare for a while at the Newton Clark Moraine and Glacier, clouds starting to come around the mountain and bring some drama to the skies.


I then climbed back up and was surprised to see two explores making their way across the flat- the first people I’ve seen up that way. After recrossing the creek my descent was along the southeast ridge above the flat meadowy spot above the Timberline Trail.


views of the landslide terminus from different spots

Back on the trail I proceeded down Gnarl Ridge, admiring the viewpoint along the way of the cascading falls of Newton Creek and the ancient Whitebark Pines.


Newton Creek drainage and falls


Now completely out of water, I decided to utilize my found water source, and realized that from the trail I could see the patch of vegetation that indicated that start of the creek just about 400 feet down the valley. I made my way down and filled up. I’d actually recommend approaching from the area of the Gnarl Ridge Shelter, heading north and slightly west, which will put you just before the vegetation and with a stronger flow that will help to avoid carefully stepping amongst the flowers and brush around the creek there. The canyon becomes steeper and looser shortly below there, but this makes this a good option for seeking out water if you are camping on Gnarl Ridge by the ruins of the old shelter- a pretty great spot to enjoy stellar night views of the mountain.


water just off Gnarl Ridge


Gnarl Ridge Shelter Ruins


trail crossing South Fork Cold Spring Creek Drainage

The lower Newton Crossing had swelled to calf high and gotten much muddier since the morning, and I failed to probe a step on the far side where the water was flat, and I assumed shallow, resulting in a nice sudden drop down above my knee, but easily recovered from.  A lovely day exploring around the mountain – about 7 miles off trail, 16 total, much of it through terrain new to me.


lower Newton crossing, morning vs. afternoon