Mapping the Timberline Trail

Mapping the Timberline Trail

James Wilson

An exploration of my personal journey leading to mapping the Timberline Trail around Mount Hood and forming Elevation Changes Cartographic

My first encounter with the Timberline Trail was on a fall trip to McNeil Point from the Top Spur trailhead. It was after the first snows of the year, where much of the accumulation had melted off but enough clung about to add emphasis to the transition of seasons. Later as I gained experiences on the mountain, I would learn how popular the route is with hikers making the pilgrimage to the stone shelter perched up on the ridge overlooking the Muddy Fork with the Sandy Glacier looming beyond. I met no other hikers along the route this journey, a few miles of trail where years later, during the summer height of global pandemic I’d count near 100 travelers on their way.


I couldn’t have known back then to spend more time observing the contours, crevasses, and expanse of the Sandy Glacier, to give myself reference to the vast changes that would occur, and were occurring, including the collapse of the glacier cave entrances system and hastening retreat of ice up the mountain.


Retreat of Sandy Glacier. (reference rock formation highlighted in yellow)

I didn’t know about the namesake of the point, Fred McNeil, or of his love and dedication to a life in the mountains, but on that first trip above timberline on Mt. Hood where I met the rays of the sun stretching across the mountain’s shoulder above Illumination Rock, cutting through fog and cloud and scattering on icy snow remnants like fields of diamonds, there and then I undoubtably became, as categorized in McNeil’s words, “a member of the horde who have succumbed to the mystic spell of the snowcap.”


I'd yet to learn the history of the construction of the over 90-year-old stone shelter perched there, or the other shelters, some still standing around and some erased completely by the mountain’s forces. I passed by views of what would become one of my favorite geologic features- the Sandy Glacier Volcano, distinguishable enroute from along Bald Mountain Ridge where the dark gnarled and twisted exposure of ancient lavas and pyroclastic materials is visible cut through by the Muddy Fork and overlain by Mt. Hoods Yocum Ridge flows.


A look at the remains of the ancient Sandy Glacier Volcano

This ancient system of rock is now the last visible remnants of the volcano that preceded the rise of Mt. Hood; a once immense mountain now overtaken and demolished by time, nearly erased by the continued creation of earth spurred by unfathomably deep subduction.


I’d learn more of history and geography of the mountain across the following years, from thousands of miles exploring the surrounding forest and pouring over every book, map, article, blog post, research paper, and internet archive I could access. I feel eternally lucky to have been able to spend so much time immersed in the mountain and find myself constantly enchanted by new explorations and new insights into the history, geology, and ecology of the area.  At some point it I started to enjoy the sharing of knowledge I had gained and gathered, so that others could experience some of the joy, revelation, and wonder. I believe that having more knowledge of the landscape and its history can deepen the connection visitors form with a place, helping them to tap into the vast power to be had in the mountains, a transcendence of experience that will stay with them, go home with them, and live on in their minds and actions.

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One section of the Pacific Crest Trail just south of the Lodge that shares the loop with the Timberline Trail passes along the edge of great valley cut through by the western branch of the White River, pouring over and cutting through the largely unconsolidated layers of pyroclastic debris. Along the way are a handful of spots where the abrupt edge plummets, offering expansive views of the south face and terrain sculpted by the White River Glacier. Just across the valley, on a plateau known as Mesa Terrace that separates the two glacier flows, a line of darker debris- soil, stretches horizontally about halfway up. Emerging from this layer, if one stops to look, can be spotted several large, whitened stumps and logs. They are trees, the soil level an ancient forest floor flattened in an instant by volcanic blast and buried under pyroclastic debris then uncovered by the great forces of time and erosion as the White River carved its way through debris and ancient forest floor, and previous debris below.  Elements of the landscape like these connect us with the vastness and power of the mountains past, they hint at the future, as further erosion will scrub them from the landscape, erasing the ability to have this view and understanding.  These encounters that unlock past and future can ground us in the present- acknowledging and contemplating these temporal relics offer the opportunity to reflect on the single moments in time we have with the mountain, with the world, with each other. We fit on the timeline of the mountain: we are here now, with these forests, and these slopes. These landscapes, and we won’t always be as we are now.


Exposure of forest buried by pyroclastic flows


Expanse of Mesa Terrace sandwiched between two branches feeding the White River, the band of buried forest visible midway.

When I set out for a long day hike on my first full circuit of the mountain following the Timberline Trail National Historic Trail I had been gaining strength as a runner and hiker, but the mileage was still beyond what I had ever accomplished in a day. I was still very new to the area around the mountain, was experiencing most of the wilderness along the trail for the first time. Setting out at dawn, I carried gear and supplies to stay overnight if needed and proceeded clockwise on the trail, so much of the terrain new and inspiring to me. Near Cooper Spur late in the afternoon I decided to push on despite my dwindling pace. I crossed a raging White River in complete darkness- a space I’d not seen yet in daylight. Frigid glacier meltwater up to my knees, I pressed across, my world a solitary bubble of white ash and rock illuminated in my headlamp. I came to the second branch, grateful for finally finding cairns signaling the exit route. Afterward, having ascended up along White River to Timberline Lodge, exhausted, I felt accomplished, strong, and with a greater connection to the mountain formed by literally connecting the dots on the trail through its forests. Crossing the creeks and streams in every drainage flowing down from glaciers nestled above on the mountain is an intimate way to learn of the power of water, drainage, and past volcanism emanating from mountain.


Whimsical magic of the Western Pasqueflower

Then, slowly over that winter and sharply over the next summer, that sense of strength would trickle away, and I spent less time out around the mountain or outside in general. By the following winter merely walking a mile along the urban creek path where I live outside Portland would feel a comparable effort to that 41-mile circuit on Mt. Hood.  I felt my energy crumbled, and my mind absolutely scrambled. Months and months of trying to find explanations for pain I was experiencing, for the eldritch artifacts that would occasionally explode in my vision, for my energy laid to waste, had provided no answers, and mostly shrugs and dismissal from doctors until a vision test revealed a serious degradation of my field of vision.

Quite quickly then the wheels of the diagnostic machine started turning and before the end of the year we discovered the 3-centimeter mass attached to my pituitary gland in the center of my head, putting pressure on my optic nerve and invading my sinuses. It was a tumor secreting excess of the hormone prolactin, with my levels more than 100 times the normal, and suppressing the levels of other important hormones. As far as tumors in the head go, it was a lucky type to have, as they can be highly responsive to chemical treatment, shrinking in size over time in response to medication.


Tamanawas Falls on North Fork Cold Spring Creek

During the time I spent regaining the ability to function outside and in my head, I immersed myself in researching and learning about the mountain and surrounding areas in the forest, delving into any source I could find, especially the works of mountain lore by Jack Grauer and Fred McNeil. I planned out routes and trips, studying modern and historical maps. I drew on the peace, fulfillment, and wonder of the experience from years before circumnavigating Mt. Hood as a goal of what I wanted to achieve again, and advance beyond. I felt I had barely encountered the mountain, and having that focus and desire to explore helped me take the process of allowing my body to heal in stride. By the next spring I started building up mileage underfoot and time outside, exploring the trails and wild areas around Mt. Hood, and in summer was exploring longer routes, and becoming more comfortable on off trail explorations. I started chronicling many of these adventures on this website, and after some large mileage days felt like pressing for a complete loop of the Timberline Trail mid-August. I went counterclockwise this time and while it was a challenge and outright struggle at moments, I ending the day feeling stronger, and better adapted to being on the trail than my first trip, which was a monumental comparison for myself.


The next summer I covered the complete route of Timberline Trail three different times, each just a couple of weeks apart, which gave me perspective on how transient the individualized experience is in relation to the colors and palette of wildflowers and vegetation erupting and fading in bloom as the different species peak and wane at different times. I also started adding an element of documentation and data collection. With no real end goal I started taking photos and locations of campsites and the mountains hydrography along the trail.  Taking advantage of the wordlwide pandemic to take some online courses towards maybe finally finishing a degree, at Portland Community College I somewhat randomly stumbled upon their Geographic Information Systems program and got hooked on the utilization of GIS to interpret and convey data.


Glisan Creek near the McNeil Pt. Trail

Suddenly I had the tools to organize and visualize the data and knowledge I was acquiring of the mountain, and began assembling it all together in a map. The project started out as making the map that I wish I had with me back when I first headed out to McNeil Point years before.  As my work continued, I was becoming enthralled with the utilization of cartography to form a deeper connection between visitors and the landscape. My next few loops around the mountain my time on foot grew longer again as I spent time poking around the trail locating more campsites and formalizing hydrographic information with the goal of highlighting all the locations where water is very likely to be found during the prime late summer backpacking season. Availability of campsites along the trail was something I was learning from hikers seeking trail information was a stressor in planning a trip, which could push backpackers to congregate around a few select camping locations they gathered information on.  With the goal in mind of helping to spread out campers and minimizing overuse or new environmental impacts, I sought to document and display many of the established camp spots scattered all along.  More than a few day trips and explorations were undertaken just to make minor refinements, such as locating the source of South Fork Cold Spring Creek.


A sampling of data collected around MHNF. ESRI basemap

Timberline Trail detail

A view of the Bald Mountain area on my map.

I formed Elevation Changes Cartographic LLC as a professional endeavor to focus on data collection and building mapping products that display and interpret the environment for recreational visitors.


In my stylistic choices, I set out to make a map whose elements would be interpretable to new hikers whose only experience with trail maps may have been from phone apps, while still being enjoyable for veterans of navigation who, like myself remember the days of piecing together USGS quads. The backside of the map references 25 specific historical, geological and environmental spots of significance or interest for those exploring or learning about the mountain, and tells their stories.  I've also included coverage of some of the most frequent subjects hikers have questions about when planning a trip and current regulations for visiting and staying in the Mount Hood Wilderness.


Over this last summer, I released a digital version of the map on Avenza maps and receiving feedback from backpackers who felt that the map added to their experience and aided in their enjoyment of the trail was incredibly rewarding.


A digital format of my 2022 map released through the Avenza Maps app

The process of setting up as a business, reformatting data and map elements for publication, building an online storefront with the capability of releasing a physical form of my map has been another step into the unknown for me, and now I’m working on getting them marketed and out into the hands and backpacks of those who will enjoy them. I greatly appreciate the support of everyone who has helped me along the way and have been supportive and enthusiastic about the project. Spending time and miles along the Timberline Trail over these years, often enraptured in the presence of Mt. Hood, has been substantive therapy, solace, and a source of wonderment for me, and I hope this map will help others to explore and connect with the mountain.

Support and purchase of my maps and stickers goes into keeping me making and releasing more maps (hopefully printed wall maps soon enough!) and continue my fieldwork of collecting and refining trail, roads, and feature data on our public natural landscape.


long days and pleasant nights -


Hiking, backpacking, and exploring involve partaking in risk. This map is meant to help planning your experiences, but it is up to individuals to use best judgment and acquire the proper additional knowledge and skills to remain safe. Conditions on trails and roads can change dramatically from year to year and with weather. Unofficial Trails noted on maps are routes well established by users but may see no maintenance and may be more challenging than a maintained trail. Check all campgrounds for potential hazards, especially in inclement weather. Map users are solely responsible for their actions and decisions while using this map, assuming all the risk while referencing and utilizing this map. The map user waives any and all claim of negligence or responsibility for adverse happenings, accidents, or incidents against the map creators and Elevation Changes Cartographic LLC.