Bluegrass Ridge – A trail being lost to time

Bluegrass Ridge is the first large prominent ridge running north to south on Mt. Hoods eastern side. In the south it rises 1200 feet from Newton Creek to Elk Mountain above the picturesque Elk Meadows, and Cold Spring Creek drains the valley to its west, flowing over Tamanawas Falls at its northern end. From Highway 35 it is the prominent ridge line visible on the right when heading north towards Hood River. Along much of its crest runs the Bluegrass Ridge trail #647. For being book-ended by two of Mt. Hood National Forests most popular destinations it sees very little use, the main reasons being its length, and more so, the lingering effects of the 2006 Bluegrass Fire.

The fire burned the southern 3 miles of the ridge, stopping on the eastern side of Elk Meadows and burning nearly all the way down the western slopes. The trail along this section could be described as a remnant becoming obscured by the succession of reforestation and blocked countless times by downed trees killed in the burn. For stretches it is is visible and easily followed until it abruptly disappears among the regrowth- trees now a dozen feet tall or more in places. The regrowth is far more of a challenge on this trail than the blowdown.

A pretty typical view of the trail heading south through the 2006 Bluegrass Ridge Fire

Has not been logged out, expect blowdown.

Forest Service trail description, very much an understatement.

Much of the blowdown along the ridge is not large diameter trees and is easily crossed, but the amount is extensive for a stretch. Because of the ease of losing the original trail and the necessity of just following other paths for some parts, I highly recommend bring a GPS navigation aid to keep you on track, especially if you are heading south to north and could miss the trail re-entering the forest outside of the burn. Luckily the trail tends to follow the ridge, although I was able to loose the trail among the myriad of dusty elk paths and stunning wildflowers on southern end where I wound up over a 100 feet lower than I should have been before course correcting.

Columbine growing up in the burned zone

The approximately 6 mile relatively straight trail requires a few miles to access from either end, which lends to its remoteness and sets up the situation where it is being left to nature to take over. Log out operations cleared out much down timber on the northern ridge, but once you reach the heavily burned out area, little work has been accomplished. Hopefully it will gain some focus with trail stewards to reclaim the trail in the future because it features some exceptional views and great trail characteristics.

There are many ways to experience the trail, a few good options of which I will note before detailing my own route.

  • One way car shuttle. Starting at either Elk Meadows trail head or Polallie Creek trail head and ending at the other. Elk Meadows as a start will reduce the amount of elevation gain since it sits about 1500 feet higher in elevation. About 10 miles depending on side trips.
  • One way hike, bike shuttle. Stash a bike at Elk Meadows trail head, drive to Polallie Creek trailhead, hike the trail, grab your bike and head downhill the 9 miles to your car.
  • Large Loop. Starting at either trail head and returning via the Elk Meadows trail #645 which parallels Bluegrass Ridge along Cold Creek. Around 16 miles.

I started early from the Polallie Creek trail head along Highway 35, crossing the road and heading to the first junction right up from the road. Continuing straight on #650 would take you down to Tamanawas Falls, but veering right and heading uphill on the Elk Meadows trail #645 sets you on the way. About 1.3 miles from the trail head is the next junction, just past which is the Wilderness Permit box. Continuing uphill for a little less than a mile, listen for the sound of Tamanawas falls crashing down in the valley below and arrive at the junction where the unfinished Lamberson Spur Trail #644 heads off to the right to terminate in its own burned zone.

Keeping on the Elk Meadows trail the way descends briefly to the signed start of the Bluegrass Ridge Trail #647 on the left. The first real challenge of the trail lies just ahead, where the trail leads to a set of bridge abutments and no bridge over Cold Spring Creek. From where the trail used to cross the creek just head to the right upstream and look for the large diameter log crossing the creek. On the other side the trail begins to ascend up to the ridge and gradually the forest surrounding the trail begins to be covered downed trees.

Despite the copious amount of downed trees in the surrounding forest, the trail is still relatively easy hiking and has mostly been cleared through this somewhat eerie and enjoyable section. About two miles from the creek starting the burned zone starts in earnest and the living tree cover gives way to burned out stands and the occasional still living trees. As I mentioned earlier, the main impediment on the trail is the thickening regrowth that obscures the way. The trail is follow-able for sections and then it seems to evaporate, but try to stay as close to the highest part of the ridge and keep heading south over the expanse of fallen logs and brush.

Eventually the regrowth starts to thin out and the there are more large standing burned out trees. Through here more of the soil has washed away letting some awesome wildflowers displays proliferate on the dust slopes of the ridge. I came across lots of elk sign– footprints and paths everywhere and lots of rubbed out areas where they are bedding down for the night. There are so many options of elk paths here that were more impacted than the original path that I wound up following a well established elk path for a little ways before it petered out and I had to trek uphill through to re find the actual trail. With all its wildflowers- especially huge swaths of columbine, as well as open and expansive views, this area was one of the highlights of the ridge.

Eventually you come to a rocky outcropping area where the ridge drops slightly before you and you’ve got great views of Mt. Hood, Elk Meadows nestled below to the left, and Elk Mountain, the point on the end of the ridge ahead and to your right. That will be your next destination.

Continue to navigate along the ridge till the burned zone ends, and right about the same time you will come to a junction where you can head left to check out an old lookout site and then return and head down to the Elk Meadows area. You can navigate either way around the meadows, but heading counterclockwise takes you near the shelter and some great views of Mt. Hood. Either way, come to the continuation of trail #645 on the north east corner of the meadows.

The trail is bordered by Cold Water Creek on the downhill side and the very edge of the Bluegrass Ridge fire on the other. Heading north steadily and easily until you pass the signed junction you took earlier for the Bluegrass Ridge Trail. From there, its back to the trail head on the same route.

My total stats for the hike was 16.8 miles with 3095 feet of elevation gain in a little under 7 hours. Its a great hike for a clear spring day but I would caution heavily against approaching this trail without the proper experience, navigation aids, and good weather. If its wet out you’ll be soaked through pushing through the brush on the ridge and still have a long way to go. If you can deal with the annoyances of the burned zone it is a great option for a longer loop adventure. I’ve included a map of my chosen route below.

Little Belknap Crater via the PCT

The landscape around McKenzie Pass is surreal. Not only is it an other-worldly expanse of black and crumbled lava flowing down from the horizon, but the forests around its edges are blistered and destroyed by the recent devastating fire. Covering an area 65 square miles around the passes summit, parts of the flow emanating from Belknap Crater are only 1500 years old.

Dee Wright Observatory sits near the summit of the pass, an observation tower built out of blocks of lava with windows providing views of the surrounding peaks. It was finished in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corp. It is incredibly humbling to look over this landscape and imagine the journey of the pioneers who crossed the flows.

Today we can experience hiking through the flow on the Pacific Crest Trail and climb up onto the summit of Little Belknap, a shield nearby the much large Belknap crater, and one of the origins of the surrounding flows and. It is just a spur off the PCT that leads up the summit, passing openings of lava tubes opening up out of the earth. To reach Little Belknap via the PCT, you can either park at trailhead on the side of the highway just west of the observatory and access the trail north of the road, or start from the observatory where there may be more parking available.

From the observatory, head west down the road to where the PCT crosses and head north across lava flow. The trail enters forest, and crosses over the edge of another island of forest before heading out across the lava flow for 1.5 miles until a spur leaves the PCT heading off to Little Belknap.

Climb up onto the summit for expansive views of the Mount Washington Wilderness and certainly one of the most unique landscapes around. Round trip from the Observatory is about 6 miles and 1100 feet of elevation gain.

Coffin Mountain Beargrass Extravaganza

This year, the summer of 2019, a magnificent spectacle occurred on the slopes of Coffin Mountain, a formerly obscure area west of Mt. Jefferson in the Cascade Mountains. All across the open slope of the mountain, beargrass exploded into bloom. The fluffy, large white flower heads form on the end of tall stalks emitting out of the grasses that are common throughout the area. They are not annually blooming flowers however, and the blooms on Coffin mountain seemed to all align to produce an overwhelming explosion of flowers this summer. After showing up on social media the trail blew up in popularity, and with good reason- the short trail is a straightforward hike only 1.5 miles up a thousand feet to a fire lookout, but most of the way is on the open slope on the backside of the mountain, absolutely covered in the magical flower.

The trailhead is located 3.8 miles up Parkett Loop Road, which is 4.2 miles east of OR-22 on National Forest Road 11 (Straight Creek Rd).

Exploring Southeast Mt. Hood – Elk Meadows – Newton Creek Loop

If you’re looking for a hike with a grand diversity of scenery that really highlights some of the amazing scenery the Mt. Hood National Forest has to offer, and feeling like having a good workout, this 13-mile loop with about 2200 feet of elevation gain is a great option. It hits some classic spots including Elk Meadows, Newton Creek, a traverse of the Mt. Hood Meadows Ski area, and both Umbrella and Sahalie Falls.

The journey starts at the Elk Meadows Trailhead and heads into the woods, crossing through some level forest crossed by ski runs until you come to the lower crossing of Newton Creek. After crossing the creek, the trail climbs, switch backing quickly up 650 feet to a crossing where the Gnarl Ridge Trail heads to the left, the Bluegrass Ridge Trail to the right.  Continue straight staying on the Elk Meadows trail and descend slightly in to bowl of the Meadows. The trail loops around the meadows, so stay to the right to hike around the east side of the Meadows for the mountain views with Mt Hood rising up behind the meadows

In the spring the meadow is filled with vibrant displays of wildflowers. There’s a little spur that ventures into the meadows to a shelter and some campsites. At about 11 o’clock on the circular Meadows trail, the Gnarl Ridge Cut Off trail breaks off and heads up to the Gnarl Ridge Trail, which in a short amount of time ends at the Timberline Trail. Head to the left and begin a descent along the ridge to the upper crossing of Newton Creek.

Newton Creek Drainage

After the creek the trail heads up and crosses around the Newton-Clark Moraine, and then the views open up on some of the most spectacular scenery of the hike.

Heather Canyon on the left and the Newton-Clark Moraine on the right

The Newton-Clark Moraine, also known as Pea Gravel Ridge, is a ridge of exposed glacial deposits left by the glacier as it retreated up the mountain. It is immense, a prominent feature on the southeast side of Mt Hood. From a distance it looks like a sandy pile of gravel, but close-up it is a jumble of sharp broken rock ranging from pebbles to the size of buses. The Clark River starts ahead, with a waterfall further upstream and Heather Canyon is visible on left of the dividing ridge.

Clark Creek

After finding a good spot to cross, look for the trail heading up the bank on the other side, and the trail follow along until the tiers of waterfalls draining Heather Canyon comes into view. The largest one is Upper Heather Falls and the Timberline trail actually crosses close to its edge, look for the trail leading off. Foot paths explore along the creek up into the canyon, which has some beautiful grassy meadows. It’s a great spot to fill up on water.

Upper Heather Falls

The next leg follows the Timberline trail through the Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Area, crossing through open meadows and under ski lifts for 1.75 miles before a junction with Umbrella Falls Trail #667 on the left heads south.

Hiking through Mt Hood Meadows

Stay on the trail for 1.25 miles, descending almost 600 feet to Mt Hood Meadows Road and the Umbrella Falls Trailhead. The trail continues on the other side of the road to a bridge crossing the East Fork Hood River just below the cascading Umbrella Falls.

Umbrella Falls

Ahead about a third of a mile the trail divides, and head left on Sahalie Falls Trail #667, which will descend through forest until a spur that heads off to check out Sahalie Falls before turning north and finally arriving back at the Elk Meadows Trailhead.

Mirror Lake – Tom Dick Harry Loop


  • 7.2 miles
  • 1540 feet elevation gain
  • incorporates the popular Mirror Lake Trail into a loop hike with some excellent views

The Mirror Lake Trail #664 is one of the most popular hiking destinations in Mount Hood National Forest. With the recent widening of Highway 26 a grand new trail head with plenty of parking was added right next to Mt Hood Skibowl. This was a great update, as I have routinely seen this lot packed full during the day in summer. A mid day hike in the height of summer will be busy. Starting earlier or hiking other times of the year will see less crowds, and following this option to extend the route into a loop and not head back down the way you came sees a decrease in traffic.

From the trail head the very well constructed trail takes off from behind the restrooms and continues through the forest on a new paved portion till crossing the creek. The trail rises through the forest for about 2 miles and 460 feet to Mirror Lake which is encircled by trail with some access down to the lake, campsites, and views of Mt. Hood beyond the lake.

After enjoying the lake, the trail continues uphill from the west side, gaining its elevation through the forest and hillside before coming up onto the ridge line after 1.8 miles. There is a great open area on the rocks here to sit and enjoy stellar views of Mt. Hood over Mirror Lake.

Watch out for the very Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels which know the spot is a popular snack destination. This is the usual turn around spot, but the trail continues to follow the ridge beyond to the next peaks.

Watch out for the very Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels which know the spot is a popular snack destination. This is the usual turn around spot, but the trail continues to follow the ridge beyond to the next peaks.

Follow the trail (now much less distinct) along the ridge, past the crags of Dick Mountain then along a open section that is part of a cross country ski route up to Tom Peak. There is some equipment up top here and good views. Once you’re read to head down, find the road on the right and start to head down. Follow the road keeping right on skyline road. Respect the Mountain bike trails and observe the signs to stay off.

The road weaves through the Mt. Hood Skibowl area and eventually down to the parking lot below.

Lookout Mountain via Fret Creek Loop


  • 9.4 mile loop hike combining Forest Service Trails and 4×4 roads.
  • 1912 feet of elevation gain
  • Great views of the east side of Mount Hood!

The normal approach to Lookout Mountain summit starts at High Prairie Trailhead and is just 3 miles.  We attempted to start from there last week but encountered more snow on the road 4410 than we wanted to deal with and turned back. This trip we were looking for a longer hike that would see more of the terrain around Lookout Mountain and enjoy some more of the perfect weather. We started at the Fret Creek Trailhead just past the bend in road 2730 where Fifteenmile Creek crosses under the road and passes along Fifteenmile Campground.

The trail heads uphill across the road, following near Fret Creek then crossing it and heading up its south arm to Oval Lake after 1.85 miles. From there the trail continues up to the ridge, and at 2.5 miles an excellent viewpoint looking south over the Badger Creek Wilderness. There are some great rock formations and Flag Point is visible to the southeast.

Looking east at Flag Point

From here the trail follows the ridge line up a mile, rising eventually to the summit of Lookout Mountain at 3.5 miles. Much of the trail and ridge still had a good covering of snow, a few deep still in spots, but as the trail just follows the ridge it is easy to find the way.  

No snow on the flat summit where a square footing remains from a Forest Service Lookout that was here from 1911- 1966.

The east face of Mount Hood viewed from the summit of Lookout Mountain

From the summit we headed down across more snow and along a muddy old road track to the High Prairie Trailhead at 4.8 miles. There were some outstanding fields of flowering. From the trailhead we followed 4420 east were it becomes gravel then dirt, a definite 4×4 high clearance route. To your right along the road is the Wilderness Boundary, and on the left, to the north, is the start of the Dog River and watershed for the city of the Dalles. At 8.5 miles the 4420 meets 2730 and then its just a half mile till the loop is complete.

Springs Grand show of Balsamroot on Dog Mountain

Dog Mountain rises 2800 feet up from the shores of the Columbia River on the Washington side and is one of the most popular trails in the Gorge for a window of time in spring. Its upper slopes turn yellow with extensive tracts of Balsamroot, especially during peak bloom in May through June. Crowds swarm the trail, filling up the parking lot right off of SR-14, so arriving early is advised, and checking and obtaining permits for weekends April-June.

The route is best done as a 7.4 mile long loop. To head steeply up to the flower show, take the Dog Mountain Trail past the restrooms at the end of the parking. There’s a junction where a right takes you on more scenic albeit steeper route where the flower show begins. The trail switchbacks through open slopes of balsamroot and expansive views up and down the Gorge. Mount Defiance rises up across the way in Oregon. The trail climbs to the summit, and then continues north down the ridge past the summit to a junction. A hard left takes you south on the Augspurger Trail which winds its way through the woods and back the trail head.

Hunchback Trail to Rockpile

For some quick accessible exercise with rewarding views, the Hunchback Trail to the Rockpile viewpoint is a great option, climbing over 1700 feet in just over two miles. The trailhead is in the large lot past the restrooms at the Mt Hood National Forest’s Zig Zag Ranger station, just off Highway 26. It’s straightforward route that is just the beginning of a much longer route that follows Hunchback Ridge all the way south to Devils Peak and the fire lookout there.

The trail rises steadily up through the forest full of Oregon grape and trails lined by ferns into the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, switch backing until coming up to the ridge which narrows and follows along, dipping down a bit before heading up to the Rockpile, an outcropping with great views of the surrounding area.

As I arrived at the Rockpile, so were dense low clouds moving over the distant ridges and into the valleys. The first rain drops, and some fresh gusts of wind convinced me not to linger too long and I set my path for a speedy, yet relaxing run downhill.

Stacker Butte – Columbia Hills State Park


  • 4.9 mile out and back with 1050 feet of elevation gain
  • casual hike up gravel service road
  • Outstanding spring balsam root and wildflower displays
Arrowleaf Balsam root

Stacker Butte rests on the northern ridge line above Columbia Hills Historical State Park, a diverse park that spans all the way to the Columbia River and consists of a myriad of recreational opportunities. Camping and boating is available at Horsethief Lake, scrambling and climbing at Horsethief Butte, and great hiking through the hills at Crawford Oaks. Perhaps the most well known element is the Dalles Mountain Ranch area of the park with its historical buildings and farm equipment and incredible, often sought out among photographers, wildflower displays in the spring.

Looking south over the Columbia Hills State Park with Mt. Hood

The Stacker Butte “trail” offers a great, low key wander up 2.5 miles of graveled through the uppermost hills above the ranch with less of the crowding that clusters around the ranch area below. The views of blooming yellow balsam root paint the rolling hillsides yellow with splotches of purple lupines. Western Meadowlarks dip up and down along the road and hawks soar above. Atop the ridge sits a communications equipment site and 360 degree views of the Columbia River Gorge and southern Washington. Mt Hood, Rainier, Adams, and St Helens are all visible as well as the Klickitat River Canyon.

Mt. Adams with Mt. Rainier peeking out to the right.

Driving Directions

From Washington SR 14 heading east, turn right and head up gravelly Dalles Mt. Road, turning to the left and heading north just before the Ranch buildings and amenities/ Dalles Mountain Ranch Trailhead parking area. Pass the private dwelling and keep on up the road till it ends at a gate, sign, and couple of parking spots.

Exploring the final miles of the Deschutes River

Deschutes River State Recreation Area

Beginning at Little Lava Lake northwest of La Pine, the Deschutes River runs north through central Oregon, draining a basin of over ten thousand square miles east of the mighty Cascade Range before emptying into the Columbia east of The Dalles. Along its 252-mile length it passes through downtown Bend and some stunning wild lands. Fittingly for a river so beloved for recreation, its mouth is public land, explorable at Deschutes River State Recreation Area.

The park is 34 acres and offers year-round camping along the river, and the start of the Deschutes River Trail at the end of the paved park road.

A great 5 mile loop incorporates paths along the river and a return along the gravel road. Hiking during Fall through Spring will offer milder climate than the oppressive summer heat, as the entire trail is exposed in the canyon.

Beginning of the trail

This spring, less than a year later the fire line running up the hillside across the river was a clear demarcation of the extent of the burn. Interestingly, everything upriver of the line that had experienced the burn was a far more verdant shade of green, highlighting fires restorative qualities for this type of environment. 

As you hike up river, the area opens up to grassier banks and some spots where you can walk down to the river. After some rambling along the river, the trail starts to ascend along the base of a basalt cliff outcropping.

A small lava rock arch uphill from the trail

This foot path scrambles up and passes below some interesting spots where a long tunnel has been dug into the layer of river rock below the lava flow. I haven’t come across an explanation for them, but they are fun and somewhat creepy feature.  Also keep an eye uphill for a small rock arch, which can also be reached from the trail above. The trail loses its elevation and heads back down to some open spots near the river, and around two and a quarter miles in look for a switchback that heads back up to the road. It is possible to continue on down by the river to Gordon Canyon and reconnect with the road there for a bit longer hike, or even to press on further down to Harris Island for a 22.6 mile round trip journey.

On the return journey it’s worth stopping near a sign board up top of the lava cliffs and checking past it toward the river to check out a small rock arch you can walk under. Just past the sign still on the rise a path veers off the road to the left, providing a more winding and scenic route back to the trailhead.