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.
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.
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.