timberland cheap boots hiking Mount Hood’s 40
I had known this decision point was coming. The 5 mile segment between Cloud Cap Saddle and Elk Cove has been off limits to hikers since 2006, when heavy rains came sluicing through the Eliot Creek drainage and swept away the footbridge along with large swaths of real estate on both sides of the canyon.
Although finding a way across would be difficult and potentially dangerous possibly even illegal I knew other hikers had done it, and I had faith in my ability to navigate tricky terrain.
But this official notice, posted at a trail junction just west of the old Cloud Cap Inn, was giving me serious second thoughts. “Eliot Creek crossing area,” it warned in no uncertain terms, “is very unstable and unsafe.”
Contemplating the choice before me should I risk it? Or turn around and head for home? I looked down at the trail.
There, outlined clearly in the sand after an overnight rainfall, was a single set of bootprints.
They were coming toward me, from the direction of the washed out trail section. Somebody, it seemed, had made it through that morning.
Maybe I could, too.
A dream deferred
I’ve been wanting to hike the Timberline Trail for 30 years, since I first came to Oregon in 1983.
The spectacularly scenic 40 mile route, carved out in the 1930s by Civilian Conservation Corps work crews, circles the state’s highest peak, 11,240 foot Mount Hood.
I’d knocked off pieces of it over the years, sampling the delights of Paradise Park, Gnarl Ridge, Ramona Falls and Elk Cove, but I’d never done the whole circuit. This September, I decided, would be my time after the summer heat was past but before the fall rains set in.
My plan was to do the trip in four days, starting and finishing at Timberline Lodge, the stately stone and timber inn on the mountain’s south side. I would walk the route counterclockwise, aiming to cover about 11 miles each of the first two days and 13 on the third. That would ensure choice campsites every night and a relatively short walk out on my last day.
The biggest concern in my mind was how to manage the river crossings. Half a dozen major streams intersect the Timberline Trail, and I wasn’t sure how many of them have their own bridges. (Answer: One. These days, the only bridge on the Timberline Trail spans the creek below Ramona Falls.)
This time of year stream flows should not be a major issue, but that can change with the weather. I already knew about the Eliot Creek washout, and a friend had told me his own attempt to do the Timberline circuit this summer was cut short by high water on the Sandy River. Ragged gray clouds clung to the ridgelines and partially obscured the summit, and the drive in had been punctuated by periods of light drizzle.
The forecast for my trip was generally promising, with a strong chance of rain the first day followed by two days of mostly sunny skies before a slight threat of precip returned. I wanted to cover some ground before I started getting wet.
My first challenge came just two miles into the hike, with the crossing of the White River Canyon.
As its name implies, the Timberline Trail follows the treeline, usually around 6,000 feet above sea level, as it circles Mount Hood at least, that’s the theory. In practice, there are lots of ups and downs, starting with the 1,100 foot drop from Boy Scout Ridge to the White River and the long, steep slog up the opposite side.
After an easy rock hop across the fast moving but shallow glacial stream, the trail climbed through mossy evergreen forest dotted with the season’s last huckleberries, then leveled off at 5,800 feet to cruise beneath the chairlifts of the Mount Hood Meadows ski area.
Feet dry crossings of Clark and Newton creeks boosted my confidence, but I still had miles to go before reaching my Day One goal: the crest of 7,000 foot Gnarl Ridge. It was nearly dark by the time I staggered into camp, and that’s when I ran into my second big challenge of the trip: I had forgotten to pack a headlamp.
Fumbling in the gloom, I barely managed to get my tent set up and boil water for noodles and tea before the storm that had been threatening all day struck with a vengeance, and I went to sleep cursing my poor planning.
The cursing got louder a few hours later, when a big gust of wind pulled up several tent stakes and sent me stumbling out into the feeble moonlight, desperately tying my flimsy nylon shelter to big rocks to keep it from blowing away.
Moment of truth
Day Two dawned calm but cold, with a light dusting of snow on the ground and shifting banks of fog playing peek a boo with the looming summit of Mount Hood. My route would take me along the mountain’s eastern flank at elevations up to 7,300 feet.
The skies gradually cleared as I cruised high above the treeline, but I wasn’t worried about the weather: I was thinking about Eliot Creek.
I stopped to talk with another solo hiker, a young buck who had blasted by me on the trail the day before. Like me, he was aiming to do the full Timberline circuit but now he was coming back. The warning sign at the Cloud Cap junction had convinced him that crossing the washout was just too risky.
He had me more than halfway convinced, but I wasn’t ready to give up quite yet. I wanted to see the damaged section of trail for myself. If worse came to worst, I reasoned, I could always camp there for the night before turning around and retracing my steps.