Backpacking Oregon: Timberline Trail

Backpacking Oregon: Timberline Trail

We may be leaving Oregon in a week, but we will be back. We have to be back. We have some major unfinished business in the Mt. Hood Wilderness of Oregon.

Back in May, J tried to climb the 11,240 foot summit of Mt. Hood and was turned back due to weather. And, as he said, that mountain will be there forever and will see him again.

In the meantime, he thought it would be a good idea for us to circumvent Mt. Hood on the 40-mile Timberline Trail.

Spoiler alert: Mt. Hood Wilderness beat J (and me) again.

Let me preface by saying that our research warned us about multiple difficult stream crossings, but one particularly tricky section halfway through the loop trail across Eliot Creek (mile 24.1 to be exact). The original bridge and trail were damaged by heavy rains in 2006, creating steep, eroded banks to get down to the wide and violent creek. Hikers reported finding their way across successfully, but their routes are not the safest. I quote:
“Follow an unmarked trail to cross the flood plain on the ridge. This could be dangerous because there are rocks and gravel covering the GLACIER underneath. It’s really loose, so a big rock could shift when you step on it and you could break your leg, or you could fall in a crevasse.”
“Rock hop across Eliot Creek with about THREE feet between rocks.”

Autumn is a stellar time to hit some of the more popular trails. You beat the crowds and if you get the right weather window, you get the right weather window. Plus, this time of year, the glaciers on Hood are really just unpredictable and moving more, but the rivers/streams are running a bit lower, so we thought we would best try the rock hopping or scout out a safe crossing through the creek. We were also both breaking in our new Hi-Tec boots and knew the tread and waterproofing would be up for the task. On the other hand, autumn can turn into winter very quickly in the backcountry.

For this trip, we figured worse case scenario, we’d make it to Eliot Creek, assess the situation and determine it to be unsafe, turn around and retrace our steps instead of completing the loop hike. Turns out, worse case scenario happened as the weather took a turn for the worse. Pictured below: the creeks labeled as “easier” as the ones we would encounter in the second half of the hike.

Allow me to start at the beginning.

We set out Sunday as soon as RR closed for the season and got to the trailhead Sunday evening with enough time to hike 5.5 miles to camp before nightfall. The temps were really mild (low 40s) that night, even though we were up at 5,400 feet, and we thought maybe we might have packed too many layers. We were both testing multiple pieces of clothing for Backpacker Magazine, so had a little of everything to be prepared for all weather.

Monday morning, we woke up to a beautiful day for hiking. We wanted to get within 2 miles of Eliot Creek to tackle it with freshness, so that meant about 17.9 miles of hiking that day. We crossed a few creeks and again, found them to be on the low side and safe. It was looking hopeful.

Then the weather changed, as it so easily does in the mountains. It was foggy and misting. We got to camp and set up just before the real rain started. We camped a little higher that night (5,800 feet), and it was quite a bit chillier. It rained steadily all night and we just kept thinking, this can’t be good for Eliot Creek. In the early morning hours, the rain sounded a bit heavier and when I opened the tent, I saw snow and ice on the ground!! Oh boy, this is definitely not looking good. Eliot Creek was a 1,000 feet higher. Rock hopping (3 feet, mind you) is dangerous on any DRY day. And forget glacier travel over slippery rocks while trying to determine if there is a crevasse underneath. Then we caught a glimpse of Mt. Hood through the clouds and it was completely covered in snow.

 Mt. Hood – Day 1 – No snow!!
Mt. Hood – Day 2 – No snow!!
 Mt. Hood – Day 3 – snow!!!

And so, as much as we HATED to retrace our steps, we opted for the safe decision. The safe decision is always the right decision. It ended up raining most of that 3rd day (and probably snowing at the higher elevations where we would have been headed), but we still made it about 16 miles. It was definitely cold and wet that night, but we knew dry clothes were less than 7 miles away the next day back at the National Historic Landmark Timberline Lodge, where we parked our car–and where a sweet lunch buffet worth the $20 per person awaited.

In total, we ended up doing about 50 miles on our out-and-back trek, practicing our rock hopping, meandering in and out of timberline. The Timberline Trail provides the Oregon I love: very, very tall and dense conifers in various hues of green that are moss-covered and surrounded by ferns, creating a fairytale-like forest and the occasional spooky burned section. Plus, it overlapped about 15+ miles with the Pacific Crest Trail (progress: up to about 95 miles done of that 2,600-mile trail!). We were surprised to see no wildlife, other than 1 deer and a bear on the drive from afar.

On our way out, we spoke with the Forest Service who just got word about funding to fix the Eliot Creek crossing. Yeah!! So we will be back Mt. Hood and the Timberline Trail, we will be back.

2 responses to “Backpacking Oregon: Timberline Trail”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Bloody Mary's at Timberline are outstanding!

  2. Misti says:

    Wow, what a crazy change in weather! I can't believe your time at RR is already up!

    Looks like a great hike!

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