The Timberline TrailThe Timberline Trail
David Pex, August 21, 2003
Just as background, one of the reasons I walk around mountains clockwise is because of the Tibetan belief that one should walk around holy sites (stupas or mountains) in a clockwise fashion. Counter-clockwise is said to "unwind your karma". Well, if it works for them, what the heck.
Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier are similar geologically (shield volcanoes), and thanks to prevailing rains from the west, are similar geographically. Both mountains, on the west side, are cut with significant river canyons. On the east, thanks to the rain shadow, both mountains still have most of their shield intact. And the north and south sides have both canyons and shield portions. These mountains are huge, but are simple in their basic structure. And it is really great to walk through!
Assuming you start at Timberline Lodge, clockwise:
You start on a fairly level contour. First canyon is Little Zigzag, which has good water (that you won't probably need yet). 200-foot elevation loss and gain, no problem. Then you come to Zigzag Canyon, a 700-foot deep gouge in the mountain. Also has water, though it is a bit glacial (rock flour). Climbing out of Zigzag, I highly recommend taking the Paradise trail. No additional mileage, but you add some elevation gain. But I think it is prettier than the standard trail section. Paradise is also a fine campsite area, with good water. Walking out of Paradise you really feel you are on the mountain (as opposed to walking around it).
After the Paradise trail rejoins the main Timberline Trail, you will start to lose elevation quickly. There will be three major switchback turns where if you go off trail to the right, you can get to the rim of the Sandy River canyon. First of these viewpoints is about 30 yards off-trail, the other two are closer. Well worth the time, each viewpoint has a different view of the beginnings of this river. Muddy waterfalls, rocks, cliffs, great stuff.
Then you drop into the forest. After a while you'll have a sharp turn to your left, and drop into another drainage (Rushing Water Creek). In a bit you will see a nice campsite by this creek. There is no obvious trail to it, so just bushwhack down to it if you want to stop there.
Crossing the Sandy here is usually no problem. When you come to a trail junction, definitely choose the route to Ramona Falls. The horse trail to Bald Mountain is shorter, but not near as lovely. Ramona Falls is a good place to fill up on water. After you cross the Ramona Creek Bridge, bear right at the trail junction. Between Ramona Falls and Bald Mountain, there are several small creeks, but the best water is Ramona Creek. There are two landslides you'll encounter. The first is the worst, and will get your attention. But not dangerous (though I dislodged a pebble or two both times I walked this section this summer).
As you approach the Muddy Fork crossings, you'll pass through another campsite. Nice, and good water is not far away. After crossing this little creek, the trail encounters the first Muddy Fork crossing. Rock hop across, and pay attention to the rock cairns marking the trail. The trail takes a sharp turn upstream soon after crossing the Muddy, and then meanders to the second fork. This fork was once much easier to cross, but about two years ago, a glacial flash flood devastated this area, leveling acres of trees, and creating a moonscape of rock and dirt. After you cross, follow the flags and cairns and cross over a small pile of logs and you will immediately be on a forest trail. Quite a contrast, as you have just crossed the boundary of the flash flood.
Gradual climb up to Bald Mountain, with the river dropping below you. After a less than two miles, you will get to a horse gate (fence where hikers can walk through, horses can't). Soon after the horse gate, you will be in a small glen. An unmarked trail to your right goes over the small ridge, and connects with the north-bound Timberline Trail about a hundred yards away. But I wouldn't take this shortcut, for you will miss one of the better viewpoints on the mountain, at Bald Mountain. Continue on the main trail to the viewpoint. And once you are here, it is about equal distance to stay on the main trail, hit the PCT junction, and circle around Bald Mountain, as it is to backtrack to the shortcut.
The next two miles are the least interesting of the whole trail. A slog uphill through a dense forest. No views or water. After a bit, you will get to some nice views, including a look at a large snow cave in the glacier, from which one of the branches of Muddy Fork emerges. You'll get to a small meadow with an unmarked trail taking off to the right. This is the very steep trail to McNeil shelter. McNeil Point has a fantastic view, a stone shelter (overcrowded on summer weekends) and no water. The main trail continues past two lovely lakes, then turn into a small creek drainage. Here, right where you cross the creek, another trail goes off to the right. This is the gentle trail to McNeil (so you could do a loop to the shelter).
The next creek you encounter is McGee. A fine place to get water. Then you get to Cairn Basin. Stone shelter, flat ground, and good water. Excellent campsite.
From Cairn, you can choose to either go through Eden Park or take the high trail. I'd drop into Eden. You'll lose some elevation you will have to gain back immediately, but it is a lovely area to walk through (there is one place to camp, but I think it would be buggy, and the water is slow).
Climbing out of Eden, you'll enter Wy'East Basin. No place to really camp, no good water. Head on to Elk Cove, one of the loveliest sites on the mountain. Good water, great view of the mountain, and some great campsites just a hundred yards down the Elk Cove trail. Off this trail you will notice several small side trails, which typically lead to campsites.
Elk Cove to Cloud Cap has several good campsites, but only one has water (at a creek crossing after Coe Branch). The Coe Branch crossing can be difficult. Last time I walked far upstream to find a good crossing. Finally found a marginally better crossing, and then I had a difficult time finding the trail on the other side. This is the only creek crossing where I recommend taking the time to just wade barefoot across. That way, you won't lose the trail by going too far upstream!
The crossing at Eliot Creek has been re-routed due to washout. The re-routing adds more than 0.5 miles to the route, and is poorly graded. I was debating whether to ignore the detour and just try to cross Eliot at the old crossing, but ended up taking the detour. I understand that the old crossing is difficult, so probably best to take the detour. The bridge that the detour leads to is an engineering marvel, rather overdone, but it works.
Cloud Cap is a car campsite, so no sense of remoteness. However, it has piped water, so this is an excellent place to tank up (when I leave Elk Cove, I only carry enough water to get to Cloud Cap, and then take on enough to get me to Timberline Lodge).
Cloud Cap to Newton Creek is waterless except for runoff from snowfields. It is a long uphill hike on the shield of this volcano to the top of Gnarl Ridge, and then a long downhill to Newton Creek. Get in the zone and truck on! Great views.
When you get to Newton Creek, turn upstream slightly to go around the pile of rock and dirt, and follow the cairns directly across the creek bed. The actual crossing is relatively easy. After you cross, look for cairns and flags. Where there is a flag tied on a bush, you need to go straight up the embankment (about ten feet) and you will be immediately on a forest trail (another example of glacial flash flood taking out the trail and re-aligning the creek.)
After you cross Newton Creek, in a few yards you encounter a small, clearwater creek with a lovely campsite (the first nice one since Cloud Cap).
Newton Creek to Heather Canyon is straightforward, and dry. Heather Canyon is lovely, some beautiful waterfalls. Then you have the four-mile contour through Hood Meadows. Lovely wildflowers, though the obvious presence of man is less than lovely. There are actually some campsites on this section of trail, and lots of creeks. Last water before Timberline Lodge!
After you leave Hood Meadows, your contour begins to turn into a descent. And then the descent turns serious. The last two times I've walked the trail, this has been my wall (after walking nine or ten hours already that day). This descent just fries me (seems like it takes more energy to brake on downhills than it does to climb them!). The trail pops out of the forest onto White River. Lots of cairns, and you can see the trail on the other side. Two forks to the river, no problem crossing.
Then you have only 2.5 miles of uphill to the lodge! First you will encounter the PCT, and then the uphill really begins. The next mile of this climb includes going straight up a sand dune. Then you will be right across from Timberline Lodge. But it is a tease, as there is a canyon between you and the lodge, and it is another mile to round the head of the canyon and return to the lodge.