Timberline Trail around Mount Hood Hike
From Portland Hikers Field Guide
- Start point: Timberline Lodge Trailhead
- Ending Point: Timberline Lodge Trailhead
- Trail Log: Trail Log
- Distance: 38.9 miles
- Elevation gain: 8000 feet
- High Point: 7350 feet
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Seasons: Summer and early Fall
- Family Friendly: No
- Backpackable: Yes
- Crowded: crowded at some places
The Forest Service has officially closed the Eliot branch but there is a possible but difficult detour, see Eliot Creek Crossing. Might be good to do this in the first half so you can turn around if you find it too difficult. (observed 2010/9/2)
The hike around Mount Hood is one of the best hikes in the area. You get great views of Mount Hood, and of the surrounding territory including Cascade volcanoes such as Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson, and the Three Sisters. You can see the Coast Range to the west. You can see Portland and the Willamette River. You can see the Columbia River. You can see the desert to the east.
It's really interesting to see how the plants and geology vary as you go as low as 3300' by Ramona Falls through deep forest to barren lava flows as high as 7300' on the east side of the mountain.
Most people take 4 days and 3 nights, beginning and ending at Timberline Lodge, and go clockwise. A number of other alternatives are mentioned below. The detailed description is the same regardless of how you do it. At a few places there are several choices of route which can make the hike a little shorter or longer.
Compared to the "Dilbert World" we're used to, it's refreshing to get into the routine of getting up in the morning, eating, packing up, hiking several stretches with rest stops, finding a place to get water and camp, and repeating. Anyone that has the opportunity should do this hike at least once. You might like it so much that you want to try a longer trip such as the trail around the Three Sisters, the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, or thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
As usual, mileages can differ between sources. These mileages are from a GPS track. Sometimes a trail is re-routed which can change mileages. These will at least give you an approximate value. These were updated September 2014.
Start at the top of the parking area to the East of Timberline Lodge at elevation 5900 feet. Go West, below/in front of Timberline Lodge. If you haven't been there, go check it out.
Keep going West, at about the same elevation. You go just above a ski lift that comes from below, and cross the bottom of another ski lift that goes up. Eventually it becomes the Mountaineer Trail. Keep going West and a little up until it joins the Timberline Trail (400) which is also the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT - 2000) at elevation 6000 feet and mile 0.8 from the start.
If you don't find the Mountaineer Trail, just go West/up until you find the obvious PCT.
Keep going West on the PCT.
At 1.2 miles, the trail makes a brief descent into rocky Little Zigzag Canyon, an easy, bridgeless crossing. For the next mile, the trail descends into forest, passing the Hidden Lake Trail (no. 779) on the left. There is a campsite (but no drinking water) below the trail just before this junction. There's another campsite (with no drinking water) below the trail in another 0.1 mile.
There is a small stream at mile 2.0. It gets to be a trickle late in the season but I've not seen it dry up.
The Timberline Trail then curves across a series of sloping meadows before suddenly reaching Zigzag Overlook, the lip of gaping Zigzag Canyon at 2.4 miles. The view includes the meadows of Paradise Park, across the canyon, and rugged Mississippi Head, the mesa-like formation at the head of the canyon.
From the Zigzag Overlook, the trail quickly descends a cool, forested slope to the bottom of Zigzag River Crossing at mile 3.5 and 4800 feet elevation. The stream is generally easy to cross without wet feet, but can occasionally present an obstacle during periods of heavy snowmelt. Be sure to look upstream for dramatic Zigzag Falls, which often forms snow caves at its base.
From the canyon floor, the trail climbs steadily, crossing a side stream, then reaching a junction with the Paradise Park Loop Trail at 3.9 miles. Turn right here and continue climbing through switchbacks. You could stay on the PCT/Timberline Trail (through forest, only one signed junction go straight, several nice campsites next to Lost Creek) but going through Paradise Park only adds 400' elevation gain and no additional mileage and is well worth it.
On the Paradise Loop Trail, at mile 4.9 is the junction with the Paradise Park Trail and the beginning of the sprawling alpine meadows of Paradise Park. It's 5.5 miles down to the Paradise Park Trailhead near highway 26.
Continue on the Paradise Loop Trail. Cross Lost Creek at the 5.1 mile mark. This is a reliable source of drinking water year-round. A little further are the remains of the Paradise Park shelter in a grove of ancient mountain hemlock. There are a couple campsites here, but better sites are ahead. Inexperienced people are tired from the hike and drop their packs right here, so these sites are often taken.
The route continues to the right here, curving through exceptionally scenic meadows, punctuated by rocky bluffs and Mount Hood towering above. There are also excellent views of the rugged Zigzag Mountain arm of the Mount Hood Wilderness, to the west, and the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, to the southwest.
The trail reaches about 5800 feet elevation in Paradise Park.
Next, the trail crosses another branch of Lost Creek. This is another reliable drinking water stream. There are a number of nice campsites here. You can go straight up at the stream. You can go a little further and then down a trail to the site of an old lookout. You can keep going down to another more sheltered site. A little further on the Paradise Loop Trail is another trail going down to a campsite. A little further is a trail going up - in about 0.1 mile is a huge rock, maybe 20 feet high, with a campsite next to it (very exposed in bad weather). There are two plaques on the rock memorializing two former Forest Service employees.
There are a couple more campsites just below the trail.
The Paradise Loop Trail comes within a few hundred feet of Paradise Branch canyon, before turning downhill in a switchback. If you have the energy and interest, walk through low alpine scrub and meadows to the edge of the canyon for a sweeping view of Mount Hood, Reid Glacier and several waterfalls on the Paradise Branch.
After taking in the view, return to the main trail, and begin a gradual decent back to the Timberline Trail/PCT, reaching a well-marked junction at 6.3 miles. Turn right (northwest). The trail takes a long stretch steeply down.
At about mile 9.3 the trail gets close to Rushing Water Creek and several campsites off the trail a bit, next to the creek, which is good for drinking water. It's kind of cool here if you have hot weather.
In the next mile, up to Ramona Falls, there are maybe a dozen campsites near the trail, explore any side trails you see. Get drinking water from Rushing Water Creek at the Sandy River crossing or at Ramona Falls. There's also a small stream below the trail at about mile 9.7 at a low point of the trail at about 3300 feet elevation.
The trail now goes along the Sandy River stream bed. At mile 9.8 is the junction with the Ramona Falls Trail. The PCT goes left, but it's more scenic and slightly shorter to stay right (unless you want to go to the Ramona Falls Trailhead which is left).
At mile 10.4 is Ramona Falls. This is a scenic spot that can be very crowded on summer weekends.
Just after Ramona Falls is a trail junction. We want to take the Timberline Trail which goes right. The Ramona Falls Trail goes left.
If you want, you can take the easier Ramona Falls/PCT Trail route. Follow it for 1.8 miles to the trail junction with the PCT. Go right on the PCT where it immediately crosses the Muddy Fork. There have been a couple bridges here that have been washed out. Currently there are a couple trees with a rope to hold onto. There are plans to put in another bridge. Then it's 2.3 miles up to the four way junction. The PCT goes left and eventually down to Lolo Pass or you can get down to the Top Spur Trailhead. Right is the trail around Bald Mountain. Straight is the Timberline Trail which is what we want. In 0.4 miles we connect with our route. This bypass is a total of 4.5 miles. Our route is 4.7 miles, slightly longer, but more scenic.
We are not doing this bypass, but are going right on the Timberline Trail just after Ramona Falls. In 2013 this trail was closed for a while. There are several short stretches where the trail crosses a slide. At one place someone slid down and had to be rescued. The bypass might be better for some people.
At mile 11 is the junction with the Yocum Ridge Trail which goes right (up). We want to go straight.
At mile 13.1 is the beginning of the Muddy Fork, a couple nice campsites, and a good drinking water stream.
The next half mile are several difficult crossings of the Muddy Fork. The trail can get somewhat overgrown at places and it's difficult to find it.
At mile 15.0 is the unmarked cutoff trail. It's right after the horse blocking fence. If you go straight, you cross Bald Mountain with some excellent views. It's 0.4 miles to the four way junction.
We want to go right on the unmarked cutoff trail. It's 0.05 mile up and over to the Timberline Trail where we connect to the bypass. Go right.
At about mile 16.4 are several viewpoints that look up to Mount Hood and down into the Sandy River Canyon. From the PCT junction to here is pretty crowded summer weekends. There is a place for a tent just above the trail in the brush next to the first viewpoint. There's another place for a tent right at the high point.
At mile 16.9 is the unmarked junction with the McNeil Point Scramble Trail. You could take this loop for 1.5 miles until it rejoins the Timberline Trail. It's an extra 0.5 miles and 300' of elevation gain. The first part of the trail up to McNeil Point is very difficult - requires you use your hands a bit. There is a year-round drinking water stream and a number of nice campsites.
A little further is the old McNeil Point Trail, now closed for revegetation. There's a nice campsite. There's a drinking water stream that probably dries up in September.
At mile 17.9 is a somewhat difficult stream crossing of one branch of Ladd Creek. This is the outflow of the Glisan Glacier above. This stream is too silty to drink out of, but there's another small stream that would be better, right next to the main stream.
In the next several miles, up to Eliot Creek, are several areas burned by the Dollar Lake fire of 2012. There were fingers of fire that burned up to and across the trail. The trail is totally passable. A few trail signs got burned up but they have mostly been replaced by temporary signs. A few campsites have been burned, mainly in Cairn Basin, but there are unburned campsites nearby. Maybe the biggest risk is that trees have been burned, killed, and weakened, so they might fall over on you. But, this is becoming less of a risk because there have been a couple winters to blow over the weakest ones.
At mile 18.2 is the junction with the Eden Park Trail which goes left. You could take this trail, and loop around to the Vista Ridge Trail and then back up to the Timberline Trail taking an extra 0.5 miles, and losing and then regaining 300' of elevation. Eden Park is a very scenic meadow area.
Right after the Eden Park Trail junction is Cairn Basin which goes for about 0.2 miles along the Timberline Trail. There's one of those stone shelters, which could be a life saver in a storm. There are about 6 campsites all along here on both sides. If they're all busy, try taking the trail up past the shelter and you can find a few more campsites.
The trail is at about 5800 feet elevation here.
At the far end of Cairn Basin, at mile 18.4 is another somewhat difficult stream crossing, the other branch of Ladd Creek. It's too silty to drink.
At mile 19.4 is Wy'East Basin, a scenic alpine meadow. There aren't any good places to camp here. There's a nice drinking water stream. There is an unmarked trail going up to Barret Spur.
At mile 19.9 is an unmarked side trail going to the right (up) to Dollar Lake. It's easy to miss this trail. There are usually some cairns to mark it. Dollar Lake is 0.3 miles from the Timberline Trail. There are three established campsites there. They may be full on summer weekends, this is a popular place summer weekends, surprisingly because it's so far from any trailhead. From here, there's a one mile side trip up to Barrett Spur. You can get drinking water from Dollar Lake, but people and animals swim there and there's no inflow or outflow so not the best water. If you keep going up towards Barret Spur there are some campsites and a drinking water stream.
At mile 20.6 is Elk Cove and the junction with the Elk Cove Trail #631. This is a nice meadow area with great views towards Barret Spur and Mount Hood. There are about six campsites along the Elk Cove Trail within 0.5 miles of the Timberline Trail. These are in the forest and usually aren't that busy. You can get drinking water from the stream going through Elk Cove.
At mile 21.5 is the difficult crossing of Coe Creek. Elevation here is about 5100 feet.
At about mile 22.7 are two campsites within about 0.2 miles of each other. They are sheltered in the forest and right next to the trail. There aren't too many people walking along here so they're not too bad. You can get drinking water from a branch of Coe Creek or three branches of Compass Creek that are nearby.
At mile 24.7 is the difficult crossing of Eliot Creek. The Forest Service has officially closed this crossing but many hikers are successfully crossing. See Eliot Creek Crossing for several possible crossings. (observed 9-16-2014)
My current favorite is to go up the unmarked trail on the top of the ridge (moraine) on the West side of Eliot. Go 1.1 miles to elevation 7050 feet. Then, go down the steep, loose slope. This looks difficult and dangerous but I find it to be the easiest route. You get down to the Eliot flood plain at 6850 feet elevation. Then cross the flood plain 0.4 miles to the other side, gradually losing 100 feet of elevation. 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 into a crevass. I fear if enough people cross this, eventually, someone's going to get seriously hurt, so be very careful. There is no trail or cairns, but you might find some boot prints. There are some routes through here that are easier, and some more difficult. When you get to the other side, go up the climber's trail up the East moraine. You can see it from the West Moraine. As you cross the flood plain, aim for the bottom of this trail. Then, continue on the unofficial trail to the Cooper Spur shelter, at mile 26.6 and 6800 feet elevation.
A lot of people cross down below, at "the ropes". See Eliot Creek Crossing.
From the shelter, cut across slope (East) on a faint trail over to the Timberline Trail.
Continue up the Timberline Trail to mile 27.9 to the Timberline High Point. This is the highest point (7350') of the Timberline Trail. There are a couple streams before the high point until late August, and there's another drinking water stream just after the high point. In September, this stream may only flow in the late afternoon and you may have to dam it up to form a pool and wait for the silt to settle before you can get water. There are a couple ridges that go east from the trail with some flat areas for a tent, but this is extremely exposed and not good in bad weather.
In another 0.2 miles, there's a high area above the trail, which is the highest point of Gnarl Ridge, where you can find a flat area for a few tents. This is a little more sheltered than the Timberline High Point. There are a couple streams.
At about mile 28.5 there's a spring a ways to the East of the trail. This was dry in early September. Maybe if you went downhill there would be a place where there was water.
After a while, the Timberline Trail follows the top of Gnarl Ridge with excellent views. At about mile 29.3, the trail leaves the top of Gnarl Ridge and there's the remains of one of those stone shelters and on the opposite side of the trail are some flat areas that could hold an army of tents.
At mile 31.5 is the difficult crossing of Newton Creek). It's a little hard finding where the trail exits the canyon on the West side. It's pretty much opposite the East side - you don't have to go a long ways upstream or downstream. Look around for a rope or flagging. Just after the crossing are several nice campsites a little off the trail. There's also a small drinking water stream.
We're down to 5400 feet elevation here, and stay at about that elevation across the Mount Hood Meadows area.
At mile 32.9 is a somewhat difficult crossing of the Clark Creek. At mile 33.7 is a nice waterfall at Heather Canyon and a somewhat difficult stream crossing.
Over the next 2.5 miles are a number of beauteous streams and little water falls and several campsites. This is all in the Mount Hood Meadows Ski Area, so you see occasional signs of man, but it's a novelty compared to the wilderness so maybe its okay. You normally see ski areas when they're covered with snow. At least there aren't zillions of people.
At mile 35.2 is the junction with the Umbrella Falls Trail #667. Just before this is a gravel road, the only one you'll see on the entire Timberline Trail. Just before this is Mitchel Creek, the last time you'll find drinking water for a while. After the trail leaves the meadow and enters forest, at the next switchback in about 0.1 mile, there's a spot above the trail that's flat enough to sleep. Neither of these are that great.
Then you go steeply down to the most difficult crossing of the White River Crossing at mile 36.7. There are large flat areas to sleep at if you brought drinking water from Mitchel Creek or Timberline Lodge. The White River is too silty to drink out of. The trail on the West side is about 0.2 miles upstream from the trail on the East side. Between is a route flagged and/or marked with cairns. The exact route varies from year to year.
At mile 38.9 is the end of your trip, back at the Timberline Lodge parking area.
The most common trip is 4 days/3 nights clockwise from Timberline Lodge. Given the trailheads and campsites listed below you can cobble together your own trip.
Several trailheads that aren't too far off the Timberline Trail:
- Timberline Lodge Trailhead - about 1/4 mile off the Timberline Trail, the access road is two lane paved, the only place on the Timberline Trail with a restauraunt and other facilities
- Cloud Cap Trailhead - mile 26.9, about 1/2 mile off the Timberline Trail, the access road is about 9 miles of gravel a bit rough at some places
- Top Spur Trailhead - mile 15.5, about 1/2 mile off the Timberline Trail, the access road is about 3 miles of single lane paved and 1.6 miles of fairly good gravel
- Ramona Falls Trailhead - mile 9.6 or 11.7, about 1.2 miles off an alternate route to the Timberline Trail, the access road is about a mile of single lane paved, the parking area has a reputation for vandalism
Presuming you do the hike in several days, choosing nice places to camp can make the hike better. These tend to be more exposed - another school of thought says you should camp at sheltered places and experience the exposed scenic areas while you're hiking. A number of campsites:
- Paradise Park - mile 5, alpine meadow with great views, at least a dozen campsites spread along about a mile, year-round drinking water
- Ramona Falls area - mile 10, forested area, Ramona Falls is a scenic destination, at least a dozen campsites in the mile south of the falls including the area next to Lost Creek, drinking water from Lost Creek or Ramona Creek
- Cairn Basin area - mile 19.2, alpine meadow with some forested places, at least a dozen campsites at Cairn Basin and within one mile west, drinking water from McGee Creek one mile south, a creek just south, and the creek at Wy'East Basin
- Elk Cove - mile 21.8, alpine meadow, about six campsites within 1/2 mile of Timberline Trail along the Elk Cove Trail in forested area, drinking water stream just west of the Elk Cove Trail junction
- mile 23.8, two campsites between Coe Creek and Compass Creek in forest right next to trail, drinking water from a tributary of Coe Creek at 5700' about 1/2 mile east of main Coe Creek or from the several branches of Compass Creek
- Cloud Cap Trailhead - mile 26.9, in a forested area, right next to the road, picnic tables, all the sites are taken on the weekend but you could find a place to put your tent, it costs $10, there's a drinking water spigot
- Cooper Spur Shelter - mile 27.9, alpine area with great views, not too many plants, there are some flat areas for tents near the shelter, drinking water from Cloud Cap Trailhead, the Tilly Jane Creek about 1/2 mile below the shelter, or the streams at the Timberline high point
- Timberline High Point - mile 29.1, extremely exposed alpine area not good in bad weather, there are two ridges that go east from the high point with flat spots for tents, and another spot about 1/2 mile south maybe 0.1 mile off the trail at the highest point of Gnarl Ridge, drinking water early in the season from a stream just north of the high point, a stream just south of the high point is probably good all year but maybe only in the late afternoon
- Gnarl Ridge Shelter - mile 30.2, spots for a dozen tents on the other side of the trail, you can go a ways off the trail for privacy, closest drinking water is at the high point or Newton Creek Crossing
- above Mount Hood Meadows - mile 32.1 to 35.5, alpine meadow area with some forested areas, there are about a dozen campsites over a 3.5 mile stretch between the Newton Creek Crossing and the Umbrella Falls Trail Junction, get drinking water from a small stream just west of Newton Creek, Mitchel Creek just east of the Umbrella Falls Trail junction, or several streams in between
If you start at a place other than Timberline Lodge, then part way through the hike, you can stop for a bite of real food and/or a drink.
Several possible hikes:
- Start at Timberline Lodge. Go clockwise. Camp at the Ramona Falls area, Cairn Basin area, and at Gnarl Ridge (bringing water from Cloud Cap Trailhead).
- Start at Cloud Cap Trailhead. Go counter clockwise. Get water at McGee Creek and camp at the viewpoint below McNeil Point. Camp the next nights at Paradise Park and just past the Umbrella Falls Trail junction.
- Start at Ramona Falls Trailhead. Go clockwise. Camp at the far end of Cairn Basin, Newton Creek (12 mile day), and Paradise Park (13 mile day).
- Start at Top Spur Trailhead. Go clockwise. Camp at Cloud Cap Trailhead, just past Umbrella Falls Trail, and Paradise Park.
- 5 day hike to prolong the enjoyment. Start at Cloud Cap. Take the McNeil Point Trail and camp somewhere along it. If you're not too tired take a side trip up from here. Camp near Ramona Falls, then Paradise Park. Take a short side trip above Paradise Park. Camp the last night after the Umbrella Falls Trail junction.
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