Circumnavigating Mount Hood in North central Oregon is a classic, challenging hike, one I completed in early September, 2010. One of my favorite parts of the hike were the many and varied views of Mount Hood.
Mount Hood from Cairn Basin.
Wildflowers in Paradise Park. Peak flower season is August, but there were still plenty around for my jaunt.
In 2006, there was a large flood that washed out the trail across the Eliot Branch. The Forest Service has officially closed the trail here, but many people are doing it anyway. There is a 75-foot gully you must climb into and out of, with a lot of loose rock and dirt and a risk of it falling onto you. There were yellow ropes on both sides to help, but a slide in August 2010 buried the rope on one side, which makes it that much more difficult (not to mention what would have happened to anyone on the route at the time of the slide).
The alternate route across the Eliot is to cross it higher up, at the foot of Eliot Glacier. Though most now take this route (including me), the Forest Service does not recommend it because it is off-trail. Off-trail travel isn't encouraged so that hikers do not get lost.
In addition to the Eliot crossing, there are a number of other difficult stream crossings, each with elevation loss and gain into and out of the stream canyon, making this hike challenging. Several years ago someone was killed trying to cross one of these streams after several days of rain.
Because of these complications, the previous couple of years I hiked around the Three Sisters instead, which is easier, a little longer, and possibly more scenic. I was curious about the alternate high crossing of the Eliot, however, so I thought “It's time to do Hood again!”
Moving Right Along
Mount Hood Circumnavigation Facts
- 39 miles if you start at Timberline Lodge, 42 miles if you start at Cloud Cap or Tilly Jane.
- 7,500 feet elevation gain, 8,600 feet if you start at Cloud Cap or Tilly Jane.
- Low point: 2,900 feet.
- High point: 7,300 feet.
- Mount Hood summit elevation 11,239 feet, about 50 miles east of Portland, Oregon.
- The hike is on the Timberline Trail, which is also the Pacific Crest Trail on the west side of the mountain.
- Most of the hike is in the Mount Hood Wilderness.
- The hike goes through two ski areas – Timberline and Mount Hood Meadows.
- Self issuing permit at trailhead is required.
- No camping restrictions or designated sites (except in meadows and near streams).
- Current conditions info: Hood River Forest Service (541)352-6002.
- Current user trip reports and field guide.
I did the Mount Hood hike in four nights/five days. Many people do this in less time, even in just one day, but I like stretching it out (and there’s no way I could do it in one day - two nights/three days is about my limit). I started at Tilly Jane, which is near Cloud Cap, a common starting point. Because of the Eliot crossing, the next time I do this I think I’ll start at Timberline Lodge, which is what most people do.
Map of trip
My pack base weight was 12 pounds, initial total weight 20 pounds. I make a lot of my own gear, so I'm testing some new iteration of at least one piece of gear on almost every trip. This was my second hike with a homemade tarp, and I used my trekking pole to hold it up, which worked quite well.
CATEGORY ITEM BRAND MODEL WORN PACK FOOTWEAR Boots Lowa Renegade GTX size 12 49.0 Socks Bridgedale Endurance Trekker 3.4 3.4 Gaiters Homemade Nylon 4.0 CLOTHES Bottom Pants Homemade Supplex 8.0 Bottom Shorts Homemade Supplex 5.0 Bottom Underwear Homemade Supplex 1.0 1.0 Top Shirt Homemade Supplex 7.0 Top Vest Homemade Climashield 11.5 Top Jacket Homemade Epic 11.0 Hat 3.5 Hat Homemade Fleece 1.8 Balalclava Homemade Fleece 2.2 PACKING GEAR Backpack Homemade Silnylon 11.0 CAMPING GEAR Shelter Homemade Silnylon 11.5 Stakes From old tent Aluminum 2.6 Pole Polesforyou Aluminum 1.5 Sleeping Bag Homemade Climashield/Pertex 29.0 Sleeping Pad Therm-a-Rest Prolite 16.0 Flashlight Princetontec Fuel 3.0 Pillow Homemade Fleece/Foam 5.0 Stove MSR Pocket Rocket 3.0 Windscreen Homemade Aluminum 0.6 Cooking Pot Titanium 0.9 L 5.0 Spoon Cutoff handle Stainless Steel 0.5 Water Bottle Reused Soda 0.5 L 1.0 Water Bag Platypus 4 L 1.0 MISC GEAR GPS Garmin 60CSx 7.5 Camera Olympus Stylus 1020 5.5 Cell Phone 4.0 Radio 4.0 First Aid 8.0 Toiletries 24.0 Misc. Junk 24.0 CONSUMABLES Food 4 days 96.0 Fuel Canister 8 ounces 13.0 Water 0.5 L 17.0 Total Weight oz lbs Total Weight (Worn/Carried) 89.9 5.6 Total Base Pack Weight 189.6 11.9 Total Weight Consumables 126.0 7.9 Total Initial Weight (Pack + Consumables) 315.6 19.7 Full Skin Out Weight 405.5 25.3
I didn’t bother bringing any water filter, as I have read that in alpine areas the chance of getting any parasites is small, if you get water from a snowmelt stream. I’ve done this on a number of trips, maybe 30 days total, and haven’t noticed any problems. After one trip I was a little sick, but it could have been anything.
My trip started at Tilly Jane, with a night at the nice campground before my hike. There are also generally fewer people than at other trailheads on Mount Hood. To get to Tilly Jane, follow the signs off highway 35 to Cooper Spur Ski Resort. Take the 9.5-mile gravel road to Tilly Jane (or Cloud Cap, which results in a slightly shorter hike). This gravel road was never very good, but after the recent forest fire they put in these water bars - my regular passenger vehicle scraped bottom once.
From Tilly Jane, the trail goes half a mile to Cloud Cap through an area that burned a couple of years ago. I happened to be there just before the forest fire and was required to evacuate, thwarting that trip around the mountain. The fire got to within about 100 yards of Tilly Jane. It’s interesting where the trail goes through the burned area.
Burned out area between Tilly Jane and Cloud Cap.
I took the crude trail up the ridge to the east side of Eliot Canyon, though there is no “official” trail until past Eliot. I met some people who said Eliot was impassable, but when I said I was determined to do it, an experienced guy said to follow the route I marked with red dots on the photo below.
The route I took across Eliot.
The trail up went on a knife edge ridge at places, and the wind threatened to blow me off. I was really wondering about just how far I was going to go on this trip. I find a trip more satisfying if there are moments where it’s challenging without being overly dangerous, and this was that moment. After going about a mile up on the ridge and after 1,000 feet of elevation gain I found the climbers trail that comes from the Cooper Spur shelter and goes down into the Eliot drainage.
Looking back up the climbers trail from down in the Eliot drainage.
From here, there was a faint trail with rock cairns about halfway across the Eliot drainage. At some point here, you get onto the glacier. It’s not at all obvious there’s a glacier, because it’s covered with loose rock that fell from above.
A word of warning here: walking on the glacier involves some risks. The ground is really unstable - I poked around in front of me with my trekking pole in places. There’s a risk of flood or rocks falling on you from above, though I don’t believe there are any crevasses. I got by this area as quickly as possible - not a good place to stop for a rest.
When I got to the other side of the Eliot drainage, I had to get up to the ridge. This was somewhat steep with loose rocks and was probably the most difficult part of the whole trip. I didn't see any tracks where anyone else had gone the last half of crossing the drainage and getting up to the west side ridge. Once again, I wondered if I was really going to finish this trip. I think if I had gone up just a little higher it would have been easier... oh well, next time.
There was a crude trail going down from the west side ridge, generally following the edge of the ridge. There were places where it was knife edge and the wind wanted to blow me off again. This crossing of the Eliot is definitely adventurous, but other people were also successfully doing it.When I got down to near the real Timberline Trail, I could see where the lower crossing was on the other (eastern) side.
The lower crossing, officially closed, marked with red arrows. I tried to find it when I was going up the other side, but missed it, so you really have to look for it if you want to try this route.
Close-up of trail into 75-foot deep gully, marked with red arrows.
Finally, I made it down to the Timberline Trail. What a relief! It was only 3 miles from the trailhead and 1200 feet of elevation gain, but it took 2.5 hours. From here it was routine - passing Compass Creek, Coe Creek, Elk Cove, and Cairn Basin.
Mount Hood from Compass Creek.
From the west side of Mount Hood you get distant views of other Cascade volcanoes (from left): Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helens.
Crossing Coe Creek wasn’t too difficult, there were a number of logs across it.
Just as a comparison, here’s Coe from mid July 2005 - much more water and difficult to cross. Right when you get to the center you hit a place where the stream flow rate was much higher. Amazing how much force it puts on you. It kind of fools you because the water was only knee high. This is why you want to do Mount Hood in September when stream flow is minimal.
Wildflowers near Cairn Basin. I had planned on camping at Cairn Basin, but there wasn’t any drinking water convenient so I went about half a mile further. First day mileage was 10.5 miles, which is high for me, especially on the first day and especially with the difficult Eliot crossing. I was pretty tired. I found a small flat area, plopped my stuff down, and slept under the stars that night.
My set-up under the stars. About half the time I sleep without any tent. I like the freedom you get from seeing and hearing the wilderness. Sometimes I’ll set up the tarp, then undo guylines from a few stakes and set the tarp to my side, as shown. If it rains on me in the night, it only takes a few moments to set the tarp up.
If rain threatens, I have a small tarp that weighs 1 pound including pole and stakes. This was actually my second trip with this tarp, so I was eager to see how it performed, and I used it one night.
Mount Hood lenticular cloud from east of McNeil ridge before dropping down to Sandy. This day had the most elevation loss of the trip, almost 3,000 feet down to the Sandy River. The trail was easy the whole way.
After several miles, I joined up with the PCT, which I followed on the west side of the mountain. The trail is a little better maintained on this section, and even includes the only real bridge on the entire trip (when crossing the Muddy Fork).
Logs crossing the Sandy River. This will get washed out in the next big rain storm.
My second night was at a nice little site next to the Rushing Water creek a bit after it joins the Sandy River. My only problem with the site was that it was a bit marshy and buggy, and felt kind of close in a claustrophobic sort of way. Next time I’ll camp right at the Sandy River. I did 8.5 miles the second day. Not quite leisurely, but plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.
I camped out under the stars again, but I was rudely awakened the following morning at 6:30 to a bit of a mist. In Portland, the weather report said it would be cloudy, but here I was in those clouds. I had left my gear fairly protected but my sleeping bag got just a bit wet. I quickly got up and packed up my gear to avoid getting any wetter and then leisurely ate breakfast in the occasional mist.
The third day I had to gain back the 3000 feet of elevation I had lost the second day. The trail is mostly forested at the beginning, which would be nice in hot weather, but it continued to be misty and I was occasionally enveloped in clouds.
Most people attach a few things on the outside, like sleeping pad, bag, and tent, but this was pretty extreme. I think he was probably carrying more stuff than needed so he didn’t have enough room inside his pack. In my opinion, it’s better to have less stuff and a pack big enough to put it all in. Same thing with outside pockets - better to have enough room inside so you don’t need pockets, but most people, at least in the U.S., would disagree with me on that one.
After 3000 feet elevation of climbing, I reached Paradise Park, one of the most scenic areas of the hike. Fellow hikers were trying to see Mount Hood through the clouds.
Lots of berries. The blue ones are huckleberries and very good eating. Normally there are many huckleberries but this year, this was the only place I saw them in significant numbers. The red ones are mountain ash. Both are popular with bears.
A ways further along, I saw bear poop on the trail - he’s been eating those mountain ash berries. The tip of my boot is for scale.
A glimpse of Mount Hood through the clouds.
Paradise Park wildflowers.
A traffic jam crossing the Zigzag River. From Paradise Park to past Timberline, it gets pretty crowded - day hikers and backpackers from Timberline Lodge going to Paradise Park - tourists wandering away from Timberline Lodge - an occasional PCT thru hiker.
Mount Hood from the east side of the Zigzag canyon with some hikers in the foreground.
For my third night, I found a spot just down the Hidden Lake trail. Being so near to Timberline Lodge was a problem - there were many people walking by - but getting a ways off the main trail helped. I did 8.5 miles for my third day - not a lot of mileage, but it allowed me to take my time through Paradise Park and eat some huckleberries. I also took advantage of some afternoon sun to dry my sleeping bag, which was just a bit damp. It’s polyester, so it still maintains most of its warmth when wet.
It rained a bit over the third night, but my tarp kept me dry. This was the most rain and wind I have experienced with this version of MYOG tarp. So far so good! I ate breakfast in the mist, but sought shelter under a tree, which kept me pretty dry. It never rained enough to make the tree start dripping.
I made a jacket using Epic fabric by Nextec. I like it because it’s single-layer. The fabric weighs about 1.5 ounce per square yard. It’s supposed to be “silicone encapsulated” to be highly water resistant without requiring a lining, which saves weight. I was disappointed though, because my vest got wet on the shoulders underneath, even though it was only misting lightly. I will limit the use of this jacket to good weather when I don’t expect any significant rain and want minimum weight.
When I got home I tested several pieces of fabric - Epic, eVENT, Pertex Quantum, and some 200 denier nylon. Put a paper towel at the bottom of a one-inch deep plastic container, then fabric, then two cups of water. Let it sit for several hours. 200 denier nylon wetted through immediately. Pertex and Epic were okay for about an hour, but then wetted out - as soon as a little water gets through so that there’s water on both sides, then the water just streams through. eVENT was dry after four hours. I’ll have to make my next jacket out of eVENT and see how well it breathes.
Starting out for the day's hike, the trail goes through the Timberline ski area. In the summer, there is one lift operating, taking skiers up to the Palmer glacier ski area, open all summer.
They were doing a bunch of remodeling on Timberline Lodge. Normally, I’d stop for a beer and a sandwich or burger, but this time, this is as close as I got.
About half a mile past Timberline Lodge, I passed over the crest of the Cascades. On the eastern side, all the clouds pretty much disappeared. It’s amazing how quickly this transition happens.
From here, the trail goes down to the White River crossing. This is usually the most difficult stream crossing of the whole trip, but it wasn’t too bad, this being September. I sort of “pole vaulted” across with my trekking pole. I’ve tried taking a trekking pole on a few trips recently, but this is the only trip where I thought it was really worth taking, because of the stream crossings. This was the only crossing on this Mount Hood trip without some small logs set up to cross on. A group crossed after I did.
Then, the trail goes up to Mount Hood Meadows. This is another ski area, which some people might think ruins the wilderness, but a lot of people enjoy skiing there so I’m sort of conflicted. I think that since they clear out the ski runs, there are much better wildflower meadows and open views of the mountain. A truck passed me, going up a steep gravel road, doing some sort of ski area maintenance.
A distant view of the Three Sisters.
My last night was spent just before Newton Creek, a nice little campsite I’ve stayed at before with a small drinking water stream. I did 8.5 miles for the fourth day. This is the last drinking water before tomorrow’s long slog up Gnarl Ridge.
There was a bit of sun so I spread my gear out, which was just a bit damp from that morning - especially my tarp, sleeping bag, insulated vest, and rain jacket. After a couple hours they were pretty dry.
My last day started with the Newton Creek crossing. Nice logs to walk over, but they were icy! A little early in the year for freezing temperatures. It’s totally open to the sky there, so it gets colder. My campsite in the trees was a bit warmer although still chilly. I underestimated the cold and didn’t bring quite warm enough gear. I should have brought a heavier coat or insulated vest.
The trail then goes up Gnarl Ridge. The upper reaches get really barren, which makes for lovely Mount Hood views.
The trail goes up to the high point of the hike, 7,300 feet elevation. There are still several snow fields to cross, but there’s a well worn trail, no need for any traction devices or anything. Most years the snow has melted off by now, but this was a cool summer and there was a lot of late spring snow.
The trail is marked with these large rock cairns with timbers. Early in the season this is all snow covered, and it would be otherwise difficult to find the trail.
Cooper Spur shelter is a stone shelter made in the 1930s (?). If you got caught by a snowstorm, this might be a good place to seek shelter. There are similar shelters on McNeil ridge and at Cairn Basin. I stayed in the McNeil Ridge shelter once when it started snowing on me. There are similar shelters in Paradise Park, Elk Cove, and on Gnarl Ridge, but these have fallen into ruin and offer no shelter.
The next time I do the round-the-mountain hike, I’ll start at Timberline Lodge, as there’s a much easier way to cross Eliot. When you get to the Cooper Spur shelter, walk over to it, go just below it, then keep going on the climbers trail another 0.1 mile, and you’re at the Eliot crossing as I described at the beginning. It saves the 1.5 mile up, 1,200 feet of elevation gain, and 1.5 mile down that I did by starting at Tilly Jane.
From the Cooper Spur shelter, it’s a mile down to the end of my hike at Tilly Jane, giving me 6.5 miles on my last day. I usually plan a multi-day trip to be fewer miles the last day - gives me a little flexibility in case something happens, like getting injured or if there’s a problem with the trail that requires a detour.
All right, it’s time to start planning the next trip!