Keeping it Wild: Backpacking the Timberline Trail Around Mt. Hood
By KEEN Fan Arran Robertson, communication manager at Oregon Wild
The Timberline hiking trail is one of the most beloved backpacking loops in Oregon. It circumnavigates Mount Hood, our state’s tallest mountain, traveling over gravelly ridges, down into cool, dark forests, across glacier-fed streams, through delicate high alpine meadows and recent fire scars. Over its course, the trail makes the transition from the wetter douglas fir and western red cedar dominated forests to the bitterbrush and ponderosa pines on the drier east side, and then back again.
I wanted to get a sense for what was coming to the mountain and how we might future-proof these incredible landscapes so that generations to come can still find freedom, beauty, and solitude in them.
In addition to showcasing the beauty and variety of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic mountains, hiking the Timberline Trail also provides an opportunity to see the variety of ways Mount Hood National Forest is experienced as land owned by the public. The population of Oregon is growing, and outdoor recreation is increasing. On any summer weekend, trailheads on the mountain rival downtown Portland for traffic jams, and yet Forest Service leaders are often under pressure to focus on promoting timber sales and exploitation of these lands rather than protecting them. As a proponent of safeguards for our public lands, and a lover of recreating on them, I wanted to get a sense for what was coming to the mountain and how we might future-proof these incredible landscapes so that generations to come can still find freedom, beauty, and solitude in them.
So for a sunny long weekend in July, I convinced my fiancé and friend Jeremy to join me, slipped into my KEENs, and we set off on a 40-mile circuit around the mountain.
Mount Hood Is Wildly Popular
While many people start the eponymously named trail at the Timberline Lodge, which is easily accessible up a paved spur off the highway, we chose to start at the Cloud Cap Trailhead. The road was gravely and potholed, switchbacking up through the young forest regrowing in the wake of the Dollar Lake fire, to a campground and the Cloud Cap historic lodge.
Even in the middle of a weekday, and despite the rough road, parking at the trailhead was nearly full. This isn’t really surprising. Located just east of Portland, the largest metropolitan region in Oregon, Mount Hood sees tens of thousands of residents and visitors live, work, and play across its breathtaking landscapes. In 2016, about four million people were visiting the Mount Hood National Forest a year, an increase of 33% over five years. This visitorship is growing, not just here, but across Oregon’s public lands.
'Are you from around here? This place is incredible. It must be great to get up onto the mountain whenever you want.'
That increase brings more money to gateway communities around Mount Hood, like Hood River and Sandy. One of our first conversations on the mountain was with an out-of-state visitor as we consulted our map at a trail junction. He unfolded a lightweight chair and produced an apple from his pack and began to noisily chomp on it, watching us debate whether to try to climb back uphill toward a campsite that we had missed, or continue down the trail to the next water crossing.
“Are you from around here?” The man interjected. “This place is incredible. It must be great to get up onto the mountain whenever you want.” The man lamented he was from Chicago (to hear him talk, it was easy to tell) where he didn’t have easy access to tall mountains and big trees. He’d traveled to Oregon specifically to spend time exploring Oregon’s public lands and waters. He finished his apple and set off back to his car, grinning widely.
Public Lands for All
By this point in our journey, we had not only encountered several hikers, but also three dogged trail runners. Throughout the trip I was surprised by how many ultrarunners passed us tackling the entire 40-mile route in a single day. While we’re carrying large packs and would spread our journey over four days, these athletes had on tiny packs and water bottles, and that was it. It was a very different way to enjoy the mountain.
Another way is through downhill skiing. The Mount Hood National Forest has several ski resorts that operate with a special use permit through the US Forest Service. The Timberline Trail crosses through two of them. 50% of visitors surveyed by the Forest Service come to Mount Hood for downhill skiing. In fact, Timberline Ski Resort advertises itself as being the only ski area in North American open all year long, as we witnessed when passing by the lodge and crowded parking lot. However, in the future climate change is likely to result in longer Oregon summers and milder winters, and the resorts are already planning ahead, broadening their recreation and developing downhill mountain biking trails over much of the same footprint as the skiing routes.
Because of its easy access from the highway, expansive parking, ski lifts and historic building, Timberline Lodge is a focal point for a lot of visitors to Mount Hood. As we hiked toward it, more and more day hikers and runners were found on the trail. And about 5 miles west of the lodge was one of the crown jewels of the mountain: Paradise Park, a high alpine meadow with sweeping fields of grass and wildflowers and, on a clear day, stunning views of the mountain. It was a short detour off the main Timberline Trail, and certainly one of the most popular backpacking destinations on the mountain.
Arran logged 40 miles in 4 days in his KEEN Venture hikers.
Unfortunately, it is here that the impacts of increased visitation were most evident. Paradise Park doesn’t have restricted camping areas. During crowded summer months, tents pop up across the meadows, smothering fragile wildflowers and grasses that spend much of the year under snowpack. Heavily used sites each feature a half-dozen trails splintering off, making them a spiderweb of deep ruts breaking up the idyllic meadows. While the problem is most evident at Paradise Park, it is not confined there, and we encountered at least one group that had sprawled their campsite out over a struggling patch of meadow directly beneath a sign that asked campers to avoid the area and let it recover.
From Paradise Park, the trail descended toward another highlight of Mount Hood: Ramona Falls. The 120-foot waterfall on the upper Sandy River is a relatively short hike from its self-named trailhead, and an incredibly popular destination. When we arrived, dozens of families were taking pictures, picnicking, and just hanging out. This was also where I noticed signs warning horsepackers of unsafe trail conditions ahead, a reminder that many trails used by hikers and backpackers around Mount Hood are also available for equestrians.
While the Timberline Trail does encounter several waterways, many were easily crossed by rock hopping, or finding a strategically placed log. Only twice did we switch into our KEEN sandals and get our feet wet, but even then the current was fairly weak. Once, my fiancé shuffled across a thin log spanning a stream on her butt.
By this time in our hike, we were in the weekend, and traffic along the trail picked up dramatically as we climbed to Cairn Basin and the McNeil Point trailhead. We ran into many more trail runners, as well as crowds taking in the incredible array of wildflowers in blossom around Bald Point. As we rounded the northern side of the mountain, the trail became hotter and drier, and the frequent water crossings were more welcome. The final push back to Cloud Cap involved one of the few switchback series along the whole trail, cutting back and forth through a fire-renewed forest down to the Elliot Branch watercrossing.
Future-Proofing Our Favorite Places
Over four days and 40 miles, we got to see the numerous ways that Mount Hood is treasured by the public — hiking, running, camping, skiing, biking, and even just enjoying the view from Timberline Lodge. But we also saw how the increasing number of visitors is impacting the mountain — traffic and crowded trailheads, struggling alpine meadows, and some people just not following the rules.
It would be easy to complain that Mount Hood is being “loved to death,” but I don’t think that is the case. The last century’s legacy of roadbuilding, clearcut logging, and fire suppression will continue to have a far more lasting impact on the landscape than recreation. It is more accurate to say that we are underfunding our public lands, and focusing on the wrong things.
Mount Hood and Oregon’s other public lands have become the economic engines that drive Oregon’s thriving outdoor recreation economy, yet the Forest Service is woefully underfunded for trail maintenance, environmental restoration, and public education about responsibly enjoying these lands. Worse, agency leaders are often under pressure to increase logging and other extraction of these lands. From what I saw on Mount Hood, the actual need is for more hiking opportunities, better signage, and leaders who understand that a 2x4 might not be the best use of a 400-year-old tree.
What is true is that our state’s population is growing, in large part because people are moving to Oregon to hike, ski, camp, bike, and kayak on public lands around Mount Hood and elsewhere. With the right preparation — a long-term plan that sets aside and preserves recreation areas, better signage and more education on how to responsibly use public lands, better maintained trails and campgrounds, and a more holistic approach to transportation — we can preserve the Mount Hood we all love even as Oregon’s population grows.
At the same time, it is important to remember that Mount Hood isn’t just a place for people to recreate. It is a home for wildlife, a source of clean water, and its forests have enormous potential to draw carbon out of the air and store it for centuries to help us combat climate change. While we’re planning for the mountain’s recreation future, we must be sure to protect and restore the natural habitats that make Mount Hood important to more than just the people who go there to hike, hunt, or ride ATVs. That means Wilderness protections for some of the last roadless wildlands on the mountain, like the forests around Tamanawas Falls and Boulder Lake.
We are at a point where those of us who love the mountain need to do a better job of thinking about the future, and how we ensure it remains a treasure for generations to come.
A few weeks after my trip around Mount Hood, two members of Oregon’s congressional delegation — Senator Ron Wyden and Congressman Earl Blumenauer — gathered stakeholders at Timberline Lodge to discuss the future of Mount Hood. Tribes, recreation and conservation interests, as well as community members from the towns surrounding the mountain, expressed their love of the mountain, and acknowledged that more needed to be done to prepare Mount Hood for the challenges of the 21st Century — whether they be more residents, visitors, or climate change.
I was encouraged by many of the comments and commitments I heard during that meeting, and the agreement that by working together and planning ahead, we could protect and enjoy Mount Hood. We are at a point where those of us who love the mountain need to do a better job of thinking about the future, and how we ensure it remains a treasure for generations to come.
How Can You Help Protect Public Lands?
It only takes a few minutes to call your elected officials and make your voice heard on the issues you care about. We even have call scripts from partner organizations to help send your message. Visit the KEEN Call to Action page to take action with us.
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