The weather has finally turned and western Oregon is back to sanity weatherwise. Not that I minded three months with less than half an inch of rain. The next nine months will more than counter that drought, I have no doubt. At the same time, life seems to get ever more hectic between teaching and firefighting and sickness, and I haven’t found the time to go for a real hike lately. It seems a good time to reflect on a favorite hike from recent years.
A couple years ago, I ventured up the north side of Mount Hood to Barrett Spur, a prominent shoulder visible from Portland. I had been to the foot of the spur multiple times coming via the Top Spur and Timberline Trails. That was a great hike, but a long one if I didn’t get an early start (living close to trailheads, I am slow moving at times). At any rate, I didn’t have enough daylight to get as far up the mountain as I wanted.
This time, I drove over the top of Lolo Pass and headed for the Vista Ridge Trail. The approach is longer, but the trail is shorter. The road gained a lot of elevation for me, and I had an easy hour-long hike to treeline. The north side of the mountain is stunning, all verdant tree-dotted meadows, glacial meltwater creeks (this route avoided any tricky crossings), all below steep glaciers and volcanic ridges luring one’s eye toward the summit of a great peak.
One in the lush Wy’east Basin, I found a herd path alongside a creek and headed up it. The going was easy for a while. Some routefinding was involved as I headed up steep scree sections and crossed a couple snowfields.
I slogged up the slope of the mountain until we were at least a thousand feet above treeline. The payoff was tremendous when I reached a saddle overlooking the Ladd Glacier on one side and the spur on the other. I scrambled through a stiff wind up the spur and reached a relatively flat but rocky ridgetop between glaciers. One word: spectacular.
The mountain seemed to be on top of me as I scrambled along the ridge. I wanted to go up, up, up, but I was not prepared for technical routes.
When I climbed Cooper Spur this summer, Barrett Spur quickly came to mind. Barrett Spur is a bit more of an adventure, which lifts it higher in my favorites list. Thousands of acres in the area were scarred in 2011 by the Dollar Lake Fire. It could be fascinating to contrast my memories and photos with the current look of the landscape. One day, I will venture back, and I would recommend a trip there to anyone else looking for a modest adventure.
Timberline Lodge is a major Northwest landmark. In the past twenty five years, it has become a national mecca in the summer as the only venue for year-round skiing and snowboarding in the U.S. Situated on the southern flank of Oregon’s Mount Hood at tree line, the old lodge is a great place to feel nostalgic. The craftsmanship is amazing, from the giant beams and massive stone fireplaces to the collection of Depression era art.
Outside the lodge, while mountaineers target technical routes to the summit of the highest peak in Oregon, hikers can find nearby trails conducive to great hiking and backpacking, including the Timberline Trail, which circumnavigates the mountain over approximately 40 miles. Short hikes are also possible nearby. Just recently I discovered an almost hidden little trail to a bluff with great views looking south and east.
After climbing the paved access path above the old lodge, hikers can join the Pacific Crest Trail and head either way. A weathered wooden sign points out distances. Canada 500 miles, Mexico 2000 miles. Sigh. Perhaps someday….
Two of my favorite hikes near Timberline are out and back jaunts departing from this intersection. The first is the Timberline Trail heading counter clockwise around the mountain. In short order, it skirts the open maw of White River Canyon, and there are many spots to meander in the area. Backcountry skiers could have a great time in the upper reaches of the broad canyon.
Heading clockwise on the Timberline Trail is popular even after Labor Day. The trail starts by passing beneath a few chairlifts, offering great views toward the mountain above and south along the spine of the Cascades, which sit in moody blue tiers.
Most wilderness walkers head west on the Timberline Trail towards the meadows of Paradise park, a gorgeous spot at treeline with tent sites scattered in the trees, rocks to climb on, and lovely wildflowers. It is a 12 mile round trip, and a great day hike or back pack, but today Denise and I want to simply hike to the lip of Big Zigzag Canyon. The trail loses gradually loses elevation, but there are small climbs out of Sand Canyon and Little Zigzag Canyon, and again when approaching Big Zigzag Canyon.
The trail dips into the trees as it passes the turn off to Hidden Lake, but comes back out onto open slopes as you near the dusty edge of the big canyon. The trail crests the ridge at an open saddle of gray ash like dirt with a big drop off beyond. I warned Denise about the drop off, but she was still apprehensive, and glad we’d leashed the dogs. I have heard multiple stories of dogs slipping over the scree edge and sliding way down, followed by owners trying to save them. A paramedic friend of mine recently made it onto CNN while rescuing such a dog owner.
Steep as the canyon walls are, the views are great views toward the watery babble far below. The steep gray slopes are dotted with green islands of bushes. I take a few photos and soak in the spectacular alpine atmosphere without requiring a major climb. We seem to be the first hikers of the day, but others are close on our tail. Because our new puppy Jackie Chan is not used to hiking, we are unsure of his reactions on steep trails or with other hikers and their dogs. Thus we keep him leashed more than we might otherwise.
We pass many hikers on the return trip, including a local couple who are volunteers for the Forest Service. They are taking a survey of wilderness users, and we have a pleasant chat.
The sun is glorious, our dogs behave well, and my legs are just tired enough on our return to the parking lot. Timberline is known as a ski area and a destination for tourists, but it’s a pretty great place for hikers, too.
My recent Cooper Spur hike is delayed by business, forgetfulness, and a longer drive than anticipated (partly due to gawking at last year’s wildfire damage). Still, I reach the Cloud Cap trailhead by noon. I have not been here for thirty years, and I want to go see the nearby classic climbing inn, but there is no time.
In arranging a parking pass, a wilderness permit, navigation, and a leash for Niko by the campground, my start is slow. Soon, however, I am walking the Timberline Trail, cruising through alpine meadows.
In just over half an hour, I hit the side trail headed more directly up the mountain’s open slopes. Wildflower patches punctuate the grey landscape. After a sidetrip to an old stone shelter built by the CCC in the 1930s, Niko is panting a lot. It is not hot; I wonder if the altitude is affecting him. He has been above 6000 feet a few times near Timberline Lodge, but we are already over 7000 feet, and he’s 14 now. We rest in the shade of a tremendous boulder for ten minutes. I offer Niko food and water; then we continue.
As the trail gains elevation and gets rockier, switchbacks increase, and our pace slows. Two men pass me while I pause at an overlook, but I soon get back in front. My hiking speed is modest, but I take few long breaks.
Eventually, the trail becomes a maze of tracks on a scree slope. Snow obscures stretches of trail, and there is no soil to erode, so people take shortcuts. It’s hard to worry about the trail; the views are spectacular. Above, Mt. Hood dominates all. To my right and below looms the Eliot Glacier. I can also see much of the Badger Creek Wilderness to the southeast, the long flank of Surveyor’s Ridge to the east, and a few of the big Cascade volcanoes, including St. Helens, Rainier, and Adams, dotting the horizon.
I crest the ridge in mid-afternoon. Multiple rockpile windbreaks have been carefuly constructed, as though neolithic masons lurk nearby. Niko plops down, panting. I worry about him and rest, taking photos and enjoying the views. I realize I should have put sunscreen on earlier, so I slather it on now. Without shade, the sun is merciless.
After five minutes, a man in his thirties catches up to me. We talk about the scenery. He says it is the best hike he’s ever been on. I can understand the sentiment, but I think I need to ponder a top ten list a bit longer. Time to move on.
I give the man an nod and continue uphill toward Tie-In Rock, the last safe spot on the spur, where I see a man descening. He hikes the last rocky, dusty pitch wearing a beanie and toting a camouflage backback. I note its unusual frame and wonder if it is military issue. We murmur greetings and pass. Later in the week I will read about injured vets getting some deserved rest below at Cloud Cap Inn. (“Air Force Wounded Angels” on http://www.oregonlive.com). Perhaps he is one of them.
The view from Tie-In Rock is stupendous. An obvious climbing route splits the rocks above with massive exposure. I am still over 2500 vertical feet below the summit. More than a dozen people have died on the Cooper Spur route. Nearby, more technical routes up Eliot Glacier looked tough, and the glacier’s lateral moraines amaze me.
When Niko seems rested, we head down. Descending, he is tentative on the rocks, and I must coax him a bit through the tricky sections. Just below the first high point I pass two men and diverge from the trail to a long snow slope, where I will half ski, half plunge step on my boots. One of the men jokes that he’d be on his backside quickly. I literally leave them in the dust, heading straight for the Timberline Trail on the snow. When I reach the trail, I look up and see I am at least a quarter mile ahead of the pair. Bootskiing rules.
The final descent becomes a grind. Niko walks slowly but steadily. I notice the man with the camo pack veering onto the Tilly Jane trail and wonder again about him, but I am tired and it is getting late. Left right left. I am very happy to reach the parking lot.
A Cooper Spur hike gains a healthy amount of elevation, and it’s not one to trifle with in poor weather, but it gets the hiker in a real alpine environment with relative ease. If you stop before the ridge crest, you still have great views and you can save an hour, making it much more moderate.
A few days later, an artist friend posts on Facebook about her trip up Cooper Spur. Coincidence? I think not. This is a true Oregon classic, a perfect place for exercise and, perhaps, a place for wounded angels to recuperate.