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    Timberline Trail

    Timberline Trail

    By Mack Robertson

    Click to Download the GPX File

    Distance: ~42 Miles

    Elevation Gain: ~10,000 ft

    Best Time of Year: Late June - October

    Permits: NW Forest Pass

    Photos by Nick Boswell and Mack Robertson

    For trail runners in the Northwest, the Timberline Trail is a rite of passage. Circumnavigating Mt Hood makes for a big day with about 10,000 feet of climbing over 42 miles. There are many trailheads that you could choose to start your adventure, but my preference continues to be traveling counterclockwise around the volcano starting at Timberline Lodge. Starting here leaves you with some big climbs at the end, but it also gets you through some other challenging parts sooner.  

    Starting from the lodge, the first step is actually getting up to the Timberline trail. I prefer to park in the overflow lot at Timberline Lodge which is called the “Salmon River Lot”. From there you can start up a utility road near the entrance of the lot or a trail at the end of the lot. Continue until you reach the Pacific Crest Trail which is also the Timberline Trail at this section and turn right.  

    Continue on this section being careful to stay left as the PCT separates from the Timberline Trail. You will dip briefly into the forest before descending into White River Canyon. While not usually the swiftest crossing you will encounter on the loop, White River can feel a little tricky to navigate. Typically it involves the crossing of two channels.  Look for cairns as you cross. It’s generally possible to rock hop across, but often it is easier to just commit to getting wet and walking through the water rather than risk a fall on a slick rock. Once you cross the last channel of the river you will want to head downstream a little to pick up the trail again. The trail climbs steeply out of the canyon and into the forest on the other side. 

    As the climb begins to relent, you will be entering the boundaries of Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort. You will have several streams for water and pass through beautiful fields of wildflowers depending on the season. There are lots of trail intersections here so just be careful to stay on the TImberline trail.

    As you reach the edge of the resort, you will pass over Heather Canyon Falls and then descend into a canyon to cross Clark Creek. The other side of this crossing is a trail carved into the sandy bank. Climb up into the forest once again and then descend to Newton Creek, being careful to stay on the Timberline Trail at its intersection with the Newton Creek Trail. From Newton Creek look up and across the drainage at the stunning walls of Lamberson Butte. You are about to wrap around this massive rock feature as you make your way to the exposed, eastern side of the mountain. 

    As you meander through the forest, you will slowly but surely make your way above treeline. The dense forest begins to relent and only a few intrepid trees, gnarled by years of harsh winters, remain. Suddenly, the mountain appears before you in all its glory. To your left is Newton Canyon, which you’ve just climbed out of, albeit in a roundabout way. Continue up this ridgeline above Newton Canyon, heading directly towards the mountain.

    This next section is the most exposed and dry section of the mountain. You will be glad to be getting it done early. It offers other-worldly terrain, the path periodically marked with large wooden posts. This is also the highest point on the Timberline Trail, sitting at around 7300 ft.

    You will descend from the Timberline Trail’s highpoint, eventually reaching the junctions with the Cooper Spur Trail and the Tilly Jane Trail. Continue straight on the Timberline Trail here as it continues down into the forest, below the Eliot Moraine. The Timberline trail continues to descend through here, almost all the way to the Cloud Cap Trailhead. You are going to continue on the Timberline Trail and descend to the Eliot Branch.  

    The Eliot is one of my least favorite water crossings on the whole trail. The water is fed directly from the Eliot Glacier and can be intimidating and swift.  Its banks are incredibly loose and filled with large rocks that will move.  It’s important to move cautiously through this section, and if you are with other people, be mindful of your fall zone, as not to kick rocks onto others. As of 2023, the crossing can be made on a log slightly upstream from where the trail spits you out, but conditions change rapidly and are certainly not the same year to year. I will generally sacrifice a few extra moments at this crossing to be cautious. 

    The opposite bank of this crossing is just as loose as what you descended and requires a light touch. I find traveling perpendicularly to the bank in a sort of “Z” pattern makes the climb out of the drainage feel a little safer.  

    Once you’ve safely crossed the Eliot, you are about to embark on an intermittently burned section that is notorious for blowdown. The severity of blowdown will vary from season to season, but be prepared for a slower section here.  Any time you made on the last descent will likely be lost here. It is but a small price to pay for the beauty you are about to behold. 

    You will be passing plenty of water sources here and a few more water crossings. The Coe branch can be similar to the Eliot in terms of flow, but its embankments are solid and do not pose nearly the same risk in my opinion. The navigation on the far side of the creek, however, can be a little confusing. You will have to go upstream a bit to safely cross, but then go back downstream on the far side.  This will have your path feeling overgrown by slide alder and you will question whether you are going the right way. I’ve done this crossing several times and yet I seem to always get a little confused here. If you have the GPX track on your phone, now would be the time to use it.

    As you exit the Coe drainage, you will meander through a little more burn area before coming upon the oasis that is Elk Cove. Elk Cove is a popular camp spot for backpackers due to its abundant streams and beautiful scenery. Wildflowers and views abound.  

    You will have a slight climb out of the Elk Cove area back into more forested areas.  You will pass by Pinnacle Ridge and Vista Ridge trails on your right as you cross the Wy’east basin. Eventually you will come to Cairn Basin. Cairn Basin is a deeply forested section with a stone shelter. From this point forward you will begin to encounter more and more day-hikers as you near McNeil point and the popular Top Spur Trailhead.

    As you head sharply away from the mountain on the ridge, make sure to look back at the incredible view of Wy’east behind you. As you continue descending towards Top Spur, you will have a decision to make.  During the Labor Day Storms in 2020 much of the Timberline trail was obliterated at the junction with the PCT.  For that reason, most people doing the loop have opted to take the PCT around this section as the difference in elevation and distance is nominal.  It is a short detour that reconnects to the standard route back at Ramona Falls. I have heard this section of the Timberline Trail has been greatly improved this past season.  In short, take the Timberline here at your own risk. 

    I highly recommend taking a moment to enjoy Ramona falls.  It’s generally a busy spot, but the falls are a wall of cascading streams and definitely worth seeing if you haven’t before.  Depending on which trail you took at the junction with the PCT, you will either pass right by the falls or be a short detour from it when the PCT intersects with the Timberline Trail again. 

    The next section of the route may just be your least favorite. You are about to cross the Sandy River. The crossing can be variable depending on water flow. It’s often possible to find a log to cross on.  Sometimes I prefer to just get wet in order to not waste time searching for a crossing, but that’s up to your preferences. On the other side of the Sandy you will begin the long and persistent climb out of Sandy Canyon.  It’s not unreasonably steep, but it’s not particularly fun towards the end of your circumnav. 

    When you begin to crest the top of the climb you will have some stunning views of the mountain and its deep canyons below. At this point, I prefer to take the Paradise Park Trail instead of the Timberline.  It gets you above treeline and is truly a special section of trail.  It doesn’t have much effect on your total elevation or distance either. 

    As you reach the end of the Paradise Park Trail, you will descend a bit back down to the Timberline trail, which, in turn, descends deeper into Zigzag Canyon. That descent means you get another climb! The Sandy and Zigzag Canyons really are a 1-2 punch that will make you question how much longer until you’re done with this loop. 

    Once again, the trail offers more stunning views as you near the top of the climb.  You are getting close now! Keep going and you will reach Little Zigzag. By comparison, this climb is nothing to what you’ve already done.  

    At this point, you’re just looking for the first signs of ski lifts. It always feels like this section drags on a little longer than you want it to, but it’s not much longer now. The best sight you could ask for will come when you get that first glimpse of Timberline Lodge.  

    Loowit Trail

    Loowit Trail

    Click to Download GPX File

    Distance: ~31 miles

    Elevation Gain: ~7,000 ft

    Best Time of Year: Late June - October

    Permits: NW Forest Pass

    The Loowit Trail around Mt St. Helens has many compounding factors that make it more difficult than it appears on paper. Although it’s more than 10 miles shorter than its neighbor to the south, the Timberline Trail, I would argue that it’s just as difficult of an undertaking. Technical terrain, constant sun exposure and limited water sources make this route a physical and logistical challenge. 

    Despite its difficulty this is an incredible and rewarding route. It offers other-worldly terrain and a surprising diversity of landscapes. Be prepared for a long day and start early to ensure success.

    Choosing your time of year can be an important factor for this route- primarily because of the sun exposure. As long as the snow has melted out, late June to early July can be an excellent time to do the trail with beautiful wildflower blooms and reliable water sources. Late July through early September can be very hot and may not be a wise timeframe for those who do not handle heat well.  All the photos from this guide were taken in early October.  Fall colors are absolutely stunning in late September and early October on the trail. 

    There are multiple potential start points for the route, but I prefer going clockwise starting at the June Lake TH as it allows you to knock out the majority of the boulder fields on fresh legs. From the trailhead you will travel about 1.4 miles to June Lake and the intersection with the Loowit Trail.  

    After you break out of the trees you are beginning the technical and tricky-to-navigate boulder fields. This section of the route is marked by wood posts to help you find your way. The lava beds slowly relent and you find yourself on smoother trail surrounded by bear grass.

    As you continue along the route you will alternate between forest and exposed sections. Eventually you will reach the Blue Lake Wash, a massive washout with steep dropoffs. Follow the new trail that detours lower on the mountain and descend the fixed rope into the gully, ascending a similar rope on the opposite side. 

    Continue your run through sometimes-forested, sometimes-exposed trail until you reach the South Fork of the Toutle River. This is a similar canyon to that of Blue Lake Wash, but offers a reliable water source (waypoint: 46.21024, -122.25495). Many water crossings on this route are too silty and could clog your filter. In my experience, the water on the South Fork has worked fine with my water filter. Fill up well here, you are about to begin an exposed stretch until your next opportunity for water.

    This next section offers little in the way of sun protection. You will likely cross a few flowing water sources, but they are rich with silt appearing like chocolate milk flowing from the mountain. Enjoy this section as it offers sweeping views of the moon-like terrain. It is common to see elk herds roaming in this area.

    As you continue on this exposed section you will begin to believe there could not possibly be a water source. However there is a reliable spring that flows and forms an incredible oasis in this barren landscape (waypoint: 46.22738, -122.16639).  

    Be sure to take proper time to recover here and hydrate and cool off. If you thought the last section was a slog, the next will feel two-fold. You will continue to wrap around the mountain in the heart of the northside blast zone which was obliterated in the mountain’s eruption. Far to your left you will see Spirit Lake riddled with logs that were knocked over in the blast. 

    Be careful to stay on the Loowit trail here as you will soon come to a junction with Windy Trail on your left. I have made the mistake of taking this trail by accident and it makes your difficult day a little bit harder. You will begin to climb aiming for a notch in the hills called Windy Pass. Just as the name suggests, this pass can indeed be very windy. Depending on how hot it is, it may be a welcomed respite from the oppressive heat you’ve endured in the last section.  You will descend the backside of Windy Pass on loose rocks, being careful to stay upright.

    After some meandering you will make your way into the Plains of Abraham. This section of trail is relatively smooth, but exposed as you continue to the junction with Ape Canyon Trail to your left. Again, be sure to stay on the Loowit Trail here. 

    You will get back onto some more technical lava fields here. It is possible to find water in this area, but it is not reliable and is very likely filled with silt. Continue on this section until you hit a short section of boulder field that eventually takes you back to the junction with the June Lake Trail. You can refill at June Lake if needed or continue the 1.4 miles downhill back to your car. 

    North Nasty

    North Nasty

    Click to Download GPX File

    Distance: ~11 Miles

    Elevation Gain: ~2,800 feet

    Best Time of Year: All-year round!

    Permits: None

    With the exception of the Wildwood End-to-End, the North Nasty is perhaps the most discussed route in Forest Park.  Its steep climbs and close proximity to town make it the perfect four-season training ground for aspiring mountain runners. In the wet season, this route can be a truly "nasty" mud pit, but that's half the fun. Escape the crowds and explore the "quiet side of the park" on this classic Forest Park route.

    Trailhead:  Leif Erickson TH at Germantown

    This route passes by several different trailheads. Therefore, you could conceivably park and start from any trailhead on the North Nasty. Be warned, car break-ins are a risk at all trailheads in Forest Park. Practice good habits and do not leave ANYTHING in your car. 

    The Route:

    Begin by entering through the gate for Firelane 9 on the North side of Germantown road. You will descend down to another gate, taking a right on an access road and then a sharp left on NW Wilark Ave into the neighborhood.  Follow this road until it ends and there is a stairway on your right that takes you down to a raised walkway above highway 30. Take a left at the bottom of the stairs and head for Linnton Trailhead.  

    Forested trail alongside a creek

    Linnton Trail starts with a gentle climb along the creek before crossing a footbridge and beginning to steepen. This is the first of the two biggest climbs on the route. As you ascend the switchbacks of Linnton trail, thick tree roots cover the trail and sword ferns line its flanks. In my opinion, this is one of the most underrated trails in the park. It has a much more wild vibe than most of the trails on the Southend of the park while still maintaining great trail conditions. 

    Continue the long climb up Linnton trail until you intersect Firelane 10. Stay straight and continue climbing. As the climbing begins to mellow out you will continue straight when you pass the Wildwood trail junction until you reach Newton parking lot. From the parking lot, continue straight across the lot. This is the start of Newton road. Continue on this old road bed, passing by another junction with Wildwood trail before it begins a steep rocky descent. You will follow this trail down and around the hillside, crossing Newton creek.

    Continue on the trail along the creek until the trail veers left, paralleling the highway below. Beginning in this section, beware of poison oak. In recent years, poison oak has begun to pop up in this area, specifically in the unshaded section right before you intersect BPA road.  

    Take a left on BPA road, a powerline road easement and our stoutest climb of the day. Again, beware of trailside poison oak on this lower section, of which there is lots. This climb, although tough, is packed with wildflowers in the spring and berries in the summer.  It also offers unbelievable views of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, Sauvie Island, and, on a clear day, Cascade volcanos to the North.

    As you reach the top of BPA road, you can continue on the route, or make a short detour to the picnic tables at the top of the hill (right beneath the powerline pylons) via Firelane 13 on your right, remembering to return back to BPA to continue your route.

    Continue on this upper, rolling section of BPA until you reach the turn for Firelane 12 on your right. You will take this turn down until you reach Firelane 15 on your left and begin climbing up Firelane 15.  Firelane 15 will continue to climb, passing another junction with the Wildwood trail.  Continue up and the climb will relent. This is the start of a more rolling section of Firelane 15. Continue past Kielhorn Meadows trail (this trail is a dead end) and pop out beneath the powerlines once again. 

    From here you will descend then climb, then descend and then climb until you've reached Skyline Boulevard at the terminus of Firelane 15. You will turn left on Skyline, running along the road for a short bit. There is one blind corner on this road, but for the most part, running along this section of Skyline feels pretty safe.

    As you continue on this road you will eventually hit the unassuming BPA parking on your left. It would be easy to miss if you were unfamiliar, so keep your eyes peeled. You will head through the gate and continue on this upper portion of BPA heading down to Wildwood trail. This junction can be a little confusing for some. You will first pass Wildwood trail on your left (continue past this) and then about a hundred feet later you will see Wildwood trail on your right. Take this right turn and hop onto wildwood for some nice rolling miles. 

    This will take us all the way back to the junction with Newton road, but we will continue on Wildwood trail until we hit Firelane 10. Take a left on Firelane 10 and make the steep descent back down the climb we did earlier.  This time, be sure to make the sharp, winding right turn to continue on Firelane 10 when you hit Linnton trail. This will take you down to a creek crossing and then one more punchy climb back up to Germantown road. Take a left once you have popped out at Germantown and carefully cross the road back to your parked car.