By Mack Robertson
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.