Mt. Hood At Last

Festival season is over, and I’ve been trying to shift gears into a slower, more home-based lifestyle. I’ve started picking up my practice of weekly hikes, and yesterday I decided to reach for one of my personal goals–hike on Mt. Hood itself.

Mt. Hood is the closest and most noticeable of the snow-covered peaks surrounding Portland; there are places in the region where you can see all the way from Mt. Rainier in Washington to Mt. Jefferson in central Oregon. But Hood dominates to the East, a large gray andesite peak with remnant glaciers adorning the top. The Multnomah tribe, a small group of the Chinook Nation who were wiped out by European-borne disease in the 1800s, referred to the mountain as Wy’east; some people still choose to use that name. While for me the Columbia River is the heart of my home, Hood has been this brooding presence ever drawing my attention. I’ve hiked near it, at Twin Lakes near Barlow Pass, and Mirror Lakes, and I’ve driven 26 and 35 all the way around it. But it wasn’t until I found out about the McNeil Point hike that I decided that I was ready to get to know this mountain more closely.

The hike itself was rather pleasant, not as steep as I had thought. My idea of “strenuous mountain hike” has been steep switchbacks on Dog Mountain or Kings Mountain, and most of the trail here was pretty level. There was a surprising number of hikers, too–the parking lot was so full that I had to park on the side of the road with a few other cars! I kept running into these two nice guys, too, who were on the same course (and made one of the same wrong turns, too!) I also chatted a bit with a couple of members of Friends of the Columbia Gorge; we talked a bit about politics in an election year, and I asked about their organization, which I think I’m going to join.

The wildlife was out in force, too. I flushed several Northern flickers from the grass on the sides of the road as I drove up to the trailhead, and I heard, though didn’t see, the occasional raven. There were lots and lots of chipmunks; I startled one near the start of the hike, but he (or she) quickly recovered, and sat about four feet away from me foraging for seeds and berries. Might have been the most chill chipmunk I’ve ever seen outside of a city park! The juncos were in full attendance as well, and higher up in the talus slopes I could hear pikas making their squeaky-toy noises. (If you’ve never heard a pika, allow David Attenborough to introduce you to this most adorable of mountain critters.) Lots and lots and lots of Douglas fir and hemlock trees, too, and the trail was lined with thick clumps of beargrass and some wild rhododendron. Erratic boulders deposited by long-retreated glaciers sat like large resting animals in the brush, and glacial streams trickled down the slopes.

It wasn’t the steepest hike I’ve done, but it was the longest–partly because I went almost a mile the wrong way down the Pacific Crest Trail and then had to turn around. Between that and another wrong turn and backtrack I added two miles to the nine miles of the McNeil hike proper I managed. I’d had the grand plan of going all the way up to the stone shelter at the edge of the treeline and snowline, though things didn’t work out quite that way. The trail disappears once it dips into the valley of McGee creek, and so I just poked around the valley a bit before deciding to head on back. I’d gotten a later start than I had intended and didn’t reach the valley until 4pm; with only three hours of daylight left and this being a new trail to me, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stomping around in the dark and cold!

Still, I had the time to be truly amazed by being so close to Hood’s peak. I went far enough up McGee’s valley that I was probably within a quarter mile or so of the base of the peak proper. You can see in the photo here just how close I got! (I’ve seen several other people’s versions of this shot online, too, so I know it’s a bit cliche, but I wanted to mark the moment for myself.) Surrounded by wildflowers and the cold meltwater of the McGee, I imagined I was in another world. And Hood didn’t seem so scary, either–perhaps a little brusque and cranky, but I’d had so much help from other hikers and the trails themselves getting there that I felt rather welcomed.

I am normally a solo hiker; I prefer going at my own pace, and dislike too much chatter. But as it was getting late and I needed to hurry back down the mountainside, I met up with the two hikers I’d been sort of pacing with earlier, and asked to accompany them down to the lower trail. So we rather quickly ate up about two miles of rough trail in an hour, and once we were within a mile of the trailhead I bid them good evening, with plenty of sunlight left to make my own way back. There are two options for taking the Timberline Trail back to the Topspur trailhead where I started; one goes through fairly standard fir and hemlock woods, but the other follows a narrow trail overlooking the valley of the Sandy River–not only do you get a great look at Hood in all its glory, but you can see the tiny glacial trickle that is the source of the Sandy. In the late afternoon sunlight Hood was beautifully illuminated, and I kept stopping to gaze in awe. Here’s my last photo before I headed back into the forest:

Just for fun, here’s a version of the above photo with a bit of notation–you may need to click on the photo to get the bigger version so you can see my notes!

All in all, it was a very good hike. While I’m definitely not in a place where I can climb Hood’s peak proper, I feel much more comfortable with the spirit of the mountain. It truly is a place of beauty, with the deep evergreen forests, and the alpine meadows with little surprising ponds. I think next year I may try doing a backpacking trip up there, though I might take another shot at the shelter on McNeil Point later this month.

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