How to Hike the Timberline Trail: 42 Stunning Miles Around Mount Hood
If you’re familiar with the Pacific Crest Trail (or the Pacific Northwest in general), you’ll likely know of the Timberline Lodge and Mount Hood. The Timberline Trail is a 42-mile trek that starts at the lodge and circumnavigates Mount Hood, Oregon’s most famous peak. It offers breathtaking scenery and paints an excellent picture of the Oregon Cascades and the surrounding forests. Want a walking tour of some of Oregon’s finest scenery? Hike the Timberline Trail.
Distance: 42 miles, 10,340 feet of elevation gain
Completion Time: 2-4 days (10-20 miles per day)
Location: Mount Hood, 1.5 hours from Portland, Oregon
Trail Type: Loop
Scenery: Beautiful old forests, sprawling meadows full of wildflowers, some rocky/sandy/exposed sections. This hike really has it all and shows you how diverse the area around Mount Hood is. And the best part? Constant, ever-changing views of the mountain throughout the hike.
Terrain: Significant unbridged water crossings, dirt paths, sandy paths, and rocky terrain.
Navigation: I used AllTrails this year and a National Geographic map last year. Truthfully, this trail is incredibly well marked throughout. I rarely had to refer to the GPS unless I wanted to see how much farther I had to go.
If you have a car, you can easily make the hour-and-a-half drive up Highway 26 to the Timberline Lodge. There are also several affordable shuttle services. The Mt. Hood Express is just $2 each way, and they’re taking serious precautions in order to operate during the pandemic.
Clockwise or Counterclockwise
The vast majority of people hike the Timberline Trail clockwise. Personally, I think that counterclockwise feels a little easier because the big uphill pushes are split up between the second day and last day and are generally condensed to quicker sections. Ultimately you’re going to get the same views and overall experience either way. You do you. Just know that if you go clockwise, your last day will be spent trudging uphill in deep, deep sand.
Why Hike This Trail
The Timberline Trail is a Portland staple that’s grown in national popularity over the past few years. It’s easy to understand why. It’s a challenging hike with over 10,000 feet of gain in under 42 miles, but it’s still a manageable push even for beginners. It provides just the right amount of adventure with intimidating water crossings, violent winds, and the promise of sore feet from trudging up and down the mountain’s valleys.
This hike also provides incredible views: picture sprawling meadows of wildflowers, glaciers and glacial streams, and of course Mount Hood itself. You’ll also get views of Mount Jefferson, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and Mount Rainier throughout the hike. If you only have a small amount of time and want the biggest bang for your buck in the Pacific Northwest, this is the hike for you.
The Timberline Trail also overlaps with PCT for about 10 miles, so you usually get to meet some current thru-hikers depending on the season. I used this hike as a shakedown for my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike next year. It did a great job of pushing me, helped me hone my gear list, and motivated me more than ever to do the PCT next year (COVID-willing).
Finally, you can start and/or end your hike with the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at the Timberline Lodge. Thru-hikers agree that this is one of the best breakfasts on the entire PCT, so this should probably be a goal in and of itself.
Conditions and Weather
Most people hike the Timberline Trail in July or August. You can generally expect hotter, drier weather in this region in August and September than you can in July. Streams will also be lower in late summer as snowmelt dies off, and this is usually accompanied by a drop in the local mosquito population.
Look at nearby towns like Government Camp, Parkdale, and Welches for a forecast—but take these conditions with more than a grain of salt.
The interesting thing about Oregon is that conditions can change vastly depending on which side of the Cascades you’re on. It might pour rain on the western side of the mountain but never touch the eastern side. Beyond that, Mount Hood is a huge force in itself, so unpredictable mountain weather is very common.
On the second night of our hike, we went through a completely unexpected storm. I’ll never forget the sound of the wind ripping off the mountain and tearing through the meadow toward our tent. Be sure to bring warm, weather-proof gear no matter the season.
One thing you can count on year-round is serious wind above treeline. In particular, expect to hold onto your hat and reach for your puffy as you traverse Gnarl Ridge.
I recommend wearing gaiters because of the rocky and sandy nature of this trail. You’ll also frequently be above treeline and walking through exposed burns, so don’t forget your sunscreen. You’ll likely want bug spray too. I tromped right through river crossings in my trail runners, but if you like to keep your socks and feet dry, you’ll want shoes to wear during the river crossings. Finally, you’ll want to bring a mask. This trail is heavily trafficked with backpackers, runners, and day hikers. While it’s mostly easy to maintain six feet distance, occasionally you can’t and it’s best to be safe.
Unless you do this hike really early in the season, you don’t need microspikes or any other specialized mountaineering gear.
There is no special permitting to hike the Timberline Trail. You’ll just fill out a self-issued permit at the beginning of your hike. Depending on where you start your hike you may need a Northwest Forest Pass, but you don’t need this pass if you’re parking at The Lodge because it’s managed by the state of Oregon. There are a few areas where camping is restricted, but for the most part you can choose your own sites as you go. Remember to camp on durable surfaces at least 200 feet away from water.
This trail is pretty highly trafficked, so you’ll probably want a backup plan in case your target campsite is occupied. We ended up sharing our spot with another couple one night because there were none left when they reached Elk Cove and it had started storming.
Here are a few great campsites along the trail:
Ramona Falls (10 miles): A popular spot to meet PCT hikers with an awesome view of the mountain up the Sandy River.
Muddy Fork (13 miles): Significantly less busy than Ramona Falls with great designated campsites. If you’re looking to spend more time alone I would recommend camping here.
Eden Park (19 miles + 1 mile off trail): A much more quiet version of Elk Cove. It’s so beautiful and peaceful with a gentle creek running through and an incredible view of the mountain.
Elk Cove (21 miles): A well-known, heavily trafficked spot (for good reason—it’s truly so beautiful) for both Timberline Trail hikers and overnight backpackers. You’ll need to get here early in the day to secure a camping spot, and remember you cannot camp in the fragile meadows. You have to locate a designated campsite.
Cloud Cap (27 miles): You’ll see more car-campers here, but there’s a water spigot, great views, and tons of campsites. You can take a walk to the Tilly Jane A-Frame or go down to look at the Historical Cloud Cap Inn (no longer open).
Newton Creek (33.5 miles): Great campsites after crossing Newton Creek. There are little streams that flow through the campground too. I want to make note that there isn’t really anywhere to camp between Cloud Cap and Newton Creek, so if you pass Cloud Cap, you’ll likely have to push the entire way down.
Meadows (38 miles): You’ll pass under ski lifts and through incredible alpine meadows full of wildflowers. There are several trickling streams and a few good campsites in this area.
*All miles are clockwise from the lodge.
Water may be what this trail is best known for. For starters, don’t worry about running out of water. There are trickling streams every half mile or so, even above treeline. I never carried more than a liter at a time, and often just filled up my bottle and drank when I needed to (yes, you should still filter).
These streams aren’t what people talk about on trail though. It’s the major water crossings that are created from the glacial runoff from the mountain. They’re all manageable, at least for adults, but expect high volumes of raging water under your feet for many of the crossings.
I’m just under 5 feet and was able to safely cross each river, but it definitely took a lot of vigilance and observing where the best spot to cross for me was. Again, my boyfriend is well over six feet tall, and he easily crossed every stream after looking at it for all of 30 seconds.
The most talked-about stream is probably Eliot, likely because of the massive amounts of water surging under your feet as you cross, but there’s a large, sturdy log and a big boulder to use as a handhold. On trail, most of us agreed that Coe was actually scarier because you had to hop from one boulder to another. I crawled through most of that crossing, always having three points of contact (usually two hands and one foot) on a boulder at a time.
We heard that one group nearly lost their dog at this crossing, but luckily they scooped her up right before she went under a second time. The takeaway is that while these crossings are doable, you need to focus and take them seriously. Take your time to find the best place to cross and don’t rush it. If you’re hiking alone, be sure to wait to cross when others are near.
Note that by mid-August, water levels are typically down and many of these fords will become rock-hoppable. That being said, you’ll still need to be very careful of your footing.
Whether you live in Oregon or are just visiting, this is a spectacular experience and really gives you a good feeling of what it’s like hiking in the Oregon Cascades. You experience every part of the mountain and are rewarded with spectacular views along the way. It’s just the right amount of challenge and adventure, without having to take months off to do it. You even get the chance to meet some thru-hikers if you go during the right time of year.
Let me know if you have any questions or need any help planning your Timberline Trail! You can find me on Instagram @sydneybrehm. Happy hiking!
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