The circumnavigation of Mt. Hood via the 40-mile Timberline Trail seems to be a rite of passage for backpackers and trail runners in the Pacific Northwest. There is something about traveling around an entire mountain in a single trip that calls to us. Unfortunately, in 2006 a massive washout occurred below Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood's north side and created steep, unstable slopes that for over a decade prevented many from making the trip. Thankfully, at the end of 2016, the Forest Service completed a reroute of the trail and the entire route is fully open.
After years of putting it off for various reasons, I finally did a solo, overnight backpacking trip on the Timberline Trail in October 2015. One of the best overnights I have ever done! You experience forests, waterfalls, glaciated stream crossings, expansive views of Oregon from up high, beautiful mountain vistas, and then you end it at Timberline Lodge where you can have food and a pint while gazing upon the mountain's summit after a job well done.
Since then I have done the Timberline Trail twice more as an unsupported trail run and it is as challenging as you would expect a 40 mile run on a mountain would be. However, while the run is arduous, you have regular sources of water and multiple trailheads provide access so a friend can meet you halfway for resupply or even with camping gear for a night under the stars. In fact, if you start at Cloud Cap, you can run to Timberline Lodge, spent the night, and then complete your run the next day. I know a group of women who do that every single year and simply love it.
For the most part, the Timberline Trail is a well maintained and easily followed trail. However, the stream crossings can be tricky and occasionally dangerous if you are not prudent. Review proper safety procedures for glacial stream crossings beforehand. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that it could save your life. There are a couple trail junctions that are not signed, so having a paper map or at least a downloaded topographical map on your phone to reference is helpful if this is your first time around the mountain.
Also, always tell someone your trip plans before you leave and your expected return time. While there is cell coverage on a great deal of the trail, you will often lose it in ravines and heavily forested areas. If traveling solo, strongly consider a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), especially during the week or off season when less people are out on the trail.
GUIDEBOOKS & MAPS
- Timberline National Historic Trail #600 — Forest Service
- Timberline Trail — Oregon Hikers
- Mt. Hood — CalTopo
- 462S Mt Hood/Timberline Trail — Green Trail Maps
Parking: No pass needed at Timberline Lodge during summer/autumn. When parking at Timberline Lodge overnight, make sure to park in the clearly labeled overnight parking areas.
Wilderness Permit: Self-issued at nearly all trailheads. At Timberline Lodge, you can grab one from the Climber's Cave just inside the Wy'East Day Lodge.
Early summer to late autumn. Earlier and you may still have snow up high with challenging stream crossings in the canyons. Later and the weather starts turning colder and wetter.
Instead of duplicating the work of others, I will point you to the very detailed route description at OregonHikers.org. It is meant for people going clockwise, but it can easily be read from any direction or starting point. I typically save this page as a PDF and put it on my phone for reference as needed.
Water for the most part is not a problem on the Timberline Trail, even in late summer. Early autumn can be a bit more difficult, especially between Eliot Creek (24.7) and Newton Creek (31.5). I suggest you grab a liter at one of the last forks of Compass Creek near mile 23. Also, many of the larger streams are full of glacial silt, so try and use the smaller streams whenever possible – your dentist will thank you.
Campsites are also fairly plentiful along the trail. Here is a quick list of recommended ones at ~10 mile intervals with mileages and brief notes:
- Rushing Water Creek campsites (mile 9.3). Right before the Sandy River crossing, so if you start from Timberline Lodge late or want to cross the Sandy River in the morning when it is likely to be lower, this is a good spot.
- Ramona Falls (mile 10.4).The falls are gorgeous, the water is good, but it can be crowded and overused.
- Elk Cove (mile 20.4). Beautiful view of the mountain both at sunset and sunrise from the meadow. Water and multiple campsites.
- Newton Creek (mile 31.5). Just after crossing Newton Creek is a small creek with drinkable water and a few campsites. Not a bad place after that climb and descent.
- Timberline Lodge (mile 38.9). If you have a group, consider renting one of their bunk rooms and spending the night. They have a heated pool, spa, and tasty (albeit pricey) food.