Timberline Trail Backpacking Guide
The Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood is one of Oregon’s most iconic and scenic trails. This 40-mile loop is a fantastic way to experience the immense size and beauty of Mt. Hood. On the Timberline you’ll encounter lush old-growth forests, pristine alpine waterfalls, wildflower-filled meadows, towering craggy glaciers, rough volcanic landscapes, and some of the finest cascade views around. The hiking certainly won’t be easy, with plenty of ups and downs along the way. But in the end, the reward for your effort will be well worth it. So if you haven’t taken on the Timberline Trail yet, I highly recommend putting it on your list.
- Majestic Mt. Hood Views
- Cascade Range Vistas
- Massive Waterfalls
- Wildflower Meadows
- Immense Glaciers
- Easily Accessible
- Mostly Well Marked & Maintained
- Eliot Creek Section Closure
- Little Solitude
- Steep Climbs & Descents
- Seasonal Bugs & Snow
- River Fording
In order to better understand this trip guide, here’s a little information about me. I’m Dave Collins, the guy who runs this site. I'm an experienced backpacker and thru-hiker who likes to pack light. I generally hit the trail early, take plenty of breaks, and make sure to enjoy my time on the trail. Depending on the terrain, I usually plan to cover somewhere between 15 and 25 miles per day. That may sound like a lot of mileage, but I’m not a superhuman hiker or anything. I just pack really light and love to hike.
Lightweight backpacking gear has been a complete game changer for my wilderness adventures. When I pack light, I enjoy hiking more and I cover miles a lot easier. I usually carry a base weight around 10 pounds, but I'm not willing to cut out camp comforts to get there. I like plush sleeping pads, storm-proof shelters, and tasty warm meals just as much as the next guy. So I focus on finding ways to increase my comfort and decrease my pack weight. I built this website to help teach others to how to do the same.
Permits are required for overnight trips on the Timberline Trail, but they are free and can be found at trailheads around Mt. Hood. So just fill one out before you hit the trail. Some trailheads do require a Northwest Forest Pass for parking.
Below is my summary of some key Mt. Hood Wilderness backpacking regulations. This is not an official or complete list, so please visit the Forest Service Wilderness Regulations page and Mt. Hood Special Regulations page for the official rules.
- Leave No Trace - If you pack it in, pack it out
- No Motorized Equipment
- No Bicycles
- No Groups Larger Than 12
- No Shortcutting Trails or Switchbacks
- No Damaging Live Vegetation
- No Campfires within 100ft of Lakes, Streams, Ponds, Springs, or Trails
- No Entering Restoration Areas
- No Camping Within 100ft of Any Lake or the Pacific Crest Trail #2000
- Specific No Camping Areas:
- Any Meadow
- Elk Cove and Elk Meadows (in the tree islands)
- Ramona Falls (within 500ft)
- Specific No Campfire Areas:
- Any Meadow
- Ramona Falls and McNeil Point Shelter (within 500ft)
- Elk Cove and Elk Meadows (in the tree islands)
- Burnt Lake (at or within ½ mile)
- 2 Areas around Paradise Park (as outlined on the special regulations page)
MAPS & GUIDEBOOKS
- Green Trails Map 462S - Mt Hood Climbing Map - This is a fantastic map for the Timberline Trail. I highly recommend picking it up. I met two different groups of hikers trying to complete this loop without maps. They were very confused/frustrated and asked to take pictures of my map to use as a reference while they hiked. So, don’t be that guy. Bring a detailed map whenever you backpack.
- Backpacking Oregon - This book is an excellent resource for the Timberline Trail and many other backpacking trips around Oregon. I highly recommend picking this book up as well. It’s got great play-by-play descriptions of the hike that are useful when planning out camping locations and side trips.
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL
In general, July-September is the best time to travel to this area.
Snowpack is a key factor for trip planning around Mt. Hood. Some years a heavy winter snowpack and early season storms will keep trails covered into July. On warmer years with lighter snowpack, June backcountry trips are quite doable. The same is true for autumn hiking, some years early snowstorms make this area inaccessible and other years it’s stable into October.
July and August are usually great for wildflowers, but that’s also the time when mosquitoes will be the worst. Use a combination of permethrin on your clothing and a small amount of 30% DEET on exposed skin for full protection. Mid-August through September can also be a good time to visit this area because crowds and bugs will be minimal.
There is a year-round possibility of snow, rain, and stormy weather around Mt. Hood. So pay close attention to the weather forecast before your trip and be prepared for changing conditions.
- Total Distance - About 40 Miles
- Total Elevation Gain - About 9,000ft
- Average Trip Duration - 4 Days
- Some Loose/Sandy Trail
- Some River Fording
- Eliot Creek Closure
Difficulty depends on your experience, physical fitness, pack weight, & weather conditions. This is not a technically demanding hike, but there are a few big climbs and descents along the way. There are also some sections of loose sandy trail, which can be tiring. And lastly there are several rivers to ford along this hike (more info on that later).
I would categorize this loop as a difficult hike. It's not a great fit for beginners or families, but it's an excellent hike for intermediate to experienced backpackers.
As always, the heavier your backpack is, the harder your hike will be. So do yourself a favor and pack light. For lightweight hiking tips and gear recommendations, check out my Lightweight Basics Video Series and Gear Guide.
When people hear that the Timberline Trail goes around Mt. Hood, they assume that it’s mostly flat. After all, you’re going around the mountain, not up it, right? Well, not quite. Deep valleys and high ridges surround Mt. Hood on all sides, making this hike a series of climbs and descents. In fact, if you’re not hiking up or down, you might want to check your map, because you’re probably on the wrong trail. Okay, it’s not quite that bad, just don’t expect a casual stroll in the park.
Mt. Hood is a very popular hiking destination and the Timberline Trail is probably the most popular trail on Hood. So, you shouldn’t expect to be alone on this hike. That said, I was quite surprised by how few other hikers I saw while hiking this trail in late August. There were many beautiful campsites available and I rarely felt overwhelmed by other travelers.
To avoid the crowds, try to hike this trail mid-week and either before or after the summer rush from mid-July to mid-August.
Water is plentiful along this trail and is easily accessible from lakes and streams. Some large glacial drainage water sources will be too silty to filter, so plan accordingly. The Oregon Hikers Timberline page has a good hike description that talks about some of the silty water sources. Carry plenty of water to get from one source to the next and a lightweight water purifier. My favorite is the Sawyer Squeeze and I highly recommend grabbing one for your trip.
Any time you’re walking around a mountain there are bound to be big rivers to cross. Some of the river crossings on this trail have bridges, some are small and will be easy to rock hop across, and others may require a more challenging ford.
A little while back I made a tutorial video about fording rivers. If you’re interested in learning the basics of river fording safety, I recommend having a look.
Difficulty of river crossings will greatly depend on the weather and the season. Also, glacier runoff rivers tend to flow weaker in the mornings, after chilly evenings slow melting. Sometimes the river crossings on the Timberline are very tame and other times they’re challenging. So take your time, plan a safe crossing route, and use your noggin.
When I most recently hiked this route in late August, I was able to cross most of the large rivers listed below without even getting my feet wet. Even the most challenging crossings were never deeper than mid-calf height. That’s not always the case though, it really does depend on the season, the snowpack, and how much water is flowing.
The following rivers will generally require a ford. The rivers listed in bold are usually more challenging fords. Rivers are listed in clockwise order starting from the Timberline Lodge.
- Zigzag River
- Sandy River
- Muddy Fork
- Coe Creek
- Eliot Creek
- Newton Creek
- Clark Creek
- White River
ELIOT CREEK CLOSURE
The Forest Service has officially closed the trail crossing Eliot Creek due to a flood that happened in 2006. At the time of this post (2016) it is still officially closed. I have no idea why it has taken over a decade to re-open this section of trail (it’s probably more complicated than I realize), but many people continue to hike this section every year. This part of the trail is not officially open, so I can’t officially recommend that you hike it. Many hikers successfully cross this section every year, but that’s your risk and your call.
I did find the Eliot Creek crossing section to be slightly more difficult than the other sections of this trail. But that’s mostly because there's no official trail or signs, so it’s a little confusing to figure out where to go. The most common crossing route of Eliot Creek requires a relatively steep descent down a loose pumice field using an anchored rope for assistance. Once you get down to the river, walk upstream along the bank until you can find a safe crossing spot. When I completed this ford, I walked upstream about 300 feet to a point where the river splits into smaller sections. The water never reached above my calves and I felt very safe.
Again, seasonal conditions will have a large effect on this crossing and the Forest Service says this route is officially closed. They recommend using a car shuttle to get around this section, but that’s probably not a reasonable option for most hikers.
Here’s some more information on the Eliot Creek crossing from Oregon Hikers.
The only area where any off-trail navigation will be necessary is on the Eliot Creek crossing because there is no official trail. Other than that, the Timberline trail is well marked and maintained. I still highly recommend hiking this trail with a topographical map. It’s important to to have a topo map for any confusing trail junctions or if you happen to get lost.
Most backpackers take about 4 days to hike this 40 mile loop, so resupply along the trail is not necessary. The Timberline Lodge (restaurant and snacks) is right on the trail and Government Camp (small town) is a short drive or hitchhike away.
BEARS & FOOD STORAGE
There are black bears in Mt. Hood National Forest but it’s not very common to see them along this route. Even if you don’t see any bears, there will still be plenty of smaller critters that will want to get into your food supply. And they’ll be happy to chew through your expensive backpacking gear to get after it. For that reason, food protection and storage are very important considerations in this area.
Make sure you know how to hang a bear bag properly or carry a food storage container. Bear canisters and Ursacks are the most effective storage methods and the easiest to use. There are no food storage requirements for this area, but you should always store your food properly in the backcountry.
Most people start and end this loop at the Timberline Lodge. The most common hiking direction is clockwise from the lodge. That said, this is a true loop, so you can start and finish from any trailhead you like. Some of the most common trailheads with easy access to the Timberline Trail are:
One nice benefit to starting at the Timberline Lodge is they have an incredible breakfast buffet. If you time it right, you can aim to finish your hike with an all-you-can-eat gourmet brunch feast, which is truly a treat.
- Oregon Hikers - Timberline Trail - Good detailed summary of the loop.
- Outdoor Project - Timberline Trail - Good photography and short summary.
I hope this guide helps you plan a trip along the Timberline Trail. If you do, you certainly won't be disappointed. As always, please leave a comment below if you have any recommendations, questions, or suggestions. Thanks!
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