Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hikin' Around Elk Meadows

Are there really elk in Elk Meadows?  I'm not sure (haven't seen one yet) but I do know this popular area is considered the crown jewel of Mt. Hood's scenic southeast flank.

Fall colors already!

Sunny August Sundays are perfect for exploring this little bit of heaven.  Starting from the trailhead off the local ski area's access road, paths branch out to many destinations.  In the past, I've skirted the edge of Elk Meadows, and continued on to Gnarl Ridge.  But today I decided to pay this lovely mountain clearing a proper visit.

Clark Creek footbridge

Getting an early start, I had the trail to myself.  I was surprised to see crimson huckleberry leaves already sporting fall colors (a wee bit early, but it's been an unusual summer).   A quick half mile later, I was crossing Clark Creek on a sturdy log footbridge.

Smoke filtering in

One creek crossing down, one more to go!  Approaching crossing no. 2, turbulent Newton Creek, I noticed the air was becoming hazy and smelling awfully smoky.  Two large forest fires had been burning, one in Central Oregon, and another in Washington, and it appeared shifting winds had begun blowing smoke towards Mt. Hood.

Still clear to the west of Newton Creek

It was funny - while visibility was fast becoming obscured by smoke towards the east, westward skies were still clear as a bell.

Scary Newton Creek crossing

Traversing Newton Creek is the scary part of this trail.  A fast-running glacial stream, it's wide, turbulent waters always get my heart racing.  With no bridge in place, hikers are left to fend for themselves.  I scanned up and down the banks, and finally decided to scurry across on a group of narrow logs. Although appearing flimsy, the makeshift log bridge held my weight just fine.  In no time I was safely standing on the other side.

Purple wildflowers were everywhere!

Now came the climbing.  For a mile, the trail ascended Newton Creek's steep bank, through 8 long switchbacks.  The saving grace to this grueling slog was a huge swath of purple wildflowers lining the trail.  A welcome distraction!

Sun illuminates beargrass stalks

Gorgeous morning light on dried beargrass stalks also temporarily made me forget my burning legs and lungs.

Mt Hood emerges from the forest

And a few peek-a-boo views of Mt. Hood through the trees weren't too shabby, either.

Pearly everlasting blooming in burn area

Approaching the famous Elk Meadows, I came upon a junction with the Bluegrass Ridge Trail.  My map showed this side path would take hikers to a viewpoint on top of Elk Mountain.  It then followed a ridgeline for a half mile or so before looping back in to Elk Meadows.  A trail I'd never before taken - would I check it out? 

But of course!

Smoky skies on Elk Mountain

My detour climbed through mossy woods before breaking out into an old burn area from the 2008  Gnarl Ridge Fire.  Ghostly silver tree trunks lined the path, occasionally broken by a patch of pretty white pearly everlasting flowers blooming between downed stumps.

More beargrass stalks

It wasn't long before I approached the summit viewpoint atop Elk Mountain.  A former lookout site, all evidence of any tower had long been removed.  I was hoping for some nice panoramas across the Hood River Valley and Eastern Oregon, but the darned smoke had moved in just enough to foil any photographic plans.

Crimson huckleberry leaves

I tried to eat a quick snack, but some aggressive wasps drove me back on the trail.  So I continued my trek up Bluegrass Ridge, taking in the wide-open views (thanks to the Gnarl Ridge Fire) which would have been even better without the smoky skies.  I did pass by a few spots of fall color (everything is early this year!)

Fireweed in the burn area

And fireweed was still blooming at the base of several charred trees.

 Bleak forest

I enjoyed traversing this ridge trail, despite it's wanderings through an old burn area.  The views, occasional fall colors, and late-blooming flowers made for a pleasant journey.

Fireweed is taking over

Finally I came across the short tie trail that would take me off this ridge, and into Elk Meadows.  This path wasted no time descending straight downhill, winding through more deadfall.  But the silver lining was passing through a zone of thick fireweed.  These brilliant pink blooms brightened up an otherwise dull, gray forest.

Fab Hood view on the way to Elk Meadows

A highlight of the day's hike, the large amount of fireweed was absolutely stunning.  And as I continued edging closer to the meadows, Mt. Hood made a few more appearances.

Amazing wildflower display

After losing my trail twice due to downed trees blocking the way, I finally connected with the loop trail that circled Elk Meadows' perimeter. 

Mt Hood from Elk Meadows

I followed a side path that led me into the very heart of Elk Meadows.  Oh, what fabulous views!  Mt. Hood rose above the forested hills, towering over this clearing.  Dry grasses were beginning to put on their golden fall colors.

Elk Meadows shelter

I'd heard there was a wooden shelter somewhere in this area, and after a bit of searching I was able to find it.  A dilapidated, rustic structure, it looked as though it had seen better days.  Unless desperate, not someplace I'd spend the night.  But, the shelter did have some spectacular mountain panoramas framed in it's doorway.

Cairn marks the creek crossing

By this time, it was early afternoon, the sun was hot and high, and the masses were beginning to arrive.  Time to head back. 

Although I didn't see any elk, I did discover a new loop trail to a scenic viewpoint, found a huge patch of brilliant fireweed, and got to traipse through Elk Meadows proper.  This scenic little meadow is a worthy late summer destination.  Two hiking poles up!

Stats:  9 miles round-trip, 1400 feet elevation gain.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Neahkahnie Mountain

One doesn't usually think about climbing mountains when heading towards ocean beaches.  But along the Oregon coast lies many tall headlands, some rising over a thousand feet above the waves.

Dense coastal forest

Neahkahnie Mountain is one of the most well known.  Located on the northern Oregon Coast, just south of Oswald West State Park, it rises 1600 feet above the sea.  Named by the local coastal Indians, Ne ("place of") and Ekahni ("supreme deity") meant this viewpoint was fit for gods.  Reaching the summit is a popular coastal hike.  But - believe it or not - it was one trail I'd yet to visit.

Part of my route

One Friday in early August, I decided to check Neahkahnie Mountain off my list.  However, spending the morning babysitting our injured dog (nothing major, just a cut on his paw) meant a late start.  It was nearly 3:00 pm by the time I reached the trailhead.

My path went through this tree!

There's many ways to reach Neahkahnie's summit.  One can drive halfway up the mountain's south side, and take a 2 mile path.  Or, visitors can start at a trailhead to the north accessed by an auto pull out on Hwy 101.  But I decided to take the long way, starting at Oswald West State Park, and hiking the Oregon Coast Trail nearly two miles before reaching the Hwy 101 trailhead.

A clearing with ocean views

It was a sunny, warm afternoon as I started out from a packed parking lot.  Three school bus loads of kids were crowding the trail to the beach, and I was more than happy to branch off on the Oregon Coast Trail.  This path crossed a cool suspension bridge over a creek, and headed uphill through thick coastal forests.

The "official" trailhead

Although I thought the Hwy 101 trailhead was only 1.5 miles from the state park, this path through the forest seemed to take forever.  I came out into a wide clearing, that provided great views of the coastline and ocean below.  But lack of trees made for a hot trek!

Pretty white flowers line the path

Finally I began to hear traffic.  Trudging up a steep slope, I was happy to arrive at the "official" north trailhead off of US 101.  While waiting to cross the highway, I noticed a young couple on bicycles parking in the auto pull out. 

Nice ocean views

Safely traversing the highway, I now had two miles and 1200 feet of climbing ahead of me. The trail wasted no time rocketing upward, and it didn't take long before I was sweating and gasping for breath.  But fantastic ocean views spread out below were well worth the extra effort.

Blue waters

After crossing a clearing, the trail plunged into dense coastal forest.  I marveled at the huge number of ferns lining the ground, and the enormous trees rising high into the sky.

Many ferns line the forest floor

On some parts of the path, tree roots rose to the surface, creating intricate patterns.  However, they also made for treacherous footing.  My pace slowed as I kept a close eye on where I stepped.

Tree roots make for a treacherous trail

Stopping to capture a few photos, I heard voices, and noticed someone following me.  It turned out to be the biking couple I'd seen back at the highway.  A brief conversation revealed these young folks were from Montreal, and planned to bike the West coast from Anacortes WA to San Francisco.  They'd taken a break in their ride to climb Neahkahnie Mountain.

Foggy forest near the summit

The couple, being much younger and fitter than I, easily loped ahead.  Once again alone on the trail, I continued my climb through the warm, humid woods.  Nearing the top, I was enveloped by a bank of thick fog.  Oh no!  I climb up to high places for the rewarding views.  Was I going to get skunked?


The last half mile seemed to take forever.  I wound around a rocky outcrop, missing the faint summit path, and had to backtrack to find the correct route.  But scrambling up the final pitch, the entire coastline to the south opened up before me.  What an amazing sight!

My reward

The Montreal biking couple were already on top, enjoying a snack.  We again greeted each other and marveled at the views.  After a few minutes, my young friends headed back down, leaving me with the summit all to myself.

Summit selfie

With changing weather forecast for the following day, clouds were already beginning to roll in.  I'd reached the summit in the nick of time.  Not ten minutes later, my wonderful coast panorama began to fade under thick fog.

Battered benchmark

It was so peaceful up there, I didn't want to leave.  But it was past 6:00, and I had a long four miles of descending ahead of me.  With clouds rolling in, and sunset coming earlier, I didn't want to get caught out here in the dark.

Fading daylight

So I packed up my things, and hit the trail.  Although there was no more strenuous climbing involved, the path was steep and littered with rocks and roots.  I cautiously picked my way downhill, gingerly avoiding these treacherous trip hazards.  Progress was much slower than anticipated.


My return trip seemed to take forever.  Finally, Hwy 101 came into view.  But - this was only the halfway point.  I still had to travel the Oregon Coast Trail back to Oswald West State park. And light was quickly beginning to fade from the sky.

Purple thistle

In the open field, I took a wrong turn, and ended up at a lovely overlook perched over the ocean.  If not for the increasing clouds, views would have stretched miles out to sea.  But despite the limited visibility, steep cliffs and pounding waves made for a few great photo ops.  However, with night coming quickly, I couldn't linger very long.

Ocean overlook

I finally reached my car just as the last light was fading from the sky.  I sent a quick text message to my hubby so he wouldn't worry, and wearily climbed into my car for the hour and a half drive home.

But despite the late hour, and long afternoon, I'm glad to have carved out the time to finally climb this great coastal mountain.  (But next time, I'm taking the shorter route!)

Stats:  8.5 miles round-trip, 1500 feet elevation gain

Sharing with:  Through My Lens and Our World Tuesday.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ramona Falls

Easing myself back into hiking, I tried to choose moderate trails for my weekend rambles.  But on a hot, early August Sunday, I needed to go someplace with shade and water.  Lovely Ramona Falls Trail, at the foot of Mt. Hood, fit the bill perfectly.

Mighty Sandy River

My long-lost hiking buddy Katie joined me for this latest adventure.  Illness and trips (Katie) and a recovering foot (me) had kept us from hiking together for nearly a year.  A long day on the trail made for a great opportunity to catch up.

Last of the fireweed

Last summer, I'd hiked this same trail on a very rainy day.  Although the weather had been uncooperative, overcast skies had made for stunning photos of the falls and drippy green forests - not to mention the lovely pink blooming rhododendrons.

However, by August of a very dry summer, things were quite different.  No more rhodies - they'd bloomed and dried up nearly two months ago.

Where to cross?

Katie and I set out from the trailhead, following the Sandy River's steep bank.  About a mile and half down the trail, we came to the designated river crossing.  Last year, the Forest Service had installed a rickety bridge here to aid hikers.  But after the bridge was washed away in a freak rainstorm (sadly killing one unlucky person who happened to be on it) it never was replaced. 

Katie finds the crossing log

So now where did hikers cross?  Katie and I walked up and down the bank, scoping out the many bleached logs laying across the river.  Our options didn't look great.  But then I spied a large amount of footprints in the sandy soil, all leading to one large tree trunk.  It appeared that was what everyone was using to cross.  Slowly edging my way on top, I realized the tree was stable and getting across was a snap.  As I always say, river crossings always look much worse than they really are.

Rocks define the trail

Safely on the opposite shore, I headed off to find the trail continuation.  But Katie and I must've took a wrong turn, because it was nowhere to be found.  After crashing around in the brush for several anxious minutes, I noticed a line of rocks outlining what appeared to be a path.  Guess what?  That was our trail!  In no time at all, we were back in business.

Thick, green forest

Beyond the Sandy River Crossing, hikers reach a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  Here one has a choice - either to follow the PCT along the Sandy River to Ramona Falls, or take the scenic Ramona Falls trail to the same destination.  Or you can explore both trails in a loop.  Katie and I chose to follow the PCT first.

Ultra runners at the falls

The PCT climbs ever so slightly the entire 2 mile distance to Ramona Falls.  Usually not an issue, but on a hot day, even a gentle climb turns into a sweatfest.  My friend and I trudged along, wiping our brows, until the sign for Ramona Falls came into view.

Ramona Falls in all  her glory

The best thing about waterfall hikes on a hot day is that the temperature is always about ten degrees cooler at the falls themselves.  Approaching Ramona Falls, the chilly air felt heavenly.  And the waterfall wasn't too shabby either!

Katie gets goofy (can you guess her favorite color?)

Just before we reached the falls proper, Katie and I ran into a large group of trail runners.  A couple of the group members told us they were part of an ultrarunning "camp" which had started from Timberline Lodge that morning and run all the way down to here (which is quite a long distance, and elevation loss!)

Lots of gorgeous tiers

There was probably about twenty folks in the group gathered at the waterfall's base.  A spirited bunch of ultra-fit people, when they lined up on the adjacent bridge for pictures, I offered to snap the shutter.  I got handed about six cell phones!  But I love taking pics of people and was happy to oblige.

One large tree!

After bidding our new runner friends goodbye, I got out my tripod and prowled around Ramona Falls for a good fifteen minutes, trying for that money shot.  Katie ate a snack, and shivered in the cool air, dropping hints that she was ready to move on.

Magical cedar forest

So move on we did, choosing the delightful Ramona Falls Trail for our return.  This path follows lovely little Ramona Creek through a fantastic old growth forest of firs, hemlocks, and cedar trees.  Ferns and mossy creek banks add a magical feel to the woods.

Cute little Ramona Creek

Lots to photograph - I had to make my images quick, and hustle to keep up with Katie.

Rocky cliffs

We passed by an area of the forest where the trees parted to reveal a tall cliff of light colored rock.

The PCT!

After nearly two magical miles,our trail again intersected with the PCT.

Heading back along the PCT

Which we followed back to the Sandy River crossing.

Mt. Hood comes out for a visit
But not before crossing through the confusing trail area again.  This time we didn't get lost though!  The forest parted enough that we could see Mt. Hood peeking out from behind the cloudy skies.  The hot summer has taken a toll on the mountain, as she was looking mighty gray and barren.  Not much snow left up there.

Back across the Sandy River

By the return trip, we were pros at crossing the mighty Sandy River, and Katie practically galloped across the big log.

Riverbank colors

But the best part of the day for Katie was yet to come.  A horse enthusiast since her childhood, we came upon a young lady riding a gorgeous brown horse.  Katie just had to stop and meet her!  She spent nearly fifteen minutes petting and talking to her new equestrian friend.

Katie makes a friend

Another great hike in the books for summer 2015.  And good to catch up with one of my hiking buddies.

Stats:  7 miles, 1000 feet elevation gain

Note to my readers:  I'm leaving tomorrow for a fun adventure and won't have access to a computer for several days, so I won't be able to visit your blogs.  But no worries, I'll be back - and I can't wait to share my photos and stories with you.