|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.
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.