GOVERNMENT CAMP — Trail closed.
The Forest Service notice stapled to the wooden signpost was tattered and weatherbeaten, but its meaning was unmistakable: The path ahead was washed out, wiped off the map by a flood, and going forward was not an option.
Two days into my four-day solo trek on Mount Hood's fabled Timberline Trail, I was going to have to turn around.
I had known this decision point was coming. The 5-mile segment between Cloud Cap Saddle and Elk Cove has been off-limits to hikers since 2006, when heavy rains came sluicing through the Eliot Creek drainage and swept away the footbridge — along with large swaths of real estate on both sides of the canyon.
Although finding a way across would be difficult and potentially dangerous — possibly even illegal — I knew other hikers had done it, and I had faith in my ability to navigate tricky terrain.
But this official notice, posted at a trail junction just west of the old Cloud Cap Inn, was giving me serious second thoughts. "Eliot Creek crossing area," it warned in no uncertain terms, "is very unstable and unsafe."
Contemplating the choice before me — should I risk it? Or turn around and head for home? — I looked down at the trail.
There, outlined clearly in the sand after an overnight rainfall, was a single set of bootprints.
They were coming toward me, from the direction of the washed-out trail section. Somebody, it seemed, had made it through that morning.
Maybe I could, too.
I've been wanting to hike the Timberline Trail for 30 years, since I first came to Oregon in 1983.
The spectacularly scenic 40-mile route, carved out in the 1930s by Civilian Conservation Corps work crews, circles the state's highest peak, 11,240-foot Mount Hood.
I'd knocked off pieces of it over the years, sampling the delights of Paradise Park, Gnarl Ridge, Ramona Falls and Elk Cove, but I'd never done the whole circuit. In September, I decided, it was time — after the summer heat was past but before the fall rains set in.
My plan was to do the trip in four days, starting and finishing at Timberline Lodge, the stately stone and timber inn on the mountain's south side. I would walk the route counterclockwise, aiming to cover about 11 miles each of the first two days and 13 on the third. That would ensure choice campsites every night and a relatively short walk out on my last day.
The biggest concern in my mind was how to manage the river crossings. Half a dozen major streams intersect the Timberline Trail, and I wasn't sure how many of them have their own bridges. (Answer: One. These days, the only bridge on the Timberline Trail spans the creek below Ramona Falls.)
This time of year stream flows should not be a major issue, but that can change with the weather. I already knew about the Eliot Creek washout, and a friend had told me his own attempt to do the Timberline circuit this summer was cut short by high water on the Sandy River.
Though I don't usually use trekking poles, I decided to bring one this time for extra stability on challenging stream crossings, along with a pair of river sandals in case wading was called for.
I rolled into the parking lot at Timberline Lodge a little before noon, full of coffee and anxious to hit the trail. Ragged gray clouds clung to the ridgelines and partially obscured the summit, and the drive in had been punctuated by periods of light drizzle.
My first challenge came just two miles into the hike, with the crossing of the White River Canyon.
As its name implies, the Timberline Trail follows the treeline, usually around 6,000 feet above sea level, as it circles Mount Hood — at least, that's the theory. In practice, there are lots of ups and downs, starting with the 1,100-foot drop from Boy Scout Ridge to the White River and the long, steep slog up the opposite side.
After an easy rock-hop across the fast-moving but shallow glacial stream, the trail climbed through mossy evergreen forest dotted with the season's last huckleberries, then leveled off at 5,800 feet to cruise beneath the chairlifts of the Mount Hood Meadows ski area.
Feet-dry crossings of Clark and Newton creeks boosted my confidence, but I still had miles to go before reaching my Day One goal: the crest of 7,000-foot Gnarl Ridge. It was nearly dark by the time I staggered into camp, and that's when I ran into my second big challenge of the trip: I had forgotten to pack a headlamp.
Fumbling in the gloom, I barely managed to get my tent set up and boil water for noodles and tea before the storm that had been threatening all day struck with a vengeance, and I went to sleep cursing my poor planning.
The cursing got louder a few hours later, when a big gust of wind pulled up several tent stakes and sent me stumbling out into the feeble moonlight, desperately tying my flimsy nylon shelter to big rocks to keep it from blowing away.
Day Two dawned calm but cold, with a light dusting of snow and shifting banks of fog playing peek-a-boo with the looming summit of Mount Hood. My route would take me along the mountain's eastern flank at elevations up to 7,300 feet.
The skies gradually cleared as I cruised high above the treeline, but I wasn't worried about the weather: I was thinking about Eliot Creek.
I stopped to talk with another solo hiker, a young buck who had blasted by me on the trail the day before. Like me, he was aiming to do the full Timberline circuit — but now he was coming back. The warning sign at the Cloud Cap junction had convinced him that crossing the washout was just too risky.
He had me more than halfway convinced, but I wasn't ready to give up quite yet. I wanted to see the damaged section of trail for myself. If worse came to worst, I reasoned, I could always camp there for the night before turning around and retracing my steps.
And then I met a dayhiker with an intriguing piece of trail intel: Some intrepid traveler, he'd been told, had left fixed ropes to make clambering in and out of the eroded Eliot Canyon easier. My spirits rose with the news.
Still, by the time I found myself face to face with the Forest Service's stern warning, I was deeply conflicted. But I hated to give up. After waiting 30 years to hike the Timberline Trail, I had to wonder when I'd get another chance. And if the washout still wasn't repaired by now, seven years after it happened, would it ever be fixed?
In the end, it was those bootprints that gave me courage.
It was a half-mile walk from the "Trail Closed" sign to the edge of the canyon, and one look over the edge made the extent of the damage clear. The gorge was about 800 feet deep at that point, with a 60-degree slope on either side. The canyon walls were a mad jumble of volcanic ash, unconsolidated scree and Volkswagen-sized boulders poised precariously above the creek.
Though I'd followed the mystery hiker's footsteps all the way there, I was beginning to wonder how he (or she) had managed the traverse. There was a length of nylon climbing rope trailing halfway down my side of the canyon, but no corresponding handline on the far side of the creek. I could see the next segment of the Timberline Trail beckoning high on the opposite ridge, but I was going to have to find my own way there.
The rope-assisted slide down into the canyon wasn't bad, but Eliot Creek was wider and deeper than anything I'd crossed so far, so I changed into river sandals to ford the knee-deep current. After I got my boots back on, I started picking my way downstream, looking for the least horrible way out of the mess I'd gotten myself into.
Then came a stroke of luck: Scanning the steep slopes for a feasible route, I spotted a ragged tassle of frayed manila dangling over the lip of the inner gorge, 60 feet above my head. The rope I'd been hoping for was there after all. A short, steep scramble brought it within reach, and then I was hauling myself hand over hand to the top of the ridge.
Looking back from the canyon rim, I let out a whoop they probably heard in Hood River.
The rest of the trip was far less exciting than the first two days, but every bit as spectacular.
I spent the rest of Day Two traversing the north side of Mount Hood, where the trail skirts (and occasionally passes through) the charred remains of a 2011 wildfire that scorched more than 6,000 acres.
Thankfully, the blaze hopscotched around the celebrated meadows at Elk Cove, Wyeast Basin, Cairn Basin and Eden Park. And, of course, it did nothing to diminish the distant views of Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, Hood's sister peaks in Washington.
Day Three brought a swing through the lush, low-elevation forests of Mount Hood's wet west side. It also brought another decision: Should I lop a mile and a half off the longest day of my hike with a popular detour on the Pacific Crest Trail? Or take the road less traveled, a long dogleg that contours up the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River and around Yocum Ridge to Ramona Falls?
It was my stubborn streak more than anything else that prompted me to stick to the "pure" Timberline Trail route, but I'm so glad I did. The Muddy Fork was an unexpected gem, opening vistas of Mount Hood I've never seen before as I hiked in uninterrupted solitude.
The Sandy River crossing was easier than I'd feared, with low water levels and a sturdier-than-it-looked homemade bridge of skinny deadfall tree trunks. From there, the longest climb of the trip — a 1,600-foot trudge up a seemingly endless ridge — brought me to Paradise Park, a windswept alpine meadow high on Mount Hood's western flank.
I ate my supper in the lee of a massive boulder shaped like a broken egg, watching the sun go down and the lights come up over the Portland metroplex 60 miles to the west.
An easy half-day's walk next morning brought me back to the ski lifts and tourist throngs of Timberline Lodge, where a pint of Ice Axe IPA was waiting for me at the Ram's Head Bar.
The cold beer at the end of a 40-mile hike was something to savor, but it wasn't half as sweet as the satisfaction of completing a journey I waited 30 years to make.
EDITORS NOTE: The Timberline Trail is still officially closed at Eliot Creek, where the bridge and part of the trail washed out in 2006. Crossing there is dangerous and should not be attempted by inexperienced hikers. It could also get you a citation from the Forest Service, which recommends setting up a car shuttle between Cloud Cap Saddle and Elk Cove.