By Lindy Callahan, Volunteer, Trailkeepers of Oregon
I visited the north side of Mount Hood the first time in October. A steady chill had taken the air as the last leaves were just starting to fall from the trees. All I had expected on this trip was some easy hiking and a somewhat spooky night in an old lodge. Our car pulled up in front of Cloud Cap Inn and my expectations began to change.
The nearly 130-year-old inn began as a starting point for guests hoping to explore the mountain, but it’s no longer open to the public for nightly stays. Today, it is managed by the US Forest Service and the Crag Rats—the oldest search and rescue group in the US. My friend’s dad is a Crag Rat, and along with hiking we were all up there to help with yearly maintenance. I walked through the cabin and put my things down in front of the great hearth inside.
My friends and I were then quickly out the door for a spontaneous first hike before everyone had even arrived. Cloud Cap offers excellent access to several Mount Hood hiking trails. Unfortunately, hikers, climbers, and backcountry skiers go missing up here every year. Keeping this in mind, I was sure to know where I would be going, who I would be going with, and what I would need on each of the hikes I would be embarking on. We were eager to hike Eliot Glacier Trail #600X first, but it was already nearly 3:00 p.m. and we knew we didn’t have enough daylight left to hike the whole trail. The original plan had been to do this hike the next day. It’s a 5.5-miles-long trail with a steep incline that goes to Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood. We thought that if we kept a good pace we could make it somewhere close to the glacier and back to the inn before nightfall. We didn’t know for sure how far we would actually make it, and we were about to learn our own lesson, once again, in the importance of thoroughly thinking long hikes through.
We walked from Cloud Cap down to the trailhead at Cloud Cap Saddle Campground. The Eliot Glacier Trail takes on some serious elevation gain—nearly 3,000 feet, to be exact. The steepness was a surprise, because I had failed to find out in advance how steep this trail is.
We climbed for an hour and before long noticed that the sun was starting to fall back towards the earth. It was becoming clear that we wouldn’t make it to the top and had to turn back if we didn’t want to make the steep descent after dark. You have to be prepared for everything, I guess, and unfortunately this time we had to be prepared to turn back early. First, though, we took half an hour to appreciate the view. We had made it about halfway up the trail and could see the Mount Hood National Forest sprawling out below us. Cloud Cap sat far below, and I could see our van parked in front. The air took on a fresh chill as I noticed a thin plume of smoke rising from the inn’s chimney.
We were disappointed to head back so quickly, but bolstered by the promise of a warm fire and a hot bowl of chili that we knew would be waiting for us when we got back. And, courtesy of our friend’s father, it was indeed ready and waiting when we walked through the door. That night we all lined our sleeping bags up in front of the fireplace. The crackling fire and wind in the trees outside lulled us all to sleep.
The next morning I watched the light filter in through the windows and stared up in awe at the view of Mount Hood’s snowy tip highlighted in the pastel morning glow. From the warm safety of my sleeping bag, nothing about this place was eerie at all. We grabbed some toast and a mug of coffee before eagerly heading out onto a new trail. This time we wanted to explore more in the other direction, on the Tilly Jane Trail #600A, a 5-mile out-and-back which winds through forest that was singed by the 2008 Gnarl Ridge fire. This trail is open for hiking only between May and October and becomes a Nordic skiing and snowshoe trail during the winter months. We were catching it at the tail end of the hiking season. The trees were bare, silver and scarred with black burn marks, in contrast with the ground cover, which was turning a deep golden color.
Hikers, snowshoers, and Nordic skiers can camp along the trail at the Tilly Jane Campground when it’s not closed by snow, and can rent the Tilly Jane A-frame year round. Like Cloud Cap, the Tilly Jane Historic District has a rich history as well. The historic details and stories about this place make the hiking here all the more alluring. Along the Tilly Jane Trail a board with historic photos shows a group of women hiking up the mountain. They walk in single file on their way to summit Mount Hood, all holding onto a rope and wearing full-length skirts. The photo was probably taken around the turn of the century when Cloud Cap was still accepting nightly guests. I have a lot of respect for those women, and love knowing that this region has a history of being hiked and explored by many.
As we hiked the trail we stopped at the Tilly Jane Creek that runs nearby and checked out some of the Tilly Jane Historic District structures. The amphitheater and a cooking shed are said to have been built in the 1920s, while the Tilly Jane A-frame and guard station were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. They weren’t open to walk into, but added an interesting piece of the area’s history to admire. Afterwards we headed back for our last afternoon and evening at Cloud Cap. We helped chop and stack firewood and clean the interior of the cabin, which was the main goal of our stay in the area. It felt good to give some love to the old building, after having felt a deeper connection to the area on our hiking adventures. There is no better way to really see and get to know a place than by traversing miles of the land on foot.
The best part about autumn hiking in this area is that it is cooler and the traffic is light compared to the summer months. I can’t wait to get back again this October, and plan to check out the nearby Timberline National Historic Trail and the Cooper Spur Trail as well. Maybe I’ll uncover more history, or find a new favorite trail.
Lindy Callahan: firstname.lastname@example.org