Tag Archives: mt hood national forest

Trail truths on the Cooper Spur

It was a shitty hike. There are a lot of things I could probably blame for it: a restless night of sleep, an even earlier than my usual ass o’clock wake up call, more altitude, more exposure, more wildfire smoke turning the horizon to opaque haze. I won’t though because it could have been a flat trail on a clear day at sea level after waking with the sun well rested and I still could have had a shitty hike.

Sometimes it’s just like that.

I say that now of course, it’s hilariously dramatic in my head as I’m chugging my way up the trail though. Oh the challenges I have to epically overcome. The first draft of this post was equally emo.

Sometimes I’m just like that.

The truth is, sometimes I would like to be better, faster, stronger. More adept at elevation, more versed in the mountains, less prone to injury. I wish I wasn’t so hung up on getting out on the trail because that would mean it wouldn’t be so crazy making when I can’t. I wish I was as passionate about something that came easier to me than this thing that I can struggle with so much sometimes.

This is actually one of the shorter excursions I’ve taken in awhile at about 6.5 miles round trip but also one of the more challenging. It’s pretty much entirely uphill with about the last mile off trail and picking your way over rocks without even the benefit of switch backs.

You start at the Cloud Cap trail head which is at the end of 8 miles of crappy gravel road and the skeletons of trees turned white by a forest fire, 5800 feet up the mountain. There’s a chemical toilet there, in a building with a door that locks and actual toilet paper, something I legit said a prayer of thanks out loud to baby Jesus.

From the trailhead, you’ll see Timberline trail in front of you, Tilly Jane to your left and then Timberline continuing downhill to your right. Go straight ahead on Timberline and make sure you fill out a form at the box as you enter into the Mt. Hood Wildnerness.

This trail is almost entirely uphill and that starts the minute you hit the trees before coming into Tilly Jane canyon then continuing to climb uphill through soft volcanic sand that is the bane of my existence. You will not see shade again until you are at this point on the way back to your car so stay on top of your hydration. Soon you’ll come to a junction with a sign for Cooper Spur. Go right onto Cooper Spur trail. The trail increases the incline a bit and the sun will be hitting your shoulder blades with all it’s might. Sun protection is key here.

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Soon you’ll come up Cooper Spur shelter, which has apparently stood for 70 years and somehow continues to survive the elements. Onward you go, the trail switchbacking and continuing to climb, sometimes following the ridge line that will give you incredible views of the glacier.

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All those wishes swarmed between my ears as the trail disappeared into a field of talus and scree and I started just picking the most direct route I could to hit the top of the spur.

Finally, finally, a deep breath as I top out and stand for a moment at the highest point on the mountain you can reach by trail.

In front of me, a stone circle, about thigh high and a large rock cairn. Buzzards circled overhead. I remember joking with a runner friend during a trail race that they probably smelled us and thought something was dead and thinking it was probably true at that moment as well. To my left, the magnificent Elliot glacier. Behind me, the spur dipped down from the point I was standing on to form a saddle between my feet and the terrifying north face of Mt. Hood. I followed it down for a bit and then felt that moment where I became unbound from my body and was no longer all the stories I tell myself.

I’m like that too.

And I think that’s the trick of all of this. To figure out how to live with all the contradictions that reside within you without the labels of good or bad, dark or light. Somehow we need all of it to carry us up the trail.

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Trail head: Cloud Cap

Elevation at start: 5850 feet

Length: 6.4 miles (ish)

Elevation gain: 2800 feet

Difficult: Yes

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Mt Hood Meadows: a dramatic recreation

I’m alone on trails a lot.

And the aloneness is bigger the higher up the mountain I go.

I mean this literally but I think it is true of all our journeys, the ones that lead us up the corporate ladder or deep within ourselves.

At some point, maybe we all have to break from what we know.

Stand alone on our mountain tops.

Our soul so round and full it seems to press against the sky but the body of us, still an insignificant speck on shaky talus. Meant for ridge lines only wide enough for one person to traverse.

The truth is, sometimes it really bothers me. I am blessed with great friends and a fantastic husband but to do the things I want to do, there has to be a drive and a passion for it and their passions lie elsewhere. Plus not everyone thinks sore IT bands, hours in the heat or rain or cold, dehydration and double digit miles are a good time. Apparently. So up the trail by myself I go.

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I am alone on trails a lot.

And it is the fullest and freest I ever feel. The most complete. The most comfortable with myself. There are no labels, no schedules, no expectations.

I am not even a separate body on the trail, I am just as much the sky and rock and water as I am anything.

The ‘I’ of me disappears because it is meaningless, a construct I have to act out during business hours. Does that mean that I found God?

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Both of those experiences are true and real. Both are ones I’ve had many times, sometimes within a mile of each other. Hell, 5 minutes of each other. Both have been on my mind since I did the Hood River Meadows excursion. It’s right at 10 miles and starts at 4k-ish feet up the mountain and climbs another 2000-ish from there. You see wild flowers and waterfalls, cross mountain streams and spend a good deal of it on in the sun on the Timberline Trail.

It is the epitome of why I moved here.

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But you don’t really get to decide how your body and brain are going to respond on any given day on the trail so I spent my morning conflicted- lonely and free, unsure and completely at home.

It’s been a week and I still haven’t resolved how I feel about the time I spend by myself on the trail. The trail has given me enough patience to just be conflicted and know the answer I need will come soon enough.

But if you decide on this particular hike, I’d like you to not be conflicted about where you are so I offer a few extra details not included in the link I used above:

  1. When you cross the bridge at Umbrella falls, the trail will appear to go straight ahead or to your left. Go left. The path straight ahead just allows you a better look at falls from above.
  2. As noted in the link, you will soon cross a paved road and pick up the trail on the other side. The trail entrance is small and inconspicuous (and had a car parked in front of it when I was on it) so it’s easy to miss. It is just to the right of the gated parking lot and has a pole in front of it. It will kind of look like an animal trail but it’s the right place to be.
  3. When you come down into Clark Canyon (that’s the talus-y, grey, rock strewn moonscape you’ll hit about 6 miles in) the trail will peter out at the creek. Look for the set of cairns that I assume give you the approximate place to cross the river (like most of the rivers and streams you will cross, there’s no bridge). I actually crossed a little downstream from that area. Use your best judgment.
  4. Once on the other side of Clark Creek, look for the pile of rocks with the stick in the middle of them and then look to your right to see the trail climbing up the ridge. Yes, ‘look for the pile of rocks with the stick in them’ is an official direction.
  5. Once at the top of the ridge, you’ll see Newton Creek on the left. The directions on the website said I would turn off on to Newton Creek trail but I didn’t turn off on to a separate trail once I crossed at Clark Creek. I was just on Newton Creek trail. To be fair, this point is the one I am least sure of because runner brain was in full effect by that point.
  6. Regardless, follow the trail with Newton Creek on your left and it will soon connect with Elk Meadow Trail which will take you back to your car.

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Trail Stats:

Trail head

Length-10 miles

Elevation gain-a smidge over 2K feet

Bathroom sitch-porta potty with no toilet paper. Prepare accordingly.

Tom Dick and Harry Mountain

So yeah it’s been a rough few weeks.

But writing out last week’s post allowed for some closure and I was ready to do some exploring.

First, a word on how I decided which trail to explore: I dunno. Whatever sounds good and fits within whatever I’m feeling for mileage and elevation gain.

And something in the Mt Hood National Forest sounded good.

The good thing about the trailhead is that it’s right off highway 26 right before you hit Government Camp. This also makes it a popular spot, especially since about half way up you hit mirror lake which is one of those spots so picturesque it doesn’t even seem real. So get up and get your coffee early to get ahead of the crowds.

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seriously

It starts switchbacking through old growth forest fairly early on but since you gain about 1700 feet in about 3-ish miles, the grade is enough to get your lungs working but not make you feel like you want to punch yourself in the face.

I started thinking about labels as I continued my uphill trek. I like labels. I like defined situations and starts, middles and ends. I like plans and bullet points and steps. The last four years of trail running/exploring/climbing have taught me more flexibility but it is still a default setting to seek defined parameters in most aspects of my life. Especially when life feels unsteady.

What was on my mind that morning was who and what I am these days. You know, nothing major. When I found trail running, I found not only a missing part of myself, I found an identity and a community. Thanks to a knee injury that’s sort of been up and down for awhile now, there’s been periods of no running and now a sort of mixed bag of running/hiking/shuffling that has me trailing behind most runners but outpacing most hikers and doesn’t really seem to allow room for me to fit comfortably into either category or community. And the truth is, I don’t know if I will ever race again, something that at one point was pretty damn important to me.

I was contemplating all this just past the lake when the trail gets less switch back-y and more gradual uphill grade. The trees gave way to slide of talus and Mt. Hood came into view. Maybe one day I’ll stop being amazed by the sight of mountains looming over me but…actually I hope that never happens. I stopped and breathed and smiled, loop in  my head broken for the moment.

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A little further up the trail, you hit a big pile of rocks that I’m sure has some sort of purpose or meaning. Look for the arrow that will have you hanging a sharp left and continue on. Once you’ve reached that point, you probably have a half mile to go before topping out on a talus-y, treeless peak. From there you can see Hood looming large with St Helens and Adams on either side, Rainer peaking out in the back and Jefferson in the other direction. It was brilliantly sunlit and blue and open on the peak. I feel weightless in that environment. Groundless and floaty.

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But not unsteady, despite the lack of definitions to orient me.

Huh. Interesting. The thing about being in the mountains is that for me, it is effortless joy. My limbs and lungs may feel all sorts of effort but all the defined edges of my soul disappear and becomes part of a deep current of joy. Joy that feels like it is as old as the mountain. Joy that doesn’t need a label. That just is. I just am in that environment. Part of that same current, no beginning or end. I’ve been there as long as the mountain has too.

That’s the answer I always come back to, every time I visit these questions. It doesn’t matter what I call myself (or what anyone else calls me for that matter). Just go where your soul goes and forget the rest.

Trail Stats:

Trailhead

Length: about 6-7 miles round trip

Elevation gain: 1700 feet or thereabouts, with the high point being 4900ish feet

Difficulty: not super douche-y

bathroom sitch: porta potties at trail head (yet another reason to get up early and beat the crowds)