The Backup Backup Plan: Timberline Trail

With five days off Kyle and I knew we wanted to do something epic over the 4th of July weekend. And I had been planning just the thing for months: a traverse of Washington’s own Sawtooth Range, located above Lake Chelan. The traverse involved eight different scrambles to summits, cross country travel, miles of trail and many feet of elevation gain. We had been eyeing the traverse for years and it finally seemed like the time had come. And then the weather decided to be uncooperative.

While we watched the forecast deteriorate as the weekend neared I knew it was time to come up with a backup plan. No problem – I happened to have just the one. A set of maps floating around my Caltopo account, outlining plans for an epic backpacking trip in the Wallowas. I had created it the summer before when weather for the Wonderland Trail had been iffy. I pulled it up, dusted it off, changed some things, added some peaks in and wa-la! A four day trip with nine peaks to summit, even more feet of elevation gain and best of all, perfect weather! I was almost more excited about this than our original plan when an IG follower reminded us that the Wallowas are infamous for holding snow late into the season. I checked a couple trip reports and sure enough, we would be mostly hiking and camping on snow if we went. So that was out.

This is how Kyle and I came to be sitting at a little neighborhood restaurant, two mojitos deep, despairing over our bad luck with weather and conditions and shit out of luck. But I had one more idea. “What if we went and did the Timberline Trail in a day and then went up to Helens and did the Loowit Trail in a day,” I casually joked. I saw that look, the look that Kyle gets when I say something that I think might be a little crazy and I’m not sure how he is going to take it, but then he takes it well. Very well. We were home within the hour reading trip reports, downloading maps and packing our bags.

A little context. The Timberline Trail is a 38 mile long trail that goes around Wy’east (Mount Hood) and the Loowit Trail is a 36 mile long trail that goes around Loowit (Mount St Helens, and it’s technically 32 miles but you have to access it via a side trail adding four miles and making it a 36 mile trail). Kyle and I had actually already planned to do both these trails later in the summer in preparation for the Wonderland Trail. By throwing them both into one weekend we got them out of the way, freeing up future weekends and giving ourselves a real good sufferfest. We were stoked.

On Thursday we prepped, grocery shopped and eventually drove down to the Timberline Lodge Ski Area parking lot to spend the night in the back of the truck. We were planning on spending one night on trail and we were trying out this new thing (or at least new to us): fastpacking. Basically imagine mixing backpacking and running. You are trying to cover as many miles in a day as you can but you are still planning on staying out over night so you also need to bring the bare minimum of overnight gear so your packs are small enough to allow you to run. Our packs were small, 13 lbs each with food and water. We had everything we would need to camp around five miles from the lodge and get up in time to head in for breakfast in the morning. We fell asleep to the normal Timberline Lodge parking lot shenanigans: screaming phone conversations and blasting music. Why do we always forget our earplugs when we sleep there?

Our alarms went off at 3:30am sharp and we were up and out of the parking lot by 4am. Even though we had scoped the trail the day before we still missed it when we crossed it on the climbers route and ended up taking a higher trail and scrambling around trying to find the real trail in the dark. Once it was found and we were on it things went much more smoothly and it didn’t take long until there was enough light for us to see by.

We have hiked around Mount Rainier twice now so it was exciting to be hiking around a new volcano. A blog I read before we headed out claimed that one of the biggest differences between the Wonderland Trail and the Timberline Trail was that on the Wonderland Trail there are a variety of different options for crossing rivers: log bridges, suspension bridges, metal bridges, etc. But the Timberline Trail lets rivers just be rivers and you get to figure out how to cross them or ford them on your own. This meant our day was a series of descents down to rivers, problem solving sessions on how to get across without getting our feet wet and then climbs out of rivers washes back onto the ridges flowing away from the mountain.

We quickly moved from the south side of the mountain which was defined by chair lifts and wide-open alpine meadows and onto the eastern slopes. Neither Kyle nor I had seen the east side before – the PCT passes to the west of Wy’east – and we were blown away. It was like a moonscape, wide open and rocky, snow patches still hanging onto little hollows. We traversed up high above the trees and crossed the occasional snowy spot, our trail runners gripping nicely on the soft snow. The sun was fully up by then but a stiff breeze was keeping us cool. We were in love.

In the northeast corner we had to cross Eliot Creek, which washed out so badly in 2006 it was impassable (or hardly passable) until 2016 when the Forest Service finally put the trail back in. It still turned out to be the trickiest crossing of the day because we either scrambled up the other side in the wrong spot or the other side was just kind of scrambly. But once we were past that hurdle we were on the north side of the mountain! This section was full of burn areas and steep, hot climbs. We took lunch on the north side, happy to see we had done 17 miles already. We weren’t hiking incredibly fast and more than anything we were being fairly inefficient with our stops (out of practice) but we were still making okay time. And if we were planning on stopping at 30ish miles to camp then 17 miles was already over half way!

As we continued along the north side the day grew hotter and hotter but just when it might have started to become uncomfortable we entered a section of mellow trail surrounded by pines and bear grass. The shade was welcomed and we started a long descent to where the Timberline Trail and the PCT become one-in the same for the remainder of our hike. While the descent was pleasant and the scenery gorgeous it went on for way too long. We kept thinking we must be nearing the PCT but when we would look at the GPS it looked like we had hardly moved at all.

We were exasperated when we finally got to the junction. We sat down above it because there were other people hanging around the signs and had a snack. But then when we got up to keep moving we discovered it wasn’t even the junction yet! What the heck! Where was the PCT? Eventually we made it to the real junction and I immediately remembered where we were.

That feeling of knowing where we were was fleeting. The trail we were on was marked as the Timberline Trail and the PCT and all of our maps said we were on the right trail and yet, Kyle and I had no memory of what we were seeing. And we would have remembered it because a little ways after the junction we popped out into the open and were greeted by incredible views of Wy’east and a cliffy trail flanked on either side by walls of wildflowers. How have I not mentioned the wild flowers yet?!? All day the trail had been surrounded by them! We were seeing flowers we had never seen before. It felt like walking through a botanical garden.

We continued along, not remembering anything and experienced confusion a second time when we ended up at Ramona Falls – a gorgeous waterfall (the Timberline Trail also has a lot of incredible waterfalls) that we most definitely did not see on the PCT. But right after leaving Ramona Falls things started to look more familiar and we convinced ourselves we must have blacked out the view, the trail and the falls. Soon we were on a trail that seemed right and we were going and going and going – expecting to cross the Sandy River any day now to where we would eat dinner. But the crossing never came… Finally I checked the map and we had been heading the wrong way on the PCT. How was it even possible? Doesn’t matter how, it was and we did it and in doing so added an extra mile to our day. Great.

Headed back in the right direction we reached our dinner spot quickly. We were both starving and out of water and starting to have an identity crisis. We were nine miles from the lodge and at the bottom of a four mile climb. At the top of the climb was the spot that we had camped on the PCT when we were in this area. We both remembered it being a tinsy bit creepy. If there was someone else camped there it would be fine, but if there wasn’t did we want to just go all the way to the lodge? And even if there was someone there did we still want to go all the way to the lodge? Just to have done it in a day? We were seriously torn. So we ate our dinner and started climbing, not sure what lay ahead. All I knew was that my stomach was in knots (not sure why) and some clouds had rolled in giving everything a very ominous feel.

Luckily the top of the climb was above the cloud layer and we were treated to a beautiful, soft sunset. We crested over the top of the last switchback to find there was, in fact, someone camped in our PCT campsite and decided to stay for the night. We hadn’t lugged all that overnight gear 34 miles around a mountain just to carry it to the cars. We set up camp quickly, dusting the rust off our bear hang skills and climbed under our quilts where we immediately discovered that, even though we had changed clothes, we were the stickiest humans ever. Upon nestling my head onto my make-shift pillow I immediately became completely congested. I wondered if that explained how winded I was on our climbs all day or if that had been the elevation – or both. Either way it was clear I was getting sick. I sighed about a million times, wondering if we should have just gone to the car, and eventually we fell into a sticky, sweaty sleep.

The next morning we got to sleep in a little bit – we only had five miles to the lodge and brunch went until 10:30am. We got up at five thirty and were leaving by six since we didn’t have to prepare breakfast. We might have been rusty at setting up but we were still pros at tearing down camp.

The legs were tired and I was feeling like crap after my open-mouth breathing night-o-sleep. It was only five miles and we hiked it fairly quickly thanks to morning magic but the last three miles were all uphill and we both agreed, it would have been completely miserable to do the night before. We had woken to misty skies but as we neared the resort we had beautiful, windy views of the mountain. Finally the lodge loomed through the trees and we celebrated finishing the Timberline Trail – it was 8am and we were starving.

We dropped our stuff off at the car and quickly changed into something warmer (it was freezing in the parking lot). Inside the lodge we took familiar stairs to the Cascade Dining Room but when we got there it appeared to be closed. We didn’t see any food laid out on the tables by the wall where the all-you-can-eat buffet had been last time. We approached the hostess tentatively and she ushered us inside. Our server brought us some water and me some tea and shooed us over to the buffet. Sure enough, there were all the tasty morsels we remembered, the waffles, the hand made whip cream, the eggs and sausage and hash browns, but it all seemed much less… big. I eyed the mound of whip cream. Hadn’t it been the size of a small mountain when we were thruhiking. I was making myself a waffle when Kyle sauntered over and said, “Is it just me or was this food like, piled three feet high last time?” “Yes!” I responded, “And like, glowing and being serenaded with the sound of a thousand angels?” “Yes!!” he agreed.

Despite our delusions we enjoyed a delicious breakfast and giggled about the way hiker hunger had completely warped our memory. After we were done we took a nap in the back of the truck and waited for our friends Sarah and Carl to show up with his family – while we had been hiking around Wy’east they had been climbing it!

Even though we had planned on driving up to Loowit later that day and camping at the trailhead we knew our plans had changed. I still felt like crap, even post buffet and post nap. Plus, it had taken us 17 hours to do 34 miles around Wy’east, we didn’t think it was a great idea to do another 17+ hour day on Sunday and then try to get Kyle home in time to go to work on Monday. So we decided to save Loowit for a later date.

We definitely learned some things on our adventure!
1. We are not exactly in thruhiking shape meaning we can’t do three miles an hour all day without stopping. But despite not being in the same kind of shape we are mentally the same people which means we are capable of pushing all day long, relying on our grit and mental endurance to get us through.
2. We need to be more intentional and careful with our efficiency. Not once did we manage to time and break and a water fill up at the same time. We didn’t poop at the same time. We didn’t always pee at the same time. These kinds of inefficiencies can really slow you down and we will need to make sure we are in sync on the Wonderland Trail.
3. Next time we should just commit to doing it all in one day. Yes, we wanted to practice fastpacking, but in the end it was clear we both would have liked to have gone all the way to the cars. And even though it would have been rough we would have been physically capable of it. We should have just planned on it from the beginning and made it happen.
4. The west side of the mountain where the PCT and the Timberline Trail overlap is by far the least beautiful side of the mountain. So worth doing the whole thing. Also – when we do it again I think we will go in the opposite direction.
5. We love doing long distance activities. It was so fun to get up early, watch the sunrise, see the way the landscape changed on each side of the mountain and move. We can’t wait to make this our life again at some point.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

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