Thursday, September 8, 2016

Sleeping With the Elk: Elk Meadows and Gnarl Ridge

On the southeastern shoulder of Mt. Hood sprawls a luxuriant alpine meadow. Boggy and fertile, this open field hosts an amazing array of wildflowers after snowmelt, but during autumn the flowers remain as curious pods and the bright green of the grass has mellowed. The evening sun slants low against the glacier-clad peak and innumerable small creeks serenade the evening with their tiny voices. This is Elk Meadow, a good day-hike goal and a perfect overnight spot, with a possible side trip to Gnarl Ridge and the Timberline Trail.

The trailhead is easy to access from Portland; drive Highway 26 up Mt. Hood, then take OR 35 north for 7.8 miles to a turnoff on your left. A decent gravel road leads a short distance to a parking area. There are restrooms here during the busy season, and a marshy area across the road hosts a variety of wildflowers during summer (look for spires of tiny, white rein orchids). There was once a campground in the trees behind the parking area, and decaying picnic tables still hide amongst the bushes. Please note that a Northwest Forest Pass or a day-use fee is required here.

Several trails can be accessed here, including a side trip to Sahalie and Umbrella Falls. Take the Elk Meadows Trail into the forest and gradually begin the three-mile climb. About one mile in, you will encounter energetic Newton Creek. This creek is not to be trifled with; we once nearly lost our dog crossing it during a high flow. Look upstream and see the canyon it has carved (Newton Creek Trail follows this canyon to meet up with the Timberline Trail). Downstream, the creek has taken out an entire campground. Be aware that flows are often higher in the afternoon than they are in the morning due to snow melting during the day. Unfasten the hip belt and sternum strap on your pack and look for a makeshift log or rock crossing, if available. This website has good information on crossing mountain streams safely.

Once safely across the creek, look for the trail on the other side; this is often marked with rock cairns. The rest of the trail climbs steeply at times, but is otherwise moderately easy. There are several intersections, but they are clearly marked. The trail splits as you near the meadow; keep to the right and walk along the edge of the woods. Camping in the meadow itself is prohibited, but there are many sites tucked into the trees, some of which have amazing views of the mountain's peak.

As you explore the meadow, you will discover that it is flowing with icy-cold water. Glacial melt trickles everywhere in thin rivulets, and the soil remains soft and moist in many areas throughout the summer. Mt. Hood dominates the skyline, and as evening approaches it seems that cold air rolls downward from the glacier and rises from the water underfoot.

On  our last trip, we snuggled deep into our sleeping bags for a long autumn night under the chilly stars. Then, during some pitch-black hour, we heard it. A shrill whistle, eerie, almost mechanical-sounding. It grew into a squeal and rose, louder and louder, into a guttural roar. It was immediately answered from another direction. Bull elk, challenging each other while we lay on the ground in our tiny, thin tent. They bugled throughout the night. At times, whole herds of hooves pounded the trail just a few feet away. All that remained of them in the morning light was a multitude of hoofprints. Now we know how the meadow got its name.

This hike makes a relatively easy overnight trip, but there are several options for further exploration. Gnarl Ridge extends total hiking to almost nine miles and rewards hikers with stunning, up-close mountain views. Watch for the trail to your left two miles in, or look for the Gnarl Ridge Tie Trail on the other side of the meadow. Climb until you meet the Timberline Trail and turn right. After another mile or so you will find yourself on rugged Gnarl Ridge, looking into the canyon of Newton Creek under the shadow of Hood's peak. There is room for the hardy to camp where a stone shelter once stood, but be sure to bring water. If you have trouble pounding your tent stakes into the rocky ground, fasten sticks to the corners of your tent, then pile rocks on the sticks.

Either return to Elk Meadows the way you came, or retrace your steps on the Timberline Trail and take the Newton Creek Trail to make a loop. Be aware that the creek crossing can be difficult; use caution.

This is one of the best hikes in Oregon for scenery per miles hiked, but it is a wilderness hike, so go prepared for conditions. Gnarl Ridge stands at over 6500', and Elk Meadows is over 5000'. Snow is a possibility at any time of the year. Take plenty of warm clothing. Wear sturdy boots. And if you see something that looks like an elk trail, pitch your tent off to one side.


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