Gnarl Ridge from Cloud Cap Hike
From Oregon Hikers Field Guide
- Start point: Cloud Cap Trailhead
- Ending Point: Gnarl Ridge
- Trail Log: Trail Log
- Hike Type: Out and Back
- Distance: 8.4 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 2420 feet
- High Point: 7,300 feet
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Seasons: July - November
- Family Friendly: No
- Backpackable: Yes - follows the Timberline Trail
- Crowded: To Cooper Spur Shelter on Summer Weekends - Rarely Beyond
This alpine hike begins at Cloud Cap Trailhead, and quickly climbs to several soaring viewpoints above the spectacular Eliot Glacier and along the slopes of Cooper Spur before reaching the spectacular crest of Gnarl Ridge. The route also passes one of the surviving rustic stone shelters that once dotted the Timberline Trail. Historic Cloud Cap Inn is closed to the public, but the grounds of inn are worth a stop before or after your hike. Cloud Cap Trailhead is crowded on summer weekends, so try this one on a weekday, if possible. Though the hike is less than 7 miles round trip, the route is high elevation, crosses several snowfields and has loose and rugged trail conditions on the final mile to Gnarl Ridge, so you'll feel like you hiked farther.
From the trailhead, follow the Timberline Trail left and uphill for a short distance to a junction, where a detour trail now takes hikers around a washed out portion of the trail. Stay left, passing through a handsome old growth forest of huge mountain hemlock. While the route is well-graded, it also travels across soft volcanic ash for the first mile. But as you round a bend into Tilly Jane canyon, and views of Mount Hood loom ahead, you’ll forget the soft sand below your feet. In this section, the trail switchbacks up Tilly Jane Canyon amid boulders and scattered alpine wildflowers. If you’re hiking early in the season, expect lingering snow and watch for distinctive cairns with wooden posts to guide your way.
Next, the trail enters a windswept forest of mountain hemlock and whitebark pine, then exits near a junction with the Tilly Jane Trail. Turn right (uphill) here, following the sign to Cooper Spur. The spur is the rocky, hulking ridge straight ahead, but after 100 yards on this trail, watch on the right for Cooper Spur Shelter at the 1.2 mile mark. Walk to the shelter on one of many informal paths, and take a moment to appreciate the architecture and construction. This rustic stone building has existed on the site for more than sixty years, somehow surviving the avalanches that have gradually destroyed most of the other shelters along the Timberline Trail.
After pausing to enjoy the shelter, continue north past the building on an excellent use path that heads north toward the Cooper Spur moraine. This unofficial route dips in to a tiny draw just before reaching the crest of the moraine, then drops to the Eliot Glacier. You should stop at the cairn located at the crest of the moraine, as the route beyond is dangerous to all but experienced climbers. The view from here is truly awesome, with the Eliot Glacier tumbling down the north face of the mountain, and the occasional sound of ice creaking and weakened rock walls collapsing. When the wind is right, you can even smell the sulfur in the air from Mount Hood’s smoking crater. Below, you can often pick out climbers scaling the ice pinnacles known as seracs in the lower icefall.
After enjoying the view from the moraine, retrace your steps past the shelter, and then on a short use path that stays at the same elevation over to the Timberline Trail a short distance above the 4-way junction with the Timberline and Tilly Jane trails. Turn right (south) on the Timberline Trail, and begin a well-graded climb across rocky tundra, high on the shoulder of Cooper Spur. Mount Hood eventually disappears behind looming Cooper Spur as you pass a string of cairns marking the route as climbs high above timberline, and soon begins crossing snow-filled ravines. One mile from the 4-way junction, pass over a saddle that is the highest point on the Timberline Trail. There is usually a water source from snowmelt along the trail, just beyond the saddle. In the late summer, there may only be water in the late afternoon. Early in the summer there are several small streams just before the saddle. There are a couple places here flat enough to put up a tent, but it's very exposed if the weather gets bad.
From the saddle, the route becomes rugged and sometimes difficult to follow. The trail starts across a large snowfield/boulder field depending on the season and year. After about 0.2 miles is a trail going up to another camp spot. This is more protected than the sites at the saddle.
Keep going down the snow/boulder field another 0.4 mile to where the trail drops across a large snowfield (or boulder field late in the summer), then down a loose, rocky section before leveling off in a stunted forest of whitebark pine and mountain hemlock. At the 3.3 mile mark, the trail abruptly arrives at the stunning crest of Gnarl Ridge. From here, you'll enjoy an awesome view into Newton Clark Canyon and east face of Mount Hood, which seems to have undergone a personality change while hiding behind Cooper Spur; gone is the horn-shaped profile that dominates the Eliot Glacier, and in its place is the broad, double-humped dome, with the Newton Clark glacier draped across like an apron. The many outlets from the glacier drop over dozens of waterfalls during the summer runoff, with a string of large cascades located just below the viewpoint.
A more subtle surprise at Gnarl Ridge are the twisted, ancient whitebark pines that give the landmark its name. Sanded and polished by blowing grit and ice particles, the oldest of these venerable trees have survived the elements here for hundreds of years. In less exposed spots, stunted mountain hemlock mingle with the whitebarks. Don't forget your camera on this trip! To complete the hike, retrace your steps to Cloud Cap Trailhead.
A short distance (0.2 miles) beyond the end of this hike is the ruins of the Gnarl Ridge shelter and an area for many campsites. There is no drinking water anywhere near here.
Fees, Regulations, etc.
- Northwest Forest Pass required at Cloud Cap Trailhead
- Search Trip Reports for Gnarl Ridge
Related Discussions / Q&A
- Search Trail Q&A for Gnarl Ridge
Guidebooks that cover this destination
- Hiking Oregon's Geology, by Ellen Morris Bishop
- Splintercat (Tom Kloster) (primary)