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Gnarl Ridge from Hood River Meadows Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

TKO put tools to trail here.png
The view from Gnarl Ridge to the Newton Clark Glacier (Tom Kloster)
Easy crossing of one braid of Newton Creek at low water (bobcat)
Mountain hemlock cones on Gnarl Ridge (bobcat)
Dwarf ocean spray (Holodiscus dumosus) on Gnarl Ridge (bobcat)
Whitebark pine corpse on Lamberson Butte (bobcat)
Looking up at Gnarl Ridge from the Timberline Trail in Newton Creek Canyon (bobcat)
The route to the top of Lamberson Butte (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo/USFS)
  • Start point: Elk Meadows TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • Ending Point: Lamberson Butte
  • Trail Log: Trail Log
  • Distance: 9.5 miles round-trip
  • Elevation gain: 2480 feet
  • High Point: 6633 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: July to November
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: On summer weekends


Hike Description

Gnarl Ridge, near the highest point on the Timberline Trail, can be approached from the north (see the Gnarl Ridge from Cloud Cap Hike) or the south. The latter approach keeps your car on a paved surface and begins at the popular Elk Meadows Trailhead. This lollipop loop takes you across Newton Creek twice, allows you to visit Elk Meadows, and with a little off-trail scramble, puts you on top of Lamberson Butte, staring up at the imposing Newton Clark Glacier and down past dark breccia crags to the always changing spate of Newton Creek. If you're backpacking, there's water at Elk Meadows and Newton Creek.

The Elk Meadows Trail begins in mountain hemlock forest, with silver fir, Douglas-fir, noble fir, Engelmann spruce and western white pine. There’s a huckleberry understory that invites plunder in late summer. Cross one firebreak and then another one. There’s an unmarked trail junction, with a trail leading left to a parking area for the Meadows Nordic Center. Reach the Elk Meadows-Umbrella Falls Trail Junction and keep straight. Drop to cross Clark Creek on its handrailed footbridge after passing the Elk Meadows-Clark Creek Trail Junction on the right. Before the bridge, there’s a wilderness permit box.

After crossing the bridge, the trail heads up a bank and enters the Mt. Hood Wilderness. The path levels and then drops to cross two small creeks. Then it proceeds gradually upward. Cross a creek on a footbridge and, on a level section, reach the Elk Meadows-Newton Creek Trail Junction. The trail drops into the Newton Creek channel. A plank usually affords a good crossing of Newton Creek; otherwise, especially early in the season, you will have to pick your way across (see Tips for Crossing Streams). Cairns mark the route to the continuation of the Elk Meadows Trail on the opposite bank. The dusty trail switchbacks up, passing over many lush seeps and small brooks. Switchback again, and note the many large Douglas-firs on this steep hillside. Pass through thimbleberry thickets with active mountain beaver warrens. There are more springs. Switchback five more times into drier woods with bracken and bear-grass for a carpet. There are two more switchbacks, and the trail then winds gradually up under a mountain hemlock, silver fir, and subalpine fir canopy until you meet the four-way Elk Meadows-Bluegrass Ridge-Gnarl Ridge Trail Junction. To the left is the Gnarl Ridge Trail #652. To the right is the Blue Grass Ridge Trail #647.

Turn left here for a more direct route up to Gnarl Ridge, but if you want to visit Elk Meadows, keep straight at this junction. Head down through huckleberries under a mountain hemlock canopy. Come to the Elk Meadows-Elk Meadows Perimeter South Trail Junction, and make a left. A spur leads right to the upper slopes of Elk Meadows, and you'll get a view to the burned out slopes of Bluegrass Ridge. Gradually descend along the western fringe of the meadows through a carpet of lupine and huckleberry. After passing by a small spring where there's another spur to the meadows, turn left at the Gnarl Ridge Tie-Elk Meadows Perimeter Trail Junction.

Hike up through a carpet of grouseberry, huckleberry, and lupine. If you look carefully to your left, you might spot a section of the #9 wire which led to the tent lookout on Lamberson Butte. Ascend open meadows of lupine, goldenweed, penstemon, and wood rush to reach the Gnarl Ridge-Gnarl Ridge Tie Trail Junction. Keep hiking up through glades of mountain hemlock and subalpine fir to the Timberline-Gnarl Ridge Trail Junction. You'll be returning to this junction, but keep right for now.

Enter denser mountain hemlock woods, and cross a rocky gully. Then pass through extensive open meadows. The trail swings left through glades of woodrush, lupine, fleece flower, and Jacob's ladder. As the ridge narrows, you can get a view north to the slopes scorched by the 2008 Gnarl Ridge Fire. Hike along a rocky bench, with Cooper Spur on the northern skyline. Below you, the nearest ridge is Lamberson Spur, which runs from the Timberline trail into the Gnarl Ridge Burn (see the Lamberson Spur Loop Hike). The top of Mount Hood hoves into view as you cross a rocky slope of young whitebark pines and mountain hemlocks. To your left, you'll see the ruins of the Gnarl Ridge Shelter, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which once had a corrugated steel roof. Soon reach Gnarl Ridge, which hosts thickets of contorted, krummholz whitebark pines. Above you is the expanse of the Newton Clark Glacier on Mount Hood's rugged southeast slope.

To head up to the summit of Lamberson Butte, go left to get views almost straight down into the Newton Creek Canyon. Highly eroded breccia formations are a feature of this ridge. Stunted clumps of common juniper, ocean spray, and Sitka alder cling to life. Pass over a false summit, and continue along the rim before detouring down to the left, passing by the next prominence before diverting up to the top of Lamberson Butte. The summit here is crowned by a twisted congregation of whitebark pine skeletons. Views extend down the Newton Creek drainage, up the slopes of Mount Hood, and over to Cooper Spur, where you can make out Tie-in Rock. You can leave the summit by cutting down at a gentle angle on the back slope of Lamberson Butte. Once below the summit ridge, you'll be hiking through open glades, and you may well startle a deer or two. You could even trip over the #9 wire that led to the old lookout site. Err to the left rather than the right, and you'll soon meet the Timberline Trail to descend to the Timberline-Gnarl Ridge Trail Junction.

Go right on the Timberline Trail to make a gradual traverse down a slope of mountain hemlock, silver fir, and noble fir with an understory of boxwood, pinemat manzanita, snow brush, and huckleberry. You'll get glimpses of the almost vertical wall below Lamberson Butte. The trail rises for a short distance to the edge of the open canyon floor. Small cairns guide you to the fast flowing stream of Newton Creek and the makeshift crossing which changes every year. Golden-mantled ground squirrels dart about. Head up a rubbly slope, and cross a burbling creek, getting views up to Gnarl Ridge. There are more campsites here, and you'll pass above a copious spring before passing through thickets of willow, mountain ash, and thimbleberry. Switchback, and rise to the Timberline-Newton Creek Trail Junction.

Here, you'll make a left to descend along the canyon rim through skeletons of whitebark pines decorated with bright clumps of wolf lichen. A steep and dangerous slope plunges to Newton Creek on the left, while pinemat manzanita carpets the slope on your right. Switchback twice down the slope through bracken and manzanita to cross two rivulets issuing from an alder-shaded spring. Continue descending through a huckleberry understory with Newton Creek rushing to your left. Cross a rubble field, and hike close to the edge of the ravine where the trail has had to be rerouted many times. Come to the Elk Meadows-Newton Creek Trail Junction, and go right to walk the mile back to your car.


  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Green Trails Maps: Mt. Hood, OR #462
  • Adventure Maps: Mt. Hood Area
  • Geo-Graphics: Mount Hood Wilderness Map
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Mt. Hood National Forest
  • Discover Your Northwest: Mt. Hood National Forest North: Trail Map & Hiking Guide
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Hood River Ranger District
  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map: Mount Hood Wilderness
  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map: Mount Hood
  • Adventure Maps: Hood River, Oregon, Trail Map

Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Port-a-potty, picnic table, information kiosk at trailhead
  • Self-issued wilderness permit

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this destination

  • PDX Hiking 365 by Matt Reeder
  • Take a Hike: Portland by Barbara I. Bond
  • Day Hikes in the Pacific Northwest by Don J. Scarmuzzi
  • Day Hiking Mount Hood: A Year-Round Guide by Eli Boschetto
  • Hiking Oregon's Mount Hood & Badger Creek Wilderness by Fred Barstad
  • 100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon & Southwest Washington by William L. Sullivan
  • Portland Hikes by Art Bernstein & Andrew Jackman
  • One Night Wilderness: Portland by Douglas Lorain
  • 50 Hikes in Oregon by David L. Anderson
  • 70 Hiking Trails: Northern Oregon Cascades by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • 62 Hiking Trails: Northern Oregon Cascades by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • 100 Oregon Hiking Trails by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • Around Mt. Hood in Easy Stages by Sonia Buist & Emily Keller
  • 105 Virtual Hikes of the Mt. Hood National Forest by Northwest Hiker
  • Oregon Hiking by Sean Patrick Hill

More Links

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Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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