Elk Meadows, Gnarl Ridge, and vicinity: July 5, 2019

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Brian95
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Elk Meadows, Gnarl Ridge, and vicinity: July 5, 2019

Post by Brian95 » May 2nd, 2020, 7:33 pm

I had, several weeks prior while hiking Mirror Lake, taken a short side trip to Timberline in order to check out the snow situation, and based on my reconnaissance, I figured that by this time the upper reaches of Mt. Hood would be snow-free by this time. Arriving at the Elk Meadows Trailhead around 9:00 on a Friday morning, there were several other cars present, so I knew I wouldn't be alone.

I set out on towards Elk Meadows, soon passing the Umbrella Falls junction, and quickly reached the bridged Creek crossing. Filling out a wilderness permit, I continued on to the Newton Creek ford, an fortuitous log making the crossing almost trivial, and started up the switchbacks leading up to Elk Meadows. It was at this point that I passed two other young hikers on the trail, and I quickly realized my mistake in doing so: I was now the spider-web-clearer! At least I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that I'd have near-complete solitude at the Meadows.
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Reaching the Bluegrass Ridge junction, I stopped to put on sunscreen, and my friends from behind caught up to me again. Exchanging pleasantries again, they continued on their way to the Meadows, while I turned right at the junction on the Bluegrass Ridge Trail. In contrast to the well-groomed Elk Meadows Trail, this was like turning from Highway 26 onto some unnamed logging road. This trail could really use some more boots to clear away the understory. I'm worried that the heavily-used trails are getting loved to death while some of these lesser-used paths are fading away into nothing....

Just before reaching Elk Mountain I entered into the burn zone. Unlike the lower-altitude Eagle Creek burn zone, the transition was abrupt. One second there was no sign of burn, and the next I was surrounded by bleached standing dead snags. The trail, faint before this point, was almost completely obliterated for the remainder of the ridge. Fortunately, it's obvious to follow the ridge, and I did so until the Elk Meadows Cutoff junction. It sounds almost apocalyptic, but through the dead trees impressive views of Mt. Hood presented themselves. A worthwhile detour for anyone heading to Elk Meadows who can handle some route-finding.
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I turned down the cutoff trail, which was in even worse shape than the trail along the ridge. In many places, there was no sign whatsoever of a tread, and I had to find my own way down back to Elk Meadows. I wouldn't recommend attempting this trail without a GPS map; without it I surely would have ended up far off the trail. Bushwhacking through numerous downed branches, I eventually exited the burn zone and soon merged back onto the Elk Meadows trail. I breathed a sigh of relief that my day in the burn zone was over.
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Traversing the meadow's perimeter, I eventually turned off onto the Gnarl Ridge Cutoff trail before merging onto the main Gnarl Ridge trail itself. By the time I reached the Timberline Trail junction had yet to encounter snow. I turned counterclockwise onto Timberline and continued my climb up to Lamberson Butte. Throughout the climb, the trees became sparser, shorter, and more gnarled in appearance as I neared the Timberline. The ridge certainly deserves its name. I encountered several backpackers, the first people I had seen since my turn-off onto the Bluegrass trail.

I soon reached my first snow on the trail, but never more than easily-traversed patches. The mountain continued to grow in size in front of me as I climbed higher, with views growing increasingly common as the trees thinned.
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Winding around the north side of Lamberson Butte, I soon reached the Gnarl Ridge Viewpoint, my natural lunch spot. I lingered here for quite some time, taking in the breathtaking panoramic views.
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However, I had yet to reach the crown jewel of the day: Lamberson Butte itself. There really should be an official trail winding up the ridge from the viewpoint, but in the lack of ambition from the Forest Service it's up to us to blaze these paths. Fortunately, the climb from the viewpoint to the butte isn't difficult, and after some slight rock scrambling I reached the top, taking in the even-more-impressive views. It's enough to make anyone feel sanguine even in the toughest of times.
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Descending the opposite side of the butte back to the Timberline Trail was no difficult task either, with the vegetation sparse enough and the slopes gentle enough that reaching the trail again is easily doable. Descending the mountain, I this time skipped the Gnarl Ridge junction, continuing on the Timberline Trail down to the Newton Creek crossing. No longer in solitude, the trail was swarming with at this point swarming with day hikers and backpackers, enjoying the perfect weather.

Similar to the crossing on the Elk Meadows trail, there were well-placed logs that allowed for easy crossing of Newton Creek. Stopping for a snack, I took in the scenery before beginning my final descent down the Newton Creek Trail.
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The Newton Creek trail doesn't actually follow the Newton Creek valley for its first half, but instead traverses the ridge to the south. The views from here down into Newton Creek Canyon were stunning. It's not often that it's possible to get a birds-eye perspective of river valleys like this one, and this trail presents the best I've ever seen throughout my life. The trail eventually descends the ridge back down into the valley, and I followed the trail along the channel, popping in and out of the forest as the trail winds its way down to the Elk Meadows Trail.
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At the junction, I retraced my steps back to the trailhead, now completely full. It's always a strange feeling returning to the city after a day in the wilderness: although I love living in a city for all the opportunities it provides, both employment-wise and socially, there's part of me that would love to live up in the mountains, where I'm surrounded by this scenery every day. But I feel like part of why we're drawn to the mountains is the novelty: if I were up there every day, I'm worried I'd soon lose my appreciation for the wilderness and its beauty. It's why I love Portland: despite the patience needed in the cold November rain, the ability to welcome yourself to the jungle at any time makes it a true paradise city.

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Chip Down
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Re: Elk Meadows, Gnarl Ridge, and vicinity: July 5, 2019

Post by Chip Down » May 3rd, 2020, 8:28 am

I was one day behind you at Elk Mountain and Bluegrass Ridge. Yeah, that cutoff trail down to Elk Meadow is tricky. I went up, so as the trail became harder to follow I just had to keep ascending, knowing I'd reach ridgecrest eventually. Miraculously, ended up just a few yards from the signed top of the trail. If you ever get back there, I recommend continuing on Bluegrass Ridge a ways. It's more of the same, but with a few rocky high points, and it's a long enough ridge that you get to see Hood from different angles if you go far enough.

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Brian95
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Re: Elk Meadows, Gnarl Ridge, and vicinity: July 5, 2019

Post by Brian95 » May 3rd, 2020, 10:39 am

Chip Down wrote:
May 3rd, 2020, 8:28 am
I was one day behind you at Elk Mountain and Bluegrass Ridge. Yeah, that cutoff trail down to Elk Meadow is tricky. I went up, so as the trail became harder to follow I just had to keep ascending, knowing I'd reach ridgecrest eventually. Miraculously, ended up just a few yards from the signed top of the trail. If you ever get back there, I recommend continuing on Bluegrass Ridge a ways. It's more of the same, but with a few rocky high points, and it's a long enough ridge that you get to see Hood from different angles if you go far enough.
The remainder of Bluegrass Ridge is certainly on my (exceedingly long) to-do list; I'll be sure to check it out. Hopefully after stuff opens up again the USFS can give the trails like the cutoff a bit of love in the future, but I'm not counting on it. It's kind of a catch-22: the trail needs more boots, but I can't in good conscience recommend the trail to anyone who doesn't know the area well....

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