I always get a little nervous about backpacking trips during the shoulder season in the Cascades. Like most gals, I tend to run a little cold – especially my hands, feet, and hocks. Add 40-degrees, some damp clothes, persistent rain, a wet dog, and long nights and you’ve got my idea of no fun.
But I think there’s a lot the shoulder seasons can offer up if you’re willing to gamble a little and be a smidge uncomfortable. I’m in the process of learning what my limits are, from a gear and provisioning standpoint to my own mental capacity to deal with discomfort. I doubled-down on Mt. Hood a couple of weeks ago and won.
Early in the week, the forecast was looking really promising for a dry three-day stretch: Thursday was supposed to excellent, Friday would be mostly excellent, and then Saturday would be partially excellent with a chance of not-so-excellent. I had a little itch to scratch on Mt. Hood and was getting really excited to take Oscar on our first solo backpacking trip of the year.
And then the forecast suddenly reversed itself to announce Stormpocalypse, a typhoon residual from the Pacific. But Thursday was still looking like a potentially nice day on Mt. Hood (20% chance of rain) so I packed an overnight kit and changed my plans to do a T-hike on the Timberline Trail.
My original plan was to start at the Vista Ridge trailhead, climb to the Timberline Trail and then head south to McNeil Point, where I would camp. I would return along the Timberline Trail the following day and make a day-visit to Elk Cove. What ended up happening was that I day-hiked to the ponds just beyond the McNeil Point trail, warily eyed the fresh snow on the ridge above and the drippy, wet camping opportunities on the trail below, and decided to see if it was any better looking in Elk Cove.
While I was hoping for some mountain views, I was really more interested in observing mushrooms that were popping up around timberline. I had always been aware of mushrooms in the backcountry but until I went morel hunting with a friend last spring, my curiosity never went beyond stopping and poking big ones with a stick. Now I carry a field guide and drop down to their level for a closer look.
It had snowed on Mt. Hood the day before. Not a a lot, and not terribly low, but enough to dust timberline with some ice chunks. When the clouds parted long enough to reveal the mountain and her flanks, it was a stunning presentation in white. Mt. Hood always looks her best when she’s got on her new clothes.
I wandered around the northwest side of the mountain, enjoying the quiet and constantly changing scenery, before heading over to check out Elk Cove. Up to that point, I hadn’t committed to staying overnight, but the moment I turned the corner and caught a glimpse of the basin, I decided yes.
After setting up our camp, we went for a walk through the basin, climbing a little get some perspective. I waded through the grassy meadows, following new trails of crushed brush and bear poop. This is a very popular spot for some late-season dining, it seems.
The sun sets early this time of year, especially so in Elk Cove. The dog and I headed back to camp and huddled around our noodles until it was too cold to be outside anymore. We had heard a group pass through when we were climbing in the meadows, yelling “yodeleheehoo” to one another, but we were the only ones in the basin that night. The wind had picked up and bashed the tent most of the night, gusting frantically every 15 minutes. I read for a while, stared at the tent fabric, slept intermittently, and, at dawn, after 12 hours of tent time, unzipped from our cocoon to find a world of flat light and strange clouds.
Rain was on the way, so we quickly breakfasted, packed up, and leisurely headed back to the car. It started to rain as we reached the trailhead, the prelude to a record-setting rainfall event that would go on for days, eventually bringing the snow level down to 4,000′ and ending the snow-free hiking season for Elk Cove. I was one of the last backpackers to spend time there before it got winterized, a princely winning for my shoulder season gamble.
Vista Ridge – McNeil Ponds – Elk Cove T-Hike
September 26-27, 2013
Mt. Hood Wilderness, Mt. Hood National Forest
Northwest Forest Pass required
Free wilderness permit required (self-issue at trailhead)