The 41.5 mile Timberline Trail, which circles Oregon’s highest point, Mt Hood, dropping in and out of glacier-carved canyons, is a classic that should be on everyone’s bucket list. There’s a lot to love about the Timberline Trail: a well-worn path above and below the timberline (the altitude where trees stop growing), epic views of Mt Hood and the other peaks of the Cascades, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic rock, alpine meadows, wildflowers, and rich history (it’s also a National Historic Trail). Numerous tent sites along the trail and an easy permit system make tackling the Timberline in 2-4 days straightforward. In this guide I’ll explain everything you need to know to plan your trip, and then do the hike.
What is the Timberline Trail?
Although the Timberline Trail is always “open,” it’s generally attempted from mid-July to September, when the snow is gone and when the rivers are not raging. If this is your first time, do it in this date range. The sweet spot is the end of July to the end of August, when the wildflowers are in bloom and most of the snow is gone.
The Civilian Conservation Corps Build the Timberline Trail
The USA Recovers From the Great Depression
The Trail is Rerouted in Spots and Improved
The Volatile Landscape Around Mt Hood Forces Adaptations
Minor Adaptations and Reroutes
The Trail Regains Popularity From Social Media
William Langille is allegedly the first gringo to hike around Mt Hood in the late 1890s. He also built the Cloud Cap Inn, shared a cabin with The Call of the Wild author Jack London in the Klondike, and was instrumental in the early days of the Forest Service.
How to Hike the Timberline Trail
Okay, if you want to tackle the Timberline Trail, you first have to figure out how you will do it. I’m going to give my suggestions based on the clockwise routing that is most common. There are over a dozen access points to reach the Timberline Trail, tons of tent sites, and lots of ways to slice and dice this. These suggestions are great for first-timers.
All routes described go clockwise.
3 days / 2 nights Camping (for those in good hiking shape)
Start at Timberline Lodge
Hike 11 miles and camp in a creekside spot after Ramona Falls
Hike 16.5 miles and camp at Cloud Cap
Hike 14.5 miles and finish at Timberline Lodge
4 days / 3 nights Camping (for all levels)
Start at Timberline Lodge
Hike 11 miles and camp in a creekside spot after Ramona Falls
Hike 12 miles and camp at Elk Cove
Hike 10 miles and camp just past Lamberson Butte (or continue 2 miles down to Newton Creek for water)
Hike 9 miles back to Timberline Lodge
2 days / 1 night Slack-Packing (for the very fit)
This is a great option for those low on time who don’t want to carry a full backpack. Just bring the essentials and a change of clothes.
Start at Top Spur Parking Lot
Hike 28 miles to Timberline Lodge
Hotel night at Timberline Lodge
Hike 14 miles back to Top Spur Parking Lot
2 days / 1 night Camping (for the very fit)
Start at Cloud Cap
Hike 22 miles and camp by Paradise Branch Overlooks
Hike 20 miles back to Cloud Cap
Can you hike the Timberline Trail in a day? Maybe not by hiking, but there are plenty of trail runners who do it in a day, usually taking between 8-12 hours.
Timberline Trail Permits
One of the great things about the Timberline Trail is that there is NOT a quota permit system. You need a permit, which you can get at the trailheads, but it’s about awareness and following the rules within the Mt Hood Wilderness. And that’s it. Just show up, sign your permit, understand what it says, and have fun.
Where to Camp on the Timberline Trail
Another great aspect of the Timberline Trail is that there are (probably and unofficially) hundreds of pre-established tent sites where you can camp along the trail. Since it’s in the Mt Hood Wilderness, there are no official campgrounds, no websites to book a spot on, and no facilities. Just find a nice spot that is not explicitly marked no camping (like some alpine meadows), pitch your tent, and enjoy. And please leave no trace by not creating your own new tent site, there are plenty out there already.
Look for hidden campsites just off the trail. Some maps also show markers for popular camping spots. You’d be hard-pressed to hike a mile and not see at least several tent sites. Either side of stream and river crossings are good bets to find spots close to water.
The larger / easier to find (and picturesque) areas to camp are (miles in clockwise direction):
11 miles – There are dispersed spots once past Ramona Falls along Ramona Creek, just off the trail.
19 miles – Eden Park (a mile detour off the trail) is like Elk Cove but more mellow.
22 miles – Elk Cove is probably the most popular spot.
28 miles – Cloud Cap has spots but you’ll share with car campers (more below).
34 miles – Newton Creek has lots of spots over the creek to camp.
There are spots to camp above the tree line from Cloud Cap to Lamberson Butte, but they are exposed.
Aside from the last section I mentioned above the tree line, the rest of the trail is very hammock friendly if that’s your bag.
Most campsites are close enough to some water source, but on the stretch between Cloud Cap and Newton Creek, you’ll have a tougher time. You may need to melt snow.
I’m not going to cover every access point to the Timberline; there are over a dozen trails that join up with the Timberline Trail Loop. Instead, I’ll cover the most popular options, which are also the options listed in my suggested itineraries.
The traditional starting point for the hike is the Timberline Lodge, about 90 minutes away from Portland. It’s a paved road all the way to the lodge, and is generally an easy drive. The lodge is directly on the route of the Timberline Trail.
If you start the hike on the upper part of the loop, Cloud Cap is a good option for parking, but the drive there has a steep and narrow dirt section at the end that can be rutted. I’ve seen low-clearance cars in the lot, so it’s doable, just go slow. If you’re driving from Portland, I recommend the northernmost route that goes through the Columbia River Gorge, which has jaw-dropping scenery. Don’t park at the Cloud Cap Inn, park at the Cloud Cap campground area.
Just over an hour from Portland, and all paved (but with some major potholes at the end), the Ramona Falls trailhead parking lot is another option to easily access the trail. The parking lot is not on the Timberline, but it’s an easy 1.5 mile hike to access it.
If you can’t continue the trail for whatever reason, your best move is to use your map and hike out on one of the numerous access trails around the loop. Bailing out is more common than you’d think, and if you have to do it, don’t feel bad. Most trailheads have other hikers who are sympathetic and can offer rides back to a gas station or wherever.
Gear For the Trail
In general you’d need all the gear that you would normally when backcountry camping. My advice is to go light. The trail is nothing but ups and downs with some river crossings thrown in there for fun, and having a heavy pack will take its toll. Here are some standout items that you need.
Trekking Poles are a must-have. I wouldn’t recommend crossing the tougher streams without them. They’re also great for stabilization when you face slippery slopes.
Some sections (like the PCT between the Muddy Fork and Bald Mountain) can have some intense insect activity. There’s nothing worse than being devoured by mosquitoes while you’re huffing and puffing up a climb. Bring insect repellant. You don’t need a lot, most other sections are mosquito-free.
Along the same vein as the last point, don’t wear cotton. Make sure you have clothing that will dry quickly. If you have a problem with brush against your legs, wear long pants.
It can rain anytime, so be prepared for it. Even if the forecast looks good, it’s smart to bring rain pants and a shell.
Luckily there’s plenty of water along the route, but it needs to be filtered. The easiest thing to do is to carry a 1L Smartwater bottle or two with a screw-on water filter. The stretch between Cloud Cap and Newton Creek is the driest, and you’ll probably want to have at least 2L of water between those two spots. If the water you are filtering is milky, it has a lot of silt in it, and your filter might struggle. You can still drink that water, but expect a reduced water flow. After you filter silted water, it’s always best to do a quick back-flow clean afterwards.
I wouldn’t worry much about animal attacks or bears looking for food. There are certainly bears in the Mt Hood Wilderness, but they generally keep to themselves and there’s not a problem with them like in some major parks. Most people use a simple bear hang for their food, or just sleep with it in their tent (I’ve done this). Just keep the scents down by washing utensils and packaging. Your biggest threat is probably rodents, but again, I’ve never had a problem. If you are really paranoid, I’d bring an Ursack. A bear canister is overkill here.
For navigations, using the National Geographic Mt Hood map along with the GPX file (below) loaded into a free app with offline maps like Gaia GPS is the move. Don’t count on cellular service. Having a satellite communicator is prudent.
Timberline Trail River Crossings & Other Challenges
The Timberline Trail is famous (or infamous) for its river crossings. In the winter, new layers of snow on Mt Hood add to the glaciers and snowfields, which then melt in the spring and summer, creating raging rivers. In the spring, the rivers are generally too intense to cross. The intense flows and floods can wipe out whatever cairns, crossings, and other markers that were left the last year along the river washes. By mid-July most of the crossings are doable.
I’ve marked the tougher crossings in the GPX file and map. Here they are, in (my opinion) the order of most to least difficult: Eliot Creek, White River, Newton Creek, Sandy River, Ladd Creek and Coe Creek.
Here’s how I recommend tackling the crossings:
When planning your hike, give yourself 15-30 minutes per major crossing extra to account for the recon and crossing.
Know what your next big crossing is and ask hikers you pass heading in the opposite direction what the conditions were and if they found a good crossing. If you can hear a rushing torrent from far away, it’s probably going to be a tougher one.
Watch for other hikers crossing for clues on where to cross. If you don’t feel confident crossing, wait for other hikers to show up and engage them for a second opinion or help.
Be careful on the banks of loose sand, which can collapse and send you into the stream. A hiker died like this.
Look for cairns and sticks marking the most recent crossing. The crossing points can change day to day, so this is the best move for finding the latest and greatest. Don’t just follow the line on your GPS. Generally the crossings are bit upstream or downstream from where the line of the trail crosses.
There are no bridges but sometimes you can find logs, snow bridges, or rock hops to get across. They can be slick, and hikers have drowned when falling off of them. If you don’t feel 100% confident that you can safely cross that way, then you should walk through the water.
Look for areas that are wider and shallow if you can’t find good markers. It’s better to cross two shallower branches than one narrower deep one. Avoid crossing close to a waterfall or steep drop.
When you look at the pictures below, the crossings don’t look like a big deal, but the water is fast and freezing, the rocks are slick, and if you get swept off your feet, you could have problems.
When walking through the water, I’ve found the best move is to face the current, put a trekking pole down where you want to step, get a good lock on that spot, then put your foot there. Then repeat with each limb. So the trekking pole becomes the “scout” for your foot. Some people do something similar by holding onto another hiker.
Unclip your backpack straps and hip belt. If you go down, slip out of your pack, otherwise it might pull you under. If you are committed to a crossing, it can be easier to just throw your pack across before you (make sure you can make throw without it falling in the creek).
As snow melts during the day, the crossings can get more intense. Likewise, if it’s raining out, they can become impassable.
If you don’t feel safe crossing after all of that, don’t cross. People have died trying to cross. Set up camp and wait is out, or backtrack and bail out. No hike is worth giving your life for, this is supposed to be fun.
Timberline Trail Maps
Right now a portion of the Timberline Trail between Ramona Falls and Top Spur is closed because of devastation from the Labor Day 2020 blowdown. So these directions follow the Ramona Falls Trail #797 + PCT detour. Don’t attempt the closed portion. Hikers who do are regularly stuck and need search & rescue services.
Mt Hood is named in 1792 after a British naval war hero, Samuel Hood, 1st Viscount Hood. When Lewis and Clark spotted it in 1805 they called it Falls Mountain, but I guess “Hood” sounded cooler and that’s stuck.
There are only two developed areas along the Timberline Trail, the Timberline Lodge and the Mt Hood Meadows Ski Area. Otherwise you’re in the wilderness.
Don’t confuse Timberline Cabin with the Timberline Lodge. The cabin was built in 1916 by a Forest Service employee as a refuge and telephone relay point between the Summit Fire Lookout and Government Camp. Soon after that it became a popular bunkhouse stop for early skiers and adventurers heading toward the summit.
If you have the time and the energy to do an extra 720 feet of steep climbing, you can take the Paradise Park Loop and then rejoin the Timberline Trail at the end of the loop. Paradise Park is a nice alpine meadow with great views. You’ll see several “parks” along the hike, which refer to meadows.
2: Ramona Falls to Cloud Cap
Reader Alex T emailed me and said that straight is clear now, so you can choose whichever way you’d like. If you go straight, the directions below will rejoin after the cutoff trail ends.
What’s the difference between the Mt Hood Wilderness and the Mount Hood National Forest? The wilderness is a protected area where no development is allowed. The National Forest, which surrounds the wilderness, is managed land that allows recreation and (planned) logging.
Update: the following blowdowns have been cleared!
What’s the difference between a snowfield and glacier? A snowfield is a large amount of snow that stays around all year, usually in a cooler or shady spot. A glacier is a larger body of snow that has recrystallized into ice and now moves like a slow river because of its mass.
Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.
Hi, I’m Cris Hazzard, aka Hiking Guy, a professional outdoors guide, hiking expert, and author based in Southern California. I created this website to share all the great hikes I do with everyone else out there. This site is different because it gives detailed directions that even the beginning hiker can follow. I also share what hiking gear works and doesn’t so you don’t waste money. I don’t do sponsored or promoted content; I share only the gear recommendations, hikes, and tips that I would with my family and friends. If you like the website and YouTube channel, please support these free guides (I couldn’t do it without folks like you!).