The Timberline Trail runs .1 mile up from behind the National Historic Landmark of Timberline Lodge. Leave snowboarders enjoying what is left of winter under the summer sun as you make your way along the Pacific Crest Trail past the junction for the Mountaineers Trail. About a mile at the boundary for the Mt. Hood Wilderness area, you will fill out the necessary self-issuing permit for the trip. This beginning section is characterized by loose, sandy soil and pockets of forest filled with day hikers exploring close to the lodge.
The trail snakes through gullies and across open slopes before passing the Hidden Lake Trail (#779) on the left at 1.5 miles and 5720 feet with a small campsite and another at 1.8 miles. The ski bowl of Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain can be seen off to the south before the trail drops through verdant meadows to the edge of Zigzag Canyon at 5470 feet with views up at Paradise Park and the sheer cliffs of Mississippi Head below Zigzag Glacier. A small stream at 2 miles may have water earlier in the season.
Continue to descend and cross the mild Zigzag River at 4800 feet and 3.4 miles in, sometimes on a well placed log. Year to year and season to season will see varying water levels, look upstream for cascading Zigzag Falls which often forms snow caves at its base.
The trail rises from the Zigzag, crosses a side stream and meets the Paradise Park Loop Trail (#757) junction 3.7 miles into the trek at 5030 feet. You can also carry on .5 miles more and turn up on the Paradise Park Trail (#778) but it is about the same distance to the campsites above with a little less meadow meandering. If not camping at Paradise, continue straight on the PCT, the distance from this junction to the western Paradise Park junction (1.8 miles) is the same as doing the Paradise Park loop. There are a few campsites on this option where it crosses diminutive Lost Creek and a waterfall at Rushing Water Creek.
Whether you are planning an overnight at Paradise Park or just want the views, take a right on either of the Paradise Park trails. The climb has a steeper grade and the black flies can be vicious but thankfully the ascent is short. Avalanche and mariposa lilies, Jeffery’s shooting stars and paintbrush meadows are a colorful distraction as you head up in search of a spot to pitch your tent or stop for a bite to eat.
Passing a few campsites near reliable Lost Creek at around 5 miles and at 5740 feet in elevation, you may glimpse remains of the Paradise Park shelter in a grove of ancient mountain hemlock below the trail. These sites are tempting but you know something better is to be had just a short distance ahead. Continue on to sprawling alpine meadows and a rocky junction next to a stream with a stunning panorama both of the flanks of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge to the northwest. As the sun sets, see if you can see the Bonneville Dam glittering off in the distance.
Paradise Park offers your first opportunity to study the rugged slopes of Mount Hood, composed primarily of andesite and dacite, formed during volcanic eruptions between 500,000 and 700,000 years ago. Illumination Rock rises up from between the Zigzag and Reid Glaciers, a popular location historically used to set off fireworks. The last time was in 1969 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Mazamas.
Near the high point of Paradise Park at 5800 feet is a 20-foot high boulder aptly named Split Rock with an exposed campsite next to it that bears two plaques memorializing two past presidents of the Mazamas, Oregon’s popular alpine club. A handful of tents can be tucked in the treeline on the loop, expect them to be claimed early on a busy weekend.
Complete the rest of the Paradise Park Loop back down to meet the PCT, arriving at the junction at 6.1 miles and 5440 feet. From the junction, the trail begins its descent down to the Sandy River Canyon ledge at 5210 feet and 6.8 miles. The rugged landscape centered by Reid Glacier and Paradise Falls dropping through the drainage below the mountain is worth a pause.
The trail loses elevation through the trees and early summer visitors will be rewarded with rosy rhododendron blooms. Several shaded campsites are located along Rushing Water Creek at 9 miles just before the trail breaks out to the Sandy River, but frequent windstorms can mean downed trees so anticipate possibly having to make camp up in the pebbly debris along the river.
Arriving at the milky river’s edge at 9.1 miles and 3360ft, take a few minutes to assess the best spot to cross with a little help from seasonally place cairns, switch to appropriate footwear if needed and make your attempt at a crossing, Sandy can be one of the most difficult fords so take your time.
Once on the other side, look for cairns and footprints to reunite you with the trail on the left through a stand of mountain ash. Following the Sandy River downstream, it is less than a half mile before you meet the spacious Ramona Falls/Timberline junction at 9.4 miles and 3300 feet where you have a decision on which direction to take among its lichen-draped pines.
There are a dozen campsites between this junction and Ramona Falls but camping is not allowed at the popular falls themselves. Look for a post near the falls that shows where camping is permitted, a stream is also available. Take a short break and rest before your next climb below the shimmery veil of water spilling over mossy, stepped black basalt. Admire the sturdy bridge over Ramona Creek, one of only two on the Timberline you will cross. Other campsites include Paradise Park, Sandy River and Ramona Falls Junction.
Most backpackers turn right for Ramona Falls and continue on the Timberline Trail proper. However, the section of the Timberline between Yocum Ridge and Bald Mountain is prone to erosion and slides and reroutes onto the current Pacific Crest Trail are common. Be sure to check for trail conditions before starting your trip.
If the Timberline Trail is closed at Yocum Ridge, there are two alternate routes using the Pacific Crest Trail to meet the Top Spur junction that are a little shorter than the official Timberline itself. There are campsites at the PCT/Ramona Creek Trail junction and after the Muddy Fork crossing. Filling up at the Muddy Fork is best as the upcoming climb to Top Spur may only present a few meager streams.
Alternate #1: Pass the falls and continue on the Ramona Creek Trail (do not turn up right on the Timberline) which offers a magical creek with verdant carpeted banks and cliff walls of pink and taupe andesite and cuts about .5 miles off the Timberline loop. Intersect the Pacific Crest Trail and turn right, cross the Muddy Fork on reliable downed trees and carry on up to Top Spur to meet the Timberline.
Alternate #2: Keep straight at the junction for Ramona Falls, continuing on the Pacific Crest Trail along the Sandy River. Look for the historic Upper Sandy River guard station below the trail along the way. Pass the junctions for the Ramona Falls Trailhead, cross the Muddy Fork and continue up to the Top Spur. This route shortens the entire loop by about a mile.