backpack: Mount Hood – Burnt Lake & East Zigzag Mountain
The alpenglow on Mount Hood reflected in Burnt Lake is a sight you won’t soon forget. Take this moderately easy hike to a mountain lake and stay overnight to watch the mountain change colors several times in a day.
- distance & elevation gain to campsite: 3.3 miles, 1,400 ft. gain
- day hike options: East Zigzag Mountain, Cast Lake
- best months: September-October
- location: Mount Hood Wilderness; nearest town: Zigzag
- land management: Mount Hood National Forest: Zigzag Ranger Station
- trail conditions: Burnt Lake Trail #772
- hike description: OregonHikers.org
- permits: self-issued at wilderness checkpoint
- trailhead pass: NW Forest Pass required
3.3 miles, 1,400 ft. gain
We started at the north trailhead and hiked through a forest that burned in 1904 and 1906, which is how Burnt Lake got its name. The forest has since filled in, while many hollow shells of burnt old-growth cedars remain. The trail is fairly gentle for the first two miles, with several small creek crossings. We took a side trail that leads down to views of small waterfalls on Lost Creek. Back on the main trail, we continued up towards the lake on a series of switchbacks and our first views of Mount Hood.
When we reached the lake, we checked out all of the campsites before selecting where to spend the next two nights. With a forecast that called for overnight lows down to 36 degrees and wind gusts up to 30 mph, we hoped to avoid the coldest air settling in the low spots and wind coming off of the lake, so we decided on campsite #1, located slightly above the lake.
After setting up camp, we did a quick hike up to a ridge below East Zigzag Mountain. The trail from the lake heads up via several switchbacks for 0.7 miles to a trail junction with the Zigzag Mountain Trail #775. Traces of fall color line the trail along the way. At the junction, we continued to the right towards East Zigzag Mountain. The trail gets here much steeper before reaching the ridge, but it’s only 0.3 miles to the first opening with great views. We didn’t see very many people on this hike, although there were a few other small groups of backpackers at the lake.
From the opening on the ridge, we could see the full expanse of Mount Hood, with Burnt Lake far below it. It was starting to get dark, so I took a few photos and then we headed back to camp.
On way back, we caught glimpses of the alpenglow on Mount Hood, so we hurried to the lakeshore for quick photos.
It didn’t take long for darkness to fall, so we went back to our campsite to cook dinner by headlamps. There was no wind on the first night, and it was eerily quiet all around us. When we both got up to use the bathroom in the night, we went to the lake to see a sky full of stars and the Milky Way.
In the morning, we headed back to the same spot for this view of Hood at sunrise. There was not much color in the sky, but it was interesting to see how the color of the mountain changes so drastically at different times of the day. It was cold, with frost along the edge of the lake.
Wanting an easy and relaxed approach on this trip, we went back to our warm tents before getting up again sometime around 8:00 am. We filtered water for the day and made breakfast. While we were eating, a couple of day hikers walked past and said it was 34 degrees at the trailhead when they started their hike. Brrr.
Our plan for the day was to explore an abandoned section of the Zigzag Mountain Trail, so we took the Burnt Lake trail again to the Zigzag Mountain Trail junction. This time, we headed to the left on the trail that goes all the way to Paradise Park, although we didn’t plan to go that far. Just after starting on the trail, we passed a large opening in the forest with views to the north, including Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams.
On the way back, we noticed a faint side trail to a viewpoint above a rocky slope. I could see features from other hikes on Mount Hood that I had done, including Bald Mountain, McNeil Point, and in the distance, part of the forest burned in the Dollar Lake fire near Cairn Basin.
For the next mile or so, the trail heads through a viewless forest, becoming fainter and brushier the farther we went. It was apparent that it’s not a well traveled trail and since it wasn’t very scenic, we decided to turn around and head back to East Zigzag Mountain. Just before we were back at the trail junction, we got a great view of our destination and the trail to the summit of East Zigzag Mountain.
After passing the first ridge viewpoint that we had gone to the previous night, the trail heads across a saddle and a junction with the Burnt Lake Trail that connects to the south trailhead. We continued on the Zigzag Mountain trail and up the steep slope to the top of East Zigzag.
At the rocky summit, we stopped to have lunch and enjoy the views for a couple of hours before heading back to camp.
Back at camp, the wind picked up as evening approached, with gusts that made it feel much colder. With less sunlight at this time of year, it got dark on us again when it was time for dinner so we cooked with our headlamps on and our backs to the wind, then went to bed at hiker midnight, which for us was around 8 o’clock.
The high wind continued in the morning, so after breakfast we packed up and hiked out.