backpack: Mount Hood – Dollar Lake + Elk Cove
One night backpacking trip
trailhead: Vista Ridge
campsite: Dollar Lake
total distance: 9.2 miles with 2,100 ft elevation gain
OregonHikers.org trip description: Elk Cove via Vista Ridge
The forecast looked great for the weekend, and I figured that it was my last chance this year to backpack in the subalpine areas on Mount Hood. It was supposed to be clear, sunny and in the mid-60s on Saturday and Sunday. But this is autumn in the Pacific Northwest, and with the change of the season comes unpredictable conditions. The morning of the trip, I checked the forecast again, and it had changed overnight, drastically different than what I was planning for. With high wind and heavy rain starting early Sunday morning, my friend and I had to decide if we still wanted to go. The first time we had backpacked together was September 2015 in Indian Heaven Wilderness. On that trip, we hiked in, set up camp and had lunch, then it started to hail, followed by strong thunderstorms and high winds that lasted all night. We probably spent over 20 hours in our tents on that overnight, then bailed out in the morning. In spite of our previous experience, we decided to go ahead and take the risk.
We drove to the Vista Ridge trailhead, and on the way there, we could see that the top third of Mount Hood was covered in a thick gray cloud that looked like it was probably snowing on top. It was early in the day, though, and we hoped the clouds would burn off as the sun shone everywhere else nearby. We were planning to camp at Dollar Lake, but first had to hike through about two miles of burned forest from the 2011 Dollar Lake wildfire before reaching the Timberline Trail.
After the burn area, reach a trail junction for Eden Park. Stay to the left at the trail junction and head towards Elk Cove. After another 0.3 miles, reach a trail junction for Cairn Basin. Stay to the left and continue on the Timberline Trail for just under a mile to the unmarked side trail to Dollar Lake. The side trail can be hard to find since it’s almost completely covered up by small mountain hemlocks and rocks. There is usually a small cairn marking the spot.
When we arrived at Dollar Lake, a group of about eight day hikers were there and one of them suggested that we head up past the lake to better campsites. We did, and he was right. The views of Mount Hood and Barrett Spur are amazing!
We set up camp, had a quick lunch and then did a day hike to Elk Cove. We ran into three other small groups of backpackers, and we were all hoping that the forecast for the next morning’s rain would be delayed long enough for us to hike out before it started.
Back at camp, we had dinner and made a small campfire to stay warm. We stayed up until it was fairly dark, but the winds picked up and it was getting cold, so we put out the campfire and headed to bed around 8:00. I usually spend time journaling until I get tired enough to go to sleep, but I was cold and just wanted to warm up, so I climbed into my sleeping bag and watched the wind shake my tent around, hoping it wouldn’t collapse on me.
Around 11:00 pm, it started to rain and the wind gusts got stronger. This lasted all night long. At times, it seemed like buckets of rain were hitting my tent, but it stayed dry inside. At 7:00 am, just when it started to get light out, we decided to pack up and hike out. We managed to load our backpacks in our tents, then got out in the heavy rain to take down our tents. We rolled them up and put them on the outside of our packs and started the hike out. The trail was full of puddles and at times, it was an actual stream of rushing water. I was wearing trail running shoes, so my feet got very wet. Fortunately, the water drains out as easily as it runs in, so it wasn’t too bad. In the burn section, the water was over my ankles for quite a distance, and my feet got pretty cold. Back at the car, I was thankful for the dry clothes and shoes we had stashed to change into.