Mt. Adams Wilderness

  • Level: Difficult
  • Length: 12.4 miles (with waterfall side trip)
  • Elevation: 1,500+ ft. gain
  • Type: out and back
  • Open: mid-July to mid-October
  • Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
  • Drive time from Portland: 2.5 hours
  • Google map: “South Climb Trail” (screenshot directions, you will lose reception.)
  • Features: South Climb Trailhead, Aiken Lava Bed, Bird Creek Meadows, Round the Mountain Trail, Hellroaring Canyon, Yakama Indian Reservation, Crooked Creek, Crooked Creek Falls, Gifford Pinchot NF

Intuition is everything when adventuring in nature and mine has saved me from some rough spots more than once. If you feel any sense of foreboding about a hike that isn’t rooted in insecurities about ability, I say don’t do it. Wait for the “right” things to align before you go. Does the weather report seem questionable? Is the trail super far away? What time does the sun set? Are you going alone? If so, how remote is it? Have roads to it recently been closed for one reason or another (floods, wildfire, snow, etc.) These are some of the questions to ask yourself.

(I revisited this trail on September 12, 2016.)

Along with natural disasters, many trails close seasonally. Make sure the trail you want is open and accessible. You know how to make a Google work and even better, it is super easy to call the ranger district your hike is located in to find out anything you need to know. I do it all of the time. Another thing to keep in mind for mountain hikes, the northernmost part of a big mountain has it’s own complex weather system. Just because a nearby town calls for partial sun with a light chance of rain, doesn’t mean the same for the mountain.

If a hike mentions meadows in a big way, it really is best left for the wildflower seasons. However, I have been dying to get to know Mt. Adams. The low range of mountains east of Portland mostly obscure it from view making it feel kind of elusive. I wanted in on that. Despite working until 12:30am the night before, I planned to wake up early that morning, 7am, to make the two-and-a-half hour drive. Why would I drive two-and-a-half hours for a trail? Because I fucking love an adventure. Waking up early even though I work late, driving as the sun changes the sky a dozen ways, I try to witness and hold every last moment like it all means something because it does to me. Then I punish myself on some challenging trail that is likely beyond my ability, but I do it anyway because I love the pain. If I’m lucky, I drive home during a sunset smugly satisfied, congratulating myself on a job well done. Which is funny because in this culture of currency we’re living in I didn’t actually achieve shit.

I slept poorly that night, a mix of excitement and apprehension waking me up every couple of hours. This was my intuition’s first plea. I had considered everything: the spotty weather report (I hike in the rain all of the time, but this trail is way up the mountain), the distance (a huge commitment that could turn awry if something didn’t go right when I got all the way out there), the remoteness (off season) and the fact that I would be alone. There was also the added issue of the forest fires that blazed through the area just six weeks before. I called the Mt. Adams ranger district to ask about the roads and trails and I was assured that despite recent closures, all of the roads and trails were now open. It’s not like there were any clear deal breakers here, but it was a lot to consider for a day hike.

The last eight miles before the trailhead are unpaved, but the very last 2.6 miles are pretty terrible. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt carsick when I’ve been the driver, but now I know it’s possible! A higher-clearance vehicle and 4-wheel drive are ideal, but my little Corolla managed. As I rounded a bend on road 8040, what would be the top of Mt. Adams came into view. It would be a jaw dropper, as Mt. Adams is undoubtedly the most adorable mountain in the Cascade Range, but what little I could see of the lowest snowpacks were quickly engulfed with clouds within just minutes, not to be seen again. Did I really want to hike 11.5 miles near the top of a mother fucking mountain and not be able to gag on it’s majesty? This became another plea from my intuition to reconsider things. It was only intermittently sprinkling so I drove on, the trailhead only 2.5 miles further.

The trail started at the South Climb trailhead, a trailhead generally used by rock climbers, but after 1.3 miles and gaining seven-hundred feet, I turned onto the Round the Mountain Trail. The first couple of miles were straight up The Road (à la the book by, Cormac McCarthy). It was a wide, rocky path lined on both sides by forest scorched by wildfires in 2008 and 2012. It was a little unsettling and I started to fear the whole trail might be like that, but I drove two-and-a-half hours to get there and damnit, I was not going to turn around after a couple of miles. Near the three mile mark, the burnt tree saga gave way to ancient lava beds. The trail narrowed through rough, crumbling pumice and smooth boulders bigger than me. The gnarled, stunted, lichen-covered alpine trees growing tenaciously through rocks romanced me forward. It was starting to get so good, but the weather was doing all it could to kill my vibe. It started raining for real, increasingly, and I knew things could change ever more dramatically from one minute to the next. I made a deal with myself, if the rain kept getting worse I would turn around when I hit the boundary of the Yakama Indian Reservation, giving me a good 6.6 miles by the time I got back to my car. Not a total bust, but a little disappointing.

6.6 miles is nothing to scoff at. I do trails that short and shorter all of the time and serious magic can happen on even the shortest of trails. Here’s the thing, though: I’ve been hiking so much now that I feel like my body can go forever. Obviously, it can’t, but it really wants to. When I hit seven miles, I get this charge like I can do anything. I fantasize about what it would actually be like to hike all day every day with no other responsibilities to factor in. When I hit ten, the pain setting into my human body, I still just want to GO. I never want to stop. I mourn the end of every trail.

As I reached the boundary of the Yakama Indian Reservation, my new turnaround point, the nature prizes kicked into high gear. Alpine meadows stretched before me with the occasional clear stream slicing through the gold grass, faceting the perfect landscape. Day-glo red autumn-leaved shrubs lined the path before me. My heart was all, game changer! My head knew I was caught up. What would be so bad about carrying on just another mile or so to the waterfall just up the way? This would bring my mileage to 8.9, which sounded way more awesome. My decision was made. I proceeded through this unreal land, occasionally crossing crystalline streams, the rain ever present. Every turn seared with even more beauty and I was nearing my newest turnaround point, Crooked Creek Falls. Bummer. Just as I approached the last turn before the waterfall, the romantic candy wonderland came to a grinding halt. The smell of freshly burnt wood wet with rain overwhelmed my senses. I turned onto a forest that had been on fire only weeks ago. Everything that once grew around and between the blackened, branchless trunks, gone. Heartbreaking. I reached the falls, wan from draught, but beautiful in the way waterfalls always are. My intuition victoriously nagging, it’s time to go.

The rain continued to pick up as I hiked with a clip back to the car. Mostly satisfied, a little sorrowful. I’d never seen anything like that, miles of burnt forest. The forest knows how to endure and heal in ways my human existence can only try to grasp and marvel at. I know that beautiful things grow out of chaos. These are the things, along with fantasies of next spring’s adventures, I took with me.

Check out other times I’ve done this trail: September 12, 2016 (and completed it.)

From the trailhead:

Hike 1.3 miles up the South Climb Trail and then turn right onto the Round the Mountain Trail. After about a mile, you’ll cross through the Aiken Lava Bed. After another mile, cross onto to the Yakama Indian Reservation boundary. In 0.6 mile there’s an optional side trail on the right you can follow for .5 mile to Crooked Creek Falls (This was my turn around point, but I can vouch for the rest). Continue back up to Round the Mountain Trail, turning right for another .8 mile to the Bird Creek Meadows picnicking zone and turn left at the sign for 1 mile to the Hellroaring Canyon viewpoint. The trail sort of peters out here, but you won’t be led astray. The viewpoint slightly to the right is best. Return the way you came.

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