Friday and Saturday, January 15th and 16th, 2021
I’d planned on hiking up to Elk Meadows again… since at this point Elk is basically my go-to locale whenever I don’t really know where to go.
I love that, by the way. I really enjoy having a “spot”, somewhere that I know I can just escape to, that doesn’t involve significant planning or thought. It’s just… “hey, I want to get out of town. How about I just go to the place, and do the thing? I can pack the stuff that I always pack!”
Anyways I didn’t go to Elk Meadows.
Since it’s winter, the main trailhead for Elk Meadows is a bit… snow covered. And by “a bit”, I mean that there’s roughly 6-8 ft of snow filling the little turnout that I’d normally go to. The last few times I hiked Elk, I parked at the Nordic Center for Mt. Hood Meadows, but that was just a single day… so to be paranoid, I’d called ahead to confirm that I could park overnight, and learned that overnight parking was absolutely not allowed.
I needed a new plan.
Thankfully, one of the Nordic Center folks who I spoke to recommended hiking the White River – I’d always just assumed that it was a small snow-park used for day sledding, but looking into it there was a nice trail that would connect me to the timberline trail… which would be perfect for the small outing that I was aiming for. I’d already had all the basics packed, so I was on the road as soon as the car was packed.
The ride out was pretty simple, and involved picking up a bagel sandwich for brunch… which turned out to be way more of a pastry than a sandwich, but… I’m not going to complain right before backpacking.
The hike in was beautiful – the parking lot was more full than I’d have seen at Elk, but the crowds were purely focused on sledding, and stayed within maybe a quarter mile of the parking lot. I didn’t see anyone after half a mile in, and was able to enjoy the cold and the quiet just as well as if I’d been heading toward my original destination.
By the time I was ready to set up camp I’d passed my intended turnout point, and instead found a perfect little campsite that had been set up by someone else sometime recently – a little flat spot partway up a steep hill in the trees, with a small area for cooking and a tent spot just the right size for my little shelter. I set up, hiked around a little bit, made dinner, and stared up at the sky as the sun set and the stars came out. Soon enough the air had that beautiful cutting edge to it, and so I curled into my sleeping bag and tucked myself in for some reading before drifting off to sleep.
The morning came bright and clear, with my Grey Jay friends (or family members of my friends) joining me for a light breakfast as I watched the sun light up the mountain.
People had started coming by pretty early in the morning, but even at the densest crowds, there were very few people this high up on the river – I think the most people I saw was a ski rescue group practicing avalanche testing… maybe 12 people or so?
I had a nice breakfast, relaxed, packed up, and then set off for what I’d planned on being a quick little walk up the glacier before heading back down.
Instead, I kept going as high as the snow would take me – extremely cautiously, though. Strangely, my concern wasn’t anything to do with crowds or avalanche or anything, but was instead the light. Not something you think about often in the winter, but with the bright sun and clean snow, the glare was intense. Really intense, intense enough that I was quite worried about sunburn or hurting my unshielded eyes.
Thankfully, some light clouds rolled in right before I was about to turn around, and the shade was enough that I was confident that continuing onward wouldn’t be any major risk. I mean, I was pretty sure I’d come out of it with a tan or light sunburn, but the bigger worry was my eyes, and since I kept checking in with myself every 10min or so, I felt pretty happy about forging upward.
It was worth it.
The views kept getting better as better as I ascended higher and higher – Realistically, I don’t think I got any higher than 5,000ft elevation, but the views were unparalleled as I looked North to the summit, and South to the rest of the cascade range. The sun shining through the fishscale clouds…
I met a few folks on the walk, but aside from the views there’s not really much to talk about. It was beautiful, I loved not carrying a pack (since I’d left it back at camp), and I felt amazing. You know how you can smell the cold, and how snow gives that crisp taste to the air? Well, this had that in abundance, and I loved every second of it.
After I got back to my gear, I hefted the pack and started back toward the car.
The crowds thickened as I got closer and closer to the parking lot, to the point that I masked up after a little bit, as people were becoming unavoidable. There were families sledding, grills set up, and just this massive sense of happiness and excitement from the yells of people sliding down the snow.
I saw a few back country skiers too, some having descended from where I was, and some from as far away as the Timberline Lodge. I was definitely a bit jealous, I admit, but I still loved the chance to be hiking on the snow.
Absolutely worth every step.