Recently (in the last six months) I have become a Portland, Oregon resident. A side effect of this move has been my extreme need for adventures, a deep love for the Pacific Northwest and a deep shame that Yes, Socality Barbie, probably makes direct fun of myself on Instagram.
Just to clarify, if you’re an avid backpacker. you may want to quit reading now.I will probably drive you mad. I don’t do enough research on hikes, I travel completely unprepared and seriously lack the right hiking gear. I learn lessons on every hike and carry them (no pun intended) into the next hike. It’s a journey.
That being said, a friend and I decided to try out a 27 mile hike in a single day. Don’t look at me that way- I know it was ambitious.
In my research, I found Wahtum Lake, which was a 13.5 mile trip in and 13.5 miles back out. I did check the weather which forecasted a balmy 75 and sunny day. I prepared my pack the night before. (& by pack I don’t mean a “hikers” backpack- I mean my old World’s Gym bag). I threw in a rain jacket, just to be on the safe side along with two sandwiches, two protein bars, two bags of trail mix and several bottles of water. We left Portland around 5:30 am and pulled into the parking lot of the trailhead about 6:15 eager to begin our adventure.
The first portion of the hike was along the relatively popular hiking trail that leads to Punchbowl Falls and then proceeds further to Tunnel Falls. We knew we had to be pretty aggressive with our time, since we didn’t have any equipment to deal with hiking in the evening (seriously, quit shaking your head).
We blew past Punchbowl Falls, enjoying the sunrise and cool morning air. The best time to hike this portion of the well-used trail is early morning- we didn’t run into a single other hiker until we were well past Punchbowl and nearing Tunnel Falls (about six miles deep). On a weekend, the trail becomes an obstacle course of tourists, dogs and children. The silence of early morning and it’s sunrise is so breathtakingly beautiful that a few times I found myself pausing to take a few moments to soak up the anticipation of the journey ahead.
We stopped right before hitting the high bridge, which is about 4 1/2 miles in and had a quick breakfast. We downed some morning fuel (Costco’s Fruit & Nut Trailmix) in 15 minutes and continued on our way as we felt a few sprinkles.. Totally just our imagination….right?
We hit Tunnel Falls,which is about 6 miles into the journey in about 2 1/2 hours. Directly after Tunnel Falls, we came around the corner and my breath was seriously taken away. None of the reviews I read about the hike mentioned the Falls directly after the “famous” Tunnel Falls- Twisted Sisters. This fall is stunning. It bends around a great big corner and is preceded by the perfect swimming hole.. I’ll need to remember that for those hot Oregon summer days! Reviews may not mention this, because it’s farther than most are willing to travel unless you are spending the night and continuing on towards the lake to camp.
We did begin to see a few campers after the Twisted Sisters Falls- seriously there are some awesome campsites tucked back on the shores of the river. By the time we reached these sites, it was about 9 am and most of the campers were waking up, cooking breakfast or packing up their tents to continue on their journey.
After these few run ins with civilization again, we came to a big Y which was NEVER mentioned in any of the reviews I read. So, naturally I assumed the way to the lake was the well worn path that fed into the one we were already on and NOT the one that wasn’t labeled and headed directly uphill… In case you want to go to the lake GO LEFT here!
WIthout taking my aforementioned advice, we continued right and thought we were on our merry way to the lake. Each of us was wearing a FitBit and knew the lake should be around mile 13. With that in mind we hiked two more hours before coming to another unmarked, unclear impasse. We forded across the creek and what look like a trail veered sharply up to the right, but there was another less pronounced trail that traveled along the creek and had an orange ribbon tied to a few branches a few feet in. Unsure as to whether that was a “do not cross” or a “go this way” sign we continued to the right and began my least favorite part of the whole hike.
We began climbing straight up. There is a 4,700 ft elevation gain on this hike and I promise 4,000 of this had to be on this portion of the trail. This is the portion I started freaking out inside. I kept wondering if we were on the right trail at this point. The trail gets eerie. I mean creepily eerie. You begin climbing a series of what seemed like millions of switchbacks through a strange dead forest. It probably didn’t help that a dense fog traveled in while hiking this section and created a strange vibe. I even commented to my friend at this point about the lack of forest noises. At this point we stopped and had a second snack while we both lamented about the possibility of being on the wrong track and keeping in the back of our minds we would have to travel back this same way after we reached the lake.
When we began getting close to the 12 and 13 mile markers on our FitBit both of us began getting extra nervous. We hadn’t seen ANYONE on this portion of the trail and we still weren’t sure we were heading the correct way (in all the reviews I read no one mentioned a hike through a dead woods or millions of straight up switchbacks…)
After we passed 13 miles according to my FitBit, I’ll admit a strange panic set in. Was this the right way? When do we stop and give up on the lake and head back? That’s when I saw the most glorious site. Another individual appearing out of the fog. I waved him down and this glorious stranger actually had a map. I knew as soon as I mentioned the lake and he had no idea what I was talking about we were off-course. He let us take a peek at his map and we quickly found out we missed the turn-off for the lake about 3 miles earlier… the path with no sign heading what seemed off the beaten path…yeah, that was the way we were supposed to go. However, he showed us the trail we were on was an actual loop which added an extra mile onto our hike. If we kept on the “main trail” it would loop back around to the Eagle Creek Trailhead Parking lot.
I was pretty jubilant at this news. I did not want to have to hike back out the way we had just came. It was after our run in with Mr.Map Man that we decided to eat lunch.. and the rain began to start.
Mind you we were only around mile 14 when it began, and I had only threw in a single rain jacket just in case. My sweet friend didn’t do the same..
We ate our lunch feeling satisfied that at least now we were heading on a “known path” and feeling pretty confident that the rain was just passing through.
The rain only got worse as we proceeded. I should also mention at this point, I wasn’t hiking in boots. I was hiking in my Asics running shoes, which by mile 16 were completely soaked through and my socks didn’t stand a chance. We hiked on at this point, a little bit quicker for warmth. I wish I could tell you more about the awesome views, but I never saw them. The mountain was completely socked in fog.
There is something magical though I do have to admit about the mountains, fog and tons of rain….
Another 3 hours in and we hadn’t seen anyone minus Mr.Map Man and again we got the feeling that somehow we were off the trail and heading into the abyss. Again, that’s when we ran into the “Tarp People.” These people had obviously came a little more prepared than us and had their entire packs and heads covered with tarps. I tried not to laugh as we passed the “hermits”.
We came to another trailsign that was marked Tanner Springs. Having only glanced at Mr.Map’s map, I convinved myself that maybe he said Tanner Springs. We stopped and hiked back to where the “hermits” were to see whether they had a clue as to where we were. They seemed pretty taken aback that we had made it this far in a single day and seemed totally unprepared (my bad). They had been making the trek from the same spot over the past few days. After reviewing a picture of a map one of the hermits had on her camera, our new group decided that Tanner Springs was the way to go. DON’T GO THIS WAY. It ended up leading to a campsite and a trail to the springs which abruptly ended. After another mile out of our way, we continued past the Tanner Creek sign and sent good thoughts to the Trail God’s that hopefully we were headed the right way.
After another long hour hoping we were heading the right way and seeing no people, panic again set in. We couldn’t turn around now if this was the wrong way, because we would never make it back the 18 miles we had just come before dark. And we were soaking wet. And had no cell service the last six hours.
That’s when another group appeared out of the fog. Two men and two HUGE dogs. They approached us cautiously with their two dogs and my excitement at seeing two people threw them off. They had come from another trailhead I didn’t recognize, but said they knew the route we were headed and laughed as they left us with “you still got about ten miles!” (I know they took a look at our total unpreparedness, lack of packs, or maps and hilarious footwear and thought we had no chance.)
Again, we hiked on feeling better that we were on the right path. We just had to stay on the “main trail” and we’d make it back to the car. At this point fear kept creeping back into my head about the constant timeline… If we didn’t make it to the end before dark we may be seriously screwed.
Continuing down the trail, we ran into more trouble when we hit another sign that played mind tricks with us. Someone had bent the sign outward so one pointed at another direction (Tanner Creek Cutoff) and Dublin Lake. There was no sign that mentioned we were still on the main Tanner Butte Trail, but we took our chances and continued straight past both trails, which ended up being a very wise decision.
Finally we ended up heading downhill and several switchbacks later and began hearing more noise. I couldn’t tell you what was out there, but I think we were somewhere above the freeway at the gorge, because I felt like I could hear “human noises” again in the far off distance. As we descended this trail, we finally came to another trailhead (I can’t for the life of me remember it’s name) and headed downhill (take a right) that was an old logging road. This eventually meets up with the Gorge Trail #440. If you reach this point, it again is a little confusing, take the high trail. There’s two options and neither is clearly marked. We stayed along this trail for another 3-4 miles and finally ended up back in the parking lot we came from, at a totally different trailhead (the bridge trailhead in the Eagle Creek parking lot).
11 1/2 hours later we were completely toasted.
I can’t tell you how good it felt to immediately strip off my soaking wet clothes and shoes and rev the heat in my jeep.
Oh and seeing actual human beings again.
My FitBit said we ended up traveling 25.95 miles and 62,273 steps. My mileage is always under by a few miles and most reviews I’ve read on the loop mention that it’s more likely 28 miles.
I felt utterly exhausted at the end but completely exhilarated. Listen, I know I’m not a true backpacker or hiker, but completing that mileage in one day felt incredible! It’s an amazing feeling to know that you can do it. Would I do it again? ABSOLUTELY. I’ve learned a few things for my next attempt:
- I need to buy hiking boots! Waterproof hiking boots.
- I should always print a map and have directions.
- Bring a headlamp!
- A rain jacket is essential every trip.
- World Gym’s backpack is not waterproof- meaning everything inside will be soaked.
- Travel with a friend as awesome as mine. It’s easy to get inside your head and freak yourself out when your that far from civilization and having another level-headed, physically capable friend makes a world of difference.
These directions are extremely helpful when out there hiking & I highly recommend you PRINT THEM off so as you’re hiking you can refer to them.