After several weeks of non-hiking adventures, Portland seemed to smile upon me and grant me a 48 degree rain-free forecast. My hiking boots were calling my name after hearing “no showers. These boots are the ones I learned I had to have after several hikes (longer than 10 miles) in tennis shoes. Don’t get me wrong, tennis shoes make superb shoes, as long as there’s no water, rain or otherwise…. The constant squishing of water between my wet socks and soaked shoes definitely puts a damper on any great hike.
In planning my Sunday adventures, I immediately began researching hikes longer than ten miles, but no more than 18, due to the shortened winter sunlight. Like most trails in these length ranges, the first three to four miles is pretty heavily traveled and easy to navigate, but once you pass that threshold, you’re typically on your own and roughing it. In a review of this loop, it did mention that the trail travels through one of the largest old growth forests in the Northwest and at some points becomes tough to point out the trail. Unfortunately, all I took out of this passage was “largest old growth forests” and proceeded without caution, only way too jazzed to explore these old woods.
With the planning commenced, Sunday arrived and I took to the mountains with one of my favorite adventure partners (who I should mention I’ve known since 6th grade in a small town in Idaho).
The trail head began at Oneonta Trail, directly off the Historic Columbia River Hwy. The trail head is well marked, it’s just past Horsetail falls (where many hikers cheat and take photos of the falls directly from the hwy #longhike) and directly after the Oneonta Gorge trail head. Leaving from Portland early, we hit the trail at 8:00 am and were the only humans we ran into on the trail for the first 12 miles…
It’s easy to believe you’re hiking through the lush rainforests in Hawaii for the first 3 or 4 miles. 50 shades of green make up most of the views, with no less than 8 waterfalls alongside the trail that heads up the side of Mt.Hood. These falls include the well traversed Horsetail, Ponytail and Triple Falls. Seriously, breathtaking views.
After Triple Falls, we crossed over two footbridges, the second being my absolute favorite. Standing on the second bridge, directly over the water beneath, it’s easy to take a big pause and remember how stunning life is as you take in the sweet mountain air.
Once across the two bridges, the trail sneaks up the mountain and we came to a portion of the trail that had been washed out by what looked like a pretty severe landslide or storm. Mel took the high road, sidestepping through some pretty slick undergrowth, while I proceeded to climb down onto some rocks that created a semi-trail to the other side of the washed out trail,where I had to use the support of some pretty tough roots to pull myself up the other steep ledge. Either way, we both made it to the other side and continued on the adventure… Perhaps this little event should have been a forewarning of the trail ahead, but of course neither of us took it that way. (It should be noted this hike was on January 24th, 2016 and trail conditions may have since changed).
Directly after this “diversion”, we came to another trail sign that either continued straight (Oneonta Trail, or Larch Mountain) or made a sharp left onto Bell Creek Loop-which was where we were headed. We turned left at the signs and immediately came across a raging river. Now, we did read about this “creek” that was mentioned in my “research.” The post discussed finding a shallow spot to cross, easiest when water levels are low, that will get you to the other side where the trail immediately snakes upward in sharp switchbacks. Ok, here’s the problem. We were exploring this area in January, when temperatures had just started warming, forcing the mountain snow to melt, which in turn runs down the mountain in these “creeks” forming RAGING rivers. If only I would have processed that information prior to setting out on this adventure; hey, you live and you learn.
Of course, at this point we were only about four miles in and the thought of turning around was not an option. That’s when the trail God’s obviously smiled down on us and proved that Mother Nature does take care of these trails. A felled tree crossed directly from one side of this raging creek to the other. Totally cross-able. As I straddled the log and scooted across the log making it to the other side, I firmly planted my hiking boots into hard ground and caught the breath I was holding the whole way across. Nothing like facing those little voices of fear. I regained my composure and waited for Mel to come across next. Several deep breaths and little scoots later, Mel was on the other side too. We both turned to each other and looked at our victory and the tree now climbing straight up to the other side of the trail. The same thought was said aloud by the both of us : “Thank goodness this is a loop- there’s no way we could get back to the other side now.”
Oh, foreshadowing, you’re such a sneaky little devil.
As we started up the steep switchbacks on the other side, we stumbled across more and more patches of snow. When at the top of the switchbacks, we finally came to another trail marker that continued straight for Nesmith Spur Road (3.3) miles or to the right for Bell Creek Loop (3.3 miles). We headed to the right.
I should mention this was the point where Mel changed tennis shoes because the others had gotten pretty wet traveling through some of the smaller waters that crossed the trails and snow patches. (His hiking boots had not yet arrived yet..)
Setting off to the the right, the old growth forest became more and more quiet and breathtakingly beautiful. I think all people need time in the quiet of nature. Conversations and thoughts flow easy without all the hectic distractions in the busy world. Striking out along the trail, I began noticing more and more snow, as well as more and more water flowing along the actual trail. Trekking on, after continuing on this portion for about 2 miles, I began becoming pretty concerned. The trail was becoming less and less an actual trail, but more of a creek with knee deep sections of snow to climb through. Leading the charge, I also began studiously searching for the trail, knowing only we were “probably” on the right path by the presence of cut logs.
As we plodded along through the snow and creek/trail, Mel’s second pair of wet tennis shoes began weighing on my mind. When he finally began mentioning the loss of feeling in one of his feet, I grew more and more concerned and began plodding along with the hopes that as we turned downhill, the snow and and creek would giveway to an actual trail again. As I came around a corner in the trail/creek, my heart sunk. I looked at my FitBit. We had only gone 2.8 miles since the last sign and it was already 1:30 in the afternoon. Looming around the corner was only more snow, and the sound of rushing water again with no cut-trees, or anything that slightly resembled a trail. I finally gave into my concern. “Mel, I think we need to turn around.”
Turning around seemed the only option at this point. I didn’t want to continue along the creek, in case the creek wasn’t really the trail at all anymore and we had finally run Tout of hours to make it back to the end of the trail by daylight. Continuing along the creek seemed reckless at this point, considering we didn’t have headlamps, fire-starting kits, or any just-in-case overnight gear. Plus, one of us had soaking wet feet and the temperatures would only drop overnight…
The idea to turn around was met by a mild-panic attack by Mel. Not only did we already feel semi-lost, but conditions were making me mildly nervous I mention this panic-attack,only because if you’re hiking with someone and they have a panic attack, you have to be the calm one. Two panicked hikers can only spell trouble and when you panic, you’re likely to make poor decisions and react versus think clearly about your safety. I took a few seconds to calm Mel (and secretly myself). “Take some deep breaths. We just have to keep an aggressive pace to get back and the good news is, we already know the trail we’ve came and we have our footprints to follow. Once we get back to the top, I have an extra pair of socks and you can throw on the other (now drier) set of shoes.”
We turned back. My only focus became on searching out our footprints through the snow. This was made difficult due to the fact that we had stayed along the edge of the trail/creek for portions and there were no prints along the water and undergrowth. A few times, I caught myself wondering if I had missed the trail we had came down only because I was following the water.
We made it back to the cutoff for the Nesmith Spur road quicker than I had anticipated, which was a big relief. Again, we reconvened here and talked through our options. We still had some good hours of daylight (although now a light Oregon mist began again) left. Mel got service at this point on his phone, so we were able to check out if the way back to the car would be quicker by taking the other trail. It wasn’t. Plus, I didn’t think going down another unknown trail was the smartest choice, I didn’t want to follow this path, finding out that it would be just as hard to follow as the one we had made it back from. We didn’t have the time to go a few more miles out of our way and make it back.
So we never made the Bell Creek Loop. We did however make it 7.1 miles out and another 7.1 back. 15.3 round trip and we ended up making it back before dark. (My biggest fear).
If you’re wondering about the log and getting back to the other side. We made it. The way up took way more upper body strength than I imagined. When we got back to this log, I didn’t give either of us a chance to question that we could make it back over. It really was the only option. So I jumped on the log and began pulling with my upper body and pushing myself along with my legs. I made it again, and then waited to pull Mel over once he reached the part where the tree was back on solid ground. The rest of the way back was a piece of cake. But here’s what I took away from this hike:
- When hiking in the late winter and earlier portion of spring wear waterproof hiking boots. (See mine here.)
- Always have a fire-starter kit and overnight cover just in case. (I’m purchasing before the next hiking adventure).
- Don’t play into fear. Take a deep breath and go for it. Crossing the log was scary and there was probably a lot of things that could have gone terribly wrong, but I did it. I did it without thinking about it and believe that if I would have stood there freaking out (like I semi-wanted to) we would have been there for hours. Go for it. Fear only becomes greater with time. Face it and get it over with.
- Taking an extra pair of socks is critical.
- The first four miles of any trail is well traveled. Go further than that and the trails immediately become more wild and you’ll stumble upon fewer human beings. So worth the extra miles! But during the late winter and early spring it also means it’s harder to find the traveled path, and when you can’t… don’t be afraid to cash it in and turn around..
- Or use a compass! Seriously would have helped my mind from wandering if I could have just said “well the trail will be in this direction” and at least known I was heading the right way. (Another must to add to my list of immediate adventure purchases).
- The Oregon Forest Services maintains the trails. For all the trails in the area, there are 2 (only two!!) individuals who do this during the winter months. The whole crew doesn’t begin again until March, so landslides and storms can knock out big portions of trails. ( I found this out when we stumbled upon a Forest Ranger cutting a tree down one mile from the starting trail head).
Like all my hikes, this one was an adventure that only added critical knowledge for the next adventures I’m planning. I do plan to try Bell Creek Loop again, probably in June when the run-off has run-off (pardon the pun) and makes the trail a little easier to follow.
Have any my fellow-adventurer’s done Bell Creek Loop?