Almost exactly two years ago I teamed up with an ultra buddy and ran the 92-mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier. The three-day adventure was tough, scenic and filled with almost every terrain possible. When photos of the shorter (and dare I say more scenic) Timberline Trail started filling my social feed, I knew I needed to plan an outing on the 42-mile route.
The opportunity came yesterday. While working remotely from the wind capital of the US, Hood River, I invited my friend Nick down for a run. With Hood just an hour away, it would be the perfect basecamp for an early morning departure.
Saturday's alarm clock ran all too early. We soothed out sleepy eyes with instant coffee and upbeat Spotify tracks. We arrived at the Timberline Lodge parking lot, just as the sun was welcoming the day. The air temperature was in the 60s, perfect running weather and respite from the 100s down at sea level.
And we were off.
Nick and I got varying advice on which direct to run the Timberline Trail. Some runners said clockwise. Others recommended taking the loop in the counter direction. We took the latter after getting a strong recommendation from another ultrarunner at the trailhead.
The first ten miles were a great introduction to the trail. Despite the weather being hot and smokey from a B.C. fire down below and presumptively driving hikers up the mountain, we saw relatively few day hikers out and about. At just past ten miles we met two men in their 50s who were running the circuit as part of a eight-man team for a fundraiser. We chatting for a mile and admired the views from the highpoint of trail of just over 7,200ft.
After awkwardly crossing a few snow fields, we descending into the forest, a mix of lush green growth and charred trees expressing the best of heaven and hell, just feet apart.
While the trails were sandy and each water crossing offered little solid footing to cross with dry socks, Nick and I made progress and our spirits were high enough to take photos and goof around. This changed on the east side of the mountain when we ran out of water. While we had been filling our bottles from numerous streams and waterfalls dotting the trail, our bottles ran dry while climbing from mile 18-20. We kept our senses, but the sun was now bright above our heads and we knew getting to another stream was a priority. Luckily after a few miles, our refreshing wishes were granted by the trail gods.
We crossed a giant void where the trail dropped off into a 75' gully, cut across the mostly-dry river basin and climbed back up a scree and sand embankment. We didn't have a trail. We just had our hands and feet, so we climbed up the wall of dust, eventually topping out and finding what looked like the Timberline again by using Gaia GPS and a stored GPX file I had on my phone. Bonkers.
From mile 21 - 32 we descended 2,200' in a steady run as the trail switchbacked down and around an arm of the mountain. I HATE going downhill on a circumnavigation route because I know that I'll have to pay for every foot I drop.
And we did.
On the way back up we hit a solid six mile stretch without water and again both Nick and my bottles ran dry. I grew grumpy and hot, but tried to stay calm and proceed forward. This part of the trail overlapped on the PCT and we saw dozens of northbound PCT hikers who looked strong and trail-hardened. If anything, I didn't want to loose my cool in front of these titans. One passed me and offered inspiring words.
"Good water is about a mile and half away."
Magic to my ears. While I was moving slowly, I now had hope.
Eventually I crawled to the water source just past Paradise Park where both Nick and I slurped down water and refilled out bottles. We would live another day I guess.
The last four miles were tough as expected, but both Nick and I knew we would be making it back before sunset. In total my watch read 41.7 miles and 9,505' elevation gain/loss and 84,000 steps. This adventure took 13:32 to complete.