I’m going out for a little solo backpacking trip to the Mount Hood Wilderness. I picked my destination the other day by flipping through a book I bought last spring called One Night Wilderness: Portland, looking for anything likely to be open and accessible in late May with a “solitude” rating high enough that even on Memorial Day weekend I’ll feel like I’m actually hiking solo. I stopped when I got to the page for Ramona Falls and Yocum Ridge. About Yocum Ridge, my book repeats “alpine wonderland” at least twice — my favorite kind of wilderness. About Ramona Falls, the Oregon Hikers Field Guide (one of my favorite local resources) has this to say: “It doesn’t matter how many people there are on the busiest summer weekend, you can still find a spot to camp with some sort of solitude.” Sounds perfect to me, despite the open season for Yocum Ridge being listed as beginning in late July — I’ll figure out what to do about the snow when I get to the snow. I even toss some cloth snow “stakes” into my pack.
It’s past noon when I leave town, and around two o’clock when I finally shoulder my pack and start up the trail. There are plenty of dayhikers, but just a couple other folks with large packs who clearly intend to camp. I show off for myself by catching and then passing them. “You gonna camp by the falls?” they ask.
“Maybe,” I answer cheerfully. “Or I might keep going and see how far I can get before I hit snow!”
The trail crosses the Sandy River, which carves out a wide, dry riverbed but is itself not so intimidating as I’d feared. There used to be a seasonal bridge across it, but in 2014 it washed out and drowned a hiker, and it hasn’t been replaced since. Instead, there are signs — the same sign, posted four times — detailing how to safely cross the glacial river, and how to know when not to attempt it. I’ve seen kids and dogs coming back towards me from the falls, which is reassuring, and when I finally get to the river, I have a couple big logs to choose from that I can cross on. The river itself is probably only knee-deep (I think back to the Mount Hood Scramble I did last June with my mom — knee deep is a piece of cake!), but it’s nice to be able to keep my feet dry. I undo the hip and sternum buckles on my pack and tight-rope-walk across. Easy peasy.
I follow the trail, lined with logs and rocks, across the sandy wash to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. It gives me totally irrational warm-fuzzies to be on the PCT even for short stretches. Someday I’ll hike the whole thing for real! In the meantime I’ll hike all the little pieces of it within a couple hours’ drive of Portland. I smile big and head down the trail paralleling the river.
At the next junction I turn away from the river, off the PCT and onto the Timberline Trail. In short order I hear, and then see, Ramona Falls through the trees. The falls is beautiful and huge and somehow sort of glowing in the afternoon light. I put my pack down and go down to the creek below the falls to get some water to refill my bottle. While I’m filtering it and snacking, two separate hikers ask me if I’m a PCT hiker. Aww. One of them has done a couple sections in Oregon; we chat for a few minutes and compare notes.
Watered and fed, I continue up the Timberline Trail towards the junction for the Yocum Ridge Trail 0.7 miles up. From this point on, I do not see a single other soul. Once I leave the falls behind, it is very quiet.
The Yocum Ridge Trail has not seen much — if any — maintenance since whatever winter storms blew through here. There are lots of blowdowns, some of which I climb over, some of which I crawl under, and a few of which I have to go off trail to navigate around. I am alone up here, for very sure. Every sound I hear makes me stop in my tracks and listen closely — and imagine, of course, the cougar standing stock still in the woods beside or behind me, waiting for me to move again.
Eventually I start to hear another noise, unmistakeable — a cacophony of frogs. There’s a little pond on my map, but it’s still a ways away. The sound fades in and out as I switchback slowly up towards it, and then I see it through the trees. I pick my way towards the shore, and as I do, the frogs go silent one by one, until there’s just one frog ribbit-ribbit-ribbitting while I stand on the shore. Then the last frog figures out I’m there and shuts the heck up, and it’s quiet again. I walk away and expect the frogs to start up again, but they stay quiet; I won’t hear them again. As I walk next to the pond on the trail, I look for a cougar pacing on the far shore. It’s not there, of course.
After the pond, my book tells me, is where the scenery get good. The forests open up and transform into meadow. There are great views, I read. But it turns out that after the pond is the snow. I see a few patches next to the trail, and then a patch across the trail — with footsteps! Turns out I’m not the first person up here this season; I’m the second. Then there’s a bigger patch of snow. My predecessor’s tracks continue across it, then double back and go off to the left instead. I follow them first in one direction and then in the other. I can’t figure out where the trail goes from here, and with this story fresh in my mind, I decide this is as far as I go. Oh well.
It’s about 5:30 at this point. I could maybe camp up here. I’ve passed a few flat spots, and I haven’t touched the two-liter water bladder I filled up at the falls. But I’ve got a couple hours of daylight left, and I’m daydreaming about drinking my coffee tomorrow morning with a view of the falls. And mostly I’m scared to be alone up here in the deep, quiet, chilly woods.
Alone is the wrong word. There are frogs and birds and I see animal tracks crossing one of the patches of snow — herbivore, on examination, and I’m relieved. I feel a strange and unwelcome xenophobia in the wilderness. I would like to be unafraid, but I am not. “Wilderness” is so easy to love when it’s tamed, defined, seen in good noisy company on a sunny day, groomed, and well-signed. It’s harder to love when it’s unmaintained, dark, hard to follow, with wild animals going bump in the night. What does it mean, then, to be in the wilderness? I am always so excited to get out and be in it. And I am so often relieved to be out of it again when I come home.
So I turn around and head back down, back over and under and around all the blowdowns. The frogs are still silent when I pass the pond. I think about my fear and I decide that, damnit, I’m gonna cowboy camp tonight (without a tent). I’ve never cowboy camped alone or in the wilderness.
I make it back down to Ramona Falls by seven and find a quiet, unoccupied campsite with a fire ring in the first place I look. When I explore a bit more, I spot a tent on a little rise a few hundred feet away, the perfect comfortable distance. I’ll sleep well here. The falls thrums just out of sight. I lay out my bedroll (tyvek, sleeping pad, sleeping bag) and lean against a log near the fire ring to cook my freeze-dried dinner.
(it’s not a real adventure unless you bleed a little)
I finish sipping my hot chocolate not long before dark. I clean up and tie my bear bag to a tree, then look up at the sky. It’s a little overcast, and the dusk air is full of curious insects. So, okay, I pitch my tent. I leave the side “doors” open, though. I sleep well. I get up to pee at five and get up to greet the day at 8:30.
And yep, I sure do eat my oats and drink my coffee with a gorgeous waterfall view.
When I tried to shorten my trekking poles when I took down my tent this morning (I extend them to 125cm or so to pitch my tent, and like to hike with them at about 107cm), one of them wouldn’t lock at the shorter length. This happened once last year on the PCT, and J/Backup was able to fix it with my multi-tool. I can’t remember what he did exactly, but I’ll be just fine with just one pole today anyway. I strap the other one to my pack and and head out. The Ramona Falls trail is a loop, with one trail (the trail I took yesterday) following the Sandy River, and the other trail following Ramona Creek. I head out along Ramona Creek, and oh my goodness is it bonkers beautiful. Lush and green, criss-crossing the pretty creek, with a colorful cliff through the trees to the right.
I linger, stopping to take photos of beetles and mosses. I cross the creek on a log and do some boulder-hopping for kicks.
Soon I’m at another junction with the PCT, and I turn towards the Sandy River again. I cross on a different log, this one with another log balanced above it that I watch a guy crossing towards me use as a handrail of sorts. It turns out he’s taller than me, but I make it across with a few variations on his technique.
The last bit of trail goes fast. I pass lots of dayhikers heading in, and then there’s the parking lot in the distance. I open up the hatchback of my car, throw my pack inside, and hit the road towards home.
why Ramona Falls would make a great first backpacking trip or first solo overnight
It’s logistically simple. The trailhead is just a little over an hour from Portland, and the road in is, though narrow and potholed, well-signed and mostly paved. There is a huge (unpaved) parking area — and I mean huge. You just need a Northwest Forest Pass — I didn’t check to see if they could be purchased at the trailhead, but if you hike often around here you probably have one anyway. You don’t need a permit in advance to hike or camp; you can just fill one out at the wilderness boundary a short distance from the trailhead. There is water in abundance, so you don’t need to worry about carrying a lot of it. There are plenty of established campsites and, in the event of a crowded weekend (but, I mean, this was Memorial Day weekend and there was almost no one there, so how crowded can it get?), even more spots that would work in a pinch.
It’s just a little challenging. The Sandy River crossing is the “off” to the rest of the trail’s “beaten path.”
It is, as mentioned, bonkers beautiful. Ramona Falls itself is gorgeous, and the trail along Ramona Creek is really, really lovely.
There’s more to explore. If you have extra energy or want more, you could hike in almost any direction pretty much indefinitely. Maybe take the PCT or the Timberline Trail north to Bald Mountain (I kinda wish I’d done this)? Or south to Paradise Park? Or head up towards Yocum Ridge, like I did.
I will definitely be back!