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Monday, June 11, 2007

The Road to Cloud Cap Trailhead

I was lured to the Cloud Cap Trailhead with promises of time travel back to the ice age. The information I read on the internet from the Portland Hikers field guide (an excellent hiking resource!) promised spectacular views of Eliot Glacier from high atop Cooper Spur. The time travel part comes into play if one can imagine Mt. Hood’s most massive captive river-of-ice escaping its high altitude prison and joining its northern siblings in a steady southern migration. An ice age.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see Eliot Glacier, which is why this blog entry is called only the Road to Cloud Cap Trailhead instead of Cooper Spur Hike or Eliot Moraine Hike. I’m an idiot, but don’t take my word for it. Read on and see for yourself.

The instructions to the trailhead(s) were simple enough. Go to Hood River. Take highway 35 south. Follow any signs that mention Cooper Spur Ski resort, then follow Cloud Cap Road to the trailhead area. Cloud Cap Road is a mostly dirt road of about nine miles worth of switchbacks to about the 6000 foot level of Mt. Hood.

I’d only gone what felt like a couple of miles before I turned a broad corner and came to a sudden stop before a solid looking gate stretched across the road. It had a sign on it that proclaimed in no uncertain terms “CLOSED”.

“Damn it!” I said.

I parked at the edge of the turn-around area and surveyed the situation. I hadn’t kept track of my mileage since turning off on Cloud Cap Road, so I wasn’t sure how far it was to the trailhead. Although the weather report indicated that it was supposed to be sunny in Hood River, the clouds hadn’t yet really permitted a glimpse of the mountain anywhere above 7000 feet. At the outside edge of the road was a heavy duty brown guard-rail, protecting cars from, I assumed, accidentally plunging over the side of the road into a canyon. I finally noticed a little carved wooden sign that said Inspiration Point. From the road, I couldn’t see anything very inspiring, but, feeling the need to be inspired, I ducked under the guard-rail to follow an informal looking trail down to an outcropping of jagged cracking rocks.

From this new vantage point, I could see a steep canyon spread out before me. Going with the time travel motif, I imagined it was a land that time forgot and I quickly scanned the area for signs of wooly mammoth.

Up the canyon, I could see water from the glacier cascading over an abrupt cliff to the canyon floor (As near as I can figure, this is probably Wallalute Falls). Sloppy wet clouds, on their way up the valley, brushed by me riding winds from the west as if following unsafe roller coaster tracks, periodically blocking my view. Though the clouds promised rain, I decided that, as long as I had come this far already, I might as well hike in as far as I could go and see what else there was to see.

I put my pack on, walked around the gate and headed on up Cloud Cap Road.

A ghost forest along the Cloud Cap Road

One thing I decided, as I plodded along the road, was that if I should die I would want to be awfully sure not to come back as a tree that has to live close to the timberline.

I’m not sure about the dynamics involved, but the result is trees shedding their bark like snakes shed their skins, except I think in the case of trees it is fatal. In the wintertime, these trees are mostly buried in snow and frozen. Maybe the trees expand and contract with temperature - freeze and thaw - until their bark just sloughs off. Maybe they are struck by lightning. Maybe they get pulverized by avalanches. Maybe it is damage caused by bugs. Regardless, the environment close to the timberline is harsh.

“I’ve learned at times it’s best to bend ‘cause if you don’t, well those are the breaks” - Jim Croce

Bigfoot’s children decorate with environment friendly tinsel.

Unexpected Springtime Colors

Some trees seemed to be doing O.K. while others were clearly having difficulties. In this image, it looks like a particular species of tree is better fitted for its environment. But much also seems to depend on accidents of location and timing. In his book The Ascent of Mind: Ice Age Climates and the Evolution of Intelligence, neurobiologist William H. Calvin notes that three remarkable things happened within a moment of geologic time some 2.5 million years ago. 1. Our ancestors who were already walking upright also became prolific toolmakers. 2. The early human brain experienced a fourfold increase in size. 3. These developments occurred as ice ages repeatedly cooled the Earth. Calvin’s book reflects his search for an explanation to show how these three factors might be related.

Walking through a landscape that might reflect living at the edge of a glacier, I’m keenly aware that the weather here can change quickly and violently and that the bodies of at least two experienced climbers, lost last winter, have still not been found.

My first indication that I might not be fit for survival in this environment was the unexpected sound of a motor vehicle advancing on me from behind. I step to the side of the road to watch a family in a small white station wagon zip by.

“Damn it!” I said.

How did they get past the gate?
Maybe they have a key. Maybe they do some kind of maintenance at the Cloud Cap Inn. They don’t stop and soon the sound of their car fades away and I am left alone again continuing my slow slog to the trailhead.

Some time later, I hear the little station wagon returning. It stops next to me and I approach the driver as he rolls down his window.
“How did you get past the gate?” I ask him.
“It isn’t locked,” he said, “There’s a long way to go and the road’s blocked by snow.” Then he added, “Well at least it’s a nice day for a walk.”

As the little car disappeared down around a corner, it started to pour down rain.

The north face of Mt. Hood obscured by clouds as seen from Cloud Cap Inn

The clouds hang so low that I have a hard time identifying mountain landmarks.

Welcome to Cloud Cap Inn

Cloud-condensate nurturing future hearty mountain flowers.

New candidates for survival.

For more information on the ice-age evolution of intelligence, visit William H. Calvin's web site at :


  1. The closed-yet-unlocked gate that nevertheless changed your day is an interesting metaphor.

    Breathtakingly beautiful images. Thank you, Scott.

  2. Oh, I also meant to say that William Calvin has some interesting things to say as part of the Third Culture gang at

    For example, his reply to this year's question in the World Question Center on Edge:

  3. Rob me of another triple again by not clearing third base and I will kill you.
    Love, Your Sister.


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