Mount Hood’s Worst-Kept Secret

I’m on vacation right now, finding new places to walk. This week, instead of a new piece, you’re reading the ultimate flashback. This is the very first Trail A Week essay I wrote, months before the project itself began. It’s been edited since, but remains essentially in its original form.

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I’d been a Portland resident for ten years before I made it to Mirror Lake. One of the few Mt Hood trails immediately accessible from the highway, this one has the reputation of being relatively short, relatively easy, and stunningly rewarding for so little sweat expended. It’s also on the main route up to Timberline, and every time I pass it, there are two dozen cars clustered at the trailhead, with a couple of new arrivals jockeying for space. I’ve never been tempted.

The day before I decided to chance it, I’d been flipping through my battered, graffitied copy of Afoot & Afield Portland/Vancouver, which I bought the year I moved here, and in spite of a more recent edition, have loved too much to replace. I was thinking about filling in some of those blank spots on my mental map. I don’t choose hikes at random, but I don’t often choose them rationally, either. I page through a few, in my head or in the book, and I sort of watch to see where my thoughts settle. Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes more. Anticipation is the first pleasure of travel.

CampCreekMirrorLake

We started out from Portland in the clear, and drove into full rain by Sandy. Further up the mountain, it softened into mist. Perhaps the weather had driven away the usual crowds. The trailhead, occupied by a single lonely station wagon, sat unobtrusively on the side of a mountain that disappeared every few moments into a lazily drifting white fog. There’s a shouty little creek that clatters past beneath a thick growth of salix. This morning, it gave the impression of disturbing a vast silence. To reach the trail, you cross a classic log bridge over this excitable presence, and immediately, you’re swallowed whole by the trees.

They’re huge. Well, let me qualify that. I don’t think there’s a lot of old growth here, and the hemlocks and cedars around us weren’t physically any larger than average. But as a group, they had weight, and their quiet had its own texture. Black-trunked in the dripping fog, they shushed Camp Creek’s whitewater chatter like a librarian to an over-loud child. On a bright summer day, I imagine they’re less imposing. Few mere trees have the power to overawe dozens of sun-drunk humans clamoring to get to a pretty mountain lake.

Speaking of which, it’s only about a mile and a half in. The trail, as promised, is well-graded, though not so wide that I’d feel comfortable here at noon on a busy Saturday. The walk up is pleasant at a steady, conversation-friendly pace, and the walk down is easy on the joints. The forests are friendly throughout: open enough that you never feel claustrophobic, and opening every so often onto tumbled slopes with views of yet more forest.

The lake itself promises a postcard-pretty view of Mt Hood. This is something I’m still taking on faith: on the day of our visit, there was no view at all. We just barely saw the water.

MirrorLakeInFog

Mirror Lake is quite small, a fact revealed only once, at a chance break in the thickening fog. On a clear day, I have no doubt it’s regulation Pacific Northwest beautiful, complete with mountain view. This gray May morning, it may not have graced any calendars, but the clear waters lapping almost imperceptibly at the pebbly shore, the greening salix bright against the gray, and the massed conifers standing half-seen watch around the rim gave a feeling of inward discovery.

It took perhaps ten minutes to pick our way around the lake on the boardwalks installed to protect it from hundreds of enthusiastic boots. We spoke at our normal volume, confident of our solitude, until my husband picked a faded orange tent out of the branchy jumble near  the shore. I can only hope the occupants of the station wagon were away at the time, or else enjoyed rolling their eyes at our volubility on the history and practice of marriage.

The moment when you realize you haven’t been alone at all in the wilderness is a vulnerable one. Sometimes it’s a relief, sometimes an annoyance, or a source of unease. This time it shamed us, and as our volume dropped, the mist slid in closer. This is where that ‘inward discovery’ shift happened. We spoke less, looked more, listened to our surroundings. Even regular contact with wilderness can’t make me keep this lesson; instead I learn it over and again, different every time.

The trail continues from the west shore up Tom Dick and Harry Mountain — a name that could benefit from a little punctuation. Excellent Cascade views are meant to be available from this slightly more difficult summit path, but with little hope of realizing them, we declined to continue. As always, Mt. Hood keeps a few secrets for next time.

MirrorLakeFoggyTrees

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Mirror Lake trailhead is located directly off Highway 26, between Milepost 51 and the town of Government Camp. The land is managed by Mt. Hood National Forest, and a National Forest Recreation Pass is required to park at the trailhead ($5/day.) Total hiking distance to and around the lake is less than 3.5 miles.

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