It has been a while since I have had a chance to sit and write: days have been elbow deep in sick kids, hysterical Portland snow and lots of work pushing my business, Cnoc Outdoors, to the next step. Because of all this, I also failed to even go hiking, but I still have a lingering taste from my last overnight trip: Eagle Creek in winter snow. This trip was a combination of two things I had wanted to do for a while: backpacking in Eagle Creek, and winter backpacking (solo). I want to go over those two points before a little trip report:
Eagle Creek Trail
Eagle Creek is probably one of the most famous and popular hikes in Oregon (if not the whole PNW) and because of that, one of the busiest. Trying to do an overnight trip here is rarely a treat if you are looking for some peace and quiet. The trail starts (or ends) at the Eagle Creek trailhead, just off the I-84, and heads north until meeting the PCT near Lake Wahtum. The best and most precise trail description that I have found comes from the Forest Service:
This trail begins at Eagle Creek Campground and ends at Wahtum Lake. From Eagle Creek Overlook (120’) the trail climbs gradually southeast following Eagle Creek. After 2 miles the trail reaches spectacular Punch Bowl Falls (500’), where water spills 100 feet into a blue-green pool set in a large grotto. The trail continues following Eagle Creek under heavy forest 1.6 miles to High Bridge (560’), which traverses the gorge 150 feet above the creek. From High Bridge the trail heads southeast 1.4 miles, enters the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness, and continues 0.4 mile to the junction with Eagle Benson Trail #434. From the junction the trail climbs 0.8 mile to Tunnel Falls (1,240’), where the trail passes through a tunnel behind a shower of falling water. Continuing along Eagle Creek, the trail heads due south 1.6 miles to the junction with Eagle Tanner Trail #433 (1,560’). The trail leaves Eagle Creek at this junction and heads northeast. The trail climbs around a ridge above East Fork Eagle Creek after 2 miles and begins to turn south. 0.1 mile after turning south, the trail reaches the junction with Indian Springs Trail #435 (2,560’). Turn left (east) to stay on #440 and continue climbing 6 miles to the trails end at the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail #2000 near Wahtum Lake (3,800’). Follow #2000 along the south shore of Wahtum Lake to reach the parking area near Wahtum Lake Campground.
If you want to plan a trip along this trail, Oregon Hikers have a very good selection of recommended trails that start at the Eagle Creek trailhead – just follow the links.
The reason that it is such a popular trail is the combination of easy access along the I-84 (45 minutes drive from Portland), a pretty straight forward trail on the ground and an abundance of waterfalls along the way. The highlights are the cliff drops in the first couple of miles (above and below), Punch Bowl Falls, High Bridge, Tunnel falls, Twister falls and many other smaller (some un-named) waterfalls along the way. This popularity brings about the full range of hikers on the trail, a mix of outdoors enthusiasts, Instagrammers, tourists, dog walkers, trail runners and even dirty thru-hikers off the PCT for a break – it really is varied.
I had never really, truly been out backpacking in deep snow: I grew up in Israel (aka, no snow) and moved from there to London. The few winter trips I had were in northern England when there was never much snow and in my travels I always camped below snow level, so I was keen to try it. This year (winter 2016-17), saw more snow than the usual in Oregon, so it was the perfect time to try it. I wanted to test my comfort level and gear to see how adjustable I would be in snow and very cold conditions.
It was, for me, a chance to also test a new sleeping pad I’m developing for my company and sleeping on snow was the perfect testing environment.
For some really good reads about winter backpacking, I like Paul Magnanti’s post about winter backpacking – it’s comprehensive and clear. As a whole, there is not much to do to move from 3 seasons to 4 seasons preparedness: thicker clothing and sleeping bag for the static time, better insulation from the ground (sleeping pad and boots) and that is about it, maybe a few more calories and some more entertainment for the long dark nights.
Backpacking Eagle Creek in winter
My original trip plan was to drive up to Wahtum Lake trailhead just above Hood River, hike 5-6 miles to Benson plateau, set camp and explore about with lots of time for photo shooting and testing gear. I set off on my adventure after dropping the kids at nursery, driving our standard VW Sportswagon – not a winter-ready car in any way – and when I reached the last road to the trailhead, I found 4 feet of snow on the road so I had to change my plan. I turned around and headed to the Eagle Creek trailhead. I finally managed to park, fill my permit ($5 to park your car) and start walking at 11:30 – later than planned.
The trail started muddy and icy at times but mostly clear and easy to walk. I had my Kathoola Nanospikes on and they worked perfectly over my Inov8s on the mixed trail. The walk to Punch Bowl Falls was very straightforward: clear and wide path with many people still occupying it, a few icy patches where water was dripping down from the cliffs above the trail, but besides that an easy and comfortable forest walk. From Punch Bowl (I didn’t go down to the base) the snow got a bit deeper but was still patchy; you could see where the accumulation from the wind and the lack of sunlight would make it deeper later on if it snowed. I continued at a less brisk pace, enjoying the new trail and the amazing falls along the way, meeting fewer and fewer hikers (which also means the ones I did encounter were friendlier). A bit further on, just past Metlako Falls, the bridge over Tish Creek were damaged due to heavy rains in spring 2016, which meant that past that bridge I was probably going to be by myself.
Crossing Tish bridge carefully as it was a mix of wet, icy and rocky, I managed to get one foot wet (and suddenly realized I forgot my Goretex liners). Just on the other side, I met a group of elderly hikers coming back from Tunnel falls, all of whom had traction devices. After that group I had the trail pretty much to myself, wading through 2-3 feet of snow that was part pressed and part powder, seeing semi-frozen falls and snow-heavy trees. At parts where the trail naturally is narrow and potentially slippery, the snow had accumulated, making for a very narrow area to walk on the inside of the trail (near the cliffs) where someone else had already created steps. Using the railings that are bolted to the rock and my spikes, I managed to cross a couple of those sections and decided to upgrade my traction system to the Pogu Trail Ice Spikes. After the switch I felt more confident on the trail, passing the high bridge and getting into deeper snow. Just before entering the Hatfield Wilderness I met a young Russian man who seemed a bit lost and unprepared for the area, it was about 14:30 so I sent him back the 5.5 miles to the trailhead to make sure he didn’t get lost in the dark.
From there it was again a mixed trail of mud and snow up to Tunnel falls, easy walking in the dropping temperatures of the afternoon – the trail was empty. Tunnel falls are amazing and I had to walk carefully due to the chunks of ice around the tunnel’s entrance and exit. After turning the curve I stopped for a bit to admire the falls and take a few pictures and noticed that I had started losing feeling in my feet, not a good sign. Right after the falls there is another small stream and from here it was virgin snow all for me, the footprints having disappeared and I had to break trail. The forest got darker and I kept on pushing it, wondering if I could make it to Benson. I walked further until about 16:00, reaching the junction with trail #433 and realizing I wouldn’t get to the top in such deep snow (it was about 4-6 feet by then), so I turned around to look for the 7.5 mile camp site.
The site is a relatively small one that, in summer, gets full very early; but that night it was completely empty. I set up my Trailstar, got my gear out and made 3 or 4 cups of green tea to warm up and wash down the biscuits. With no cell reception, I opted to just change into my warm tights and socks and jump into my sleeping bag. I quickly found that my sleeping bag wouldn’t be as warm as I needed it to be (upgrade needed) and that my test mat needs more insulation. Luckily I also had a Thermarest Z-lite Sol with me. It was a quiet night of some star gazing, reading, dinner and more reading. I had a quiet and peaceful night in the snow, and despite the need for a warmer bag, slept soundly (new parents always do…).
The morning was cold but sunny so I quickly packed up, had a quick coffee and energy bar and was on my way back. The sun was shining through and the trail was much icier than the day before, with the area around Twister falls being pretty much a sheet of ice. I encountered the first hikers around Punch Bowl Falls and had a chat with a couple of locals a bit further on, about a huge chunk of land that got swept away in the last storm: the lookout to Metlako falls is gone.
After this chat I was mainly focused on getting to the car and heading home: I was hungry and in need of more coffee. A bit before returning to the trailhead, the trail is narrow with sheer cliffs below and above the trail. This is a beautiful part of the trail where you must walk under the dripping water, making it magical and very, very cold when icy. That morning the whole section was one long ice sheet and it prevented a great number of hikers and walkers reaching the falls. I made my way easily to find a human traffic jam from the ice to the trailhead. With the Pogu spikes on, I just easily overtook the slow (and unprepared) hikers to find my car sitting patiently and fully covered in a thick layer of frost. After a bit of scraping with the base plate of my compass (multi-use!), I was off to home.
All and all I had a great experience, enjoying Eagle Creek mainly to myself and getting to do some winter backpacking in a relatively safe area. I used a combination of printed maps from Caltopo (you can download the PDF here) and saving the pdfs on my phone – this combination worked well.
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