I have hiked across the Zigzag crossing many times, from Timberline to Paradise Park and back. From the lookout on the side of the canyon and from the bottom, if you look towards Mount Hood, you’ll see the imposing cliffs of Mississippi Head. Recently I learned that a use path led from the top of Paradise Part, over the cliffs, above the top of Zigzag canyon, and back down to Timberline Lodge. This path, over Mississippi Head, is actually the shortest route from Timberline and Paradise Park.
The total roundtrip is only a little under 11 miles, and I’ve hiked the normal route to Paradise Park and back several times, which clocks in at around 12 miles. However, for this trip, I decided to make a Labor Day, overnight backpacking trip. I went with my hiking buddy John and decided to leave Hunter at home (sad eyes from him). However, it looked like a lot of this was going to be on scree and possibly some on snow. A little more preparation went into this trip. In addition to the standard gear for a September hike – we also took the following:
- Microspikes for traction on snow
- Self-arrest device – rather than an ice axe, we took a Black Diamond Whippet. I’ve read mixed reviews on these, however considering we were likely only to be crossing some fairly mild inclines, I decided that this was sufficient.
- GPS route – I got the GPS route from a poster on one of the Facebook groups.
Mississippi Head is the prominent set of cliffs on the Southwest side of Mount Hood. They notoriously form part of the Mount Hood Triangle. Climbers descending from Mount Hood on the southern routes, if they follow the fall line, will often find themselves descending towards Mississippi Head and Zigzag Canyon, rather than towards Timberline Lodge. Hiking this route, it became very evident why.
Mississippi Head is also known as the place of a plane crash, on April 21st, 1949. A B-26 en route from Hamilton Field, California, to Portland, crashed into Mississippi Head. One of the propellers from the aircraft is still on the mountain and this is one relic we had hoped to find. You can read an interesting assessment of the crash here.
On a lighter note, Matthias Giraud’s Ski / Parachute Jumped off Mississippi Head in 2008. You can find that jump on Youtube here.
Hiking to Paradise Park
I’ve made the hike to Paradise Park on many occasions. From Timberline Lodge, up the Paradise Park Trail, and from the Sandy River. It doesn’t matter how many times I have completed it – it’s one of my favorite trails. I’ve always been awestruck when you look up from the Zigzag look out and see the towering cliffs of Mississippi Head.
Being Labor Day weekend, we expected this to be busy. However, as it’s only a 6-mile hike from the Lodge to Paradise Park, we set out comparatively late. There were definitely many hikers out there – which is great to see. Many of them hiking the entire Timberline Trail. (Hopefully, they will fill out the first annual Timberline Trail Survey).
The wildflowers on Paradise Park were spectacular – maybe only a week passed their prime. Certainly, the Paradise Park Loop is a worthy detour from the standard Timberline Trail.
Spending the night above Split Rock
One of the results so far from the Timberline Trail Survey is that about a 1/4 of the time folks say that it’s difficult to find a campsite. This weekend could be the most challenging. However many folks also rely on the standard campsite information available. As long as you are following LNT – there are many opportunities to find campsites further afield. We passed Split Rock and found a couple of nice sites a couple of hundred more feet up towards Mount Hood. We ended up with a commanding view over Zigzag Mountain to the Southwest.
Water was just a few hundred yards away – with the start of a stream babbling directly out of the ground. The wildflowers were all the more intense in that area from the additional moisture. This was the very headwater of Rushing Water Creek, which eventually flows into the Sandy River on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
Spectacular sunset, a starry night, and an early rise
We had plenty of time to set up camp, fetch water, and have dinner. We chatted with a couple of other hikers and watched a couple of college kids practice their climbing skills on Split Rock. Slowly the sun began to set above a thin layer of cloud. A beautiful site indeed!
I was also determined to check out the stars. It was a clear and calm night, and quickly a few of the brightest stars appeared. Late in the night, I got up to try my hand at taking a few pictures. Looking over Mount Hood it was amazing how quickly I went from seeing a few hundred stars to seeing millions. Quickly a dense patch of stars formed the middle part of the Milky Way. Turning around the light pollution from Portland was a stark contrast.
Morning brought the awesome sight of the sun rising behind mount hood and then creating a shadow of Mount Hood across Zigzag mountain. As the sun slowly rose, the shadow descended into the Sany River, and eventually, the ray peeked over the cliffs of Mississippi Head.
Heading up to Mississippi Head
We packed up our camp and headed up towards Mississippi Head. Although there is no official trail, there is a relatively good use trail that ascends pretty much straight up the moraine. This is a fairly steep ascent. Overall we would gain around 2000 feet in the next 2 miles. The first 700 feet were just following the trail to the top of the moraine. This was about 0.7 miles. At the top of the moraine are a couple of waterfalls which are the headwaters of the Sandy river (I think!).
To the west, Yocum Ridge rises up. Mount St. Helens sits in the background. Yocum Ridge is a hike I haven’t yet completed and I hear that there is also a high route from the top of Yocum Ridge across to Paradise Park.
From our position, we then had to cross a short saddle. The use trail continued across the saddle – the terrain was super soft, the saddle was pretty wide and we were relatively quickly on the other side. On the left side of the saddle was the headwaters of the Sandy River and on the right side the start of a gentle canyon that eventually fades out into Paradise Park and forms part of the headwaters of Lost Creek.
Having crossed the saddle, we had the first piece of real navigation. We decided to follow a small snowfield. Traversing the snowfield was substantially easier than the soft sand. For the snow traverse, we used microspikes – which were definitely a necessity.
Unfortunately, this was not a good move – we should have climbed directly up the spine of the hill. We exited the snow field onto a very steep, loose scree field. Every step loosened soccer-sized boulders and the footing was definitely sketchy. The good news is that we only had to traverse about 20 yards on this scree to regain the spine we should have been climbing.
Arriving at Mississippi Head
We arrived at the top of a small hill, which was also the base of the Mississippi Cliffs. Again we regained the use path that lead to a path around the west side of the cliffs. We followed the use path that worked its way up the side of the cliffs until we arrived on the top of Mississippi head. There were spectacular views across the southwest.
We were some distance above the Mississippi Cliffs. From this vantage point, you could also see different areas of Mississippi Head below us. Somewhere down there was the crash site from 1949. Unfortunately, despite a little bit of searching, we were unable to find it. I think it’s much lower down between passed the deposited mounds of sand. And from the vantage point on Mississippi Head, the view of Mount Hood was spectacular and unusual.
Clearing the top of Zigzag Canyon
We were now at about 7’400 feet. To clear the top of Zigzag Canyon we would have to climb to at least 8’000 feet. From here you can see the Palmer Chair lift and follow that down to Timberline Lodge. Compared to the previous section, this was relatively easy. Again there was enough of a use trail to follow most of the way. The very tip of moraine to clear is in the picture below. From where we were, this looked like a pretty easy hike.
However, after a short while it was clear we would also have to cross another snow field. This snow field was literally at the very lip of Zigzag Canyon. Although the traverse was not difficult, again we used microspikes. The exposure was pretty severe. For this traverse, we also used the Whippet arrest poles. It was still relatively early in the day and the snow was firm to cross.
The descent towards Timberline Lodge
This was at about the 8’000 level. We crossed another gentle ridge and suddenly we could see both the Palmer Chair Lift and Timberline Lodge below. We had just crossed out of the Zigzag canyon. It was really clear why so many skiers and snowboards can get confused about the descent from high up on Mount Hood. The camber of the Mount Hood on this side leads you directly down into Zigzag canyon and onto Mississippi Head rather than back to Timberline Lodge. As soon as you get on the wrong side of the canyon wall it is very difficult to recover.
There are a couple of ways down from this point. We could have gone directly across to the Palmer chair lift and then followed the chair lift line down to the Silcox Hut. However, we decided to make more of a direct line to the Silcox Hut. There was a very nice snowfield to descend – possibly little Zigzag. This would have made the perfect long glissade! Even though we decided to walk down, which was again much easier than hiking through the relatively rocky terrain.
Arriving Back at Timberline
We left the snowfield and cut across a couple of very small gullies. Shortly we were back at the top of the Magic Mile and the Silcox Hut. From here we could look back up towards Mount Hood and the path we had just descended. Although this is the shortest route to Paradise Park – I’m not sure it’s the easiest! Having full backpacks made it a little more difficult than if we had tackled it as a day hike.
From the Silcox Hut, it was still a good descent to Timberline Lodge. However, the path was easy and it wasn’t long before we were back at the Lodge. The trip was about 4 1/2 miles and took about 4 hours. However, it was truly a different experience. We were the only people on the trail so the solitude value was very high. I love being so high above the tree line. However, this was definitely a difficult and strenuous hike and you need to be well prepared and happy with a lot of off-trail navigation.
I decided not to bring Hunter on this hike. It’s one of the few hikes in Mount Hood where I’ve not brought him. In this case, I think that was the right decision. There was a lot of loose scree and snow crossing with some exposure. However, he definitely gave me the big puppy eyes when I left him – next time Hunter!