Tilly Jane & Pollalie Ridge loop - at the foot of Mt. Hood, Oregon


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Feb 28, 2012
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New Boston, NH
A chance encounter while picking up some hiking supplies at the REI in South Portland, Oregon brought me just the right advice I needed for a first Mt. Hood-area experience. I wouldn’t be stepping upon this stratovolcano's summit, or even hiking the mountain proper, as it generally requires the kind of technical experience I don’t have, nor really care to have. But I did want to get relatively up close, and this was just the thing. (I learned since, though, that the route up from Timberline Lodge in the south really isn't that technical, so I'll have to put that on the list!)

The advice came from an REI salesperson who had lived in upstate New York; we talked about hiking the Adirondacks (he was a 3-season 46er, and a “31ish” in winter), as well as the Whites. He spent time hiking in the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest, and settled on the Portland/Vancouver (Washington) area for its wide variety of outdoor offerings, and proximity to the ocean, Seattle, large rivers, and of course great mountains. He also asked if I had hiked the Rockies — I hadn’t yet — and suggested they weren’t half as good as the hiking in the Pacific Northwest, mostly because you weren’t seeing much difference between trailheads at over 10k feet, and the 14k-foot summits. I’m looking forward to making that determination myself some day, though.

I shared that I was here in the area for the first time, taking in some hiking before a conference. I had only planned on a summit of Mt. Adams (12,276’) for a first high-altitude experience, but didn’t have any other plans for the following day-and-a-half. I mentioned I’d like to get close to Mt. Hood, so the guy mentioned Cooper Spur and McNeil as good options. Having hiked Adams and headed south toward Hood, I stopped in Hood River, the center of the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, and found a good wifi connection at a deli, which yielded info about Cooper Spur that seemed promising. So, with nothing more than general directions to the area, I set out at about 7:30 the next morning.

Driving along Route 35 south from Hood River, I saw regular glimpses of Mt. Hood itself. Most any direction you drive in this area, you’ll often see at least one of the big peaks calling in the distance: there’s Hood to the south, Adams to the north, and Mount Saint Helens to the northwest. There are more beyond, including Rainier, the tallest in the lower 48 and the only one taller than Adams in Washington State.


Cooper Spur is reached by a road of the same name, dotted by apple orchards. I knew, from a local map, there was an actual Cooper Spur on Mt. Hood but also a Cooper Spur Ski Area. So I headed there to see what might call me into the woods. On the way, I found a trailhead that featured a loop hike possibility, consisting of a backcountry ski trail and a ridge trail. The road continued on another 9.5 windy miles to Tilly Jane campground and a few historical structures, all of which formed the high point of this loop. Loop hike, it is!

I liked the idea of hiking down the ridge better, hoping I’d have views, so I ascended the Tilly Jane Ski Trail (No. 643), about 2.5 miles to the campground. The forest was healthy and full for a while, and I passed the junction with the trail that I’d be taking down along the Polallie Ridge. From here the trail climbed a very moderate (i.e. cardio-challenging) pace much of the way.

Alas, it wasn’t long before I entered another wasteland of burned tree stubs and open air; I had hoped to leave this kind of backdrop behind after seeing it up close already on Mt. Adams. In this case, a lightning strike ignited the 3500+ acre Gnarl Ridge wildfire in August 2008 that engulfed this area and lasted a few months, before fall rains reduced the spread potential, and the long winter finally extinguished it.

Burned tree stubs aside, I was treated by an almost constant view of Mt. Hood straight ahead, and a fine selection of wildflowers and low brush coming up among the burned forest. New tree growth was well on its way, too, and I found myself talking to the young saplings, encouraging them to grow faster and larger than their predecessors.

Ahead I eventually saw lush green forest, and knew that must be the destination I was hoping for (they surely did what they could to protect it from the fire). I first came across the famous Tilly Jane A-frame, a large cabin built by the CCC in 1939; it remains a popular place for hikers and skiers, and features a loft and a full gas stove for cooking. You can rent the place, and I imagine the competition for it is pretty fierce, all year-round. This is a lucky building, as it was just 50 yards or so from the wildfire line and remained unscathed. I since learned the Forest Service did not take extra precautions to protect the cabin during the fire, but did wrap the cabin in fire-resistant sheathing during the Dollar Lake fire, which threatened the area again in late August 2011.


Just beyond the A-frame is the "cook shed," a structure built in 1938 over a cook stove, which itself was built in 1924. Unlike the A-frame, this building was in a growing state of disrepair. The door had fallen off, and a sign inside -- which had fallen to the floor -- labeled the structure as unsafe. Even if it was quite dirty and unkept inside, and the roof sported numerous holes from rotting wood, it seemed like an acceptable shelter to me, at least in dry weather. The cabin had bunks along both side walls and the long stove in the middle. Another sign on the wall, dated September 1996, asked visitors to help take care of the place, and listed some repairs done around that time. Someone did put a bit more work into the structure in 2004, but it seems to have lacked any real attention for some time.

I then started seeing campsites within the Tilly Jane Campground, run by the Forest Service. It’s one of the highest-elevation campgrounds in the area, at 5000'. It sports a cool amphitheater, rolling stream through the middle, and a couple more buildings, one of which is the Tilly Jane Guard Station, a well-kept though closed cabin. Trails from here led to other destinations including the Cloud Cap Inn and the Cooper Spur shelter. I was surely tempted, but left these for another time as I was a little worn out and somewhat time-limited.

Walking around the campground, I finally found the start of the Polallie Ridge Trail, which would lead me down in a relatively parallel track to my ascent. The ridge itself also fell victim to the same forest fire, but also featured a very healthy array of wildflowers, grasses, and young tree growth. Much of the trail track itself was overgrown with short ground shrubs, but it wasn’t hard to stay on-trail as you knew you were hiking along a ridge, and hiking to either side meant you’d be coming down off it.


Eventually the trail led back into lush green woods, and I soon came out at the top of a ski lift. I didn’t expect this, but realized it made sense as I was near the Cooper Spur Ski Area. Judging from the map at the trailhead, I veered a sharp left and descended a ski trail. I was looking for signs that would lead me back to the Tilly Jane Ski Trail, and I eventually found them, though somewhat blocked by young trees. I’m glad to have found this, as I wasn’t looking forward to hiking down to the ski area and hiking up the road to my car!

Total time on the mountain was about three hours, 45 minutes, covering seven miles.

Photo album: https://www.facebook.com/erikbertrand/media_set?set=a.10152566518284567.1073741852.570654566&type=3

Side note: the ski area is part of the larger Cooper Spur Mountain Resort. At the base of the road that leads you to the ski area and the trailhead I took, is the Crooked Tree Tavern, also part of the larger resort. I decided to give it a try, and was not disappointed. The day had turned pretty hot and I needed both a cool place, and one with wifi, to catch up a little and research my next stop. The service and food were excellent; I had the Pork Tortas sandwich with caesar salad, and ordered a side of garlic rosemary fries and croquettes. I talked with the bartender a good amount, and he shared some helpful info about the area, and particularly about Mount Saint Helens, where I was headed next. This was clearly off-season for the resort, as there were relatively few people there and the bartender seemed to be the only one serving customers; but this made the experience all the better. Prices were very reasonable, the seating inside comfortable, and decor/architecture just right for a mountain resort: a cabin/lodge feel, with fine historical photography of the area.

Another side note: it was pretty cool to witness the change in temperature as I descended from Cooper Spur back down to the Columbia River Gorge area along Route 84. My rental car’s outdoor thermometer went from 84 degrees all the way up to 97 in the 20 minutes it took me to reach the river; this made me want to turn right around and head back to the mountains!
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