Off the Beaten Backpack

Three Fantastic Backpacking Trips for the Discerning Backpacker

by Matt Reeder

So you couldn’t get a permit for the Enchantments or the Wonderland Trail? Maybe you’ve done the Timberline Trail several times and want a new challenge? You aren’t alone. Every year I hear from my friends in the outdoor community about the difficulty of securing permits to cherished spots like the Enchantments, and the desire to find backpacking trips that aren’t completely overwhelmed with people or require complicated planning stretching over several days.

Thankfully there are many other places to backpack. Great places! I’ve spent the last several years researching my three hiking guidebooks: Off the Beaten Trail, 101 Hikes in the Majestic Mt. Jefferson Region, and PDX Hiking 365. I’ve had the opportunity to do some truly amazing backpacking expeditions, from short overnighters at nearby lakes to longer treks through remote and forbidding wilderness areas. Presented here are three relatively obscure trips sure to satisfy all of you who can’t or don’t want to backpack the Timberline Trail, the Wonderland Trail, or the Enchantments.

Big Slide Lake.

Big Slide Lake and Bull of the Woods

While it isn’t full of the kind of alpine splendor found on Mt. Hood or Mt. Rainier, the Bull of the Woods Wilderness is a peaceful and inviting destination for backpacking, from one-day trips to longer loops that touch all of the highpoints of the area, both literal and figurative. The only issue with visiting this area is that many of the trailheads are at the far end of long, winding gravel roads that test the patience of many drivers. This long but rewarding trek to Big Slide Lake and up to Bull of the Woods is easy to find, easy to follow, and leads hikers to a beautiful lake deep in the wilderness. Hikers desiring a mountain view can continue 2 miles to the summit of Bull of the Woods, where the view stretches from Mt. Rainier to the Three Sisters.

Beginning at the trailhead, follow the Dickey Creek Trail on the remains of an abandoned road for a half mile. The trail then descends steeply into Dickey Creek’s deep canyon, leveling out in a classic cathedral forest of ancient Douglas fir. The trail meanders along the valley bottom, passing a pond, until it reaches a crossing of Dickey Creek at about 3.5 miles from the trailhead. Make your way across the creek, which is generally easy in summer, and begin gaining elevation on the far side. The trail climbs up the forested slopes of Dickey Creek’s upper canyon, crossing a huge talus slope at the base of Big Slide Mountain’s cliffs. Reach a short side trail to Big Slide Lake at a little over 6 miles from the trailhead. Take the short spur trail down to the lake. Big Slide Lake is shallow but beautiful, with a lovely green color and an adorable island in the middle of the lake. The best campsites are on the lake’s west side, where you should be able to find a place of your own with space and privacy.

Bull of the Woods wilderness.
Once you’ve set up camp, take the time to hike 2 miles uphill, turning right at every junction, to the Bull of the Woods Lookout, where the view is magnificent. Some exploration on the summit will reveal different vantages, a historic outhouse, and views down to Big Slide Lake. The lookout tower, no longer used and closed to the public, is in poor shape—use caution when walking along the platform at the tower.

Hikers desiring a longer backpacking trip have many options, but a lack of trail maintenance has made some of these options a less attractive idea. Perhaps the best idea is to continue west from Bull of the Woods to a pass above Pansy Lake, and then descend the Mother Lode Trail 4.5 miles to beautiful Battle Creek Flats, at its confluence with Elk Lake Creek. Making a loop is possible either by hiking up the Elk Lake Creek Trail to Elk Lake and returning via the Bagby Trail and Twin Lakes, or by hiking downstream along Elk Lake Creek and returning via the Welcome Lakes and West Lake Way Trails to Bull of the Woods. This latter option to Welcome Lakes is among the worst-maintained trails in the area and is not recommended. Consult a topographic map if you’re planning on making a longer loop here.


  • From Portland, drive southeast on OR 224 approximately 20 miles to Estacada.
  • From Estacada, drive southeast on OR 224 for approximately 25 miles to the old guard station at Ripplebrook.
  • Just past Ripplebrook OR 224 becomes FR 46. Continue straight on FR 46 for 4.2 miles from Ripplebrook to a junction with FR 63.
  • Turn right onto FR 63, following signs for Bagby Hot Springs. 
  • Drive this 2-lane paved road for 3.5 miles to a junction with FR 70, signed for Bagby
  • Hot Springs. Ignore this turnoff and continue straight on FR 63.
  • Drive another 2.1 miles on FR 63 to a junction with FR 6340 on your right.
  • Turn right on this gravel road and drive 0.6 mile to a junction, where you keep straight.
  • Continue on FR 6340 another 2.1 miles to a junction with FR 140 with a sign for the Dickey Creek Trail. Turn left here.
  • Drive this narrow, rocky road for 1 mile to a T-junction. The trailhead is on the right, but the best parking is on the left. There is also room for a couple of cars on the shoulder FR 140 about twenty yards before the junction.

Heart of Jeff Loop

Marion Falls in the heart of the
Jefferson Wilderness
Hikers looking for a multi-day alternative to the Timberline Trail will find few better options than this multi-day backpack around the south side of the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. As it is impossible to circumnavigate Mt. Jefferson (due to the Warm Springs Reservation, the lack of a trail on the east side, fire damage, and impassible cliffs and gorges, among other things), this circuit hits many of the high points in one of Oregon’s most beautiful wilderness preserves. The time is right so go now—next year a complicated permit system will likely come into effect, making this area much more difficult to visit. 

The trek starts at the crowded Marion Lake Trail, climbing gently 1.7 miles to a fork just before you reach the lake. Both trails go to the lake, but keep left for the shortest and most direct route. At a fork at lake’s edge, keep left and hike along the lake’s north shore. Views stretch across the huge backcountry lake south to Three Fingered Jack. Reach a junction with the Lake of the Woods Trail at 2.5 miles, where you turn left. Follow the Lake of the Woods Trail north to a junction with the Swallow Lake Trail and turn right. This trail passes by Swallow Lake before climbing steeply to the foot of South Cinder Peak at 8 miles. Take the time to follow the short spur trail here to the summit of the peak, where the 360 degree view stretches out to the far horizon, from Mt. Hood to the Three Sisters and everything in between. From here, return to the Swallow Lake Trail and reach a four-way junction with the Pacific Crest Trail and Shirley Lake Trail. Cross the PCT and turn onto the Shirley Lake Trail. Hike north 1.5 miles to Carl Lake, your stopping point for the first day of this trek. You’ll find lots of sites at this deep backcountry lake. 

From Carl Lake, locate the Cabot Lake Trail heading north and follow it as it seesaws through attractive woods. The trail passes under North Cinder Peak’s cliffs, curves attractively around the Forked Butte lava flow and then passes directly by scenic Forked Buttes as it makes its way towards Mt. Jefferson. The trail descends to small Patsy Lake and then gains elevation once more, finally reaching secluded Table Lake at 4.7 miles from Carl Lake. Make Table Lake your second night stop, and spend the rest of your day exploring this beautiful area. While you’re here, be sure to locate the continuation of the Cabot Lake Trail and follow it 1.5 miles north to an incredible viewpoint by the cliffs of Bear Butte. Here Mt. Jefferson towers over Hole-in-the-Wall Park, just four miles away. The trail once continued down to the park but is now lost in blowdown from the B+B fire. 

 South Cinder Peak and Mt. Jefferson. 
On day 3, leave Table Lake. You could hike all the way back to Carl Lake and return the way you came, but this trek is much better as a loop. So hike south from Table Lake 0.2 mile to a meadow, where a very faint trail cuts off west towards the Cascade crest. The trail isn’t easy to find, but is worth the trouble. Once you’ve found it, hike west on a trail that threads between a cinder cone and The Table and then traverses steeply uphill to the crest of the ridge. Once you top out the trail becomes faint again, but from here just continue west 0.1 mile or so to the PCT. When you find the PCT you’re faced with another dilemma—do you turn left and head south to wrap up the loop, or do you turn right to make a longer loop by heading into the burned forests west of the PCT for more lakes and a longer hike? The PCT continues south 4.7 miles to the Shirley Lake-Swallow Lake-PCT junction mentioned above, offering fabulous views and easy hiking. If you’re up for the longer loop option, turn right at this junction and soon arrive at a junction with the Hunts Creek Trail. Follow this trail as it climbs slightly and arrives at a rocky ledge above beautiful Hunts Cove, with Mt. Jefferson looming just across the valley. After 1.7 miles, reach a junction with the Lake of the Woods Trail. 

North leads down into Hunts Cove (a limited-entry permit area), but for the loop, keep left. The Lake of the Woods Trail continues south, soon entering burned forest. You’ll pass Lake of the Woods and finally reach a junction with the Swallow Lake Trail at 9.8 miles from Table Lake. Continue 1.7 miles to Marion Lake. At this point you’ve hiked 11.5 miles on Day 3—but you’re only 2 miles and change from the trailhead. If you’re wiped out, consider camping at this lake and spending the next morning exploring before hiking out. Explorations around the lake reveal fantastic lake shore viewpoints of Three-Fingered Jack and Mt. Jefferson as well as huge and impressive Marion Falls just below the lake. If you’ve got a bit of extra energy you can scramble up the talus slope on the west side of the lake (along the peninsula) to a fantastic viewpoint on top of a rock pile that looks out across the lake to Mt. Jefferson and Three-Fingered Jack. But if you reach Marion Lake and are ready to be done with this loop, follow the trail west of the lake a little over 2 miles to the trailhead. 

  • From Portland, drive south on Interstate 5 to Exit 253 in Salem, signed for Detroit Lake and Bend. Leave the freeway here and turn left onto OR 22. 
  • From Salem, drive OR 22 east for 49.2 miles to Detroit.
  • Continue on OR 22 another 16.2 miles to a junction with Marion Road (FR 2255), just opposite the now-closed Marion Forks Restaurant.
  • Turn left here and drive this one-lane paved road for 0.8 mile to the end of pavement. Continue another 3.7 miles of excellent gravel road to road’s end at the Marion Lake Trailhead.
  • There are many places to park but come early—this is an extremely popular hike and the trailhead is often full by mid-morning on summer weekends.
  • NW Forest Pass Required. A limited-entry permit of some sort will likely be required in 2019. 

Mt. Adams Northside Traverse

Mt. Adams rugged north side.
Like Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams features a trail that circumnavigates it. Sort of. The Round The Mountain Trail takes hikers three-quarters of the way around Mt. Adams, eventually ending on the far east side of the mountain, deep inside the Yakima Reservation—and from this point hikers must hike off-trail through forbidding terrain to complete the loop at Bird Creek Meadows. It is a fun adventure but a difficult one—and with Bird Creek Meadows closed this year, scratch it off your to-do list.

Thankfully, much of the finest terrain on Mt. Adams is open and gorgeous, and this traverse is probably the nicest backpacking trip in the area. The best place to start, in spite of lousy road access, is the Killen Creek Trailhead. Here you avoid the ubiquitous fire damage found further south and west on Mt. Adams, opting instead to just hike straight into wondrous alpine terrain on the north side of the mountain. It’s just all good here, almost right from the start. Begin on the Killen Creek Trail and hike steeply uphill on a trail that charges up the hillside. Thankfully the bad times don’t last long, and soon you’ll begin traversing glorious wildflower meadows with views south to the heavily glaciated north side of Mt. Adams. Meet the PCT (which here is also the Round the Mountain Trail) at a junction at 3 miles. The longer trip turns left here, to continue heading east around Mt. Adams. If you’re looking for a spectacular detour or a closer place to camp, turn right and immediately locate the spur trail to High Camp 100 feet to your right. Turn left here and climb this steep trail uphill 1 mile to High Camp, a plateau at nearly 7,000 feet of elevation, 4 miles from the Killen Creek Trailhead. This is among the most spectacular places on Mt. Adams, at the northern foot of the mountain near the terminus of the massive Adams Glacier. Views stretch north to Mt. Rainier and the Goat Rocks. There are plenty of campsites dotted throughout the plateau—just expect very cold nights, even in summer. If you’re just stopping by, return to the PCT and head east to continue hiking around Mt. Adams. 

Foggy Flats.
In a little under a mile, the trail crosses Killen Creek just above a cascading waterfall and passes a glade I lovingly refer to as “Perfection Park”—as in, it couldn’t possibly get better than this. The area is a popular camping spot for folks here, but with some luck you may find a site if you decide you don’t want to go any further. If you’re continuing, follow the PCT until you meet a junction with the Highline Trail (another name for the Round the Mountain Trail). Keep right and hike another 1.8 miles to a junction with the Muddy Meadows Trail. Keep right again and continue about a mile to Foggy Flat, a huge meadow on the northeast side of Mt. Adams. There are a few campsites scattered around the flat, which features a view of the top half of Mt. Adams. For the good stuff, continue on the Highline Trail a short ways past Foggy Flat until the trail leaves both meadow and forest, arriving at the lava flows and barren plains on the northeast side of Mt. Adams. There are a few good campsites here, and chances are you won’t have much competition for them. At this point you’re over 7 miles from the Killen Creek Trailhead, so it’s probably a good idea to stop here. Once you’ve set up camp, grab your pack and some water and continue exploring south along the barren plains. The views of Mt. Adams and its glaciers are tremendous, and continuous—this is truly a special place. 

The trail does continue several more miles south to Devil’s Garden and eventually Avalanche Valley, two of the most amazing places on Mt. Adams—but the creek crossings are difficult, and camping is questionable once you reach the Yakima Reservation. You’ve got options, and all of them are great. 
If you’re looking for a longer backpacking trip, start further south on Mt. Adams. There are numerous trails that reach the Round the Mountain Trail, from the South Climb Trailhead on the south side of the mountain to the Divide Camp Trail just southeast of the Killen Creek Trailhead. Many of these feature easier road access than does Killen Creek, and offer hikers the chance to turn a short trip into a much longer trip. In the absence of a loop trail (at least this year), the best option would be to set up a car shuttle somewhere along the way and hike the circuit one way from south to north. 

  • From Portland, drive east on Interstate 84 to Hood River.
  • At Exit 64 on I-84, leave the freeway and reach a junction at the end of the off-ramp.
  • Turn left and drive to the toll bridge over the Columbia River. Pay the $2 toll and cross the river.
  • At the far end of the bridge on the Washington side, turn left on WA 14.
  • Drive 1.5 miles west on WA 14 to a junction with WA 141 ALT, just before a bridge over the White Salmon River. Turn right here.
  • Drive 2.2 miles to a junction with WA 141. Turn left here.
  • Drive 18.9 miles to the small town of Trout Lake.
  • Continue straight on what is now Mt Adams Road (FR 23) for 1.5 miles to a junction.
  • Keep left (right leads to the south and east sides of Mt. Adams) to stay on FR 23.
  • Drive 23 miles, ignoring all side roads along the way, to a junction with FR 2329 near Takhlakh Lake. The last several miles of this road are gravel.
  • Turn right on FR 2329, following signs for Takhlakh Lake.
  • Drive 1.5 miles to Takhlakh Lake, ignoring signs for Olallie Lake along the way.
  • Continue past Takhlakh Lake, where FR 2329 worsens into a rough, rutted, potholed road that requires patience.
  • Drive 1.9 miles beyond Takhlakh Lake to the Divide Camp Trail on your right.
  • Continue 2.4 increasingly rough miles to the Killen Creek Trailhead on your right.

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