Snow (but not mud!) Free Hikes for Off Season Training

 Neahkahnie Mountain from the Cape Falcon trail.
Photo: Darrin Gunkel.
by Darrin Gunkel

Snowshoeing not your thing? Traction devices annoy you? Here are 8 hikes to keep your blood pumping through the winter months that don’t involve strapping anything beyond gaiters to your feet.

One of the beauties of hiking and climbing in the greater Portland area has always been the multitude of 365-day per year (more or less, depending on the occasional ice storm) training options afforded by the Columbia Gorge. That is, until the Eagle Creek Fire shut down most every trail on the Oregon side of the river. The 2017 conflagration put dozens of reliable all-season hikes out of commission indefinitely. And it ruined more than a few winter training schedules.

The speed of the recovery isn’t smiling on the itchy-footed and the impatient. Gorge trails are beginning to reopen, particularly around Multnomah Falls and Angel’s Rest. Unfortunately, the Forest Service warns conditions can be dicey, with downed trees, washed out trails, and lots of loose mud and rock. As a result, expect your favorite off-season training trails to be a bit slower than before. Even if you’re experienced with rough trail conditions, there’s also the matter of conservation to consider. During the wet season, the erosional effects of fire damage are magnified and “normal” wear and tear takes a greater long-run toll. The message here is maybe we should go easy on the Oregon side of the Gorge for a while.

Not like our region doesn’t have plenty other winter hiking options. What follows are some of the better low elevation trails for varying degrees of training. Outside of the occasional winter snow blast, these routes are open year-round, and more or less the same distance from the main population centers as the Gorge trails.

1. Tryon Creek Outer Loop: 5.7 miles, 630 feet elevation gain

If you’ve found yourself a little out of shape after the holidays, Tryon Creek State Park’s a great place to break your hiking fast and begin warming up for the summer. The Outer Loop, as described in the OregonHikers.org field guide is just the right length to begin restretching those (ahem) well-rested muscles. The park has tons of trails through mature second growth forest, though, and with a trail map in hand, you can tailor your own workout to fit whatever mileage and elevation needs you have.

2. Milo McIver Riverside Loop: 6.1 miles, 690 feet

This loop around the north side of Milo McIver State Park drops down the bluff to wander along the banks of the Clackamas River, saving the workout for the end. It also skirts a top-notch disc golf course! Again, Oregon Hikers maps out the details of this particular trip. But as with Tryon Creek, plenty of trails crawl up and down the bluff, allowing you to patch together any sort of workout you like.
Clackamas River Trail. Photo: Darrin Gunkel

3. Clackamas River Trail: 8.2 and 1,550 feet, one way

If you want to bring a bike, or an extra car, you can stash either the Fish Creek or Indian Henry Trailheads on the Clackamas River and through hike this fine portion of the Clackamas River, and sample one of Oregon’s newer protected areas, the Clackamas River Wilderness (established in 2009.) The net elevation gain from Fish Creek to Indian Henry is just 350 feet, but the trail bobs up and down the whole way, stacking up the elevation and making it a better workout than many other lower-elevation river hikes. If you don’t want to car shuttle or bike (or hitchhike) back to your car, an out-and-back trip from Fish Creek to Pup Creek Falls is bit shorter, at 7.8 miles, but adds 145 feet to the total elevation. Or, if you’re feeling particularly energetic, you could always do entire trail out and back for a workout equal to many of the tougher trails on Hood. 

4. The other Eagle Creek: up to 15.4 miles and up to 1835 feet

Not a lot of people know about the other Eagle Creek, flowing west out of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, into the Clackamas, near Estacada. It could be argued that this is a better springtime hike, once the carpets of oxalis on the old growth forest floor start blooming. Then again, there are many things to recommend the deep ancient forest in the depths of winter. Not the least of which is the lack of company. This hike begins and climbs a little higher than the others listed here, so check with the Estacada ranger station about snowpack before you go. 

5. Silver Falls

There’s a lot more to Silver Falls State Park than the Silver Falls and Ten Falls Loops. The Perimeter Loop rewards your efforts with 16.8 miles and 2470 feet gained, but could be a bit snowy or icy. If you do the Buck Mountain Loop and add the Howard Creek and Cutoff Trails, you not only clock 8.6 miles and nearly 1,000 feet, you get to admire some fine old growth trees, as well.

6. South Molalla River Trails: up to 9.9 miles and 1,375 feet—or more!

 As with Tryon and Milo McGiver, many trails in BLM managed Molalla River Recreation Area wind up and down the bluff and along the river. Half the fun here is just picking a route. And there’s another possibility in this neck of the woods. Just 20 minutes further down the road, and you come to the Old Bridge Trailhead for Table Rock Wilderness. The trail into the wilderness here leaps up 1800 feet in the first 2.5 miles. This would put you at 3000 feet, not entirely out of the question in a low snowpack year like 2019. Not a bad jaunt, if you feel the need to do something steep with your day. 
The pyramid wall at Macks Canyon. Photo: Darrin Gunkel.

7. Macks Canyon Skyline: as much mileage as you want, and up to 1,800 feet elevation

The Deschutes River Canyon east of Tygh Valley, where Oregon Route 216 crosses the river, doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. A BLM road leads north from the river crossing, winding through a spectacular collection of basalt pyramids, ridges, and walls, ending at Macks Canyon campground. From here, you could march 23.6 miles, slowly and steadily downstream, to the Deschutes River State Recreation Area at the Columbia. Or, you can pick a route up one of those ridges. The pyramid walling the east bank of the river just past the campground is a good option. Traversing it south to north and returning via the river trail will earn you 1800 feet up and down in 4.8 miles. And views of Adams, Hood, and Jefferson from the canyon rim. 

8. Oregon Coast Trail from Shingle Mill to Short Sands 15.9 miles, 2,750 feet. 

You can drive within a half mile of Short Sands Beach, but unless you’re carrying three kids and four surfboards, why would you want to do that? To get a real workout, and a real feel of the Pacific Coast, spend a whole day on this leg of the Oregon Coast Trail. Beginning just off Highway 101, at the OCT Shingle Mill Trailhead, it’s the nearest true hiking stretch of the OCT to the Portland-Vancouver area—a little more than an hour and a half. As long as the traffic gods smile upon you or leave early enough to beat the day-tripper traffic on Route 26 (which you probably want to do anyway, given the mileage on the route) you should have plenty of time to hike, dawdle among ancient Sitka spruce, lounge above the Pacific Ocean at Cape Falcon, and watch surfers compete for waves at Short Sands.

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