A comfortable hike, like a well-worn pair of hiking boots or that fleece jacket that you always grab before heading out the door, is always ready, the ‘go to trail,’ the trail that gets chosen on those days when you can’t decide where to go, the trail that you have memorized switchback to switchback, the trail where you know exactly where to look during the right season to find small patches of wildflowers in bloom in a forest clearing, or hiding under an oak, that trail that you’ve hiked in all seasons, the trail you’ve hiked both early in the morning and late into the evening.
Over the years, I have had a few special trails that I’ve hiked throughout the seasons, winter snows permitting – a trail that I’ve become intimately familiar with. For the most part these trails have shared some commonplace traits, such as having at least one spectacular wildflower bloom during the year or having a view that is simply timeless. Birdsong, butterflies, white noise and solitude are other factors that create the relentless draw to return over and over to the same trail.
For many years my favorite spot was a bit of an in between trail. Part of longer loops, but also, for some reason, a trail that was never glamorous or had the reputation that other nearby trails had. Eventually dropped from hiking guides. Which, of course, became part of the attraction for me and my solitude seeking self.
Horseshoe Ridge was one of those trails that perhaps suffered in reputation compared to its nearby Mount Hood wilderness brethren. Perhaps because three quarters of the trail winds through deep wilderness forest, switch backing along the nose of a ridge until reaching the open scree slopes and the views revealed at trails end (although the trail continues along the ridge both east towards Cast Lake and south to West Zigzag Mountain). And perhaps because there are other trails closer to Mt. Hood, or on the slopes of Mt. Hood, those trails always drew more hikers.
The endpoint of the hike, a pile of huge basalty boulders at the high point of Horseshoe Ridge was the perfect place to sit and spend an afternoon. A 360° view, with Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams to the North, with Mount Hood filling the horizon to the East, the alpine attraction was obvious. With views of the Salmon-Huckleberry wilderness to the South and on particularly clear days the distant coastal range far to the West. That westward view was often filled with spectacular sunsets from the longest days of summer to the shortest days of winter, when the snow pack was scarce, always unobstructed, filling the horizon with color, making lingering the right decision.
The open meadows that surrounded this part of Horseshoe Ridge were filled with bear grass that bloomed hundreds of cream colored columns of flowers every other year, carefully interspersed with paintbrush, larkspur, sweet smelling Cascade lilies and the occasional tiger lily flashing orange above the greenery and ground covers. The cherry on top, as it were, was that the scree slopes on the ridge were filled with huckleberry bushes that feed both bird and beast, and covered the slopes in a riot of color every fall.
Depending on the winter snowfall, the hike was accessible from late spring until mid-fall. Horseshoe Ridge was the perfect place to hike. Never many people on the trail, and I mostly was shocked to see other cars at the trailhead. During the summer Horseshoe Ridge was a great place to view hill topping butterflies and hummingbirds feeding on wildflowers, with raptors often soaring overhead and Osprey nesting on the cliffs below.
The other reason this was such a perfect hike is that it was less than 90 minutes from home or work to the trailhead. There was many a day when I would leave work early on a slow summer day, and drive up to the trailhead, then speed hike to the top of the ridge to decompress and linger – read and write, enjoy the sights and sounds, watch the changing afternoon light drift into evening on the mountains and ridges – and then head back after sunset into the deepening twilight of the forest below. Again, this was one of those trails that I hiked so often that I could hike into the deepest twilight before having to pull flashlight out, and never felt at all lost or unsettled by hiking the trail at night. There was both joy and sadness arriving at the last switch back and heading past the trailhead sign before rejoining the road below. Looking up, there was always a window of stars shining in deepest black, framed by the tall dark firs lining either side of the forest road.
There was one stretch of trail, always in shadow, on the North side of the ridge, where sound simply disappeared. It seemed as if even the birds were complicit with this agreement. Living in an urban environment I always had to stop and absorb the silence for a while. The lack of sound was noticeable, perhaps even unsettling, but for a brief moment my body would also slow and pause in this unexpected void of sound.
I have an almost endless stream of memories from this hike. During a late, wet summer, I spent an afternoon with a very fat, content marmot who climbed and sat two boulders away from me, not 10 feet away, both of us sunning ourselves on a clear but brisk day. Only an occasional glance of concern whenever I would shift too much on my boulder chair. The time a tiny, Whiteface weasel, came rustling through the huckleberry bushes at sunset, to stop between my boots and peer up at me for a while – me, frozen in speechless joy at the experience. A full moon hike where a friend and I headed up the top of the ridge late in the afternoon, packing a big telescope to watch stars and moon, but also able to see jet skiers flashing on the Columbia River at sunset over 50 miles away! Of course, the full moon rising over the shoulder of Mt. Hood was breathtaking that evening, as was every full moon that rose over Mt. Hood that I experienced from Horseshoe Ridge. Hiking through shadow and light in deep forest.
In fall, high meadows of deep crimson and fiery orange, contrasting with the sun-bleached basalts, feasting on huckleberries along with frenzied robins chattering and flirting from bush to bush, as fall rushed to winter. So many timeless hours of alpine-glow on Mount Hood, the same, yet always unique and special. A classic mountain view that made it almost impossible to leave and head back home.
Was I ever stalked by a cougar during one of my evening hikes back to the jeep? Maybe. Did I startle deer, who in turn startled me back, rustling away through the darkness? Definitely. The slow shift of senses from sight to sound as the light leached away from the forest around me, and the air turned from warm to cool to cold on my skin, was always part of the experience of this trail.
So, how did my relationship with this trail fall away? The first time a massive winter storm washed away a bridge leading to the trailhead. It took the Forest Service two years to replace. Once the bridge was back in place so was I, but then the next winter another storm washed away part of the road leading to the trailhead. This time, because the road led to wilderness, and not timber sales, the Forest Service decided to retire the road – one of the very few roads leading to the West side of the Mt. Hood wilderness – the much longer, uneven Cast Lake trail mostly used by equestrians. Sadly, the Forest Service has a seemingly endless budget for building and repairing logging roads, but little budget for roads leading to trailheads. Not ironically of course, in later years the Forest Service proposed logging the entire area up to the wilderness boundary which would’ve required them to repair and reopen the forest road leading to Horseshoe Ridge trailhead (that proposal was crushed). I was always sad/mad that the Forest Service suddenly had money to repair and reopen the road for logging but that they were unwilling to do so for the simple pleasures of wilderness hiking. The Mount Hood National Forest is for felling, not for fun, I guess. There are still longer trails, with longer drives, to Horseshoe Ridge, but with this closure I moved on to a new ‘comfort’ trail. Horseshoe Ridge will always remain one of the formative trails for my deep love of the outdoors and hiking.