Mount Hood National Forest: The Complete Guide

A hiker looks across an expansive forest at Mt. Hood in the distance.

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Mount Hood National Forest

Mt Hood National Forest, Oregon 97028, USA

Encompassing more than one million square acres of pristine backcountry, the Mount Hood National Forest is one of the truly exceptional wilderness destinations in the western United States. Located in northern Oregon—a short distance from Portland—the forest has plenty to offer outdoor enthusiasts. With miles of hiking trails, copious amounts of wildlife, and outstanding skiing in the winter, this is a destination that can keep adventurous travelers busy all year long. And of course, at the center of the forest is its namesake mountain, which cuts a striking profile that looms over everything for miles around.

Things To Do

If you love active outdoor adventures, then the Mount Hood National Forest is a wilderness area that needs to be on your "must-visit" list. Hikers and backpackers will find the place to be especially alluring, in part because it has more than a thousand miles of trail to explore. Those trails include everything from short day hikes to extended backcountry treks that can take days to complete. As you can probably imagine, the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful along those trails too, with stunning views of the mountain, unexpected waterfalls, sweeping vistas, and the occasional hot springs to soak in along the way too.

Approximately 140 miles of trail are dedicated for mixed use, which means in addition to hiking, visitors can also go horseback riding and mountain biking on those routes too. The mountain bike trails range from gentle and easy to fast and wild, accommodating riders of all experience levels. Road cycling is also popular, particularly on the Mount Hood Scenic Loop (State Road 35 and U.S. Highway 26), which offers motorists stunning views of the mountain throughout.

Fishing is a popular activity year-round with countless lakes, rivers, and streams for anglers to test their skills. Hunting is also allowed inside the national forest during designated hunting seasons in the autumn and other times of the year. Of course, winter brings plenty of snow to the area, allowing skiers to flock to nearby resorts or trails. In recent years, backcountry skiing has also grown in popularity among those who have the skills and experience.

Those looking for a true challenge might want to attempt to climb to the summit of Mount Hood itself. The 11,250-foot peak cuts an imposing figure to say the least, but depending on your level of experience and fitness—as well as the route you choose—a climb may take as few as a couple of hours or require a full day on the mountain. Either way, there is a nice sense of satisfaction knowing that you're standing on the highest point in the entire state of Oregon.

Snowcapped Mt. Hood is reflected on a serene lake

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Best Hiking Trails in Mount Hood National Forest

With hundreds of miles of trail to choose from, it can be a challenge to decide which ones you should hike while in the national forest. While nearly all of them have something to offer visitors who enjoy a good walk in a remote wilderness, there are definitely a few that stand out from the crowd. If you only have a limited amount of time in the area, these are the hiking trails that you should add to your bucket list.

  • Trillium Lake Loop: This two-mile long loop trail makes for a short, but scenic hike, with picture-perfect views of Mount Hood at nearly every turn. The route is a favorite among photographers looking to capture the mountain reflected in the clear waters.
  • Mirror Lake: Although this trail is just 2.1 miles in length, it does feature more than 700 feet of vertical gain, providing a good workout along the way. The payoff is another pristine mountain lake with Mount Hood dominating the skyline.
  • Mount Defiance: This 12-mile long route takes hikers up more than 4800 feet in elevation, providing breathtaking views of the national forest along the way. The views of Mount Hood from the summit are fantastic, too, only adding to the sense of satisfaction.
  • Tamanawas Falls: While this hike doesn't offer the trademark views of the mountain it does take trekkers to an amazing waterfall instead. At 3.3 miles in length, this is a fairly easy out-and-back stroll through the forest that will immerse you in the backcountry throughout.
  • Timberline Trail: Backpackers will love this 38-mile trail that takes them deep into the wilderness, circumnavigating Mount Hood in the process. With 9,000 feet of elevation gain throughout, there are plenty of ups and downs. But it is truly a classic route that is one of the best in the entire country.
A man walks through deep snow on a mountain ridge while carrying an ice axe.

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Climbing Mount Hood

One of the premier attractions of the national forest is the mountain that it is named for. While most of the 4 million people who visit the region on an annual basis have no interest in climbing the peak, plenty of adventurous travelers do. This isn't a simple hike to the summit, however, as depending on conditions and the route you choose, it can be a challenging and technical ascent.

All climbers who attempt to reach the top of Mount Hood must have a wilderness permit. These are free and can be obtained at the Timberline day lodge “Climbers’ Cave” and all trailheads within the wilderness area. There are no daily quotas on the number of permits that are available; they are intended more as a safety precaution for rangers keeping tabs on visitors.

There are nearly 20 different routes that are commonly used to approach the summit of the mountain. Some of those routes are more difficult and technical than others, with a mix of rock, snow, and ice encounters on most of them. Fixed ropes are used near the top to assist with the approach, which can be more difficult depending on the weather. Winter ascents are perhaps the most dangerous of all and should only be attempted by experienced mountaineers with proper equipment.

Generally speaking, a climb to the summit of Mount Hood takes approximately four to seven hours to complete. The time required can increase or decrease based on trail conditions, weather, fitness, experience, and a number of other variables. If you're an experienced hiker and climber, you'll find this to be a moderately challenging ascent that you can do independently. If you're a beginner to these types of outdoor pursuits, the climb can be dangerous and difficult. It is recommended that you hire a guide to help take you to the top.

A large mountain lodge stands at the foot of a snowcapped peak.

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Where to Camp

Camping is a popular option for anyone visiting Mount Hood National Forest, as evidenced by the more than 100 designated campsites found within its borders. Those are broken down into regular campgrounds, RV parks, and those set aside for larger groups. Most of the locations include a picnic table, fire ring, and toilet facilities, although some of the more remote places are completely primitive.

There are so many options to choose from that it is difficult to decide which ones are the best. That said, the Trillium Lake and Timothy Lake sites are excellent, although they can get crowded. For something a bit quieter, head to the Lost Creek or Salmon River Campsites, both of which are bit more off the beaten path. Whichever site you choose, but sure to reserver your spot well in advance on the website.

This being a national forest, dispersed camping is a viable option as well. This allows visitors to leave the campsites behind and strike out into the wilderness to pitch their tent just about anywhere they'd like. While not all sections of the national forest are open, there are literally thousands of open acres to choose from. For experienced backpackers and campers looking for true isolation, this is definitely the way to go, leaving everything behind to wander into the wild.

Where to Stay

If sleeping in a tent isn't your cup of tea, but you'd still like to stay inside the national forest, consider renting a cabin instead. Most of the cabins are rustic in nature, but offer a comfortable place to gather, eat, and sleep during your stay. One of the more unique options is Devil's Peak Lookout, which was once a tower used to spot forest fires. Now, it is an extremely popular place to stay, so book your stay there well in advanced of your visit.

The historic Timberline Lodge is another great option for visitors to the area. Originally built in 1937, the lodge retains much of its unique charm and character today. Amenities include comfortable rooms, fine dining and a bar, a swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, and more. If you're planning on spending a few days in the area, the Timberline can serve as a great base camp for your adventures, including in the winter when it operates several ski lifts and a snowcat for backcountry access.

A highway runs directly to Mt. Hood in the distance

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Getting There

Due to its massive size, there are numerous ways to reach the Mount Hood National Forest depending on where you're coming from. The most popular way to get there however is to drive east out of Portland. Jump on US-26 E and point your car towards the mountain. Depending on where you start and how much traffic you encounter, the drive should take roughly an hour. Once you arrive you'll need to budget further time based on the destination you're heading to.

Tips For Your Visit

  • While Mount Hood National Forest is large in size, it can still get crowded at times. Avoid those crowds by going on a weekday or in the off season in the spring and fall. During the winter it can be especially quiet.
  • There is plenty of wildlife to spot in the national forest. Look for coyotes, fox, raccoons, mule deer, bobcats, mountain lions, and black bears.
  • Driving through the national forest can get challenging due to numerous routes and seasonal road closure. Thankfully, you can download a map for your smartphone through the Avenza map app available for iOS and Android.
  • The weather on and around Mount Hood can change quickly. Be sure to always have extra layers with you when venturing out onto a trail. Rain gear is usually a good idea as well, even if the forecast indicates conditions will be dry.
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Mount Hood National Forest: The Complete Guide