Backpacking through Elk Meadows, Oregon

To the southeast of glorious, snow-capped Mt. Hood, in a secluded section of the national forest, is Elk Meadows. The region provides breathtaking views of the mountain and is home to some of the most satisfying summer hikes near the Portland area.

You can find dozens of reasons to enjoy a trip into the outdoors, but there’s only one that you can call your first. As my first backpacking trip, this hike represented an awakening of a primal need to discover the natural world. Recently, Wanderlust Hiker asked us to return to Elk Meadows so that we could retrace old foot steps and explore a bit more of the area.

What is it?
Where is it?
How did we do it?

At a glance

Distance (miles)
Elevation gain (feet)
Hike time (hours)

Relative difficulty

Beginner 50%
Intermediate 33%
Experienced 20%

When to go



What is it?

Elk Meadows is a grassy, marshy, wooded clearing with striking views of Mt. Hood. The kind of nostalgia that emerges from a hike like this is the kind that comes from experiencing relaxed simplicity while gobbling toasted marsh mellows around a crackling campfire.

The trail to Elk Meadows is mostly straightforward but adds just enough of a challenge to make the trip a satisfying adventure. There are plenty of camp locations around the perimeter of the meadow and their proximity allows you to feel like you’re on a private excursion out in the woods. Crystal clear skies make this a prime location for star gazing.

There are many aspects of this hike to appreciate. The view of Mt. Hood is one of them. If you’re lucky enough to secure the wooden shelter as your camp spot you can meditate all day and night on its icy, white peaks. While this is an ideal camp spot there are many great places to set up camp near the trail that loops around Elk Meadows.

Cold Spring Creek runs through the meadow and is an excellent water source if you have a transportable container to fill. It may look clear, but it’s highly recommended that you use some sort of water purification device to avoid bacteria and viruses. I was very pleased with the LifeStraw. It’s cheap, light weight, and easy to use with a Camelbak water bottle. Better yet do what my buddy did and get an integrated LifeStraw water bottle.

Depending on where you camp wood availability may vary. The area immediately surrounding the shelter was pretty sparse, but when I walked 50 yards away from the site I began to find large, fallen branches.

There are no bathrooms at Elk Meadows. There is a large porta-potty at the trailhead though. If you do need to use use the bathroom be sure to do it far away from running water. For human waste it’s recommended that you bury it 6-8 inches below ground and at least 200 feet away from your water sources and your immediate campsite if possible.

Where is it?


Technology can fail us. In case you lose cell service it is wise to have backup directions in the form of a printed map or a solid GPS device.

The trailhead is only a short distance off of US Route 35. So the hardest aspect of the the drive is finding the turn off. Once you have turned off the main road on to gravel, look for the big yellow and brown TRAILHEAD sign.

How did we do it?

There are benefits to hiking Elk Meadows in the summer: Less gear to carry, clearer skies, easier camp setup, and quicker fire starting. My favorite is staying dry. Hiking this trail under ideal conditions has contributed to my fondness, but I imagine this would make for a scenic snowshoeing adventure as well.




The initial section of the trail is straightforward and well-marked, the second of two creek crossings can cause some confusion though. The first is a man-made bridge which spans Clark Creek; easily done with a sturdy pair of legs. However, crossing Newton Creek requires a bit more finesse. There are a couple of options:

  1. Ford the creek if it’s low enough, however this can be dangerous due to the slippery nature of the large rocks in the creek.
  2. Another option is to check along the creek to see if someone has built a makeshift bridge out of fallen branches and other stray wood.
  3. Find a large fallen tree that bridges the creek and carefully walk across.

Whenever crossing a stream, be sure to unclasp the waist and chest straps on your backpack. If you do fall down you want your pack to be as easy to remove as possible in order to avoid getting pinned or pulled under the water.

On the other side of Newton Creek look for a rock cairn that marks the path up the hill. This is likely to be the most exhausting part of the trail for most hikers. A series of switchbacks weave up the hill and lead to the Elk Meadows trail loop. Don’t worry, by that point you’re almost there and the view will be worth it.


This hike doesn’t require the best gear available. You can do it with the bare essentials. I didn’t have a headlamp, but I had hand flashlights. I didn’t have a water purifier, but I had a gallon of purified water. I didn’t starve and I still had an amazing time. Yes, the hike was more challenging, but that was part of the fun.

My first overnight trip to Elk Meadows took place in mid-August 2012 with ideal conditions –  warm, dry, sunny, and clear. At this time my gear was as domestic as you can get. I recall pulling up to the trailhead to meet up with the group.  I arrived equipped with a pair of comfy Brooks running shoes and cotton everything.  To transport my gear I utilized a backpack that had survived two years of high school and four years of college. It was loaded with plenty of food, extra clothing, and toiletry items. Lacking space in the main compartment of the pack, I bungee strapped a massive sleeping bag and pillow to the exterior. Where was my tent and water, you ask? I brought that along in a super awesome faux-army duffle bag. Contents included: one gallon jug of water and one four-person off-brand tent.

Trail Tips

  • Wear a good pair of hiking boots if you’re planning on backpacking – For a day hike, a comfortable pair of trail running shoes will suffice.
  • Comfortable gear always makes a hike more enjoyable – Invest in a backpack that fits your body. When you feel good you can hike farther and see more.
  • Invest in a water purifying device – The last thing you want is to catch a debilitating virus in the middle of nowhere.
Mt. Adams from Trail #33
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