Paradise Redux

Mount Hood Wilderness, Oregon
~12.3 miles, 2300 feet elevation gain

The first day of autumn. My favorite, fleeting season.

Ever since the Salewa blisters on Monday turned me around at the edge of the Zig Zag River, I have been thinking about Paradise Park.

On my first hike to Paradise, I was still in college and just beginning to enthusiastically embrace the outdoors. Total newbie hikers, but completely invincible (as twenty-ish year olds tend to be), a friend and I left warm and sunny skies on a July day in Portland only to find ourselves stepping out into 42° F temps at Timberline Lodge. The mountain was nowhere to be seen, shrouded in a thick layer of dark, roiling clouds. Each of us had a hat and fleece and were otherwise appropriately dressed in shorts and tank tops for a near freezing day on the mountain. 

Hello? Ten Essentials? What are those?

For some reason, we decided to go for it. We never saw the mountain. Always layered in fog and cloud, by the time we hit the high alpine meadows of Paradise, it was raining. Yet that day still stands as one of my fondest memories of my backyard mountain playground. The landscape surrounding us possessed a ghostly, intimate quality: we delighted in discovering tiny rock gardens ablaze with color; heather, lupine, indian paintbrush and countless other flowers lined our path; we were soaked through, our breath hanging in the air; the forest was all moss, dripping water and silvery fog; small creeks and seasonal waterfalls burbled and bubbled; and we arrived to find the meadows in full bloom.

The next time I hiked to Paradise, the meadows were at least three weeks away from flowering. Disappointed, Andy and I still enjoyed the high alpine terrain of the Paradise Loop Trail as it meandered its way just above timberline, Mount Hood gracing the skyline above us. I also received the worst sunburn of my life on this hike- I still have scars from it on my shoulders. Don't forget the sun block. Andy recalls the trail as having 'the worst out ever'- the last three or so miles all uphill (1200 feet), including the 800 foot climb back out of Zig Zag Canyon. 

Third time's the charm. 

It's a challenging hike to say the least. As I was leaving my car at 9:45 am, it struck me that although I was determined to make it to Paradise today, I was going to have to haul ass. After all, I did have a fourteen year anniversary dinner date to be back for in Portland. So, outfitted with the ten essentials, slathered in sun block, and back in trail runners with duct-taped heels and toes, I set out.

nearing the Zig Zag overlook on the PCT

By 10:30, I was crossing the Zig Zag River. Not long after I began the long climb up the switchbacks to Paradise Park.

Progress came to an abrupt halt, as I knew it would, upon reaching the first flowers. Daisies, lupine, spirea and a smattering of indian paintbrush. The world was awash in color: yellows, greens, purples, blues, reds, whites. Two deer stood framed in the morning light, amid the cacophony of flowers filling a small creek basin. We watched each other for a while before we parted ways; they disappeared into the forest while I continued my sweating way ever upwards.

Just before noon, I turned a corner and stopped, agape, at one of the most brilliant flower displays I have ever witnessed. I had arrived.

This is why you hike the long haul to Paradise.

the trail playing hide and seek among the flowers

Here, the best part of the walk begins, and I wandered up and down for roughly two miles through some of the best wildflower gardens on Mount Hood. 

I would have liked to have lingered, to have literally basked in flowers, soaked in the sun and rubbed my feet in the dirt. I would have liked to have taken a nap, lulled to sleep by the drone of bees, nectar drunk in flower-choked meadows.

But I had an important date, one I was more than happy to keep. So instead, I kept going, full-throttle, admiring the views, munching on an apple and some almonds along the way.

By 12:50 I was heading left at the junction with the PCT. By 2, I was crossing the Zig Zag River for the second time, the water levels substantially higher with the heat of the day. This time, I got wet feet (yup, definitely back in trail runners). By 3:30 I was slogging into the parking lot, spent and absolutely content.

Dinner was extremely satisfying.