For seven straight seasons in the 1930s, southpaw pitcher Vernon “Lefty” Gomez made the MLB All-Star roster as a member of the New York Yankees.
That fact, his 189 major league wins, five World Series titles and 1972 Hall of Fame induction — along with being a totally useless information outside of a game of Sports Jeopardy! (bandwagon edition) — aren’t what made the banally-baptized ballplayer so relevant to my recent wanderings in the Mount Hood Wilderness. Hard to believe, I know.
Where his uninspired nickname originated is a question best left unasked, but it’s the loquacious Lefty’s most lasting contribution to the collective consciousness that comes to mind while sitting beneath cloudy eastern Oregon skies and reminiscing of sparkling mountain lakes.
“I’d rather be lucky than good.”
Gomez is credited with popularizing this common phrase, and I certainly felt lucky to be celebrating the end of the high school sports season with amazing weather for what has become an annual detour into the mountains on the way back from the softball state championships in Corvallis.
It’s a trip completely facilitated by convenience and at the mercy of the elements.
With the alpine lakes of the Wallowa Mountains still thawing from the winter freeze, early summer is the perfect time to head into the Mount Hood Wilderness, where swimmable lakes and gorgeous panoramas await anybody willing to put up with the crowds that funnel out of nearby Portland into the area each weekend.
Thankfully, due to an inflexible schedule that really couldn’t have been more well-timed, I arrived on the west side of the mountain on a Sunday afternoon, just as the competition for the best campsites was starting to disperse.
Also, thanks to a heatwave in the valley, the weather couldn’t have been better. Warm nights and cloudless days kept the lakes at country club conditions (minus the chlorine and give or take a few crayfish), and shady trails meant hiking didn’t need to be confined to the morning and evening to avoid the daytime highs.
The first part of my adventure was a two-night backpack into Burnt Lake, a very popular moderate hike through airy forest on well-graded trails. Charred, hollow skeletons from a 19th-century fire dot the trail as you follow a rounded ridge between two creeks.
At just over seven miles and 1,500 feet of elevation gain (with a circumference of the lake) the hike is easily doable in a day, but I was banking on spending the night and adding a jaunt over East Zigzag Mountain to visit Cast Lake and was pleased to pass a handful of hikers headed the other way, their fly fishing rods strapped to the outside of fully-stuffed packs.
I had my pick of the seven marked camping sites, which caused me to circle the tarn more than once before landing on a spot with privacy and a view (although sans-Hood on the less-popular east side of the lake).
By evening the day hikers and their inflatable rafts had cleared out, and myself and only two other parties remained.
Early to bed and early to rise, I was headed for the 4,971-foot summit of East Zigzag just as the sun was making Mt. Hood light up like the world’s largest Christmas tree. The first mile and 500 feet of elevation gain come easy before the Burnt Lake trail intersects with the Zigzag Mountain Trail and immediately rockets straight uphill another 400 feet over the final half mile to the summit.
A U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey reference mark welcomes visitors to the tree-lined summit with views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mount St. Helens to the east and north. Larkspur, phlox, paintbrush, lupine, beargrass, avalanche lily, columbine, trillium and rhododendron blooms splash the hillsides with color.
Continuing on the trail down the west side of the mountain another mile brings you to the intersection with the Cast Creek Trail, which leads to the Cast Lake Trail and its namesake after another half mile of moderate hiking. By mid-morning I was settled onto a log by the soggy shoreline of Cast Lake, where I enjoyed an early lunch and a short chat with a fisherman who was heading out after losing all of his lures to the lagoon’s log monsters.
From here hikers have the option of returning to Burnt Lake 3.6 miles by closing a loop of the Zigzag Mountain Trail, continuing on another 3.9 miles to West Zigzag Mountain via Horseshoe Ridge, or heading back over East Zigzag the way they came. I chose the most direct and scenic of the routes and arrived back at camp by midday coated in trail scum and eager for an invigorating dip.
A sign posted at the trailhead had informed me that the next part of my itinerary may need some rethinking, as a planned hike to Ramona Falls sounded like more trouble than it was worth due to a flash flood that washed out the footbridge crossing the Sandy River. My 15-year-old trail mutt was tackling everything I could throw at her so far, but a tricky crossing of a glacier-fed river seemed like a great way to bring an early end to my trip.
I decided to stick with the lakes, they’d been treating me so well, and picked another short and very popular hike up to Mirror Lake for my next stop on the Mt. Hood tour.
This was one I had consciously avoided in the past due to the packed parking lot at the trailhead located west of Government Camp on the Mt. Hood Scenic Byway. I’m glad I gave it a chance, because although the lot was crowded when I arrived mid-morning, most of the hikers I encountered were on the trail and I was able to enjoy several minutes of lakeside solitude before the next group emerged from the brush.
The trail is just 3.2-miles round trip to the lake with only 700 feet of elevation gain, and as at Burnt Lake I passed several types of hikers that I normally wouldn’t see on the trail. Young children, the elderly, and the unfit were all tackling these trails — some with ease — and where their presence may have struck me as a blight on a more cynical day, I couldn’t help but feel enriched to share a beautiful day with such a mixed bag of strangers. After spending so much time on sparsely populated trails in eastern Oregon, I had forgotten how fun it can be to meet new people on the trail.
On the way to Mirror Lake I came across a very suburban family from California that was road-tripping through Oregon and Washington visiting relatives and had chosen to add another 3.2 miles and 800 feet of elevation to their hike for a summit of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain. This would be their one and only hike in Oregon, and their awe was infectious.
After leaving the nature-starved Californians and Mirror Lake for the day, I wanted to check out another tourist hot-spot I’d been putting off and made the drive up to Timberline Lodge. There I dodged skiers in polo shirts and did my best to follow the snow-covered Pacific Crest Trail, but eventually gave up and just went looking for empty runs steep enough to glissade.
I let the hike back down to parking lot warm my chilly backside before continuing the day with an ill-fated attempt to locate Boulder Lake, which is located off an seemingly unmarked forest road and will remain as a carrot on a string for another adventure.
Not ready to pack it in just yet, I decided a waterfall was in order since I had missed out on Ramona Falls, and continued to head east around the mountain to Tamanawas Falls.
The trail to the falls is four miles out and back, with about 500 feet of elevation gain. Like the other heavily-traveled paths in the area, the trail is mostly well-graded smooth dirt and pine needles with just a few tricky rocky portions at the base of the 100-foot cascade.
There is no camping allowed at the trailhead or anywhere on the trail, but a couple of nearby campgrounds provided plenty of spots to pitch my tent.
Clouds obscured the stars for the first time that night, and as I pointed my headlights toward Hood River under overcast skies in the morning, I knew I had truly lucked into another unforgettable stay in Oregon’s wilderness that would continue to make Mt. Hood my go-to destination for early summer.
Contact Matt Entrup at email@example.com or (541) 966-0838.