Happy Independence Day!
To take advantage of the long weekend, Paul and Buckley and I headed out for a two-night backpacking trip. We decided on a loop in the Mt. Hood National Forest (in Clackamas County) that includes Shellrock Lake, the Rock Lakes Basin (which includes Lower, Middle, and Upper Rock Lake – we headed to Middle), and Serene Lake.
Shellrock Lake, Middle Rock Lake, and Serene Lake Loop
Mt. Hood National Forest (Clackamas County)
Total hike distance: 12.23 miles
Total elevation gain: 2,407 feet
Click map for full GPS data
We found this loop in our One Night Wilderness guide book, and the distance from Portland and the distance between campsites on the loop seemed to make sense for the amount of time we had allotted (gotta have that Zipcar back on time!!). My only concern really was that it gave this loop a “Solitude” rating of 4. Out of 10. Not great right? We gave it a shot anyway, figuring if it was really that crowded and we couldn’t find a campsite, it was short enough to get back to the car. Over the course of the entire weekend, we saw eight people. Eight! I would rate this loop a solid 9 for Solitude, considering it was July 4th weekend and it was still so empty. Granted, the weather was not stellar (more on that later), so that might have kept some people away, but I certainly don’t think it’s as bad as the guide books made it out to be. The book also mentions some “poorly signed” junctions along the way, but honestly, this was probably one of the better signed hikes we’ve been on – plenty of signs and blazes to guide the way. Seems like the authors of that book need to revisit this spot.
We departed Portland on Saturday morning and made it to the Shellrock Lake trailhead in about two hours (because I was driving – we shaved a good 20-30 minutes off of that on the way home with Paul driving!). The last five miles or so are on a gravel road with plenty of potholes, so be careful on this one. So that we could hike out quickly on Monday morning, we decided to hike to Middle Rock Lake (about 3 miles in) to camp the first night, then complete the loop on Sunday and make our way back to Shellrock Lake to camp that night (about another 8 miles to that point), then just hike the .7 miles back out to the car in the morning. It worked out perfectly.
Toward the beginning of the trail
The entire loop is above 4,000 feet, so leftover snow can be a factor – it’s good to expect it and be prepared. We hit snow at about 4,530 feet, and had intermittent patches throughout after that. All campsites were clear of snow however, and even on the trail there wasn’t so much that you couldn’t find your way. Before I knew it, we had already hiked the three (or so) miles to Middle Rock Lake, our first destination. There are some campsites right where the trail hits the lake, but we found an even better (and more isolated) one about .1 miles further out on a narrow trail to the right, right on the water.
Middle Rock Lake from our campsite
Another view from our site (you can see some lingering snow across the lake)
It was already mid-afternoon when we got to this site, and despite the sun, it was pretty chilly out. After setting up, first order of business was to build a fire. We scrounged for some wood, adding another layer of clothing every few minutes it seemed. Sadly, most of the wood we found was pretty wet, but we had to try anyway.
By about 6pm I had on every single shirt that I brought with me, a hat, and my hood. It was cold! We got some sticks and twigs to start burning, and got a really nice bed of coals going, but it just couldn’t survive. I spent two solid hours huffing and puffing on that thing, adding twigs and more firestarters, but it was not meant to be.
The little fire that couldn’t
Eventually we had to give up… it just would not happen. It was a bit too cold to hang out outside without fire, so we ended up turning in to the tent around 8:30pm. Our tent gets remarkably warm with the rain fly on, and our sleeping bags are quite warm as well, so we ended up just having a nice cozy night in the tent. Paul had his Droid loaded up with movies, so we decided to put on a flick before bed (I know, how very rustic of us, huh?). Of all movies, we watched Zombieland. Nothing quite like the imagery of blood-spewing, flesh-eating undead to lull oneself into a tranquil night’s sleep in the middle of the woods, right?! I vaguely recall dreaming of zombies that night… but I think Woody Harrelson was in there too so it was okay.
We woke the next morning… very, very early… to a fog-covered lake. Like, gone… total whiteout. So, we went back to sleep for an hour or two. 🙂 When we finally dragged ourselves out of the tent, the lake had cleared up but the ridge above still had fog moving through it. Amazing.
Fog moving through the trees above
Still clad in several layers, we cooked up some egg n’ bacon breakfast burritos and started packing everything up. At about 11am, hallelujah, the sun made an appearance! It didn’t stick around for too long, but it was nice to see for a little while.
The sun emerges just in time for us to hike on
Buckley really doesn’t care how effing freezing the water is!
We set out around noon to tackle the better part of the loop. By the way, what a great feeling to have a full day to hike, no worries about when we get started or when we need to get back to the car… the only goal is to get to camp before dark. It made for a very enjoyable hike. Our first destination was Serene Lake, about 2.5 miles from Middle Rock Lake.
After returning to the main trail from the spur trail to Middle Rock, it was two miles to Serene Lake
After a decent amount of climbing we reached Serene Lake, and it was… serene. We were the only people there (that we could see anyway) so we had the place to ourselves. We hung out for a little while and made some lunch at one of the campsites.
After lunch we set back out on the trail. The remainder of the hike was a lot harder than I anticipated. There was a decent amount of climbing involved, plus heavier packs than usual (Paul got a new 70-liter pack, twice as big as mine!), plus some trudging through snow… plus we may have kind of spoiled ourselves lately with easier and shorter hikes. This hike was certainly a swift kick in the rear. A mile or so past Serene Lake, we had climbed up to a ridge high above the lake, and straight into the clouds. Luckily they parted often enough to catch some glimpses of the lake below.
A walk in the clouds
And of course, some more snow
After a little dip in the terrain, we climbed back up to another great viewpoint over the lake. The clouds had also lifted a little more by this point, hooray!
Doesn’t seem like you’d be able to see much from here…
But then bam! Serene Lake!
The next “checkpoint” along the loop is Cache Meadow, a low-lying meadow full of pretty little wildflowers three miles from Serene Lake. We descended pretty rapidly from the ridge to get to this point (I tried to just enjoy it, and not think about the fact that we’d soon have to climb back out!). I’m not sure if it dries out later in the summer, but it was pretty wet and marshy this weekend. We slogged around a bit to look at the different flowers.
A small section of Cache Meadow
Some Shooting Stars, and I think the little yellow guys are Western Buttercup (but not positive)
After Cache Meadow, we were in the home stretch. It was just a couple miles back to Frazier Turnaround (which closes the loop portion), and then 1.2 miles back down to Shellrock Lake. Victory is close. But of course… we had to do some serious climbing again to get there.
Some cool upturned roots. I guess you can’t really get the scale here, but they were huge.
Back up to a snowy ridge (actually an old Jeep road) to close the loop
We made it to Shellrock Lake right around 5pm or so, and found a great campsite right on the water. Bonus! A previous occupant had gathered a huge pile of firewood and left it there! My least favorite part of camp-building is collecting wood, so this was a very welcome site. And extra bonus, the wood seemed to be relatively dry. We threw a bunch of twigs into the pit and dropped in a firestarter, and like magic, we had a fire. This stuff burned right up, and soon we had quite the roaring fire. This thing was devouring logs – we could hardly throw wood on it fast enough. While we were getting the fire going, a couple hiked past that, as it turned out, had stayed there the previous night and collected all that wood – but couldn’t get a fire started with it. I offered for them to come enjoy the fire, but they were on their way out to their car, not wanting to camp in the cold again. For some reason, I felt sort of guilty. Should I have offered to let them camp there? Given the rest of the wood back to them to set up their own camp? What is proper etiquette in this situation?? They carried on. After the previous night without a fire, I was especially appreciative to have this glorious, wonderful, soul-warming source of heat. So, this fire was in their honor.
Even with the fire, it was a chilly night and I was exhausted, so I retired my camera for the evening. I will try to paint a picture. Expansive blue-green lake backdrop with mist gently rolling by, butt plopped in front of a crackling fire as the sun goes down, glass of wine in hand, a giant bowl of orzo mac and cheese with chorizo and garlic that Paul made (actually made – not a prepared freeze-dried meal in a pouch, but cooked fresh at camp) in front of you, and a very tired and satisfied Chocolate Lab cuddled up in your lap. I mean really, does it get any better?
We woke to another foggy morning, but not quite as cold as the night before. The car was due back fairly early in the day, so made a quick breakfast and started packing up.
Shellrock Lake just starting to reveal itself
I thought these were so cool, but I cannot seem to identify them! Anyone know? They were about 6 inches tall.
The remaining .7 miles back to the trailhead (mostly downhill) felt like a breeze! We were back to the car in 30 minutes.
The trail back to the TH lined with wildflowers
One of my personal favorites, Beargrass
It was truly a wonderful weekend. There is something very satisfying about being totally self-sufficient for a couple days, sleeping on the ground and carrying everything on your back. We’ve kicked around the idea of taking a month or two off and just backpacking… who knows? The idea of being away from civilization for that long is enticing. But, I will admit, once we were back home I made a beeline for the shower. 🙂