Mt. Hood National Forest
7.1 miles round trip | 1,000 ft elevation gain
To date (July 9, 2012), Ramona Falls ranks as my favorite hike that I have ever experienced. It has everything I want out of a hike. If I were to sit down and design my perfect hike, it would very closely resemble Ramona Falls. Here's why:
1. At 7.1 miles long, it is the perfect length. Not too short but not too long. A good work out without draining you entirely.
2. It has minimal altitude gain, making it more relaxed and enjoyable than the steep and strenuous hikes. You focus on your surroundings more at Ramona Falls than you do your sore legs and your gasping lungs.
3. The trail traverses some of the most beautiful forest I've ever seen. Forest that looks as though you are walking through a fantastic novel by J.R.R. Tolkien or Kenneth Grahame. And there are about 3 very different types of forests that you will hike through on this trail alone, each as beautiful as the next. Plus, many sections of the trail are lined with tall, bright pink rhododendrons, which not only have a beautiful flower but also a beautiful, tropical-looking leaf.
4. Ramona Falls is a very worthwhile goal. Many out-and-back hikes do not have such an exciting pot-o-gold waiting for you at the end of your journey before it is time to turn back. Having such a great reward waiting for you at the end boosts hikers motivation to press on.
5. The cool, shady area at the foot of Ramona Falls is large enough to accommodate several groups of hikers while giving everyone their own sense of space. Even though you cannot camp in this area at the falls' base, the area is flat enough and large enough that it feels as if you're standing in a camp ground. Plenty of room for relaxing, picnicking, photographing, etc.
6. The forest surrounding Ramona Creek downstream from the falls is one of my favorite stretches of any trail I've ever been on. It is the quintessential Pacific Northwestern forest scene in here, with a babbling creek adding a peaceful soundtrack to your stroll.
7. The hike crosses a number of footbridges, the most important of which is only in place from May to November every year. The "seasonal bridge" crosses the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River and can be seen in photos of the first leg of the hike below.
8. There is a hauntingly grand view of Mt. Hood from the seasonal bridge / Sandy River basin area on a clear day. A nasty flood of the Sandy river carved a huge, bare swath that is now mainly rocks and driftwood with a much smaller, less violent Sandy running through the middle. This wide open area is perfect for viewing Mt. Hood in the not-so-far distance.
9. In many sections of the forest that you will hike through on your way to Ramona Falls a bright green moss blankets just about everything from fell trees to rocks and brush. (see photo below)
10. The drive to the parking area and trailhead is also very beautiful. Not located too far off the well-known Lolo Pass Road, the road to Ramona Falls Trailhead is wild enough to make you feel like you're roughing it but not too wild- inflicting merciless blows to your automobile's suspension system. Also, the parking area (a wide-open, make-shift gravel parking lot) is far larger than I had expected. You could probably fit 30 or more automobiles out here. Some trailheads, for example the Salmon River Trail not far from here, lacks adequate parking. Not Ramona Falls.
I could probably go on, but alright, I'll stop...On to the hike itself!
The first leg of the hike stretches from the parking area to the seasonal bridge over the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River and is roughly 1.4 miles long. Right away you'll notice how beautiful and unique the forest is here. You'll encounter just about every shade of green there is on the color spectrum. There is something about moss-covered rocks and stumps that feels fantastic to me, as if I was walking through some sort of enchanted forest from the stories of my youth. It makes me feel like a kid again- a time when I probably entertained a belief in things like trolls, elves, gnomes, bigfoot, and the like. And there is moss everywhere along this trail. Maybe one of the appeals of this hike to me is that I can imagine what it would've been like to be here when I was a young, over-imaginative child.
After a jaunt through the woods the trail will open up a bit as it begins to follow the wide, barren trench the Sandy River carved when it flooded. On a clear day you should be able to see sections of Mt Hood from here. The trail will follow along the Sandy River until you reach the seasonal bridge that puts you on the other side of it. The seasonal bridge is aptly named, because it is only in place during the hiking season, from May to November. Due to higher and more violent river conditions during the off season, the bridge is removed. Makes you wonder how many bridges got wiped out by the river before the forest service decided to build a removable one...
Here are photos from that first leg of the hike, from the trailhead to the seasonal bridge. Also included below is a photo of the view of Mt. Hood from the seasonal bridge.
The second leg of the trail starts right as you step off the seasonal bridge and extends about 0.2 miles to an intersection of trails. It is on this second leg that you will start to notice the bright pink-&-green Rhododendron bushes (see photo below). As if the forest couldn't get any prettier out here, you sprinkle in Rhododendron, one of my favorite plants in the wide world of Pacific Northwest flora. It is here where you will start to gain in elevation. The Sandy River basin off to your right will get deeper and deeper the further up the trail you go.
Here are a few photos from the second leg, including a close up of Rhododendron.
You will come to an intersection giving you two options: continue straight ahead on the hiker/horse trail to Ramona Falls, or turn left and head up to Ramona Falls via the hiker-only trail. Both guide books suggest making a loop out of your Ramona Falls hiking experience, so I decided to continue straight ahead on the hiker/horse trail and leave the hiker-only trail for my return. This hiker/horse trail from the intersection all the way to Ramona Falls I will label the third leg of the trail.
The third leg that follows the horse/hiker path to Ramona Falls is through a young, short, open forest with moss carpeting the floor. It's a beautiful forest, reminiscent of those you'd find at even higher altitudes. Just also be sure to keep an eye on the ground in front of you too. Horses share the trail with hikers, and few things rain on your wilderness parade quite like scrapping manure out of the treads of your nice hiking boots.
Follow the horse/hiker trail for 2 miles to Ramona Falls. Here are photos from the horse/hiker trail.
When you see this sign, bear left. In half a mile you'll arrive at the falls.
After a short gaunt past the sign above you'll pass through a horse gate and enter into the Ramona Falls area. Ramona Falls is stunning; and becomes more so the closer you get to it. This section of wilderness in here is picture-postcard Pacific Northwest: old-growth trees, ferns, moss, cascading waterfall, rocky-bottomed creek, log bridge. It's iconic. The area is plenty large to accommodate several groups of hikers without feeling cramped. My advice is to take your time here, take in the view in front of you, and have yourself a snack and a few drags of water from that Nalgene. Whatever you do don't just pick up and leave immediately after arriving. This is truly one of the greatest locations in the Pacific Northwest. Stop and stay a while.
Here are photos from the area surrounding Ramona Falls.
Once you've finally had your fill of Ramona Falls itself, cross the bridge and head to the left on a trail that follows Ramona Creek. This will bring you back to the intersection near the seasonal bridge and back to your car. It is about 2.3 miles in length from the falls to the intersection. Once you hit the horse gate turn left back to the intersection, which you'll hit in half a mile.
This section of the trail, which I will refer to as the fourth and final leg of the hike, is by far the most scenic. The forest in here is stunning; among the best I've yet come across on a trail. Add to that the babbling, cascading Ramona Creek, a few log bridges, and a rock wall and you're got yourself quite a grand finale, which makes an already perfect hike even better! This leg of the hike has the most "enchanted" looking forest on the whole trail. In future visits to Ramona Falls, I will more than likely avoid the horse/hiker trail altogether (pretty as it may be) and hike this hiker-only leg of the trail up to the falls and back. It's that pretty! The 2.3 mile hike back to the intersection is going to feel like half a mile. Time flies with so much beautiful nature to distract you.
Here are photos of the fourth leg of the hike, the hiker-only trail, that brings you back to the intersection from Ramona Falls itself:
This is my favorite hike of all time to date. I am glad that it is so close to Portland and easy to access, because I hope to do this hike several times a year. If you are looking for the perfect introduction to the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, look no further than the Ramona Falls trail.
On an ending side note:
If you're looking for a similar hiking experience that is open year round, I suggest the Salmon River Trail not far from here, just off the main highway in Zigzag. There may not be a grand waterfall at the end of the hike, but the forest is equally beautiful (as are the log bridges) and you get the benefit of following an audible river the whole time.