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Newton Creek moraine: a secluded treasure

JANET TSCHANZ stands atop the Newton Creek medial moraine, a secluded gem on Mt. Hood.
Skip Tschanz photo

Skip Tschanz
JANET TSCHANZ stands atop the Newton Creek medial moraine, a secluded gem on Mt. Hood. Skip Tschanz photo


THE JUNCTION of Trail 646 with the Timberline Trail 600 provides a good spot for a picnic. Skip Tschanze photo


SKIP TSCHANZ pauses after a scramble over one of the downed trees that cross the trail. Janet Tschanze photo

The largest glacial formation on Mt. Hood is nicely hidden on the largely unvisited east side of the mountain.

Here, just below Newton Clark Glacier, is the Newton Creek medial moraine. At the end of the last ice age, about 15,000 years ago, the ice tongue continued 11 miles from where it now ends. This glacier followed the general route of Oregon Highway 35 almost to the Old Parkdale Highway.

There are three types of moraine: lateral, terminal and medial. The first two are rather common to any mountain that has had glacial activity. The third kind is more common to Alaska and the Himalayas. A medial moraine is formed when two separate rivers of ice meet and then flow down separate valleys. The Newton Creek moraine is unique even among other medial moraines because both rivers of ice came from the same glacier.

Now back to my original statement. Just how big is Newton Creek moraine? This moraine contains 600 million cubic feet of volcanic debris. It would take 73 million dump trucks to haul it away.

The top of the moraine is about 1,000 feet above the creek. That, my friends, would mark how deep the glacier was. Looking across to Gnarl Ridge would mark how wide the glacier was. Fifteen thousand years ago you would have been able to walk straight across this chasm to the base of Gnarl Ridge.

Most of the debris is where the mountain and glacier put them. This enormous mound of stuff is unsorted and extremely unstable. Large sharp-edged boulders stand on top of one of the most unstable features on the mountain.

The trail to this spectacular moraine wanders three miles through a forest that has never been logged and over two bad boy creeks that until recently made a habit of tearing holes through Oregon Hwy 35. Depending on the time of year, you can expect to see nice displays of in-season wildflowers and more than a few huckleberry bushes.

To find the trailhead take Highway 35 to Mt. Hood Meadows Nordic Center. The trailhead is just short of the locked gates to the ski areas parking lot. Follow the signs to Elk Meadows Trail #645.

The trail starts out easy, maybe just a bit too easy. It lulls you into an easy walking pace. The first stop is at the bridge over Clark Creek. Stop here and pick up your free Wilderness Permit. Be sure to take some pictures of the blue sign pointing to Clark Creek Sno-Park. Bad Sign! There’s no longer a Clark Creek Sno-Park. Someone is going to be very disappointed.

Cross the creek and continue following for about another 1.5 miles. Watch on the left for a sign pointing to Newton Creek #646; turn here. You are now on one of the least used trails on the mountain. This remote trail sees few boot prints, you most likely won’t see another person until you are back to the main trail.

Now the trail starts to lose its innocence. The steeper pitches come more often. Every once and a while you have to clamber over a downed tree. Nothing breaks the silence of the forest until the trail nears Newton Creek. You follow the sound of the creek for a bit before the trail finally breaks through a clearing and there it is, the bad boy himself. Looking up the creek bed you are astounded at the size of the long-gone glacier. But a word to the wise, the creek has undercut the trail in several places. Personally I stay way to the left on the trail in these circumstances.

At the 2.5-mile mark the trail dips down and crosses the foot of the moraine. From here on up, the climb is serious and unrelenting. It takes three long switchbacks’ and one serious scramble over a large downed tree to gain the top of the moraine. The dominant trees on top are a scattering of white pines. Don’t expect much in the way of shade until you have walked beyond the top of the debris and into the cool verdant forest.

The view on top is unbeatable. To the left is Gnarl Ridge, far below is Newton Creek, and to the west is the valley that held the other half of the twin rivers of ice. Beyond the ridge to the west is Heather Canyon, one of the few places on the mountain that has significant avalanche conditions in the winter.

The best picnic spot is where trail #646 meets the Timberline Trail #600. Don’t forget snacks, lots of water, a camera and binoculars. A map wouldn’t hurt either.


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