Captain Hook Territory and the Wilderness of Children’s Fantasies
I feel like a runaway child from books I used to read as a kid on this hike. It’s hard not to envision scampering under old highway bridges, living off huckleberries, and playing Blue Lagoon-style in a wilderness wonderland. There may even be a sword fight. This is truly a magical loop, made even more fabulous by the fact that you can surpass the hiking altogether and visit both waterfalls without spending hours on the trail.
Ages and Difficulty
Hiking guides rate the hike as difficult. If you scramble down to Sahale Falls, it gets far more difficult, and I’d be off-balance backpacking a baby or toddler — but I wouldn’t let them scramble down, either. We let the older kids down to the water using a couple different routes, and while there are lots of “fall and don’t die” routes, they’re also slippery and steep. Some plants are available for grabbing onto. The dirt here is ashy from Mt. St. Helen’s famous tantrum, and kicks up dust in everyone else’s faces as well, making the descent somewhat sketchy.
The entire loop is 4 miles and it gains about 800 ft. elevation.
To reach Umbrella Falls, park on the road in to Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort, off Highway 35 between Timberline and Odell (15 miles past Government Camp). Just before the parking lot, there is a trailhead sign on the road, and if it’s a summer weekend, there will probably be a few other cars as well. Pull off to the side and park for a short 1/4 mile walk through Sound-of-Music-land to Umbrella Falls and the beginning of the loop.
You can also hike the loop parking from the Elk Meadow trailhead.
After just a few minutes, you’ll happen upon one of the coolest waterfalls around. It’s rock-lined and begs exploring. Near the bottom, kids of any age can clamor over rocks.
However, the crowds thin considerably as soon as you continue the hike, keeping to the trail instead of heading back to the car and driving to the next waterfall. Doing the entire loop takes you past the top of Sahale Falls (don’t confuse it with Sahalie Falls!). You can’t see the waterfall from up here, but you can hear when you pass the water. You’ll need to come down the embankment to access the pools at the bottom of Sahale Falls. If you walk to the old highway, you’ll get the best view of the falls and realize you’ve gone 2 minutes too far. I recommend doing this and doubling back for the best overview of the beautiful area.
It’s enchanting, and not as cold as you might imagine (sometimes).
From the falls, and eventually, the loop trail, you’ll see the old service highway that you can use to walk back. People park up there, but I’ve never figured out how. Instead, you can just pull off the highway (Sahale falls is visible from the 35 if you’re looking). It’s a short, but moderate to difficult, scramble up and then back down again to access Sahale falls from here. Even if you’re not continuing the loop trail, hiking up above the falls provides some unparalleled shots of Mt. Hood and some insight in how cold that water is coming straight off the glacier!
The bottom line
This hike was an adventurer’s dream. It was also a little bit difficult for the under 7 crowd, and might be beyond many parents’ comfort zones if you’re hoping to go down to the water. Standing in front of kids and making sure they don’t slide into each other or down the embankment pretty much applies to all non-teens here. Yet keeping some distance is important, too, since it’s so dusty and ashy. The downside is, of course, that looking at the falls and moving on is boring, and if you’re there, you should really go down.
If you have smaller kids, enjoy this doable loop. Use the Umbrella falls exploration as your swimming hole and the Sahale loop as a bonus “looking” waterfall.
Then get out your pixie dust and fly over fields of wildflowers, caves of wonder, and hidden forest villages together. It’s an amazing ride.