On some trails the riding is challenging, but the views are so phenomenal you want to ride them anyway. That’s certainly the case with the Cast Lake Loop, located on the west side of Mt. Hood.
The trail, which originates at Riley Horse Camp, climbs Zigzag Mountain and runs along the top of its long ridge. Riders who tough out the loop’s elevation gain and steep traverses are rewarded with fabulous views of Mt. Hood and the surrounding foothills, and from one panoramic vantage point you’ll see Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Rainier as well.
In season, the wildflowers are stunning.
Cast Lake is a pretty, snow-fed lake that offers the only stock water on the trail.
The Cast Creek Trail #773 departs from the day-use staging area on the east side of Riley Horse Camp. In 0.3 mile it crosses Road 382, and begins climbing steadily.
After about 2 miles you’ll come out on the crest of a ridge, which you’ll follow for the next 2.5 miles, still climbing. Along this stretch you’ll have some great views of Mt. Hood.
After this the trail levels out. Turn right on the Zigzag Mtn. Trail #775 and follow it 0.2 mile, then turn right on the Cast Lake Trail #796. In 0.5 mile you’ll reach Cast Lake and your horse can get a drink, though grazing is not permitted in the fragile environment around the lake. Return to the Zigzag Mtn. Trail and turn right.
In 0.2 mile the Devils Tie Trail #767 goes off to the left. Stay right on the Zigzag Mountain Trail, which makes one last ascent up a steep and rocky slope. At the top you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of Mt. Hood. Tie your horse and climb the rock outcropping to also see Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Jefferson.
About 1.6 miles after that, turn right on the Horseshoe Ridge Trail and begin your descent. This section of trail traverses some steep hillsides, then switchbacks down the nose of the ridge.
After 2.3 miles you’ll cross an overgrown gravel road, and 0.5 mile later you’ll cross gravel Road 382. The trail continues to descend for another couple of miles, traversing some steep slopes and crossing a couple of short stretches of loose shale along the way.
At the bottom of the ridge the trail crosses Lost Creek. Horses ford the creek to the left of the hiker bridge. The creek isn’t deep, but it is wide and rocky. The remaining mile of trail back to the horse camp is almost level and has sandy footing.
Trail Statistics: The Cast Lake Loop is 14 miles round trip. Elevations are 2,050 to 4,850 feet. The trail is challenging, with big elevation gains, steep slopes to traverse, and some stretches of rocky tread. Stock water is available on the trail. The best maps are Adventure Map’s Mt. Hood and NW Oregon map and the Mt. Hood Wilderness map.
Getting to Riley Horse Camp: From Portland, take Hwy. 26 east toward Mt. Hood. In the town of Zigzag, turn north on Lolo Pass Road (Road 18). Continue 4 miles, then veer right on Road 1825 and drive approximately 0.7 mile. Bear right and cross the Sandy River bridge, then continue another 0.5 mile to Road 382. Turn right, cross the bridge over Lost Creek, and turn right into the campground.
Season: Summer through fall.
Parking and Camping Facilities: Day-use parking area, plus 14 campsites (6 sites have corrals, and the rest have hitching rails or tie stalls). One site is pull-through; the rest are back-in. All sites are level and graveled, and most have room for 2 trailers. Stock water, vault toilets, manure dumpsters. Fee for overnight camping; Northwest Forest Pass required for day use.
More Information: The Cast Lake Loop trail is covered in more detail in the Riley Horse Camp chapter of Riding Northwest Oregon Horse Trails, by Kim McCarrel, Ponderosa Press, 2013).