Close your eyes and try to imagine your best mountain trail ever. Got the image in your mind? Now, describe it. Does it feature a pleasant mountain trail that’s not too challenging? Does it include spectacular mountain views and acres and acres of wildflowers? Do the views make you want to start singing, “The Hills are Alive”? Well then, you’ve just imagined the Paradise Park Trail on Mt. Hood.
Paradise Park is a huge alpine meadow situated above the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on the west side of Mt. Hood. If you are there four to six weeks after the snow melts you’ll be treated to a dazzling display of wildflowers, with Mt. Hood towering in all its splendor above the meadow.
There are three ways to reach Paradise Park. The shortest route is on the PCT from Timberline Lodge, but along the way the trail switchbacks nearly 1,000 feet down into Zigzag Canyon in 1.5 miles, then climbs just as steeply up the other side. You can also ride to Paradise Park from Riley Horse Camp, though this route is quite long and challenging.
The most horse-friendly route follows the Paradise Park Trail #778. At 12 miles round trip, the route is too long for it to be appealing to most hikers, but it’s just right for horses. The trail runs along the spine of a ridge above the Zigzag River. You’ll slowly but steadily gain 3,000 feet of elevation in about 6 miles – very manageable for horses that are in moderate shape. This route has a few steep side slopes, but they are covered with trees so they don’t feel too intimidating. In late July/early August you’ll find only one small stream where you can water your horse, about 4.5 miles from the trailhead.
About 0.9 miles after crossing the horse-watering stream, the Zigzag Mountain Trail #775 goes off to the left. Stay right, and in another 0.5 mile you’ll reach the PCT and the trail into Paradise Park.
Horses aren’t allowed in fragile Paradise Park, so you’ll need to tie them at the hitching rail you’ll find at the junction of the Paradise Park Trail and the PCT and then continue up into the park on foot.
The 0.6-mile trail from the PCT into Paradise Park climbs steadily, but you’ll be rewarded for your exertions with wildflower displays that become increasingly riotous the higher you hike. Purple lupine, orange Indian paintbrush, white Sitka valerian, and creamy spikes of bear grass are breathtakingly arrayed across the rolling hills. Mt. Hood soars overhead, providing the perfect backdrop for your best wildflower photos ever. Do not forget to take your camera.
Trail Statistics: The round trip to Paradise Park is 12 miles, going from 2,800 feet to 5,800 feet in elevation. Hoof protection is recommended. The trail is open summer through fall, and there is stock water along the trail.
Getting There: To reach Paradise Park Trailhead, take Hwy. 26 to the town of Zigzag on the west side of Mt. Hood. Continue on Hwy. 26 east of Zigzag for 6.2 miles, then turn left on Kiwanis Camp Road (Road 2639) and you’ll reach the Paradise Park trailhead in 1.3 miles. Trailer parking is limited here, so continue another 0.8 mile to the Hidden Lake trailhead and turn around there, then return to the Paradise Park trailhead and park on the side of this lightly-traveled road.
Trailhead Facilities: Paradise Park trailhead has a toilet and roadside parking for several trailers. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.
More Information: The Paradise Park Trail is covered in the Riley Horse Camp chapter of Riding Northwest Oregon Horse Trails, by Kim McCarrel, (Ponderosa Press, 2013)
Reprinted with permission from Northwest Rider Magazine, July 2014.