Elk Cove Avalanche!

Mount Hood from Elk Cove in 2021

When it comes to bucolic alpine scenes on Mount Hood, it’s hard to beat Elk Cove. From the spectacular wildflower gardens that line ice-cold Cove Creek to the sweeping views of Mount Hood and the mighty Coe Glacier, the cove serves up one postcard scene after another. 

But behind the mountain scenery are some very wild winters. The same steep walls that give Elk Cove its alpine beauty are also a setup for powerful avalanches. These mostly originate on the lower slopes of Barrett Spur and sweep across the cove with surprising regularity. 

Mount Hood in 1931 from the same spot as the previous photo, when trees were more sparse at Elk Cove

Early photos of Elk Cove suggest that avalanches were once even more devastating than what we experience today, and probably more frequent, judging by the advancing stands of Mountain Hemlock that have since spread across the cove. The change is most likely a reflection of our warming climate and declining snowpack in recent decades, but winter continues to take its toll. Major avalanches still roar into the cove with regularity, leveling trees and leaving piles of debris in their wake.

The shell of the old CCC stone shelter at Elk Cove as it appeared in the early 1960s, after being hit by numerous avalanches over the prior 30 years

When the Timberline Trail was built through Elk Cove in the early 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed one of their many iconic stone shelters here, one of six that were built along the trail. They couldn’t have known the site they picked was perhaps the most exposed to avalanches of any spot within the cove, and by the early 1960s, the shelter had already been badly damaged. Today, only a few rocks mark the shelter’s former location.

The 2021 Elk Cove Avalanche

Sometime last winter, yet another avalanche swept off the lower slopes of Barrett Spur, once again landing very near where the old stone CCC shelter had once stood. The debris field left behind by the avalanche was easily spotted by hikers ascending Barrett Spur over the summer, and it is also visible from the Timberline Trail where it enters the Elk Cove.

The following schematic shows Elk Cove and the path of the 2021 avalanche in relation to Mount Hood:

[click here for a larger version of this schematic]

This schematic gives a more detailed view of Elk Cove and the approximate path of the 2021 avalanche, including the steep wall along Barrett Spur that is so prone to avalanches (the Timberline Trail is shown in dashed yellow):

[click here for a larger version of this schematic]

From the ground, the debris field left where the avalanche came to rest is striking. This series of views looking down from 99 Ridge (which forms the west wall of Elk Cove) show where the avalanche stopped, and the debris it left behind:

Mount Hood and the 2021 Elk Cove avalanche site

Closer view of Elk Cove and the avalanche debris field

More detailed view of the avalanche debris field

This detailed view from above gives a sense of scale to the hundreds of trees that were caught up in the avalanche and swept into Elk Cove

The debris comes into view where the Timberline Trail curves into the west meadow of Elk Cove, along beautiful Cove Creek. Most hikers were likely too busy looking at the wildflowers along the trail this summer to notice the pile of logs just around the bend, but for regular visitors, the avalanche debris was startling!

Elk Cove avalanche and Cove Creek from the Timberline Trail

The origin of the avalanche can be read from the orientation of the many trees caught up in the wave of snow and ice, as they generally point in the direction of the flow. The schematic below shows the path the avalanche took into Elk Cove before the snow and debris finally came to a stop last winter:

[click here for a larger version of this schematic]

Up close, the awesome power of the avalanche becomes apparent. Whole trees were snapped off and stacked like cordwood in a debris pile as much as 20-foot deep.

The avalanche swept down from the slopes of Barrett Spur (to the right in this view), as indicated by the felled trees pointing to the left, in the direction of the flow

In a typical winter, Elk Cove might have 15-20 feet of snow on the ground, and this snowpack is why small trees on steep mountain slopes are often spared from avalanches, since they are buried under heavy snow in winter. In the view below, the winter snowpack also protected the lush wildflower gardens that line the upper reaches of Cove Creek (seen in the distance), with the avalanche sweeping across these gentle slopes before finally settling on the floor of the cove.

The beautiful wildflower meadows in the upper reaches of Cove Creek were spared from the debris thanks to being on gently sloped terrain and under a blanket of winter snow when the avalanche swept through

Large trees aren’t so fortunate. If they’ve managed to escape avalanches along the base of Barrett Spur long enough to grow taller than the winter snowpack, it’s only luck. In time, most of the taller trees in Elk Cove will be swept away by future avalanches. 

This panoramic view of the 2021 avalanche gives a sense of the scale of the event, with the sprawling pile of debris covering roughly 2-3 acres:

Panoramic view of the 2021 Elk Cove avalanche

[click here for a larger version of the panorama]

By early August, when these photos were taken, it would be easy to think the avalanche was just a pile of trees roaring down the mountain, but in fact, this debris is what’s left now that most of the snow and ice has melted away. Look closely, and you can see that a layer of snow and ice has yet to melt away from under the pile when this photo was taken:

6-10 feet of snow still remains under the debris pile as of early August

The 2021 avalanche dumped part of its debris on top of Cove Creek, but the stream made quick work of the pile over the winter. By summer, it had already melted an extensive tunnel under the mountain of snow, ice and debris (below).

Cove Creek carved this snow cave under the debris pile following the avalanche

The huge pile of snow left in Elk Cove by the avalanche brought another surprise: some of the earliest blooming wildflowers were still just emerging in early August, thanks to the extra snow depth left behind by the avalanche. Among these was Western Pasque Flower, a species of Anemone that blooms within a couple weeks of snowmelt, and therefore rarely see by hikers. In fact, most know this beautiful wildflower by its whimsical seed heads, and by the name “Old Man of the Mountain”. The opening image in this article shows a field of Western Pasque Flower gone to seed.

Normally an early bloomer, this Western Pasque Flower was in bloom in early August, thanks to the late-melting margins of the avalanche debris field

How often to avalanches like this occur at Elk Cove? Probably every winter, though events large enough to topple trees seem to occur every 10 years or so, depending on snowpack and weather conditions. Avalanches are most common in mid-winter, when weak snow layers and heavy snowfalls can cause snow to begin to slide on steep mountain slopes. Once they begin, avalanches can travel nearly 60 miles per hour, giving them the destructive force to level forests and buildings in their path.

Ghosts Hiding in Plain Sight

While the 2021 avalanche at Elk Cove is impressive, it is by no means unusual. A look at aerial photos between 2010 and 2021 shows that another avalanche swept through the same area in about 2015. Based on the orientation of downed trees from his earlier event, it originated on some of the same slopes on Barrett Spur that produced the last winter’s avalanche.

In the air photo comparison, below, the location of the new, 2021 avalanche debris pile is marked in yellow. When the 2010 air photo was taken, the forests at the center of the image were intact, but by the summer of 2016, an avalanche had clearly swept through the area. Based on the lack of reddish/orange debris in the 2016 image – the color of recently killed trees – suggests that this avalanche occurred at least a year earlier. So, for the purpose of this article, I’ve described it as the “2015 Avalanche”, and marked its extend in green.

Air photos show the signs of a roughly 2015 avalanche that swept through the same part of Elk Cove as the 2021 event

In both the 2016 and 2018 views, the path of this earlier avalanche is clearly marked by downed trees that point in the direction (right to left) of the moving snow and ice. Though it impacted a larger area in the cove than the 2021 avalanche, the 2015 event brought less woody debris into the cove, suggesting that it originated on a less forested part of the west wall of Elk Cove. In fact, some of the trees in its path on the floor of the cove survived the avalanche, suggesting that the lack of woody debris in the 2015 event made it somewhat less destructive where it finally came to a stop.

While both of these avalanches are awesome reminders of the power of the elements in alpine country, Elk Cove has a few ghosts from the past that suggest much more fearsome events. Tucked into one of the mature, forested “tree islands” at Elk Cove is a ghost tree that give mute testimony to just how powerful an avalanche on Mount Hood can be. The stump of this ghost tree (below) is nearly four feet in diameter and was toppled many decades ago. 

This giant ghost tree at Elk Cove was toppled long ago by a very large avalanche

This old ghost was once a very large Mountain Hemlock before it was toppled. Today, its broken remains could easily be 100 years old, marking an avalanche that might have preceded the arrival of the Timberline Trail and those 1930s CCC crews on Mount Hood. 

How do we know this old tree was destroyed by an avalanche? The telltale sign is where the tree was snapped off, marking the level of the winter snowpack when the avalanche swept through, and its top is pointed downslope, in the direction the avalanche was moving. Thanks to long, cold winters and dry summers, the shattered remains of this old tree (and several others like it in the cove) have survived to tell the story. 

Since that big avalanche, several good-sized trees have grown up around the old ghost tree, helping put an approximate date of 70-100 years since any avalanche of this scale has swept through the heart of Elk Cove. And though it has been many decades since that event, the days of these younger trees are surely numbered, too, as another epic avalanche in Elk Cove is inevitable.

How to Visit

If you’re an able-bodied hiker, you can visit Elk Cove most easily from the Vista Ridge trailhead. It’s a 9-mile hike round trip, but with well-graded trails and no glacial streams to navigate. If you visit the avalanche debris field, please tread lightly, as the rustic path that once led to the upper reaches of Cove Creek was partly buried with debris, and the surrounding area is covered with a fragile meadow of Western Pasque Flower.

You can find a trail description here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide. Why, you might even know the author of this field guide entry..!

Tom Kloster | August 2021