Hiking Larch Mountain Crater // Oregon // A Failed Hike & The Art of Getting Lost

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Though I was exhausted from working a 12+ hour event on Sunday, I felt bad about neglecting nature all weekend long, so I tried to make up for it with what seemed like the ideal post-work hike… The Larch Mountain Crater Hike (not to be confused with the much longer Larch Mountain Hike) was less than 6 miles long, considered “moderate” in difficulty, and it was within 40 minutes of Portland.

I left a little early and was making good timing, despite a bout of traffic heading out of the city. I printed out OregonHikers.org’s directions to the trailhead and attempted to find it that way (I tend to be a Google Maps kind of navigator), and I got lost. I probably tacked on 20-30 minutes in driving… Which totally cancelled out that “good timing.”

I arrived to the Larch Mountain trailhead shortly after 5 PM, and I was like, well whatever, I would normally be just leaving the office by now, and got started on my solo hike… In my brand new Asolo Tacoma hiking boots, by the way. The hike was mostly downhill, which I was pretty pumped about. I murdered 2 miles in 30 minutes. “At this rate, I’ll be back at the car within an hour!” I so very wrongly assumed.

asolo tacoma hiking boots

New kicks!

I passed a sign that I thought said “Multnomah Creek Trail →” indicating that I was about to be on the Multnomah Creek Trail, when in actuality, it said the “Multnomah Creek Trail, 0.5 [miles]→” This messed me up because the directions never mentioned turning right onto this trail and said you will approach a log bridge 2/10 of a mile after turning right onto the Multnomah Creek Trail. I assumed the “2/10” was a typo and continued hiking… Little did I know I passed the actual Multnomah Creek Trail (and the log bridge). I hiked about 2 more miles when I approached a log bridge – “This must be it!” I thought. But it wasn’t. It was about another .5 miles that I realized I definitely went the wrong way.

I turned back and saw the turn I missed (marked with an easy-to-miss sign)… So aggravating! I considered finishing off the hike I intended to do, but it was approaching sunset fast and I didn’t want to risk it. Instead, I stuck with the trail I knew (ya know, since I had just hiked it) and retreated back up hill to my car. I threw in an extra half mile trip to the Sherrard Point, to make my journey there at least a bit worth it.

Sherrard Point, Larch Mountain, Oregon

Sunset from Sherrard Point.

The moral of the story is not to pay better attention to trail signs (although that is a good idea), but to understand that mistakes and getting lost happens. I’m guessing even the best of hikers take a wrong turn once in a while. It’s important to accept it, and not associate “lost” with words like scared, helpless, and doomed. That will just cloud your mind with negative thoughts, when you should focus on logistics and reaching your end point safely.

Here are some tips to dealing with getting off trail, once you realize it:

1. First and foremost, stay calm.

Don’t waste time panicking… 98% of the time, getting lost is not a big deal. But you should know in which situations it is something to be concerned about – if you cannot find the trail, if it’s getting dark, if you don’t have necessities to survive the night, if you don’t have the ability (cell phone service) to contact help, or if you are injured/have a medical condition that needs to be treated.

2. Trust your instincts.

If you have a hunch that you are going the wrong way, you probably are. I should have trusted my instincts when the log bridge didn’t pop up after 2/10 of a mile, like the directions said. I would have saved myself the extra time and energy, and perhaps have found the right trail!

3. Pay attention to the time.

Keeping track of time can help you gauge whether you’re going the right direction; like if you’re supposed to walk one mile to a junction, it shouldn’t take you over an hour. It’s also good to be aware of how much daylight you have left and to base your choices on sunset – e.g. I chose to go back the way I came because I wasn’t sure if I could beat the dark.

4. Stay positive.

It’s easy to feel angry and frustrated when you mess up. When I figured out I went the wrong way, my initial reaction was: Ugh, I’m so stupid! I ruined my hike! But then I filled the glass half full… I thought about the positives. First, I knew where I was. Second, I was still hiking, which is what I wanted to do that day, afterall. Third, I even tacked on extra mileage and probably made the hike a bit more difficult, with the reverse all-uphill terrain. An unexpected yet appreciated workout!

5. Know when you need help.

Set limits (in mileage or minutes) for how far you’ll go before you need to seek help, also know what to do to get it — e.g. blowing a whistle three times (that’s code for “help!!”), staying in one place to make it easy for a rescuer to find you, or seeking cell phone service.

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But this trail did have some mighty fine trees — A much-needed distraction!

You’ll probably take a wrong turn at some point in your hiking journeys, so it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for it:

1. Always carry a map or hike directions.

I know I’m not the type of person who can remember a laundry list of “turn right here, turn left here,” so I always print out hike directions from OregonHikers.org and on bigger hikes, I carry a map of the entire area.

2. Memorize iconic items or scenes during your hike.

Get in the habit of observing your surroundings while hiking and taking mental notes on easy-to-see distinct features, like a giant fallen tree, an old campfire, or a bird’s nest. If you get lost and have to retrace your steps, these signifiers will serve as confirmation you’re on the right track.

3. Pack for the unexpected.

Throw in some Cliff Bars, a sweatshirt, and definitely make sure you have enough water. This is for a worst case scenario – like you’re stuck for the night, or multiple nights – so you probably won’t need it, but it’s comforting to know you have the supplies on hand.

4. Always tell someone where you’re going.

It takes less than a minute to text your friend, “Hey, btw, I’m going to Larch Mountain for a quick hike, will be done no later than 8 PM, I’ll text you after!” Make sure the same friend knows what to do and who to contact if you don’t return at a given time.

Have you ever been lost on the trail? What happened and what did you do?

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