Camping / Hiking / Pacific Northwest

My First Time Backpacking with a Toddler: Mirror Lake Camping

Last Updated: September 14, 2020

The Mirror Lake trail is one of my favorite hikes near Mt Hood. It’s also one of everyone’s favorite hikes so it can get pretty busy on the trail on a hot day. And just forget the weekend if it’s summer. :P It’s one the shortest Mt Hood hikes near Portland that has a pretty high reward of the lake “mirroring” Mt Hood in the water. (Yeah, thus the “Mirror Lake” name!) The trail used to be 1.5 miles up to the lake, but after moving the trailhead east closer to SkiBowl, in 2018, it’s now 2.2 miles up! So 4.4 miles round trip. For camping at Mirror Lake, we just had 2.2 miles each day. Here’s why I picked Mirror Lake for my first time backpacking with a toddler and tips I learned.

Mirror Lake Camping

Last month, I took my toddler on the Mirror Lake hike. It was kind of a trial hike to see if taking him backpacking would be doable. I’d been thinking we could do a one night camping trip. The trail is steep, but fairly short. And since he’d already hiked it once, it would be easier again, even though I would be carrying a 35+ pound backpack for camping! So one weekday I just started packing for the next day. And after a late night text to a girlfriend to see if she wanted to meet us up there, we were set.

The next morning, we drove to the trailhead. It was already pretty busy and only a few spots left, even for a weekday. It took my almost three year old and me three hours to make the two miles up to the lake. And the next day it took three more to get back down. Overall it was a really fun adventure and I’m so proud of him for persevering. There were tears. Toddler hiking can be really dramatic. There were mosquito bites. No thanks. But most of all there were laughs and s’mores and hammock swings, and so much playing in the lake.

Tips for Backpacking with a Toddler:

backpacking with a toddler means toddler on strike!
Toddler on strike! Taking a break on the hike down.
  1. Go for one night. Worst-case, I knew we just had to get through this one night and it was fewer supplies to carry!
  2. Stay close to home. We were just over an hour away from home, which also felt good
  3. Pick a short hike. We had a 2.2 miles up and 640′ elevation and same down the next day.
  4. There will be drama. There will be drama regardless if you have a two year old, so it just depends on how comfortable you are with other people witnessing your meltdowns. :P
  5. Bring a friend! For you, not for them! Ha! I almost went solo with my kiddo, but I really did enjoy having another adult to spend time with.
  6. Do car camping first! We already had gone car/tent camping a couple times this summer. So he was used to the general idea of camping. And I also had my camping checklist pretty dialed in so getting ready was fairly simple.

I guess what some of those things have in common is low expectations: Keep it small, short and close! And here are a few pictures from the trip…

Mirror Lake Camping pictures

Mirror Lake Camping:

Hike in: 4.4 miles roundtrip and 640 feet of elevation gain. Note: the original Mirror Lake trailhead and trail has been decommissioned. This new trailhead opened in 2018 and is right next to Ski Bowl. It has a much larger parking area (although it still fills up fast) and two bathrooms and info board etc. So the first mile is a new trail that crosses about 10 bridges by Camp Creek and then it joins what the old trail was and continues on to the lake. Check Oregon Hikers for the latest.

Good to know: There are lots of mosquitos on this hike! By the time you reach the lake you will want to swim or splash. A lot of people bring floats up.

Parking: Northwest Forest Pass required in summer. If you don’t have an annual pass, then you’ll need to buy two day passes if you plan to camp overnight. $5/day epass

Camping: When you’re almost to the lake, you come to a sign that points you to the right to campsites and Tom, Dick and Harry hike. There are a handful of sites here, and then more up on the trail toward Tom, Dick and Harry. As a young kid’s first backpacking trip, the lake sites are nice for proximity to playing in the water and just a shorter 2.2 mile hike. Otherwise the sites higher up the mountain might be more private and feel more like a backpacking trip vs a short hike.

Have you been backpacking with a toddler? Do share!

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