Likely due to a somewhat flat and unimpressive approach, this fun little treeline area sees little action even while Peagravel ridge is getting hammered. While it’s not as tall or as steep as Newton Canyon, Little Zig-Zag offers some of the rare skiable treeline terrain on Mt Hood. Much of this area is skiable even during bad storms, though of course judgment must be employed as it’s certainly steep enough to slide and it offers 3/4 of the compass in aspects.
With an easy approach from Timberline, I’ve skied here countless times. It’s possible to tour in this area, particularly the meadows on the approach, without entering avalanche terrain, and it can make for enjoyable solo skiing when avalanche danger and snow depth are both limited. The Little Zig-Zag area itself is full of nooks and crannies. There is more local terrain variation here than in most Mt Hood environments. While the head of the valley may be wind blasted, the Short-Chute may be sheltered (or wind-loaded) and the Western wall by Little E is often leeward and sheltered. When spring corn comes around or winter conditions are more stable, longer runs can be made into the head of the valley. The run 200-Turns is effectively a continuation of the Zig-zag glacier ski run, and combining the two in good conditions makes for a ski run whose length is measured in miles. Exploring the trees downhill during poor weather will reveal mature timber adequately spaced for skiing, though altitude becomes a problem if descending too far.
A note on nomenclature: I refer to this area as Little Zig-Zag. This is technically incorrect as following this drainage downhill will lead to the Zig-Zag river. Still, I have two reasons for keeping the name. The first is that there is a Zig-Zag canyon proper, just over the ridge to the West. The named run Little AK descends into Zigzag canyon. This territory below Mississippi head has a lot of potential for skiing, but it’s geographically distinct. Zig-Zag canyon proper is huge, offers daunting avalanche terrain and a promising terrain trap, as Little AK ends in cliffs above a river. Thus, I prefer to call the area Little Zig-Zag in contrast to the size of this terrain. The second reason is that the true Little Zig-Zag canyon, which is crossed when approaching this area from Timberline, does not offer skiing of its own. It is an eroded water channel which is simple a terrain trap for the skier approaching what I call Little Zig-Zag. However flawed this logic, it has worked for me thus far, and multiple other skiers refer to the area similarly.
From Timberline parking lot, begin skinning at the West end of Timberline lodge, past the main entrance. Skin West, initially following a cat track before cutting into the woods and crossing several ski runs. Be very aware of downhill riders, even in the woods, keep an eye out for snowcats, and be particularly careful when crossing the terrain park. Avoid gaining altitude if possible (that’s the only time you’ll ever hear me say that). After leaving the ski area, continue to largely hold the same altitude while skinning west, passing above obstacles if need be. A couple of small gullies provide good test slopes as you cross them. Eventually you will reach Little Zig-Zag canyon proper, an obstacle which must be passed safely. About 100′ deep, this gully is a significant terrain trap, and it has caused an avalanche accident in recent years. In early season, this is too rocky to cross, and passing it may require ascending 1000′ upwards until it peters out and can be safely crossed. In touchy avalanche conditions, descending along the edge of the canyon and crossing where there is more dense tree cover is recommended. Always limit exposure by having no more than one skier in the gut of the gully at a time.
After crossing the Little Zig-Zag canyon itself, begin a gently rising traverse across several meadows until reaching the edge of the Little Zig-Zag ski zone. The area can be entered from near the top, which is more exposed, or lower along the eastern flank, where there are more trees. Both of these entrances are steep enough to produce avalanches.
As mentioned in the introduction, the Little Zig-Zag ski area offers a number of possible runs with varying aspects, angles, and terrain features. Some of the runs have been named by my friends and I for ease of reference. These are briefly described below. A standard route would enter the area via Short Chute or Three Sheets, ascend the sub-ridge just below Little-E, ski 1+ laps on Little E/Dogleg, exit via Three Sheets or up the ridge above Dog Leg to the Zig-Zag glacier.
Short Chute: A couloir-esque run beginning in a small bowl, narrowing to a choke with a change of direction, and finishing on a more southerly aspect. A good entrance to the zone in good snow. Be aware of changing aspect mid-run as well as the possibility for cross-loading.
Three Sheets: Named for the feeling of being off-kilter, this run has increasingly sparse, small trees and a double fall-line. This is an intermediate hazard entrance that delivers you to the same place as Short Chute but with a bit more protection. True protection is only offered by the more-dense trees downhill.
Little E: Short but excellent. Often more sheltered or softly wind-loaded with good snow. If you can get here safely, it can make for a good run under iffy conditions.
Dog-leg: Guess what, this turns half way. Approached via the ridge atop Little E, this longer run goes first Southwest, then South, with a steeper finish than it’s start. Fun in soft snow, more likely to be wind-scoured at the top.
200 Turns: The next hour of the clock over from Dog-leg, this run goes all the way to the top. It’s easiest to approach from the bottom or from the ridge atop Little E, as coming in from the top it can be hard to identify this entrance vs. skiing down into Zig-Zag canyon. Most likely of the named runs to be wind-scoured, this can be a true gem when adorned with corn snow.
Little AK: One of these things is not like the other. This run drops into Zig-Zag canyon from near the top of Dog Leg, and it’s a ski run on a larger scale. In good snow, this is an amazing place to ski, but be sure of stability because this huge slope is definitely steep and ends in a cliff above a river. I’ve looked at it many times and walked away. I’ve also skied it in perfect conditions, and it might have been one of my best days on Mt Hood.
Return as you came. The skintrack out of the Little Zig-Zag zone is usually broken up the treed slope of Three Sheets. Alternately, in good weather you can climb much higher than your approach onto the lower Zig-Zag glacier, and ski all the way back to the car rather than skinning through the trees. Keep in mind that conditions in the Little Zig-Zag gully may have changed since your approach.