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Cairn Basin from Top Spur Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Mount Hood rises above tarns below McNeil Point (Tom Kloster)
Mountain gentian blooming near Cairn Basin (Tom Kloster)
Cairn Basin in July (Tom Kloster)
Eden Park from below Cairn Basin (Tom Kloster)
  • Start point: Top Spur TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Cairn Basin
  • Trail Log: Trail Log
  • Distance: 8.7 miles round-trip to Cairn Basin
  • Elevation gain: 2200 feet
  • High Point: 5,740 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Seasons: July - November* Family Friendly: Yes, for older kids
  • Backpackable: Yes - follows the Timberline Trail
  • Crowded: Summer weekends

Contents

Description

Cairn Basin is one of the few spots where an original Timberline Trail stone shelter still stands. The basin if filled with wildflowers in July and August, and nearby Eden Park can easily be combined with this destination. This hike also visits the spectacular slopes of Bald Mountain, glacial streams, alpine meadows and a pair of scenic tarns below McNeil Point, so there is something for everyone. If you have a lot of energy, you can even add McNeil Point (and another 1.6 miles and several hundred feet of additional elevation gain) to the itinerary.

From the Top Spur Trailhead, follow the heavily used Top Spur trail through handsome, old-growth noble fir forest for one half mile before joining the Pacific Crest Trail (no. 2000). Turn right, and immediately arrive at a confusing junction of four trails. The trail to the right is the continuation of the Pacific Crest Trail, and the routes to the left and straight ahead are the Timberline Trail (no. 600). While you could go left on the Timberline Trail to reach McNeil Point (which would save about 0.6 mile), a much more scenic option is to go straight on the other leg of the Timberline Trail for a spectacular traverse around Bald Mountain. Following this option, pass the wilderness registration sign, and continue through dense forest until you abruptly reach the steep meadows of Bald Mountain. The Muddy Fork of the Sandy River rushes down from the mountain more than 2,000 feet below.

Continue around Bald Mountain, and more stunning views until you enter a wooded area. Watch for an obvious cut-off trail on the left (marked with a brand-new sign as of summer 2015) that climbs a low saddle and quickly joins the other fork of the Timberline Trail. If you miss this informal route, you will reach a log stile after a short distance - so backtrack from here to find the use path. Stop where the use path reaches the northern leg of the Timberline Trail, and remember the north junction, should you want to follow the scenic route again on your return trip. (You can also follow the main trail back to the four-way junction from here.)

To continue to McNeil Point, turn right and continue uphill through more noble fir forest, passing the McGee Creek Trail (no. 627) at mile 1.6 (4370') and another wilderness registration sign. The route continues up the spine of an increasingly narrow ridge, and at the 2.5 mile mark, reach the first of two steep meadows, with even better views of the mountain. McNeil Point is now the obvious bluff straight ahead.

This makes a good destination for a moderate hike, though the crowds thin out above this point. After the second steep meadow, a short side trail leads up to a high spot at 5133' elevation. This is a good spot for lunch or another possible camp spot.

The trail now loses a bit of elevation, then climbs more steeply. After a couple switchbacks, at mile 3.3 (5260'), there is a faint trail going right (uphill) that leads up to a steep and potentially dangerous shortcut up the face of McNeil Point; this "scramble trail" should be attempted ONLY by experienced hikers. After a few more switchbacks, the main trail reaches a steep, rushing tributary of McGee Creek. Just before this stream is another faint unmarked shortcut that dead-ends in a short distance.

The main trail crosses more streams, one a miniature Ramona Falls, before leveling off in more open country, with lush meadows and stands of ancient mountain hemlock. Pass a huge scree slope of andesite boulders below McNeil Point, then cross a wildflower-choked stream before arriving at a pair of picturesque tarns that photographers will want to spend some time at. Some people refer to these as the "McNeil Ponds". The main trail goes between them, then continues upward to the right. A side trail goes past the second pond, then up to a meadow, then up to a possible camp spot.

From here the main trail climbs to a junction, at mile 3.9 (5600') with the Mazama Trail (no. 625, formerly known as the Cathedral Ridge Trail) on the left. A short distance down this side trail is a pond and a campsite, and 3.1 miles down to the Mazama Trailhead. In about 0.1 miles the main trail reaches a seasonal stream coming down an alpine valley. Just before the stream is a side trail going up to a campsite. An old trail described in several hiking guides heads up the valley, but this route has been closed to help the alpine meadows recover from heavy use. Continue another 0.2 miles to the new route to McNeil Point, which replaces this older route, marked with a sign "McNeil Point".

Continue past the McNeil Point Trail junction as the Timberline Trail drops into the canyon holding the tumbling outlet from the Glisan Glacier. This stream can pose a crossing hazard in early summer and on hot afternoons, so cross carefully. Beyond the crossing, the Timberline Trail rounds a ridge, then curves into the valley holding Cairn Basin and Eden Park. To visit Cairn Basin, stay straight after crossing the often dry outlet stream, and walk through dense mountain hemlock forest to campsites and the old stone shelter at mile 4.7 (5700').

The stone shelter has a large open front with protection on three sides. The roof drips when it's raining. It's good to keep this in mind if you were desperate in a storm.

There are a couple campsites near the shelter, a couple more on the other side of the trail, and more if you continue a little further on the trail. In the summer there can be a number of parties here but there's enough room so it's not too bad.

To reach Eden Park, turn left at the trail fork (Timberline-Eden Park Loop Junction) near the outlet stream, and continue downhill for one-half mile, passing through lovely hillside meadows and views of Eden Park and the Washington Cascades.

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Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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