McNeil Point Hike
From Oregon Hikers Field Guide
- Start point: Top Spur Trailhead
- End point: McNeil Point Shelter
- Trail Log: McNeil Point Hike/Log
- Distance: 10.4 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 2200 feet
- High Point: 6,100 feet
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Seasons: July - November
- Family Friendly: Yes, for older kids
- Backpackable: Yes - follows the Timberline Trail
- Crowded: Summer weekends
The Timberline Trail was originally planned to climb high above the Muddy Fork, and over the rocky alpine buttress of McNeil Point. But after construction had begun, trail builders realized that the route would not be possible to build, due to the terrain and persistent snowfields. Yet, a stone shelter had already been built at McNeil Point, and has been a favorite destination of hikers ever since.
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".
Take the McNeil Point Trail. Follow this sometimes sketchy route through a stunted forest of mountain hemlock and subalpine fir as it winds its way up a swale. The route begins to follow a low ridge, with ever more spectacular views of the mountain ahead. At mile 4.5 (5900') the trail reaches a saddle devoid of vegetation, a fine viewpoint of the mountain towering above stunted trees. If you have the time and energy, a boot path descends to the left from the point where the main trail curves right, away from the ridge. The informal trail crosses the outflow from Glisan Glacier, and leads to lush meadows and a fine campsite in the grove of mountain hemlock at the lower end of the meadows. It is possible, but difficult, to continue all the way to Barrett Spur, the high point on the left side of Mount Hood.
Back on the McNeil Point trail, from the saddle, the trail crosses a scree slope that can have snow late into the summer, then curves above a picturesque valley. There are several campsites below the trail. One campsite is on a faint trail going along a rocky ridge. There is a great view down to "the ponds" just below. From "the ponds" this cliff is very prominent. The trail now crosses the year-round headwaters of McGee Creek, then crosses another scree slope before traversing up to McNeil Ridge. This can be hazardous to cross until after the snow has cleared late in the summer, and shouldn’t be attempted otherwise. Look back the way you came because it's a bit tricky finding the route on the return.
The trail soon reaches the broad table of McNeil Point. Follow the lower path at a fork, and arrive at the historic stone shelter one-quarter mile from the crest. From this airy spot, you can spot Lost Lake, far below, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. You can also see your route across Bald Mountain, far below. The graceful pyramid of Mt. Hood towers above. This is at mile 5 (5900').
If you're still not tired yet, there is a trail that continues up the ridge from here. After about 0.4 miles there is a high point to the left at 6700'. You can go down from here on the ridge directly to the saddle. A little before the saddle the route leaves the ridge and joins the McNeil Point Trail. Or, continue further up McNeil Ridge another 0.2 miles to 7100'. There is a camp spot "carved out" of the rock. When you're finally tired enough, it's best to go back the way you came and not follow the steep, dangerous trail that drops below the shelter to the Timberline Trail.
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Related Discussions / Q&A
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Guidebooks that cover this destination
- 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Portland, by Paul Gerald