McNeil Cabin (~5,100′)
Hikes: McNeil Point
As a family who loves hikes “in the Gorge,” it was with a large dose of surprise that we found a hike that was in the vicinity but, oh, so different. This hike was definitely not the typical waterfall and wildflower excursion. Instead of the Gorge it is the Cascades. It is a flower-filled hike and a good one.
The car travel took us past Zigzag, Oregon, and the Sandy River, up and over Lolo Pass to the Top Spur Trailhead in the Mount Hood Wilderness. The cellphone coverage died immediately after we left Rt. 26 and the brilliant sights of the rivers and the alpine treasures started to come into view. The Sandy River was to our right, and a bridge soon took us over the river and up a steady incline to an area cleared for the high tension wires. The electricity was coursing through the crackling wires at the speed of light, bringing energy from Bonneville (the Columbia River generators) toward civilization.
The Top Spur Trailhead was getting crowded when we arrived (9:30am on a Friday in July) and the mud, roots, and ruts were deep and well worn. It felt as if the topsoil had been pounded down by pack animals, as the ruts were 2 feet deep and the roots of the adjacent old-growth fir trees were completely exposed. We saw the beginnings of the bear grass and the ground coverings of miniature dogwood, which proved a great backdrop for the rhododendron, just coming into bloom.
After about 20 minutes of walking and deep breathing, we came upon the junction that was the Pacific Crest Trail. Having done very little walking on the PCT (but being Cheryl Strayed fans) we were pleased to be on high ground and relatively flat terrain for the next few miles.
We could go left or right at the junction and chose the more scenic route that took us on the traverse of Bald Mountain. We hit the path briskly and enjoyed the relative serenity of the walk through the fir, hemlock, cedar and spruce forests. We were able to take in the stunning views of Mt. Hood, as we rounded one of the exposed bends on the trail. There are never too many ways or angles to see Mount Hood. It is only 11,250 feet, or about the height of Mt. Taylor in New Mexico (11,305) high desert, but when you are looking up at Hood from 4,000 feet it is extraordinarily beautiful.
The geology of the area is also dramatic, although this “non-extinct” strato-volcano has not spewed its lava since 1907. It’s last major eruptions were 1,500 years ago and in 1790. It has been pouring out lava layers over the landscape for the past 1.5 million years and a large chuck of what we think of as Oregon lava, came from Hood over the last 500,000 years.
We saw the “obvious cut-off trail” to the Timberline Trail, but did not read the guide pages carefully enough and strolled right on by. Instead we landed smack dab in the Big Muddy River valley. If we had more closely followed the guide sheet and not the hikers ahead of us, we might have ended up on the right trail. Instead we tried to cross the river without getting wet.
I made it across and back the first time, in an effort to show Tracy it was possible. She saw the rushing water and the teetering plank and stood back. We tried a crossing a bit up stream, where it was shallower, but this time I slipped and fell knee deep in the river, soaked Pumas, pants and pride.
I retraced steps to the plank across the water and we decided to stay there and dry out a bit. Besides it was time to eat lunch and dry out my socks and shoes. Nothing like a cup of hot soup. This was the first time we had used a Yeti thermos for a hot meal. The Yeti was a gift from some wrestling parents at Lincoln High School, and those containers are amazing. A full 6 hours after the hot, bean soup was put into the thermos, it was still piping hot, no scalding hot, when we started to eat lunch. Cool breaths on the soup and it was a great antidote to wet pants and sleeves.
After lunch we walked up the side of the Big Muddy for a few hundred feet and lost the trail completely. Time to hike back to the car and lick my wounds.
The special treats on the return trip were the wildflowers and the bold views of Hood. The trip we had made to Dog Mountain the week before was 2,000 feet lower in elevation and the blooms of the balsam root and lupine were finished for the season. The elevation at the PCT is 4,000 feet, so twice the elevation for this trip today. That altitude makes all the difference as the wild flowers were just hitting their peak, and the Cow Parsley was not yet in flower. Those fantastic flowering species were a constant source of pleasure. Our favorites were the Avalanche Lilies and the Bear Grass … or was it the Columbine and the the Larkspur? The Lupine, Indian Paint Brush, Yarrow and Rhododendron all filled in the viewing gaps left from our last trip to the Gorge.
Add to that enjoyment the views of the tallest of the Cascades in Oregon, and it was all-in-all a great day on the trail. We missed about half of the trail up to the old cabin on McNeil Point (supposed to be 10.4 miles round trip), so we will have to come again another time to finish the trip.
When we left the trail, the parking area had expanded to both sides of the road and down about a mile down from the trailhead. We will be sure to remember to show up early and on a less-busy weekday the next time to McNeil Point.