Posted by Josh Baker
Just over twenty minutes after leaving the Top Spur trailhead, I reached one of the classic Oregon hiking viewpoints. Mount Hood looms large over the steep, bare flanks of Bald Mountain and the silvery strands of the Muddy Fork far below. There is barely a spot wide enough to get comfortable for a photo. The sun is in my face, so the first photos with my new Nikon don’t come out well. Soon I dipped back into the trees, but this sort of spot is always a good start to a hike.
My destination was the old CCC shelter at McNeil Point and the alpine terrain above it. I’d been there a few times, but I’d never climbed above the shelter toward the upper reaches of Cathedral Ridge. The hike is casual for the most part. There are two great viewpoints along the way, one of which even has nice rock perches.
The Timberline Trail doesn’t officially go to the McNeil Point shelter, but there is spur trail heading up there. There is also a steep climber’s trail which takes off alongside a tiny creek. I missed it on my way by but found it after hopping across a rockslide. This is much shorter than taking the official trail, but it is also much steeper—not for the faint of heart.
The shelter was as I remembered, a stone remnant of one of FDR’s stimulus programs. It is a great spot to relax and absorb the views, with the glaciers and craggy ridges of the mountain looming above, and views into the maw of the Muddy Fork’s canyon below. Across the canyon, the bulk of Yocum Ridge is enticing. To the north, Mounts St. Helens, Rainier and Adams are all visible.
Upwards. A hiker’s trail headed up through the alpine tundra world. Vistas reminded me of the alpine scenes in The Sound of Music. Serious. I was feeling out of shape, so I took my time to snap photos and stay hydrated.
40 minutes of hiking above the shelter, the trail vanishes and I wandered along a craggy ridgeline. At first it was mere rock hopping, but eventually I needed to use my hands, and I finally had to commit to climbing with a lot of exposure. The experience was reminiscent of the landscape along nearby Barrett Spur as well as the epic ridge traverse I did between Sacagawea and Matterhorn in the Wallowas in 2012. (Those are each classic Oregon hiking scrambles as well, but the traverse on the latter trip is only for seasoned alpine hikers.)
The ridge was far more rugged than it had appeared from below, which is a good thing in my book. Tough scrambling was worth it to stare at the face of Mount Hood from this vantage. It might not be as tall as a lot of peaks, but it is, to borrow the old Columbia Sportswear ad, one tough mother.
White wispy clouds gradually grew, and the skies slowly darkened. Time to get going. Other hikers appeared below along a grassy sub ridge adjacent to the Sandy Glacier. I wondered if they were on a decent path, and I decided it looked like a safer route down.
When I descended, I found no trail, and the hikers had vanished. Some ridiculous talus slope hopping ensued. Rocks teetered underfoot and slid on the micro-pebbles beneath. It’s a broken ankle waiting to happen. In retrospect, this was not my best choice, but I didn’t want to lose too much elevation.
Eventually I traversed back to the path and enjoyed the last of the killer views before clouds cloaked the volcano. With my scrambles on top of trail hiking, I probably ventured 10 or 11 miles, which is relatively modest, but more than 3000 feet of elevation gain and challenging scrambles made it a very respectable day in the mountains.
I would be sore the next day, but it was worth it. I hadn’t known what to expect from the terrain. What I found was an experience that fits perfectly in the pantheon of classic Oregon hiking trips.