It’s hard to overstate just how beautiful McNeil Point is. With wide open vistas, a glacier-capped volcanic peak and a historic stone shelter in a meadow of alpine wildflowers, it’s simply one of the best hiking destinations in Oregon.
Found on the northwest flank of Mount Hood, McNeil Point is far from a hidden gem. Beloved for generations, it now draws steady crowds of day hikers and backpackers each summer, there for the late-season wildflowers, backcountry campsites and, of course, the views.
Mount Hood views begin less than a mile into the hike, and they never let up from there. As you crest ridges, emerge from the forest and scramble up precipitous slopes, the volcanic peak is a near-constant companion, pulling you closer and closer all the time.
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Several trails crisscross this part of the mountain – including the long-distance Pacific Crest Trail and the Timberline Trail, which circumnavigates Mount Hood – meaning there are several ways to access McNeil Point.
The most popular is the 10- to 12-mile journey from the Top Spur Trailhead, about 80 minutes east of Portland. The busy trailhead is known to fill up early on summer weekends and sunny days, so those who don’t want to deal with crowds might want to hike on weekdays or at the break of dawn.
One alternative is the nearby McGee Creek Trailhead, a much smaller access point that cuts about a half-mile off the hike, but also cuts off one of the best views.
There are also a couple different ways to do the hike, regardless of which trailhead you choose. A straightforward out-and-back journey from the Top Spur Trailhead to the McNeil Point Shelter is about 12 miles on the main trails. However, many hikers like to use an unsigned, half-mile scramble trail that shortens the journey to 10 miles.
The steep, dusty and craggy scramble trail is very challenging, and should only be attempted by experienced hikers. It’s also best to go up the scramble trail, rather than down it: This is known as the “counterclockwise” route around the loop it creates at the end of the hike. Those who wish to tackle the scramble trail should print or download a trail map to make sure they find it on the way up.
However you get there, the viewpoint at the top of the hike is one you won’t soon forget.
The spot is named for Fred McNeil, an editor for The Oregon Journal who was also particularly passionate about Mount Hood, as an avid skier, hiker and explorer. In 1930, McNeil was also named the first president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Association, which he helped form.
McNeil died at the end of 1958, only months after his retirement. The next summer, a dozen mountaineer friends gathered on the northwest slopes of Mount Hood to scatter his ashes at a place they dubbed McNeil Point – a name later approved by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.
While that history may be lost on most hikers who ascend to that point today, many will share McNeil’s awe and love of the mountain landscape. An article announcing the journalist’s retirement said he had “a Druid’s reverence for the primitive” and his obituary said, “his attitude toward nature and all her works was almost worshipful.”
From the top of McNeil Point, it’s easy to feel reverent and worshipful yourself.
MCNEIL POINT HIKE
Distance: 10 to 12 miles
Amenities: portable toilet at trailhead
As mentioned above, McNeil Point can be accessed several different ways, including by long-distance hikers on the Pacific Crest and Timberline trails, and from the smaller McGee Creek Trailhead. However, the best and most popular way to get there is from the Top Spur Trailhead.
From Portland, take U.S. 26 east past Sandy to East Lolo Pass Road, found just across the street from the ZigZag Ranger Station in Rhododendron. Turn left on the road and continue for 4.2 miles. Turn right onto Muddy Fork Road (also known as Forest Road 1825), and in .7 miles continue straight onto Forest Road 1828. In 5.6 miles, stay right at the fork to head up a rougher gravel road, and in about 1.5 miles you’ll arrive at the trailhead parking lot.
The trail runs steadily uphill into the forest from the trailhead, and in .5 miles it comes to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, where you’ll also need to stop to fill out a wilderness permit. From the permit station, go right and stay right to take the lower arm of the Timberline Trail around Bald Mountain.
The trail will soon emerge from the forest onto an open cliffside with a spectacular view of Mount Hood. Soak it in, but know it won’t be your last look at the mountain.
About .9 miles from the permit station, look for a signed connector trail on the left. Go left and walk .1 miles where you’ll turn right onto the upper arm of the Timberline Trail. From here, the trail wanders along a forested ridgeline with a couple more incredible views of the mountain.
To complete the hike you have a couple of options: the shorter but significantly more difficult scramble route, or the longer, easier hike along the main path.
About 2 miles from the junction with the connector trail, those who want to take the scramble route will need to look for an unsigned path on the right side of the main trail. There are very few user-made trails in this area, so it should be fairly obvious once you see it – however, it can also be very easy to miss, so consider bringing along a printed or downloaded trail map to find it.
The scramble route will take you uphill steeply through dust and loose rocks, then up a craggy slope. After about a half mile you’ll reach the stone shelter. From here, you can go right at the fork and head uphill for a closer look at the mountain peak. Go left at a fork just past a set of stone windbreaks to head down the McNeil Point Trail.
Stay straight through the winding user-made paths to find a crossing over the trickling McGee Creek, then turn left onto the Timberline Trail. Stay left at the next two junctions and soon you’ll wind up back at the scramble route.
Go back the way you came, following signs for the Top Spur Trailhead.
Those who want the easier but longer hike should bypass the scramble route altogether and continue straight on the Timberline Trail. Stay right at two small junctions to stay on the trail, then turn right onto the McNeil Point Trail.
The trail crosses trickling McGee Creek and after .8 miles branches off at a small loop that ends the hike. Either way will lead you to the stone shelter, and you can always make a complete loop if you like. To the left you’ll find some better views of the volcanic peak, so it’s worth going that way eventually.
However you decide to explore McNeil Point, simply go back the way you came to return to the Top Spur Trailhead.
— Jamie Hale
503-294-4077; email@example.com; @HaleJamesB