Thursday, December 3, 2015

Fall Surprises on McNeil Point

McNeil Point is my favorite Mt. Hood summer hike.  In late July, it's slopes erupt in a frenzy of brightly colored wildflowers.  (For evidence see this post.)  Sadly, this year the flower show came early, and my foot wasn't quite in hiking shape at the time, so I missed out.

Colorful hillside around Bald Mtn

But I'd once visited McNeil Point in the fall, and knew this season could be spectacular too.  So on a Friday in early October, I send out a APB hiking invitation to my friends.  My buddy Steve was the only respondent.

Beautiful vine maple

Steve and I set out to the trailhead on a chilly, cloudy morning.  Disappointment that cloudy skies would spoil the spectacular views didn't deter me.  We began our trek on the Top Spur Trail climbing through foggy woods, their gloomy understories brightened by vivid yellow leaves.

Bright color spots

When the Top Spur trail intersected with the Timberline and Pacific Crest Trails, Steve and I chose to detour around Bald Mountain, hoping a break in the clouds might give us a glimpse of Mt. Hood.  Although Mt. Hood only peeped briefly through the fog bank, we were treated to a brilliant display of fall color on the adjacent slopes.  Lovely red-orange vine maple leaves lit up an otherwise dreary morning.

Huckleberry bushes in full color

And there was more good stuff to come.  Following the Timberline Trail through more murky woods, we came to the steep unofficial climber trail to McNeil Point.  This path shoots straight up a rocky ridge for a half mile.  Although difficult, this shortcut provides the quickest route to access McNeil Point's shelter.

McNeil Point shelter

As Steve and I climbed, we noticed the clouds began lifting and more of the surrounding valley opening up.  By the time we reached McNeil Point's shelter we'd hiked above the fog bank and could plainly see Mt. Hood towering above.

Steve looks ahead to our destination

A couple of young guys were hanging out in the tiny rock shelter.  Since Steve and I had gotten a fairly early start, we were surprised to see someone up here ahead of us.  The men said they were camping nearby and had climbed up to spend the day.  They were friendly enough, but one guy was hiding behind the shelter.  I smelled a nasty odor and realized he was smoking a cigar.  Ugh!  Steve and I were surprised to see someone smoking when conditions were so dry.

Mt. Hood is looking mighty bare!

There's an unofficial climbers trail that follows the ridge above McNeil Point for about a mile and 1000 feet of ascent to a magnificent front-row view of Mt. Hood.  Steve and I had extra energy (it was still morning after all) and decided to extend our hike.

Glacial ice caves

So we chugged up the rocky ridge, stopping occasionally to take in the marvelous views.  Glimpses of three Cascade peaks, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Rainer were visible above the cloudy horizon.  Looking over towards the Sandy Glacier, I was surprised to see the entrances to three ice caves poking out of the very diminished glacier.

Views from on high

After a tough climb, the path leveled out and petered over a rocky ridgetop before deadending at the edge of a steep cliff.  From this perch, Mt. Hood's west side opened up before us.  The perfect spot for a lunch break!

Relaxing at our lunch spot

Steve and I were starving.  As we chowed down our lunches, I took in the panorama of adjacent forested hills and mountain peaks.  I sadly observed Mt. Hood's gray, rocky face and noticed how bare it was compared to other times I'd been up here.  Her glaciers had shrunk to the smallest size I'd ever seen.  It was painfully evident the toll this year's hot, dry weather had taken on my favorite mountain.

Looking down into the valley

After lolling at our sunny perch for nearly an hour resting and refueling, it was time to retrace our steps back down to the shelter.

Above the clouds

Our return route was one spectacular view after another.  Hiking above the cloud bank made for some cool views (and photos!)

Spectacular views coming down

Walking along this high ridge was one of my favorite parts of the hike.

Getting closer to the shelter

We tromped downhill in record time.  (It always amazes me how much quicker it takes to descend compared to climbing)

Hood towers over the meadow

Back at the shelter, the same young guys were still hanging around (thankfully NOT smoking cigars this time).  A couple more hikers were having lunch in the adjacent meadow and Steve struck up a conversation with them.

Red color spots

Then, it was time to complete the loop.  We headed back down via the "official" trail, across a heather meadow dotted with lovely spots of bright crimson huckleberry leaves.

Colorful mountainside

Past a ridge overlooking mighty Ladd Creek, I glanced up it's drainage gully to a wonderful view of the mountain.  Golden fall colors lined the creek's banks combined with more brilliant red huckleberry leaves which made for a stunning image.

Steve admires the mountain

Following the ridge downhill, Steve and I again rejoined the Timberline Trail.  At the junction Hood towered mightily above the forest.  It was such a great view, we both stopped for more photo ops.

The ponds are nearly dried up

Then it was a fast trip down the Timberline Trail three miles back to the Top Spur Trail.  On the way, we passed two tiny ponds, shrunken even smaller thanks to dry summer weather.

Patchwork quilt of color

We also spotted another patchwork quilt of fall color high on a rocky ridge.  It was here we began to encounter backpackers, getting an early jump on the weekend.  All of them were amazed by the sunny skies.  Apparently the lower elevations were still cold and foggy.

The forest is ablaze

Another mile or so down the trail and our sun began to fade.  Temperatures started to drop.  Beginning to chill, I stopped to pull my jacket back on.

My favorite autumn color spot

But, oh the fall colors were lovely here!  I walked through a most spectacular group of huckleberry bushes proudly displaying their finest hues.  The trail was lined in a technicolor tunnel.  Our final trek down the Top Spur trail was a world of yellow-gold.  By now we'd descended back into the fog bank, which added an air of mystery to my final photos.

Golden forest in the fog

Another wonderful hike!  Although I usually visit McNeil Point during the height of summer wildflower season, I'm beginning to think a fall trip needs to be added to the annual schedule.

Stats:  10 miles, 2500 feet elevation gain

Sharing with:  Photo Friday and Scenic Weekends


  1. Spectacular scenery and wonderful autumn colours.

  2. Very neat with the fog and cloud bank! So happy that our mountain has regained a bit of her snow--although seeing those ice caves is pretty special!

  3. I wish I could manage a walk like this. It is a beautiful area.

  4. I love to find places where fall lingers long after the season has past. I can see why this would be a very welcome surprise. The hiking trails are wonderful and you really get to see a lot. Love the snow on the mountain tops with the contrast of the fall foliage.

    Mersad Donko Photography

  5. Magnifica esta caminha da na montanha com as suas belas cores e paisagens magnificas.
    Um abraço e bom fim de semana.

  6. Absolutely gorgeous! You take some wonderful hikes... in some of the most wonderful places... at some of the most wonderful times of the year.

  7. Hello, I agree it is another wonderful hike. The fall colors are just beautiful and the views are gorgeous. Cigars are smelly, YUCK! Awesome series of photos! Happy Friday, enjoy your weekend!

  8. Beautiful fall colors and spectacular views

  9. What an incredible hike! Sometimes you get up to places that just seem amazing! Wonderful views up high. And the colour! You get some bright coloured shrubs. Here everything tends to just turn brown.

  10. I took some pictures in the fall that could almost have matched these. Of course, now we are stuck in the Low Country because the snow has begun to fall up high. Thankfully our bare mountains have fresh snow on them, and I'll bet Mt. Hood doesn't look so bare today. Great pictures! :-)

  11. What a spectacular hike! Everything about it is enticing to me! How sad to see the bareness of the mountain. I hope El Nino remedies some of this disasterous drought.

  12. Linda, your photos are absolutely gorgeous! Last night I saw a lovely Christmas display in front of a house near to where I live and unfortunately could not take a photo, since I lost my camera in May 2014 and have no money to purchase another one at this point. Oh well, I haven't really thought about it until I saw that scene. Thank you so much for sharing your amazing photos. :)

  13. Linda, you are on top of the world.

  14. I will never forget being up high and looking down in the valleys far below. Your photos remind me of those times.

  15. What an elevation gain in some rugged terrain! I loved seeing the caves in the glacier. You were literally above the clouds!

  16. It looks a hard hike, but the rewards of autumn colour and views, make it sensational.

  17. Nice mist photos. Maples are always dependable for good colours in autumn and are the first trees to turn red here before changing to gold and brown.

  18. It's truly a beautiful place to hike! And I loved your shots from above the clouds!

  19. So pretty - I really like the clouds in the shelter picture.

  20. Thanks for sharing the wondrous views and great colors. Sorry to hear that the glacier is diminished. Not good.

  21. What an amazing hike. We almost never look down on the clouds like that where I hike.

  22. How pretty! This is proof that we have some fall colors in the West. I missed the fall colors on California's Eastern Sierra (again). I hope to capture some of those yellows, oranges and reds in the future.

  23. It seems I caught the fall colors at their very beginning during my hike here in September. Wow, fall is gorgeous in the alpine!!

  24. Hi!It's nice you could enjoy fall colors many times in your hiking. I also enjoyed your Mt.Hood photos.The photos of your former posts are very beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  25. I have to reply honestly here. I thought Lyme Disease had its challenges, and I am learning to cope. I am now experiencing vertigo. Unexpected and a first. It's miserable. So I find myself chair bound if I don't have help. This morning I clicked on your blog and took a visual hike. For those of us that are never ABOVE the clouds, these photos are spectacular. I'm glad I'm on my iPad. I hope to get to my bigger computer monitor later. I certainly hope Steve prints one of these beautiful photos. I know how much a photo of myself doing what I love to do would mean to me.

  26. OMG these photos are STUNNING! I love each and every one and that includes the cloudy and foggy ones. I think it brings something ethereal to the shots and my gosh when you guys got out on the top what an amazing sight to see. Have never seen Mt Hood up that close and honestly! Oh and are sure it was a "cigar" - LOL! :)

  27. magnificent. what a playground to have in your back yard.

  28. What an incredible hike! Living in coastal Mississippi, I find I really miss the Sierras (I lived in Reno for a long time...loved hiking around Tahoe). While our coastal sunsets are gorgeous, there's something about the view from a mountain top.

    Thank you so much for sharing this beauty with us at Photo Friday, and I hope you'll be back! I love these images!

  29. So many breathtaking views. The colours on the mountainside are splendid. And what an experience to hike above the cloud bank.

  30. Spectacular views and beautiful autumn colours!

  31. What stunning views!! That was a heck of a hike! :)

  32. This looks like a wonderful hike, with the reward of close-up views of Mt. Hood. And I love the rock shelter... so photogenic!


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