backpack: Mount Hood – Cairn Basin
On this one night backpacking trip on Mount Hood, we camped at Cairn Basin and did a day hike to McNeil Point.
- distance & elevation gain to campsite in Cairn Basin: 4.4 miles, 2,200 ft. gain
- day hike options: McNeil Point, Wy’East Basin, Elk Cove
- best months: August – September
- location: Mount Hood Wilderness; nearest town: Zigzag
- land management: Mount Hood National Forest: Zigzag Ranger Station
- trail conditions: Timberline Trail #600
- hike description: OregonHikers.org
- permits: self-issued at wilderness checkpoint
- trailhead pass: NW Forest Pass required
4.4 miles, 2,200 ft. gain
During the second weekend of September, clear blue skies and temps in the 60s provided perfect weather for an overnight trip on Mount Hood. The forecast called for winds up to 33mph, and an overnight low of 44 degrees, so we planned to camp in a protected area in the trees.
We started at the Top Spur trailhead and took the trail around Bald Mountain for early views of Mount Hood, then connected back to the Timberline Trail.
The steepest section of the hike in is on Bald Mountain Ridge, just before the open meadows on the slopes of the ridge. Mount Hood is now looming large, and the steep slopes of the ridge reach all the way down to the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River. Yocum Ridge is directly across the wide canyon below. The trail enters the forest again and switchbacks several times before reaching an open meadow area with several tarns.
We were looking for campsites near the tarns below McNeil Point, but could only find one tent spot at the base of boulder field, so we headed to Cairn Basin. This put us closer to where we wanted to be for a day hike to McNeil Point anyway, plus there were plenty of campsites.
Parts of Cairn Basin were significantly burned in the 2011 Dollar Lake wildfire, leaving large sections of the forest with black and white snags. We chose a campsite near the Cairn Basin shelter, one of three remaining stone shelters on Mount Hood that were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. A large green meadow and a great view of Mount Hood were right behind our campsite.
After setting up camp, we did a day hike up to McNeil Point, with its own stone shelter sitting high above tree line. Views are wide open, and on a clear day include Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams, with ridge after ridge of Cascade foothills in between. We found a spot that was out of the wind to sit for awhile to relax while enjoying the views.
Just up the ridge a short distance from the stone shelter are several single campsites, with curved rock walls to provide shelter from the wind. It would be fun to camp here sometime, but not on a high wind night.
On the way back to camp, we stopped at a stream to filter all of the water we would need for the trip. It was a clear night with a half moon, and Mount Hood glowed pink at sunset. In the morning, we hiked out after breakfast, returning on the Timberline Trail to the Top Spur trailhead.