Owl Point from Vista Ridge Hike
From Portland Hikers Field Guide
- Start point: Vista Ridge Trailhead
- End Point: Owl Point
- Trail Log: Trail Log
- Hike Type: Out and back
- Distance: 4.0 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 500 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Seasons: Late Spring through Fall
- Family Friendly: Yes
- Backpackable: No
- Crowded: Only the trailhead - on summer weekends.
|Add-On Hikes:||Katsuk Point Add-on Hike||, Red Hill Add-on Hike|
This is a highly rewarding trip for hikers wanting a lot of mountain scenery for a modest effort. The route was a long-forgotten segment of the Vista Ridge Trail until 2007, when volunteers from Portland Hikers restored the route all the way to Owl Point. This effort involved clearing 178 logs from the trail that had accumulated over the past three decades, brushing out sections of trail that were so overgrown as to be impassable, and rebuilding the tread in spots where the elements had taken their toll. The trail rescue was in response to a USFS effort to turn this beautiful trail into a motorcycle playground, an idea that was finally put to rest in 2010, thanks to the involvement of many hiking advocates, including the Portland Hikers community. You can do your part by helping keep the trail clear, especially at the trailhead, where the trail is sometimes blocked with debris. Also, consider bringing along a pair of clippers to help trim brush along the trail. This is still a citizen-maintained trail, so depends on all of us to stay open.
The view of Mount Hood from this trail is a rare and gorgeous perspective, and the trail is much lower than the adjacent trails to Mount Hood, and thus open earlier in summer (usually by early July) and much later in the Fall (mid-November). This is an especially attractive hike in late afternoon, when the view from Owl Point is at its best, so it can also work as an add-on to longer trips to Elk Cove and Cairn Basin from the Vista Ridge Trailhead. The short spurs to The Rockpile and Owl Point follow informal trails that are usually well-marked, and easy to follow. But also print a copy of the map, below, to help you find trail junctions in the event that signage is missing.
From the trailhead, continue one third mile to the Vista Ridge Junction (and wilderness registration). Turn left here, where the Old Vista Ridge Trail No. 626A is often unsigned, but always obvious. After a short walk on the level, the trail begins to climb more noticeably, where you will see the many cleared logs that once blocked this portion of the trail. The route switchbacks once, then begins a traverse along the east side of Vista Ridge, heading north. There are some interesting views into the Clear Branch valley at a couple of spots, plus a forested boulder field and some attractive stands of mountain hemlock and noble fir. If you watch closely, you'll notice occasional traces of old phone wire from 1920s that once served area lookouts. There are also a couple of short spurs to overlooks, just off the trail, to the right.
Beyond the traverse section, the trail crosses a broad crest of open subalpine forest and huckleberry fields, passing a couple of scree slopes, then dropping to a small meadow. Here, the main route continues across the meadow, and in wet seasons the meadow can be quite marshy, but navigable with dry feet - just pick out the trail on the far side and work your way there. From the meadow, the trail passes a rustic log bench as it re-enters forest and then climbs to a low saddle, drops over the ridge line, and climbs again to another saddle, and the usually signed Rockpile Junction - watch for a notched log where the route to the Rockpile continues straight from this junction, in the event the signs are missing. The main trail turns sharply uphill to the left, here, while the spur to The Rockpile viewpoint continues through the notched log and into a pretty heather and huckleberry meadow,
To make the scenic side-trip to The Rockpile, continue past the notched log for about 300 feet into the meadow, then watch for a sign pointing right to "The Rockpile" (or, if the sign is missing, take a sharp right into an opening in the trees at the point where the meadow trail begins to descend). From the signpost, head cross-country through open forest and huckleberry fields for another 300 feet to the stunning viewpoint at The Rockpile. This beautiful stop, alone, would be a worthy destination for the hike. The cross-country segment is usually flagged, but is reasonably easy to follow using the map, below -- it's also the site of a geocache, so the route is becoming increasingly obvious.
To continue on to Owl Point from The Rockpile, retrace your steps back through the heather meadow, and turn uphill at the (usually) signed Rockpile Junction. The trail passes more talus slopes framed by more beautiful forests of mountain hemlock and subalpine fir before climbing to another gentle crest in deep forest, and the usually signed Owl Point Junction. Here, an obvious, informal path to Owl Point heads to the right, climbing first through the forested edge of a large talus slope, then emerging at the west edge of the rugged, rocky viewpoint. The path now circles along with wooded edge of the crest eastward for about 100 yards as the view unfolds, reaching Owl Point, proper. The view of Mount Hood from this spot is stunning, but you are also treated to views into Laurance Lake and down the cliffs of the Clear Branch Rim to the Upper Hood River Valley. This beautiful spot is a good turnaround point if you're not interested in the 500 foot elevation loss/gain entailed in the Perry Lake from Vista Ridge Hike, 0.8 miles beyond. For both The Rockpile and Owl Point, the best times for photography are early morning and late afternoon.
There is one more viewpoint just beyond the Owl Point Junction, and that's Alki Point, a huge talus slope that provides a handsome view north into Washington, with St. Helens, Rainier and Adams filling the skyline, and the town of Hood River far below. This viewpoint is just a short distance beyond the Owl Point junction, and right on the main trail.
For the more adventurous, there are also bushwhack options for visiting Red Hill and Katsuk Point, two additional viewpoints in area. Red Hill can be found by following a faint path west from the meadow, then working up the slope to the right until you see the obvious summit ridge. Katsuk Point can be reached by hiking past The Rockpile through alternating meadows and forest thickets to the rugged viewpoint. Katsuk is the Chinook jargon for "in the middle" and describes the location of this scenic spur in the heart of the Middle Fork country. Both trips are for advanced hikers equipped with maps and route-finding devices, only.
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