The Witch’s Castle Hike in Forest Park is one of the most popular hikes in Forest Park. And it’s popular for a few reasons! First, it’s a short Portland hike – right in the city, which makes it a crowd-pleaser. Great for tourists and kids. Second, there’s something interesting at the destination point – The Stone House aka “Witches Castle” and a dramatic story to go along with it!
As a local, I love it for those reasons too, and also because it makes a great beginner hike for kids. It’s a relatively easy trail to explore and great for all hiking levels.
How To Get to Witch’s Castle:
Witch’s Castle is in Macleay Park, which is part of Forest Park in NW Portland. There are 3-4 starting points for the Witches Castle Hike which gives you different hike lengths and elevation gain. Starting with the most popular:
- Lower Macleay Park: .8 mile hike one-way, 269′ elevation gain. This roundabout parking area has just a few spots. Drop people off and then park in the neighborhood. This route is popular with families. [Google Maps]
- Off NW Thurman St/NW 31st area: 1 mile one-way, same route as above. You get to cross the Thurman St bridge span for some views and go down the huge staircase which gets you down to the Lower Macleay Park starting point. Tip: Mt Hood views from the south sidewalk going over the bridge. [Google Maps]
- Upper Macleay Trail/Cornell Road: .6 miles one-way, 144′ downhill elevation. This lot has a few more parking spots and makes for a shorter hike, but it feels like a steeper incline in muddy weather. You can also go the opposite way on Wildwood Trail up to Pittock Mansion. [Google Maps]
- Wildwood Trail – from Aspen Trail or Holman Lane. [Google Maps]
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: This hike is crazy busy almost all day on the weekends year-round and summer weekdays. Mornings are less crowded. The rest of the year, weekdays are less crowded. We often have the Stone House all to ourselves for little pockets of time!
The Stone House / Witches Castle Hike
This is a great easy hike for out of town visitors. Especially those who don’t do a ton of hiking, but would like to see some nice views! We usually take family because it’s great for mixed ages (from toddlers to grandparents). And it’s more interesting views for your first one mile in, than say Leif Erikson or Wildwood Trail in other parts of Forest Park. Multiple foot bridges, a ridge area of the trail that makes you feel like you’re on a mini-Gorge hike, instead of the Balch Creek Canyon through Forest Park. With creek views and sounds and you end up at the pretty cool Stone House with a bit spooky history. Want to make this a longer hike? If you park at Lower Macleay, you can continue past the Stone House and hike up to Pittock Mansion for a 5.5 mile roundtrip with 900′ elevation gain.
Tips for Doing this Hike with Kids:
This is a great hike to teach hiking safety before Gorge level hikes. And it has fun access points for water and creek play (Balch Creek). Before having a baby, I’d only done this hike a couple of times. Now, in some seasons, we do this hike almost once a week!
- The boot brush just across the first footbridge, from Lower Macleay is a real kid-pleaser.
- Keep your eyes out for banana slugs, snails, salamanders!
- There are a handful of spots to get down and play at Balch Creek. Prepare for wet and muddy.
- There’s something fun around every corner for younger kids, bridges, stump circle, moss, critters! Older kids are usually excited about the destination: the promise of a spooky Witch’s Castle.
Witches Castle & Portland History
And now for the spooky history lesson and love story. The supposed story of the Witches Castle is very Romeo and Juliet. First, a primer on the land itself and how we think about ownership and history…
The original occupiers of the land around Portland, including Forest Park, were the Multnomah people a tribe of the Chinookan people (Source). By 1850, some of the land in Forest Park was “claimed”* by Danford & Mary Jane Balch (thus the Balch Creek and Balch Canyon). They arrived in Oregon three years before and had nine children. They built their homesite where the current Lower Macleay parking lot is at Upshur & 30th St.
The story goes that The Balch family and the neighboring Stump family did not get along. Regular Montagues and Capulets, right? So of course someone had to fall in love. Mortimor Stump, the oldest son, started pursuing Anna Balch, who was 15. Danford told Mortimor to stay away (with a name like that, I might too). Poor Danford didn’t realize that threats never work for young love! When Anna turned 16, she eloped with Mortimor to the glamorous city of Vancouver, Washington. A couple weeks later, Papa Danford took his gun three miles down to the Stark Street Ferry**. This is the part of the story where you say, “Don’t take your guns to town Danford, leave your guns at home Danford!”. As the ferry loaded up, he shot Mortimer dead, in front of Anna and his parent.
Danford claimed it was an accident, and went to jail while waiting to be tried. But he broke out of jail and hid in the west hills near his farm for six months. Finally, he was re-arrested, and convicted of murder. Balch was the first man to be hung at a public gallows in Oregon on October 17, 1859!
Three years later, the Balch family’s land sold to a guy named John Confer for $5,000. So Mary Jane (Anna’s mother) married him. Then he sold the land (and the children’s claim to it) to Balch’s attorney John Mitchell for $6,050. Two weeks later, he flipped it for $15,000 to the mayor. Classy maneuvering.
About forty years after all that drama, the land sold to Donald Macleay, an early Portland real estate developer and railroad investor. He donated the rough terrain land to the city in 1897 to avoid paying high property taxes on undevelopable land*** (Some things in Portland never change, ha!). One of the requirements of the Macleay Park gift was that paths be widened to accommodate wheelchairs so those in the hospital could enjoy the outdoors too. So maybe this is the first ADA accessible trail in Portland.
In 1929, the Parks dept had architect Ernes Tucker design the Macleay Park Shelter (Stone House aka Witch’s Castle) where Wildwood Trail and Lower Macleay trail meet.**** It had public toilets, picnic shelter, and a tool room. It’s wild to imagine this basalt rock structure a mile out in Forest Park. With a roof over the trail to serve as a picnic shelter. With flushing toilets!
By the mid-60s, the water supply lines had been damaged in a storm and it was too much upkeep. So the shelter was dismantled by the City – down to the stone and concrete structure, which is what still stands today. It’s said that in the 70s and 80s it become a party hangout for high school students who nicknamed it Witch’s Castle. So all city signage calls it Stone House – the official name. But it’s commonly called Witch’s Castle and even Google Maps has it listed. So you might feel the ghost of Anna or Mortimor or Daniford or Mary Jane – who was said to have “bewitched” Daniford and that’s why he murdered Mortimor. Or you might just find a kind of spooky moss-covered house shape deep in the woods!
*The Donation Land Claims Act of 1850, stated that certain white settlers and Native People of mixed blood in the Oregon Territory where entitled to land. They were granted between 160-640 acres depending on their marital status and date of settlement. (Source)
**the ferry was on the Willamette River, there’s a Historical marker in Waterfront Park near the Morrison Bridge)
***You can read the full story on the Portland Parks site.
****Parks Dept history and planning of Stone House here.
The Seasons of Witches Castle
Here are some looks at the Witch’s Castle Hike in different seasons. The most interesting time to visit is in the fall when the leaves are changing colors and the forest is popping. The stone house also looks spookier when it’s dripping with moss and rain. And you’ll usually find some funny Halloween influence in October. One year, there was a wagon full of pumpkins! It’s also slightly less crowded in the colder months.
My second favorite time to visit Witches Castle is in the summer because it’s not as muddy and it’s warm enough to play at Balch creek. But you have to go early in summer!
Have you visited the Witches Castle in Portland?