Easy half-mile Hike to the Witch’s Castle; Forest Park, Portland, Oregon. Learn how real-life turned into local legend, plus hike details and trail tips.
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Once upon a time, I had visions of hiking through the hills and valleys of the Pacific Northwest with my happy little train of children, traipsing along whilst singing our hearts out all Von Trappified and such. (In my perfect world, it would be totally acceptable to break out into song at any given moment.)
Then Tweens. Then Teens. Do you know how hard it is to entice the average teenage girl to go on a Hike with her Family?
Then one day…
Me: “Hey, do you want to go an a super-easy hike to a mysterious (probably haunted) definitely creepy stone Witch’s House hidden in the forest?”
Me: “Yeah. I thought so. Let’s go.”
Before I give you the scoop on the actual hike – tips, directions, and so forth – a little history lesson is probably in order.
With 5,200 acres and more than 80 miles of trails, fire lanes and forest roads, Portland’s Forest Park is one of the largest urban forests in the United States. Forest Park has always been a hotbed of strange happenings in the Portland area, and Witch’s Castle is at the epicenter of one particularly haunting tale.
It seems that back in 1850, one Danford Balch filed a claim on a parcel of land near the newly settled town of Portland. Danford needed some help clearing the land, so he hired a transient worker named Mortimer Stump. Balch invited Stump to stay with his family, which included his wife Mary Jane and their nine children, while the work was being done.
Unfortunately, Stump ended up staying on a lot longer than was healthy for anyone.
It seems that Stump eventually fell in love with 15-year old Anna Balch and asked for her hand in marriage. When Danford and Mary Jane refused, the couple threatened to elope, and Father Balch retorted that if they did, he would kill Mortimer Stump. Young love being what it is, Mortimer and Anna ran off to Vancouver and were married in the fall of 1858.
Danford Balch would later claim that what happened next was the result of his wife “bewitching” him. The next time he encountered the couple, in Portland with other members of Stump’s family, a drunken Balch shot Mortimer Stump in the head. Balch was arrested, but escaped while awaiting trial.
Finally arrested again six months later on his own property, he was tried, found guilty, and subsequently hanged in October of 1859, making Danford Balch the first (legal) hanging in the Oregon Territory.
Mary Jane Balch, the “Witch” in our story, continued to live on the property. To this day, some attribute the strange occurrences at the Witch’s House to the ghosts of Danford, Mortimer, Anna, and Mary Jane.
If that story isn’t enough to intrigue your teen off the couch, I don’t know what is.
Lamentably, the Witch’s House is not the actual Balch home. Over time, the Balch land was passed to various owners, and was eventually given to the City of Portland by Donald Macleay in 1897 to be used as a park.
In the 1950’s, a stone ranger station and restroom was constructed near the old Balch place, but was soon abandoned and quickly deteriorated. It is that stone structure that stands today as the Witch’s House.
How to Get to the Witch’s Castle Trailhead at Forest Park
Forest Park stretches more than seven miles of Northwest Portland along the eastern slope of the Tualatin Mountains. The park is open every day of the year from 5am until 10pm.
The Witch’s Castle is an easy half-mile hike from the Upper Macleay Parking lot near the Portland Audubon Society, or a slightly longer three-quarter mile jaunt starting from the Lower Macleay Parking lot at at NW 30th and Upshur.
If you want to visit the Audubon Society first, as we did, you can pick up the trail just to the right of the Wildlife Care Center, and then the only turn you’ll make is a quick left onto the main trail.
From the turn onto the main trail, it’s an easy twentyish-minute walk in from Upper MacLeay, following Balch Creek on the Wildwood Trail.
Strange things are afoot at the Witch’s Castle… (If someone knows how I did this, please tell me – I may want to create the effect again someday! And no, I did not drop the camera.)
Speaking of Stranger Things, Mr. B and I pose in front of a seemingly innocent doorway. And yet…
… the doorway above leads to this not so innocent little room/cave under the Witch’s Castle. > >Shivers< <
OK, maybe it’s time for something pretty…
Looking for more easy Portland area hikes? Be sure to check out the Camassia Nature Preserve in West Linn, just south of Portland.
At the end of the day, we all had a great time together, and got to explore a pretty cool little corner of our world. And for the record, I did sing on the trail on the way back – accompanied by the lilting tones of, “Oh my gosh, Mom! You are so weird!”
As a Portland native, I take that as a real compliment.
P.S. About the picture above: I’m pretty sure I’m not really that short. I’m almost positive I was standing in a hole. Or something.