Archive for the ‘Cultural History’ category

Zack Frank’s Undiscovered America

May 30, 2015
The intrepid Zack Frank visits Mount Hood country

The intrepid Zack Frank visits Mount Hood country

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Zack Frank, the young photojournalist behind Undiscovered America, his project to photograph 56 places across the country that should become the next generation of national parks — Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge among them! With this ambitious project, he hopes to contribute to a new vision for the next 150 years of conservation in America.

We met at Punchbowl Falls on the West Fork Hood River, a fitting spot for a conversation about overlooked gems that could stand next to the nation’s best-known national parks with a little vision and restoration. Our meeting was made possible by local filmmaker Christopher Alley, whose Ampersand Productions is currently filming a documentary dedicated to the new national parks movement, and featuring the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, in particular.

The film crew: Emily Wahl, Eric Macey and Christopher Alley

The film crew: Emily Wahl, Eric Macey and Christopher Alley

Zack came to the Undiscovered America idea from seeds sown in his youth, when his family drove from Pennsylvania to the great parks of the northern Rockies, including Yellowstone. These early experiences helped shape Zack’s refreshingly holistic vision for the national parks that would focus on restoring gems like Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge as unique ecosystems that are not represented in the national park system today.

His 6-month grand tour of future parks is funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign that drew nearly 300 backers and set a record for nature photography projects. Zack will be the first known photographer to visit the 50+ sites proposed for national park status.

Once his tour is complete, Zack will release a 200-page Undiscovered America book documenting his journey, and hopefully rallying a new parks movement in the same way that earlier photographers brought places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Redwoods and North Cascades to the public conscience for the first time. Images from his trek will also be displayed as a traveling show in art galleries across the country, further helping to spread his vision for a new era of national parks.

Stage 1 of Zack's journey focused on the southern part of the country

Stage 1 of Zack’s journey focused on the southern part of the country

Though Mount Hood and the Gorge are part of Zack’s tour, they are different in that they are anything but “undiscovered”! Yet, they do fit perfectly the larger frame of bringing more enlightened and sustainable land management to these special places under the unique stewardship of the National Park Service.

Zack brings his experience as a photojournalist in the United States Marine Corp to the project. After meeting with him, it was clear that also he also brings a remarkable degree of wisdom, confidence and determination to the project that are beyond his years, a reflection of his time spent in Iraq during his service to our country.

We’re also very fortunate that Zack has chosen to continue his service to the country in the form of his Undiscovered America project. Hearing about his vision for the next wave in the American conservation movement was a breath of fresh air. Too many in the old guard of the movement have become prisoners of playing defense, a necessary posture during an era of intense attack on the environment, for sure, but now suddenly out of touch with a new generation of Americans looking for a more compelling and sweeping new vision.

Zack’s project avoids that the fear tactics and hot-button issues approach to conservation that no longer resonates with younger people, who instead are responding more to messages of hope, new ideas and opportunities to work collaboratively for broader solutions than the false choice of “wilderness-or-nothing”. National parks offer a great fit for this generation.

Stage 2 of Zack's tour begins in the Pacific Northwest and travels across the northern states

Stage 2 of Zack’s tour begins in the Pacific Northwest and travels across the northern states

Zack says that he marches to the drum of the likes of John Muir, Timothy O’ Sullivan and Ansel Adams, and embraces the same sweeping vision that caught the imagination of the American mainstream and helped build the National Park System we treasure today. Most importantly, he thinks in increments of decades and centuries — not just the next election campaign or fundraising cycle. In that way, he is true to the pioneering conservationists he holds as his inspiration.

I challenged Zack with a series of defeatist arguments I have heard against protecting Mount Hood and the Gorge as a national park — all too often from some of Oregon’s conservation leaders: how can an area with ski resorts, major highways, utility corridors and cut-over forest lands even be considered for national park status?

One by one, he knocked these arguments down with real examples of existing parks where these supposed deal-killing obstacles like these are managed within a park context, in concert with a broader conservation philosophy that still ensures a sustained natural legacy.

The author meeting with Zack at Punchbowl Falls

The author meeting with Zack at Punchbowl Falls

Zack Frank doesn’t see himself as a standard bearer, simply part of an emerging coalition. But what I saw in Zack is the face of a new generation of conservation leaders — whether he knows it, or not — who are unencumbered by false dichotomies and narrow orthodoxy that have too often muted the conservation movement. He is solidly a millennial, and like so many of his generation that I encounter, Zack gives me a renewed energy and sense of optimism that we can once again do great things on the conservation front, and starting with a new national parks movement!

We’re just passing through, after all…

Tribal fishing at Punchbowl Falls

Tribal fishing at Punchbowl Falls

During our visit on the high cliffs above Punchbowl Falls, we watched as a group of tribal fisherman worked the massive pool below the falls for spring Chinook. As they went about their tasks, it struck me that these men were fishing in the footsteps of generations of ancestors who had harvested salmon at this spot for millennia — and that that the stakes are very high for the Mount Hood region, right now.

For centuries, the abundant ecosystems of Mount Hood and the Gorge have supported a large Native American population with a natural bounty that only now is at risk, thanks to just a few decades of rapid development and over-harvesting of resources. In this context, the broader frame that Zack Frank raises for Mount Hood the Gorge is this: we’re just passing through, so what will we choose to leave behind for future generations?

Tribal fishermen at Punchbowl Falls

Tribal fishermen at Punchbowl Falls

While the ecosystems in the Mount Hood region have so far been resilient in the face of these new pressures (the forests have continued to recover after repeated harvesting, salmon return to ancient habitat when we reopen once-damned streams like the West Fork), we are now facing an unprecedented onset of global climate change. Will the sprawling maze of new clear cuts that now mar the upper West Fork valley recover, once again? Probably. But for the first time in millennia, we don’t really know for sure, and so our margin of error grows narrower in just how far we can push the ecosystem to meet our needs.

Selective thinning at the Punchbowl Park site

Selective thinning at the Punchbowl Park site

On our walk to Punchbowl Falls, Zack and I talked about some of the answers that were all around us. Restoring Mount Hood means thinning plantation thickets, where industry efforts to short-circuit the natural reforestation cycle on clear cuts has left dangerously crowded stands of unhealthy, fire-prone trees. One such thinning project was underway at the Punchbowl site, where the Western Rivers Conservancy has carefully removed several insect-compromised trees from the forest.

The Punchbowl property, itself, provides another answer: private land trusts working with local communities and governments to restore and bring into public ownership the most important sites and habitats. This continues to be the winning formula for Mount Hood and the Gorge, with much work to be done — and still a need for a larger national park vision to guide often fragmented efforts. Like most of the sites on Zack’s tour, the broader vision for Mount Hood and the Gorge will require a creative blend of acquisition, restoration and new partnerships.

Wy’East Comes to Visit

As I finished my interview with Zack Frank, the tribal fisherman below us were packing up their harvest for the day — a string of salmon that would soon provide food for their families or perhaps be sold in one of the familiar roadside fish stands.

Wy'East makes an appearance at Punchbowl Falls

Wy’East makes an appearance at Punchbowl Falls

As we watched them scale the cliffs above the falls with their catch, the crest of Mount Hood — Wy’East — suddenly emerged from the clouds, brilliant with a fresh dusting of snow. Zack had spent the morning on the mountain, socked in by a lingering Pacific front, so it was his first sighting of the mountain on this leg of his trek.

The scene unfolding at that moment could not have made a better case for why Mount Hood and the Gorge deserve better: the raw beauty, the amazing collection of ecosystems, from rain forest, fire forests and oak savannah to alpine and desert ecosystems; and perhaps most unique to the area, the rich, unparalleled human history. It was all right there in front of us, and I was thrilled that it could be part of Zack’s journey!

How to support Zack

Zack’s current project was successfully funded through his Kickstarter campaign, but you can still support him by visiting his website and ordering a copy of his forthcoming Undiscovered America book.

Mockup of Zack's forthcoming book about his journey

Mockup of Zack’s forthcoming book about his journey

You can also be a friend of the national parks. Zack recommends the National Parks Conservation Association (and be sure to let the know you support new parks!), but I would suggest an even broader offering: an open mind to what might be, and a willingness to help a new generation of leaders realize their bold aspirations — including a new national parks movement!

An Overdue Warren Falls Update (…and a bombshell!)

April 30, 2015
Warren Falls lives! Well, occasionally… during the wettest winter storms

Warren Falls lives! Well, occasionally… during the wettest winter storms

Time is running out on the Restore Warren Falls! project. This summer the next phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail project will begin construction of a segment that will pass right in front of the falls.

The new trail construction in the area is not simply an ideal opportunity to finally undo what the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) did to this magnificent waterfall 76 years ago — it’s probably the only opportunity in our lifetimes.

In that spirit, I thought an update on the project and Warren Falls was in order — plus share a bit of a bombshell that was sent to me recently!

Checking in on Warren Falls

First, a quick visit to Warren Creek: in mid-April I made a couple visits to Warren Falls as part of my twice-annual Friends of the Gorge hikes. As has become the norm in recent years, the natural falls clearly flowed again this winter during heavy runoff that overwhelmed the diversion weir at the top of the falls.

The flood path from the briefly reborn falls cleared leaf debris as shown by the arrows in this photo…

The flood path from the briefly reborn falls cleared leaf debris as shown by the arrows in this photo…

…and in this photo, where the overflow stream continued down the ancient creekbed

…and in this photo, where the overflow stream continued down the ancient creekbed

These regular overflows make more sense when you look at the condition of the weir — the following photos from the top of the falls show just how clogged the giant “trash rack” has become, and also how badly the upper lip of the rack has been exposed as the concrete diversion dam continues to erode:

Over its 76-year life the enormous weir has become twisted and clogged with debris, causing more overflows each year

Over its 76-year life the enormous weir has become twisted and clogged with debris, causing more overflows each year

The steel beams that make up the weir are also coming loose from their foundation as the concrete diversion dam deteriorates with time

The steel beams that make up the weir are also coming loose from their foundation as the concrete diversion dam deteriorates with time

The Friends of the Gorge hikers always marvel at the strange, unsettling scene of a dry waterfall. Like most who visit Warren Falls, many are also saddened by the idea that the ODOT could have been so cavalier in altering such a beautiful scene at Warren Creek so grotesquely.

While the original decision to divert the falls can arguably be blamed on the thinking of the era (late 1930s), I would submit that allowing this tragic mistake to continue to exist is equally cavalier and dismissive of the natural landscape at Warren Creek. Thus, my campaign to attach the burden of undoing the mess at Warren Falls to ODOT — and in particular, their looming state trail construction project that will soon begin in the area.

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

While researching Warren Falls over the winter, I finally found a definitive story on the official naming of the creek. The name “Warren” comes from Warren “Barney” Cooper, and early forest ranger in the Mount Hood area (and part of the Cooper family described in this previous article).

This Oregonian article documents (in the last paragraph) when Warren Cooper’s name finally became the official name of the creek in 1948, though it had been in unofficial use for years:

WarrenFallsUpdate07

So, we now learn that Warren Lake and creek were once called “Warm Lake” and “Warm Creek”. Warren Lake is situated on a high, rocky shoulder of Mount Defiance, and shallow enough to be “warm” in late summer, so that could be the simplest explanation for this early name.

The name “Warren” appears on maps and early documents from well before this 1948 decision, so the timing of the article is interesting, especially so long after Warren Cooper’s death in 1920. Was the naming in 1948 simply cartographic housekeeping or an overdue recognition of a pioneering forest ranger by those who followed him?

As always, every answer brings a few new questions!

Friends of Warren Falls… are everywhere!

Since the Oregon Field Guide story on the Restore Warren Falls! project first aired the fall of 2012 (watch the documentary here), several anonymous “friends” of Warren Falls have quietly contacted me with offers to help.

OFG's Vince Patton and Michael Bendixen looking for the illusive Warren Falls in the winter of 2012

OFG’s Vince Patton and Michael Bendixen looking for the illusive Warren Falls in the winter of 2012

Most surprising among the proposals were offers to simply “monkey-wrench” the weir at the top of the falls to speed up its demise! While I’m sympathetic to both the frustration and impatience behind the monkey-wrenchers out there, I’m also concerned that tinkering with the weir might actually be illegal (though it’s hard to see how a decaying structure that no public agency will claim responsibility for could somehow also become the basis for legal action..?)

More importantly, I’m concerned that formally removing the weir and associated debris will become increasingly difficult if the structure is further compromised. I’ve therefore thanked the monkey-wrenchers for their passion, but encouraged them to be patient and allow the slow wheels of government to turn a bit further..!

…and the bombshell…

Another piece of information that trickled in from an anonymous attorney and friend of Warren Falls is found in plain sight: in the Oregon Revised Statutes. Specifically, ORS 538.200, which exists solely to prohibit the diversion of “streams forming waterfalls near the Columbia River Highway” for “any purpose whatsoever”.

While quite clear in its intent, this might seem like a very general reference. But the statute (which was signed into law in the early 1900s, before the Warren Falls diversion) goes on to list each of the streams and waterfalls that fall under this protection — including Warren Creek, in ORS 538.200(26)!

An unusual view of Warren Creek topping its weir and overflowing into its natural falls (visible behind the trees)

An unusual view of Warren Creek topping its weir and overflowing into its natural falls (visible behind the trees)

What does this new information mean? For starters, it means that ODOT — at the time, called the Oregon Highway Division — broke the law in 1939 when it blasted a diversion tunnel and erected a dam and weir to pipe Warren Creek away from its natural falls and streambed. That is quite clear.

What is unknown is whether the ODOT decision to defy the law in the late 1930s was brazen in its intent. As hard as that possibility is to believe, it is also very hard to believe the agency wouldn’t have known about the law, given that it had been enacted just a few years prior the Warren Falls diversion project being concocted in the early 1930s — and was specifically aimed at the state’s premier highway of the era.

What does it mean today? In my view, it means that ODOT now has BOTH a legal and ethical responsibility to undo what it has done to Warren Falls. That couldn’t be more clear.

The End Game?

For the past four years I’ve been beating the drum to connect the restoration of Warren Falls to the massive, multi-million dollar Historic Columbia River Highway state trail project, without much success. So far I have:

• been turned away by both Oregon State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service, both claiming the falls lies on the other agency’s property (though it quite clearly falls on Oregon State Parks land)

• unsuccessfully pitched the cause to three of the premier conservation groups active in the Gorge, including on-site tours, but did not persuade any of the groups to adopt the cause.

• unsuccessfully made the case twice before the Historic Columbia River Highway steering committee, with some sympathetic interest from the committee, but a deep reluctance to seriously consider the idea. It was added as an item “for consideration” — but later dropped due to cost concerns.

• successfully pitched the idea to the producers of Oregon Field Guide story, and while ODOT staff involved in that effort were sympathetic to the state of Warren Falls, the publicity created by the story did not change their recommendations to their steering committee for any further consideration of restoring the falls.

• posted a string of articles on this blog and started a Facebook group two years ago to continue to rally the cause, but these efforts haven’t made a noticeable dent at ODOT, either.

We are now in the end game, and I don’t think the Warren Falls will ever be restored if the work doesn’t happen when ODOT has heavy equipment in the area later this year. After that, it will most likely be up to Mother Nature, and that’s would be such a sad commentary to future generations when they judge the state of the world we choose to leave them.

From the beginning, I have argued that restoring the falls isn’t about money, but rather, about responsibility. ODOT created the mess that now exists at Warren Creek, and for a whole variety of safety, ethical, environmental — and now, legal — reasons that I’ve argued over the years, it’s time for the agency to own up to their responsibility.

No fooling, ODOT has $2 million annually in a “contingency” fund for exactly the kind of work that restoring Warren Falls would entail — and just allocated another half-million dollars to cover additional costs for the state trail project in the Warren Creek area.

It turns out the money has always been there, too. On April 1, ODOT quietly pulled nearly a half-million dollars in “contingency” funds into this latest phase of the state trail as a consent item before the Oregon Transportation Commission. The new money is for a previously unplanned bridge over nearby Gorton Creek, a worthy addition at the east end of the current phase of construction. Warren Falls could be restored for a fraction of that amount – if only the will and sense of agency responsibility at ODOT existed.

My next efforts will focus beyond ODOT, given my fruitless efforts to work with the agency. At the top of my list of arguments is the newly discovered fact that the agency violated state law when they built the project in 1939 — underscoring the notion that ODOT has both ethical and legal obligations to own up to restoring the falls. The agency clearly has funding available for worthy efforts like this one if the desire exists. I will be making that argument, as well.

There's still time to realize this vision… but not much.

There’s still time to realize this vision… but not much.

I’ll post a follow-ups to article with more details soon, and especially how you might be able to help get the restoration of Warren Falls unstuck from our state bureaucracy. Most of all, a big thanks to all who have offered to help — and as always, thank you reading this blog and caring about Mount Hood and the Gorge!

Punchbowl Park Update

March 25, 2015

PunchbowlUpdate01

In late January, I posted an article on the proposed Punchbowl Park project at the confluence of the east and west forks of the Hood River. Since then, community activists have worked with Hood River County officials to move the project forward with a remarkable public outreach effort and bold vision for the new park.

Heather Staten, executive director of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC) and the leading force behind the project took a few minutes this week to give an update on the project, and what lies ahead for this exciting proposal.
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WyEast Blog: How did the Punchbowl Park project get started, and what is the role of the HRVRC?

Heather Staten: Hood River County and Western Rivers Conservancy, the property’s current owner, had worked unsuccessfully for several years on grants to fund acquisition of the 100-acre property as a County Park. Those efforts had flown under the radar of most local people, even those with close associations to the property. Last summer, David Meriwether, the County Administrator approached me about conducting a robust public process where we would really discover the community’s vision for the property.

My organization, the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC), was well-placed to run such a public outreach effort. We’re Oregon’s oldest local land-use advocacy group, with a 38-year history of protecting farms, forests and special natural places. David also knew me from the campaign to reopen Hood River’s libraries when they were closed due to budget cuts. So he knew we had both the local knowledge and organizational capacity to run a really inclusive public process.

WyEast: You’ve made a real effort to involve the broader community in this planning effort. What are some of the most common themes you’re hearing?

Staten: This was a community planning effort. I can’t imagine many planning processes that involved as many people as intensely as this one. Part of it is the nature of the property–it is spectacularly beautiful. People are passionate about it so they have strong opinions. They use it, love it and want to protect it.

One of the things that was interesting to me was how people prioritized protecting the place over whatever they did there. There was real consensus that preserving the natural and ecological features of the place was the most important thing. Whenever there was choice that provided greater convenience for users but at the price of degrading the resource, the public always chose to protect the resource. For instance, they rejected campgrounds and drive up boat ramps.

Heather Staten (holding notebook) on one of her many community tours of the proposed Punchbowl Park

Heather Staten (holding notebook) on one of her many community tours of the proposed Punchbowl Park

WyEast: What makes the site special in a way that warrants a public park?

Staten: Everyone falls under the spell of the rugged wild beauty of the site and its unique and stunning combination of basalt columns, fast moving water and rich flora and fauna. It packs a lot of diversity in a relatively small site — two waterfalls, the confluence of two rivers, basalt canyon, conifer forest on the west side of the property and a really lovely Oregon white oak woodland on the east side.

There is the thrilling experience of walking along the ridge of the canyon with the water crashing far below then a very different experience down at the confluence when you stand at water level with rivers on either side of you joining together. The site provides rare and precious access to the river for anglers, kayakers, rafters and swimmers. In 15 miles, there are only a couple of legal public access points to the river.

WyEast: The proposal includes several new trails. Aren’t there already trails on the site? What would the new trails offer and how would they be built?

Staten: Until now the trail system has consisted of an old logging road and a spider web of social trails that people have created all over the ridge above the West Fork. People know about the waterfall, they can hear and see the water so they cut their own paths to get there. There are so many of these social trails that they are causing environmental damage.

The big idea is to build a new trail to go where people want to go. The new trail will run along the ridge and connect the major, stunning views and access points along the west fork offering kind of a curated experience of the river canyon. Also as part of Phase One we’ll build a forest loop through the woods.

We’ve got an even grander plan for Phase Two, a wooden footbridge over the East Fork that would link the east and west sides of the property. It will greatly expand the length of the trail system and offer a greater diversity of experience. The east side of the river is a hidden gem, with an intact Oregon white oak forest, great vistas of the confluence and river access to the main stem Hood River.

The trail building will mostly be a volunteer effort. We were lucky to meet with Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) several months ago — their advice has been invaluable. Trailkeepers will provide the professional expertise and tools and Hood River will provide the local volunteer muscle. It’s a model that Hood River County has used successfully for all of their mountain bike trails on county forest land.

Trail concept proposed as part of the Punchbowl Park plan

Trail concept proposed as part of the Punchbowl Park plan

[click here for a larger view]

WyEast: Punchbowl Falls has been a traditional Native American fishing site, were tribal interests involved in the park planning? If so, what sort of themes did you hear from the tribes?

Staten: The area around Punchbowl Falls, particularly the bowl just below the falls, has been a fishing site for members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warms Springs (CTWS) and their tribal ancestors for centuries. Tribal members attended the public meetings and we consulted with the manager of the CTWS hatchery program in the area.

Tribal members were concerned with interference with their fishing season and with the protection of the riparian corridor for salmon and steelhead habitat. Along with ODFW, the Tribes have been working for the last few years to restore a spring Chinook run to the Hood River. Spring Chinook used to be a very productive fishery on the Hood River but was effectively extinct by the late 1960s, a casualty of dams and detrimental logging practices.

Fishing platform at Punchbowl Falls (courtesy Heather Staten)

Fishing platform at Punchbowl Falls (courtesy Heather Staten)

In 2010, the Powerdale Dam was removed from its location downstream from the Punchbowl area, making the Hood River a free-flowing river again. It’s still early, but there are signs that the chinook run is coming back, so tribal members were concerned that any development at the park, like trail building, be done in a way that did not effect water quality.

Along with their treaty fishing rights, the tribes have some exclusive fishing rights at the property: only tribal members are permitted to fish within 200 feet of Punchbowl Falls. Sport anglers must stay downstream of that boundary, just north of where Dead Point Creek falls enters the Hood River.

WyEast: When you visit Punchbowl Falls, it’s hard not to notice the concrete fish ladder that was built in the 1950s, as it’s a bit of an eyesore. What is the long-term plan for the fish ladder?

Staten: Yes, it is an eyesore, but it is used by fish as part of the salmon recovery program. There is not yet a plan for the fish ladder. Investigating whether the fish ladder could be removed was outside the scope of this project but definitely worth further research.

Punchbowl Falls is one of the most photographed locations in Hood River County so we have seen hundreds of old photos of the falls before the fish ladder was constructed in 1959. It does kind of break your heart when you see the basalt columns on the west side of the falls that have been replaced by that concrete.

Punchbowl Falls in 1942, before construction of the fish ladder (in 1959)

Punchbowl Falls in 1942, before construction of the fish ladder (in 1959)

WyEast: Last week the Hood River County Board of Commissioners endorsed the Punchbowl Park proposal. What are the next steps?

Staten: The Board of Commissioners endorsed the park proposal, committed to a budget to develop the park and authorized the County to apply for grants to fund the park’s acquisition. The Commissioners were supportive, enthusiastic and excited about the opportunity to create this park. The big deadline coming up is April 1, when we need to have our grant application in for the Local Government Grant Program of Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD).

WyEast: Anything else you’d like to add?

Staten: At the end of our presentation to the Board of Commissioners, the chair asked if anyone in the audience would like to speak. A gentleman stood up and said that whenever he went to a National Park, somewhere in experiencing the park, he felt a moment of gratitude because he realized that 100 years ago someone had the vision and the drive to save it for the public, like John Muir at Yosemite. He said that at Punchbowl, we had the opportunity to be the people that saved it for future generations. This is a park not just for us, but also for our great-great grandchildren.

WyEast: Heather, thanks for taking the time to talk about the project, and for all your work in leading this effort. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you’ve really galvanized the community with your vision for protecting this amazing place!

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To view a copy of the Punchbowl Park plan, click here to download a PDF version.

Good News from the Hood River RD!

February 16, 2015
The Eliot Branch and Mount Hood

The Eliot Branch and Mount Hood

A few weeks ago the Forest Service contacted me about a recent article posted on this blog, It’s Time to Fix the Eliot Crossing!

The article proposed some simple solutions for restoring a washed-out section of the Timberline Trail at the Eliot Branch, which has been offically closed for nearly a decade, and is quite dangerous for those who choose to ignore the closure signs.

The article critiqued Forest Service inaction on the problem, and especially the agency obsession with the “million dollar bridge” solution of somehow installing a supension bridge over the disintegrating canyon of the Eliot Branch. This stream is the unruly outflow from the Mount Hood’s Eliot Glacier, largest of the mountain’s glaciers.

Crossing the Eliot Branch in better days on the old footbridge

Crossing the Eliot Branch in better days on the old footbridge

The proposed susppension bridge would have been prohibitively expensive, and had little chance of ever being funded. Worse, any bridge built here stands a very good chance of being destroyed: the steady retreat of the Eliot Glacier will continue to unravel the canyon below for the foreseeable future as the Eliot Branch carves into new ground once covered by glacial ice.

Because of the critical nature of the article, I expected some grief from the Forest Service. Instead, I learned the Hood River Ranger District has now scrapped its “million dollar bridge” solution and is pursuing a simpler downstream crossing, very similar to what was proposed in the blog article. That’s great news!

The Hood River District staff invited me to meet with them and have a look at their new proposal, so I sat down with one of their Forest Service planners in late December to hear the details. The following are highlights from that conversation.

While they are still in the very early stages of laying out a route, the following map shows the general corridor (in green) the Forest Service has scouted for a “low trail” solution, compared to the new trail concept proposed in the earlier blog article (dashed red):

EliotCrossingRedux03

(Click here for a larger version)

The conceptual Forest Service route would descend the east wall of the Eliot Branch canyon in a series of short switchbacks, just upstream from the ravine where the route was proposed in the blog article.

Once across the Eliot Branch, the Forest Service route would traverse along the ridge that forms the west wall of the canyon, while the route proposed in the blog article followed a tributary stream up a ravine that leads to the Timberline Trail. The Forest Service route is a bit shorter, at 1.2 miles, but follows the same “keep it simple” principles laid out in the blog article.

The Eliot Branch in the vicinity of the proposed crossing (photo © Tim Burke)

The Eliot Branch in the vicinity of the proposed crossing (photo © Tim Burke)

Here’s the best news: the Forest Service hopes to have the new trail under construction in 1-2 years, and have already begun scouting possible alignments. Even better, they hope to involve volunteers in some aspect of the construction, and have reached out to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) to begin that conversation (note: the author is also active in TKO).

This has been a long time coming, and kudos are in order for the Hood River Ranger District for getting this project unstuck — and especially for new staff at the Hood River office who have been instrumental in putting the “million dollar bridge” fiasco behind us. While much more work lies ahead for this project to become a reality, it’s a promising change of direction and a new level of commitment from Forest Service to finally fix this problem.

I’ll post updates on the project here over the next couple of years as the details come into view, of course!

A Mea Culpa is in Order…

When I arrived at the Hood River Ranger District last December for the Timberline Trail meeting, I was surprised to see that the visitor facilities had been dramatically upgraded! This was to my chagrin, as I had lamented the need to do so in this blog article in early 2014. It turns out that the finishing touches to the remodeled Hood River offices were being made at about the time I posted those comments here, so a mea culpa is in order!

Like me, you probably won’t notice the changes to the Hood River Ranger Station when driving by on the Mount Hood Loop Highway, as the public face of the building has been redesigned to face south, not toward the highway to the east. In fact, the building looks much the same from the highway to the casual eye — though an addition to the main building, new signage and an outbuilding have been constructed in what was once a very large parking lot (see below).

Before and after highway views of the ranger station

Before and after highway views of the ranger station

Before and after views of the ranger station

Before and after views of the ranger station

The new orientation makes perfect sense when you stand in front of the building, however. A picturesque view of Mount Hood rising above orchards fills the scene — a view echoed and embraced by the pyramid-shaped wall of windows that define the new visitor center.

Mount Hood fills the southern horizon

Mount Hood fills the southern horizon

The revamped building exterior has ADA-compliant parking and ramps, a small plaza, updated informational sign kiosk, carved welcome sign, bike rack and a new pit toilet. The latter is a much-needed addition that is less elegant than the flush toilets provided at the new Zigzag Ranger Station, but still a nice step forward.

This carved sign welcomes visitors to the new facility

This carved sign welcomes visitors to the new facility

The new visitors center is ADA accessible

The new visitors center is ADA accessible

Once inside the new visitors center, you will find a main desk staffed by a Forest Service ranger, and a nice mix of interpretive displays, ranging from historical artifacts to a collection of mounted wildlife specimens found in the Mount Hood region. The center also has a very good selection of field guides and maps for sale, in addition to many free USFS informational materials.

A nice touch inside the building is a terrestrial telescope mounted on a tripod in front of one of the large picture windows, allowing visitors to take a closer look at the mountain that looms above the ranger station.

Interior panorama of the visitors center (note telescope on the left)

Interior panorama of the visitors center (note telescope on the left)

Rangers staff the new front desk at the visitors center

Rangers staff the new front desk at the visitors center

Watch out… bears lurk behind posts in the new facility!

Watch out… bears lurk behind posts in the new facility!

The wildlife specimens will be fun and informative for families visiting the center, as kids are universally drawn to animal displays. Each mounted display has a detailed info card to help parents become instant experts on the different species represented, or for older kids (and adults) to simply browse and learn from.

Owls on display at the front desk

Owls on display at the front desk

Guard raccoon is on duty 24/7…

Guard raccoon is on duty 24/7…

A particularly menacing bobcat is on display!

A particularly menacing bobcat is on display!

This Pine Marten is in charge of the Bull Trout bumper stickers…

This Pine Marten is in charge of the Bull Trout bumper stickers…

Black bear roaming near the front desk

Black bear roaming near the front desk

The bookstore is located at the west end of the visitor center and creatively designed as a rolling, self-contained portable display. The book offerings are excellent, including many of the most popular regional hiking, climbing, skiing and snowshoeing guides, plus field guides to area flora, fauna and history. Posters and coffee-table books celebrating Mount Hood are also featured.

The rolling bookstore has an excellent cross-section of materials

The rolling bookstore has an excellent cross-section of materials

The map offerings in the rolling bookstore are also excellent, including USFS maps for most National Forests in Oregon and Washington, and official Forest Service maps for wilderness areas in the more immediate Mount Hood region.

The map selection also includes several independently published trail and ski maps, including the exceptional National Geographic Trails Illustrated series for Mount Hood and the Gorge and maps for the Pacific Crest Trail. There are even Green Trails topographic maps for the Mount Hood region (below).

Green Trails topographic maps for sale

Green Trails topographic maps for sale

Historical interpretation is somewhat more limited at the new center, anchored by a fine carved sign (presumably Works Progress Administration or Civilian Conservation Corps?) that once stood at the Cloud Cap junction on the old loop highway. The impressive old sign is flanked with captioned photos of north side history on the mountain.

History displays at the west end of the new facility

History displays at the west end of the new facility

Historic Tilly Jane sign anchoring the history displays

Historic Tilly Jane sign anchoring the history displays

A mounted poster from the Mount Hood Scenic Byway series provides a bit more history of the Cloud Cap Inn and the early climbing history of the north side.

Hopefully, new displays will be added over time to explore more of the rich history of the upper Hood River Valley and north side of Mount Hood: the long Native American history in the area, settlement of the upper Hood River Valley in the 1800s, early Forest Service history on Mount Hood and completion of the Mount Hood Loop Highway in the 1920s are just some of the stories that deserve to be told here.

Mount Hood Scenic Byway history poster

Mount Hood Scenic Byway history poster

There are still some gaps in the visitor experience at the revamped ranger station that could use some attention. First, heavy landscaping hides the Ranger Station from southbound highway traffic (which is how most visitors travel to the mountain), and the signage along the highway is easy to miss. Adding a simple “Visitors Center” sign to the existing entrance marker would be helpful.

Second, the visitor center hours posted at the door differ from what appears on the official Mount Hood Forest website. At least two variations appear on the website, depending where Google takes you: the main website listing shows a M-F schedule, while the dedicated Hood River Ranger District page includes Saturdays in the daily schedule.

The new center elegantly packs a lot into a modest space

The new center elegantly packs a lot into a modest space

The signs at the main entrance to the Ranger Station split the difference, showing M-F hours, but extending to include Saturdays from Memorial Day through Labor Day. In all of these variations, the actual hours are the same: from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM, closed on all federal holidays.

Obviously, Saturday operating hours are at a premium, both for the Forest Service in covering their expense of keeping the building open, but also for visitors, who are more likely to be traveling here on weekends than weekdays.

Hopefully, the agency can someday find a way to keep the visitors center part of the Ranger Station open on Saturdays (and even Sundays?) year-round. Weekends are undeniably the busiest visitor time on the mountain, and Mount Hood is busy year-round.

Closed mornings, evenings and weekends..?

Closed mornings, evenings and weekends..?

Finally, the pit toilets located outside the new visitor center are currently locked when the visitors center is closed — an unwelcome and unfortunate surprise for travelers who stop early or late in the day, or on weekends.

In the long term, a better way to address the mismatch between federal government hours and those when the public is most likely to be recreating (weekends and holidays) would be to expand the outside informational and interpretive displays to better serve visitors when the main building is closed. This could even include locating interpretive displays some near the pit toilets, and leaving them unlocked on weekends and holidays.

Despite these rough edges, the new visitor center really shines for the Hood River Ranger District. The new facility should greatly enhance the visitor experience for those seeing the area for the first time.

But even if you’re a seasoned Mount Hood hiker, the new center deserves a stop on your next trip through the area. Plan for 20-30 minutes to explore the displays and browse the books and maps.

Finally, a chance to save Punchbowl Falls!

January 31, 2015
Mount Hood rises in the distance above Punchbowl Falls

Mount Hood rises in the distance above Punchbowl Falls

After nearly 150 years in private ownership, a spectacular basalt gorge along the West Fork Hood River might finally be preserved as a new park. The second of two community meetings on the proposal is rapidly approaching, and is well worth attending if you’re interested in the future of this magnificent place:

Punchbowl Falls Community Workshop
Tuesday, February 10th – 6-7:30 pm
Hood River County Offices
601 State Street, Hood River

If you can’t make the meeting, the county has also set up an online comment forum: click here to complete the survey

About the Proposal

The centerpiece of this exciting proposal is Punchbowl Falls, a cousin to the more famous Punch Bowl Falls on Eagle Creek, in the Columbia Gorge. Both are textbook examples of a “punch bowl” waterfall, pouring into huge, circular bowls carved over the millennia by the upwelling action of the plunging waterfalls. While the more famous Punch Bowl Falls is taller, the Punchbowl Falls on the West Fork is far more powerful, and has carved a much larger amphitheater.

But first, a word about names, as much confusion exists between these waterfall cousins: the lesser-known “Punchbowl” on the West Fork is spelled as one word, while the more famous “Punch Bowl” falls on Eagle Creek uses two words. It’s subtle difference, but important, as these are the official USGS names for the waterfalls, as shown on the maps below:

PunchBowl01

The story of how Punchbowl Falls may finally be preserved for the public began in 2006, when the Western Rivers Conservancy acquired a 20-acre parcel containing the falls from West Fork from Longview Fiber (this is a company that has been aggressively clear-cutting its vast holdings in the upper West Fork watershed over the past decade at an alarming and reckless pace in recent years, so the risk to Punchbowl Falls was real).

The surrounding 82 acres that make up the balance of the Western Rivers property were purchased from Pacificorp in 2010, in tandem with the utility removing its Powerdale Dam, a few miles downstream on the main branch of the Hood River. This purchase includes the beautiful and rugged confluence of the East and West Forks of the Hood River, a powerful spot that remains surprisingly wild and pristine, given the long human presence in this area.

This acquisition marks the beginning of an ambitious effort by the Western Rivers Conservancy to acquire and restore thousands of acres of unprotected West Fork watershed that have been ravaged by relentless logging over the past 130 years, and the eventual restoration of native salmon runs to this beautiful canyon.

Peering into the huge amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

Peering into the huge amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

The removal of the dam and consolidation of private land in the spectacular Punchbowl Falls area are huge developments toward the long-term restoration of the Hood River riparian system.

But much work lies ahead, and the most immediate question is whether Hood River County can secure the funds to purchase the 102 acre Punchbowl Falls site from Western Rivers Conservancy for $578,000 — an asking price that is about half the value of the property.

To reach this goal, Hood River County is an application for an Oregon Parks and Recreation (OPRD) grant for purchase of this Punchbowl site. An unsuccessful application was submitted, but failed to win OPRD funding, so in this round the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC), a local land-use advocacy group, is sponsoring community outreach activities to help broaden support for the county park proposal.

Early 1900s postcard view of salmon jumping Punchbowl Falls

Early 1900s postcard view of salmon jumping Punchbowl Falls

The area has a long history of recreation as a popular swimming and fishing, which explains why the HRVRC events thus far have had a very strong response: 60 people attended the first community workshop in January, and more than 400 responses have been submitted to the comment website.

Should Hood River County fail to secure state funding for purchase of the site in the near future, the Western River Conservancy is likely to eventually sell the property to another private conservation group, putting future public access in question. While the site has never been more protected from private development, continued public access is now very much at stake.

Early 1900s swimmers cross the falls on a giant old-growth log; note the log bridge in the background where the modern high bridge is now located (Hood River History Museum)

Early 1900s swimmers cross the falls on a giant old-growth log; note the log bridge in the background where the modern high bridge is now located (Hood River History Museum)

It’s apparently common for small communities like Hood River County to win funding on a second try from OPRD for projects like this, so your feedback and support is important in helping make the case to the State of Oregon that Punchbowl Falls and the Hood River confluence deserve to be both protected and forever open to the public as a park.

Please take the time to complete the survey if you can’t make the final county meeting in February: Punchbowl Falls Park Survey

Here’s a map of the proposal from the Hood River County website to familiarize you with the area:

PunchBowl05

Click here for a larger PDF version of the map.

A Virtual Tour of the Site

If you haven’t been to Punchbowl Falls, here’s a brief virtual tour. The visit starts at this unassuming steel gate at a large parking turnout, just before Punchbowl Road crosses a high bridge over the West Fork:

The gate at the Punchbowl Falls trailhead

The gate at the Punchbowl Falls trailhead

A short walk down a rustic service road leads to a maze of informal side paths veering off to the left, toward the imposing rim of the West Fork gorge.

The main attraction here is the massive basalt amphitheater carved by Punchbowl Falls. The walls of the canyon provide some of the best displays of columnar basalt jointing found anywhere in the region. How large is the amphitheater? The scale is hard to appreciate from photos, but Portland’s Memorial Coliseum would fit inside, with headroom to spare!

Looking into the Punchbowl from the east

Looking into the Punchbowl from the east

The curving concrete structure to the right of the falls is a fish ladder constructed in 1957 to improve fish passage (though early photos clearly show fish climbing the falls). A closer look at the fish ladder reveals a dilapidated wooden staircase attached to the basalt columns on the far wall of the canyon. The stairs appear to have been added at the time the fish ladder was constructed:

A rickety staircase descends the west wall of the canyon to the fish ladder

A rickety staircase descends the west wall of the canyon to the fish ladder

An even closer look shows the staircase to be in a serious state of disrepair, and a potentially dangerous hazard to the many swimmers who flock to the Punchbowl in summer:

That last step to the fish ladder is a doozy..!

That last step to the fish ladder is a doozy..!

This is an example of the kind of feedback to include when you comment on the park proposal — for example, simply removing the stairs, and perhaps removing or modifying the fish ladder (below) could help it blend these features with the natural surroundings and make the area safer for visitors.

Downstream view of the fish ladder…

Downstream view of the fish ladder…

….and the upstream view

….and the upstream view

A look downstream from above Punchbowl Falls reveals another waterfall cascading into the gorge from the west. This is the falls on Dead Point Creek, which flows from the high slopes of Mt. Defiance into the Hood River:

Downstream view from above the Punchbowl to Dead Point Falls

Downstream view from above the Punchbowl to Dead Point Falls

The structures above Dead Point Falls are part of a fish hatchery built by the State of Oregon in 1920. The state sold the hatchery at some point in the past, and it is now owned by Troutlodge, a private company that grows and markets fish eggs from several hatcheries in the western states. The hatchery has also been on the market over the past year, but (unfortunately) is not part of the park proposal at this time. Perhaps this could be a second phase of a county park purchase?

Walking downstream along the canyon rim, Dead Point Falls comes into full view. The falls and the canyon wall below the hatchery are fully within the lands owned by the Western Rivers Conservancy, and part of the park proposal:

Dead Point Falls

Dead Point Falls

A closer look at the Dead Point Falls shows a second tier spilling in from the right side. This is the outflow from the hatchery ponds, located behind the buildings that can be seen from the canyon rim, and makes for a unique waterfall:

Dead Point Falls

Dead Point Falls

One of the buildings in the 1920 fish hatchery complex on Dead Point Creek

One of the buildings in the 1920 fish hatchery complex on Dead Point Creek

After visiting a series of waterfall viewpoints along the canyon rim, the network of boot paths curves back to the primitive service road, which descends gently toward the confluence of the West and East Forks of the Hood River — about 1/2 mile downstream from the trailhead.

The confluence is a remarkable place where two powerful rivers collide, creating an enormous gravel bar that makes for a fine lunch spot for taking in the scene. The West Fork enters the confluence at a leisurely pace, emerging from a deep pool between basalt buttresses. The East Fork (shown below) makes a more raucous entrance, roaring around a sharp bend in a series of steep rapids as it tumbles toward the West Fork.

The confluence of the East and West Forks

The confluence of the East and West Forks

The confluence area is fully contained within the Western Rivers Conservancy property, and would be part of a future park. The conservancy holdings include the west (far) wall of the canyon for another mile downstream from this spot, and about the first half-mile of the east wall of the canyon beyond the East Fork is included.

After returning to the trailhead parking area, it’s worth taking a few minutes to walk down Punchbowl Road to the dizzying concrete bridge that spans the upper gorge. There’s plenty of room to safely walk on the bridge, but the side walls are low enough that you’ll want to keep an eye on young kids and pets on a leash.

The dizzying view into Punchbowl Gorge from the bridge

The dizzying view into Punchbowl Gorge from the bridge

From the bridge vantage point, the West Fork corkscrews through a narrow gorge carved into spectacular basalt formations. The gorge area surrounding the bridge is also within the Western Rivers Conservancy holdings, and part of the park proposal.

The proposed park site also has trail access in the Winans community, located on the east side of the East Fork, where Iowa Street joins the Dee Highway, north of the Dee junction. This trail is much less traveled than those in the Punchbowl Falls area, and mainly used for fishing access to the area below the confluence.

How to find Punchbowl Falls?

If you would like to visit the area after reading this virtual tour, simply follow the Dee Highway from Hood River to the old mill town of Dee, forking to the right and following signs to Lost Lake. Immediately after crossing the East Fork in Dee, head right at a sprawling 3-way intersection, then go straight at another 3-way junction, onto Punchbowl Road. Watch for a large parking area on the right after a short distance, just before the road crosses the high bridge over the Punchbowl gorge.

2015 Calendar… and looking back on 2014!

December 30, 2014
The view from Owl Point is the cover image for 2015

The view from Owl Point is the cover image for 2015

Each year since 2004 I’ve published a wall calendar dedicated to the special places that make Mount Hood and the Gorge a national treasure — and of national park caliber! You can pick one up for $30 at the Mount Hood National Park Campaign store at CafePress, and you’ll also be supporting the campaign website and this blog when you do!

The following is a preview of the calendar images I picked for the 2015 edition, along with some backstory behind the photos. All of the photos were taken from November 2013 through October 2014. Part of the challenge each year is to come up with 13 new calendar-worthy images, which in turn ensures that I get out on the trail and poke around my favorite haunts, plus a few new spots whenever I can!

For January, I picked a close-up view of the upper Sandy Glacier and the towering cliffs of the Sandy Headwall. This view came from an early snowfall last winter, one of several trips I made to the Bald Mountain and McGee Ridge:

January features the upper Sandy Glacier and towering Sandy Headwall

January features the upper Sandy Glacier and towering Sandy Headwall

On one of those trips to the McGee Ridge viewpoint, I had just set up my camera and tripod along the Timberline Trail when a pair of climbers came down from the mountain. They were obviously not typical hikers, and soon I realized that they were the explorers I had just written a blog article about! “Sandy Glacier Caves: Realm of the Snow Dragon!” was written partly in anticipation of the Oregon Field Guide 2013 premiere episode that featured the glacier Caves… and my new trail acquaintances, Brent McGregor and Eric Guth.

Look closely, and you can see Eric and Brent's boot prints in the snow near the Snow Dragon cave

Look closely, and you can see Eric and Brent’s boot prints in the snow near the Snow Dragon cave

Brent and Eric pointed out several features around the glacier caves from our vantage point. I was later able to add a postscript to the original article to elaborate on some of the new details about their discovery that I learned that day on the trail.

Eric Guth and Brent McGregor on the trail in 2013

Eric Guth and Brent McGregor on the trail in 2013

I’ve also been able to help Brent with his historic research on the formation of the glacier caves with a series of images I’d taken of the Sandy Glacier since the early 2000s. I’ve photographed the glacier in detail pretty much every year for more than a decade, mostly because of it’s scenic beauty, so it was great to discover a more practical use for all those photos!

For February, I picked a photo from a memorable winter day on Mount Defiance (below) after a bank of freezing fog had settled in on the mountain for several days. Nearly every surface was covered with long, beautifully developed ice crystals that had grown undisturbed in the almost still air of the freezing fog layer.

February features a frosty forest on the slopes of Mt. Defiance

February features a frosty forest on the slopes of Mt. Defiance

On that frosty day, I also stopped to photograph the sign shown below on the way up to Mount Defiance, as it showed amazing insight and precision by the Hood River County road department in deciding where to stop plowing!

Winter wonderland ahead!

Winter wonderland ahead!

For March, I picked a scene from the Pacific Crest Trail where it climbs along the west rim of the White River canyon. This section of trail is also part of the Timberline Trail, and is surprisingly overlooked, given the views and close proximity to Timberline Lodge.

March features the White River Canyon from the Pacific Crest Trail

March features the White River Canyon from the Pacific Crest Trail

I posted an article in 2011 on the buried forests that can be seen here. The deeply carved maze of ravines that make up the White River canyon are cut into volcanic debris from the Old Maid eruptions that occurred from 1760 to 1810, and subsequent erosion has revealed some of the well-preserved trees that were buried in these eruptions. The 2011 article describes how to view these old specimens.

I also enjoyed watching a lenticular cloud form over the mountain in the hour or two that I sat on the canyon rim that evening last winter — one of my favorite mountain phenomena. You can see just the beginning of the cloud over the summit in the calendar view, and the tiny sliver later blossomed into the classic lenticular cloud shown in the view below, as I was packing up for the day:

Lenticular cloud forming over The Mountain

Lenticular cloud forming over The Mountain

Lenticular clouds typically form when moist air from approaching weather fronts is compressed as it passes over the big volcanoes in the Cascade Range. They often form as much as a day before the cloud bands of a Pacific front actually arrive, so are a useful barometer of changing conditions.

For April, I picked something a little different: a desert scene just a few miles east of the mountain, where the same White River that originates from its namesake glacier in the previous scene flows east into the rugged rimrock country of Oregon’s High Desert, shown below:

April features the lower falls at White River Falls State Park

April features the lower falls at White River Falls State Park

Over the millennia, the White River has carved through many layers of Columbia River basalt to form its desert canyon, but as it approaches the confluence with the Deschutes, the river encounters an especially tough series of basalt layers. The result is the spectacular White River Falls, a misty green emerald in the desert, protected in a small state park.

The lower falls pictured in the April image is about one-half mile downstream from the main falls, and well off the popular trail in the area. The calendar image is actually just a cropped portion of a very wide panorama (below) that captures more of the rugged scene at the lower falls.

Original jumbo-pano that the calendar image was cropped from

Original jumbo-pano that the calendar image was cropped from

The scoured bedrock in the foreground of this view is testament to volatile nature of the White River: seasonal floods regularly surge to this depth, engulfing the floor of the canyon.

In another 2011 article titled “Close Call at White River Falls”, I described the threats to this magnificent area, and why it deserved better protection — perhaps someday a unit of Mount Hood National Park?

The old powerhouse at White River Falls

The old powerhouse at White River Falls

In addition to the natural scenery, the canyon is home to the fascinating ruins of an early 1900s hydroelectric plant. Desert weather has helped preserve the many relics in the area, but arid conditions haven’t prevented vandals from taking an increasing toll on priceless historic resources.

The powerhouse is amazingly well-preserved inside

The powerhouse is amazingly well-preserved inside

Hopefully, we can someday stabilize the White River Falls site and preserve the remaining traces of history for future generations to explore.

For May, I chose another unusual image for a Mount Hood National Park calendar: Middle North Falls on Silver Creek. Why? Mostly because what we now know as Silver Falls State Park was once proposed to become a national park in the 1920s! It would have been a terrific addition. The scenery, alone blows away many of the existing national parks monuments in our park system!

May features the famous Middle North Falls on Silver Creek

May features the famous Middle North Falls on Silver Creek

Alas, the national park proposal failed after a National Park Service study deemed the logged-over landscape of the 1920s too ravaged to be worthy of park status. Thankfully, that didn’t stop the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s from building the elaborate, magnificent trail system and beautiful South Falls Lodge (listed on the National Historic Register in 1983) that we still enjoy today.

The national park idea for Silver Falls resurfaced again in 2008, when Oregon State Senator (then Representative) Fred Girod proposed it during a special session. Notably, Dr. Girod is a Republican from Stayton, representing the Senate district that encompasses Silver Falls State Park, so maybe we’ll see the idea resurrected in the future? I like that maverick thinking, Senator!

Trail ranger leading a kids hike at Silver Creek -- how very cool!

Trail ranger leading a kids hike at Silver Creek — how very cool!

On the visit last spring when I photographed Middle North Falls, I was reminded that Oregon’s state parks do a pretty good job of embracing the national park tradition at Silver Creek when a young ranger appeared, leading a group of youngsters on a day hike. Kudos to Oregon Parks and Recreation Department for providing programs like these!

Could Silver Falls State Park become a unit of a future Mount Hood National Park? Why not! One tangible benefit would be the opportunity to expand the footprint from the current park boundaries to include the rest of the upper watershed of Silver Creek. The park more than doubled in size in 1958, when a federally funded expansion added in a portion of the headwaters, bringing the park to the present size of just over 90,000 areas.

The amazing, national-park-quality amphitheater behind North Falls

The amazing, national-park-quality amphitheater behind North Falls

Yet, heavy logging and large private inholdings upstream continue to impact Silver Creek stream with silt and algae blooms. These impacts could easily be reversed if the upper watershed were managed for conservation and recreation, instead — especially if the park were expanded to include the upper watershed and its associated habitat.

For June, I picked an image of Butte Creek Falls, a nearby cousin to Silver Creek located even closer to Mount Hood, within the Santiam State Forest. Like Silver Creek, the upper watershed of Butte Creek is heavily logged, with some obvious sediment and algae in the stream as a result.

June features Butte Creek Falls

June features Butte Creek Falls

Also like Silver Creek, the health of Butte Creek could be turned around with a shift to managing for conservation and recreation. Unlike Silver Creek, most of the lands in the upstream watershed are already held in the public trust by the State of Oregon.

Unfortunately, our state forests are held captive by a legislature determined to log them to feed the state general fund — and to ensure that rural counties that already pay only a fraction of the property taxes levied in other parts of Oregon aren’t inconvenienced with paying for their own schools.

Therefore, the best way to restore Butte Creek would be to transfer it to Oregon Parks and Recreation Department as a very large state park… or incorporate it into a future Mount Hood National Park! At a minimum, it’s time for the Santiam State forest to focus on restoring forests and protecting watersheds, not just future timber sales.

Always travel with an automotive repair expert!

Always travel with an automotive repair expert!

The behind-the-scenes, somewhat embarrassing story that goes with the Butte Creek Falls image is one of my hiking buddy Jamie Chabot helping change a flat tire after our trip to Butte Creek and nearby Abiqua Falls. We managed to take a couple of wrong turns in the maze of logging roads and clearcuts that surround the small preserve containing Butte Creek: at some point, I jumped out to survey the canyon below to figure out where we went wrong… only to hear a HISSSSSSS coming from one of the rear tires!

There was no room to pull off to the side, so we were in the awkward predicament of having the car up on a jack in the middle of an active logging road. Fortunately, we were able to install the spare before a loaded log truck came barreling our way! My belated apologies to Jamie for doing the heavy work while I took pictures… but somebody had to document the episode for posterity!

Jamie was also my hiking companion on a couple of trips to Owl Point last summer. This has been an annual favorite of mine since a group of volunteers from the Portland Hikers forum rescued the Old Vista Ridge from being lost to official Forest Service neglect in 2007.

Each year, the trail seems to get better, thanks to a lot of unofficial TLC from anonymous trail tenders. Today, the Old Vista Ridge trail is in great shape and now forms the boundary of the expanded Mount Hood Wilderness, so in that sense has been etched into legal permanence. Hopefully, it will eventually make it back onto the Forest Service inventory of officially maintained trails, a status it clearly deserves.

July features Mount Hood from Owl Point

July features Mount Hood from Owl Point

There are now several geocaches and a trail log tucked along the historic old trail, and it’s amazing to see how busy the area has become now that it has been featured in several popular hiking guides (including Williams Sullivan’s “100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon” and Paul Gerald’s “60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Portland”).

One trail log had more than 60 entries for just 2014, including this wonderful entry from a young family introducing their kids to the adventures of hiking and exploring the Mount Hood backcountry at a very young age:

My favorite Old Vista Ridge trail log entry… ever..!

My favorite Old Vista Ridge trail log entry… ever..!

One of my favorite experiences on the trail is seeing young families introducing their junior hikers to our public lands, battered field guides in hand. Just like my own formative experiences just a few decades ago.

For August, I picked an image from another of my favorite spots, just off the Cooper Spur trail, above the lower extent of the Eliot Glacier. This image was taken on one of those days when clouds were wrapped around the mountain for much of the day, but suddenly cleared for a few minutes — just long enough to capture a few photos before the mountain disappeared, once again:

August features the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood's north flank

August features the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood’s north flank

I certainly do not mind sitting on the shoulder of the mountain waiting out the clouds (there’s no such thing as a bad day on the mountain, after all!), but a bonus during this wait was learning a new bird species (to me), as a pair of these small birds (below) stopped by to check me out:

Horned lark at Cooper Spur

Horned lark at Cooper Spur

This is a horned lark, a wintertime migrant to our area, and the pair I saw had likely arrived recently when I spotted them last August. The Portland area actually has a year-round resident population of streaked horned larks, which look similar to horned larks and are a threatened species. These are details I learned after the trip from the helpful folks at the Portland Audubon Society.

According to Audubon staff, horned Larks are widespread songbirds of fields, deserts, and tundra, where they forage for seeds and insects, and sing a high, tinkling song — and thus were quite at home in the tundra conditions of Mount Hood’s high east side. Though they are considered common, they have undergone a sharp decline in the last half-century. Their very generalized range map shows them wintering from the Cascades west and breeding in summer in Canada tundra/steppe terrain.

For September I picked an image from Wyeast Basin, taken toward the end of a lovely early autumn day as a family and their dog ambled across the sprawling meadow. Wyeast Basin is remarkable for the surprising number of springs bubbling up from the mountain slopes and racing one another downhill, often just a few feet apart.

September features early autumn colors at WyEast Basin

September features early autumn colors at WyEast Basin

While this view (above) from the calendar is the familiar scene at WyEast Basin, I also turned my tripod around to capture the web of springs and streamlets flowing north toward the big Washington volcanoes, on the distant horizon. The talus slopes of Owl Point can also be seen in the distance from here, just above the tree line.

The view north to Owl Point and the Washington Cascades from WyEast Basin

The view north to Owl Point and the Washington Cascades from WyEast Basin

For October, the scene is from Elk Meadows, perhaps the most photogenic of the string of alpine meadows on Mount Hood’s rugged north side. In this view, the Coe Glacier tumbles below the summit, and 7,853-foot Barrett Spur looms darkly on the left. Avalanches roll off Barrett Spur in winter, sometimes with devastating effect on the alpine forests below, as the many bleached snags and stumps in Elk Cove suggest.

October features beautiful Elk Cove in autumn

October features beautiful Elk Cove in autumn

My companions for the Elk Cove hike this fall were Jamie Chabot and Jeff Statt. I met both when Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) was founded in 2007: Jeff was the founding president of the new non-profit, and Jamie the original creative force behind the TKO logo, Portland Hikers calendars and the TKO web identity.

Tom, Jamie & Jeff enjoying a little slice of paradise at Elk Cove

Tom, Jamie & Jeff enjoying a little slice of paradise at Elk Cove

Both Jeff and Jamie continue to support TKO after all these years as the organization continues to grow, and we still meet up for periodic trail stewardship projects together. I’m honored to have them as trail friends, and having them along on this hike made it extra-special!

For November, I picked a familiar view of Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek, taken during an especially wet week in the Gorge. Normally, the somewhat muddy runoff in this scene would be a deal-killer for photos, but I came around to the idea that in this case, it told the story of swollen Cascade streams during the stormy months of late autumn rather nicely, so added it to the mix.

November features a swollen Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

November features a swollen Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

I was memorably soaked on the hike to Triple Falls, not because rain is particularly unique in the Gorge, but because I had just re-ducked my trusty canvas hat (for waterproofing)… but had left it drying in the oven, at home! I discovered this fact at the Oneonta trailhead, so circled back to the Multhnomah Falls lodge to see what sort of hats were in stock.

It turns out that baseball caps are the ONLY option at the Multnomah Falls lodge — and I HATE baseball caps! (primarily because they don’t fit all that well on my basketball-sized head..!) Well, at least I could support my alma mater, and I hit the trail $20 poorer with a ridiculous, ill-fitting beanie that (sort of) kept my large, bald head dry…

You would hate baseball caps, too, if you had a basketball-sized head like mine…

You would hate baseball caps, too, if you had a basketball-sized head like mine…

Once on the trail, I also ran across one of the most extensive landslides to form in recent years, cutting away a 100-foot swath of the Oneonta Trail along a steep canyon section. Trail crews had constructed a temporary crossing of the slide, but just a few days after that trip in November, the slide claimed more ground, erasing the temporary trail. Such is the ongoing challenge of keeping trails open in the very active landscapes of the Gorge and Mount Hood!

A rip-roaring Oneonta Creek after the first big autumn storms

A rip-roaring Oneonta Creek after the first big autumn storms

For December, I picked a late fall image of Elowah Falls, taken from one of the long-bypassed viewpoints along the original Civilian Conservation Corps route described in this recent article on McCord Creek.

December features a wide pano of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek

December features a wide pano of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek

Photographing a 213′ waterfall at close range means a wide-angle lens and blending some images. In this case, I merged three vertical images taken with my 11mm lens to create the panoramic view. This is my first time photographing from this spot, and I will definitely return!

By now you’ve been introduced to my trail buddy Jamie, and on the way out from Elowah Falls that day I ran into Jamie and his two boys! They were headed toward the upper falls on McCord Creek on that very busy hiking day in the Gorge. It was great to see Jamie passing on the hiking tradition to boys!

Jamie and his rugged boys hitting the trail at McCord Creek

Jamie and his rugged boys hitting the trail at McCord Creek

That’s it for the 2015 Mount Hood National Park Campaign calendar highlights, and now for a few thoughts on the blog…

Thanks for another year!

I launched the WyEast Blog in 2008 as a simpler way to promote Mount Hood and the Gorge as “national park-worthy” than updates to the project website would allow. And though I didn’t post quite as often this year for a whole variety of reasons (mostly, real life getting in the way), I was amazed to see the readership for the WyEast Blog continue to grow in 2014.

Yours truly taking in the first big snowfall on Mount Hood in early November

Yours truly taking in the first big snowfall on Mount Hood in early November

In early 2014, the monthly page views edged above the 5,000 mark for the first time, and jumped well above that mark during the peak hiking months of spring and summer. More importantly, the list of official blog followers has grown steadily to 141 this year. These are the true Mount Hood and Gorge junkies that I have in mind when I post to the blog, and these are also the folks who send me both nice notes and periodic corrections — both are greatly appreciated!

I posted a total of 14 articles this year, down a bit from previous years, but bringing the six-year total to 136 articles. I’ve also got a bunch of new articles in the oven, ready to post when time allows. So, the WyEast Blog will be around for awhile!

The two most popular articles continue to be:

10 Common Poison Oak Myths (2012)

Ticks! Ticks! (10 common myths) (2013)

The “ticks” article has been viewed 38,147 times since I posted it in 2013, and the poison oak piece 21,545 times — sort of amazing! But these numbers have validated my obsession with providing thorough, detailed, geek-worthy articles that are more in the magazine format than typical blog fare.

Taking in the fall colors at Butte Creek

Taking in the fall colors at Butte Creek

So, enough facts, figures and anecdotes: if you’ve read this far in my annual, somewhat (ahem!) self-indulgent post, THANK YOU for being a reader… and most importantly, thanks for being a friend of Mount Hood and the Gorge!

See you on the trail in 2015!

Tom Kloster
WyEast Blog

Rediscovering McCord Creek!

November 29, 2014
McCord Creek takes on more subtle hues in winter

McCord Creek takes on more subtle hues in winter

Beautiful McCord Creek boasts a pair of impressive waterfalls that are among the most photogenic in the Columbia River Gorge. The falls are tucked into John B. Yeon State Park, a lesser-known park located about halfway between Multnomah Falls and Cascade Locks.

The rustic CCC-era trails to McCord Creek’s waterfalls have been “discovered” in recent years from spring through fall by crowds of weekend hikers. Yet, the area is surprisingly un-crowded during the wet winter months, from late fall through early spring, and the muted winter tones are just as beautiful.

The area also has a long and fascinating human history that is on display throughout the hike, if you know where to look. This article provides a guide to both the trail and the history of the McCord Creek area.

Frank Warren's salmon cannery (site of today's Warrendale) in 1902

Frank Warren’s salmon cannery (site of today’s Warrendale) in 1902

The human history in this part of the Gorge stretches back thousands of years, as the river was home to a thriving culture of Native American peoples.

The Upper Chinookan people of the Columbia River Gorge fished the legendary autumn salmon runs and picked huckleberries and other wild fruits and forage before moving away from the river during the often harsh winters that we know so well today. An especially elaborate example of the mysterious stone pits thought to be built by native people for ceremonial purposes can still be found high above McCord Creek, on Wauneka Point.

White settlement came to the Gorge in the 1800s, and ushered in an era of profound tragedy for the native people, with epidemics of measles and other European diseases decimating native populations, and white settlement displacing native peoples from places they had inhabited for millennia. It’s an uncomfortable reality to confront today, but also important to never forget as we try to understand our history.

White settlers were equally destructive for the land and natural resources, as well. In a matter of a few decades, the Gorge slopes were almost completely logged of ancient forests and giant fish wheels built along the river were part of the commercial overfishing that nearly collapsed the salmon runs that had sustained Native Americans here for thousands of years.

Frank and Anna Warren in the early 1900s

Frank and Anna Warren in the early 1900s

Frank Warren was among the prominent industrialists operating fish wheels to supply a cannery he built at Warrendale. Today, only a residential district by that name remains to mark the site, just downstream from McCord Creek.

In the heyday of the Columbia River canneries at the turn of the 20th Century, canned salmon from the Warren packing company was exported around the world, and Columbia River canned salmon was as ubiquitous as cans of tuna are in our supermarkets today. But overfishing by gill nets, fish traps and fish wheels nearly destroyed the salmon runs. Fish wheels were finally outlawed by the 1930s, as the canning industry on the Columbia continued its decline. The last salmon cannery on the river closed in the 1970s.

1890s Harpers Weekly illustration of a Columbia River fish wheel

1890s Harpers Weekly illustration of a Columbia River fish wheel

Warren’s packing business made him a millionaire, and he and his wife Anna celebrated their 40th anniversary in style with a 3-month European tour in 1912. For their return trip, the Warrens reserved a first-class stateroom on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic.

Anna Warren’s riveting account of the Titanic disaster in April 1912 was featured in the Morning Oregonian twelve days after the incident, creating a local sensation. Her tragic story recounted how her husband Frank helped her onto a lifeboat, with Anna assuming he had followed her in. Instead, when she looked back, she saw Frank helping other women into the boats.

At the time Anna Warren’s account was published, Frank Warren’s fate was still unknown, but he was later identified as among the more than 1,500 who perished that night. Anna Warren was one of just 710 survivors of the disaster.

Myron Kelly's pulp mill at McCord Creek in the 1890s

Myron Kelly’s pulp mill at McCord Creek in the 1890s

At about the same time that Frank Warren was operating his Warrendale cannery in the late 1800s, another settler by the name of Myron Kelly was operating a small pulp mill near McCord Creek. Kelly’s mill used a pair of 400-foot long, riveted steel penstocks to power the pulp manufacturing. Though the mill is long gone, portions of the penstocks still survive. They are clearly visible in the 1890s view of the mill, above.

The penstocks were fed with water from McCord Creek, diverted from above the waterfalls, and routed to the penstocks along the cliff-top ledge we now use as a hiking trail. Kelly used a natural break between basalt layers to blast out the ledge, and hardware from the pipe system is still found throughout the cliff area today. Black cottonwood trees — the same we see lining the river today — provided the raw material for making pulp.

This 1890s photo shows water spouting from the long penstock that drove Myron Kelly's pulp mill

This 1890s photo shows water spouting from the long penstock that drove Myron Kelly’s pulp mill

Surviving portions of the two penstocks are prominently crossed by the trail to Upper McCord Creek Falls, along with other relics sprinkled through the forest. The large wood water cistern located near McCord Creek trailhead is not from the Kelly pulp mill era, surprisingly, and was added later to supply water to area homes.

The early industrial settlements in the Gorge relied on railroads and ships for transport, as there was no road until the early 1900s. That changed in 1916, when the new Columbia River Highway was dedicated with much fanfare. The highway is still famous, cherished by millions of visitors over the past century for its careful attention to the landscape and surrounding Gorge scenery. Perhaps most iconic are its string of graceful bridges.

Columbia River Highway bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 1915 (Wauneka Point towers above)

Columbia River Highway bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 1915 (Wauneka Point towers above)

The original highway bridge at McCord Creek was completed in 1915, and while it wasn’t as graceful as some of the more famous arched bridges, it was nonetheless a spectacular structure. Early travelers not only had a front-row view of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek, but also a sweeping vista across the Columbia to Beacon Rock and the mountains that rise along the Washington side of the Gorge.

The original McCord Creek Bridge was among the longest along the old highway at 365 feet. The old structure was durable enough to be incorporated into the first “modern” highway in the Gorge in the 1950s, when much of the original Columbia River Highway was bypassed. The original McCord Creek Bridge was simply expanded to carry the wider road, and later a twin structure was built to accommodate the development of today’s freeway. The original bridge structure was finally replaced in 1987 with a new bridge, after 70 years of service.

Completed McCord Creek bridge in 1915, with the Kelly pulp mill conduits visible in the cliffs high above, and Elowah Falls behind the bridge

Completed McCord Creek bridge in 1915, with the Kelly pulp mill conduits visible in the cliffs high above, and Elowah Falls behind the bridge

The new McCord Creek Bridge in the 1920s as it appeared from the cliffs above Elowah Falls

The new McCord Creek Bridge in the 1920s as it appeared from the cliffs above Elowah Falls

By the 1930s, the New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s national recovery effort brought the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to the Gorge. Many of the trails we enjoy today were built — or rebuilt — by the CCC, including the McCord Creek trail.

The CCC crews were expert trail builders, and made quick work of the steep Gorge slopes with carefully graded switchbacks constructed with miles of hand-built, rustic stone retaining walls. The original trail at McCord Creek began at the east end of the old highway bridge, traversed to dramatic viewpoints of Elowah Falls, then crossed McCord Creek to climb the east shoulder of the canyon to the upper falls.

Civilian Conservation Corps crew building the catwalk section of the McCord Creek Trail in 1936 (highway bridge visible in lower left corner of photo)

Civilian Conservation Corps crew building the catwalk section of the McCord Creek Trail in 1936 (highway bridge visible in lower left corner of photo)

It was here that the CCC trail builders seized upon the route of Myron Kelly’s penstock conduit around the towering cliffs above Elowah Falls. The photo above shows crews clearing the ledge in 1936 to repurpose the route as a bold new hiking trail.

The galvanized steel handrails that now give some assurance to hikers along this airy catwalk are not mentioned in a fairly detailed 1936 Daily Oregonian story describing the new trail. These were probably added in the 1950s, when similar railings were installed in other parks around the Gorge — and it’s easy to see why this retrofit was needed as you walk along the 300-foot brink!

Beacon Rock and the McCord Creek Bridge as they appeared from the original CCC trail to Elowah Falls

Beacon Rock and the McCord Creek Bridge as they appeared from the original CCC trail to Elowah Falls

The 1936 Daily Oregonian article also mentions one of the more famous features of the area during the early days of the Columbia River Highway. The McCord Creek Bridge construction in 1915 had unearthed a large petrified tree near the east end of the bridge, embedded in the road cut. The tree became a popular feature along the old road, and also marked the start of the McCord Creek trail.

The whereabouts of the petrified tree are unknown today, as it must have been moved (or destroyed) when the modern highway was constructed in the 1950s. Curious Gorge author Scott Cook speculates that it may have found its way to Cascade Locks, where a petrified log now sits on display at the Marine Park. Petrified logs are not uncommon in this part of the Gorge, however, so the fate of this most famous log may never be known for certain.

Update: Scott Cook has located the petrified tree! It was apparently shipped to the University of Oregon Natural History Museum when the modern freeway was built, and placed next to a replica of the Willamette Meteorite. Scott tells me that ODOT historic highway staff approached museum officials a couple of years ago about moving the tree back to its original home (of a few million years), but it’s unclear if that idea gained any traction. The beautiful new McCord Creek bridge sure seems like an appropriate home for the old tree! Stay tuned – I’ll report any news on the subject as it comes.

This petrified log was located at the east end of the McCord Creek bridge, near the original trailhead

This petrified log was located at the east end of the McCord Creek bridge, near the original trailhead

The human history of the McCord Creek area has taken another dramatic turn in recent years with the construction of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail. The new bike and pedestrian route is an ambitious, decades-long effort by the State of Oregon to restore lost sections of the original highway, eventually re-connecting the entire original route from Troutdale to The Dalles.

In 2012, construction of the HCRH State Trail section from John B. Yeon State Park to Tanner Creek was in full swing, and featured a handsome new bridge over McCord Creek that rivals the original highway bridges in its design and attention to detail.

The new Historic Columbia River Highway state trail bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 2012

The new Historic Columbia River Highway state trail bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 2012

The completion of this new segment of the HCRH State Trail has opened loop high opportunities in the McCord Creek area, as well as the opportunity to bike and hike — as described below in this article.

Exploring the Trail Secrets of McCord Creek

A young family enjoying the McCord Creek Trail in late autumn

A young family enjoying the McCord Creek Trail in late autumn

Now that you know some of the history of McCord Creek, it’s time to explore the trail! This is a half-day hike for most, so makes for a great option during the short days of winter, when most higher elevation trails are snowed in. It’s also a great family hike, with lots to look at and modest grades throughout, thanks to careful design by its CCC builders.

Like most Gorge trails, the hike has cliffs, poison oak and ticks, so keep an eye on small kids, leash your dog, learn to identify and avoid poison oak and do a tick check when you get home. One of the added advantages of doing this hike during the winter months is that poison oak leaves have dropped, greatly reducing the possibility of bringing home an itchy rash from your hike! Ticks are also much less active in winter — and not particularly prevalent in this particular area — though you should always do a tick check after hiking in the Gorge.

McCord Creek Trail map

McCord Creek Trail map

[click here for a larger, printable map]

The hike starts at the John B. Yeon trailhead (driving instructions at the end of this article), and after passing the old wooden cistern mentioned above, you immediately reach the first poorly-signed junction. The trail to the right heads off to Nesmith Point, so continue straight (left) instead, past an empty signpost and traverse above the trailhead parking area.

Soon, the trail begins a very gradual climb on what is actually an old roadbed, now just a very wide and rustic path. This section of trail was opened sometime after the modern freeway was constructed in the 1950s, and the original trailhead for the McCord Creek trail relocated from its old location on the east side of the creek.

The first of several confusing signs along the trail…

The first of several confusing signs along the trail…

At about one-half mile from the trailhead, the old roadbed ends at a “T” junction with the original CCC trail and another confusing signpost. From this point in the hike, the trip has two forks, with up-and-back spurs to follow, one to each of the two waterfalls. The best way to enjoy the hike is to go right at this junction, and continue climbing toward Upper McCord Creek Falls as your first destination.

As you climb the 1.2 miles to the upper falls, watch for the beautifully constructed stone retaining walls that line much of the trail. They are now cloaked in moss and licorice fern, but have held up amazingly well since the stones were first placed almost 80 years ago by CCC workers.

Legacy of the CCC - rustic stone retaining walls like these are found throughout the hike

Legacy of the CCC – rustic stone retaining walls like these are found throughout the hike

After several switchbacks through steep forest, you will encounter the remains of the old pulp mill penstock pipes. One is located at the end of a switchback, the other crosses the main trail.

Look closely at the second pipe, and you can see the doomed efforts of some early trail crew to actually cut through the surprisingly solid pipe! Up close, you can also see the thousands of rivets used to assemble pipes of this kind in the late 1800s in a way that could withstand the intense water pressure.

Myron Kelly's sturdy penstock pipes still survive along the upper trail

Myron Kelly’s sturdy penstock pipes still survive along the upper trail

The trail passes through a couple more switchbacks beyond the penstock pipes before reaching the spectacular and exhilarating catwalk section, some 300 dizzying feet above McCord Creek. The handrail makes this section very safe, so take the time to look for traces of the old mill conduit that once carried water from McCord Creek around this ledge — there are old bolts and bits of pipe if you watch closely.

The catwalk section has reassuring railing atop the 300-foot cliffs

The catwalk section has reassuring railing atop the 300-foot cliffs

Traces of the old waterworks are still visible on the upper trail

Traces of the old waterworks are still visible on the upper trail

The views from the cliffs are also impressive. On most days, Aldrich and Table Mountains on the Washington side of the Columbia River dominate the horizon, but on clear days, the very top of Mount Adams can also be seen. Further on, the catwalk section of trail also allows a birds-eye view of Elowah Falls dropping into its huge amphitheater, far below.

Sweeping cliff-top views stretch across the Columbia to Aldrich and Table Mountains -- and the very top of Mount Adams, in the distance

Sweeping cliff-top views stretch across the Columbia to Aldrich and Table Mountains — and the very top of Mount Adams, in the distance

If you happen to be hiking the trail during the busier months of May or early June, you’ll have an extra treat on the catwalk section, as the rocks are lined with tiny, hanging wildflowers that cling to the cliffs. Conversely, if you hike the trail in very cold winter weather, you’ll find a spectacular array of icicles along this section (making the handrail that much more appreciated!)

The catwalk portion of the hike ends abruptly when the trail disappears into the lush upper canyon of McCord Creek. Just a few steps into this beautiful rainforest, the view suddenly opens to the twin cascades of Upper McCord Creek Falls. This is an idyllic spot to stop for lunch and photographs. The trail continues a few hundred yards to the edge of McCord Creek, just above the falls, where the intake for Myron Kelly’s pulp plant was apparently located.

Lovely Upper McCord Creek Falls

Lovely Upper McCord Creek Falls

To complete the second leg of the hike, retrace your route down to the “T” junction and continue straight (right) in a traverse across a mossy talus field. Soon, the trail abruptly drops into the lower McCord Creek canyon with another series of switchbacks. In this section, you’ll see old cable railings at an overgrown viewpoint that dates to the 1940s or 50s. You will also have a view down to the new McCord Creek Bridge on the HCRH State Trail, far below.

The lower trail soon traverses above noisy McCord Creek before arriving at the spectacular base of 213-foot Elowah Falls. The trail crosses the stream on a wooden footbridge here, and during the rainy season, expect to get wet — the spray is impressive!

This pretty section of the original CCC trail is now bypassed, but fun to explore

This pretty section of the original CCC trail is now bypassed, but fun to explore

You can do the fragile canyon ecosystem at Elowah Falls a favor in this area by not scrambling up the various boot paths that have formed here. Most are dead-ends left by hiking newbies that go nowhere, but are beginning to have an impact on the landscape.

Instead, there’s a better way to visit a lesser-visited viewpoint of the falls. Simply continue beyond the footbridge and begin traversing downstream along the canyon for about one-quarter mile. As the trail begins to curve away from the stream, watch for an obvious path on the right and above the main trail. This is a bypassed section of the original trail, and it’s in excellent shape for exploring.

You can follow the old tread past a couple of switchbacks, then to a fork, where a short spur leads left to a spectacular, boulder-top view of the Elowah Falls, framed by bigleaf maples. The main portion of the old tread continues a bit further, then dead-ends at another great view of the falls, where you can also see the modern trail and footbridge, below.

Elowah Falls from a viewpoint along the old trail section

Elowah Falls from a viewpoint along the old trail section

If you do explore this abandoned section of trail, please stay on the tread — it’s obvious and easy to follow, with much of it still lined with CCC stone retaining walls. In recent years, boot paths to the viewpoints on the old trail have formed from the modern trail, below, so be sure not to reinforce these and simply retrace your steps along the old route to return to the main trail.

If you’re looking for a longer hike and more variety, you can also continue east from Elowah Falls for about a mile to the newly completed HCRH State Trail, where you’ll find a signpost marking the junction. Turn left on the wide, paved trail and follow it 1.2 miles back to the Yeon Trailhead, passing the impressive new McCord Creek Bridge along the way — another nice stop along the hike. This section of the new HCRH State Trail is noisy, as it follows the freeway closely, but it’s an interesting and new way to appreciate the Gorge from a different perspective.

How to Get There

From Portland, take I-84 to Ainsworth (Exit 35), a few miles east of Multnomah Falls and the eastern access to the drivable western section of the Historic Columbia River Highway. Turn left at the first intersection, then almost immediately turn right onto a frontage road where signs points to Warrendale. From here, continue east on the frontage road to the Yeon State Park trailhead, where the frontage road terminates at an eastbound freeway ramp. To return to Portland, follow the frontage road west to the Ainsworth interchange, and follow signs to Portland.

No trailhead permits are required here, and no restrooms or water are provided (note: water and restrooms are available just west of the Ainsworth interchange, at Ainsworth State Park). Dogs must be leashed in this state park! At least two dogs have had to be rescued by search and rescue teams in the Gorge after falling from cliffs this year because of careless owners who took exception to posted rules. Please set an example and respect this rule… and enjoy your trip!
______________

Special thanks to Scott Cook for his help on this article! Be sure to pick up a copy of Scott’s new guide to Portland: PDXccentric: the odyssey of Portland oddities! You can learn more on the PDXccentric Facebook page.


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