Archive for the ‘Natural History’ category

The “Other” Shellrock Mountain

July 31, 2014
Mount Hood rises above Shellrock Mountain and Badlands Basin

Mount Hood rises above Shellrock Mountain and Badlands Basin

Hidden in plain sight above the Hood River Valley, Shellrock Mountain is a little-known peak with a familiar name. Though it shares a name with its better-known cousin in the Columbia River Gorge, the “other” Shellrock Mountain has much more to offer, and is easier to explore.

The “other” Shellrock Mountain is located along the Surveyors Ridge trail, a route popular with mountain bikers who ride from one glorious viewpoint to another along this well-traveled route. At one point on the trail, an obscure wooden sign points to Shellrock Mountain, but really just marks a short spur trail with a view of the south face of Shellrock. Beyond this modest view, few visitors take the time to explore the mountain or the rugged Badlands Basin, located nearby.

Hidden in plain sight: Shellrock Mountain is from Cooper Spur Road

Hidden in plain sight: Shellrock Mountain is from Cooper Spur Road

[click here for a larger view]

Reaching the summit of Shellrock Mountain involves a short, stiff off-trail scramble up the northeast slope of the peak (more about that later), where a stunning view stretches from the nearby glaciers of Mount Hood to the big peaks of the southern Washington Cascades and arid desert country of the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

Shellrock Mountain sits astride the Hood River Fault, a 20-mile long scarp that forms the east wall of the Hood River Valley. The scarp also forms the last high ridge of the Cascade Range in the Mount Hood area, with evergreen forests giving way to the arid deserts of Eastern Oregon just a few miles east of Shellrock Mountain. This proximity to the desert ecosystem brings together a blend of mountain and desert flora and fauna that make Shellrock Mountain and its surrounding area unique.

While most of the uplifted ridge along the Hood River Fault is composed of ancient layers of basalt, andesite and dacite, the Badlands Basin reveals the more recent debris of a pyroclastic flow, the same roiling mixture of steam, volcanic ash and rock that roared from Mount St. Helens in the May 1980 eruption. This flow originated from Mount Hood during its early formation.

Badlands Basin sprawls against the northern foot of Shellrock Mountain

Badlands Basin sprawls against the northern foot of Shellrock Mountain

Badlands Basin is located at the headwaters of Cat Creek, on the north flank of Shellrock Mountain. Here, the ancient pyroclastic flow has been carved into a fantastic landscape of pinnacles, ridges and goblins that is unmatched elsewhere in the region. The Badland Basin formation spreads across about 100 acres, rising nearly 1,000 above Cat Creek.

The maze of formations in Badlands Basin as viewed from Shellrock Mountain

The maze of formations in Badlands Basin as viewed from Shellrock Mountain

Exploring the Badlands Basin is a rugged and surreal experience for the rare visitors who make their way through the jagged formations. No trails go here, and the terrain is both steep and exposed. But once inside the formation, individual spires and ridges take on a new life, as their bizarre shapes come into focus on a human scale. The Badlands are surprisingly alive, too, with a unique ecosystem of desert and sun-loving alpine flora thriving in dry meadows among the rock outcrops.

Badlands Basin: “The Grizzly Bear”

Badlands Basin: “The Grizzly Bear”

Badlands Basin: “The Hippo”

Badlands Basin: “The Hippo”

Badlands Basin: “The Iguana”

Badlands Basin: “The Iguana”

Together, Shellrock Mountain and the adjacent Badlands Basin are special places that beg to be explored. While the Surveyors Ridge Trail provides a good view into the area, new trails that explore the strange formations of the Badlands up-close and reach the airy summit of Shellrock Mountain could make these places much more accessible for hikers and cyclists. What would these new trails look like?

Proposal: Shellrock Mountain Loop Trail

This proposal calls for a new trail to Shellrock Mountain and Badland Basin from the Loop Highway. Why start at the highway? It makes sense for several reasons: first, the new trailhead at Cat Creek would be only about one-third mile from the popular Dog River Trailhead, making a long and spectacular loop possible for mountain bikers, as the Dog River Trail also connects to the Surveyors Ridge Trail.

Second, a highway trailhead would make the area much more accessible and secure for all visitors, as highway trailheads are easier for law enforcement to patrol, and highway traffic, alone, acts as significant deterrent against car clouters.

ShellrockMountain08

[click here for a large version]

Finally, a trailhead along the Loop Highway could be open most of the year, allowing for winter snowshoe access to the high country around Shellrock Mountain when the Surveyors Ridge Road is buried under snowdrifts.

The proposed Shellrock Mountain Loop would have two legs: a 2.5 mile northern leg would follow Cat Creek to the base of Badlands Basin, then wind through the rock formations to a junction with the Surveyors Ridge Trail. A southern leg would climb the long ridge west of Shellrock Mountain to a separate junction with the Surveyors Ridge Trail, about a mile south of the northern leg. The Surveyors Ridge trail would connect these new trails, creating the loop.

A short summit spur trail would lead from the existing Surveyors Ridge Trail to the rocky top of Shellrock Mountain, providing a side-trip option for cyclists on the ridge and the main destination for hikers on the new Shellrock loop trail.

The following oblique views show the proposed trails from both west and east perspectives:

ShellrockMountain09

[click here for a large version]

ShellrockMountain10

[click here for a large version]

What Would it Take?

In 2009, President Obama signed a bill into law creating the Mount Hood National Recreation Area (MHNRA), a small but significant new form of protection for the Mount Hood area. The MHNRA concept has mountain bikes in mind, as it provides a way to protect recreation areas in a wild state, but without bicycle restrictions (under federal law, bicycles are not allowed in designated wilderness areas).

Shellrock Mountain and Mt. Hood from the Surveyors Ridge Trail

Shellrock Mountain and Mt. Hood from the Surveyors Ridge Trail

The entirety of Shellrock Mountain and the Badlands Basin fall within the MHNRA designation, and as such, deserve to be considered for proposals like this one. The Forest Service has shown an encouraging willingness to work with mountain biking advocates to build new bike trails in the Surveyors Ridge area, too. So while the agency has generally opposed building new trails anywhere else, there is a good chance that the Shellrock Mountain Loop could be build if mountain bike advocates were to embrace the idea.

The first mile of both legs of the new trail would also fall on Hood River County land. The county currently focuses most of its energy on logging its forest holdings, but has worked with mountain bikers in the Post Canyon area to diversify the kinds of uses that county land can be dedicated to.

Nope, this sign doesn’t lead to Shellrock Mountain… yet…

Nope, this sign doesn’t lead to Shellrock Mountain… yet…

In the Shellrock Mountain area, Hood River County has already logged off the big trees, so hopefully the County would see the wisdom of shifting the focus in this area to recreation, as well – and possibly consider funding for trail construction, as well.

Most importantly, mountain biking advocates like the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) have a terrific record of trail building, and with help from other trail advocates like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), could be the catalyst in bringing together a collaborative effort of volunteers, the Forest Service and Hood River County in creating this new trail system.

How to Visit Shellrock Mountain

Sturdy hikers can visit Shellrock Mountain today with a bit of wayfinding expertise and some bushwhacking skills. The best starting point is an unofficial trailhead located along the Surveyors Ridge Road.

A brave bushwhacker heads for Shellrock’s summit

A brave bushwhacker heads for Shellrock’s summit

To reach the trailhead from Hood River, drive the Loop Highway (OR 35) ten miles south of I-84 to a crest just beyond the Mount Hood Mill, where you turn left onto Pinemont Drive. This road eventually becomes Surveyors Ridge Road, alternating between paved and gravel surfaces, but is always easily passable for any car.

At almost exactly 11 miles from where you turned off the main highway, watch for an unmarked trail heading to the right at an obvious bend in the road. Park here, and follow the short path to the Surveyors Ridge Trail, just a few feet off the gravel road. Shellrock Mountain is visible directly ahead of you!

The open summit ridge of Shellrock Mountain

The open summit ridge of Shellrock Mountain

From here, turn left (south) and follow the Surveyors Ridge trail for about one-third mile to a gentle crest along the forested east shoulder of Shellrock Mountain. If you pass the trail sign pointing to Shellrock Mountain, you’ve gone too far.

At the crest, head directly uphill on whatever path you can find through the forest, then abruptly leave the trees and reach the open east slopes of Shellrock Mountain, where you will wind among patches of manzanita and ocean spray as you work your way toward the summit. Don’t forget to look back periodically to help you retrace your steps upon your return!

Mount Hood fills the horizon from the top of Shellrock Mountain

Mount Hood fills the horizon from the top of Shellrock Mountain

Soon, you will reach the summit ridge with a series of viewpoints of the Badlands Basin (and your starting point) spreading out to the north and Mount Hood towering to the southwest.

From this vantage point, you can also see the full extent of the 2008 Gnarl Fire that burned the eastern slopes of Mount Hood, sweeping from near Gnarl Ridge on the far left horizon toward Cloud Cap, located right of center. The historic Cloud Cap Inn was barely spared by this blaze. In 2011, the Dollar Fire was started by a lightning strike west of Cloud Cap, sweeping over the right shoulder of the mountain for several miles toward Lolo Pass. For more on the Dollar Fire, click here.

Early stages of the 2008 Gnarl Fire from near Shellrock Mountain

Early stages of the 2008 Gnarl Fire from near Shellrock Mountain

You’ll want to linger on the summit, and be sure to bring along a good map to help you identify the many features near and far that can be seen from this lonely summit. For photographer, the best time to visit in in the morning, which the light on Mount Hood is at its best.

Enjoy!

U.S. 26 Construction Begins

June 30, 2014
Vestige of better days: ferns and moss are gradually erasing the long-abandoned original loop highway on Laurel Hill

Vestige of better days: ferns and most are gradually erasing the long-abandoned original loop highway on Laurel Hill

Over the past few years, I’ve posted a series of articles in this blog challenging the Oregon Department of Transportation “safety” projects for U.S. 26 in the Mount Hood area. Most of the projects to date have been highway widening cloaked as “safety”, and ODOT has been incrementally widening the highway to five lanes from west of Wemme through Rhododendron over the past decade.

Today, they’ve set their sights on the Laurel Hill section of the highway, where extensive sections of the mountainside will soon be blasted away, ostensibly to prevent rocks from falling on the highway. But as always, the highway “will be widened for safety”.

The big road cut in the center of this Google Earth view will get even bigger with the latest ODOT project

The big road cut in the center of this Google Earth view will get even bigger with the latest ODOT project

The current batch of projects aren’t as bad as they might have been: working from a solid “F” grade as originally rolled out, they’ve moved somewhere into the “D-” range. The project is still a costly dud to taxpayers, approaching $40 million and counting. But the extent of new lanes has been scaled back somewhat and the center median has also been shortened on the west end from what was originally conceived.

Sadly, ODOT can do better — and has, especially in the Columbia River Gorge, where their excellent I-84 Strategy guides design. But on Mount Hood the focus has been on moving traffic, with impacts on the scenic character of Oregon’s tallest peak as an afterthought.

This slope across from the Mirror Lake trailhead will be blasted away to allow for road widening

This slope across from the Mirror Lake trailhead will be blasted away to allow for road widening

For Mount Hood travelers, it’s going to be a radical change. Not only will the physical highway scars on Laurel Hill grow substantially, the road itself will be more freeway-like, thanks to a concrete center median that will stretch four miles from the Kiwanis Camp junction at the bottom of the hill to Government Camp.

While the new median will physically prevent the relatively rare head-on crashes that can occur in winter conditions (when heavy ski traffic is present), ODOT has no shown plans to actually lower the speed limit in this stretch of highly. This would be the most cost-effective way to prevent crashes, and was recommended as a priority by their own safety consultants, but couldn’t compete with the road widening agenda.

You Can’t Get There from Here

The most obvious impact of the new median will be visual. ODOT has been vague about just how ugly the median will be. There are many examples across the country where state highway departments have constructed reasonably attractive median barriers in scenic corridors. Yet, while early ODOT materials on the project suggested a similar approach at Mount Hood, the agency seems to be retreating to a standard Jersey barricade, like you might find on the Banfield Freeway.

The Laurel Hill Chute historic site will be a lot harder to reach for westbound tourists

The Laurel Hill Chute historic site will be a lot harder to reach for westbound tourists

The "improved" highway will allow fewer visitors to take in this mind-boggling view of the "chute" used by Oregon Trail pioneers to descend Laurel Hill

The “improved” highway will allow fewer visitors to take in this mind-boggling view of the “chute” used by Oregon Trail pioneers to descend Laurel Hill


 

Another impact from the medians that will affect hikers is access to the popular Mirror Lake trailhead and Laurel Hill Chute trail. Once the median is in place, hikers will have to approach from the west to reach these trails, which means that if you are approaching from Government Camp, you would need to drive four miles down Laurel Hill to the Kiwanis junction, turn around and retrace your route to Laurel Hill or Mirror Lake.

Likewise, the hordes of Portlander who fill the Mirror Lake trailhead, in particular, will need to drive to Government Camp or Ski Bowl to make their return trip, as turning west from the trailhead will no longer be possible.

This is Going to Take Awhile

This latest phase of the U.S. 26 widening project begins this summer, and, according to ODOT, will continue through 2016 in the months of April-October each year! ODOT warns travelers that intermittent traffic closures during these construction windows will last 20 minutes and can occur at any time when construction is underway — longer when blasting occurring.

Here’s a rundown of the details from ODOT:

• Around-the-clock closure to one lane in each direction until October 31, 2015
• Blasting will require up to 1-hour closures of U.S. 26 three days a week Monday through Thursday between 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
• Intermittent traffic stops lasting 20-minutes anytime
• Increased truck traffic on U.S. 26
• Intermittent single lane closures and flagging for other work
• No construction on holidays and Sundays
• No construction from November to March of each year. During this time all existing lanes will re-open

If that last point leaves no doubt, this project continues spend a lot of general fund dollars on ski traffic — and the reckless driving associated with ski traffic – during winter weekends.

Finding a New Vision for US 26

The “good” news (ironically) is that ODOT is rapidly running out of highway funding. This reality is statewide, thanks to the declining value of a cents-per-gallon gas tax losing ground to inflation and the Oregon Legislature increasingly bonding away future gas taxes to pay today’s bills. It’s a sad state of affairs for transportation in Oregon, but it might also provide a needed opportunity for ODOT to develop a more holistic vision for the Mount Hood corridor.

The agency knows how to do this: ODOT’s I-84 Strategy for the Columbia Gorge guides project design in the National Scenic Area and is a perfect approach for coming up with a more enlightened, sustainable vision for the Mount Hood corridor, as well.

ODOT's excellent I-84 Strategy is a perfect blueprint for a new U.S. 26 vision on Mount Hood

ODOT’s excellent I-84 Strategy is a perfect blueprint for a new U.S. 26 vision on Mount Hood

One very encouraging development is the Mount Hood Multimodal Plan, reported on here in an earlier article. While past efforts to actually manage the ski traffic that drives so many bad highway design decisions in the corridor haven’t gone anywhere, the new plan seems to have legs. That’s good news for Mount Hood at a time when good news is in short supply.
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For more information about the U.S. 26 project and ODOT:

U.S. 26 Website

I-84 Strategy(PDF)

Previous WyEast Blog articles on the U.S. 26 project:

Highway 26 Widening – Part One

Highway 26 Widening – Part Two

Highway 26: Last Chance to Weigh in!

Highway 26 Postscript… and Requium?

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 1

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 2

Breakfast with Paul Gerald

March 27, 2014

PaulGerald01

If you’re a hiker, you’ve probably seen (or own) one of Paul Gerald’s guides: 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Portland, Day Hikes & Sections: Oregon PCT and The Best Tent Camping in Oregon. If you’re a breakfast adventurer, then you’ve surely seen (or own) his instant classic Breakfast in Bridgetown, now in its second edition.

Paul is in the process of publishing new editions of his Breakfast in Bridgetown and 60 Hikes books, and this time he’s trying something a bit different: instead of the usual publishing house, he’s trying out a crowdfunding campaign.

Why does this matter to WyEast Blog readers? Well, partly because it’s important to support local authors who write about our favorite places with a level of knowledge and attention to detail that only we locals can really appreciate. But more importantly, crowdfunding has the potential to unlock a lot more in the way of local publishing, so it’s something that hopeless field guide junkies (like the author!) and casual hikers should get behind in a big way.

You can learn more about Paul’s campaign from this short video — and please consider supporting the campaign before it ends on April 4!

…more about the campaign at the end of this article. First, let’s meet Paul Gerald!

About Paul Gerald

Paul is a freelance writer, author, and publisher. He’s written for The Oregonian and Willamette Week while in Oregon, and for the Memphis Flyer before he migrated to the Great Northwest.

Paul has written hiking and camping guidebooks for Menasha Ridge Press and the Wilderness Press, and with his Breakfast in Bridgetown book, entered the world of self-publishing (also known as “the future of publishing!”) as the owner et al of Bacon and Eggs Press, an assumed business name of Second Cup Productions LLC.

Paul also leads hikes for the Mazamas (including trips to Italy!) and works for Embark Adventures when he’s not researching trails for his own guides. He has also been a supporter of the Portland Hikers community from the very beginning. In Paul’s words, his goal as an author is to “go to interesting places, do interesting things, meet interesting people, and then tell the story.”

The following is a recent WyEast Blog interview with Paul Gerald about his dual passions of hiking and eating breakfast:
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WyEast: Hello Paul! You’ve authored guidebooks to hiking trails and breakfast spots – do you generally start off a hiking day with a big breakfast?

Paul Gerald: Not generally a big one, but if I’m hiking I’ll at least scramble up some eggs at home, get a muffin and coffee on the way, then bring a banana for a little trailhead ritual. After that it’s all about bars and a nice sandwich, then Kettle chips for after. I’m something of a creature of habit. Oh, and I’m carrying about 20 extra pounds these days.

WyEast: Doesn’t that sort of slow you down on the trail?

Paul Gerald: It does, which is part of the reason I don’t do it often. But there is something really nice and Portland-y to go have a nice brunch in town, then drive out to the hills and walk it off. It’s also nice to not have to carry food on the hike. And to really do the Full Portland, I’ll stop at Edgefield on the way back and get a burger and basket of fries. Did I mention the extra 20 pounds?

WyEast: Tell us about your new restaurant guide: does the geography “Bridgetown” cover some of the small burgs that are along the way to favorite trailheads?

Paul Gerald: Breakfast in Bridgetown is what I call “the definitive guide to Portland’s favorite meal.” It’s not a book of reviews and ratings, but rather a series of sketches telling you what a place is like, what they serve, who eats there, and maybe a few funny stories thrown in for your entertainment. I’m not a food critic, I’m a travel writer at heart.

The new (third) edition will cover 120 restaurants, 17 food carts, 11 downtown hotels, and – yes – a lot of places out-of-town.

It also has helpful lists like outdoor seating, early morning and late night breakfasts, vegan/vegetarian options, and this time a whole section on gluten-free breakfasts.

WyEast: What are a couple of your favorites, say, for a hike in the Gorge or up on Mount Hood?

Paul Gerald: I love (and describe in the book) the Otis Cafe (for Cascade Head), Joe’s Donuts and the Huckleberry Inn (for Mount Hood), Camp 18 (for Saddle Mountain), and Skamania Lodge (for the Gorge). I should say, though, that the best way to approach Camp 18 and Skamania would be to hit the buffet after your hike.

Paul exploring the PCT in the Three Sisters Wilderness

Paul exploring the PCT in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness

WyEast: Okay, I’ll definitely try that! So, tell us about your new edition of “60 Hikes….” – what are some new hikes that we can look forward to?

Paul Gerald: The biggest change, other than just getting things up to date, is that the maps and elevation profiles have been upgraded. They have more detail, more helpful information, and they just look better. There is also now a really helpful chart in the beginning of the book, showing which hikes are good for kids, backpacking, seeing waterfalls, wheelchair access, swimming (that’s a new category), great views, the best time to go, etc. It replaces the lists in the front of the current edition, and adds more info, as well.

As for new hikes, I am bringing back two old favorites, both of which had to miss a couple editions because of access issues. One is the Salmonberry River, where you walk down the abandoned railroad through a beautiful Coast Range canyon. They are looking at this as a “rail to trail” project, and I hope to get people out there to see it in its “wild” condition.

I’m also bringing back one of my all-time favorites, which I call South Fork Toutle River. Some folks call it the Sheep Canyon hike, but it’s a section of the Loowit Trail on the west side of Mount Saint Helens. You start in a huge mudslide, walk through ancient forest, then climb into alpine splendor and wind up on the very edge of the 1980 blast zone.

I’m also adding the Cape Horn Trail (I was waiting for all the trails to get worked out) and bringing back the Willamette River Greenway in the middle of Portland.

Mostly, though, it’s about expanding and improving the book. For example, now that the trails in the Coyote Wall and Catherine Creek areas and getting sorted out and signed, I am offering a lot more detail there. I just try to keep making the book better and better.

WyEast: You probably have to focus on covering new trails as a field guide author – but are there any trails that you just go back to over and over because they’re your favorites?

Paul Gerald: Absolutely, and in fact, in the Foreword to the book I describe my personal hiking calendar. For me, “favorite” is all about the time of year. In a nutshell, it’s Eagle Creek in March, eastern Gorge flower hikes in April (especially the “big loop” from Coyote to Catherine and back), Dog Mountain in May, Salmon River and Saddle Mountain in June, all the Hood stuff in July/August (McNeil, Vista Ridge, Timberline), then the old-growth forests in fall, especially Opal Creek and Trapper Creek.

WyEast: What’s the most overlooked gem in your guide? And why is that, exactly?

Paul Gerald: I think I’d have to say Ape Canyon here. Every time I lead that hike for the Mazamas or some friends, people are just blown away. It’s a paved access road, gentle grade, amazing forest and views, fascinating geology, and it winds up at the foot of Mount Saint Helens on this incredible moon-like plateau of rocks and flowers and open space. And all of this in about 11 miles without a steep hill in it!

WyEast: I’ll end with a tough question to put you on the spot: in recent years, hikers have noticed little blue bags of dog poop along hiking trails, apparently left by hikers (hopefully) for picking up on their return trip, but often forgotten and left to annoy other hikers. What’s your stance on bagging dog poop out in the forest? Isn’t it okay to simply kick your dog’s offerings off the trail, especially given the number of plastic bags left behind?

Paul Gerald: Well, even though I suspect this is a “loaded” question, I’ll tell you what I’ve done when I took dogs hiking (I don’t have one myself): I kick it off the trail! My theory is that millions of animals poop in the woods, so why not a dog? Maybe there’s something about dog poop that isn’t good for the environment, and I always make sure to kick it in an area where people aren’t going to picnic or whatever, but that’s my policy.

I’m okay with the bag option, but only if people actually pick them up on the way out. Maybe somebody could start a business making bio-degradable poop bags?

WyEast: So, have you ever carried out someone else’s dog’s poop…? In a bag, of course!

Paul Gerald: I have not. Maybe I will now — if it’s close to the trailhead, of course!
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You can find more information on Paul’s crowdfunding campaign here – and remember, the campaign ends on Friday, April 4!

Breakfast in Bridgetown Campaign

And you can find his previously published books at local bookstores or online at Paul’s website: PaulGerald.com

Thanks for the great guides, Paul!

The Farmer and his Dell

March 16, 2014
Hand-colored photo from the 1920s showing the west approach to Shepperd's Dell

Hand-colored photo from the 1920s showing the west approach to Shepperd’s Dell

For nearly a century, countless travelers on the Historic Columbia River Highway have admired the idyllic scene that unfolds at Shepperd’s Dell, one that has also appeared on dozens of postcards and calendars over the decades.

George Shepperd's sole memorial in the Columbia Gorge is this small plaque on the Shepperd's Dell bridge

George Shepperd’s sole memorial in the Columbia Gorge is this small plaque on the Shepperd’s Dell bridge

Yet, beyond the fanciful name and a small bronze plaque at the east end of the highway bridge, few know the story behind the man who gave this land to the public to be enjoyed in perpetuity. Who was George Shepperd? This article is about the modest farmer who gave us his “dell”.

Threading the Needle

George Shepperd’s story is interwoven with the brilliant vision of a true icon in our regional history, Samuel Lancaster, the chief engineer and designer of the Historic Columbia River Highway. Had Sam Lancaster not attempted to frame sweeping views and hidden natural features at every turn with his epic road design, Shepperd’s Dell might have remained a mostly hidden secret.

Lancaster saw his new highway as something to be experienced, not simply the shortest path through the Gorge:

“…as Consulting Engineer in fixing the location and directing the construction of the Columbia River Highway… I studied the landscape with much care and became acquainted with its formation and its geology. I was profoundly impressed by its majestic beauty and marveled at the creative power of God, who made it all… [I] want [visitors] to enjoy the Highway, which men built as a frame to the beautiful picture which God created.”

-Samuel C. Lancaster (1916)

With this grand vision, Lancaster saw a special opportunity to showcase nature at Shepperd’s Dell. When approaching from Crown Point, the old highway rounds a blind corner cut into sheer cliffs, high above the Columbia when the graceful, arched bridge spanning Shepperd’s Dell suddenly comes into view.

Sam Lancaster and other dignitaries are pictured here at Shepperd's Dell on the opening day of the Columbia River Highway in 1916

Sam Lancaster and other dignitaries are pictured here at Shepperd’s Dell on the opening day of the Columbia River Highway in 1916

Tall basalt domes rise above the bridge, and from mid-span, visitors are treated with a view into the shady, fern-draped “dell” holding Young Creek. A graceful, 8-tiered waterfall leaps a total of 220 feet through a twisting gorge, much of it hidden from view in the mossy recesses of the dell.

In his inspired design for Shepperd’s Dell, Sam Lancaster’s threaded the needle by spanning the narrow canyon at the midpoint of the falls. By any other highway engineer of the time, this would have been a travesty, but Lancaster’s gracefully arched bridge and careful attention to detail achieves the opposite: he transformed this little grotto into one of those rare examples where man and nature meld in idyllic harmony. This artful balance is the enduring lure of Shepperd’s Dell to this day, making it a favorite stop along the old highway.

Samuel Lancaster's iconic bridge at Shepperd's Dell as it appears today

Samuel Lancaster’s iconic bridge at Shepperd’s Dell as it appears today

Sam Lancaster said this of his design for Shepperd’s Dell:

“The white arch of concrete bridges a chasm 150 feet in width and 140 feet in depth. The roadway is cut out of solid rock [and] a sparkling waterfall leaps from beetling cliffs and speaks of George Shepperd’s love for the beautiful, and the good that men can do.”

-Samuel Lancaster (1916)

Complementing the highway is a rustic footpath leading from the bridge to a viewpoint at the edge of the falls. The footpath is cut into the vertical walls of the dell and framed with Lancaster’s signature arched walls. From the falls viewpoint, the vista sweeps from a close-up of the cascades on Young Creek to the graceful arch of the highway bridge, soaring above the canyon. This is understandably among the most treasured scenes in the Columbia Gorge.

1920s postcard view of Shepperd's Dell showing the Bishop's Cap in the distance.

1920s postcard view of Shepperd’s Dell showing the Bishop’s Cap in the distance.

Samuel Lancaster created this scene as we experience it today, but only because George Shepperd made it possible by showing Lancaster his secret waterfall, and offering to donate his land to the highway project so that others might enjoy his dell in perpetuity.

Who was George Shepperd?

When Sam Lancaster was building his touring road through the Columbia Gorge, a number of well-to-do land owners with vast holdings in the area generously donated both right-of-way and some of the adjacent lands that hold the string of magnificent waterfalls and scenic overlooks that we enjoy today. Until the highway idea was conceived in the early 1900s, the Gorge was mostly valued for its raw resources, with several salmon canneries and lumber mills along the river and the forests heavily logged. The idea of a parkway was new, and part of the surging interest in creating national parks and expanding outdoor recreation across the country.0

Middle tier of the falls at Shepperd's Dell as viewed from the highway bridge

Middle tier of the falls at Shepperd’s Dell as viewed from the highway bridge

George Shepperd was equally generous with his donation, but he wasn’t a timber baron or salmon cannery tycoon. Instead, Shepperd was a transplanted Canadian farmer who had moved his family here after a short stay Iowa in the 1880s. Samuel Lancaster wrote this of Shepperd:

“The tract of eleven acres at this point, given by George Shepperd for a public park, is unexcelled. God made this beauty spot and gave it to a man with a great heart. Men of wealth and high position have done big things for the Columbia River Highway which will live in history; but George Shepperd, the man of small means, did his part full well.”

-Samuel Lancaster (1916)

George Shepperd, his wife Matilda and their sons William and Stuart moved from Goderich Township, Ontario (roughly halfway between Toronto and Detroit) to a farm in Audobon County, Iowa in 1880, where the couple gave birth to two more sons, George Jr. and John.

George Shepperd's extensive holdings in the early 1900s were mostly hills and ravines (shown in yellow), with the donated Shepperd's Dell parcel shown in green. Much of Shepperd's remaining land has since been brought into public ownership

George Shepperd’s extensive holdings in the early 1900s were mostly hills and ravines (shown in yellow), with the donated Shepperd’s Dell parcel shown in green. Much of Shepperd’s remaining land has since been brought into public ownership

In 1889, the Shepperds moved again, this time to Oregon where they settled in the Columbia River Gorge on a 160-acre land claim along Young Creek, just west of the mill town of Bridal Veil. Their fifth child, a daughter named Myra, was born just a year after they arrived, in November 1890. Upon settling in Oregon, George Shepperd supported his family by farming, dairying and working at the nearby Bridal Veil Lumber Mill.

At this point in history, the George Shepperd story becomes complicated: in May 1895, George and Matilda divorced, and in January 1896, George married Martha “Mattie” Maria Cody Williams, who had also recently divorced. Mattie apparently met George when the Shepperd and Williams families had traveled west to Oregon together in 1889. The “Cody” in Mattie’s lineage was indeed William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, a first cousin.

The view today from Shepperd's Dell toward Crown Point includes some of George Shepperd's former pasture lands, now in public ownership and managed for wildlife.

The view today from Shepperd’s Dell toward Crown Point includes some of George Shepperd’s former pasture lands, now in public ownership and managed for wildlife.

George Shepperd was 47 years old when he married 37 year-old Mattie in 1896, and while the first years of their new marriage seemed to have been blissful, the next 35 years of his life were a rollercoaster of tragedies and triumphs.

The tragedy began in 1901 when his eldest son, William J. Shepperd, boarded a train to Portland to pick up supplies for the business he and his brother George Jr. had in Hood River. William reportedly waved to friends and family from the rear platform as he passed through Bridal Veil and the Shepperd farm, then was never seen again.

Local news accounts speculated that William had been “Shanghied” while in Portland and taken aboard a foreign cargo ship. Ten years later, William’s surviving wife Osie and son Raymond also disappeared after living with the Shepperds and members of Osie’s family in Portland for several years. They were never heard from again by George Shepperd.

The Bridal Veil Historic Cemetery is tucked among the trees near the Angels Rest trailhead

The Bridal Veil Historic Cemetery is tucked among the trees near the Angels Rest trailhead

More tragedy ensued in 1903, when George Shepperd lost his beloved Mattie, just seven years after the two had married. There is no record of why she died, though some accounts describe her as “crippled” in those years. She was only 44 years old.

If the impressive memorial he erected for Mattie at the Bridal Veil cemetery is any indication, George was profoundly heartbroken. He never married again. The melancholy epitaph at the base of her grave marker reads:

“One by one earth’s ties are broken, as we see our love decay, and the hope so fondly cherished brighten but to pass away.”

The infant grave of Elizabeth Dutro is also located within the otherwise empty Shepperd family plot, next to Mattie’s grave and dated October 15, 1903 – seven months after Mattie was buried. Baby Dutro seems to be Mattie’s granddaughter by Bertha Delma Williams Dutro, her daughter from her first marriage. Bertha Dutro lived until 1963, and had two more daughters. She is buried at the Idlewildle Cemetery in Hood River.

Mattie Shepperd's grave marker at the Bridal Veil Cemetery

Mattie Shepperd’s grave marker at the Bridal Veil Cemetery

Mattie Shepperd, "wife of George Shepperd"

Mattie Shepperd, “wife of George Shepperd”

The tiny Bridal Veil Cemetery is still maintained and open to the public, though a bit hard to locate: an obscure gravel driveway drops off the north shoulder of the I-84 access road at Bridal Veil, just below the Historic Columbia River Highway. A number of early settlers from the area are buried in this lonely window into the past.

Baby Dutro was laid to rest a few feet away and nine months after Mattie Shepperd

Baby Dutro was laid to rest a few feet away and nine months after Mattie Shepperd

Over the next few years, George Shepperd must have met Samuel Lancaster as the engineer began his surveys of a possible highway route through the Gorge. Travel in the Gorge at that time was mostly by train, and the Shepperd farm was one of the many stops along the route. No record of their meeting exists, but George was described as an early supporter of the highway, and this is surely the time when he realized that he could be part of Lancaster’s grand vision.

Some accounts suggest that the sudden loss of Mattie was also part of George Shepperd’s motivation to leave a lasting legacy with a land donation, but there is no record of this. Instead, it was simply the beauty of Shepperd’s Dell that seemed to motivate him.

Newspaper accounts also show that Shepperd had many opportunities to sell his property for substantial profit, as the new highway was quickly dotted with roadhouses and gift shops aimed at the new stream of tourists. The Oregonian later reported: “ever since the highway was constructed, Mr. Shepperd has received offers to purchase the tract, but has refused them, having in mind an intention to dedicate the property to the use of the public.”

Early 1930s postcard view of Shepperd's Dell.

Early 1930s postcard view of Shepperd’s Dell.

In March 1914, George Shepperd’s land donation along Young Creek was announced as part of the construction of the Columbia River Highway. But by late 1915, Shepperd was involved in a legal dispute with a neighboring landowner who attempted to take claim to the land he had donated – the land that is now Shepperd’s Dell. By 1916, George Shepperd was counter-suing on grounds of fraud to clear the title – one that stemmed from a loan that one of Shepperd’s sons had taken years earlier. The Oregonian reported the events with the headline “Good Deed Spoiled” as a nod to Shepperd’s noble intentions:

“A few years ago, the elder Mr. Shepperd, owner of an 80-acre piece of land above the Columbia River, deeded 10 acres, including the famous Shepperd’s Dell, to the City of Portland as a public playground. The Columbia River Highway was being built and it was apparent to Mr. Shepperd that this attractive place would be a valuable possession to the city. While he was a comparatively poor man, he determined, instead of selling the property for a small fortune that he could have received for it, give it free of cost to the public.”

(The Oregonian, March 16, 1916)

Thankfully, Shepperd prevailed in the legal dispute. At that point in the dramatic early history of the new highway, the Shepperd’s Dell section of the road had already been constructed, but who knows what might have been built there had the land slipped away from public ownership?

In November 1915, George Shepperd was fighting a second legal battle, joining the City of Portland in a lawsuit against the Bridal Veil Lumber Co., and their plan to divert Young Creek away from Shepperd’s Dell and into a generating facility to provide power for their mill. The City and Shepperd prevailed in this suit, as well.

This is the only known photo of George Shepperd. It appeared in the Oregon Journal in 1915.

This is the only known photo of George Shepperd. It appeared in the Oregon Journal in 1915.

George Shepperd’s personal roller coaster continued on June 8, 1916, when he found himself seated among the most honored guests at the spectacular dedication of the Columbia River Highway at Crown Point. Shepperd was recognized in the formal program along with historical luminaries like Sam Hill, Samuel Lancaster, Julius Meier, Simon Benson and John B. Yeon. The ceremony was kicked off audaciously by President Woodrow Wilson unfurling an American Flag remotely by pressing a telegraph button in the White House, surely a highlight for a modest farmer from Canada.

Though surrounded by millionaires and elite scions of Portland’s old money at the grand opening, Shepperd stood apart from his honored peers that day: John B. Yeon, who had been appointed roadmaster in the campaign for the Columbia River Highway project, summed it up best:

Mr. Shepperd’s donation is worthy of the highest praise, especially in view of the fact that he [is] not a wealthy man. He has made a sacrifice for the public good that ought to make some of our rich men ashamed of themselves.

John B. Yeon, Oregon Journal, April 23, 1915

Close-up view of the vehicle carrying Sam Lancaster as he passed Shepperd's Dell during the grand opening of the Columbia River Highway in June 1916.

Close-up view of the vehicle carrying Sam Lancaster as he passed Shepperd’s Dell during the grand opening of the Columbia River Highway in June 1916.

In an earlier 1915 front-page feature previewing the new highway (still under construction), the Oregonian described Shepperd’s Dell this way:

“One of the wonder spots on the Columbia Highway, in the daintiness and sublimity combined with its scenery is Shepperd’s Dell, which was donated to the highway as a public park by George Shepperd, because he loved the spot and because he wanted it preserved forever for the enjoyment of people who come along the highway.

Mr. Shepperd is not a rich man and his donation is one of the most noteworthy in the history of the highway. At Shepperd’s Dell is one of the finest bridges on the highway and a trail has been built leading down from the highway to the dell and back to the beautiful little waterfall and springs in the gorge. The view back from the trail, looking through the arch made by the concrete span, is one of the most beautiful on the highway.”

(Sunday Oregonian, August 29, 1915)

George Shepperd’s Final Years

This home on NE Stanton Street in Portland is where George Shepperd lived out the final years of his life.

This home on NE Stanton Street in Portland is where George Shepperd lived out the final years of his life.

In 1917, sixteen years after his eldest son William had vanished and six years after William’s wife Osie had disappeared with his grandson Raymond, George Shepperd sought foreclosure on 120 acres of land he had given to the young couple shortly before William disappeared in 1901. The title was cleared by April 1919, and Shepperd promptly donated the land, including a four-room farmhouse, to the local YMCA. The YMCA reported that the house and property would be converted into a model boys camp and lodge:

“A party of boys will visit the place today to clear off sufficient land for a baseball diamond and athletic field and to commence the work of remodeling the lodge. The camp will be used by the boys this summer for short camping trips, covering a period of only a few days, and is especially intended for use of those boys who are unable to devote the time required to make the trip to the regular summer camp at Spirit Lake.”

(The Oregonian, April 4, 1919)

By 1920s, George Shepperd had finally retired from his farm at Shepperd’s Dell, having survived his second wife Mattie and a remarkable series of peaks and valleys in his life. He moved to Portland, and lived there until passing away at his residence on NE Stanton Street in July 1930.

George Shepperd's modest grave marker at Riverview Cemetery.

George Shepperd’s modest grave marker at Riverview Cemetery.

Shepperd left an estate of about $8,000 to his remaining sons and daughter, primarily property in the Shepperd’s Dell area. But he hadn’t forgotten his missing grandson Raymond, and left him a token “five dollars in cash”, (about $70 today) presumably in hopes that the execution of his estate might somehow reconnect Raymond with the Shepperd family.

George Shepperd is interred at Portland’s Riverview Cemetery, along with many other important figures from the early period in Portland’s history. His understated gravesite is surprisingly distant from where his wife Mattie is buried in the Bridal Veil cemetery, and we can only guess as to why his surviving children didn’t bury him there.

George Shepperd Jr. in an early 1940s news account, on the right.

George Shepperd Jr. in an early 1940s news account, on the right.

George’s children produced nineteen grandchildren, and the Shepperd family name lives on throughout the Pacific Northwest.

His second-oldest son Stuart lived until 1952, when the Oregonian reported that an “elderly man” had collapsed on a sidewalk in downtown Portland, apparently from a heart attack. At the time of his death, Stuart Shepperd was residing in Latourell, near the family homestead in the Columbia Gorge. His surviving brother George G. was still living in Bridal Veil at the family homestead at that time.

George G. Shepperd and his wife Emma left the Shepperd farm in 1953 or 1954 and George G. lived until 1961. George G Shepperd’s son George “Junior” went on to become a prominent officer for the Oregon Bank, and died in 1975. The youngest of George Shepperd’s four boys, John, died in 1959. Myra Shepperd, George’s only daughter and the only one of his children born in Oregon, lived until 1975.

The bridge at Shepperd's Dell in the 1940s, complete with a white highway sign from that era.

The bridge at Shepperd’s Dell in the 1940s, complete with a white highway sign from that era.

The original 10-acre Shepperd’s Dell park was transferred from the City of Portland to the Oregon State Park system in September 1940. The state made a series of additional purchases to expand the park over the next several decades, bringing the total size of today’s park to more than 500 acres.

Today, Shepperd’s Dell State Park encompasses Bridal Veil Falls, Coopey Falls and the west slope of Angels Rest, to the east, in addition to its namesake waterfall grotto.

George Shepperd’s legacy… and ours?

Shepperd's Dell lights up with fall colors each autumn.

Shepperd’s Dell lights up with fall colors each autumn.

Imagine the Columbia River Highway without Shepperd’s Dell, and you can truly appreciate the magnitude of George Shepperd’s generosity and vision. There’s an important lesson from his legacy: bringing land into public ownership is complicated, expensive and often messy, and thus requires great determination.

Flash forward to our times, and consider the hundreds of private holdings that still remain in the Columbia River Gorge. Then imagine the “good that men can do” (in Samuel Lancaster’s words) — what if just a few of these parcels were donated to the public in perpetuity in our time?

This unusual hand-colored photo from the 1920s is from the Bishops Cap, looking west toward the bridge at Shepperd's Dell. Though the trees have grown, much of the rest of this scene is preserved today.

This unusual hand-colored photo from the 1920s is from the Bishops Cap, looking west toward the bridge at Shepperd’s Dell. Though the trees have grown, much of the rest of this scene is preserved today.

Hopefully, the spirit of George Shepperd’s humble generosity will live on in the hearts of those fortunate few who still hold private property in the Gorge, but we’re also fortunate to have several non-profit organizations with land trusts to help the transition along:

The Friends of the Columbia River Gorge have become the most active in recent years in securing critical private holdings in the Gorge. Without Friends of the Gorge, we would not have secured lands at Cape Horn, Mosier Plateau of the Lyle Cherry Orchard, for example, among more than a dozen sites acquired by the Friends.

The Trust for Public Land serves as a critical go-between in helping secure private lands for eventual public purchase. Without the Trust, we would not have secured nearly 17,000 acres in the Gorge through more than sixty separate transactions over the past 30 years.

The Nature Conservancy continues to acquire endangered ecosystems, and their extensive holdings at Rowena Plateau and McCall Point also serve as some of the most visited recreation trails in the Gorge.

The Columbia Land Trust is another important player in securing private lands in the Gorge, as well as the rest of the lower Columbia River. Their focus is on riparian sites and securing critical habitat.

Very few of us will ever find ourselves in the position of George Shepperd, with a waterfall or craggy viewpoint to give to the public, but we can be part of that enlightened tradition in a smaller way. Please consider supporting these organizations in their efforts to expand our public lands in the Gorge!
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His Heirs
The Oregon Journal • July 23, 1930

ShepperdsDell22

GEORGE SHEPPERD was a poor man but he gave all that he had. Without intending it he made for him a memorial that will for all time identify his name with unselfish public service.

He owned a few rocky acres in the Gorge of the Columbia. It was land from which a living could be wrested only by dint of much toil. But through it ran a small stream that at last leaped and laughed and spiraled its way down through the great basaltic cliff that was the wall of the gorge. The course of the cataract led to Shepperd’s Dell.

It was for many years George Shepperd’s habit to go on Sunday afternoon with the children and sit beneath a tree and look down upon the exquisitely fashioned spot. The harsh outlines of the rock, cast up aeons ago by volcanic fires, were softened and carved into fantastic and beautiful forms by the streamlet. Maidenhair fern clung precariously to the cliff. Flowers bloomed under the shadow of the tall and somber firs.

When the Columbia River Highway was built George Shepperd gave Shepperd’s Dell to the people as their beauty spot forever. At other points along the highway “No Trespass” signs appeared where property was privately owned. George Shepperd left a welcome.

One wonders if there will be a bright Sunday afternoon when the spirit of this humble man will be allowed to return and brood over Shepperd’s Dell and share in the pleasure of the many who revel there. Having little, he gave all, and it became much.

(Postscript: after his death the Oregon Journal published this tribute to George Shepperd. We are all still “his heirs”. I would someday like to see these words cast in bronze and tucked into a shady corner of his Dell so that a bit of his story might be known the many who visit this spot)
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Acknowledgements: as you might have guessed from the length, this was among the more challenging articles to research for this blog, as very little is written about George Shepperd. An especially big big thank-you goes to Scott Daniels, reference librarian at the Oregon Historical Society, who helped me locate the only known biography of George Shepperd.

The obscure Shepperd biography was written in 1997 by Muriel Thompson, a great-great niece of George Shepperd. Thompson traveled to Oregon to conduct some of her in-depth research, including court records from the various legal actions Shepperd was party to and digging into Oregon Journal archives at a time when news searches meant poring over microfiche archives. It’s an invaluable account of George Shepperd’s life and legacy.

The stairs leading into Shepperd's Dell from the bridge as they appeared in the 1940s - the signpost no longer exists, though the rest of the scene is largely unchanged.

The stairs leading into Shepperd’s Dell from the bridge as they appeared in the 1940s – the signpost no longer exists, though the rest of the scene is largely unchanged.

Thompson’s biography did not have the benefit of today’s internet research tools, and through a variety of these sources, I was able to piece together a fuller picture of George Shepperd’s complex life than was possible in 1997, especially details about his two marriages and additional historic news accounts about his land donation and the construction of the Columbia River Highway.

There is still plenty of mystery surrounding this important player in the history of the Columbia Gorge: did any structures from George Shepperd’s farm survive? Why did his children bury him at Riverview Cemetery instead of Bridal Veil, by his beloved Mattie? What became of his grandson Raymond, by his vanished eldest son William? As always, I welcome any new or corrected information, and especially contact with any of his descendents. One of the unexpected joys in writing this blog is the opportunity to connect directly with grandchildren and great-grandchildren of important people in our regional history!

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 2

February 19, 2014
The winter weekend crush of skiers is nothing new on Mount Hood

The winter weekend crush of skiers is nothing new on Mount Hood

(This is the second in a two-part article. The first part focused on the latest plans to add more parking to the Meadows resort, another step in the wrong direction for Mount Hood, but one that (unfortunately) has already been approved by the U.S. Forest Service. This part focuses on the future, and a promising new strategy that seems to finally be turning the page on an era when ODOT and the Mount Hood ski resorts simply paved their way out of weekend traffic problems with more parking and wider highways.)
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Since the early days of developed snow sports on Mount Hood in the 1920s, winter weekend traffic jams have been the norm. The cars have changed (and so has the highway, regrettably), but the same bottlenecks appear in pretty much the same spots, as thousands of Portlanders pour into the ski resorts over a few short winter weekends each year.

Intrepid auto tours reached Government Camp on dirt roads years before the loop highway was completed in the early 1920s

Intrepid auto tours reached Government Camp on dirt roads years before the loop highway was completed in the early 1920s

From the beginning, there have been overflow parking lots, ski buses, shuttles — even an aerial tram in the early 1950s known as the Skiway — all in an attempt to stem the weekend ski traffic.

In 2013, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration and Clackamas and Hood River county officials, kicked off yet another effort to address the winter traffic overload.

In the 1920s, Government Camp was the center of winter activity -- and overflowing with cars

In the 1920s, Government Camp was the center of winter activity — and overflowing with cars

While this is just the latest of several ODOT-led efforts over the years to better manage the Loop Highway, the draft Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Plan (MHMTP) is the best effort yet. While still only a document full of recommendations, the new plan offers real promise that federal, state and local officials are now more serious about managing the relatively short season of ski traffic gridlock.

Timberline Lodge was overflowing with cars as soon as it opened in the late 1930s

Timberline Lodge was overflowing with cars as soon as it opened in the late 1930s

Instead of attempting to rebuild the entire highway corridor to meet the peak demands of ski resort traffic that occurs over a few weekends each year, the MHMTP focuses instead on low-cost, high-impact tools. This is a radical and positive change in mindset — even if the plan itself still has a few gaps.

The stakes are high when it comes to managing traffic on Mount Hood. The ski resorts have little incentive to do anything except ask the general public to cough up more tax dollars for ever-wider highways. After all, it’s a sweet deal for the resorts and skiers, alike: in Oregon, just one in 25 residents ski, so the subsidy for highway projects catering to ski traffic is enormous.

ODOT is currently seeking bids in the latest round of road widening, this time along the slopes of Laurel Hill in what will eventually total more than $60 million in state gas tax funding over the past decade to widen the Loop Highway from Brightwood to Government Camp.

Camp Creek takes the brunt of trash and pollution from US 26. This scene is the unimproved roadside trailhead at Mirror Lake, where a chemical toilet (and associated trash) sits precariously above a steep bank dropping directly into the stream

Camp Creek takes the brunt of trash and pollution from US 26. This scene is the unimproved roadside trailhead at Mirror Lake, where a chemical toilet (and associated trash) sits precariously above a steep bank dropping directly into the stream

Just a few hundred yards downstream from the scene in the previous photo, Camp Creek spills over beautiful Yocum Falls, a seldom-visited spot bypassed by the modern highway. The pool below the falls is sullied with plastic cups, sport drink bottles and tires that have found their way into the stream from the highway

Just a few hundred yards downstream from the scene in the previous photo, Camp Creek spills over beautiful Yocum Falls, a seldom-visited spot bypassed by the modern highway. The pool below the falls is sullied with plastic cups, sport drink bottles and tires that have found their way into the stream from the highway

The traditional “building your way out” mindset has been bad for business in the local communities along the highway. The wider, noisier road has made it even less attractive for day tourists to risk a stop at the remaining shops and restaurants in the corridor. Worse, the huge 5-lane cross sections built on Highway 26 over the last decade have effectively cut the mountain villages in half by creating a scary barrier for local traffic to navigate, whether on foot, bicycle or in a vehicle.

Widening the Loop Highway is even worse for the natural environment, as highway trash, polluted runoff and blown gravel enters directly into the Salmon River, Still Creek, Camp Creek (pictured above) and the Zigzag River. All four streams serve as important salmon and steelhead habitat, a fact lost on the rush to make room for a few weekends of ski traffic each year.

A New Direction?

The Mount Hood Skiway was an early 1950s experiment to lessen parking pressure on Timberline Lodge - it failed, but may have been ahead of its time!

The Mount Hood Skiway was an early 1950s experiment to lessen parking pressure on Timberline Lodge – it failed, but may have been ahead of its time!

ODOT’s new MHMTP is both comprehensive and innovative. The plan is guided by the following objectives for how future travel should occur on the mountain:

• Improved highway safety for all users
• Expanded travel options year-round
• Reduced peak travel demand
• Enhanced mobility and access to recreation and local communities
• New projects should be financially feasible and sustainable
• New projects should be achievable in the next 15 years

The new focus on cost-effectiveness and a broader definition of desired outcomes beyond simply chasing traffic is new for ODOT — and for Mount Hood. It follows the lead of urban areas across the country, where cities are increasingly moving away from big-ticket road projects that seldom provide the advertised safety or mobility benefits used to justify them, and toward more practical solutions that have fewer unintended consequences.

A decade of futile "widening for safety" projects in the Highway 26 corridor has mostly resulted in dividing local communities and increasing highway runoff, with little traffic benefit

A decade of futile “widening for safety” projects in the Highway 26 corridor has mostly resulted in dividing local communities and increasing highway runoff, with little traffic benefit

To achieve these core objectives in managing the Mount Hood travel corridor, the MHMTP lays out four areas of proposed action – this is the real substance of the plan:

1. Better managing the system: in this area, the plan calls for another plan known as a “concept of operations”, which is transportation jargon for an operations blueprint for the Mount Hood loop from the City of Sandy to Hood River. Elements of an operations blueprint could range from web-based traveler information to new or upgraded electronic message signs along the highway, with real-time updates on traffic, parking, transit and emergencies.

The goal of this element of the MHMTP is to make the best use of the system through better-informed travelers and to better coordinate the various public agencies (ODOT, the Forest Service and the two counties) involved in operating the road system.

How it could be better: the details of the “concept for operations” aren’t nailed down at this point (thus the need for another plan), but one strategy not mentioned in the list of possibilities is variable speed limits along the entire loop. This key recommendation from ODOT’s 2010 Highway 26 Safety Audit deserves to be a priority above other, more costly highway projects already moving forward in the area. DOTs around the country are using this technology with excellent results in improving safety and traffic efficiency, and ODOT should join the movement.

An even larger gap in the strategy is an unwillingness by ODOT and the Forest Service to require the ski resorts to adopt peak pricing as a means to help spread out demand. The resorts are loathe to do this, given their troubled future (as described in Part 1 of this article), but if all three major resorts adopt the same policy, they will at least retain their current competitive positions with one another, while Mount Hood’s communities and environment would benefit from a coordinated effort to spread out the highway demand.

Not in the plan: pricing incentives for parking and lift tickets at the big three resorts to spread demand from weekend peaks

Not in the plan: pricing incentives for parking and lift tickets at the big three resorts to spread demand from weekend peaks

Sadly, it will be a very long time before the Forest Service asks the resort to adopt more aggressive peak pricing for lift tickets, but that is the best long-term solution available for spreading out ski demand. Short of that, ODOT holds the cards for managing parking, as all parking along the mountain portion of the Mount Hood Loop Highway falls within a state-designated SnoPark permit area.

Currently, ODOT charges a generic fee for annual and day passes to park at the SnoPark lots (including all three ski resorts), but the agency should consider using these permits to better manage demand on the highway. This is a very low-cost strategy to avoid some very high-cost road widening projects.

2. Bicycle and pedestrian projects: this much-needed element of the plan calls for improved bike and pedestrian crossings at key locations along the loop highway. Highway widening is also called for to allow for more shoulder space for bicycles, along with bike safety improvements at key intersections and traveler information for bicycles. While not driven by ski resorts, this element of the plan embraces the potential for Mount Hood to become a more balanced, year-round recreation destination, and the Loop Highway becoming less of a barrier to hikers and cyclists.

Notably, the famously crowded Mirror Lake trailhead is called out for relocation to address safety issues with the current trailhead. The new trailhead could be sited across the highway, accessed from an existing section of the Historic Mount Hood Loop Highway (that now serves the Glacier View SnoPark), and connected to the current trailhead with a new pedestrian bridge over US 26.

Rumble strips are very effective at keeping distracted drivers out of bike lanes, but bikes also need enough lane space to keep away from the rumble strip

Rumble strips are very effective at keeping distracted drivers out of bike lanes, but bikes also need enough lane space to keep away from the rumble strip

How it could be better: “widening” for bicycle lanes is a default recommendation that you might expect from ODOT, but the lanes along the Mount Hood loop are already very wide in many spots, so keep your fingers crossed that our highway planners are judicious about where to actually widen the road. In most cases, simply providing rumble strips along the shoulder stripe would go a long way to keep cycles safe from motor vehicle traffic, and require fewer subalpine trees to be cut for road widening.

A major gap in this element of the MHMTP is lack of policy direction on speeding or travel speeds — two of the three main contributors to serious accidents identified in the 2010 ODOT safety study (with winter conditions as the third).

Extending and enforcing the existing ODOT safety corridor and 45 mph speed limit from Rhododendron to the Hood River Meadows entrance to Mount Hood Meadows would make cycling along this most mountainous portion of the loop highway much safer – which in turn, makes cycling more attractive, especially on the lower sections of the loop that are generally snow free year-round.

"Widening for bicycle lanes" sounds easy, but the devil is in the details when the road travels through public forest lands

“Widening for bicycle lanes” sounds easy, but the devil is in the details when the road travels through public forest lands

3. Improved transit service: The MHMTP plan calls for new transit from Sandy to the mountain, and Clackamas County recently received a US Department of Transportation grant to expand its Mount Hood Express bus service from Sandy to Ski Bowl, Government Camp and Timberline Lodge. Rides are $2 each direction, with ten buses daily during the ski season, seven in the off-season. The trip from Sandy to Government Camp takes about 55 minutes and Timberline Lodge at about 75 minutes, so quite competitive with driving times and much less expensive.

It’s a good start, and long overdue. The fact that almost all traffic heading to the mountain during the winter season is destined for Government Camp, Timberline or Meadows makes the Mount Hood area highly serviceable with transit, provided a long-term funding mechanism can be found.

For too long, a very limited supply of shuttles and private ski buses at the Mount Hood resorts have been the sole transit option along the loop highway

For too long, a very limited supply of shuttles and private ski buses at the Mount Hood resorts have been the sole transit option along the loop highway

How it could be better: The proposed transit service in the MHMTP is great if you’re coming from Sandy — or able to drive and park your car there — but it doesn’t allow for truly car-free trips to the mountain in a region that is increasingly interested in having this option.

For years, people have wondered aloud about “extending MAX to the mountain”, but that will never happen — the cost would be astronomical and the ridership on the best of days wouldn’t come close to justifying the cost. But bus transit is completely within reach, and well-suited to the demand.

A proposal called “The Boot Loop” on this blog showed how it could be done — save for public and private interests along the loop highway coming together to make it happen. Let’s hope the Mountain Express pilot project is just the beginning of a more comprehensive transit system on Mount Hood and in the Gorge.

4. Safety projects: several critiques of ODOT’s ill-conceived “widening for safety” campaign along the Mount Hood loop have appeared in this blog over the past few years, and thankfully, some of the worst elements of the most recent phase between Rhododendron and Government Camp have been dropped.

Most recently, ODOT failed to receive construction bids within its project budget for this latest phase, and that is potentially good news if it means that some of the remaining bloated, environmentally destructive elements of the project (like cutting back cliffs on Laurel Hill) are scaled back.

Given this context, the safety projects contained in the MHMTP plan are refreshingly sensible and practice — truly “safety” projects, and not just an old-school highway widening agenda wrapped in an attractuve safety package.

ODOT owes the rural communities (like Rhododendron, above) along the loop highway retrofits to undo the damage from the "widening for safety"

ODOT owes the rural communities (like Rhododendron, above) along the loop highway retrofits to undo the damage from the “widening for safety”

How it could be better: travel speed is the single most important lever for highway engineers to reach for if improved safety is truly the desired outcome. ODOT was bold and forward-thinking when it adopted a safety corridor along a portion of Highway 26 several years ago, and especially when the agency adopted a 45 mph speed limit from Wildwood to Rhododendron.

There’s no reason why this successful strategy can’t be extended for the remainder of the ski commute along the Loop Highway, to the lower entrance at Mount Hood Meadows. As the 2010 ODOT safety audit clearly showed, nearly ALL of the serious accidents in this corridor were directly tied to heavy winter travel, and especially weekends, when the predictable crush of day skiers descends upon the mountain.

What’s Next?

ODOT will be wrapping up the MHMTP shortly. You can track the final recommendations on their project website:

Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Plan website

As the MHMTP moves forward toward funding, the focus will shift to Clackamas and Hood River counties, the Forest Service, ODOT and the ski resorts working collaboratively to bring the various strategies completion. The plan sets forth three tiers of project, but all recommendations fall within a (relatively) short window of 15 years.

The Mirror Lake trailhead could see big changes under the proposed MHMTP plan

The Mirror Lake trailhead could see big changes under the proposed MHMTP plan

ODOT has an institutional habit of saying it “owns” the highways, but in fact, the public owns it - that’s us! Thus, it falls upon the true owners of the Loop Highway to track the details — the specific projects that will carry out the new direction called for in the MHMTP. Perhaps more importantly, it falls upon us to speak out against more funding of old-school road widening projects cloaked as “safety improvements” that could effectively cancel out the MHMTP proposals.

Over the next few years, the recommendations in the MHMTP will gradually be funded through ODOT’s statewide transportation improvement program and similar capital funding programs at the local level. Watch this blog for more details on how the dollars actually roll out in coming years on our beloved loop highway!

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 1

February 9, 2014
Mount Hood Meadows is seeking yet another overflow parking lot for the resort, its fourth, bringing the resort capacity over 3,500 vehicles

Mount Hood Meadows is seeking yet another overflow parking lot for the resort, its fourth, bringing the resort capacity over 3,500 vehicles

On January 13, the Mount Hood National Forest (MHNF) issued its final environmental assessment for yet another sprawling parking lot at the Mount Hood Meadows ski resort. This is the just the latest decision over nearly 50 years of always finding a way to say “yes” to the private permit holders who operate the Meadows resort on our public lands.

According to MHNF documents, the proposed new “Twilight” lot will require 9.4 acres of subalpine forest adjacent to the popular Elk Meadows Trailhead to be logged, then paved over by the Meadows resort, allowing for 878 new parking spaces on a new 7.2 acre asphalt lot. Translated to urban scale, that’s another seven full Portland blocks of forest that will be replaced with paving simply to meet peak winter weekend demand.

Meadows parking lots are mostly empty outside of a few weekend peaks from December through February. This photo was taken on a sunny Saturday in March, 2009 at the huge Hood River Meadows lot. The tiny structure on the right is the Nordic Ski Center, for scale. Only about a third of the sprawling lot can be seen in this photo

Meadows parking lots are mostly empty outside of a few weekend peaks from December through February. This photo was taken on a sunny Saturday in March, 2009 at the huge Hood River Meadows lot. The tiny structure on the right is the Nordic Ski Center, for scale. Only about a third of the sprawling lot can be seen in this photo

Using Forest Service data, the Twilight proposal translates into roughly 7,500 noble fir, mountain hemlock, Lodgepole pine and other subalpine conifers being cut to bring the overall parking capacity for the Meadows resort to a whopping 3,526 vehicles.

How much parking is this? For comparison, a typical Walmart Supercenter has about 800 parking spaces — which means the total Meadows parking capacity could accommodate four Walmart Supercenters. Another comparison: the new Meadows parking total will be slightly more than the 3,300 spaces Portland International Airport (PDX) provides in its newly expanded day parking structure at the main terminal (see an earlier article on this blog for more details on the Twilight proposal).

Meadows also plans to move its Nordic Center — currently a non-descript modular building located at the back of the sprawling Hood River Meadows lot — to the new Twilight Lot in an effort to better compete with the non-profit Teacup Lake Nordic Club, located across the Loop Highway.

The humble Meadows Nordic Center is overshadowed by the very popular Teacup Lake Nordic Club facilities located across the highway

The humble Meadows Nordic Center is overshadowed by the very popular Teacup Lake Nordic Club facilities located across the highway

Is this latest expansion justified? Not if you dig into the details. The folly in the MHNF decision is that it is based on an outdated special permit granted in 1997 by the Forest Service that gives the Meadows Resort their legal ability to operate a private business on national forest land.

But it turns out that almost no current data on the future of the ski industry supports this decision — including data from the ski resort industry, itself. Instead, this proposal is mostly about the Meadows resort attempting to buck the national trends by drawing skiers and boarders away from competing resorts at Timberline and Mount Hood Ski Bowl.

While this strategy might make sense for Mount Hood Meadows, Inc., it hardly makes sense as public land policy, and especially for taxpayers who subsidize the ski resorts.

The Meadows for-profit Nordic trail system has struggled to compete with the nearby Teacup Lake Nordic Club's larger and more affordable system

The Meadows for-profit Nordic trail system has struggled to compete with the nearby Teacup Lake Nordic Club’s larger and more affordable system

The recent Forest Service decision giving the green light to the Twilight parking expansion also fails to consider the most obvious solution: requiring Meadows to spread out their customer demand with peak ticket pricing. This is the simplest way to avoid overbuilding parking lots and overburdening the Loop Highway, and would make the best use of the Meadows resort capital investment and operations costs.

So, why is Meadows opting for a more costly option to addressing peak ski weekend demand? Read on…

Past is Prologue! (…except when it isn’t…)

For more than a century, ski resorts across the country have long promoted the inevitability of their rapid growth as part of the advertising pitch, and yet they have a troubling secret in common: snow sports that were once growing exponentially in popularity are now flat or declining, nationally. And this trend has continued for decades.

Instead, most of the touted “growth” at major resorts in the past 30 years has come through consolidation. At the beginning of the 1980’s, there were some 727 ski resorts in operation, nationwide, yet only 480 ski areas survive today. This represents a decline of 33 percent, despite a hefty 36 percent increase in the U.S. population for the same period.

Beautiful Umbrella Falls was barely spared by the original Meadows parking lot (just a few yards beyond the trees at the top of the falls), though it still carries the burden of being in a ski area: trash and blown gravel fill the stream after the snow melts

Beautiful Umbrella Falls was barely spared by the original Meadows parking lot (just a few yards beyond the trees at the top of the falls), though it still carries the burden of being in a ski area: trash and blown gravel fill the stream after the snow melts

This decline also helps explain why all three major resorts on Mount Hood are looking to develop other attractions under their public lands permits to help sell lift tickets — most recently, the proposed bicycle play park at Timberline (Ski Bowl has already developed one that it now plans to expand).

Why the decline? A variety of factors are at work, not the least of which are the effects of climate change on snowpack and the ballooning price tag that has increasingly made skiing a sport for the affluent.

In study last year, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) reported that 54 percent of day visits came from households earning more than $100,000, a 12.5 percent increase among affluent skiers from just five years ago. Conversely, visits from households earning less than $100,000 dropped from 52 percent to 46 percent, an 11.5 percent drop for less affluent skiers over the same period.

This trend is not surprising when you consider that an annual pass at Meadows costs around $800 and day passes cost $74 for an adult ticket — and these are relatively affordable prices compared to premier Rocky Mountain and California resorts. Add the costs of gas and equipment, and it can cost a family hundreds of dollars to spend a day skiing on Mount Hood.

This chart shows the relatively flat trend in total U.S. ski visits from 2002 to 2012, and an abrupt dip in 2011-12 reflecting the fourth warmest winter since 1896 (Source: NSAA)

This chart shows the relatively flat trend in total U.S. ski visits from 2002 to 2012, and an abrupt dip in 2011-12 reflecting the fourth warmest winter since 1896 (Source: NSAA)

In 2008, the NSAA produced a study that had more ominous implications for the industry: they found that 85% of beginners who try skiing soon drop out of the sport, translating into only a 15% rate of “conversion” from beginner to regular skiing and snowboarding customers.

In response to this troubling finding, the industry adopted dual goals of (a) improving the total number of people trying the sport by 6 percent and (b) increasing the “conversion” rate from beginner to regular visitor by 1 percent per year. Despite industry efforts to meet these targets, in the six years since these goals were established the rate of new skiers staying with the sport has only increased by only 1 percent, far short of the retention target.

But there is even worse news in the NSAA findings: it turns out the existing base of regular skiers and boarders have also shown a decline in interest, with the rate of repeat resort visits from this core group decreasing by 6 percent since the industry targets were set in 2008.

This chart shows high-stakes future for skiing in the U.S., with the optimistic NSAAs growth strategy in blue and grim reality of current trends in participation in red (Source: NSAA)

This chart shows high-stakes future for skiing in the U.S., with the optimistic NSAAs growth strategy in blue and grim reality of current trends in participation in red (Source: NSAA)

While the resorts continue to fight the overall drop in visitors, they are also battling the elements. Climate change is producing an increasingly erratic snowpack across the country, but especially in the West, where resorts are largely built with special permits on public lands. Larger resorts are spending as much as $50k apiece for snow guns to create their own snow — with some resorts installing hundreds of snow guns to ensure a ski season.

Skiers were already overflowing the Timberline parking lot in 1939, just two years after the lodge opened

Skiers were already overflowing the Timberline parking lot in 1939, just two years after the lodge opened

With the obvious environmental implications of snow making aside — and they are significant — the added cost burden for the resorts will only increase the price of skiing when the costs of snow making equipment, water and the energy needed to pump water uphill are passed along to skiers.

Given these discouraging national trends, are there better solutions to meeting peak ski resort demand at Mount Hood other than to continue paving over the alpine landscape?

This question will be the focus of Part 2 this article, and a new effort by the Oregon Department of Transportation to better manage traffic on the Loop Highway.

_________________

Author’s Note: lest readers think I’m anti-skiing, I am decidedly not. I grew up skiing at Mount Hood from the age of six, and skied at all four resorts on the mountain well into the 1990s, when I shifted to snowshoeing and Nordic skiing. I love the sport, and hope that Mount Hood will always have alpine skiing. But over the past few decades, I have watched the Meadows and Timberline resorts grow too large to be environmentally sustainable.

The Heather Canyon lift at Meadows was the wake-up call for me in the 1990s — and before that, the Palmer Lift at Timberline. Both were a notch too far in what — in my view — had been a reasonably sustainable balance between ski development and protecting the natural landscape of Mount Hood.

The author (center, at the tender age of 11) on a memorable 1973 ski vacation near Innsbruck, Austria with my family

The author (center, at the tender age of 11) on a memorable 1973 ski vacation near Innsbruck, Austria with my family

I also see the current model for commercial ski resorts failing, and worry that the grasping for quick solutions to balance the corporate books is out of sync with what could be sustainable, positive ways to diversity the resort offerings.

Watch for future WyEast Blog articles on this subject, as I not only believe that ski resorts can (and must be, in Mount Hood’s case) continue to operate within a National Park, I also think they could set the standard for environmental and economic sustainability that other resorts might learn from.

Proposal: Mitchell Point Loop Trails

January 31, 2014
Looking west in the Gorge from Mitchell Point

Looking west in the Gorge from Mitchell Point

Author’s note: this proposal is the latest in a series on this blog aimed at a major Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) effort underway to update the 1994 Gorge Parks Plan. OPRD staff will make key decisions on future trail projects for the Gorge over the next four months, so now is the time to weigh in! More information on how to get involved in this important work is included at the end of this article.
_________________

Mitchell Point is a rugged basalt spine that towers a thousand feet above the Columbia River, just five miles west of Hood River. This spectacular outcrop rises in the transition zone where the wet rainforests of the western Cascades meet dry Oregon white oak and Ponderosa pine country of the eastern slope in a unique jumble of ecosystems and geology.

The steep hike to Mitchell Point is described in this WyEast Blog article, and makes for an excellent year-round destination for hikers looking for something a bit less crowded (and a bit more rugged) than viewpoints like Angel’s Rest.

This article focuses on recent improvements to the Mitchell Point wayside and trailhead, and the potential to expand the trails at Mitchell Point to allow for better exploration of the unique landscapes found here, and a deeper appreciation of the colorful human history, as well.

Kudos on Recent Upgrades!

A short, new segment of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail leads to the refurbished Mitchell Point overlook

A short, new segment of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail leads to the refurbished Mitchell Point overlook

In 2012, the OPRD completed a major overhaul of the Mitchell Point wayside and overlook, with excellent results. Mitchell Point falls within the borders of the Vinzenz Lausmann and Seneca Fouts state parks, and has long served as a scenic wayside for highway travelers and as the trailhead for the Mitchell Point and Wygant trails.

The recent overhaul at Mitchell Point also acknowledges a new function for the trailhead: the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail project will soon extend through the area, including a proposed tunnel through Mitchell Point, proper, that gives a nod to the iconic highway tunnel that once thrilled highway travelers here.

The restored overlook features a sweeping view of the Columbia Gorge and interpretive display on the iconic former Mitchell Point "Tunnel of Many Vistas"

The restored overlook features a sweeping view of the Columbia Gorge and interpretive display on the iconic former Mitchell Point “Tunnel of Many Vistas”

In many ways, the original Mitchell Point Tunnel, with it’s famous “windows” carved in solid basalt, was the scenic and engineering highlight of the old highway. Sadly, the tunnel (along with much of the original highway) was destroyed to allow for freeway widening in 1966.

The original Mitchell Point Tunnel as it appeared around 1920. The tunnel was destroyed to make way for freeway widening in 1966

The original Mitchell Point Tunnel as it appeared around 1920. The tunnel was destroyed to make way for freeway widening in 1966

The recent improvements to the Mitchell Point wayside include a redesigned parking lot (complete with native landscaping, bus and bike parking) and a series of handsome stone walls in the Columbia River Highway style that frame the Columbia River overlook. Interpretive history displays are posted in two locations, describing the colorful human history of an area that has now largely reverted to back to nature.

The short walk to the river overlook also gives a glimpse of the planned extension of the HCRH State Trail. As seen in the photo below, the broad paved path is actually a section of the state trail where it approaches the overlook, then bends toward the sheer cliffs at the base of Mitchell Point, ending at a log fence (for now). The proposed tunnel will eventually cut through Mitchell Point here, with a short side-tunnel to a river viewpoint somewhere near the midpoint.

The new section of the HCRH State Trail points toward a planned bicycle and pedestrian tunnel through Mitchell Point

The new section of the HCRH State Trail points toward a planned bicycle and pedestrian tunnel through Mitchell Point

New bicycle racks and native plants are part of the Mitchell Point facelift

New bicycle racks and native plants are part of the Mitchell Point facelift

The improved Mitchell Point wayside also includes a new information kiosk and upgraded restrooms, making this a nearly full-service starting point for hikers — with the sole exception of running water, as none is available at the wayside.

A surprising glitch in the generally excellent attention to detail is the wayside overhaul is an ill-placed square of landscaping in the middle of the paved information kiosk mini-plaza (below). The native salal planted in this tiny square of soil are surely doomed to be trampled by visitors, but more concerning is the impact on accessibility for mobility impaired visitors attempting to avoid this unnecessary obstacle. Fortunately, it’s easily fixed with a few sacks of concrete – hopefully before it becomes a problem.

This refurbished sign kiosk has an unfortunate glitch: an ill-placed patch of landscaping

This refurbished sign kiosk has an unfortunate glitch: an ill-placed patch of landscaping

A year-round, accessible restroom completes the upgrade at the Mitchell Point wayside

A year-round, accessible restroom completes the upgrade at the Mitchell Point wayside

Traces of the rich human history of the area can be seen throughout the Mitchell Point area, and the pair of new interpretive displays help put a face on the early settlements and businesses that once operated here. The history of the Mitchell Point “Tunnel of Many Vistas” at the overlook is excellent, and told with well-known images of this famous structure. But the history of the Little Boy Ranch and its operators found near the parking area is especially welcome, as it helps repeat visitors understand the many traces of old structures and even trees and landscape plants that can still be found sprinkled through the forest.

The Little Boy Ranch motel and cabins at Mitchell Point in the 1930s. The buildings were razed as part of freeway construction in the early 1960s

The Little Boy Ranch motel and cabins at Mitchell Point in the 1930s. The buildings were razed as part of freeway construction in the early 1960s

This 1920s Christmas card from Charles and Helena Parker's Little Boy Ranch featured their children, Charles Jr. and Joan

This 1920s Christmas card from Charles and Helena Parker’s Little Boy Ranch featured their children, Charles Jr. and Joan

While most of the historical traces at Mitchell Point are subtle and treasured, one is not: English ivy left over from the Little Boy Ranch days is rampant in several sections of the park, and unfortunately, the wayside upgrade didn’t include pulling ivy from the park. This is another oversight that can be easily corrected, as the ivy is mostly confined to the immediate wayside area, and is a good candidate for a volunteer public service projects.

Rampant English ivy is among the unwelcome traces of the Little Boy Ranch era at Mitchell Point

Rampant English ivy is among the unwelcome traces of the Little Boy Ranch era at Mitchell Point

Another surprising gap in the wayside and trailhead upgrade is the lack of signage for the Mitchell Point and Wygant trails that begin here. A few boulders and a bollard barricade have been installed at the old path leading toward the Mitchell Point Trail, but there is still no signage to help visitors navigate the trail (below).

New bollard and boulders, but no sign to mark the Mitchell Point trail?

New bollard and boulders, but no sign to mark the Mitchell Point trail?

Worse, the actual trail to Mitchell Point splits off the paved path as an obscure, unsigned boot path, while the paved route continues (confusingly) to a few picnicking sites (below). This oversight is easily remedied, though there is some question whether OPRD really views the Mitchell Point trail as one of its own, despite the growing use and popularity. Now is good time for the state parks to finally embrace this trail, starting with needed signage.

The formal Mitchell Point Trail is even more obscure, but this is an easily corrected oversight in the OPRD restoration project

The formal Mitchell Point Trail is even more obscure, but this is an easily corrected oversight in the OPRD restoration project

The Wygant Trail fares somewhat better, with an existing HCRH-themed sign posted about 100 yards west of the Mitchell Point wayside, along a surviving segment of the old highway. But better signage at the wayside is needed to help hikers actually find this trail. This is another oversight that is relatively easy to correct, and in this case, could be incorporated into the planned improvements to the HCRH that are coming to this area.

A surviving segment of the old highway serves as the start of the Wygant Trail, though existing signage is obscure

A surviving segment of the old highway serves as the start of the Wygant Trail, though existing signage is obscure

Despite these oversights, the upgrade to the Mitchell Point wayside and trailhead are a big step forward, with excellent attention to detail and continuity with other recently improved parks and waysides in the Gorge. Kudos to the OPRD for their efforts!

The remainder of this article focuses on new trails that could be added to the park, building on existing facilities and the new HCRH State Trail with new hiking loops that explore the area.

Proposal: West Loop Trail

The first leg of an expanded trail system would be a new route traversing a series of open slopes to the west of Mitchell Point, joining the existing Mitchell Point Trail just below the main summit ridge (see map below)

MitchellPointTrails15

[click here to open a large map in a new window]

A highlight of this new 0.8 mile trail would be a close-up look at the stunted Oregon white oak groves that somehow survive on the dry, windy slopes here. Though not the western-most stand of oaks in the Gorge, this colony is among the most accessible, and the new trail would provide an opportunity for casual hikers to learn about this unique and fascinating ecosystem.

Oregon white oak in the Gorge often grow in picturesque, stunted groves on the harshest of sites

Oregon white oak in the Gorge often grow in picturesque, stunted groves on the harshest of sites

Oak galls are formed by wasp larvae, and are common on Oregon white oak leaves

Oak galls are formed by wasp larvae, and are common on Oregon white oak leaves

This new trail would also be built with a less demanding grade than the existing Mitchell Point Trail, giving less hardy hikers a more manageable option for reaching the summit.

Combined with the existing Mitchell Point Trail, the new would create a 2.6 mile loop for active hikers. Casual hikers and young families could make a shorter hike, with the beautiful oak stands and river views less than one-half mile from the trailhead as the main destination (perhaps with a couple of well-placed trailside benches).

Proposal: East Loop & Mitchell Spur

The east slope of Mitchell Point is unknown territory, even to hikers familiar with the area. This part of the proposal includes a new trail connection along the east slope, from the crest of Mitchell Point to the planned HCRH State Trail, creating a loop hike via the proposed new HCRH tunnel (see map, below).

MitchellPointTrails18

[click here to open a large map in a new window]

A lower loop would also be created with an extension of the existing boot path that leads to the foot of Mitchell Spur, the familiar basalt prow that towers over the highway at Mitchell Point. A formal side path would lead to the viewpoint atop the spur, providing another less strenuous alternative for casual hikers to the somewhat challenging Mitchell Point summit trail.

Mitchell Spur (left) is the lower rampart of Mitchell Point (right) in this highway view

Mitchell Spur (left) is the lower rampart of Mitchell Point (right) in this highway view

Mitchell Point looms above in this view from Mitchell Spur

Mitchell Point looms above in this view from Mitchell Spur

The east loop would join the Mitchell Point trail at this point along the summit ridge

The east loop would join the Mitchell Point trail at this point along the summit ridge

Combined with the existing Mitchell Point trail, the proposed East Loop would create a 3.6 mile hike, including stops at the summits of Mitchell Point and Mitchell Spur. Another option would be a loop using both the east and west trail proposals, a 3.8 mile round trip that would avoid the somewhat rugged talus section of the existing Mitchell Point trail altogether. Other loops from the Mitchell Point trailhead would also be possible, including the ability to follow the planned extension of the HCRH State Trail.

Yet another possibility that comes with the completion of the HCRH State Trail is the idea of a bike-and-hike trailhead for the proposed East Loop trail, where bicycle parking could be provided to allow cyclists to ride and park at the base of the trail. This concept has great potential for other trails that will eventually stub out at the completed HCRH State Trail — including the Wygant Trail in the Mitchell Point area.

What would it take?

The proposals in this article focus on relatively simple, affordable trail projects. Each of the proposed trail segments build on existing trailhead facilities and planned HCRH improvements in the area, while providing a significantly expanded series of hiking opportunities.

Sweeping river vistas from the summit leg of the Mitchell Point trail

Sweeping river vistas from the summit leg of the Mitchell Point trail

The proposals also lend themselves to volunteer construction, as the easy access from Portland and Hood River would allow public agencies and trail advocates in the region to easily organize volunteer crews to clear and build trails incrementally.

Most importantly, the OPRD is now in the process of updating its 1994 master plan for the Columbia Gorge, and it’s a crucial opportunity to bring new trail ideas into the plan! The OPRD recognizes the demand for new trails in the area, and is actively seeking ideas for projects that are both affordable and ecologically sustainable. The proposals in this article meet both tests, and ought to be included in the updated plan.

What You Can Do!

First, take a look at the Gorge Parks Plan website — our state recreation planners have done an exceptional job scoping the state of our Gorge parks as a starting point for updating the 1994 plan.

Next, weigh in on why new trails are important in the Gorge — and here are some of the proposals posted in this blog as a starting point:

Angels Rest Loop Proposal

Bridal Veil Canyon Proposal

Latourell Loop Makeover Proposal

Viento Bluff Trails Proposal

Mitchell Point Trails Proposal

Finally, consider signing up as a subscriber to the Gorge Parks Plan blog to stay informed. A surprisingly small number of dedicated citizens have been involved thus far in this public process, so you have an opportunity to make a real impact! More information on the Gorge planning effort to come in this blog, as well.

And as always, thanks for doing your part to advocate for the Gorge!


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