Archive for the ‘Proposals’ category

Punchbowl Park Update

March 25, 2015

PunchbowlUpdate01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trail concept proposed as part of the Punchbowl Park plan

Trail concept proposed as part of the Punchbowl Park plan

[click here for a larger view]

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

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

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

Fishing platform at Punchbowl Falls (courtesy Heather Staten)

Fishing platform at Punchbowl Falls (courtesy Heather Staten)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WyEast: Anything else you’d like to add?

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

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

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

Good News from the Hood River RD!

February 16, 2015
The Eliot Branch and Mount Hood

The Eliot Branch and Mount Hood

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

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

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

Crossing the Eliot Branch in better days on the old footbridge

Crossing the Eliot Branch in better days on the old footbridge

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

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

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

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

EliotCrossingRedux03

(Click here for a larger version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mea Culpa is in Order…

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

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

Before and after highway views of the ranger station

Before and after highway views of the ranger station

Before and after views of the ranger station

Before and after views of the ranger station

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

Mount Hood fills the southern horizon

Mount Hood fills the southern horizon

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

This carved sign welcomes visitors to the new facility

This carved sign welcomes visitors to the new facility

The new visitors center is ADA accessible

The new visitors center is ADA accessible

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

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

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

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

Rangers staff the new front desk at the visitors center

Rangers staff the new front desk at the visitors center

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

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

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

Owls on display at the front desk

Owls on display at the front desk

Guard raccoon is on duty 24/7…

Guard raccoon is on duty 24/7…

A particularly menacing bobcat is on display!

A particularly menacing bobcat is on display!

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

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

Black bear roaming near the front desk

Black bear roaming near the front desk

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

The rolling bookstore has an excellent cross-section of materials

The rolling bookstore has an excellent cross-section of materials

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

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

Green Trails topographic maps for sale

Green Trails topographic maps for sale

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

History displays at the west end of the new facility

History displays at the west end of the new facility

Historic Tilly Jane sign anchoring the history displays

Historic Tilly Jane sign anchoring the history displays

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

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

Mount Hood Scenic Byway history poster

Mount Hood Scenic Byway history poster

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

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

The new center elegantly packs a lot into a modest space

The new center elegantly packs a lot into a modest space

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

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

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

Closed mornings, evenings and weekends..?

Closed mornings, evenings and weekends..?

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

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

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

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

Finally, a chance to save Punchbowl Falls!

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

Mount Hood rises in the distance above Punchbowl Falls

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

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

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

About the Proposal

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

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

PunchBowl01

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

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

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

Peering into the huge amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

Peering into the huge amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

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

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

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

Early 1900s postcard view of salmon jumping Punchbowl Falls

Early 1900s postcard view of salmon jumping Punchbowl Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PunchBowl05

Click here for a larger PDF version of the map.

A Virtual Tour of the Site

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

The gate at the Punchbowl Falls trailhead

The gate at the Punchbowl Falls trailhead

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

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

Looking into the Punchbowl from the east

Looking into the Punchbowl from the east

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downstream view of the fish ladder…

Downstream view of the fish ladder…

….and the upstream view

….and the upstream view

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

Downstream view from above the Punchbowl to Dead Point Falls

Downstream view from above the Punchbowl to Dead Point Falls

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

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

Dead Point Falls

Dead Point Falls

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

Dead Point Falls

Dead Point Falls

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

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

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

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

The confluence of the East and West Forks

The confluence of the East and West Forks

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

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

The dizzying view into Punchbowl Gorge from the bridge

The dizzying view into Punchbowl Gorge from the bridge

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

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

How to find Punchbowl Falls?

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

2015 Calendar… and looking back on 2014!

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

The view from Owl Point is the cover image for 2015

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

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

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

January features the upper Sandy Glacier and towering Sandy Headwall

January features the upper Sandy Glacier and towering Sandy Headwall

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

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

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

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

Eric Guth and Brent McGregor on the trail in 2013

Eric Guth and Brent McGregor on the trail in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Winter wonderland ahead!

Winter wonderland ahead!

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

March features the White River Canyon from the Pacific Crest Trail

March features the White River Canyon from the Pacific Crest Trail

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

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

Lenticular cloud forming over The Mountain

Lenticular cloud forming over The Mountain

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

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

April features the lower falls at White River Falls State Park

April features the lower falls at White River Falls State Park

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

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

Original jumbo-pano that the calendar image was cropped from

Original jumbo-pano that the calendar image was cropped from

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

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

The old powerhouse at White River Falls

The old powerhouse at White River Falls

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

The powerhouse is amazingly well-preserved inside

The powerhouse is amazingly well-preserved inside

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

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

May features the famous Middle North Falls on Silver Creek

May features the famous Middle North Falls on Silver Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June features Butte Creek Falls

June features Butte Creek Falls

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

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

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

Always travel with an automotive repair expert!

Always travel with an automotive repair expert!

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

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

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

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

July features Mount Hood from Owl Point

July features Mount Hood from Owl Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horned lark at Cooper Spur

Horned lark at Cooper Spur

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

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

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

September features early autumn colors at WyEast Basin

September features early autumn colors at WyEast Basin

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

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

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

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

October features beautiful Elk Cove in autumn

October features beautiful Elk Cove in autumn

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

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

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

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

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

November features a swollen Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

November features a swollen Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December features a wide pano of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek

December features a wide pano of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek

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

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

Jamie and his rugged boys hitting the trail at McCord Creek

Jamie and his rugged boys hitting the trail at McCord Creek

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

Thanks for another year!

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

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

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

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

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

The two most popular articles continue to be:

10 Common Poison Oak Myths (2012)

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

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

Taking in the fall colors at Butte Creek

Taking in the fall colors at Butte Creek

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

See you on the trail in 2015!

Tom Kloster
WyEast Blog

It’s Time to Fix the Eliot Crossing!

October 28, 2014
Eliot Branch and Mount Hood before the 2006 washout

Eliot Branch and Mount Hood before the 2006 washout

Another hiking season has passed, marking eight long, inexcusable years since an intense November storm washed out the Timberline National Historic Trail near Cloud Cap in 2006.

Since then, countless hikers from around the world have arrived at this world-class destination only to find cryptic temporary notices stapled to trailhead signs announcing that the segment of the trail crossing the Eliot Branch has been closed indefinitely by the U.S. Forest Service.

Hikers on the seasonal bridge over the Eliot Branch that was in place from the mid-1990s until 2006

Hikers on the seasonal bridge over the Eliot Branch that was in place from the mid-1990s until 2006

Most round-the-mountain hikers start at Timberline Lodge and hike clockwise, and therefore often learn of the Eliot Branch closure halfway through their 40-mile trek. Understandably, many of these hikers began working their way across the deeply eroded canyon in the years following the closure. Today hundreds of hikers each hear ignore the Forest Service notices and follow sketchy boot paths across the Eliot Branch to complete the Timberline Trail circuit.

Why the delay in repairing the trail at the Eliot Branch? The Forest Service claims lack of funding, suggesting in 2010 that “studies were underway” for a million dollar suspension bridge at the current crossing location. Such a project would “require an appropriation by Congress” to fund, according to a Forest Service district ranger at the time.

A second, more practical option under consideration was a significant reroute of the Timberline Trail at the Eliot Branch, which according to the Forest Service at the time, would require “constructing 1.5 miles of new trail to a lower crossing of the creek, then 1.5 miles back up to the existing trail”.

Eight years have passed since the 2006 washout, and four since the Forest Service last gave any indication of working toward a solution for the Timberline Trail. Since then, neither option proposed in 2010 for restoring the crossing has materialized. Instead, Oregon’s premier hiking trail remains an embarrassment, and a testament to the frustrating inability of the Forest Service to set agency priorities that match those of the public they serve.

These seasonable bridge footings were bolted to a pair of huge boulders that were swept away in the 2006 washout

These seasonable bridge footings were bolted to a pair of huge boulders that were swept away in the 2006 washout

The 2006 flood event wasn’t the first time the Eliot Crossing had washed out in recent years. In the mid-1990s, a similar washout erased an earlier crossing that had been in place since the Timberline Trail was constructed in the 1930s. The Forest Service responded to the first washout by appropriating sections of a pair of climber’s trails that ascend moraines on both sides of the Eliot Canyon, and constructing a new crossing between the two trails, above the original crossing.

This new crossing (pictured above) lasted only a few years, until the 2006 storm further deepened the Eliot Branch canyon, this time much more substantially. The new crossing featured a pair of bridge anchors bolted to boulders that straddled the Eliot Branch, and a seasonal bridge that could be placed on the anchors with a helicopter, similar to the Sandy River bridge near Ramona Falls.

The sorry state of the "closed" Eliot Branch crossing today: a sketchy scramble up a crumbling 300 foot slope, aided by a rope left by hikers

The sorry state of the “closed” Eliot Branch crossing today: a sketchy scramble up a crumbling 300 foot slope, aided by a rope left by hikers

Removable, seasonal bridges are an excellent solution to the dilemma of keeping the Timberline Trail open in an era when retreating glaciers and increasingly erratic weather promises to continue deepening all of Mount Hood’s newly exposed glacial valleys.

This point was underscored earlier this year when an unusually strong summer storm washed out the seasonal Sandy River crossing. While one hiker was tragically killed in the incident, dozens were able to cross to safety because of the seasonal bridge.

For this reason, studying elaborate permanent solutions, such as the “million dollar” suspension bridge, are an exercise in futility. Whole sections of the Eliot Branch canyon have collapsed into the stream over the past two decades during heavy flooding, and there is no reason to assume that this pattern won’t continue to rearrange the landscape for decades to come.

This article proposes a more modest and immediate fix that mirrors the re-route option once considered by the Forest Service. This is a project that could have been constructed shortly after the 2006 floods with minimal cost and an excellent ability to adapt to future flood events.

Lessons from Up North

Wonderland Trail bridge across the Nisqually River in Mount Rainier National Park (Wikimedia)

Wonderland Trail bridge across the Nisqually River in Mount Rainier National Park (Wikimedia)

The Eliot Branch crossing is a perfect example of how the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service differ in their budget priorities and working relationships with volunteers. It’s instructive to look at how the Park Service responded to the same 2006 storms and flooding that impacted Mount Rainier National Park.

The damage to the 92-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier was exponentially worse than anything on Mount Hood. This is largely because several of Mount Rainier’s 26 glaciers dwarf even the Eliot Glacier, Mount Hood’s largest, and the Wonderland Trail has three times the glacial stream crossings of the Timberline Trail.

The Wonderland Trail not only crosses many more glacial streams in its circuit around Mount Rainier, it also has bridges across most of them, where most of Mount Hood’s glacial streams have no bridges (requiring hikers to ford most of the glacial streams). So, not only did the Park Service have a trail more than twice as long to restore, but also many times the number of bridges to repair along the Wonderland Trail.

Despite the much greater challenge, the Park Service managed very little disruption for hikers. The Wonderland Trail uses a reservation system, and the Park Service took the precautionary step of not accepting reservations for the 2007 hiking season, in light of the scope of damage to many trail sections and crossings. Yet, the Wonderland Trail was reopened to hikers on August 3, 2007, less than a year after the 2006 floods!

The National Park Service continually maintains dozens of wilderness bridges on the 92-mile long Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, despite much worse washouts and much more difficult crossings than anything found on Mount Hood (Wikimedia)

The National Park Service continually maintains dozens of wilderness bridges on the 92-mile long Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, despite much worse washouts and much more difficult crossings than anything found on Mount Hood (Wikimedia)

The rapid repairs to the Wonderland Trail happened because re-opening the trail was a top priority for the Mount Rainier National Park. To manage this feat, the staff enlisted some 1,700 volunteers in the effort, with tens of thousands of volunteer labor from organizations like the he Washington Conservation Corps and Student Conservation Association.

The proposal described in this article for the Eliot Branch could easily have been completed in 2007, too, had restoring the trail been a priority for the Forest Service, and especially if volunteer labor had been tapped from any number of organizations involved in trail work in Oregon. Instead, the repairs have waited eight years, with no end in sight.

It’s time to finally fix the Timberline Trail to ensure the safety of hikers determined to make the crossing, and to end the embarrassment of visitors to our region from around the world experiencing this national treasure in such a shameful state of disrepair.

A Simple and Affordable Solution!

EliotCrossing07

[click to see a large version]

The simplest solution to finally restoring the Eliot Branch crossing is to go lower and low-tech. Instead of waiting for a dubious “million dollar” suspension bridge to be funded, a better option would be a new crossing downstream with a simple, seasonal plank bridge.

Why go low? Mostly because the durable bedrock layers that form Stranahan Falls (located about a mile downstream from the current crossing) have also checked down-cutting of the canyon in that stretch by the Eliot Branch. Where the upper canyon has been carved some 150 feet deeper since the 1990s, the lower canyon section, just above Stranahan falls, shows much less erosion during this period.

As shown on the proposal map (above), this new section of the Timberline Trail would depart from Cloud Cap Saddle trailhead, initially following a shallow ravine to the rim of the Eliot Branch canyon. The new trail would then switchback down the east wall of the canyon, reaching the new crossing (shown below) about 0.5 miles from the start of the new trail.

EliotCrossing08

[click to see a large version]

The new, lower stream crossing would be similar to most other glacial fords on the Timberline Trail, except that a bridge is proposed here (as they should be at all glacial crossings on Mount Hood – watch for a future article on that topic!).

This is in part because a bridge has traditionally been provided at this crossing, but also because the crossing location is very close to the Cloud Cap Saddle trailhead, and located at the wilderness boundary, so it would present fewer obstacles to build and maintain. Until the Eliot Branch settles down, however (and that could decades from now – or never), it makes sense to install a season bridge similar to that used on the Sandy River.

From the proposed lower crossing of the Eliot Branch, the new trail would traverse along a side stream that enters the main canyon from the west, climbing approximately 0.8 miles to the resumption of the existing Timberline Trail.

EliotCrossing09

[click to see a large version]

The 600-foot elevation loss (and subsequent gain) for this proposed new alignment of the Timberline Trail would be comparable to what was already required for the old, upper crossing, though the overall mileage of the new route would be slightly longer (by about 0.3 miles). However, the length of the proposed new trail would be less than half of what the Forest Service was considering for a lower crossing option in 2010.

The key to the new crossing location is its proximity to Stranahan Falls, and the massive band of andesite bedrock that not only forms the falls, but also prevents further down-cutting in the area above the falls. As shown the illustrations (above and below), this location is the one spot in the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch canyon that has a reasonable chance of stabilizing in the near term.

EliotCrossing10

[click to see a large version]

As an aside, the area near the brink of Stranahan Falls is arguably the most stable in terms of down cutting, with the streambed now scoured to bedrock for some distance above the falls. But a crossing here would not only add to the elevation loss/gain and distance for the new trail, it would also require some challenging trail construction in the very steep and complex terrain that surrounds the top of the falls.

There are also additional waterfalls to negotiate in the area immediately above Stranahan Falls, including a 25-foot waterslide just above the main falls and a 35″ upper falls just upstream from the waterslide. While it would surely be a spectacular location for a trail crossing, it would also very difficult to build and maintain over time.

A crossing at Stranahan Falls would also encourage more off-trail exploring of the falls area than is desirable, both for public safety and environmental concerns. So, based on these considerations, the crossing location proposed in this article seems to be the best spot for ensuring long-term stability and reasonably straightforward design and construction.

What will it Take?

Sadly, this fine bridge over Clark Creek is among the few surviving on Mount Hood, and the only surviving permanent crossing on a glacial stream.

Sadly, this fine bridge over Clark Creek is among the few surviving on Mount Hood, and the only surviving permanent crossing on a glacial stream.

What would it take to actually build this simple solution for reconnecting the Timberline Trail? Not as much as we’ve been led to believe by the Forest Service. Here’s how the proposal described in this article could be built right away, in 2015:

The total length of the proposed new Timberline Trail section is approximately 1.3 miles, with the first (and most rugged) half mile occurring outside the Mount Hood Wilderness boundary. This would allow for mechanized equipment to be used on that section of new trail, while only hand tools could be used to construct the sections west of the Eliot Branch, inside the wilderness.

These young hikers are experiencing a tainted rite of passage with the long and often treacherous detour required to complete the Timberline Trail (Photo courtesy Christopher Alley)

These young hikers are experiencing a tainted rite of passage with the long and often treacherous detour required to complete the Timberline Trail (Photo courtesy Christopher Alley)

One Forest Service source (the USFS Trails Unlimited enterprise program) estimates the cost of building new trails to be between $2,500 to $12,000 per mile. That’s a big range, to be sure. So for the purpose of this article, I used the top of that range to put the cost of actually constructing the proposed trail at just over $15,000, given that the trail would involve both wilderness construction and steep terrain.

Other costs would include environmental analysis (if needed – this proposal may qualify as a categorical exception), design and surveying. But even if these administrative and technical costs were to triple the cost of the overall project, restoring the Timberline Trail along this alignment might still be possible for well under $100,000, using Forest Service cost estimates. That is a relatively manageable amount that could reasonably be funded from an annual Mount Hood National Forest operating budget of more than $20 million.

So, what’s the delay? First, it’s hard to believe the Forest Service hasn’t considered an inexpensive option like the one proposed here. Yet, no such project has been formally proposed by the agency.

It’s also possible that the Forest Service is still fixated on the more dramatic, elaborate fix described by forest officials in 2010. Such projects are known to bring political favor back at the USFS headquarters in Washington D.C. for their “wow factor” over more mundane projects, after all. Unfortunately, such a project does not appear in the Forest Service schedule of proposed actions (SOPA) where a proposal of that scale would almost surely have to be listed.

This is the frustrating map that still greets Timberline Trail hikers on the Mount Hood National Forest website after eight years

This is the frustrating map that still greets Timberline Trail hikers on the Mount Hood National Forest website after eight years

[click here for a large version]

A third possibility is that the Forest Service is holding the trail hostage in protest to budget cuts that have affected most federal agencies over the past several years. While this might seem far-fetched, consider that Oregon Congressmen Earl Blumenauer and Greg Walden made a much-publicized 4-day trek around the Timberline Trail in July 2005 to highlight issues facing the mountain, just one year before the Eliot Crossing washed out.

Whatever the reason, fixing the Timberline Trail doesn’t seem to be a real priority for the Forest Service. Why else would the most important trail in the Mount Hood National Forest have languished for the past eight years? In that time, the agency has spent tens of millions on other forest projects.

The sad saga of the Timberline Trail closer at the Eliot Branch is also another reminder of just how different the situation at Mount Hood might be if it were under National Park management… which is the much better solution in the long term.
________________

Special thanks to Tim Burke and Melinda Muckenthaler for use of your photos – and for some of the most amazing waterfall exploring anyone has ever done on Mount Hood!

A Tale of Two Ranger Stations: Part Two

September 29, 2014
Forest Service guard on duty at the Upper Sandy station in the 1930s

Forest Service guard on duty at the Upper Sandy station in the 1930s

Mount Hood National Forest (MHNF) recently completed a $1.7 million overhaul of its Zigzag Ranger Station, the de-facto visitor gateway to Mount Hood. Yet the historic Upper Sandy Guard Station, a National Historic Landmark located just a few miles away, near popular Ramona Falls, has fallen into a serious state of disrepair.

Basic repairs needed to save the historic guard station would cost a fraction of what the Zigzag project cost, so why has the Upper Sandy structure been so badly neglected? Part two of this article looks at some of the reasons behind this frustrating paradox, and some possible solutions.

1930s: Guarding Portland’s Watershed

The Upper Sandy Guard Station was built along the newly constructed Timberline Trail in the 1930s. Its purpose was to house a Forest Service guard, stationed there to patrol the Bull Run Reserve — Portland’s water supply — where it abutted the new around-the-mountain recreation trail. At the time, the Bull Run boundary was much more expansive, touching the northwest corner of Mount Hood.

Guard stations were important landmarks for early forest travelers

Guard stations were important landmarks for early forest travelers

The Upper Sandy Guard Station was one of dozens dotting the Mount Hood National Forest in the 1930s, all built to protect forest resources from timber poaching and other illegal activities. Several of the old guard stations could only be reached by trail, and the roads that did reach them were primitive.

The guard stations also served as a supply and communications base for the scores of fire lookouts built throughout the forest, often connected by phone lines that can still be found along less-traveled trails today. As recreation use along forest trails grew in the 1920s and 30s, guard stations also provided a comforting presence for hikers exploring the largely undeveloped national forests of the time.

Today the Upper Sandy Guard Station is slowly fading away (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

Today the Upper Sandy Guard Station is slowly fading away (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

View of the handsome stonework that makes the guard station unique  (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

View of the handsome stonework that makes the guard station unique (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

The industrial logging era that began in the national forests by the late 1940s soon made guard stations obsolete: as thousands of miles of logging roads were bulldozed into remote areas once only accessible by trail, forest administrative operations were consolidated into a few ranger district office, and most of the old guard stations were shuttered.

The unused buildings soon fell into disrepair, and most of these structures were dismantled or burned by the Forest Service in the late 1950s and 1960s (along with most fire lookouts, also deemed obsolete as aerial fire surveillance began).

When the Bull Run Division boundary was changed in 1977, the Upper Sandy Guard Station was left miles away from the resource it was built to defend. One year later, the Mount Hood Wilderness was expanded to encompass the building, sealing its fate as a relic in the eyes of the Forest Service.

In recent years the roof on the Upper Sandy Guard Station has partially collapsed, despite crude repairs by volunteers  (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

In recent years the roof on the Upper Sandy Guard Station has partially collapsed, despite crude repairs by volunteers (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

The few guard stations that did survive decades of neglect intact now represent a precious glimpse into an earlier, idyllic time in the national forests. They now stand as historical gems, worthy of special protection.

Some of these structures have already been preserved, like the Clackamas Lake Guard Station near Timothy Lake, while others have been allowed to fade away nearly to oblivion, like the Upper Sandy Guard Station. A few that survived intentional destruction by the Forest Service have nonetheless been lost to neglect, like the former High Prairie Guard Station on Lookout Mountain, a building that was partially standing as recently as the early 1980s.

Ruins of the High Prairie Guard Station in 1983 before it faded into the meadow

Ruins of the High Prairie Guard Station in 1983 before it faded into the meadow

In September 2009, the National Park Service finally added the Upper Sandy Guard Station to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, a move that many considered to be the building’s salvation. After all, the Forest Service had actively sought the historic designation and local Forest Service historians had strongly advocated for preservation of the building. Thus, the disappointment in the years since, as even the most rudimentary Forest Service efforts to stabilize the building failed to materialize.

Instead, the Forest Service posted the following notice on the building, “warning” hikers that entering the structure presented a dire hantavirus risk from resident deer mice. The notice actually admits that only one (!) documented hantavirus case has ever been documented in Oregon, and that “there is no evidence that the disease is carried by rodents who call this building home.”

Of course, deer mice surely inhabit every other historic wilderness structure in the wilderness areas around Mount Hood, yet no health warnings are posted on the shelters at McNeil Point, Cairn Basin, Cooper Spur and Elk Meadows or the lookout at Devils Peak, where hikers routinely camp inside (and maintain) the structures. So, the point of this notice on the Upper Sandy structure seems to be to frighten visitors from entering — or perhaps maintaining — the structure.

The Forest Service has posted this "health warning" on the structure to discourage visitors  (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

The Forest Service has posted this “health warning” on the structure to discourage visitors (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

The Upper Sandy Guard Station was added to the elite National Register partly because of its historic role as a base for patrolling the Bull Run Reserve, but mostly as the only surviving design of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. The building has a unique, rustic architecture that embodies the New Deal programs that put skilled craftsmen and laborers to work on our public lands as part of the 1930s economic recovery.

Most notable is the massive stone masonry end wall that has probably helped stabilize the structure as the log walls continue to deteriorate. Its unique design combining rubble stone and wood walls make it one of a kind among the more than 700 forest administrative buildings constructed during the New Deal era.

The building was constructed by a seven-man crew in the summer of 1935 with a budget of $958.88, including materials: two carpenters worked at the rate of $7/day and two laborers assisted at the more modest rate of $4/day. The guard station was completed on September 28, 1935.

Today the building suffers serious holes roof and will almost certainly be lost in a few years without an immediate effort to stabilize the structure, or better yet, all of the work needed to fully restore this building. So, why is the Forest Service allowing this to happen? Blame it on the Wilderness..?

Does the Upper Sandy Guard Station have a future? (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

Does the Upper Sandy Guard Station have a future? (Cheryl Hill © 2013)

For a time following the 2009 National Historic Register listing, the old guard station had an advocate in the Northwest Forest Conservancy (NFC), a local non-profit focused on preserving several historic forest structures in the Mount Hood National Forest. Today, the NFC appears to be inactive, and there are no advocates pressing for the building to be rescued.

Prior to the 2009 Historic Register listing, the NFC formally proposed managing a restored building. Today, several historic structures in the Tilly Jane area (on the northeast side of Mount Hood) are managed in this way by the Oregon Nordic Club under an agreement with the Forest Service.

Under such an arrangement, the Upper Sandy Guard Station could have been put it to year-round use as part of its restoration. The NFC envisioned volunteers to staff the guard station during the summer, as the proximity to both the trailhead and nearby Ramona Falls makes the guard station a natural base for both volunteers and visitors. Sadly, this plan never moved forward.

The Upper Sandy Guard Station was prominent on this 1939 map of the Timberline Trail, along with the log shelter that once stood at Ramona Falls

The Upper Sandy Guard Station was prominent on this 1939 map of the Timberline Trail

Despite the agency effort to list the building on the National Register, friends of the old guard station within the Forest Service are surprisingly scarce, and mostly limited to historic resource specialists whose workloads spans multiple forests.

Unfortunately, the Upper Sandy Guard Station carries a still heavier burden than simply a lack of interest from the Forest Service: since a 1978 expansion, the guard station has located within the Mount Hood Wilderness, which by some interpretations means it should be allowed to fade into the oblivion in deference to protecting the untrammeled nature of wilderness.

Is it really that simple? Not at all, but internal Forest Service e-mails on the fate of the historic structure show Mount Hood National Forest recreation planners quickly turning to this argument in defending the decision to let the Upper Sandy Guard Station fall further into disrepair. The same e-mail exchanges also reveal internal rivalries between recreation and historic resource staff that have more to do with protecting recreation budgets than adhering to strict interpretations of the Wilderness Act.

Letting this historic building deteriorate is also at odds with the 1999 Mount Hood National Forest facilities master plan, a forest-wide effort to address surplus Forest Service building. The facilities master plan identified the Upper Sandy Guard Station as surplus building, but set no policy for decommissioning or disposing of the structure — one of the core purposes of the facilities plan.

The Devils Peak lookout has apparently found favor with the Forest Service, despite its location inside the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness

The Devils Peak lookout has apparently found favor with the Forest Service, despite its location inside the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness

The 1999 facilities plan includes other historic structures located inside wilderness area, notably the lookouts at Bull of the Woods and nearby Devils Peak. Both lookouts are included in the National Historic Lookout Register, which is often a first step toward listing in the more rigorous National Historic Landmark Register.

While the Forest Service is silent on Bull of the Woods lookout (and the structure is now showing signs of serious disrepair) the Devils Peak Lookout is described on the Mount Hood National Forest website “open to the public” and maintained as a Forest Service facility.

Why the disparity, especially given that the Devils Peak lookout lacks National Historic Register status? For now, that remains a mystery, as the Forest Service does not seem to have a comprehensive plan for their historic wilderness structures, nor a consistent policy on which structures will be allowed to deteriorate beyond the point of repair — including the remaining Timberline Trail shelters and other facilities across the forest that have gradually been incorporated into new wilderness areas over the years.

This massive new bridge over modest Ramona Creek was built in 2012 inside the Mount Hood Wilderness, less than a mile from the Upper Sandy Guard Station.

This massive new bridge over modest Ramona Creek was built in 2012 inside the Mount Hood Wilderness, less than a mile from the Upper Sandy Guard Station.

Still more confounding is the fact that the Forest Service constructed an elaborate new bridge over Ramona Creek in 2012, just a mile from the Upper Sandy Guard Station and well within the Mount Hood Wilderness. Ramona Creek is a modest stream that can be easily crossed without a bridge, so how was this structure justified?

In a reportedly confrontational exchange in 2007 over the Upper Sandy Guard Station several years ago, a recreation planner from the Zigzag Ranger District responded to questions about the structure with “Have you READ the Wilderness Act? Man-made structures are NOT allowed!” Yet, the same planner was apparently responsible for construction of the elaborate new wilderness bridge over Ramona Creek in 2012.

Clearly, the Mount Hood National Forest has no consistent policy on structures in wilderness areas, historic or otherwise, and thus the highly selective, subjective decisions by district-level staff to build new structures while allowing historic structures to deteriorate.

So, what to do? Fortunately, the answer seems to be coming from the federal land agencies, themselves.

Rethinking the Wilderness Act

Core to the Mount Hood National Forest rationale for letting the Upper Sandy Guard Station fade into oblivion is the opinion — albeit, selectively applied — that “man made structures are not allowed” in wilderness areas. This opinion stems from a series of three recent court decisions and is now widely shared as gospel among the federal land rank-and-file staff.

The stone Cooper Spur shelter along the Timberline Trail is among the historic gems that depend on a better interpretation of the Wilderness Act to survive for future generations

The stone Cooper Spur shelter along the Timberline Trail is among the historic gems that depend on a better interpretation of the Wilderness Act to survive for future generations

However, there is an emerging opinion among wilderness experts within the federal agencies that maintaining and restoring historic wilderness structures is consistent with the 1964 Wilderness Act, and that recent court decisions are more a reflection of flawed arguments made by the federal government in defending its actions to protect historic (and other) structures in wilderness areas. This new argument starts with a key passage in the Wilderness Act, which is the basis for the recent court decisions:

Except in certain specific instances, “there shall be no…structure or installation within any [wilderness] area.” (Wilderness Act, Section 4(c))

In their defense, the federal government has pointed to another passage in the Wilderness Act, arguing that the maintenance or restoration of historic structures qualifies as “use” and is clearly called out among the public purposes of the act:

“Except as otherwise provided in this Act, wilderness areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.” (Wilderness Act, Section 4(b))

Yet, in recent decisions the courts have focused upon the “except as otherwise provided” preface to this clause, and in three key decisions have interpreted historic structures to be at odds with the Wilderness Act. The new thinking emerging among federal wilderness experts focuses on a different defense that would build on this passage in the Wilderness Act:

“A wilderness…may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” (Wilderness Act, Section 2(c))

Under this argument, a new approach to defending protection of historic resources in wilderness areas would focus on the “value” of the resource, not “use”, and therefore the mere existence of a demonstrably historic resource like the Upper Sandy Guard Station would be enough to justify maintenance (and even restoration) over time. Finally, another section of the Wilderness Act fills out this new approach, where the act states that structures are generally prohibited except:

“…as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act.” (Wilderness Act, Section 4(c))

Therefore, if historic structures represent a “feature of value”, then preserving the structure would be the “minimum requirement” for administering the resource. That’s a lot of legal wrangling, but it could just be what saves our historic wilderness structures.

The Upper Sandy Guard Station sits on a flat bench above the Sandy River, just off the modern alignment of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Upper Sandy Guard Station sits on a flat bench above the Sandy River, just off the modern alignment of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Taking this interpretation a step further, the fact that “scientific, educational (and) scenic” values are also listed suggests that preserving the Upper Sandy Guard Station by virtue of using it as an overnight rental facility or even staffing it to provide an administrative presence along the overwhelmingly popular Ramona Falls Trail would also be “values” that pass muster under the Wilderness Act. So far, this new approach has not been tested in the courts, but it does offer a hopeful alternative to the troubling direction of recent decisions.

The historic Green Mountain Lookout near Glacier Peak, saved from the federal courts in 2014 by an Act of Congress

The historic Green Mountain Lookout near Glacier Peak, saved from the federal courts in 2014 by an Act of Congress

In the meantime, historic resource advocates in the State of Washington recently short-circuited these recent court decisions in a successful effort to save the Green Mountain Lookout, located inside the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

The Forest Service was taken to court in 2010 over a major restoration of the historic lookout needed to save the structure after years of neglect, including the use of helicopters to carry materials to the remote lookout site. In 2012, the case resulted in one of the three court rulings that have since become the mantra against protecting wilderness structures, and the Forest Service began preparing to remove the building under court order.

Historic resource advocates in Washington State were stunned, and took the case to their congressional delegation. Under the leadership of Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Congress acted to permanently protect the structure in April of this year, paving the way for the Forest Service to continue to maintain the Green Mountain lookout for the enjoyment of the public indefinitely.

Saving it by using it?

Ramona Falls is among the most visited wilderness destinations in the country and could use a better ranger presence - why not use the Upper Sandy Guard Station as a base?

Ramona Falls is among the most visited wilderness destinations in the country and could use a better ranger presence – why not use the Upper Sandy Guard Station as a base?

So, how can the Upper Sandy Guard Station be saved? Above all, the building needs an energetic advocate in the form of a non-profit dedicated to historic preservation our public lands – or perhaps even a “Friends of the Upper Sandy Guard Station” non-profit.

The fact that the Mount Hood National Forest has been so arbitrary in its decisions to maintain or build some wilderness structures while allowing others to fall into disrepair is an opportunity: consistent, persistent pressure should be enough to get the Forest Service to do the right thing, and save this priceless old building.

Another possibility is an act of Congress, mirroring the Green Mountain precedent. Given the dire state of the building, perhaps Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley could follow in the footsteps of Washington Senator Murray and Cantwell, and simply direct the Forest Service (and the courts) to preserve and restore the building?

These original windows on the guard station were intact as recently as 2008

These original windows on the guard station were intact as recently as 2008

But even with needed repairs, the Upper Sandy Guard Station still lacks a sustaining purpose beyond its intrinsic value as a historic structure. Clearly, the Forest Service sees little value in the building, but to hikers, the structure could be invaluable if managed as a recreation resource.

Here’s how: in summer the guard station could operate in its intended function, with volunteer rangers living in the building during the period when the Sandy River trail bridge is installed (late May through September).

This would put a needed presence on a trail that is heavily traveled, and unfortunately has problems with car break-ins and rowdy visitors at Ramona Falls. The building has the potential to be quite comfortable, as it was originally served with a piped water supply (since removed), and had a sink, small kitchen and even a shower stall that still survives.

Original brass window hardware was still present in 2008, but has since been stripped from by building by vandals

Original brass window hardware was still present in 2008, but has since been stripped from by building by vandals

Volunteer seasonal rangers could also serve as interpreters, giving tours of the old structure and answering questions at Ramona Falls, where the overwhelming share of visitors are casual hikers and young families new to the forest.

Once the seasonal trail bridges have been removed in fall, the guard station could transition to a winter rental, much as several lookouts in the area and the historic guard station at Tilly Jane are operated today. The Old Maid Flat area is a popular snowshoeing and Nordic skiing area, and a restored guard station would be an idyllic overnight destination in high demand. Revenue from rentals could also help pay for needed maintenance and repairs to the structure.

This magnificent fireplace stands at the center of the guard station; the room in the background is a built-in shower, lined with galvanized steel.

This magnificent fireplace stands at the center of the guard station; the room in the background is a built-in shower, lined with galvanized steel.

Could this really work? There are some logistical consideration that would have to be bridged by the Forest Service to actually bring the building back into public use, but they are not insurmountable. First, regular use of the structure would require an outhouse to be restored to the site. Hopefully the original location could be determined from old photos or building plans.

Second, the building would need to be supplied with firewood for winter use, which in turn, would require a woodshed. The National Historic Register evaluation of the building describes a shed that was apparently dismantled many years ago, but could be faithfully restored as part of reconstructing the guard station as it was originally built.

Today, the main structural risk to the building is where several holes have formed in the roof around the chimney. The tarps visible in this photo were placed by the National Historic Register survey crew in 2008 to help stabilize the building.

Today, the main structural risk to the building is where several holes have formed in the roof around the chimney. The tarps visible in this photo were placed by the National Historic Register survey crew in 2008 to help stabilize the building.

Supplying the Guard Station with firewood would be another matter, as any firewood would need to be collected without the use of power tools — a routine task for the hardy individuals who built these structures, but more daunting to us in the modern era. This could be one of the activities of the summer resident rangers. Bundles firewood could also be dropped at the site when a helicopter is already being used to pull out the Sandy River hiking bridge at the end of the summer season.

What next?

Hopefully, this beautiful old structure will find a champion soon, as time is running out for the Upper Sandy Guard Station. While the building condition was described as “excellent” as recently as the 1980s, it has begun to experience major problems from neglect. Worse, vandals have since stripped the building of furnishings and even burned the original wood shutters. The Upper Sandy Guard Station deserves better!

If you would like to help out, consider sending a message to the Forest Service or even your congressional representatives expressing your support for saving this one-of-a-kind window into the past before it’s too late:

Contact Mount Hood National Forest Contact Senator Ron Wyden Contact Senator Jeff Merkley Contact Rep. Earl Blumenauer

If you would like to see the building for yourself, it’s easy to find. The building is on a bench above the Sandy River floodplain, just a few hundred feet off the trail where the Ramona Falls loop intersects the Pacific Crest Trail, near Ramona Falls. The best time to visit is during the summer, when the Sandy River hikers bridge has been installed for the season.

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!


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