Archive for the ‘Proposals’ category

The Farmer and his Dell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threading the Needle

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

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

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

-Samuel C. Lancaster (1916)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Samuel Lancaster (1916)

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

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

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

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

Who was George Shepperd?

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

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

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

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

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

-Samuel Lancaster (1916)

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

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

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

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

At this point in history, the George Shepperd story becomes complicated: sometime in the early 1990s, George and Matilda divorced, and in January 1896, George married Martha “Mattie” Maria Cody Williams, who had also recently divorced. Mattie apparently met George when the Shepperd and Williams families had traveled west to Oregon together in 1889. The “Cody” in Mattie’s lineage was indeed William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, a first cousin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mattie Shepperd's grave marker at the Bridal Veil Cemetery

Mattie Shepperd’s grave marker at the Bridal Veil Cemetery

Mattie Shepperd, "wife of George Shepperd"

Mattie Shepperd, “wife of George Shepperd”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early 1930s postcard view of Shepperd's Dell.

Early 1930s postcard view of Shepperd’s Dell.

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

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

(The Oregonian, March 16, 1916)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Sunday Oregonian, August 29, 1915)

George Shepperd’s Final Years

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

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

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

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

(The Oregonian, April 4, 1919)

By 1926, George Shepperd had finally retired from his farm at Shepperd’s Dell at the age of 78, having survived his wife Mattie by nearly 25 years and a remarkable series of peaks and valleys in his life. He moved to Portland, and lived there until passing away at his residence on NE Stanton Street in July 1930.

George Shepperd's modest grave marker at Riverview Cemetery.

George Shepperd’s modest grave marker at Riverview Cemetery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Jr. went on to become a prominent officer for the Oregon Bank, and died in 1959. The youngest of George Shepperd’s four boys, John, also died in 1959. Myra Shepperd, George’s only daughter and the only one of his children born in Oregon, lived until 1975.

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

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

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

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

George Shepperd’s legacy… and ours?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ShepperdsDell22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Direction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next?

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

Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Plan website

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

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

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

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

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

Proposal: Mitchell Point Loop Trails

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

Looking west in the Gorge from Mitchell Point

Author’s note: this proposal is the latest in a series on this blog aimed at a major Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) effort underway to update the 1994 Gorge Parks Plan. OPRD staff will make key decisions on future trail projects for the Gorge over the next four months, so now is the time to weigh in! More information on how to get involved in this important work is included at the end of this article.
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Mitchell Point is a rugged basalt spine that towers a thousand feet above the Columbia River, just five miles west of Hood River. This spectacular outcrop rises in the transition zone where the wet rainforests of the western Cascades meet dry Oregon white oak and Ponderosa pine country of the eastern slope in a unique jumble of ecosystems and geology.

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

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

Kudos on Recent Upgrades!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proposal: West Loop Trail

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

MitchellPointTrails15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proposal: East Loop & Mitchell Spur

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

MitchellPointTrails18

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

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

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

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

Mitchell Point looms above in this view from Mitchell Spur

Mitchell Point looms above in this view from Mitchell Spur

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

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

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

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

What would it take?

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

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

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

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

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

What You Can Do!

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

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

Angels Rest Loop Proposal

Bridal Veil Canyon Proposal

Latourell Loop Makeover Proposal

Viento Bluff Trails Proposal

Mitchell Point Trails Proposal

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

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

Restoring the Sahalie Falls Bridge

November 2, 2013
East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls as it appears from the modern Loop Highway

East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls as it appears from the modern Loop Highway

After years of delay and public agency wrangling, the long-awaited restoration of the East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls (henceforth simply called the “Sahalie Falls Bridge” in this article) began this summer. The project is advancing under a division of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) responsible for roads on public lands, and is scheduled for completion this year.

The Sahalie Falls Bridge was constructed as part of the final leg of the Mount Hood Loop Highway in the late 1920s. The bridge was completed in 1928, and is the most dramatic nod to the Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway on the Mount Hood portion of the loop highway.

Construction of the East Fork Bridge in 1928 (USFS)

Construction of the East Fork Bridge in 1928 (USFS)

The structure was designed by federal lands bridge engineer H.R. Angwin as a graceful arch, spanning the East Fork directly in front of Sahalie Falls, with decorative railings and sidewalks built to allow travelers to stop and take in the inspiring views.

Complementing the idyllic setting is a cobblestone-faced drinking fountain, installed at the east end of the bridge. The fountain once provided a continuous supply of ice-cold mountain water to visitors, and was one of three original stone fountains placed along the Mount Hood portion of the old loop highway.

Sparkling new Sahalie Falls bridge and fountain in the early 1930s

Sparkling new Sahalie Falls bridge and fountain in the early 1930s

The bridge carried loop highway traffic well into the 1950s, until the modern-day Highway 35 was built, bypassing this section of the old road. The new “straightened” highway not only deprived travelers of seeing Sahalie Falls, it also skipped the mountain views across beautiful Hood River Meadows, just east of the falls on the old road.

Today, this bypassed section of the old highway remains open to the public (when snow-free) and will be drivable again once the bridge restoration is complete.

Who was H.R. Angwin?

One of the mysteries of the old bridge at Sahalie Falls is the life of the designer and builder, Henry Raymond (H.R.) Angwin. Public records show him to be the Senior Bridge Engineer in the San Francisco office for the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads from the 1930s through the 1950s. Over the span of his career, Angwin designed dozens of bridges in the western states.

Oakland Tribune Sunday, September 30, 1917

BETROTHALS HOME WEDDING

In a picturesque setting of pink, Miss Neville Stevenson became the bride last night of Henry Raymond Angwin. Eighty relatives [witnessed the] ceremony read by Dr. John Stevenson and William Angwin.

The bride wore a smart frock of white and silver with a conventional tulle veil and orange blossoms, and carried a shower bouquet of lilies of the valley. Her attendant, Miss [Mabel] Gustaffson, blonde as the bride is dark, was in pretty contrast to pink satin and tulle. The bride’s gown was taupe broadcloth with a chic taupe hat white fox furs accenting the tulle.

Mr. and Mrs. Angwin [will] leave for an extended trip through the east, visiting the interesting cities en route. The bride is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. V. Stevenson, whose home on Newton Street was the scene of the pretty service. Returning to Oakland, the young people will take an apartment in the Piedmont.

H.R. Angwin was born in 1889, graduated from Oakland High School in California in January 1907, and married Neville Stevenson ten years later, in 1917. They had been married 52 years when H.R. Angwin died in 1969. Neville Angwin died twelve years later, in 1981.

The Angwins had at least two children, Joy and Robert. Joy died as an infant, and is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland with her parents.

Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, resting place of the Angwins (Wikimedia)

Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, resting place of the Angwins (Wikimedia)

Cemetery marker for Henry, Neville and Joy Angwin (BillionGraves.com)

Cemetery marker for Henry, Neville and Joy Angwin (BillionGraves.com)

H.R. Angwin designed and built a number of familiar Oregon bridges during his tenure as a federal bridge engineer. The East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls was one of his first, completed in 1928. Two years later, Angwin designed and built the larger, and equally graceful Salmon River Bridge in Lincoln County. This hard-working gem also survives today, carrying heavy traffic on Highway 18 to the Oregon Coast.

H.R. Angwin's Salmon River Bridge in Lincoln County

H.R. Angwin’s Salmon River Bridge in Lincoln County

Several other Angwin bridges are scattered across Oregon, but most notable in the Mount Hood area are the steel truss bridges built along the Clackamas River Highway in the 1950s: Carter Bridge, Armstrong Bridge, Whitewater Bridge and Cripple Creek bridge all continue to carry traffic today.

(Author’s note: sadly, not much has been written about H.R. Angwin’s long career as a federal bridge builder, so this part of the article is included in hopes of improving awareness of his contributions, and perhaps inspiring further accounts of life)

The 2013 Restoration Project

Frost damage to the railings on the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2009

Frost damage to the railings on the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2009

The Sahalie Falls Bridge had begun to show signs of serious deterioration by the late 1990s, and by the mid-2000s, whole chunks of the north railing were breaking loose — sadly, helped along by vandals pulling at the exposed rebar.

Railing Damage on the East Fork Bridge in 2009

Railing Damage on the East Fork Bridge in 2009

By 2008, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) had blocked vehicle access to the bridge, and a project was proposed in the state highway budget to restore the bridge. The original ODOT restoration project later evolved to become a FHWA project by 2011.

The restoration focuses on three areas of needed repair: (1) rebuilding the approach abutments on both ends of the bridge, (2) replacing the heavily damaged north railing cap and (3) restoring the footing on the historic fountain at the east end of the bridge (there may be other repairs planned, but there is little information available for this project, so this list covers the repairs underway as of October of this year).

Construction at the old bridge was finally in full swing in September 2013

Construction at the old bridge was finally in full swing in September 2013

Restoring the bridge abutments involves pouring new reinforced concrete footings at each end of the bridge span and improving surface drainage at the west end to direct storm runoff away from the bridge. The gravel pullouts at both ends of the bridge also appear due for grading and resurfacing as part of the project, as they currently serve as construction staging areas.

The following images show the recent drainage work at the west end, along the approach to the west bridge abutment (as of mid-October), including a recently installed culvert (under the wet fill in the first photo) to address the drainage issues apparent in the earlier 2009 photo (second photo):

Major drainage work is underway as part of reconstructing the west bridge abutment

Major drainage work is underway as part of reconstructing the west bridge abutment

Repeated repairs to the abutment and debris washed onto the roadway is apparent in this 2009 view of the west approach to the bridge

Repeated repairs to the abutment and debris washed onto the roadway is apparent in this 2009 view of the west approach to the bridge

Repairs to the north railing cap extend for the full length of the bridge, with the new cap seated on original concrete railings. As of mid-October, the forms for the new cap had been constructed and were ready to be poured, presumably with concrete, topped by sand mortar. The next series of images show more detail of the railing cap replacement:

Forms in place for pouring a new cap along the north railing

Forms in place for pouring a new cap along the north railing

The forms for the new caps are secured from below with screw clamps

The forms for the new caps are secured from below with screw clamps

Close-up view of the wood forms constructed for the new railing cap

Close-up view of the wood forms constructed for the new railing cap

A peek inside the railing caps (below) shows careful attention to original design details, including quarter-round trim along the outer edges. New reinforcing rods are wired to the original rebar posts embedded in the rails.

When the new caps are poured, masons will use a screed (board) cut with a low arch to repeat the slightly curved top seen in the original cap. The plastic sheeting attached to the forms will be secured over the newly poured caps to slow the curing process to ensure a strong set.

A peek into the railing cap forms shows careful attention to original design details

A peek into the railing cap forms shows careful attention to original design details

In a nearby pile of demolition rubble, chunks of the old railing cap show the quarter round detail that follows the outer edge of the caps

In a nearby pile of demolition rubble, chunks of the old railing cap show the quarter round detail that follows the outer edge of the caps

The south railing is not part of the restoration project, apparently because of its relatively sound condition

The south railing is not part of the restoration project, apparently because of its relatively sound condition

The third element of the Sahalie Falls Bridge project is replacement of a portion of the concrete footing that supports the historic cobble-faced fountain. In the 2009 photo (below) you can see where a section of the fountain base facing the East Fork (behind the fountain) had sunk toward the creek over time, threatening the stability of the fountain.

The sunken east abutment and partially sunken footing on the old fountain can be seen in this 2009 view

The sunken east abutment and partially sunken footing on the old fountain can be seen in this 2009 view

The bowl and rim of the old fountain were restored at some point in the more recent past, and are not part of the current project. The fountain is one of three that survive along the loop highway. The fountain at Buzzard Point still functions, while the fountains at Sahalie Falls and Sherwood Campground (below) are no longer operational and simply serve as rain basins.

The bowl and rim of the fountain were restored at some point in the more recent past

The bowl and rim of the fountain were restored at some point in the more recent past

The three historic Mount Hood Loop fountains, compared

The three historic Mount Hood Loop fountains, compared

[Click here for a larger comparison photo]

This view shows the new concrete footing in place on downslope side of the old fountain

This view shows the new concrete footing in place on downslope side of the old fountain

Crews saved this piece of the old fountain footing -- perhaps to be repurposed as a bench?

Crews saved this piece of the old fountain footing — perhaps to be repurposed as a bench?

Once the restoration project is complete, the Sahalie Falls section of the old loop will re-open to traffic. For the past decade or so, the route has been signed as one-way at the west end, where it connects to the Bennett Pass interchange, so the best way to explore the old highway is follow the signs to Hood River Meadows, then turn left onto the old road before reaching the Meadows resort parking.

Celebrating the Historic Sahalie Falls Bridge

Now that the restoration work is finally underway, the stage is set for some much-needed visitor improvements to the Sahalie Falls area. The view of the falls from the historic bridge is missed by too many travelers, and the odd near-miss with the Umbrella Falls trail (just 100 yards from the bridge, but with no trail connection) has resulted in some messy boot paths formed by hikers attempting to see Sahalie Falls.

This proposal would address both issues, and make it easier to visit the old bridge and falls, whether as a spur from nearby hiking trails, or simply by pulling off Highway 35.

Sahalie Falls trail proposals

Sahalie Falls trail proposals

[Click here for a large map]

The first part of the proposal is a short hiking spur from the bridge to the nearby Umbrella Falls Trail. This would be a very simple trail to build, and could easily be constructed by volunteers. It would not only provide a safe way for hikers to view the falls, but would also allow for the various boot paths along this slope to be decommissioned, and some of the trampled vegetation to be restored.

The pullout on Highway 35 at Sahalie Falls is wide enough to easily allow for roadside parking and a new trailhead

The pullout on Highway 35 at Sahalie Falls is wide enough to easily allow for roadside parking and a new trailhead

The second part of the proposal is an accessible loop trail that would allow the elderly, disabled and families with small children to experience the East Fork in a new way.

The trailhead for the new loop would be at the east end of an existing pullout on Highway 35, where the historic highway bridge can be seen from the modern loop road. The first leg of the new loop trail would follow the East Fork to the base of little-known Lower Sahalie Falls, a charming waterfall hidden in the canyon beneath the historic bridge.

Lower Sahalie Falls

Lower Sahalie Falls

From here, the new accessible loop trail would cross the East Fork in front of the lower falls and gently traverse up the west slope of the canyon to the west bridge approach. Once at the old highway grade, the new path would cross the historic bridge, providing a view back to the trailhead pullout on Highway 35.

View down the East Fork to Highway 35 from the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge

View down the East Fork to Highway 35 from the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge

Visitors to the bridge inevitably cross to admire the views from both sides, so an accessible route would probably warrant a marked crossing at the two bridgeheads, where people using mobility devices could most safely access the sidewalks.

After enjoying the views from the bridge, visitors would continue past the east end to a resumption of the new loop trail, following the east leg back to the trailhead. The total distance of the accessible loop would be about 0.3 miles with a very modest elevation gain of about 60 feet.

View of Sahalie Falls from the historic loop highway bridge

View of Sahalie Falls from the historic loop highway bridge

Accessible trails are often paved, but for this new route, a better option would be fine gravel, mostly because it would provide better traction in an often wet environment. But the proposed loop is also within the deposit zone for winter highway snow removal that sends a lot of grit used to sand icy roads far into the adjacent forest. A gravel trail surface could actually be enhanced by these annual deposits, where a paved surface would require sweeping to remove winter gravel.

What Would it Take?

As with all proposals in this blog, the Sahalie Falls accessible trail concept relies on the U.S. Forest Service — and in this case, Oregon Department of Transportation — acknowledging the need for more recreational and interpretive opportunities in the Gorge and on Mount Hood.

While the proposed spur connection to the Umbrella Falls trail could be built by volunteers, the proposed accessible loop trail would be a major endeavor that could only be accomplished by the Forest Service in conjunction with ODOT.

The original USGS survey marker at the east end of the bridge has been uncovered from years of debris

The original USGS survey marker at the east end of the bridge has been uncovered from years of debris

The added twist in this proposal is the need for an accessible trail, something in very short supply in our region despite a rapidly growing elderly and disabled population. Oregon State Parks and Recreation has made great strides in responding to this need in recent years, but the Forest Service lags behind badly, with few accessible facilities built in the last 30 years.

Fortunately, a new guide for designing accessible trails has recently been developed by the Access Recreation project, an ad-hoc organization formed to develop better design guidelines for public agencies involved in trail-building.

SahalieFallsBridge28

The guidelines are now available on the Access Oregon website, and cover everything from trail surface and slope recommendations to best practices for signage and trailside amenities that address the needs of elderly and disabled trail users. It’s a great resource for trail advocates and public agencies, alike — and could help shape new trail options on Mount Hood!

Proposal: Viento Bluff Trails

September 22, 2013
Looking west from the summit of Viento Bluff

Looking west from the summit of Viento Bluff

This is the third in a series of new trail proposals for Oregon State Parks land in the Columbia Gorge. This article follows previous proposals for a Bridal Veil Canyon Trail and Angels Rest Loop. All three have the potential to fit into the Oregon State Parks and Recreation (OSPRD) master planning for the Columbia Gorge that is happening right now.

Like the Angels Rest Loop and Bridal Veil Canyon proposals, this trail would be aimed at families, vacationing visitors to the region and those trying out hiking for the first time. Unlike the earlier proposals, the Viento area is little known to most who visit the Gorge. For a moderate effort, this proposal would provide explore the unique, transitional ecosystem found in the mid-section of the Gorge, as well as some sweeping views and towering cliffs.

Trail map of the proposal

Trail map of the proposal

(Click here for a larger map)

The Viento proposal stitches together several rustic service roads that already exist with new trail segments that would take hikers to three separate, cliff-top viewpoints. All three viewpoints rise high above the popular campgrounds at Viento State Park, and would provide an excellent, moderate hiking challenge for campers and day-visitors, alike.

The map above shows the proposed network of trails, and the oblique view, below, gives a sense of the steep topography that would make the Viento area so interesting as a hiking destination.

Perspective view of the proposal

Perspective view of the proposal

(Click here for a larger map)

The proposed Viento Bluff trails would also build on a planned extension of the mostly-complete Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, providing bike-and-hike opportunities along this emerging, world-class facility. A six-million dollar extension of the trail will soon extend east from the Viento Trailhead to Perham Creek, completing another link in a route that will eventually extend from Troutdale to The Dalles.

A bit of history on the name “Viento” is in order. While the word means “windy” in Spanish — an often fitting name for this narrow spot in the Gorge — the name was actually coined in the 1800s for an early railroad stop in the area using the first two letters from the surnames of railroad builder Henry Villard, one of his investors, William Endicott, and a local railroad contractor named Tolman (the origin of the name and other local history can be found on an interpretive display near the entrance to Viento State Park).

The following is a detailed description of the three viewpoints that make up the Viento Bluffs and proposed trails that would lead to them.

Viento Bluff Trail

Viento Bluff is a familiar landmark to those traveling I-84

Viento Bluff is a familiar landmark to those traveling I-84

The main focus of the proposed trail network is Viento Bluff, the most prominent of the rocky outcrops that rise above Viento State Park, and a familiar landmark to travelers passing through the Gorge.

While Viento Bluff rises as sheer, 300-foot vertical wall on its north face, the steeply tilted basalt flows that form the bluff have a relatively gentle, meadow-covered south slope. The proposed summit trail would circle the bluff to reach this southern approach.

Historic CCC path along Viento Creek

Historic CCC path along Viento Creek

The trail would begin at the existing day use parking area at the Upper Viento Campground, initially traveling on an existing footpath that follows Viento Creek into its shady, forested canyon. Here, the project would consist of a new footbridge connecting the existing trailhead to the old footpath, and improving the existing tread to basic trail standards.

Historic CCC path

Historic CCC path

The existing footpath appears to be one of the many vestiges of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the Viento area. The CCC was created by Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his Great Depression-era “New Deal” to put young men to work making infrastructure improvements to public lands across the country.

Several stone retaining walls in the area, the original (upper) Viento campground and a collapsed campground water house still remain from the CCC period. The surviving footpath originally led to the water house, but now terminates at its moss-covered ruins, along a pretty section of Viento Creek.

Remains of the old CCC water house along Viento Creek

Remains of the old CCC water house along Viento Creek

From near the end of the existing footpath, the proposed route would turn east, climbing the slope to Viento Bluff in an easy traverse along a heavily used game trail. The deer and elk have done a find job in this section, with a grade that works well as a hiking trail!

Game trail leading from Viento Creek to the bluff

Game trail leading from Viento Creek to the bluff

Soon, this game trail reaches a forested saddle behind Viento Bluff, and enters one of the most lush, abundant stands of poison oak anywhere in the Gorge — one of the few obstacles to realizing the Viento Bluffs trail.

While it’s an ominous sight for anyone sensitive to poison oak, routing a trail to the bluff through this section would be less difficult than appearances might suggest. The open, meadow-covered south slope of the bluff is only about 20 yards beyond the poison oak section, so the exposure would be no more than many trails in the Gorge that pass through poison oak patches. But it would need to be built carefully, and maintained accordingly.

Poison Oak heaven in the saddle south of Viento Bluff!

Poison Oak heaven in the saddle south of Viento Bluff!

From the saddle, the route reaches the stuff of a dirt service road approaching from the east (more about that in a moment), and from this point, the proposed summit trail would begin an exceptionally scenic ascent of Viento Bluff’s south slope, traversing a steep meadow in switchbacks through scattered White Oak and Ponderosa Pine.

The south slope of Viento Bluff as viewed from the East Bluff

The south slope of Viento Bluff as viewed from the East Bluff

The summit of Viento Bluff is exposed on three sides, with vertical drops into the forest below. If this were a remote wilderness viewpoint, simply terminating the viewpoint trail at the top would be safe enough. But because it’s a state park with families and less-experienced hikers, some sort of cable or wood railing would probably be needed here. The wood railings at the Bridal Veil State Park overlook might be a good model for this site, and easily constructed here.

Gorge panorama from Viento Bluff

Gorge panorama from Viento Bluff

The view from the summit of Viento Bluff is impressive, especially given the relatively moderate climb required. The rocky slopes of Dog Mountain dominate the view across the Columbia River, and the sweeping panorama extends as far west as Table Mountain and east to Mitchell Point and the town of White Salmon, beyond.

The summit is quite spacious, providing room for visitors to sit and spend some time taking in the scene or having a trailside picnic. It is also far enough above the busy river corridor to be largely beyond the noise of traffic, while still allowing for interesting views of trucks, trains and barges passing by in the busy transportation corridor provided by the Columbia River Gorge.

East Bluff Trail

The East Bluff as seen from Viento Bluff

The East Bluff as seen from Viento Bluff

The second trail in this proposal would lead from the Upper Viento Campground and trailhead to the East Bluff, an impressive basalt outcrop that is nearly as imposing as Viento Bluff. The East Bluff rises directly above I-84, yet is oddly less visible from the freeway, and therefore less familiar to travelers.

The route to the East Bluff would begin along the proposed extension of the HCRH State Trail, east of the Upper Viento Campground. From a point along the State Trail route, about one quarter mile beyond the campground, a primitive service heads south, climbing the steep ravine between the East Bluff and Viento Bluff. This spur road soon reaches in the power line corridor that crosses the saddle to south of the two bluffs.

Mitchell Point and White Salmon in the distance from the East Bluff

Mitchell Point and White Salmon in the distance from the East Bluff

From the saddle, one fork of the service road heads to the right, to Viento Bluff, as mentioned previously in this article. Along with the proposed new trail from Viento Creek, this route would create a loop hike to Viento Bluff, and a connection to the East Bluff (see map).

The left fork of the service road heads toward the East Bluff. This proposal calls for a new trail here, leaving the service road and traversing the open south slopes of the East Bluff in switchbacks.

The view west toward Dog Mountain and Stevenson from the East Bluff

The view west toward Dog Mountain and Stevenson from the East Bluff

The views from the East Bluff are expansive, encompassing the same stretch of the Gorge as the view from Viento Bluff, but including a unique perspective of Viento Bluff, itself.

The true summit of the East Bluff has a brass 1939 U.S. Geological Survey marker stamped “Viento”. The survey marker dates to the year when Bonneville Dam had just been completed, along with the old power line corridor behind the bluffs that took power from the new dam to Hood River and points east — likely the reason for a survey marker in this spot.

USGS marker on the summit of the East Bluff

USGS marker on the summit of the East Bluff

The summit of the East Bluff is quite broad, and even somewhat brushy in spots. But several dramatic viewpoints ring the edges — much like Angels Rest in the western Gorge, but with a lot less effort. Like Viento Bluff, the cliffs are extremely exposed, and would require some sort of cable or wood fencing, given the location in a state park and relatively easy access.

The loop connection to the proposed Viento Bluff trail (from Viento Creek) would allow for both summits to be included on a longer hike, or simply a hike around Viento Bluff for those who don’t want to climb the actual summit.

West Bluff Loop Trail

West Bluff from the Viento interchange

West Bluff from the Viento interchange

The third piece of the Viento proposal is a short loop trail to the west bluff, a basalt wall rising 250 feet above the Viento interchange and Upper Viento Campground trailhead.

The purpose of the West Bluff trail is to provide a more approachable destination for less ambitious or able-bodied hikers and families with small children. While not as imposing as Viento Bluff and the East Bluff, the West Bluff still delivers impressive views of the Columbia Gorge and an interesting, almost aerial view into the Viento Campground and interchange area, directly below.

This service road would form the east leg of the West Bluff trail loop

This service road would form the east leg of the West Bluff trail loop

The east leg of the loop would follow an existing dirt service road south from the existing trailhead, then fork uphill along a second service road that crosses within a few hundred yards of the West Bluff crest. A spur trail would climb the last stretch to the cliff-top viewpoints. Like the other summits, some sort of fence or railing would be in order here, as the cliffs drop over 200 feet to the trailhead below.

The west leg of the loop would be a new trail climbing a ravine directly below the West Bluff, connecting to the new summit spur. The complete West Bluff loop would cover less than a mile, and gain less than 300 feet elevation, yet give hikers a real sense of achievement. The West Bluff loop would also be the closest of the proposed trails to the main Viento Campground, so well situated to serve campers interested in a modest hike.

An interesting option for the West Bluff trail would be a barrier-free route. While this would be a much more substantial undertaking, it would be one of the few viewpoint trails in the Columbia Gorge available for visitors with limited mobility.

What would it take?

Much of this proposal builds on the repurposing of existing service roads to become wide trails — at least most of the time. The idea is to allow utility workers to access these roads when needed, but functioning as wide trails as their primary purpose. The service roads are owned and maintained by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), and see little use by the agency, so a shared purpose might be a way for the BPA to partner with Oregon State Parks to enhance and maintain these routes.

Historic retaining wall at Viento from the CCC era

Historic retaining wall at Viento from the CCC era

There are also several new hiking trail segments in this proposal. All would be straightforward to build, with few topographic or environmental obstacles. Because they are located in a highly accessible area (access from I-84), these new trails could be excellent candidates for construction by volunteer groups like Trailkeepers of Oregon.

Upper Viento Campground restroom is within a few yards of the trailhead

Upper Viento Campground restroom is within a few yards of the trailhead

The HCRH State Trail already has a major trailhead at Viento

The HCRH State Trail already has a major trailhead at Viento

One of the advantages of expanding hiking opportunities in the Viento area is the potential to take advantage of the existing recreation infrastructure: two campgrounds, a day use area, a large supply of trailhead parking, restrooms within a few yards of the trailhead, access to the HCRH State Trail and direct freeway access to I-84. Adding new trails to the area would simply make better use of these existing amenities in addition to enhancing the camping experience at Viento State Park.

What can you do..?

If you like this proposal, there is a unique opportunity to weigh in right now and make your voice heard: share your comments with Oregon Parks & Recreation Division (OPRD), the state agency that operates Viento State Park, and the sole agency responsible for trail planning in the park.

Seldom-seen rubber boa spotted along Viento Creek

Seldom-seen rubber boa spotted along Viento Creek

Over the next year the state is conducting a long-range planning effort to scope future recreation needs in the Gorge. [url]You can weigh in with your thoughts over here.[/url] So far, the State Parks have had fairly light participation in their public outreach, so it’s important to make your views known!

Please consider including links to the Veinto Bluffs, Bridal Veil Canyon and Angels Rest Loop proposals in this blog when you comment — here are the quick links to paste into your message:

http://wyeastblog.org/2012/01/15/proposal-bridal-veil-canyon-trail/

http://wyeastblog.org/2013/08/31/angels-rest-loop-one-way-trip-to-heaven/

http://wyeastblog.org/2013/09/22/proposal-viento-bluff-trails/

And as I’ve pitched in previous articles, please consider supporting Trailkeepers of Oregon, a non-profit, grass-roots organization that offers meet-up trail stewardship projects in the Gorge and around the region (full disclosure: the author is a founding and current board member of TKO and number one fan of the organization!)

Angels Rest Loop: One Way Trip to Heaven?

August 31, 2013
Looking across the Columbia River in winter to the Silver Star Range from Angels Rest

Looking across the Columbia River in winter to the Silver Star Range from Angels Rest

The popular hike to Angel’s Rest in the Columbia River Gorge is a rite of passage for long-time Oregonians and newcomers alike, because for many of us, this beautiful trail was our first hiking experience. I first hiked the trail sometime in the 1970s, and have returned many times over the years — most memorably, on the inaugural Trailkeepers of Oregon stewardship project in April 2008.

The (formerly skinny and shaggy) author on top of Angels Rest in 1981 and an older, wiser and (and much balder) version in 2013!

The (formerly skinny and shaggy) author on top of Angels Rest in 1981 and an older, wiser and (and much balder) version in 2013!

The trail has a lot to offer, with sweeping views of the Columbia River Gorge and a brief streamside section along Coopey Creek (which cascades over a pair of waterfalls below the trail). Since the Multnomah Falls Fire of 1991, the hike has offered a close-up look at a recovering forest along the upper reaches of the trail. The 1,600 elevation gain over 2.4 miles to the top of Angels Rest is within reach for most hikers, yet challenging enough to give any hiker a thrill when reaching the rocky, often blustery summit.

The Angels Rest trail also has the distinction of being among the most accessible to Portland, with a trailhead located at a freeway interchange 30 minutes from downtown, and with enough parking to supply a small army. Add the emergence of year-round hiking on our low-elevation trails in recent years, and the unfortunate result is one of the most rapidly deteriorating trails in our region.

The Angels Rest trailhead was expanded and improved in 2000 to include stone walls and trailhead signage in the style found elsewhere along the Historic Columbia River Highway

The Angels Rest trailhead was expanded and improved in 2000 to include stone walls and trailhead signage in the style found elsewhere along the Historic Columbia River Highway

The gradual deterioration of this old trail takes many forms. Along the lower section, the once-narrow traverse across moss and fern-covered talus slopes has broken down, with the path now straddling trees (the original trail is the upper third of the tread):

AngelsRestLoop04

Over time, this could damage the roots of the tree in the above photo to a point where it cannot survive. This threatens not only the tree but also the trail, as tree roots are critical in holding steep, loose Gorge slopes together in a climate where annual rainfall exceeds 100 inches per year.

This badly eroded spot is the overlook above Coopey Falls, along the lower trail:

AngelsRestLoop05

The damage here is fairly obvious: the original trail hugged the vegetation line along the right, but the crush of hikers attempting to view the falls has stripped away both vegetation and soil on the left. Over time, this has left roots of trees clinging to edge of the cliffs below exposed and unlikely to survive, making the trees themselves less likely to survive.

Beyond the Coopey Falls viewpoint, the trail reaches the first of many sections showing the impact of year-round hiking on the trail. Here, winter hikers have worn the new path to the left of the main trail tread in an effort to avoid standing water and mud in the main trail, which has become trenched from overuse:

AngelsRestLoop06

Further up the trail, the path has become so wide that the edges are almost hard to determine:

AngelsRestLoop07

The hikers in the distance in the view above offer a clue as to how this happens: as trails widen from overuse, hikers start waking side-by-side. It’s a natural instinct, but one that the trails were never designed to accommodate.

The scene below shows another example of winter hikers wearing down the edges of the formal trail in an effort to stay out of the mud:

AngelsRestLoop08

While walking adjacent to the trail might work for the first few hikers along one of these sections, in the end, it just creates more mud during the wet season — and an even wider trail as hikers continue to push the edges of the trail outward.

Until a few years ago, the effects of hiking were on display to epic proportions along an upper section of trail, where an enormous mud pit formed as hikers continued to walk ever higher on the shoulders of the widening trail:

AngelsRestLoop09

The section shown above devolved so badly that in 2008, the [url]Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO)[/url] worked with the U.S. Forest Service to simply bypass that segment with a new trail alignment. The following photo shows TKO volunteers constructing this new section in April 2008:

AngelsRestLoop10

While the new trail was built to a conventional width, the continued heavy, year-round crush of hikers has since “widened” this section to nearly double its original width in just five years:

AngelsRestLoop11

The upper trail includes several switchbacks, and these are traditionally the Achilles heel of any Gorge trail. Newbie hikers and kids can’t seem to resist cutting switchbacks.

Normally, this is manageable by simply blocking shortcuts to discourage the relatively small number of rogue hikers. But with the heavy foot traffic on the Angels Rest Trail, the sheer volume of switchback cutting overwhelms the trail, turning well-designed turns into a muddy, sloping mess:

AngelsRestLoop12

The above switchback was also built with the trail relocation project in 2008, and has barely survived five years of heavy travel from Angels Rest hikers.

The long-term answer to overuse at Angels Rest is to provide new, badly needed hiking alternatives in the Columbia Gorge, such as the Bridal Veil Canyon Trail proposed on this blog.

But Angel’s Rest needs help, too. One way to help this old trail survive for future generations to enjoy is to simply cut the traffic in half — not through restrictions or trail fees, but by creating a one-way hiking loop. The rest of this article outlines a proposal for making this happen.

Creating an Angels Rest Loop Trail

Winter view into the Gorge from Angels Rest

Winter view into the Gorge from Angels Rest

The concept of a one-way Angels Rest loop is simple: construct a separate, new route to Angels Rest that would form the return leg of the loop. The result would instantly cut the number of boots on the Angels Rest Trail by half, allowing the existing sections to be rehabilitated so that this old trail can last indefinitely.

AngelsRestLoop14

[click here for a large map]

The proposed loop trail would split from the existing route about 0.2 miles from the trailhead, just before the current route heads across the lower talus slopes (see map, above). The existing trail would continue to be 2-way for the first 0.2 miles, where the gentle terrain allows for a wider trail.

The new route would function as the downhill portion of the loop so that it could be designed with downhill travel in mind. This would include a gentle incline and minimizing the number of switchbacks compared to the current route. This could have tremendous benefits for the existing route, as a disproportionate share of trail damage to the existing route is from hikers speeding downhill.

Upper Coopey Falls would be a highlight of a connector between the new and existing trails

Upper Coopey Falls would be a highlight of a connector between the new and existing trails

The new return trail would also be designed to have a mid-point connection to the existing trail via a new bridge across Coopey Creek at Upper Coopey Falls (pictured above). The purpose of this connection is to bring hikers to the upper falls on a formal trail where several muddy boot paths have already been worn into the canyon walls by hikers seeking a view.

The mid-point connection would also allow less hardy hikers or families with small children to simply complete a lower loop of just over a mile in length, while still respecting the one-way trail system. The mid-way connector would also lead lower-loop hikers past beautiful Coopey Falls, one of the highlights of the proposed return trail.

The new trail would take hikers past the base of beautiful Coopey Falls, located on public land, but currently only reachable by crossing private property

The new trail would take hikers past the base of beautiful Coopey Falls, located on public land, but currently only reachable by crossing private property

From the summit of Angels Rest, the proposed return route would descend through the hanging valley immediately east of summit. This new route would skirt little-known Foxglove Falls, a wispy 120-foot seasonal cascade hidden in the forest, then switchback down to a basalt bench that wraps around the base of Angel’s Rest. Here, the trail passes through the fire zone, and would have broad views of the Gorge before descending in a gentle curve to the new junction at the Upper Coopey Falls connector trail.

The proposed loop trail would traverse below these cliffs on the north side of Angels Rest

The proposed loop trail would traverse below these cliffs on the north side of Angels Rest

From the Upper Coopey Falls connector, the new route would continue to descend, passing the base of Coopey Falls on a new footbridge, then traversing west, where it would reconnect with the main trail near the trailhead, completing the loop.

The new trail would have views like this of the Columbia River Gorge

The new trail would have views like this of the Columbia River Gorge

The new return trail would travel 1.7 miles in its descent, exactly the same length as the climb along the existing trail. Thus, the hike to Angel’s Rest along the new loop would retain the same mileage and elevation gain as it does today.

The Gorge viewpoints along the proposed new trail, along with stops at Foxglove Falls, Upper Coopey Falls and Coopey Falls, would be significant enhancements to the hike, making a classic trail even better. So, what would it take to realize this proposal?

An Idea within Reach…

This 1911 map shows an upper trail to Angels Rest from the long-vanished mill town of Palmer, long before the Depression-era trail we know today was constructed

This 1911 map shows an upper trail to Angels Rest from the long-vanished mill town of Palmer, long before the Depression-era trail we know today was constructed

The proposed loop trail would be built entirely on public lands, and much of the work could be done by volunteers working in partnership with the Forest Service. Beyond the actual trail, here are some of the other elements of the project, and more opportunities to involve volunteers in the work:

Footbridges: the proposed new loop trail would require two new footbridges: at Coopey Falls and Upper Coopey Falls. These could be excellent volunteer opportunities, as volunteers have helped construct other trail bridges in the Gorge in recent years

Invasive Species: like many spots in the western Gorge, the slopes of Angel’s Rest host invasive species – in particular, English ivy, Himalayan blackberry and Shiny Geranium. The new loop trail segment would actually improve the ability to control these species by providing new access to affected areas. Native plant advocates could become partners in the project in order to remove invasive plants as part of trail construction.

Even on the grayest of winter weekends, cars spill far beyond the overflow parking area at Angels Rest, lining the shoulders of the Historic Highway

Even on the grayest of winter weekends, cars spill far beyond the overflow parking area at Angels Rest, lining the shoulders of the Historic Highway

Trailhead Facilities: the existing parking area, including the large overflow area and shoulder parking along the Historic Columbia River Highway, is more than adequate to serve the proposed loop. In fact, the loop is in response to a trail that is inadequate for the parking! But the trail does not have restroom facilities, a serious deficiency with unpleasant repercussions for a site that can have as many as 100 cars on a busy weekend. The Forest Service and Oregon State Parks and Recreation could partner to address this need as part of creating the loop trail.

Ongoing Stewardship: ongoing maintenance of the trail is also well suited for volunteers, and could be a blueprint for a new, more intensive effort to keep trails in top condition, addressing trail damage before it spirals. The trailhead is close to Portland and easy to find, and the proposed loop route would be short enough for most volunteers to navigate with equipment, or when carrying out debris. The low elevation of the trail means more opportunities for volunteer work, and the beauty and close proximity to Portland would make it an attractive volunteer option.

What can you do?

Angels Rest was one of the scenic highlights along this 1938 Auto Club guide to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Angels Rest was one of the scenic highlights along this 1938 Auto Club guide to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

If you like this proposal, there area couple of opportunities to weigh in right now and make your voice heard:

1. Send off an e-mail to the staff at the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area: here’s the link (you can use the feedback form at the bottom of their web page). This is the federal agency responsible for most of the trails in the gorge, and would be the lead agency in making this loop happen.

2. Weigh in with Oregon Parks & Recreation Division (OPRD), the state agency that operates the series of state parks along the Historic Columbia River Highway. While much of the proposed Angels Rest loop trail travels on U.S. Forest Service lands, the loop also crossed state parks lands. Over the next year the state is conducting a long-range planning effort to scope future recreation needs in the Gorge. You can weigh in over here, using their blog comment format to make your voice heard.

The State Parks and Forest Service national scenic area staff work together to plan and maintain trails in the Columbia River Gorge, so weighing in with the state planning effort is an opportunity to make any of your ideas on recreation needs known to both agencies. So far, the State Parks have had fairly light participation in their public outreach, so it’s important to make your views known!

Don’t be shy about including links to the Bridal Veil Canyon and Angels Rest Loop proposals in this blog, either — here are the quick links to paste into your message:

http://wyeastblog.org/2012/01/15/proposal-bridal-veil-canyon-trail/

http://wyeastblog.org/2013/08/31/angels-rest-loop-one-way-trip-to-heaven/

Finally, consider supporting Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), a local non-profit, grass-roots organization that offers meet-up trail stewardship projects in the Gorge and around the region (full disclosure: the author is a founding and current board member of TKO and number one fan of the organization!)

Billy Bob, meet Joe Spandex…!

June 29, 2013

BillyBob01

This article is the second in a series of proposals for new “bikepacking” areas around Mount Hood and in the Gorge — places where cyclists can ride to overnight, off-road campsites. As with the earlier Waucoma Bicycle Backcountry proposal, the concept here is to convert fading logging roads into dual-track bicycle routes, complementing existing single-track trails that already exist in the area.

This proposal focuses on the potential for the Billy Bob Sno-Park to be put to work year-round, using the otherwise vacant facility in the snow-free season as the gateway to a new mountain bike network. The trailhead would become the hub of the newly created Mount Hood National Recreation Area (NRA) unit that covers the Fifteenmile Creek canyon backcountry, and was designed with backcountry bicycling in mind.

The Billy Bob Trailhead

The Billy Bob Winter Shelter

The Billy Bob Winter Shelter

The existing Billy Bob Sno-Park features a winter shelter, complete with wood stove, and is provided for snowmobiles and Nordic skiers. A local snowmobile club is under contract with the Forest Service to groom some forest roads as snowmobile routes, while ski trails are un-groomed and seldom used. Snowshoers also use Billy Bob as a base for reaching the nearby Fivemile Butte and Flag Point lookouts, as both can be rented during the winter.

The winter shelter is at the south end of a very large, paved turnaround suitable for up to 40 vehicles, including trailers carrying snowmobiles. Like the nearby Little John SnoPark, the parking area appears to be an asphalt relic from the logging heyday of the 80s and 90s, originally serving as a loading area for log trucks.

Plenty of parking here..!

Plenty of parking here..!

A pit toilet is also located here, at the northwest corner of the turnaround, opposite the shelter. Presumably, the toilet is kept snow-free in winter, but is also open in summer (though not regularly serviced… ahem!) to the rare visitor in the off-season. There is no water provided at Billy Bob.

The "modern" pit toilet at Billy Bob is relatively new

The “modern” pit toilet at Billy Bob is relatively new

In addition to winter use by snowmobiles and occasional skiers and snowshoers, Billy Bob is sometimes used as a base camp during the fall hunting season, as the surrounding area remains popular for hunting.

Fortunately, the site is far enough from population centers and major highways that it has largely been spared from the dual scourge of illegal dumping and target shooting that plagues similar pullouts and trailheads on the west side of the mountain.

The Proposal

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Click here for a large map

How would the new Fifteenmile Canyon bicycle backcountry work? The first step would be conversion of a number of old logging roads in the area to become dual-track bike trails. In this way, the routes could also continue to function as snowmobile or ski trails in the winter. These proposed routes are shown in yellow on the map.

Next, a few new dual-track trails are proposed (in solid red) where they would better connect the existing network of logging tracks and directly connect the Billy Bob site to nearby drive-up campgrounds at Pebble Ford and the Underhill Site. Abandoned logging spurs make up the bulk of these new routes, so little new construction would be required to complete these dual-track gaps.

Recovering ponderosa forests in the area are a reminder of the clearcutting heyday of the 80s and 90s

Recovering ponderosa forests in the area are a reminder of the clearcutting heyday of the 80s and 90s

The purpose of dual-track trails is to provide less experienced cyclists and families with young kids a less challenging, more relaxed alternative to single track for trail riding. Dual-track routes allow for cyclists to easily pass on the trail, so are a good solution for busy trails where riders with a range of skill levels are expected. The dual-track design would also allow for safer shared use by cyclists, hikers and horses.

In Fifteenmile Canyon, the proposal calls for converting several roads to dual track to create a loop system located along the boundaries of the new Mount Hood NRA. The dual track loop would be gated, with motorized entry limited to service vehicles for maintenance or emergency access.

Stands of large ponderosa and larch are still intact within the canyons of the Eightmile NRA

Stands of large ponderosa and larch are still intact within the canyons of the Eightmile NRA

Within the proposed dual-track loop system, the NRA is centered on the steep maze of gulches, draws and ravines that form thousand-foot deep Fifteenmile Creek canyon. Three existing hiking trails (dashed black on map) extend into the canyon, one following Fifteenmile Creek, and two climbing the north and south slopes of the canyon, connecting to area campgrounds.

The proposal would fill in a few gaps in the existing single-track trail network that explores the Fifteenmile Creek backcountry, including (in dashed red on map) a new route that would extend west from the creek canyon to Bulo Point, a lovely, almost forgotten viewpoint, treated badly during the recent logging bonanza. A new single-track tie would connect the Pebble Ford and Fifteenmile campgrounds and short tie near Fraley Point would complete the single-track system.

Ridgetop meadows and interesting rock outcrops are found throughout the area

Ridgetop meadows and interesting rock outcrops are found throughout the area

The trails at the heart of the Fifteenmile Creek backcountry traverse some of the most ecologically diverse terrain in Oregon, from sun-baked Oregon white oak stands and open balsamroot meadows on sunny slopes and ridgetops to giant ponderosa and western larch parklands along canyon slopes. There are even lush, shady Western red cedar and red alder groves tucked along Fifteenmile Creek.

The proposal calls for three new bicycle camps within this beautiful, quiet backcountry. These campsites would consist of 4-6 groomed tent sites, one or two picnic tables, fire rings and secure bike racks — a comfortable step up from the truly primitive level of wilderness, but still providing a rustic backcountry experience. This, after all, is what the NRA was created for!

The Billy Bob concept calls for 3-way sharing by trail users

The Billy Bob concept calls for 3-way sharing by trail users

A total of ten trailheads are shown on the proposal map. Some already exist, some would be new, but all would need to be upgraded under this proposal to be geared toward backcountry cyclists. This includes a complete trail map with difficulty ratings for trail segments, information on the backcountry camps and “share the trail” information for all users — as these trails would continue to serve hikers and horses, as well as cyclists.

Connections to Points Beyond

Views into the Columbia Basin desert abound from the many high points in the Fifteenmile backcountry

Views into the Columbia Basin desert abound from the many high points in the Fifteenmile backcountry

The main focus of the Billy Bob trailhead proposal is the “bikepacking” potential for the Fifteenmile Canyon backcountry, but a wealth of nearby destinations are close enough to make for fine day trips from the proposed new trailhead.

Nearby Fivemile Butte is already a popular goal for cyclists, with a lookout tower and picnic tables that provide for a rewarding destination. The Flag Point Lookout is also within reach, and still in service during the summer, providing an especially interesting destination, as the lookout staff usually welcome visitors with a tour of the tower.

Cyclists visiting the Fivemile Butte Lookout

Cyclists visiting the Fivemile Butte Lookout

Lookout Mountain is also within reach, although the summit trail falls within the Badger Creek Wilderness, and thus is off-limits to bikes. But cyclists can still ride to High Prairie on a mix of trails and primitive roads and make the short final ascent of the mountain on foot — an equally satisfying option to riding.

The remote Flag Point Lookout is still staffed in summer

The remote Flag Point Lookout is still staffed in summer

The Boy Scouts operate Camp Baldwin just to the north of the proposed bicycle backcountry, with a summer camp program that draws thousands of scouts each year. The camp program includes mountain biking into the surrounding forests, so the proposed Fifteenmile bicycle backcountry would be a natural fit for the Scouts. Even better is the possibility of an ongoing partnership between mountain biking organizations and the Scouts to build and maintain trails in the area over the long term.

Does it Make Sense?

The Surveyors Ridge area to the west of Billy Bob and Fifteenmile Canyon is already a very popular cycling destination, with overflowing trailheads on most summer weekends, so there seems more than enough demand to justify this proposal. More importantly, the Fifteenmile backcountry would provide a unique, overnight “bikepacking” experience for cyclists that doesn’t exist elsewhere on Mount Hood’s east side.

Cyclist on popular Surveyors Ridge (The Oregonian)

Cyclist on popular Surveyors Ridge (The Oregonian)

An emerging bicycle sport that could complement summer riding on the proposed trail nework is “fat biking” or snow biking. Fat bikes use oversized tires to put cyclists on snow-covered trails in winter, and it’s possible that the Billy Bob trailhead and proposed bicycle network could serve this growing form of cycling.

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Likewise, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing are continuing to grow in popularity, and though winter access to the Billy Bob trailhead is a long ride from the Portland area it could provide an important option for Gorge-based visitors looking for something away from the Portland crowds that often overwhelm Mount Hood on winter weekends.

What would it take?

Like the earlier [link=]Waucoma Bicycle Backcountry[/link] proposal on this blog, the viability of this proposal is in its simplicity: less than eight miles of new trail would open a 50-mile network, with dozens of loop options that could be tailored to the ability of individual mountain bikers.

Most of the work required could be done with the help of volunteers, from trail building and campsite development to signage and ongoing maintenance. Some heavy equipment would be required to develop the main trailhead at Billy Bob and to decommission vehicle access on some of the converted roads, and would have to be provided by the Forest Service.

Views from the open ridgetops in Fifteenmile Backcountry extend north to Mount Adams and Mount Rainer in Washington

Views from the open ridgetops in Fifteenmile Backcountry extend north to Mount Adams and Mount Rainer in Washington

The proposal would also require the Forest Service to fully devote the Fifteenmile Canyon to quiet recreation during the snow-free months. A few years ago, that would have been unlikely, but in recent years, the agency has not only adopted plans to phase out hundreds of miles of logging roads, but also adopted a new policy to focus OHV use in a few, very specific areas of the forest.

These recent developments could move this proposal if public support exists for a bicycle backcountry, although the Forest Service will need continued support from quiet recreation advocates to convert old logging roads to trails: recently, the agency has put plans to phase out old roads in the Barlow Ranger District that encompasses the Fifteenmile backcountry on hold, due in part to pressure from OHV groups.

The good news is that mountain bicycling organizations are already working hard to develop trails elsewhere in the Mount Hood region and hopefully would find this proposal worth pursuing, too. If you’re a mountain biker, you can do your part by sharing this article with like-minded enthusiasts, or your favorite mountain biking organization that could serve as a champion!
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Bikepacking Resources:

Bikepacking.net is an online community that focuses on off-road touring, away from cars, with great information on gear, routes and trip planning.

The Adventure Cycling Association posted this helpful article on how to pack for your bikepack trip.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) is the premier organization and advocate for backcountry bicycling.

In the Mount Hood region, the Northwest Trail Alliance is the IMBA Chapter doing the heavy-lifting on bicycle trail advocacy.

The IMBA has a guide to fat biking.

Highway 26: Last Chance to weigh in!

March 24, 2013
Mount Hood from the Mirror Lake Trail

Mount Hood from the Mirror Lake Trail

After several years of planning, the proposed safety projects on the Mount Hood Highway (Highway 26) are nearly a done deal, and have entered a final round of public review and comment — with comments due April 7th!

The project has been the subject of several articles on this blog, and thankfully, has been scaled-back somewhat from the original, old school “widen for safety” retread of 1950s highway mentality that dominated earlier phases in the corridor. That said, the project has simply moved from a failed grade to something like a C-minus, at best. It needs your input to be more than an eyesore for the traveling public.

Google Earth perspective on the US26 Laurel Hill Grade

Google Earth perspective on the US26 Laurel Hill Grade

The highway section in question is the Laurel Hill grade, west of Government Camp. Ever since Oregon Trial pioneers lowered their covered wagons down the infamous talus “chute” on Laurel Hill, this spot has vexed road designers.

The current highway alignment is no exception: despite blasting away a good portion of Laurel Hill, the road is still a steep, curving, often treacherous route. The need for safety improvements is on the mark, but it’s unclear if the solutions proposed by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) will deliver, as some of the best (and least expensive) recommendations from their own safety study were dropped from the project at the very start.

It’s not to late to add some of these more practical, potentially more effective solutions to the project, even if the highway engineers seem determined to widen the road and chip away more of Laurel Hill as their preferred solution. More on how you can weigh in at the conclusion of this article.

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(click here for a larger map in a new window)

But first, an overview of the ODOT final proposal is in order, starting with kudos to the agency (yes, you read that right!) for greatly improving their public involvement. Having reviewed a lot of ODOT projects over the years, I’m impressed with the effort the agency has made in this final round of outreach for Highway 26.

Though in-person open houses have continued to be limited to the Welches area (despite the fact that the vast majority of highway users — and taxpayers — live in the metro area), the web tools provided by ODOT in this round of public review are especially well done, and arguably a better format for most citizens than traditional open houses.

The Project

The following are “before-and-after” digital renderings of the major elements of the Highway 26 safety project. A link to the ODOT virtual open house is included at the end of this article, and includes these renderings at much larger scale.

The number shown on each pair of images corresponds to the map shown above (or you can click here to open a large version of the map in a new window or tab). The tour starts from the west, at the base of the Laurel Hill grade, and proceeds east toward Government Camp.

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The project begins at the west (lower) end of the Laurel Hill grade. A number of small changes are proposed along this approach, but the most notable is proposal to cut back the cliff at the “Map Curve”, the ODOT name for the wide bend in the highway where Mount Hood first looms into view — a very popular, if somewhat harrowing pullout for visitors.

The rendering above shows what the scaled-back cliff at the Map Curve would look like from the west, as you pass the familiar road cut and rock outcrop known by ODOT as “Silent Rock. As the renderings show, the scaled-back cliff would be a major undertaking. The purpose of this element of the project is to prevent rocks from falling on the highway. According to ODOT, this is safety concern in the area, and the cause of numerous crashes over the years.

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This is another before-and-after rendering of the scaled-back cliff, this time looking west from near the Map Curve toward the base of Laurel Hill. This view shows another proposed feature: a continuous concrete median, extending from just below the Map Curve to just above the Mirror Lake trailhead, for a total of about 2.5 miles.

The ODOT plans for the median call for an “aesthetic” concrete that complements natural material found in the area. The capped concrete median (installed near Bennett Pass) pictured in public outreach materials would, indeed, be a significant improvement over a standard barricade:

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Unfortunately, the design pictured in the ODOT before-and-after renderings, omit the faux cap, greatly diminishing the “aesthetic” qualities of the proposed barriers.

Other highway departments around the country are experimenting with similar “context sensitive” alternatives for concrete medians in natural or scenic environments, such as this example from CalTrans, installed in the San Luis Obispo area:

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The cost of aesthetic medians will be a major driver in the ODOT final decision, but the longevity of the medians (30-40 years?) call for getting it right the first time. ODOT should be installing something special that truly enhances the Mount Hood Highway experience, not just something “less worse” than a standard freeway barricade.

The next rendering (below) is from the Map Curve, this time looking east toward Mount Hood. This view also shows the proposed median as well as the scaled-back cliff.

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It’s hard to argue with the need to reduce hazardous rock fall in the Map Curve area, except to imagine a parallel universe where foresighted engineers had tunneled through Laurel Hill when the modern highway was originally built..!

But alas, the current alignment is our reality, and based on the materials provided by ODOT, the scaled-back cliff is another least-worst solution for the problem. The engineers are proposing a steeper-than-standard cliff face when completed, but with a larger catchment at the base, thus (hopefully) reducing the number of rocks that make it to the roadway while also minimizing the amount of road widening to accommodate the catchment.

The towering road cut at the Highway 26 “Map Curve” will get taller and much longer under the ODOT safety proposal (photo: ODOT)

The towering road cut at the Highway 26 “Map Curve” will get taller and much longer under the ODOT safety proposal (photo: ODOT)

ODOT surveyed the existing cliff with the aid of a helicopter, and the scope of this element of the project is truly daunting: as shown in the image above, the man-made cliff is already very large, and making an even taller cut will be a tricky endeavor, indeed.

This element of the project appears to already be a done deal, so the best we can hope for is that the resulting scars on the landscape aren’t any more jarring than what can already be seen (and heard) from nearby recreation trails. Keep your fingers crossed.

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The next rendering (above) is from a point just beyond the Map Curve, looking back at the curve and the adjacent runaway truck ramp (a feature that dates back to the late 1970s). As with the previous views, the changes here include the scaled-back cliff section and continuous concrete median.

Next up is a before-and-after view toward the mountain from high saddle on Laurel Hill where the highway crosses from the south face to the north side of the ridge. This spot is familiar to travelers as the site of the historic Laurel Hill Chute interpretive sign and trail. The rendering shows the proposed median, road widening to 4-lanes and another substantially scaled-back cliff section to address reported rock fall hazards.

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Notably absent from this rendering is a new pullout and trailhead for the historic Laurel Hill Chute site, hopefully just an oversight by the artists. ODOT has not suggested in the written materials for the project that trail access at this point will be eliminated. This is a detail worth commenting on if visiting this fascinating remnant of the original Oregon Trail is one of your family traditions.

The next before-and-after rendering (below) is from the same section of road, also looking east, but from the bottom of an embankment on the opposite side of the highway, where the Pioneer Bridge Trail parallels the road. Here, a structural retaining wall is proposed to provide the additional roadway width needed to widen the highway to four lanes and add the center median. Kudos to ODOT for a context-sensitive solution with this retaining wall: the rendering suggests it will be constructed with faux-stone facing, thus lessening the visual blight for hikers, cyclists and equestrians using the trail, if not the overwhelming noise from highway traffic.

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The proposed widening to 4 lanes in this section is significantly scaled back from earlier incarnations of the Laurel Hill safety project. This is a welcome change to the design, as ODOT’s own safety data shows only occasional spikes in traffic volumes — on holidays and peak summer and winter weekends — that road widening would do little to resolve. Most of the time, traffic volumes on Highway 26 are far below built capacity, and the few (and arguably avoidable) traffic jams that occur don’t warrant costly widening projects.

The final before-and-after view is from opposite the Mirror Lake trailhead, looking west (downhill) toward Laurel Hill. Here, the rendering shows another proposal to cut back an existing slope to address rock fall and sight distance concerns, the upper extent of the proposed median and another section of highway proposed to be widened to 4 lanes.

The Mirror Lake trailhead is unquestionably dangerous, thanks to very heavy use and its location on a relatively steep curve. The proposed median will should eliminate the possibility of crossover crashes throughout its proposed 2.5 mile extent, but is especially warranted at this location.

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However, the median will also prevent left turns in and out of the Mirror Lake trailhead, forcing hikers approaching from Portland to continue west to Government Camp to make their return trip. With the median terminating just east of the trailhead, visitors will be tempted to make a U-turn, a potential hazard ODOT has not addressed in the proposal.

Likewise, visitors coming to Mirror Lake from Government Camp will have to drive 3.5 miles to the bottom of Laurel Hill, and presumably turn around at the Kiwanis Camp junction in order reach the trailhead.

Civil disobedience ensued in 2010 when ODOT abruptly closed the Mirror Lake trailhead to winter parking

Civil disobedience ensued in 2010 when ODOT abruptly closed the Mirror Lake trailhead to winter parking

These changes at Mirror Lake will be unwelcome news to hikers who have already chafed at the recent winter closure of the trailhead by ODOT. In the end, it’s probably a “least worst” trade-off in the interest of traffic safety, but ODOT could be doing much more to make this element a real step forward for Mirror Lake visitors.

For example, it’s hard to tell from the “after” rendering, but the Mirror Lake trailhead appears unchanged: this is a missed opportunity, as ODOT will spend tens of millions on the overall Laurel Hill safety project, and a more carefully and aesthetically designed parking area here, separated from the highway traffic, could further improve traffic safety.

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ODOT has a lot of recent experience in this area from their excellent trailhead parking improvements in the Columbia River Gorge, including Angels Rest, Horsetail Falls and Yeon State Park. These relatively new designs provide a perfect template for the Mount Hood Highway, and follow the aesthetic lead ODOT has already taken in recent years with context sensitive designs for the Multorpor overcrossing and Government Camp signage, for example.

Getting it right the first time!

The current round of projects coming to the Mount Hood Highway are the most recent in a string stretching back decades, and clearly will not be the last. Though the final designs ODOT is proposing in the interest of “safety” are less destructive than some of the initial concepts, there are still a number of missed opportunities and questionable “solutions” on the table.

1920s motorists enjoying the view from a kinder, gentler Mount Hood Highway in 1931

1920s motorists enjoying the view from a kinder, gentler Mount Hood Highway in 1931

It’s probably too late to turn back some of the more questionable elements, but there’s still time to advocate where opportunities have been missed. Here’s a rundown of some additions that could make this project more successful. Consider adding these to your own comments!

1. Retain the Laurel Hill Chute Trailhead: this important historic site has been a family stopping point for generations, and must not be lost to road widening. ODOT should propose an improved pullout for visitors at the current trailhead.

2. Make the Mirror Lake Trailhead a showpiece: ODOT should follow its own lead with new trailheads built in the Gorge, and make this trailhead more than just a dusty highway pull-off. Mirror Lake is the “gateway” trail for many first-time visitors to the mountain and the pullout and trailhead ought to be designed accordingly.

3. Use architecturally enhanced medians: the proposed exposed aggregate medians are a tiny step in the right direction, but this element of the project will be the most visible to the traveling public. Let’s aim higher with architecturally themed medians that coordinate with recent improvements to the Government Camp streetscape — and at a minimum, the capped design used at Bennett Pass.

4. Look for storm water solutions to protect Camp Creek: the project is silent about the ongoing effects of polluted Highway 26 runoff on adjacent Camp Creek, a salmon and steelhead-bearing stream. ODOT will be putting down an immense amount of asphalt and new road fill with this project, so will they also improve storm water capture in the process?

5. Don’t wait to install variable speed signs & photo radar: this is one of the least expensive solutions in ODOT’s own safety audit, but moved to the back of the line from the very start. Why wait? Install variable speed limit signs and photo radar now for use during hazardous conditions.

6. Extend the Highway 26 Safety Corridor: ODOT bravely reduced the posted speed limit to 45 MPH from Wildwood to Rhododendron in an earlier phase of the Highway 26 safety campaign. Now it’s time to extend this safety corridor to Timberline Road. It’s an inexpensive, extremely effective safety solution whose time as come — plus, reduced speeds greatly reduce noise impacts for those living along the corridor and recreating on nearby public lands, a dual benefit.

7. Develop a long-term strategy for the resorts: the dirty little secret in ODOT’s 15-year campaign to address safety in the Mount Hood corridor is that almost all of the crashes occur in winter, on a few weekends when the roads are icy. It’s not rocket science to deduce that most of this is due to the huge spikes in traffic coming from the three major ski resorts on the mountain. It’s time to manage winter resort traffic comprehensively, and give skiers real alternatives to driving to the mountain in adverse conditions (more on that in a future article…)

In the long term, the most sustainable solution for the highway is to manage it as a scenic parkway, and put an end to the constant, incremental creep toward becoming an unmanageable, unlivable urban freeway sprawling over the shoulder of iconic Mount Hood (…more on that in a future article, as well…)

Go ahead, weigh in… by April 7th!

ODOT has done a very good job assembling a “virtual open house”, so if you care about Mount Hood and want to weigh in on their plans, it really couldn’t be easier. Simply go to their project website and explore:

Highway 26 Virtual Open House

Remember, comments are due by April 7th! While it’s true that many of the project elements are likely a done deal, you can still have an impact by making your concerns known. Projects like this have a sizable “contingency” budget set aside for this very reason, and now is the time to guide how those funds (your tax dollars) are spent!

The original Laurel Hill grade in the 1920s, shortly after the Mount Hood Highway opened

The original Laurel Hill grade in the 1920s, shortly after the Mount Hood Highway opened


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For more background on this proposal, you can also read these previous WyEast Blog articles on the topic:

Highway 26 Widening: Part 1

Highway 26 Widening: Part 2

Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

Tollgate Maples… and the Highway

Latourell Falls Makeover (Part 2)

January 8, 2013
Latourell Falls

Latourell Falls

In the first part of this article, I focused on recent improvements that have greatly enhanced the Historic Columbia River Highway wayside at Latourell Falls. This article looks at the balance of Guy Talbot State Park, where a number of improvements are needed to keep pace with the ever-growing number of visitors who now hike the Latourell loop trail year-round.

Improving the Loop Trail

Hiking the loop in the traditional clockwise direction from the wayside, the first stop is bench located a few hundred yards up the trail. This memorial bench was donated by the Sierra Club, and though it’s not a great architectural fit for the area (a rustic style would be more appropriate), it’s still a welcome resting spot for casual hikers.

Memorial bench along the Latourell Loop Trail

Memorial bench along the Latourell Loop Trail

Not coincidentally, the bench faces a lovely view of Latourell Falls, but there’s a story behind the view, as someone has made the effort to do some “scene management” for photographers. Take a look at the photo below, and you can appreciate the waterfall scene in its graceful glory, framed by firs and moss-covered maples. But a closer look reveals a sawed-off stump with a fresh cut. Why here? Because a trail steward (authorized or otherwise) trimmed off the broken shards of a maple that split off in an ice storm a few years ago — leaving a sore thumb that marred this classic view. You can see in these after/before comparisons from now and in 2010:

A beautiful scene as viewed in December 2012…

A beautiful scene as viewed in December 2012…

…and the sore thumb that once was…

…and the sore thumb that once was…

…and the telltale stump!

…and the telltale stump!

If this was sanctioned “scene management” pruning, then kudos to the State Parks folks for putting classic views on their maintenance list. If this is a guerilla effort by a frustrated photographer, then perhaps State Parks managers will take note, and keep this view intact..!

Moving up the loop, the trail soon approaches a heavily trampled bluff above Latourell Falls. Here, the first apparent problem is a decades-old shortcut at the first switchback. A sign begs hikers to stay on the trail to protect “sensitive plants”, but so far, the boots are winning, despite logs and debris purposely scattered across the shortcut.

Tossing more logs across this shortcut might help, but borrowing an idea from the beautiful new stonework at the trailhead (or recently built stonework along the Bridal Veil Falls trail), and adding a rustic stone retaining wall here to corral traffic would be a nice option that would have lasting value.

A forlorn sign attempts to reason with trail-cutters

A forlorn sign attempts to reason with trail-cutters

The viewpoint atop the well-worn bluff is really starting to show its age. The 1950s-vintage steel cable fence and mix of concrete and steel pipe posts were never a good aesthetic fit for the Gorge, but more importantly, they’re not doing anything. Visitors have recently pushed a scary boot path past the fence, and down to the brink of Latourell Falls (shown below), so a near-term fix is in order.

The overgrown, beleaguered viewpoint at the to of the falls is in need of some TLC!

The overgrown, beleaguered viewpoint at the to of the falls is in need of some TLC!

The trail at the overlook has already been stomped into a wide “plaza” of sorts, and that would be a good design solution here, with a stone wall replacing the rickety old handrail. A layer of crushed gravel (another design feature of the recent improvements at Bridal Veil Falls) would further help minimize the mud slick that forms in wet months.

The lone (and beleaguered) wood bench at the overlook is well-used, and a redesign should include two or three places to sit and admire the view. For most visitors who venture beyond the lower falls overlook, this bluff above the falls is the turnaround point.

The boot path to the brink of the falls has become a heavily used liability in recent years

The boot path to the brink of the falls has become a heavily used liability in recent years

Adding a stone wall to better define the overlook would help curb foolhardy visitors from following the boot path to the falls brink. However, the overlook also needs some vegetation management in order to simply maintain the view back down to the trailhead — this is what most hikers who push beyond the handrails are looking for, after all.

A pair of reckless visitors in flip-flops spotted in 2010 at the bottom of the dangerous boot path, tempting fate…

A pair of reckless visitors in flip-flops spotted in 2010 at the bottom of the dangerous boot path, tempting fate…

A few steps beyond the bluff overlook, an unmarked trail forks to the right, descending to Latourell Creek. At first, this seems like another informal boot path, but a closer look reveals a well-constructed trail. In fact, this is where a lower loop once crossed the creek, connecting to the main loop where it returns (and is clearly visible) on the far side of the creek. This is an old idea that still makes sense, and should be embraced with a new bridge and refurbished connector trail.

This side trail (to the right) used to be part of a lower loop route

This side trail (to the right) used to be part of a lower loop route

In reality, hikers are already using the lower loop, though a series of slick, dangerous logs a few yards upstream from the brink of Latourell Falls serve as the “bridge”. Reconnecting and restoring these old trail segments would be a good way to provide a shorter loop for less active hikers, and also resolve this hazardous crossing that is clearly too tempting for many hikers to resist.

Bridge needed! This old trail and the sketchy log crossing are an accident waiting to happen -- and also an opportunity to provide an excellent short loop for hikers.

Bridge needed! This old trail and the sketchy log crossing are an accident waiting to happen — and also an opportunity to provide an excellent short loop for hikers.

Moving along the loop to its upper end, the Latourell trail has a few issues at Upper Latourell Falls that deserve attention in the interest of protecting the lush landscape from being loved to death. For many years, this upper section of the trail was only lightly used, but the proximity of Talbot State Park to the Portland Metro region and the family-friendly nature of this trail has clearly made the full loop a very favorite destination.

Upper Latourell Falls

Upper Latourell Falls

The trail approach on the east side of the falls is in good shape, but problems start to emerge on the west side of the footbridge. This is not coincidental, as an adventurous early trail once switch-backed up the slope on the west side, and led to a precarious bridge across the mid-section of the falls (shown below).

The location of this old trail was uncovered only recently. Century-old rockwork and obvious paths heading uphill from the falls have always hinted at an old trail, but a geocache has now been placed along the old path, drawing enough visitors up the slope to add some urgency to addressing the off-trail impacts here.

A century-old trail climbs the west slope at Upper Latourell Falls

A century-old trail climbs the west slope at Upper Latourell Falls

The best solution here is to embrace the lowest segment of the old path by repairing the stonework, or perhaps adding steps where a shortcut has formed, and provide hikers with that close-up view from behind the falls that is responsible for the bulk of the off-trail traffic (the hikers in the photo above are making this irresistible trip).

The upper sections of the old trail are much less traveled, and a simple solution here might be to simply ask the geocache owner to remove the cache. The cache risks not simply re-opening the old trail, but also bringing inexperienced hikers to the potentially dangerous rock shelf where the log footbridge once stood. If the geocache is removed soon, it’s unlikely that visitors would even notice the upper portions of this trail.

This precarious bridge spanned the upper tier of Upper Latourell Falls in the early 1900s (courtesy U of O Archives)

This precarious bridge spanned the upper tier of Upper Latourell Falls in the early 1900s (courtesy U of O Archives)

Turning downstream along the west leg of the Latourell loop, the trail passes a couple of spots where some TLC is needed. First, another potentially dangerous log crossing (shown below) has drawn enough traffic to form its own boot path.

It could be decades before this old log finally collapses into the creek, so a better plan is needed to stem the damage now. Sawing out the log seems possible, and is a job that could be easily in early fall, when water levels are at their lowest, and fire danger has passed. This might even be a job for volunteer trail stewards with crosscut skills.

The other “bridge” on upper Latourell Creek…

The other “bridge” on upper Latourell Creek…

A bit further downstream along the west leg, the loop trail passes the old trail leading to the former footbridge (described previously). Here, the new trail launches uphill along a steep, slick segment built to bypass the bridge.

Reopening the old trail section (and adding a new bridge) would therefore have a spinoff benefit here: not only would a shorter loop be possible (and safe), but the short, badly designed new section of the current trail (shown in yellow on the map, below) could be decommissioned, with the main route using the old section of trail, once again (shown in red). This would be a terrific project for volunteers, including bridge construction.

LatourellLoop16

(click here for a large map)

Another scary feature suddenly appears as the west leg of the loop trail curves above Latourell Falls: an old viewpoint spur trail heads straight down to a very exposed, rocky outcrop rising directly above the falls. The view from this exposed landing is impressive, but completely unsafe, given the thousands of families with young kids that walk this loop each year. There is no railing and no warning of the extreme exposure for parents attempting to keep kids in tow.

The west overlook from the trail… yikes!

The west overlook from the trail… yikes!

The safety hazards of the west overlook are twofold: certain death for someone slipping over the 280 foot sheer cliff to the north and a tempting, sloped scramble to the falls brink for daredevils and the foolhardy.

A simple solution could be a handrail or cable encircling the viewpoint, but a more elegant option would be a more permanent viewing platform in the stonework style of the improvements at the trailhead, serving both as a safety measure and to encourage visitors to comfortably enjoy the airy view.

The west overlook and falls brink from the east side

The west overlook and falls brink from the east side

Next, the loop trail curves away from the creek and out of Latourell canyon, passing an overgrown viewpoint (that probably deserves to be retired), then descending in a long switchback to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Here, the route crosses the road, and resumes on an attractive path that suddenly ends in the Talbot State Park picnic area. Though a bit of searching gets most hikers to the resumption of the loop hike, some signage would be helpful here — both to direct loop hikers back to the main trailhead, but also pointing picnickers to trail to both the upper and main waterfalls.

Heavy traffic has formed a boot-path at the base of Latourell Falls

Heavy traffic has formed a boot-path at the base of Latourell Falls

Beyond the picnic area, the trail re-enters Latourell canyon and quickly descends to the base of Latourell Falls, the final area where loop trail improvements are sorely needed. At this point along the loop, we are within a few hundred yards of the main trailhead and wayside, so the crush of year-round visitors is evident everywhere — and thus the paved trail surface in this portion of the loop.

Most of the human impact is absorbed by the trail, but in recent years a messy boot path has developed along the west side of the creek, starting at the lower footbridge, and branching as it heads toward the base of the falls.

Looking back at the footbridge, and the extent of damage from the boot path

Looking back at the footbridge, and the extent of damage from the boot path

As it nears the falls, the boot path devolves into a web of muddy paths, where delicate ferns and wildflowers have been trampled

As it nears the falls, the boot path devolves into a web of muddy paths, where delicate ferns and wildflowers have been trampled

There isn’t a good way to convert this boot path into a formal spur or viewpoint because of the unstable slopes and visual impact it would create, so the challenge is how to best manage the off-trail activity. The simplest option would be an extension of the bridge hand-rail to block the boot path, making off-trail exploring a bit harder.

This mud patch at the east approach to the lower footbridge would make a perfect mini-plaza for visitors to spend time taking in the view

This mud patch at the east approach to the lower footbridge would make a perfect mini-plaza for visitors to spend time taking in the view

But there is also an opportunity to embrace the first part of the boot path, where a “mud plaza” of sorts has been stomped into the ground. This spot features one of the best angles for photographing the falls, after all, so a stone masonry mini-plaza with seating would be a terrific way to both discourage the off-trail travel, and give waterfall admirers an inviting place to stop and photograph the falls, out of the main flow of foot traffic.

Honoring Guy W. Talbot

One last bit of unfinished business at Talbot State Park is a debt of gratitude to Guy Talbot, himself. At the west end of the historic highway bridge, a large gravel pullout serves as overflow parking for this popular park. The loop trail crosses the highway near the pullout and in recent years, heavy use has turned this into an overflow trailhead, as well.

The wide pullout at the west end of the Latourell Bridge

The wide pullout at the west end of the Latourell Bridge

At first glance, it seems nothing more than a broad, gravel shoulder. But upon closer inspection, it’s home to the only real monument to Guy Webster Talbot — the man whose profound generosity spared Latourell Falls from some other fate, and gave us the park that we know today. After all, the property wasn’t simply an undeveloped tract of forest, but rather, Talbot’s beloved country home. He gave the place he loved most to all Oregonians, in perpetuity.

Few traces of Talbot’s home and the surrounding estate survive, so this would be the perfect spot for a third interpretive sign (the first two are on the east end of the bridge, at the refurbished wayside) focused on Talbot, and why he was such an important historical figure in history of the area.

This plaque is the sole evidence of Guy Talbot’s grand gesture to the public

This plaque is the sole evidence of Guy Talbot’s grand gesture to the public

The pullout, itself, could also be improved to become a more formal secondary trailhead for the loop, as well — perhaps not as substantial as the newly rebuilt main trailhead and wayside at the other end of the bridge, but something better than the pothole-covered pullout that exists today.

The venerable Latourell Creek Bridge is among the most impressive on the old highway

The venerable Latourell Creek Bridge is among the most impressive on the old highway

Finally, there’s one more interpretive opportunity near the Guy Talbot memorial: a tale of two bridges. One is the towering, 300-foot long Latourell Bridge along the old highway, to the east. The unique history of its construction in 1914 is a story that should be told, especially since visitors can walk both sides of the bridge on the beautifully designed, original sidewalks.

The second bridge is a curious phantom of history — a former footbridge that once connected the two halves of the Talbot property in an elaborate, Venetian-style arch. Though long gone, the footings for the bridge can still be seen, and are a reminder of the elegance of days gone by.

The old footbridge over the highway was located just east of Latourell Creek

The old footbridge over the highway was located just east of Latourell Creek

The good news is that both the Oregon State Parks and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) are on a roll when it comes to enhancing the Historic Columbia River Highway trails and waysides. Many recent improvements to the Gorge parks and the old highway, itself, have already been completed in recent years, and more are already under construction.

Hopefully, polishing up the rest of the Latourell Falls loop and Talbot State Park can find its way into the State Parks and ODOT work program, too!

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Addendum: after posting this article, I heard from the owner of the geocache mentioned above Upper Latourell Falls. File this under the “small world” department, but it also happened to be someone I’ve known for many years, and who sets the highest standard for conservation ethics. Had I checked the cache ownership and known this, it would have erased any concerns about potential impacts the cache will have on the area. I now know it is in very good hands!

The cache owner also shared some numbers behind the cache that support that last point: only 50 users have logged it in the 3-plus years since it was placed, so not enough to have a noticeable impact on the terrain. Thus, the impacts that we’ve seen in recent years are likely just more of what we see elsewhere on the loop, where the crush of thousands off feet hitting this trail each year is running the landscape a bit ragged.

At its core, geocaching is a terrific way to introduce people (and especially children) to our public lands, which in turn, helps create advocates for conservation — something very much in line with this blog. Hopefully this article didn’t leave other geocachers thinking otherwise. After all, I own several caches myself, and like most cache owners, do my best to ensure they bring people into the wilds while also having minimal impact on the landscape.

Warren “Barney” Cooper

November 12, 2012

Early 1900s map with Warren Creek identified

While tracking down the human history behind the mysterious (and temporarily defunct) falls on Warren Creek in the Columbia River Gorge over the past year, I was surprised to learn that “Warren” is not the surname of a local homesteader or early explorer.

Instead, it is the first name of an early Forest Service ranger, Warren “Barney” Cooper, whose own surname puts him among Mount Hood’s pioneering royalty: the remarkable Coopers of the Hood River Valley.

The David Rose Cooper Family

David Rose and Marion Cooper with their family in 1884. Barney Cooper is on the right (photo: A Complete History of Mount Hood)

Barney Cooper was part of a pioneer family that figures prominently in the history of the Hood River Valley. His father, David Rose Cooper, uprooted from Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1872 (where the Cooper family had lived for more than 300 years), and moved his wife Marian and their children to settle in America. After a trek across the country, David and Marion Cooper originally settled near Roseburg, in Southern Oregon. Here, they gave birth to several children, including Warren.

In 1882, the Coopers moved again to become some of the first white settlers in the upper Hood River Valley. David Rose Cooper was captivated by Mount Hood, and the idea of building a road to the foot of its enormous north side glaciers. In 1884, he teamed up with two local settlers, Henry Coe and Oscar Stranahan, to form the Mount Hood Trail and Wagon Company.

Under this venture, they built a trail to the mountain, completing work in 1886. The trail was quickly expanded to become a rough wagon road, and in 1888 opened as a 12-mile toll route. The new road led adventurers to the rocky crest on the shoulder of the mountain where the historic Cloud Cap Inn still stands today.

Cooper Spur was named for Warren’s father, David Rose Cooper

The legacy of these early pioneers lives on in our place names. A well-known Mount Hood adventurer from Portland, Dr. Thomas Lamb Eliot, spent time exploring the mountain with the men who built the first road, and named several prominent landmarks on the mountain in their honor: Cooper Spur for David Rose Cooper, Coe Glacier for Henry Coe and Stranahan Ridge and Falls for Oscar Stranahan.

With the new road in place, David Rose Cooper opened a “tent hotel” near today’s Tilly Jane camp in 1888, offering guide services where he led guests across the high country on Mount Hood’s northeast slopes. Marian Cooper and the couple’s younger children all helped in the tent hotel operation, including Warren Cooper, who was just 12 years old at the time. The oldest Cooper children stayed behind, tending the family farm in the valley below.

The Cooper tent hotel near Tilly Jane in 1888 – a young Warren Cooper is atop the horse in the center (photo: A Complete History of Mount Hood)

The modest tent hotel was short-lived. In 1889, a group of Portland investors had begun work on the Cloud Cap Inn, and purchased the Cooper toll road as part of forming a new Mount Hood Stage Company. The new lodge opened in August 1889, ushering in a new era of tourism on the mountain that continues to this day. The seed that started it all was the Cooper family’s tent hotel.

Barney Cooper and the Forest Service

Warren McCalley “Barney” Cooper was born in 1876 in the town of Wilbur, where the Cooper family first settled in Southern Oregon. Time spent on the slopes of Mount Hood after the family moved to the Hood River Valley had a lasting impression on Barney. During the 1890s, he became a forest ranger for the Cascade Forest Preserve, the huge federal holding that preceded formation of the U.S. Forest Service.

Warren M. “Barney” Cooper at Elk Meadows around 1915

Barney Cooper eventually served as the first district ranger for the Hood River Ranger District with the creation of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. He served in this capacity for 15 years. During his tenure, the Mount Hood portion of the Cascade Forest Reserve was be set apart in 1908 to become the Oregon National Forest (and was later renamed the Mount Hood National Forest, in 1924).

There was no ranger station at the time, so Barney conducted Hood River Ranger District operations from his home near Parkdale. Duties were initially focused on protecting the forest from timber thieves and squatters, but soon shifted toward fire prevention. During this formative era, many of the familiar names we know in the Mount Hood area were placed on early maps by the first forest rangers, and many of the trails and roads we still use were planned and built.

A scene from the original route to Cloud Cap that David Rose Cooper conceived and built

In 1915, Barney led an expedition of state officials on a preliminary survey of the Mount Hood Loop Highway. Sam Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway was nearing completion in the Gorge, and there was great interest in completing a loop around the mountain. Barney led the group up Cold Spring Creek to Elk Meadows, then down to Hood River Meadows, bypassing the steep East Fork canyon — though the highway would eventually follow the more rugged canyon route.

Barney and Kate Cooper

When Barney Cooper was 28 years old, he married Catherine Elizabeth “Kate” Gribble, who had just turned 25 years old. They were wed on December 28, 1904 in Wasco County, east of Hood River.

In 1907, Barney and Kate lost their first child at birth, a daughter. In 1913, they gave birth to a second child, Wilbur David Cooper, who would live to be 97 years old. He died only recently, on October 28, 2010 in El Cerrito, California. Sadly, both Barney and Kate died in 1920, leaving young Wilbur Cooper an orphan at the age of seven. He was raised by the extended Cooper family living in the Hood River Valley.

Warren McCalley “Barney” Cooper

Barney Cooper’s cause of death is listed as “sleeping sickness”, which might seem odd today, given our familiarity with the tropical version of “sleeping sickness”. But from 1916 to 1926, another form of sleeping sickness — encephalitis lethargica — swept the globe in a widespread epidemic. Barney Cooper died in Portland on February 18, 1920.

Kate Cooper died just a week before Barney, on February 11, 1920. Kate died of “consumption”, or what we know today to be tuberculosis. Kate also died in Portland.

There’s no known history on the sequence of events that sent both Kate and Barney into a Portland hospital at the same time, but it must have been devastating for the extended Cooper family. They were in the prime of their lives, as Kate was just 41, and Barney 44 years old.

David Rose Cooper died shortly thereafter, in 1922, at the age of 77. Marion Cooper lived on for several years in the family homestead near Parkdale. She died at age of 89 in 1939, having experienced an amazing span of history during the course of her long life.

A visit to Upper Valley Cemetery

After researching the remarkable Cooper family history, I made a trip to the Upper Valley Cemetery near Parkdale a few weeks ago to visit the family’s gravesites. This quiet little cemetery is modest and unassuming, appropriately nestled between working apple orchards on all sides.

David Rose Cooper’s gravesite is located in the open center of the cemetery, and Marion Cooper’s grave is just a few feet away. Standing by their grave markers, Mount Hood rises to the south, and Bald Butte fills the skyline to the east.

Barney and Kate Cooper were laid to rest along the west edge of the cemetery, beneath the canopy of a huge Douglas fir and Port Orford cedar. A wood bench is located nearby, between the trees, facing the main part of the cemetery.

Gravesites of Barney, Kate and Baby Cooper

Barney’s grave marker is engraved with the U.S. Forest Service emblem – a forest ranger forever! Kate’s marker is a few feet away, and adorned with what seems to be a morning glory vine — her favorite flower, perhaps?

Between Barney and Kate lies their infant daughter, the first to be buried here in their shady family plot.

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A Lasting Tribute?

Before he died at the age of 97 in 2010, Wilbur Cooper had survived his wife of 73 years, Juanita, and one of their twin daughters, Leslie. According to published accounts, he is survived by his daughters Rosemarie and Carrolyn, son-in-law Jon, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

My hope is to somehow contact his surviving family so that they might learn about my efforts to restore Warren Falls on Warren Creek — places named for a grandfather they never met. This effort is complicated by the fact that Wilbur Cooper had no sons, and thus the Cooper surname may not have carried forward in his branch of the family.

A fitting tribute to Barney Cooper?

Learning a bit more about Warren “Barney” Cooper in researching this article further inspires me in restoring Warren Falls. It would be a fitting tribute to his contributions as one of Mount Hood’s first rangers.

I’m also hopeful his surviving descendents might be able to shed more light on Warren Falls and Warren Creek — and on Barney Coopers life in the woods. If you know someone in the Cooper family who might be able to help me in that effort, please forward this article to them.
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For more family history on Barney and Wilbur Cooper:

L.J. Cooper’s Recollections of Barney Cooper (PDF)

Wilbur Cooper’s 2010 obituary (PDF)

As always, Jack Grauer’s “Complete History of Mount Hood” (first edition) was invaluable in putting this article together.

The author on Cooper Spur in September 2012

The Boot Loop: Bringing Transit to Mount Hood

August 6, 2012

There is a surprisingly long, sometimes strange history in the effort to bring public transportation to Mount Hood. Private ski buses have carried winter visitors to the mountain almost since the beginning of the south side resorts. Before that, visitors to Cloud Cap journeyed by train, then stage, to reach the mountain at the turn of the 20th Century.

Perhaps the strangest episode was the brief reign of the Skiway to Timberline, an ungainly gondola scheme consisting of a customized bus suspended on a cable lift. The Skiway carried skiers from Government Camp to Timberline Lodge in just 10 minutes, with two modified coaches called “Cloudliners” custom-designed for the circuit.

Was the Skiway to Timberline ahead of its time?

The system cost a hefty $2 million when it was completed in 1951, but only operated until 1956 due to chronic mechanical problems and disappointing interest from skiers. Though it seems absurd now, the operators actually filed for permits to extend the Skiway to the summit of Mount Hood, then down the north face to Cloud Cap before the entire enterprise stalled.

Today, a ski trail carrying the name is the only reminder of the Skiway. The base terminal survives, but is nearly unrecognizable, having been converted into condominiums.The following newsreel captures the spirit if the Skiway in its early, more optimistic days:

In 1986 the first of Portland’s light rail lines opened, reaching out to the suburb of Gresham, 15 miles east of downtown. The system was an immediate hit with Portlanders, and soon there were enthusiastic calls for extending the tracks to Mount Hood. It was never to be, of course, simply because of the sheer cost of building a line on that scale (Government Camp lies 40 miles and nearly 4,000 vertical feet above Gresham) that would never draw enough passengers to justify the expense. Yet, it was conventional wisdom that some sort of public transportation to Mount Hood was needed.

Could transit to Mount Hood work?

During the recent economic downturn, the lack of a transit option has been still more glaring, with gas prices topping $4 per gallon, and an increasing number of Portlanders simply opting out of owning an automobile. For many skiers, hikers and mountain bikers, this once again raises the question: why isn’t there public transit to Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge?

The simple answer is that none of the public agencies with jurisdiction for the area is even considering the option. The Forest Service has placed a few conditions on ski resorts to provide limited transit, but otherwise is silent on public transportation.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has the authority to step up, and even commissioned a 1999 feasibility study for the US 26 corridor. But instead of exploring the recommended transit options, ODOT has since focused its efforts on widening the highway in response to ski-weekend traffic bottlenecks, to the tune of nearly $50 million over the past 12 years. To date, only the National Park Service has embraced recreation transit, with bus and shuttle systems serving several national parks.

The National Park Service already provides transit service in several parks (NPS)

This leaves ridesharing as the only viable alternative to driving alone to the trailheads for skiers, hikers and cyclists. While many hikers take advantage of sponsored hikes and informal meet-ups to take advantage of this option, there is no organized rideshare system available to the public.

What would it take to provide meaningful transit to Mount Hood and the Gorge? This article attempts to answer the logistics of that question, and explores whether a system could actually designed with hikers and cyclists in mind. In this way, the proposal differs from past schemes in that it focuses on hikers and mountain bikers, not ski resorts.

Proposal: The Boot Loop!

Over the years, many people have asked me about transit to Mount Hood and the Gorge, perhaps because they know I’m a transportation planner by day. And while my professional background made this proposal easier to assemble, it goes without saying that this is simply a “what if” concept. It’s meant to show just one way in which transit on Mount Hood might work. In the end, transit is a complex balance between ridership and service levels, and only a thorough transit study can produce a real plan. Instead, think of this as a hiker’s plan for transit, hopefully to spur some discussion!

The proposed Boot Loop consists of three overlapping bus transit lines:

Mount Hood Line (orange) – seasonal route serving the Mount Hood Loop on weekends (Friday-Sunday) from June through October

Hood River Line (yellow) – year-round route serving the western Gorge on weekends (Friday-Sunday)

Cascade Locks Line (green) – year-round, all-week route serving the most popular trailheads in the Gorge

Here’s a map of the proposed system:

(click here for a very large, printable version of the map)

Here’s a closer look at how the schedules could work for these lines (these are clips from the Boot Loop map, shown above). All lines begin at the Gateway Transit Center, the nexus of three light rail lines on the MAX system and home to a large park-and-ride structure.

Hikers already use Gateway as an informal meet-up site for ridesharing, so it’s a natural location for the Boot Loop. The proposed service starts on the hour, beginning with an early departure of the Mount Hood line at 6 AM and the Gorge lines beginning at 7 AM.

Morning transit service on the Boot Loop

(click here to enlarge)

A total of eight buses would depart in the morning on full service, summer weekends: three for Mount Hood, three for Cascade Locks and two for Hood River. All three lines would have additional park-and-ride stops, with the Mount Hood Line stopping at the Gresham Transit Center, Sandy City Hall and Hood River, and both Gorge lines stopping at a new park-and-ride at the Sandy Delta interchange (and trailhead).

By design, the Gorge lines have several overlapping stops, with the weekend service provided by the longer Hood River line helping carry extra demand for the most popular western Gorge trailheads.

Evening transit service on the Boot Loop

(click here to enlarge)

Some Gorge stops would only have morning service, due to westbound freeway access constraints. These include the Eagle Creek, Herman Creek, Starvation Creek and Mitchell Point trailheads. With the exception of Mitchell Point, all have trail access to nearby trailheads that would have PM service, so this would mostly require some advance trip planning for hikers. If the completion of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail stays on schedule, Mitchell Point will soon have trail access to a nearby trailhead (Viento), as well.

A closer look at the proposed bus schedule reveals another benefit of overlapping service: in summer, the Mount Hood Line returning through the Gorge provides additional mid-day and evening return options, giving hikers a lot of flexibility in planning their day.

For accuracy, I clocked travel times for all three routes, including dwell time for unloading passengers, gear and bikes, so these are pretty close to what you could expect from this proposal. How fast would the ride be? Some of the more popular destinations, as measured in travel time from Gateway:

These times are competitive with driving, and if the service seems surprisingly fast, that’s because there are few stops on any of the proposed lines compared to urban transit systems.

Transit Stops for Hikers

One of the unique considerations for recreation transit is providing shelter at the trailheads. While urban systems might be able to get by with a metal sign tacked to a phone pole, hikers would need more protection from the elements, especially if they arrive early for a return trip home.

The National Park Service sets the standard for transit shelters, with substantial, rustic designs in its major parks. Similar designs would make sense for the most popular trailheads like Angels Rest, Horsetail Falls or Mirror Lake.

National Park Service example of a more substantial transit shelter (NPS)

For less busy trailheads, a simpler design could work, though the purpose of the structure is as much psychological as practical: it protects you from the elements, while also reassuring you that the bus will stop when it comes by.

Some examples of more modest structures follow:

Rustic rural transit shelter in Great Britain (Wikipedia)

Simple covered picnic table that could serve as a basic trailhead transit shelter (Wikipedia)

One reason urban transit providers avoid shelters is the cost of maintaining them, given the sheer number of stops in an urban setting (TriMet maintains more than a thousand shelters). But in a recreation setting, the shelters serve anyone using a trailhead, which opens up a number of options for building and maintaining these facilities as multi-purpose shelters and interpretive stops.

What about the buses?

One of the persistent complaints about bus transit is simply the “closeness” factor, something modern urban buses have addressed in recent years with greatly improved ventilation and climate controls. Modern excursion coaches are even better, and the vehicles used in the Boot Loop would be like these vehicles — with coach seats, onboard restrooms and large cargo areas for bikes and packs. The tradeoff is seating capacity, with excursion buses generally carrying from 44 to 52 passengers.

All-electric urban transit vehicles are becoming affordable (Wikipedia)

Buses also don’t have to be loud and polluting, anymore. Around the world, transit providers are increasingly looking at alternatives to diesel buses, with Asia boldly leading the way. China used a fleet of 50 all-electric buses in the 2008 Olympics, bringing the technology into the forefront. Metropolitan Seoul, Korea now runs an all-electric fleet, and many other urban transit providers are moving toward electric vehicles.

All-electric excursion buses providing park transit in China (Wikipedia)

Current battery technology has extended the range of electric buses to almost 200 miles on a charge, easily meeting the requirements for the Boot Loop between charges. These vehicles are currently more expensive than diesel, but prices are coming down, and they have the advantage of zero emissions and much quieter operation — big advantages when operating in a natural environment.

What would it take?

So, what would it take to bring transit to Mount Hood? For starters, an understanding that no transit system pays for itself with fares, alone. Just as automobiles pay for a fraction of the roads they require, transit typically recovers about a third of the operating expense with fares. With that assumption as a starting point, you can scale the total system accordingly, based on a rough estimate of fares.

Let’s do the math: at peak operations, with eight buses carrying a full load of 44 passengers (based on the proposed schedule), the system could draw about 700 one-way fares on a summer weekend. If you figure about $10 for a one-way ticket (or $20 round trip per hiker), that would generate $7,000 toward the 36 total hours of bus operation per day needed to run the Boot Loop, or nearly $200 per operating hour.

With most urban transit systems running operating costs of less than $100 per hour, this rough calculation seems to leave a lot of room for less-than-full buses and the other expenses of running a system, assuming an operating subsidy similar to what urban transit receives.

Parking capacity is a major problem at many trailheads; transit could help reduce demand

Electric buses cost upwards of $500,000, and the Boot Loop would require eight (including a spare). Likewise, the system would require 30 new transit stops, some with sizable shelters. Thus, the front-end capital price tag to start up the system I’ve described here would easily be in the range of $5-7 million. This startup number sounds big, but in transportation dollars, it’s well within the realm of the possible.

But the real commitment in providing transit comes in the ongoing support for operations. That’s where a useful model comes from Timberline Lodge, another venture for the public good that requires ongoing public dollars and private support to exist.

The lodge is managed by a triad consisting of the U.S. Forest Service (which owns the lodge on behalf of the public), the RLK Company (which operates the lodge and ski resort), and the Friends of Timberline, a non-profit that advocates for the preservation of the structure. Together, these partners ensure that the public enjoys the successful operation of Timberline Lodge as a public/private endeavor as no single partner could.

Sleeping is the best way to travel (Wikimedia)

A similar model could work for the Boot Loop, with the Forest Service providing trailhead bus stop improvements, ODOT providing operating funds and vehicles, and a transit provider actually operating the system. TriMet could certainly operate it, but it could also fall to the City of Sandy’s SAM system to operate, or even a private operator. They key is an understanding by the partners that all three have a stake in providing successful transit — and this is where the Forest Service and ODOT still fall short.

Another core premise behind this proposal is that hikers and bikers may be more motivated to use transit than the public at large, for reasons ranging from personal ethics (a more sustainable way to travel), convenience (relax or even sleep to and from the trailhead) to simple economics (cheaper than driving, and no car at the trailhead to get looted). Is this premise true? There’s no way to answer that question, short of a thorough market study, but this article is intended to help the conversation along.

Transit does finally seem like the right solution at the right time for Mount Hood and the Gorge. If the demand is there, are ODOT and the Forest Service ready to step up? We’ll see.

After the Dollar Lake Fire

June 22, 2012

The Dollar Lake Fire from Bald Butte on September 3, 2011

On August 26, 2011, a lightning strike ignited what was to become the Dollar Lake Fire, on Mount Hood’s rugged north side. The fire started in the Coe Branch canyon, just below the Elk Cove trail, and was spotted by numerous hikers.

Initially, it seemed small and manageable. But over the next few days and weeks, arid conditions and strong winds spread the fire from Stranahan Ridge on the east to Cathedral Ridge on the northwest side of the mountain, eventually consuming some 6,300 acres of high elevation forest. The blaze burned through September and into early October, when fall rains finally arrived.

Hot spot erupts along Stranahan Ridge on September 3, 2011

Some of the burn was of the beneficial form, a mosaic fire leaving islands of surviving trees, but much of the fire was too hot and the accumulated forest fuel too plentiful to prevent devastating crown fires from sweeping across the forest. Eventually, the fire destroyed most of the standing timber and burned the forest duff down to mineral soil throughout most of the burn area.

The fire was contained entirely within the Mount Hood Wilderness, thanks to the recent Clear Branch additions that expanded the wilderness boundary on the north to encompass the Clear Branch valley and the high country surrounding Owl Point, to the north. While this complicated fire fighting, it has also created a living laboratory for forest recovery, as the USFS is unlikely to assist the reforestation process inside the wilderness boundary. The Forest Service map, below, shows the broad extent of the fire.

Final extent of the Dollar Lake Fire (outlined in red)

Though the fire burned to the tree line in several spots, a surprising amount of terrain along the iconic Timberline Trail was somehow spared. While the burn touched Elk Cove and Cairn Basin, WyEast Basin and Barrett Spur are well beyond the burned area. The Clear Branch wilderness additions to the north were mostly spared, as well.

The New Vista Ridge: After the Fire

The following is a photo essay from my first visit to the burn, on June 22, 2012, and is the first in what will eventually be a series of articles on the aftermath of the fire.

The devastation left by the fire is awesome to witness, but also starkly beautiful when you consider the context of a forest fire. After all, this event is part of the natural rhythm of the forest just as much as the changing of seasons.

From this point forward, we will have a front-row seat to the miracle of life returning to the fire zone, much as we’ve watched life return to the Mount St. Helens blast zone over the past 32 years. And as my photos show, the rebirth of the forest ecosystem has already begun on Mount Hood’s northern slopes.

Untouched trailhead at Vista Ridge.

From the Vista Ridge trailhead, I followed the Vista Ridge Trail to the snow line, above about 5,000 feet. The Vista Ridge trailhead is completely untouched, though the fire swept through a vast area immediately to the south. Yet, no sign of the fire is evident at the trailhead marker (above).

A bit further up the trail, at the Old Vista Ridge trailhead, the fire zone comes into view. Where green forests existed last summer, browned foliage and a burned forest floor spread out east of the junction. This fringe of the fire is of the healthy “mosaic” form, sparing large trees, while clearing accumulated forest debris.

Old Vista Ridge trailhead spared by fire… just barely.

An unexpected benefit of the fire came last fall, when the USFS added the long-neglected Old Vista Ridge trail to official agency fire maps (below) released to the public. Volunteers began restoring this beautiful trail in 2007, but formal acknowledgement of the route on USFS maps is a welcome development.

Welcome development: Old Vista Ridge trail reappears on USFS fire fighting maps

Clearly, the restoration of the Old Vista Ridge trail helped fire fighters reach this area, and could have served as a fire line had the blaze swept north, across the Clear Branch. Hopefully this is an indication that the Old Vista Ridge trail will someday reappear on the USFS maintenance schedule, too.

Turning south on the Vista Ridge trail from the Old Vista Ridge junction, the wilderness registration box and map board seem to have received divine intervention from the fire — the blaze burned within a few feet of the signs, yet spared both. From here, the Vista Ridge trail abruptly leaves the scorched fringe of the fire, and heads into the most devastated areas.

Vista Ridge trail signs were spared… by divine guidance?

A few yards up the Vista Ridge trail, the devastation quickly intensifies.

From about the 4,700 foot level, the Dollar Lake Fire burned the forests along Vista Ridge to bare earth. In this area, the entire forest crowned, leaving only a scattering of surviving trees where protected by topography or sheer luck. Forest understory, woody debris and duff burned to mineral soil, leaving a slick, muddy surface of ash. For those who have hiked through the previous Bluegrass Fire or Gnarl Fire zones on the east slopes of Mount Hood, this eerie scene is familiar.

The surprisingly intact trail curves through the devastated forests along Vista Ridge.

Crown fires have killed almost all of the standing forests along Vista Ridge.

Amid the devastation in this hottest part of the Dollar Lake Fire, signs of life are already emerging. At this elevation, one of the toughest survivors is beargrass, a member of the lily family with a deep rhizome that allows plants to survive even the hottest fires. These plants are normally evergreen, but were completely scorched in the fire. The new grown in this photo (below) has emerged this spring.

Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) emerges from underground rhizomes protected from the fire.

Another surprise is avalanche lily, one of the more delicate flowers in the subalpine ecosystem. Like beargrass, these plants survive thanks to a bulb located deep enough in the soil to escape the heat of the fire. As one of the early bloomers in the mountain forests, these plants area already forming bright green carpets in the sea of fire devastation (below).

Avalanche Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) emerging from the ashes.

A ribbon of green, these Avalanche Lilies are emerging along the Vista Ridge trail.

Another of the beneficial aspects of the fire comes into view a bit further up the trail: several sections of Vista Ridge had long been overgrown with thickets of overcrowded, stressed trees that were ripe for a burn.

Over the coming years, these areas are likely to evolve into beargrass and huckleberry meadows like those found at nearby Owl Point or along Zigzag Mountain, where fires have opened the landscape to sun-loving, early succession plants.

Unhealthy forest thickets cleared by fire — a beneficial outcome of the blaze.

One human artifact was uncovered by firefighters — a coil of what must be telephone cable (below). This is a first along the Vista Ridge trail, but makes sense given the insulators and cable found along the Old Vista Ridge trail.

It’s hard to know what this connected to, but on the north end, it served the old Perry Lake Guard Station and lookout, just east of Owl Point. It’s possible this line extended to the Bald Mountain lookout, though I have been unable to verify this on historic forest maps.

Telephone cable on Vista Ridge – gathered up and coiled by firefighters?

Though much of the devastation zone still consists of blackened trees and soil, some of the burned forest has begun to evolve into the uniquely attractive second phase. This happens when scorched bark peels away from trees to reveal the often beautiful, unburned wood beneath.

Soon, all of the trees in this forest will shed their bark. The skeletons of thousands of trees will emerge in colors of red, yellow and tan, then gradually fade to a bleached gray and white with time.

The burned trees of Vista Ridge are just beginning to shed their blackened bark, revealing beautiful trunks unscarred by the fire.

Mount Hood rises behind the new ghost forests of Vista Ridge

This second phase of the fire is helped along by winter snow. As the scene above shows, the freeze-thaw and compacting effects of the snow pack have already stripped many trees of their bark beneath the now-melted snowpack. Hot summer sun will continue this process, shrinking the remaining bark until it drops from the drying tree trunk.

This process of de-barking is the first in a post-fire sequence of events that will recycle much-needed organic matter to the forest floor. Twigs and tree limbs will soon fall, and over time, whole trees will begin to drop. This is a critical phase in stabilizing the forest soil, when low vegetation is still just beginning to re-establish in the fire zone.

Strips of tree bark are the first organic layer to accumulate on the floor of the burn zone.

The next few images show the extent of the Dollar Lake Fire, as viewed from Vista Ridge. To the east (below), The Pinnacle was mostly burned, but the fire somehow missed stand of trees just below the north summit.

These trees will play an important role in reforestation of the area, partly because so few trees survived the fire, but also because of their geographic location above the surrounding forest, where wind will widely scatter their seeds.

The Pinnacle, where a small grove of of trees on the north slope survived the fire.

To the south, the area above Elk Cove known as 99 Ridge (shown below) was partly spared, though the fire did scorch the east slopes of the ridge. From this side (to the west), the Timberline Trail corridor was almost completely spared. Ironically, Dollar Lake — the namesake for the fire — appears to have been spared, as well.

To the west of 99 Ridge, WyEast Basin was also spared, but the area along the Timberline Trail to the west of the basin, along the upper sections of Vista Ridge, was largely burned.

Forests along 99 Ridge were spared by the fire.

This panoramic view (below) encompasses the entire mid-section of the fire, from Stranahan Ridge on the horizon to Vista Ridge, on the right. This is a new viewpoint along a largely unnoticed rocky scarp on the east shoulder of Vista Ridge, now revealed thanks to the fire.

(Click here for a much larger panoramic view]

A Changed Landscape

Those who have explored Mount Hood’s north slopes over the years will surely mourn the loss of the beautiful forests of noble fir and mountain hemlock that once stood here — I certainly have. But this is also a chance to watch the ecosystem recover and restore itself over time, as it has for centuries. Among the surprising benefits are the new scenic vistas that are suddenly available, giving a bit more meaning to the name “Vista Ridge.”

The new views from Vista Ridge include Laurance Lake and Bald Butte, to the east.

By following the true ridge top of Vista Ridge, the new views extend east across Laurance Lake and the Clear Branch valley to Bald Butte and the Columbia Basin (above). Most of the area below the ridge is not burned, and this new perspective on the recent additions to the Mount Hood Wilderness is both unexpected and beautiful.

To the north, the new views include the rugged and little-known Owl Point area of the expanded Mount Hood Wilderness (reached by the Old Vista Ridge trail). Mount Adams rises in the distance, above the talus fields and meadows of Owl Point.

Owl Point and Mount Adams from newly revealed viewpoint on Vista Ridge.

This suddenly very scenic “true” ridge along the lower portion of Vista Ridge is easy enough to hike by simply following the ridge top where the existing trail heads into a narrow draw, about one-half mile from the Old Vista Ridge trail junction. It’s worth the visit if you’d like to inspect the scenery and Dollar Lake Fire up-close.

But in the spirit of recasting the Vista Ridge trail in the aftermath of the fire, and taking in these new views, now would be the perfect time to simply realign the trail along the ridge top. As shown on the map (below), this project could be done in a weekend by volunteers, if approved by the Forest Service.

(Click here for a larger map]

The fire has already done the heavy work of trail building by clearing the ground to mineral soil: designing and completing a realigned trail here would be quite straightforward. The slope of the ridge top, itself, is surprisingly gentle and would allow for an easy grade, similar to the current trail.

I hope to pitch this idea to the Forest Service, so if you’re interested in getting involved, watch the Portland Hikers forum for updates. That’s where volunteer work parties will be organized if there is interest from the USFS.

Until then, take the time to explore the fire zone, and watch the unfolding forest recovery firsthand. Visit the Portland Hikers Field Guide for directions to the Vista Ridge Trailhead.

Proposal: Waucoma Bicycle Backcountry

June 15, 2012

It’s no secret that mountain bikes have been relegated to second-class status when it comes to recreation trails. They’re not allowed in designated wilderness areas, and even with the special set-asides for mountain bikes called out in the recent Mount Hood Wilderness additions, the trail options around the mountain are limited.

It’s also true that bikes and hikers don’t always mix well. Since I’m both a hiker and cyclist, I’m probably more comfortable than most hikers when it comes to shared trails. I love to hike and bike the Surveyor’s Ridge Trail, for example, but most hikers shy away because of its popularity among mountain bikers.

The view toward Mount Hood from Blowdown Mountain

This article is a proposal for something a little different for mountain bikers: the concept is to convert fading logging roads in a scenic area directly adjacent to the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness to become a dedicated bicycle backcountry. In addition to providing an exciting set of mountain biking trails, the concept would specifically allow for bikepacking — overnight camping at a several destinations that would be bike-in, only.

Most importantly, this new destination would be close to both Portland and the mountain biking hub of Hood River, where bicycle tourism has become an important part of the recreation economy.

[click here for a large, printable map]

The best part of this proposal is that it wouldn’t take much to put the network together. Converting fading roads and constructing just 2.9 miles of new trail (shown in yellow on the map, above) would create a 25-mile bike network of bike-only trails (shown in blue) in an area with terrific scenery, creating as close to a wilderness experience as you can have while on two wheels.

The Proposal

The proposed bicycle backcountry would straddle the high country along Waucoma Ridge, about ten miles due north of Mount Hood. Two main trailheads would serve the backcountry: a new trailhead would be constructed in the headwaters valley of Divers Creek, serving as the primary entry into the bicycle backcountry. The existing Wahtum Lake trailhead would serve as overflow. Both are accessed on paved roads. A third, more remote trailhead would be located at the headwaters of Green Point Creek, accessed by a primitive road.

The view toward Indian Mountain from Waucoma Ridge

Trails

The proposed network has three kinds of bicycle facilities: converted logging roads (dashed blue on the map) functioning as single or dual track routes, new single track bike trails (dashed yellow) and striped bikeways (solid blue) on a short segment of paved Wahtum Lake Road that serves as a critical connection in the proposed network.

The focus of the network is on bicycle loop tours. From the proposed new trailhead, dozens of tour variations are possible, thanks to the dense network of old roads in this area, and the potential to connect and convert them. One out-and-back trail exists, following the Waucoma Road to Indian Mountain (under this proposal, the road would be gated to motor vehicles at the Wahtum Lake trailhead)

Washington’s big volcanoes fill the skyline on the slopes of Indian Mountain

The main focus of the new trail system would be Blowdown Mountain, a surprisingly rugged shield volcano whose gentle summit ridge belies a rugged east face, featuring a craggy volcanic plug rising above a series of forested glacial cirques. An attractive spur road traverses the entire summit ridge of Blowdown Mountain, and would form the spine of the trail network in this part of the bicycle backcountry.

Three small lakes are located in glacial cirques on the northeast flank of the mountain, and views from the high ridges include nearby Mount Hood, to the south, and the high peaks of the Hatfield Wilderness, to the north. The big Washington State volcanoes complete the scene on the northern skyline.

Spring wildflowers line the rustic route Indianhead Ridge with Mount Hood in the distance

The western part of the proposed network focuses on Indianhead Ridge, another high shoulder of the Waucoma Ridge complex, extending south toward the West Fork Hood River. The proposed trail network in this section would include extensive ridge top rides, with panoramic views of Mount Hood and the steep east face of Indian Mountain.

This part of the bicycle backcountry would also encompass the Waucoma Ridge Road, gating and converting the route to bike-only use except for Forest Service vehicles. The road leads through exceptionally scenic terrain, including the former lookout site on Indian Mountain, and fine views into the Eagle Creek valley, within the Hatfield Wilderness. The road, itself, forms the Hatfield Wilderness boundary.

Beautiful Scout Lake in the proposed Waucoma bicycle backcountry

This section of the proposal network also includes seldom-visited Scout Lake, a beautiful forest lake that has historically been stocked with brook trout by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

Campsites

Five bikepacking campsites are proposed along the new trail circuit. One is simply the existing Indian Springs Campground, an excellent but largely forgotten primitive campground in need of repair. New campsites would be located at Ottertail Lake, the Talus Pond near Gray Butte, Mosquito Lake and Scout Lake, with each offering 5-15 tent sites.

Unlike the nearby Hatfield Wilderness, bikepacking campsites in the new backcountry would feature rustic picnic tables, fire rings and secure hitching racks for bicycles — features that aren’t allowed in a wilderness area, but would be welcome additions in the bicycle backcountry.

Mosquito Lake basin from Blowdown Mountain, with Mt. Defiance and Mt. Adams in the distance

What would it take?

The viability of this proposal is in its simplicity: less than three miles of new trail would open a 25-mile network, with dozens of loop options that could be tailored to the ability of individual mountain bikers. Most of the work required could be done with the help of volunteers, from trail building and campsite development to signage and ongoing maintenance. Some heavy equipment would be required to develop the new, main trailhead and decommission vehicle access to converted roads.

The view across Ottertail Lake basin toward Tomlike Mountain and Mt. St. Helens

Of course, the proposal would also require the Mount Hood National Forest (MHNF) to fully devote the Waucoma Ridge area to quiet recreation. A few years ago, that would have been unlikely, but in recent years, the agency has not only adopted plans to phase out hundreds of miles of logging roads, but also a policy to focus OHV use in a few, very specific areas of the forest. The recent developments could move this proposal into the realm of the possible if sufficient support exists for a bicycle backcountry.

It would take dedicated support from the mountain biking community to make the case to the Forest Service, ideally in a partnership with the agency that would include volunteer support in developing the trail system.

Cyclist on the new Sandy Ridge trail system, an example of collaboration between the USFS and bicycle advocates (City of Sandy)

The good news is that mountain bicycling organizations are already working hard to develop trails elsewhere in the Mount Hood region (such as the Sandy Ridge trail complex, pictured above) and hopefully would find this proposal worth pursuing. If you’re a mountain biker, you can do your part by forwarding this article to like-minded enthusiasts, or your favorite mountain biking organization. It’s a great project just looking for a champion!
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Bikepacking Resources

Bikepacking.net is an online community that focuses on off-road touring, away from cars, with great information on gear, routes and trip planning.

The Adventure Cycling Association posted this helpful article on how to pack for your bikepack trip.

Another good article on what to pack for your bikepack on the WhileOutRiding.com blog.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association is the premier organization and advocate for backcountry bicycling.

In the Mount Hood region, the Northwest Trail Alliance is the IMBA Chapter doing the heavy-lifting on bicycle trail advocacy.

“Warren Falls, we’re ready for your close-up…”

May 20, 2012

On May 12, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s popular Oregon Field Guide program travelled to the site of Warren Falls to film a story on the unique history of Warren Creek: the odd 1939 highway department project that silenced the falls, and the potential for restoring the falls to its former grandeur.

Michael Bendixen and Vince Patton on the chilly January trip to Warren Falls

This was the second trip to Warren Falls for Oregon Field Guide producer Vince Patton and videographer Michael Bendixen. Both had joined me for a first look at the area on a particularly icy January day last winter when the Gorge was at its worst — freezing rain and sleet over a crusty layer of snow.

Our May 12 trip would prove to be the welcome opposite: unseasonably warm, summerlike conditions, with trails lined with ferns and wildflowers instead of snow. Along for the trip were PortlandHikers.org friends Adam Sawyer and Jamie Chabot, and Kristen Stallman and Andy Johnson, representing the ODOT team that is steering the Historic Columbia River Highway restoration project.

(from left) Adam, me, Andy, Jamie, Kristen, Vince and Michael at the trailhead

We met at the Starvation Creek trailhead at 9 AM, and loaded up our packs with OPB gear before making the short hike to Warren Falls. Along the way, the OPB team shot a few trail scenes, but were interested in getting to Warren Falls and Hole-in-the-Wall Falls while the morning light lasted.

Vince and Michael working at the mighty basalt wall formed by Warren Falls

We soon reached the massive amphitheater created by Warren Falls, where the OPB crew filmed the haunting scene of the silenced waterfall, marked only by the trail of moss that marks where the waterfall once flowed. The group spent some time here discussing the strange project that diverted Warren Creek in 1939, and the mechanics of the diversion tunnel and accompany flume that has long since disappeared.

Warren Creek had overflowed Warren Falls several times over the course of our wet winter, and there were obvious signs that a large amount of water had coursed down the old streambed. But on this day, the stream was dry, with the eerie quiet that now exists here.

Michael filming at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls

We backtracked to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls for another session of shooting. Here, the rest of the group visited while Michael and Vince captured several angles of the odd, accidental waterfall.

Adam, Andy, Jamie & Kristen at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls

For a good look at the bypass tunnel that creates Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, we moved to the knoll above the footbridge. From this spot, it’s easy to imagine the wood flume that once attached to the tunnel exit and carried Warren Creek over the old highway and railroad, all the way to the Columbia River. Only when the old flume disappeared was today’s man-made falls created.

Pointing out the man-made features of the upper portion of Hole-in-the-Wall Falls

A wood flume originally connected to the tunnel opening, carrying Warren Creek over the old highway and to the Columbia

Next, we hiked up the Starvation Ridge Trail, heading for the brink of Warren Falls, and the huge steel weir at the head of the diversion tunnel.

The original plan was to scramble down Warren Creek from the Starvation Ridge Trail ford for the quarter mile of bushwhacking required to reach the brink of the falls. But Kristen had been to the diversion structure a few days earlier with an ODOT engineering crew, and they had found a faint boot path that dropped more directly from the Starvation Ridge Trail.

We voted on the two options at the Starvation Creek ford: wet feet and a rock hop along the stream or pushing through a hillside of poison oak along the boot path? The poison oak option won the day!

Weighing the alternative routes at the upper Warren Creek crossing

We backtracked to the jump-off point for the boot path, descended through a manageable patch of poison oak, and soon found ourselves curving around a steep, grassy bluff hanging directly above the 120-foot cliffs of Warren Falls.

From here, a dramatic view of the massive Warren Creek diversion structure suddenly came into view, and the OPB crew set up to shoot the scene.

Rounding the approach to the brink of Warren Falls

Michael shoots the diversion structure from the cliff top above Warren Falls

The diversion structure is much larger up-close than the historic drawings or a glimpse from below the falls would suggest. The tilted weir is made from sixty 20-foot steel beams laid across a 28-foot wide trench carved into the cliff. Beneath the mesh of steel rails, the trench leads directly to the bypass tunnel.

A close-up view reveals at least half the weir to be filled with loose rubble, to the extent that it is lush with a strange hanging garden of wildflowers, A thicket of willow has even become established in the upper right corner of the weir, suspended 15 feet above the diversion tunnel, below. The forces of nature are taking back Warren Creek Falls, slowly but surely.

Vince takes in the huge steel weir that covers the diversion tunnel opening, rushing directly below him

The up-close view also shows most of the beams to be twisted and buckled with the ravages of time, thanks to rocks and debris getting lodged between the beams, and the effects of freeze-thaw cycles in the harsh Gorge winters.

Still, the overall structure represents an amazing ingenuity of design and construction detail to have lasted 73 years, but is still functioning as intended. While nature is clearly winning this battle, the persistence of the diversion project is silent tribute to the designers and builders who created these structures in 1939.

Jamie exploring the steel weir from below — the top of Warren Falls is few feet beyond

Jamie peers through the weir into the opening of the diversion tunnel, directly below

Vince found an opening in the upper corner of the weir, and set up a compact camera mounted on a short arm to film the scene below

The OBP team used a compact video camera mounted on an arm to shoot under the weir. Vince found an opening at the upper west corner of the weir that gave access to the view from below the steel beams.

From this angle, Vince was shooting just below the upper edge of the weir, where a 15-foot rubble and masonry dam was constructed across the creek to elevate the angle of the weir structure toward Warren Falls. For 73 years, this design has allowed for loose debris to roll off the weir and over the natural falls, while filtering the waters of Warren Creek through the weir into the bypass tunnel that now forms Hole-in-the-Wall Falls.

Vince filming the tunnel below the weir with the compact camera

Next, we moved to the top of the weir, crossing to the upper east corner of the structure. The view from the top of the weir looking over the brink of Warren Falls is impressive, as is the view toward the Columbia River. From here, Dog Mountain fills the horizon across the river.

But the fact that the river can clearly be seen from the brink makes a good case that Warren Falls was one of the “four cascades caused by small streams falling from the mountainsides” in Captain William Clark’s journal entry of October 29, 1805. The other three were presumably the nearby falls on Starvation Creek, Cabin Creek and Lancaster Falls on Wonder Creek.

Looking down Warren Falls from the top of the weir

Dog Mountain dominates the view from the top of the Warren Creek diversion dam

The view from the top of the weir shows more wear and tear on the structure: the mortared lip of the rubble dam is badly weathered, fully exposing the ends of many of the 60 steel beams that connect to it, with only a rusty bolt anchoring them to the masonry wall.

Here, the decay of the diversion system seems to be moving close to structural failure — another argument for an orderly removal of the weir, and restoration of Warren Falls before it becomes impossible to safely do so.

Close-up of the top of the weir shows the wear-and-tear of 70 years

Vince and Michael planning the shoot from the top of the Warren Falls diversion dam

Jamie helps Michael set up at the top of the diversion structure

The group settled in for a lengthy shoot at the top of the falls, where Michael and Vince worked to capture the setting, and the rest of the group enjoyed the sylvan scene along Warren Creek.

Michael shooting from midstream, at the brink…

Michael posing for a certain Oregon Field Guide fan!

It’s a long drop: Michael shooting from the top of the diversion

The OPB crew wrapped up the day’s shooting with a few interviews and reflections of the group on the diversion project, and the future of Warren Falls. We soon packed up the video gear, and started up the canyon slope for the trail.

Adam shooting the OPB crew… shooting Warren Falls…

On the trip back to the trailhead, we ran into several groups of curious hikers, all familiar with Oregon Field Guide and excited to meet the crew.

One young woman asked what we were filming, and I explained the story to her — and asked her to go to Restore Warren Falls! on Facebook. Later, she approached me at the trailhead, and asked “Why are you focusing on this when there are so many global issues facing the world?”

Jamie muggles the geocache at Warren Falls. We signed it “Oregon Field Guide”

At the time I was somewhat startled, and replied that the project to restore the Historic Columbia River Highway provided a unique opportunity for funding the restoration of Warren Falls — a good argument, and one she seemed to accept. But I wish I’d simply said “We have to start somewhere, and right now, this is as good a place as any!”

“I wondered why somebody didn’t do something. Then I realized, I am somebody.”

~Author Unknown

(Special thanks to the Vince, Michael, Jamie, Adam, Andy and especially Kristen for another great day imagining the past and future Warren Falls)

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Previous articles on restoring Warren Falls:

Restoring Warren Falls
Warren Falls Lives! (temporarily, at least)
Warren Falls Mystery… Solved!
Warren Falls Solutions
Warren Falls Lives… Again?

Restore Warren Falls! on Facebook

Warren Falls Lives… Again?

March 28, 2012

March 16 was a good day for Warren Falls: in the morning, the Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee (AC) allowed me time on their agenda for a second pitch to restore Warren Falls as part of the larger historic highway trail project. After the meeting, I visited Warren Falls and was able to capture it flowing, thanks to the unusually heavy rain we had experienced in early March. Here are the highlights:

HCRC Advisory Committee

Last summer, I made a pitch to the HCRC Advisory Committee (AC) to restore Warren Falls as part of the highway restoration project, and in my second appearance, was able to provide a much more polished case. The members of the AC were engaged and clearly interested in the idea, asking many questions after the presentation. However, they are also constrained by the tight budget and timeline they are working under to complete the highway restoration by the 2016 centennial of Samuel Lancaster’s “King of Roads.”

The HCRH trail design already includes a short trail and overlook at Warren Falls

The AC chair sent me a follow-up message after the meeting offering support for all of the proposals I had laid out at the meeting — except restoration of Warren Falls itself. While that last part was disappointing, it was helpful to at least have a sense of where the AC stood on the issue, since I can now focus efforts on finding the needed funding and perhaps a project partner for ODOT to pull off the Warren Falls restoration.

The good news is the AC is supportive of several accompanying proposals that I laid out in the presentation, including:

• designing the crossing of the original Warren Creek channel to resemble a “bridge” so that there will be a place for an interpretive panel describing the history of the area

• addition of a side trail to the original Warren Falls with an interpretive panel – albeit, with “volunteer work”

• Enhancing fish habitat downstream of Hole-in-the-Wall Falls as a proposed mitigation action related to construction of the next (unfunded) trail segment west of the Starvation-Lindsey segment currently being designed

• removal of invasive species in the area – mostly, English ivy, Himalayan blackberry and Scots broom.

So, despite the disappointment of not adding the falls restoration to the current ODOT project, the list of related restoration work supported by the AC is a big step forward. In their words, the AC is “supportive of [the] idea to bring water back to the original waterfall, but given our charge, we cannot offer any monetary or construction assistance”. A partial victory, to be sure, but also a challenge to help ODOT find funding for the Warren Falls restoration.

This historic streambed of Warren Creek, now permanently cut off from the stream, could have a “bridge-like” crossing and an interpretive sign describing the area history.

An interesting footnote to the meeting was a conversation I had afterward with a reader of this blog who had watched the presentation, and thought a much simpler solution was possible for restoring Warren Falls: simply pull out the “trash rack” grate, and let Warren Creek do the rest. The stream would surely plug the tunnel with debris and gradually start flowing over its original falls without an elaborate engineering solution for retiring the tunnel.

It’s a temptingly simple idea, and came from a person with a professional background as a hydrologist, no less. So, that scaled-back option will be my starting point as I look for additional funding for bringing back Warren Falls.

Warren Falls Lives!

After the HCRH Advisory Committee presentation, I bolted for the Starvation Creek trailhead, with a strong hunch that Warren Falls would be flowing that day. Despite the bright, blue skies on March 16, the previous week had seen an unusually cold and wet weather pattern, and the gorge waterfalls visible from the highway were roaring.

As hoped, when I arrived at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, part of Warren Creek was flowing down the normally dry channel that leads to Warren Falls. I captured the following video as I walked along the temporary stream, then rounded a corner to find water flowing over Warren Falls, once again. Warren Falls lives!

As with previous visits when Warren Falls was flowing, the experience was magical. Instead of hearing the echoes of trucks on I-84 in the dry amphitheater surrounding the falls, I could hear only the sound of Warren Creek — or the overflowing part of it, at least — cascading over the 120-foot brink of the falls, then splashing down the normally dry streambed to the point where it re-joins the main stream of Warren Creek, at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls.

This clip marks the moment when a large rock came over the falls, in the background… CRACK!

The video still image, above, marks a somewhat jarring moment on this visit, however: if you listen closely at 0:47 you can hear a CRACK! in the background, then an abrupt end to that clip in the video. This is the sound of a soccer ball-sized rock coming over the top of the falls — just as designed — and landing in the debris pile near the base. It was not only startling to hear this, but also a bit ominous, considering that on previous visits I had been standing at the base of the falls shooting video and still photos. If you visit when Warren Falls is flowing, please don’t stand near the base of the falls!

Finally, there was a pleasant surprise on the way out that day. For some reason I had never noticed, but the USFS trailhead sign at Starvation Creek (pictured at the top of this article) actually lists Warren Falls as a destination! Clearly, the Forest Service meant Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, but I choose to look upon the sign as a good omen that the real Warren Falls will be restored!

Friends for Warren Falls

My month of Warren Falls adventures continued on March 25, when I guided a Friends of the Gorge hike on a tour of the Starvation-area waterfalls, including a visit to Warren Falls. At 24 hikers, the group was by far the largest I have led to the falls site!

Friends of the Gorge hike visits the site of Warren Falls

Warren Falls was once again dry on this visit, but the group was fascinated by the odd history of the diversion project, the obvious signs that Warren Falls had recently flowed, and the magnificence of the massive basalt amphitheater that frames the falls.

Restore Warren Falls on Facebook

I’ve had many people ask how they can support the effort to restore Warren Falls. In response, I have finally set up a Facebook page for people to track progress on the project and vote their support for the idea:

Warren Falls on Facebook

You can help out by stopping by the Facebook page, like it, and then forward the web link to like-minded friends. If the project picks up enough “likes”, it will help me make the case to ODOT and elected officials that popular support exists for the project.


Thanks go out to those who have already stopped by the Facebook page, and thanks, especially, to Scott Cook for speaking out in support of Warren Falls at both HCRH Advisory Committee meetings — very much appreciated, Scott!

Please watch the Warren Falls page on Facebook for more updates on the project as the it unfolds over the next several months.


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