Posted tagged ‘Elk Cove’

2013 Mount Hood National Park Calendar

November 23, 2012

Each year at about this time I assemble the Mount Hood National Park Scenic Calendar. The proceeds are modest, but do help support the Mount Hood National Park Campaign website, WyEast Blog and related project expenses. But the main purpose is to simply promote the national park concept, and make the case for the campaign with pictures.

What the calendar looks like – oversized 11×17” pages you can actually use!

I’ve published the calendars since 2004, so this year’s calendar marks the ninth edition. All of the photos in the calendar are from trips and trails I’ve explored over the past year. I get a surprising number of questions about the photos, so in addition to simply announcing the 2013 calendar, this article tells a bit of the story behind the new images — and some are surprising!

The 2013 Scenes

The cover image for the 2013 calendar is Upper McCord Creek Falls, located just west of Cascade Locks. This is a popular destination for Columbia Gorge lovers, though often overshadowed by its more famous downstream sibling, Elowah Falls.

Cover Scene: Upper McCord Creek Falls

Upper McCord Falls is unique in that it flows as a twin cascade. A little known fact is that a third segment used to flow during the rainy season as recently as the 1970s, just to the left of the two segments shown in the photo (above). The third segment has since been blocked by stream debris, however, so for now, Upper McCord is best known as a twin cascade.

The falls is popular with photographers, but in 2010 was briefly obstructed by a large treetop that had split from atop a nearby maple, landing perfectly on its head, directly in front of the falls. While the local photography community simply grumped and groaned about this unfortunate development, Gorge waterfall explorer and photographer Zach Forsyth did something about it: he scrambled down the slope, and neatly tipped the 40-foot up-ended tree on its side. Thus, Zach made this year’s calendar cover possible – thanks, Zach!

Upper McCord Creek Falls with “the stump” in 2010

Upper McCord Creek Falls is tucked away in the hidden upper canyon of McCord Creek, just a few hundred yards from the brink of Elowah Falls. The trail to the upper falls is especially spectacular, following a ledge chiseled into sheer cliffs in the early 1900s to pipe water to the former Warrendale Cannery, below (portions of the pipe system can be seen along the trail). The falls is hidden from view until you abruptly arrive at the dramatic overlook, directly in front of the falls – one of the finest and most unexpected scenes in the Gorge.

The January calendar scene is a wintery view of the rugged west face of Mount Hood, just emerging from the clouds after a fresh snowfall. This view was captured just a few weeks ago near Lolo Pass, as the evening light was briefly catching the summit.

January Scene: West face after an early winter storm

Like most “mountain in the mist” images, this one was a reward for patience: I waited for two chilly hours for the clouds to clear! It worth the wait, though I’ve also had my share of disappointments when that glorious glimpse of the mountain didn’t materialize.

For the month of February, I picked an image from a trip last winter along the Little Zigzag River. I had planned to snowshoe to Little Zigzag Falls from the Kiwanis Camp, but there were only about 18 inches of snow on the ground, much of it fluffy and new. So, I simply trudged through leaving some very deep boot prints in my wake — and happily, the only footprints on the trail that afternoon.

February Scene: Little Zigzag River in winter

The weather was extremely cold on this visit, revealing one of the surprising effects of running water in winter: it turns out the sheer volume of relatively “warm” water (that is, above freezing) flowing down the Little Zigzag river actually heats the narrow canyon, much like an old steam radiator heats a room.

Following this radiator analogy, the temperate gradient is most noticeable when air temperatures are really cold. It was about 12º F that day, yet the air right next to the stream, and especially in front of Little Zigzag Falls measured in at a “balmy” 30º F. I found myself peeling off layers while shooting the stream and falls, only to hurriedly put them back on as I ventured back down the trail and into the real cold!

For the month of March I chose another waterfall scene, this time the lush, verdant base of popular Latourell Falls in the Columbia Gorge.

March Scene: Latourell Falls in spring

On this visit to the falls, Oregon State Parks construction crews were starting work on several major upgrades to viewpoints along this busy trail. As a result, the most popular trailhead at the Latourell Wayside was closed. Instead, I took a back route to the falls and had the place to myself for the better part of an hour — nearly unheard of on what should have been a busy spring weekend at Latourell Falls.

The April calendar scene is from Rowena Plateau at the McCall Preserve, in the dry, eastern Columbia Gorge. The iconic yellow balsamroot and blue lupine were in peak bloom on this sunny afternoon in mid-spring, and the glassy surface of the Columbia River in the background reveals a rare day of calm in the normally windy Gorge. The very tip of Mount Adams peeks over the hills on the horizon, on the Washington side of the river:

April Scene: Balsamroom and lupine on Rowena Plateau

The trip to Rowena was especially memorable for me, as I was hiking with an old college friend who was visiting Oregon for a few days. Rowena was a great place to catch up on news and old memories.

My friend also happens to be an eminent geologist working for the federal government, so we had a great conversation about the mystery of “desert mounds” (also known as “biscuit scablands”), which found on Rowena Plateau and in other areas in the Columbia Basin (watch for a future WyEast Blog article on this subject…).

Hikers passing one of the mysterious desert mounds on Rowena Plateau

Continuing the balsamroot-and-lupine theme, the May scene in the new calendar comes from Hood River Mountain, a tract of private land that is (for now) open to the public, but at risk of closure, due to heavy use by hikers.

This is one piece of land that will hopefully come into public ownership someday, before a less responsible private owner places trophy homes on these beautiful slopes. I wrote about this unfortunate oversight in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Act in this article from a few years ago.

May Scene: Hood River Mountain in May

On Memorial Day last spring, I made a trip to Dry Creek Falls, a beautiful waterfall saddled with one of the most unfortunate and uninspiring place names in the Gorge! The June calendar image is from that trip, and captures Dry Creek rambling through the forest a few hundred yards below the falls.

June Scene: (not so) Dry Creek in spring

This area has a unique history: an old, derelict diversion dam and waterworks survives at the base of the falls, where the City of Cascade Locks once tapped the stream for municipal water in decades past. Perhaps this is the origin of “Dry Creek” name — did the stream below the diversion actually go dry when the dam was installed? Perhaps, but today it flows year-round, and makes for a beautiful streamside hike in spring.

Dry Creek Falls and the remains of the old diversion dam and waterworks

The July scene in the 2013 calendar is from a trip to Elk Cove last August. This is one of my annual pilgrimages, and I have photographed this particular spot just east of Cove Creek too many times to count — yet I’m always excited to get there, and recapture the stunning scene.

July Scene: Summer wildflowers at Elk Cove

The wildflower bloom on Mount Hood was delayed by several weeks this year, so even though I was a bit late in visiting Elk Cove, there was still a bumper-crop of purple aster mixing with the blue lupine and mop-heads of western anemone, or Old Man of the Mountain.

Not visible in the calendar view of Elk Cove are the blackened forests directly behind me: the Dollar Fire of 2011 swept across a 5-mile swath along the northern foot of Mount Hood, charring the northern fringes of Elk Cove, including several large stands of mountain hemlock that frame the view from 99 Ridge.

The Dollar Fire burned a 5-mile swath across the north slope Mount Hood

Though it’s initially shocking to see healthy forests killed by fire, it is also part of the natural cycle of forest renewal. Thus, we’ll now have a front-row seat to the fire recovery process that will unfold over the coming years along the popular north side trails. I wrote this blog article on the Dollar Fire earlier this year.

For the August calendar image, I picked a less familiar scene from an otherwise popular hike: the soaring trail to the 8,514’ summit of Cooper Spur. To beat the crowds, I set my alarm for 3 AM and raced to the trailhead at Cloud Cap. I was the first to arrive at the string of dramatic viewpoints along the trail, and caught the first rays of sun lighting up the northeast face of the mountain.

August Scene: Eliot Glacier from Cooper Spur

This view is from the north shoulder of Cooper Spur, just below the summit, and looking into the impressive jumble of crevasses and icefalls along the Eliot Glacier. Though the sky was crystal clear (you can see the moon setting to the left of the mountain), the winds from the south were strong and blustery. So, getting this shot from the lee side of the spur also meant enjoying some respite from the intense wind and blowing volcanic grit.

For the September image, I selected a lesser-known view of the mountain: the remote and rugged Newton Canyon, on the southeast side, where Mount Hood has a broad, massive profile.

September Scene: Rugged Newton Creek Canyon on the east side of Mount Hood

Glacial Newton Creek is best known for the havoc it brings far below, where the stream has repeatedly washed out Highway 35 with violent debris flows that toss Toyota-size boulders and whole trees across the road in their wake. Construction crews were busy this summer completing yet another repair, this time for damage that occurred in the 2006 floods. As always, the new road is bigger and higher than the old. We’ll see if Newton Creek is persuaded to flow through the new series of larger flood culverts this time…

The October scene is from Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek, a popular family hike that also provides terrific viewing of spawning salmon and steelhead in early autumn.

October Scene: Wahclella Falls in autumn

Fall colors were somewhat muted in 2012, thanks to an unusually long, dry summer that extended well into October. As a result, the broadleaf trees in many areas had already dropped a lot of leaves due to the stress of the drought, before they would even have a change to change with the seasons.

While fall colors at Tanner Creek were less affected by the summer drought, the autumn scene in this year’s calendar has to make due without without the help of the particular tree, the Wahclella Maple I wrote about earlier this year. You can see the hole it left by comparing this year’s image (above) and a 2010 image (below).

Wahclella Falls in 2010 with the Wahclella Maple still standing above the footbridge

Since 2007, I’ve made annual trips with friends and volunteers to tend to the Old Vista Ridge Trail on the north side of Mount Hood. This historic gem from the early 1900s was an overgrown, forgotten victim of the Forest Service clear-cutting juggernaut for some 40 years, but somehow managed to escape their chainsaws.

Volunteers re-opened the Old Vista Ridge Trail in 2007, spurred in part by a Forest Service scheme to turn the area into a playground for dirt bikes and ATVs — an appalling plan that was eventually abandoned, in part because the rediscovered trail had revealed the beauty of the area to so many.

In 2010, the trail became the official northern boundary of the expanded Mount Hood Wilderness, when President Obama signed a new wilderness bill into law. This change should close the door on future Forest Service threats to the area, and today the hike into one of the best on the mountain.

November Scene: Mount Hood from Owl Point

The November calendar scene is from a viewpoint along the Old Vista Ridge Trail known as Owl Point, the rocky outcrop with stunning views of the mountain. Bright red huckleberries light up the foreground in this scene, and the first dusting of snow highlights the mountain. In the distance, you can also pick out the browned forests on the slopes of Mount Hood, where the Dollar Fire swept across the base of the mountain in 2011.

The final image in the new calendar is another taken from Lolo Pass, perhaps one of the most spectacular views of Mount Hood. This image was taken just before sundown after a fresh snowfall had blanketed the mountain.

December Scene: Winter arrives at Lolo Pass

I paid the price for taking in the sunset that night at Lolo Pass, as my car was broken into at the trailhead – something I’d somehow managed to avoid in all my years of hiking! As frustrating as it was to deal with the repairs and lost belongings… I’d do it all over again just to spend those magical hours watching the mountain that night — it was truly breathtaking! Here, take a closer look, and see for yourself:

Mount Hood from Lolo Pass | 2012
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The thirteen images I chose for the 2013 calendar are from a few thousand images I’ve taken this year on something just shy of 40 outings to Mount Hood and the Gorge — a bit less time on the trail than a typical year would allow, but no complaints! As always, these adventures took me to new places and discoveries, as well as fond visits to my favorite old haunts.

And as always, the magnificent scenery further confirmed my conviction that Mount Hood should (and will!) be set aside as our next National Park! Hopefully, the calendar makes the case, as well.

How can you get one, you ask?

The new calendars are available online:

2013 Mount Hood National Park Calendar at CafePress

They are large and functional, measuring 17” across by 22” tall when hung, with plenty of room for writing notes and scheduling activities. CafePress packages them carefully, with each calendar sealed against a corrugated cardboard backing for support.

The calendars sell for $29.99 + shipping, with about 25% of the proceeds going to support the Mount Hood National Park Campaign. They make terrific stocking stuffers (…although you’ll need an 11×17” stocking…), and CafePress now makes it even easier by offering PayPal as an option.

And as always, thanks for your support!
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Addendum: Gorge uber-Guru Scott Cook set me straight on a couple of comments in the above article:

Hey Tom, so of course I read your blog like a good Gorge denizen. A couple of points…I’m not trying to sound like a know-it-all…but I know that you do like to get at the bottom of things and eschew conjecture:

The pipes visible on the Upper McCord trail are from Myron Kelly’s pulp mill, not Warren’s cannery. There are some pix on my blog of Kelly’s mill and iterations of his pipes. I have another old pic too showing the pipe running along the cliff cleft, illustrating to me that the cleft was a pipeway instead of a WPA/CCC construction.

2013MHNPCalendar16
(author’s note: here’s a photo I shared with Scott that shows CCC crews clearing out the old waterline shelf to make way for the trail to Upper McCord Falls — note the Historic Columbia River Highway, far below, and the CCC crew bosses in full uniform)

…and, about Dry Creek falls, the Creek was called Dry Creek before the water works were installed. The reason is that just downstream of the PCT trail bridge, just down the access road 200yards, the creek dries up in the summer to nothing, just a dry creek bed as the creek goes subterranean until re-emerging downstream of the powerline corridor.

If you walk down the access road in the summer, the stream is of course flowing under the bridge, but when you walk downstream the sound goes away and you just figure the stream curved away from the road, but nope, if you bushwhack over just 100 feet you’ll see the dry stream…as you will if you continue down the access road also.

Down the (Dry Creek) access road is a bunker-looking building that was built in the 30’s to store the water from the stream’s waterworks for the city’s first municipal supply. The water shed is still in use today, but the water is pumped upwards into it from wells in the town below.

Next edition of Curious I’ll have Dry Creek Falls as a loop using the powerline access road…so people can learn the history and see the Dried-up Creek as well (cuz everyone loves a loop). Look for my pix on Google Earth of all this stuff and the dried-up creek. -Scott

Thanks, Scott!

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: Elk Cove to Pinnacle Ridge Connector

January 23, 2011

This proposal calls for a new trail connector linking the historic Elk Cove Trail (No. 631) and little-used Pinnacle Ridge Trail (No. 630) on Mount Hood’s rugged north side. This new connector would create a new 9.3 mile hiking loop that could serve as a strenuous day trip for experienced hikers, or an easy overnighter for casual hikers and families.

The new trail would also allow for eventual decommissioning of at least nine miles of deteriorating logging roads (shown in yellow on the maps that follow), as the new connector would provide access to both trails from the lower Elk Cove trailhead at Pinnacle Creek, on Forest Road 2840. In this way, the proposal not only provides an ecological net benefit in restoring the area from its logging heyday, but also pays for itself in reduced life-cycle costs for forest infrastructure.

About half the nine miles of logging roads already fall within the newly expanded Mount Hood Wilderness, so will probably be abandoned without formal decommissioning by the Forest Service.

However, a substantial portion of the old road system falls outside the wilderness boundary, within the Pinnacle Creek drainage. Without the wilderness restrictions, this portion could be decommissioned using traditional machinery, thus providing a significant ecological benefit for the watershed. This would be important in any watershed, but is especially important here, where Pinnacle Creek forms a critical spawning ground for Clear Branch Bull Trout, a local species whose status the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife described in 2006 as “highly precarious”.

Clear Branch Bull Trout (ODFW)

Part of the old logging network also includes the first mile of “trail” that currently leads to Elk Cove. In the late 1990s, the Forest Service relocated the Elk Cove Trailhead to the current location when Pinnacle Creek washed out the road where it crossed the stream. Since then, a footbridge has replaced the old road over the creek, and the “trail” has been an increasingly brushy, mile-long walk up the truncated road on the opposite side.

This messy section of “trail” is a reminder that road-to-trail conversions may seem an attractive bargain in the short run, but are often substandard for the outdoor experience they provide. Worse, over the long-term they can become brushy thickets of alder and willow, making them more costly to maintain than a traditional trail built under established forest canopy.

Overgrown “trail” to Elk Cove is actually a road

This proposal also responds to a road closure project floated by the Forest Service in early 2010 to “provide public access to the Pinnacle Ridge and Elk Cove trails after Road 2840 is decommissioned near Kinnikinnick campground.” The Forest Service project would close Road 2840, converting much of it to trail, and thus adding another mile of road walking to the Elk Cove Trail in the process. Worse, a full 3.5 miles of road walking would be required to reach the current Pinnacle Ridge Trailhead.

In both cases, this amount of road walking is an unacceptable way to provide a quality wilderness experience on two important gateways into the Mount Hood Wilderness. The proposal in this article was submitted to the Forest Service as an alternative, however, the Forest Service project has since been withdrawn, according to their website. Hopefully, this will provide more time to make the case for a better trail solution, since their own watershed management plans call for eventual closure of most logging roads in the area (more about that, later).

What Would it Look Like?

The proposed new trail would begin at the existing Elk Cove Trailhead, along the banks of Pinnacle Creek (see map, below). Though the trailhead, itself, is not in need of significant improvements, the informal campground at the trailhead would be formalized as a tent camping area under the proposal. This would allow for weekend or overnight visitors from Portland or points beyond to arrive late, spend the night at the trailhead, and begin day or backpack trips early the next day.

(click here for larger map)

Where the existing Elk Cove Trail currently heads east, up the truncated Road 650, the proposed new Pinnacle Creek Trail would instead follow rushing Pinnacle Creek southwest for 0.9 miles to a new junction, where a pair of new connections would climb east to the Elk Cove Trail, and west to Pinnacle Ridge Trail. (shown in red on the map, above). The new Pinnacle Ridge Trail would need to sidestep old clearcuts on both sides of the creek, but would easily fit within the intact forest of the riparian corridor, providing a quality, streamside hike.

The second map (below) shows how the new connector trails would create a 9.3 mile Elk Cove to Pinnacle Ridge loop for day hikes and overnight trips, with campsites at Elk Cove, Dollar Lake and WyEast Basin. The new loop opportunity would not only make better use of the lightly used Elk Cove and Pinnacle Ridge trails, but also provide a north side access alternative to the very heavily used trailheads at Vista Ridge and Cloud Cap.

(click here for larger map)

For accessibility, the Elk Cove trailhead has the added advantage of being reached mostly on paved roads, with only the final mile on an unpaved road. This represents a substantial improvement over the long, rough ride required to reach both Cloud Cap and Vista Ridge.

The new connector trails would also provide an important aesthetic improvement to the logging road trudge along the first mile of the Elk Cove Trail — a disheartening way to begin (and end) what is otherwise a premier alpine hike.

Mount Hood from the dramatic Coe Overlook

These new trails would also provide a higher quality day hike to the little-known Coe Overlook for less experienced hikers, with a 2.3 mile, 1,500 foot climb from the trailhead to the viewpoint. This moderate hike would feature a mile of streamside hiking, virgin subalpine forests and the spectacular view of the north face that the viewpoint offers.

What Would it Take?

This new trail proposal could be largely designed and built by volunteers. Access to the work site is easy, and open from late April through early November, providing an extended season for volunteer workers. The added benefit of linking the trail project to road decommissioning would make this an excellent candidate for groups like Trailkepers of Oregon to consider.

Logistically, the lower Pinnacle Creek valley is located outside the Mount Hood Wilderness, allowing volunteers to use power equipment for trail construction, where needed, with few limitations on trail structures (such as bridges).

Elk Cove Trail at Pinnacle Creek

At this time, it is unclear why the Forest Service has withdrawn their proposal to close and convert Road 2840 to a trail, since the project was driven by a watershed restoration mandate. But if the project is reactivated, we can all have an impact on the reconfigured trail system by weighing in — and simply forwarding this alternative proposal is a way to achieve much better results.

In the meantime, both trails are well worth the extra effort needed to reach the trailheads if you are looking for a different approach to Mount Hood’s north side. Both are described in the Portland Hikers Field Guide:

Elk Cove Hike

Pinnacle Ridge to Elk Cove Hike

Depending on how the snowpack shapes up this year, both trails should be open by mid-July, and provide a great way to visit the mountain! Meanwhile, watch this blog for further Forest Service developments in the Pinnacle Creek area, and opportunities to weigh in.

Building the Timberline Trail

November 24, 2010

The McNeil Point Shelter.

For decades, hikers and backpackers have taken Mount Hood’s famous Timberline Trail for granted — and why not? It was one of the earliest alpine hiking trails in the American West, and seems to have evolved with the mountain itself.

But the story of the trail is one of an original vision that has been realized in fits and starts, and the story is still unfolding.

The first recreational trail on Mount Hood followed the South Eliot Moraine from Cloud Cap Inn to Cooper Spur, as shown on this 1911 map.

The first modern trail on Mount Hood was established in 1885, beginning at David Rose Cooper’s tent camp hotel, located near the present-day Cloud Cap Inn. The route followed the south Eliot Moraine to his namesake Cooper Spur. Soon thereafter, the Langille family would lead hikes and climbs on this route from the new Cloud Cap Inn, completed in 1889.

The Langilles also established a route from Cloud Cap to Elk Cove for their visitors, completing another section of what would someday become the Timberline Trail.

Hikers climbing toward Cooper Spur along one of the original sections of the Timberline Trail.

The route remains a popular trail, today, though it has never been formally adopted or maintained by the Forest Service. The first leg of this trail briefly functioned as a segment of the Timberline Trail, thanks to a temporary re-routing in the mid-2000s (more about that, later).

The significance of the original Cooper Spur trail is that it was built entirely for recreational purposes, the first such route on the mountain.

Camp Blossom was built some fifty years before Timberline Lodge was opened in 1938, but established the same network of trails that have since served the lodge.

Other hiking routes soon followed on the south side of the mountain, connecting the former Camp Blossom to nearby Paradise Park and the White River canyon. Camp Blossom was built by a “Judge Blossom” in 1888 to cater to tourists. The camp was at the end of a new wagon road from Government Camp, and located near present-day Timberline Lodge. It was eventually replaced by the Timberline Cabin (1916), and later, Timberline Lodge (1938).

The informal network of alpine trails radiating from Camp Blossom in the late 1800s still forms the framework of trails we use today. This is especially true for the nearly 7 miles of trail from White River to Paradise Park, which largely defined the Timberline Trail alignment in this section.

By the 1920s, the Langille family had developed trails from their Cloud Cap Inn to nearby Elk Cove (1924 USGS map).

By the 1920s, the Mazamas and other local outdoor clubs were pushing for more recreation facilities around the mountain, and public interest in a round-the-mountain trail was growing.

By this time, new Forest Service trails had been built on the north side of the mountain from the Clear Branch valley to Elk Cove and along Vista Ridge to WyEast Basin. These trails were connected at timberline (with a spur to Dollar Lake), creating another segment of what was to become the Timberline Trail. Combined with the route from Cloud Cap to Elk Cove, nearly 8 miles of the future Timberline Trail had been built on the north side of the mountain by the 1920s.

By the 1920s, the Vista Ridge and Elk Cove trails were established, extending the emerging Timberline Trail from Cloud Cap to Eden Park (1924 USGS map).

The Timberline Trail is Born

The concept of a complete loop around the mountain finally came together in the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery program, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), brought the needed manpower and financial resources to the project.

The CCC completed the new 37.6 mile Timberline Trail in 1934, stitching together the existing north side and south side trails, and covering completely new terrain on the remote west and east sides of the mountain.

The venerable Cooper Spur shelter still stands on the slopes above Cloud Cap, maintained by volunteers.

The Corps built a generous tread for the time in anticipation of heavy recreation use. The new trail was built 4 feet wide in forested areas, 2 feet wide in open terrain, and gently graded for easy hiking.

The trail was marked by square cedar posts placed at rectangular intervals over open country and by blazes in forested areas. Many of the distinctive trail posts survive between Cloud Cap and Gnarl Ridge, mounted in huge cairns.

Shelters were built along the trail by the CCC crews as a place for hikers to camp and rest, and as protection against sudden storms. Most are of the same stone design, with a small fireplace and chimney. They were built with steel rafters instead of wood so that the structures, themselves, would not be used as firewood in the treeless high country, and also to withstand heavy winter snows. Of the six original stone structures, only those at McNeil Point, Cairn Basin and Cooper Spur survive (see large version of map, below).

Map of the completed Timberline Trail and CCC era shelters.

(Click here for a large map)

Three wood structures were also built along lower sections of trail, at Ramona Falls, Bald Mountain and Elk Meadows. Of the three, only the rapidly deteriorating structure at Elk Meadows survives.

The completed trail featured a couple of oddities: the McNeil Point shelter had been constructed on a high bluff above the Muddy Fork that was eventually left off the final trail alignment, due to concerns about maintaining the trail at this elevation. Today, thousands of hikers nevertheless use the partially completed trail each year to reach the historic shelter and spectacular viewpoint.

Curiously, the shelter at Elk Meadows was also built off the main loop, perhaps because at the time, the meadows were seen as much a place to graze packhorses as for their scenic value. Like McNeil Point, this “forgotten” shelter continues to be a very popular stop for hikers, today.

This 1921 map shows the Oregon Skyline Trail terminating at Mount Hood, before construction of the Timberline Trail. Note the early Bull Run Reserve encompassing the entire west side of the mountain.

By the late 1930s, much of the new Timberline Trail had also been designated as an extension of the Oregon Skyline Trail — according to maps from the time (above), the Skyline had previously terminated on the slopes of Mount Hood, above Government Camp.

The expanded Skyline Trail arrived at the Timberline Trail from the south, near Timberline Lodge, turned east and traced the new Timberline Trail counter-clockwise around the mountain before descending to Lolo Pass, then headed north to Lost Lake and the Columbia Gorge.

1970s Trail Renaissance

A third major era of trail construction on the mountain came in the 1960s and 1970s, when several major re-routes of the Timberline Trail were built.

By the early 1960s, the Oregon Skyline Trail had been relocated to the west side of the mountain, following the Timberline Trail from Timberline Lodge north to the Bald Mountain Shelter, then on to Lolo Pass.

By the time the Pacific Crest Trail was established in the 1968 National Trails Act, absorbing the old Skyline Trail, a new route across the Muddy Fork canyon was in the works for the Timberline Trail.

The Cairn Basin stone shelter is the best-preserved of the CCC-era structures, thanks to more protection from the elements than most of the original buildings.

By the early 1970s, this new section rounded Yocum Ridge from Ramona Falls, crossed both branches of the Muddy Fork, then ascended to the steep meadows of Bald Mountain, one of the most popular Timberline Trail destinations today.

The new Muddy Fork segment is now part of the Timberline Trail loop, with the Pacific Crest Trail following the old Timberline Trail/Oregon Skyline Trail alignment. Though less scenic, the old route is more direct and reliable for through hikers and horses.

In contrast, the scenic new route for the Timberline Trail has been a challenge for the Forest Service to keep open, with the Muddy Fork regularly changing channels, and avalanche chutes on the valley walls taking out sections of trail, as well.

Going, going… this view from the slowly collapsing Elk Meadows shelter will soon be a memory. This is the only remaining wood shelter of three that were built by the CCC.

In the 1970s, a section of trail descending the east wall of Zigzag Canyon was also relocated, presumably as part of meeting Pacific Crest Trail design standards. While the old route traversed open, loose slopes of sand and boulders, the new trail ducks below the tree line, descending through forest in gentle switchbacks to the Zigzag River crossing of today.

At Paradise Park, a “low route” was built below the main meadow complex, and the headwater cliffs of Rushing Water Creek. Like the Zigzag Canyon reroute, the Paradise Park bypass was presumably built to PCT standards, which among other requirements, are intended to accommodate horses.

The north side of the mountain also saw major changes in the early 1970s. The original Timberline Trail had descended from Cathedral Ridge to Eden Park, before climbing around Vista Ridge and up to WyEast Basin. The new route skips Eden Park, traveling through Cairn Basin, instead, and climbing high over the crest of Vista Ridge before dropping to WyEast Basin.

Beautiful meadow views line the “new” Vista Ridge trail section completed in the early 1970s.

Finally, a section of trail near Dollar Lake was moved upslope, shortening the hike to the lake by a few hundred yards, and creating the sweeping views to the north that hikers now enjoy from open talus slopes east of Dollar Lake. Just beyond Dollar Lake junction, the descent into Elk Cove was also rebuilt, with today’s long, single switchback replacing a total of six on the old trail which descended more sharply into the cove.

In each case, the new trail segments from the early 1970s are notable for their well-graded design and longer, gentler switchbacks. While the main intent of the trail designers was an improved Timberline Trail, the new segments also created a numerous new routes for day hikers who could follow new and old trail segments to form hiking loops. These loops are among the most popular hikes on the mountain today.

The Future?

The retreat of Mount Hood’s glaciers in recent years has destabilized the outwash canyons, and in the past two decades, massive debris flows have buried highways and scoured out streambeds. One of the oldest segments of the Timberline Trail, near Cloud Cap, has been disrupted by washouts for nearly a decade, and is now completely closed, thanks to a huge washout on the Eliot Branch in 2007.

Sign from the first re-route, posted in 2001. Now the trail is completely closed at the Eliot Branch.

The Forest Service has since struggled to find funding to reconnect the trail at the Eliot Branch. The first washout moved the stream crossing uphill, taking advantage of the original Cooper Spur path established in the 1880s, then crossing to a parallel climbers path on the north moraine of the Eliot Glacier.

This temporary crossing lasted a for a few years in the early 2000s before the massive washout in 2007 permanently erased this section of trail. This portion of the loop as since been completely closed, though hundreds of hikers each summer continue to cross this extremely unstable, very dangerous terrain.

Site of the Eliot Branch washout and closure -- and the risky route hikers are taking, anyway.

The growing volatility of the glacial streams will ultimately claim other sections of trail, creating an ongoing challenge for the Forest Service to keep the Timberline Trail open each summer.

If repairing the washouts along the trail were as costly as those along the nearby Mount Hood Loop Highway, then there might be some question of whether it makes sense to keep the trail open. After all, millions of dollars are being spent this year to rebuild the Mount Hood Highway bridge over White River, yet again, in an area that has had repeated washouts.

Hikers crossing the Eliot Branch before the 2007 washout.

By comparison, a wilderness trail is exceptionally cheap to build, and much less constrained by topographical or environmental concerns than a road. It really just comes down to money and priorities, and the Forest Service simply doesn’t have the funding to keep pace with the growing needs of the Timberline Trail. With even a modest increase in funding, the trail can be rebuilt and adapted to periodic washouts, or other natural disturbances.

Speaking Up

One way to have an impact on the funding situation for the Timberline Trail is to weigh in with your Congressman and Senators. While the current political climate says that earmarks are dead, history tells us otherwise: ask for an earmark for the Timberline Trail. After all, the trail is historic and an international draw that brings tourists from around the world to help boost local economies.

If you’re not an earmark fan, then you can argue for an across-the-board funding boost for forest trails as a job-producing priority in the federal budget. A ten-fold increase over current levels would be lost in rounding areas in the context of the massive federal budget.

Yet another angle are the health benefits that trails provide, particularly given the federal government’s newly expanded interest in public health. This is emerging as the best reason to begin investing in trails, once again.

Hikers negotiating the Muddy Fork crossing after the 2002 debris flow swept through the canyon.

Of particular interest is the fact that Oregon Congressmen Earl Blumenauer and Greg Walden actually hiked the loop, just before the 2007 Eliot Branch washout. One is a Democrat, the other Republican, so you can cover your bipartisan bases with an e-mail both! They share the mountain, with the congressional district boundary running right down the middle, so both have an interest in the Timberline Trail.

Finally, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden championed expanded wilderness for the Mount Hood area for years, and President Obama finally signed the bill into law earlier this year. So, another angle is to argue for the needed funding to support trail maintenance in these new wilderness areas, especially since they will require more costly, manual maintenance now.

It really makes a difference to weigh in, plus it feels good to advocate for trails with your Congressional delegation. Here’s a handy resource page for contacting these representatives, and the rest of the Oregon delegation:

Here’s how to send an e-mail to Congress

Thanks in advance for making your voice heard!


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