Posted tagged ‘Forest Service’

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!

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

BillyBob05

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.

BillyBob14

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.

Mount Hood Loop Interpretive Signs

March 2, 2013
Original “Historic Oregon” sign at Barlow Pass in the 1940s (Wikimedia Commons)

Original “Historic Oregon” sign at Barlow Pass in the 1940s (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the unexpected discoveries in launching the Mount Hood National Park Campaign in 2004 was the surprising number of people who think our mountain and gorge are already protected as a national park!

This tragic misconception is shared by newbies and natives, alike, so my conclusion is that it comes from the “park-like” visual cues along the Mount Hood Loop: the historic lodges, rustic stone work and graceful bridges along the old highway. There is also a surprising (if disjointed) collection of interpretive signs that you might expect to find in a bona fide national park.

The new (or restored?) sign at Barlow Pass in 2010

The new (or restored?) sign at Barlow Pass in 2010

The interpretive signs around Mount Hood are an eclectic mish-mash of survivors from various public and private efforts over the years to tell the human and natural history of the area.

The oldest signs tell the story of the Barlow Road, the miserable mountain gauntlet that marked the end of the Oregon Trail. The above images show one of the best known of these early signs, a mammoth carved relief that stands at Barlow Pass (the current sign appears to be a reproduction of the original).

Less elaborate signs and monuments of assorted vintage and styles are sprinkled along the old Barlow Road route wherever it comes close to the modern loop highway: Summit Prairie, Pioneer Woman’s Gravel, Laurel Hill.

More recently, the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks have been adding much-needed interpretive signage along the Historic Columbia River Highway (as described in this article), an encouraging new trend.

Oregon State Parks interpretive panels are showing out throughout the Gorge

Oregon State Parks interpretive panels are showing out throughout the Gorge

Thus, I was thrilled when the Forest Service Center for Design and Interpretation in McCall, Idaho contacted me last year about a new series of roadside signs planned for the Mount Hood Loop. They had seen my photos online, and were looking for some very specific locations and subjects.

In the end, the project team picked eight of my images to be included on a series of four interpretive signs. The following is a preview of the signs, and some of the story behind the project. The new signs should be installed soon, and hopefully will survive at least a few seasons on the mountain!

The Signs

The first installation will be placed somewhere along the Salmon River Road, probably near the Salmon River trailhead. This sign focuses on fisheries and the role of the Sandy River system as an unimpeded spawning stream for salmon and steelhead.

This sign will appear near the Salmon River (USFS)

This sign will appear near the Salmon River (USFS)

(click here for a large view)

Part of the narrative for this sign focuses on the removal of the Marmot and Little Sandy dams, a nice milestone in connecting the network of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the Sandy watershed to the Columbia. A PGE photo of the Marmot Dam demolition in 2007 is included on the display, along with river scenes of the Sandy and Salmon. The Salmon River image on the first sign is the only one I captured specifically for the project, in early 2012. It’s a rainy winter scene along the Old Salmon River Trail.

The second sign will be placed at the Little Zigzag trailhead, located along a section of the original Mount Hood Loop highway at the base of the Laurel Hill Grade. The site already has an interpretive sign, so I’m not sure if this is an addition or replacement for the existing (and somewhat weather-worn) installation.

This sign will be located at the Little Zigzag trailhead (USFS)

This sign will be located at the Little Zigzag trailhead (USFS)

(click here for a large view)

The content of the Little Zigzag sign is unique, launching into a surprisingly scientific explanation of how the negative ions created by streams and waterfalls feed your brain to give you a natural high! Not your everyday interpretive sign..! It also includes a decent trail map describing the hike to Little Zigzag falls, as well as other trails in the area.

The Forest Service used several of my images on this sign: views of Little Zigzag Falls, the Little Zigzag River and several botanical shots are incorporated into the layout.

The Little Zigzag Falls image has a bit of a back story: the Forest Service designers couldn’t take their eyes off a log sticking up from the left tier of the falls. To them, it looked like some sort of flaw in the image. I offered to edit it out, and after much debate, they decided to go ahead and use the “improved” scene. While I was at it, I also clipped off a twig on the right tier of the falls. Both edits can be seen on the large image, below:

USFS_Panel_1a

(click here for a larger image)

I should note that I rarely edit features out of a photo — and only when the element in question is something ephemeral, anyway: loose branches, logs, or other debris, mostly… and sometimes the occasional hiker (or dog) that walks into a scene!

The third sign will be installed at the popular Mirror Lake trailhead, near Government Camp. Like the Little Zigzag sign, this panel has a trail map and hike description for Mirror Lake and Tom Dick and Harry Mountain.

A nice touch on Mirror Lake sign is the shout-out to the Children & Nature Network, a public-private collaborative promoting kids in the outdoors. I can’t think of a better trail for this message, as Mirror Lake has long been a “gateway” trail where countless visitors to Mount Hood have had their first real hiking experience.

This sign will be at the Mirror Lake trailhead (USFS)

This sign will be at the Mirror Lake trailhead (USFS)

(click here for a large view)

The Forest Service team used a couple of my photos in the Mirror Lake layout: a summertime shot of the lake with Tom Dick and Harry Mountain in the background, and a family at the edge of the lake, and a second “classic” view of alpenglow on Mount Hood from the lakeshore.

The fourth sign in the series focuses on geology. Surprisingly, it’s not aimed at familiar south side volcanic features like Crater Rock — a theme that was called out in some of the early materials the Forest Service sent me. Instead, this panel describes huge Newton Clark Ridge, and will apparently be installed at the Bennett Pass parking area.

This sign is planned for Bennett Pass (USFS)

This sign is planned for Bennett Pass (USFS)

(click here for a large view)

In a previous blog article, I argue Newton Clark Ridge to be a medial moraine, as opposed to currently accepted theory of a pyroclastic flow deposited on top of a glacier. The Forest Service interpretive panel mostly goes with the conventional pyroclastic flow theory, but hedges a bit, describing it as “remnant” of two glaciers… which sounds more like a medial moraine!

The Newton Clark Ridge sign also includes a description of the many debris flows that have rearranged Highway 35 over the past few decades (and will continue to). One missed opportunity is to have included some of the spectacular flood images that ODOT and Forest Service crews captured after the last event, like this 2006 photo of Highway 35 taken just east of Bennett Pass:

Missed opportunity: photo of the 2006 Newton Creek Floods (USFS)

Missed opportunity: photo of the 2006 Newton Creek Floods (USFS)

The Forest Service used two of my photos for this sign, both taken from viewpoints along the old Bennett Pass Road, about two miles south of the parking area. One wrinkle in how well this sign actually works for visitors is the fact that Newton-Clark Ridge is only partially visible from the Bennett Pass parking lot, whereas it is very prominent from the viewpoints located to the south. Maybe this was the point of using the photos?

The real Newton Clark (1837-1918)

The real Newton Clark (1837-1918)

There is also a glitch in this panel that I failed to catch during the production phase: the hyphen between “Newton” and “Clark” in the title and throughout the text. There’s a lot of confusion about this point, but it turns out that Newton Clark was one person, not two: a decorated Civil War veteran who fought at Shiloh and Vicksburg, among many prominent battles, then moved to the Hood River Valley in 1887, where he was a local surveyor, farmer and early explorer of Mount Hood’s backcountry.

Newton Clark was part of the first white party to visit (and name) Lost Lake, and today’s Newton Clark Glacier and nearby Surveyors Ridge are named for him. The confusion comes from the subsequent naming of the two major streams that flow from the Newton Clark Glacier as “Clark Creek” and “Newton Creek”, suggesting two different namesakes. Hopefully, the local Forest Service staff caught this one before the actual sign was produced!

Strange Bedfellows?

I was somewhat torn as to whether to post this article, as it goes without saying that the WyEast Blog and Mount Hood National Park Campaign are not exactly open love letters to the U.S. Forest Service. So, why did I participate in their interpretive sign project?

First, it wasn’t for the money – there wasn’t any, and I didn’t add a dime to the federal deficit! I don’t sell any of my photos, though I do regularly donate them to friendly causes. So, even though the Forest Service did offer to pay for the images, they weren’t for sale.

One that won’t be built? This sign was originally conceived for Buzzard Point, near Barlow Pass, but it’s not clear if it made the final cut (USFS)

One that won’t be built? This sign was originally conceived for Buzzard Point, near Barlow Pass, but it’s not clear if it made the final cut (USFS)

(click here for a large version)

In this case, once I understood the purpose of the project, it quickly moved into the “worthy cause” column, and I offered to donate whatever images the Forest Service could use, provided I see the context — and now you have, too, in this preview of the new signs!

I will also point out that the Forest Service project staff were terrific to work with, and very dedicated to making a positive difference. We’re fortunate to have them in public service, and that’s a genuine comment, despite my critiques of the agency, as a whole.

Here’s a little secret about the crazy-quilt-bureaucracy that is the Forest Service: within the ranks, there are a lot of professionals who are equally frustrated with the agency’s legacy of mismanagement. While I may differ on the ability of the agency to actually be reformed, I do commend their commitment to somehow making it work. I wish them well in their efforts, and when possible, I celebrate their efforts on this blog.

So you want to change the Forest Service from within..?

1960s visitors in Glacier National Park (NPS)

1960s visitors in Glacier National Park (NPS)

Given the frustrating peril of good sailors aboard a sinking ship, it turns out there are some great options for supporting those in the Forest Service ranks seeking to make a positive difference. So, I thought I would close this article by profiling a couple of non-profit advocacy organizations with a specific mission of promoting sustainable land management and improving the visitor experience on our public lands. I hope you will take a look at what they do, and consider supporting them if you’re of like mind:

USFS_Panel_7

The National Association for Interpretation (NAI) is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) involved in the interpretation of natural and cultural heritage resources in settings such as national parks, forests, museums, nature centers and historical sites. Their membership includes more than 5,000 volunteers and professionals in over 30 countries.

Original “Historic Oregon” sign at Barlow Pass in the 1940s (Wikimedia Commons)

Original “Historic Oregon” sign at Barlow Pass in the 1940s (Wikimedia Commons)

The Forest Service has a conservation watchdog group all its own, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) based right here in Oregon. Their mission is to protect our national forests and to reform the U.S. Forest Service by advocating environmental ethics, educating citizens, and defending whistleblowers. The FSEEE membership is made up of thousands of concerned citizens, former and present Forest Service employees, other public land resource managers, and activists working to change the Forest Service’s basic land management philosophy.

I take great comfort in simply knowing that both organizations exist, and are actively keeping an eye on the Forest Service… from within!

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!

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.

The Tollgate Maples… and the Highway

July 17, 2011

The two remaining Tollgate maples

Last week, the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) jointly announced that the main trunk of one of two remaining Barlow Road Tollgate heritage maple trees would be coming down soon:

“A 130-year-old bigleaf maple, which marks the spot of the western-most tollgate of the historic Barlow Road, has substantial decay and poses a hazard to travelers on U.S. Highway 26 (Mt. Hood Highway). The tree is planned to be felled within the next three weeks.”

(download the press release here)

On its face, the decision is both reasonable and expected. The maples were planted in the 1880s by tollgate keeper Daniel Parker, and have lived the typical lifespan of our native bigleaf maple. A third maple apparently survived until the mid-1990s, and along with the tree that will soon be removed, framed the old tollhouse that once stood on the north side of the tollgate (where the highway is located, now).

The large trunk on the right will be removed, but the three smaller trunks on the left will be spared

The good news is that the tree will live on, through suckers that have grown to become three separate trunks – a typical form for bigleaf maples. From the press release:

“The old bigleaf maple to be felled has several stems: a main stem, with a diameter of 25 inches, and three smaller 4- to 6-inch diameter stems growing from the base of the trunk. These three smaller stems, each about 25 feet tall, will be untouched by the project, while the decaying main stem will be reduced to a height of two to three feet.”

Hopefully the companion tree on the south side of the gate will also survive through new stems someday growing from its base. This is the larger of the two trees, and because of its distance from the highway, will be allowed to grow undisturbed.

The remaining maple is far enough from the road that it will be allowed to remain, undisturbed

As trees around Mount Hood go, the two maples at Tollgate aren’t particularly remarkable — there are plenty of larger, older and more impressive bigleaf maple trees growing in less traveled areas of the surrounding forests. The uniqueness of these trees, of course, is the tie to the Oregon Trail, itself, a piece of Amercian history that is deeply embedded in our cultural identity.

Sam Barlow’s Road

Most Oregonians know the story of Sam Barlow, and his daring expedition over the shoulder of Mount Hood with Joel Palmer in the fall of 1845, in search of a land route through the Cascades.

Sam Barlow and his legendary road

By 1846, the route the two men had scouted and led their own wagons over had become a business venture for Barlow: a notoriously rough toll road that thousands of Oregon settlers would travel over in the years that followed. Many described it as the worst part of their 2,000-mile journey.

The tollgate site marked by the twin maples was the final location of at least five tollgate sites that existed along the Barlow Road over the years, with this final tollgate operating from 1883 to 1918. The gatekeeper charged $5 per wagon, with smaller fees for livestock, foot travelers and even the first automobile, which arrived at the tollgate in 1903. This was a handsome price in its day, but for most travelers, it was also a one-time charge on the way to the Willamette Valley.

The Tollgate wayside fronts one of the few remaining Highway 26 segments that has remained largely unchanged little since the first highway was built in the 1920s

As the toll road era faded away in the early 1900s, plans for the first loop highway around the mountain were underway, and much of the new route followed the original Barlow Road when first leg was completed in the 1920s.

Because the Barlow Road had a number of evolving alignments over the years, many traces of the route survived the highway-building era, and can still be seen today. The original loop highway was used through the 1950s, and was then replaced with the modern alignment we know today.

The Future of Barlow Road… and Highway 26?

The tentative tone in the opening paragraph if this article stems from the terrible record ODOT and the Forest Service have in protecting the historic, scenic and environmental legacy of the Barlow Road corridor.

Highway 26 “improvement” just east of Tollgate in 2004

While the Forest Service and ODOT have made a reasonable case for removing the heritage maple at the Tollgate site, the agency has a long history of aggressive, senseless tree removals along the Mount Hood Loop. Most of this sad legacy stems from ODOT’s unstated objective to widen the highway to four lanes through the entire Mount Hood corridor at all costs — usually cloaked as a “safety” or “preservation” projects to ensure that their policy makers and the general public don’t get in the way of the underlying road widening mission that continues to drive the agency.

One strategy used by highway engineers to ease the path toward eventual road widening is to cut trees way back along highway sections in advance, as a divide-and-conquer strategy. The goal is to avoid jeopardizing a future road-widening project with public outcry over tree removal.

This practice is also rationalized under the “safety” banner, but actually encourage speeding by removing the traffic calming effect that a tree canopy creates. The use of street trees and landscaping in urban areas to discourage speeding is a widespread and fully accepted practice in the modern transportation design, but clearly hasn’t penetrated the ODOT offices yet.

Highway 35 “improvement” currently underway near Hood River Meadows is predictably cutting trees back from the roadway

In 2004, ODOT cleared the shoulders along several sections of US 26 in the vicinity of the Tollgate site, and one concern in hearing the news of the heritage tree is that this project is a precursor to tree removal along this final stretch of mostly original highway, where big trees still grow near the road.

The unstated ODOT mission to widen the loop highway to an urban freeway standard is described in detail in these earlier WyEast Blog articles:

• Highway 26 Widening – Part One

• Highway 26 Widening Projects – Part Two

• Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

Unfortunately, the projects described in these articles continue to advance, with a few cosmetic details thrown in to keep them moving. Sadly, they represent almost $30 million in public dollars that will make the highway a lot more like an urban freeway, while ignoring their own consultant recommendations for far less costly, more effective safety solutions.

The first phase of ODOT’s “safety and preservation” work is slated to begin just east of Tollgate this summer, and — right on schedule — the project has already been “updated” to include widening for a new westbound travel lane, along with “separate projects to remove select trees for safety reasons.” Just as predicted.

A New Vision for the Mount Hood Loop

The beautiful wayside at Tollgate is a great example of the very kind of feature that ought to be the focus of a tourism-oriented highway design along the Mount Hood Loop. Yet ODOT is about to make changes to the highway that will make it much less friendly for visitors. Is there an alternative?

1950s Mount Hood Loop wayside at White River

In a coming piece, I’ll present a different vision for the Mount Hood Loop that rejects the current ODOT plans for road widening, and the dubious “safety” claims that ODOT officials are using to cloak nearly $30 million in projects that will turn the corridor into a freeway.

This alternative vision will offer a less costly, sustainable long-term design that actually IS safer, and also much more enjoyable for the visitors to the mountain that drive the local economy.

Blazes!

February 13, 2011

Trail blazing is the ancient practice of marking paths with a system of symbols to help travelers navigate, and since the rise of recreational hiking in the 1800s, has been adapted to foot trails. Blazes are generally placed at eye-level, and spaced frequently enough to reassure hikers of the route.

In other parts of the country, where trails often cross private lands and many are maintained by hiking clubs, blazes can take the form of painted dots and symbols or small signs or medallions attached to trees, with hundreds of localized variations. These symbols are easy for volunteers to maintain, and often lend their design to the trail name (e.g., the “White Cross”, “Red Dot” and “White Cross” trails in New Hampshire’s White Mountains)

In the Pacific Northwest, where most of our hiking is on public lands, we are used to the standard Forest Service tree blazes that still mark most of our trails (like the one pictured at the top of this article). Though the practice of chopping blazes into trees has long been discontinued out of consideration for trees and trail aesthetics, many of the original blazes still remain, decades later.

Where trails leave the forest canopy, many Northwest trails are marked with stone cairns, such as along Gunsight Ridge (above) near Mount Hood. Along Mount Hood’s famous Timberline trail, cairns along the high eastern section are further accented by 6x6x8 cedar posts (below) that have been gracefully carved by the elements over the years.

Today, the legacy of Pacific Northwest trail blazing is fading quickly, as most blazes were made at least 50 years ago, and some as much as a century ago. The example below, on Mount Hood, is from a standing snag that tells a familiar story: the tree survived the initial blaze marks for many years — long enough to heal — before finally dying and losing its bark, revealing the layers of blaze-scarred wood, beneath.

Most northwest trees large enough to withstand a blaze are very large, long-lived species, so there are also countless examples of blazes that have simply been swallowed up by successive seasons of growth. With a sharp eye, you can often spot examples like the one below, where only the healed-over scar of the blaze remains. This tree has nearly erased the blaze scars that were likely made in the 1930s or 40s, but could easily thrive and grow for another century or more.

The Forest Service Standard

By the 1930s, the Forest Service had established a simple standard for blazes that is responsible for the thousands of blaze remnants that we see today. The Forest Service blaze consisted of an 8” rectangle topped by a 2” rectangle, forming the familiar upside-down exclamation mark that we still find on our trails. The width of the rectangles was determined by the width of an axe blade, roughly 4” across.

The following instructional diagram is from a Forest Service trail manual dating to the 1930s, and provided the basics for the thousands of young Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers who flooded the nation’s forests and parks during the Depression, building trails, campgrounds and roads.

As the diagram (above) shows, the Forest Service blaze was designed for speed, with trail crews quickly working their way along paths, blazing as they went. The crews of the 1930s covered thousands of miles of trails, as the trail network of the day was more than twice what survives today.

The following is another schematic from the same manual, providing more tips for the CCC crews on how to cut blazes:

Though most of our trail blazes in the Pacific Northwest follow this standard (or use cairns in open areas), one notable exception exists that is closer to the Eastern system of customized trail icons: the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Throughout its length, the trail is marked with the familiar triangular shield (below), though the old-style metal PCT signs still survive in many sections of the trail.

The PCT sign is an accepted Forest Service standard, and it makes sense that an iconic sign is warranted, as most of the PCT is stitched together from the cobweb of forest trails that existed prior to the PCT, making for many potentially confusing junctions along the way.

There are also a few local trails in our region that carry an iconic, themed logo that follows the Eastern style, thanks to the work of a few volunteers in the 1970s and 80s. Most notable among them was Basil W. Clark, who not only helped build new trails, but also created illustrated signs for them, such as the “Chetwoot Loop” sign, below:

Clark’s whimsical icon signs also appeared at Devils Rest and Trapper Creek, as well as other spots in the Gorge, and a few still remain today, providing a charming, rustic feel that is unique to these spots. Click here for an early 1980s Oregonian tribute to Clark.

A Future for Themed Blazes?

Chopping blazes into living trees is now a relic of the past, but is there a future for more contemporary blazes along our forest trails? After all, we have only a few decades left before all traces of this earlier era are erased, and trails will be completely reliant on other forms of signage and markings.

One route that could benefit from an iconic, tailored blaze sign is the Timberline Trail. The system of cairns built in the most alpine sections are a good start, but along the rest of the route, there are many spots where the web of intersecting approach routes make it confusing to know if you are still on the loop trail. The Timberline Trail has a couple of easy options for a blaze theme — the Timberline Lodge logo (below, left) or perhaps a CCC-based logo (below, right), given the unique history of the trail.

Other candidates could be the simple loop paths that circle Lost Lake and Trillium Lake, two of Mount Hood’s most visited destinations. Both have thousands of newbie hikers visiting them in the course of a year, many hiking for the very first time. Both trails also have a maze of unofficial, unmarked fisherman and campground paths that can make staying on the loop trail confusing, so a system of blaze signs would provide a useful function.

How might this come about?

As Basil Clark proved, themed blazes are a perfect project for volunteers, from designing and creating the signs, to providing the ongoing installation and maintenance inherent to trail signage. Perhaps trail organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon, the Mazamas or the Trails Club of Oregon would jump at the opportunity to provide this service?

As always, one way you can help is to propose this idea (or any others you might have) to the Forest Service through their online suggestion box.

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!

Flag Point Lookout

October 22, 2010

In the early days at the turn of the 20th Century, the U.S. Forest Service was primarily a security force, tasked with guarding our public lands from timber thieves and squatters. This role expanded to include fire suppression in the early 1900s, a move that we see today as ecologically disastrous, but at the time, responded to massive fires destroying living trees that were valued in board feet, not biology.

The most enduring legacy from this era was the construction of thousands of fire lookouts, hundreds of forest guard stations and a sprawling network connecting trails and primitive dirt roads.

Though the lookouts and guard stations are mostly gone, the trail network still survives as the backbone of today’s recreation trail system. A few trails still lead to surviving lookouts scattered across the country. This article describes one such survivor, the Flag Point Lookout, located at 5,636 feet on a rocky, flat-topped bluff two miles east of Lookout Mountain.

The primitive road to Flag Point is surrounded on three sides by the Badger Creek Wilderness

The Flag Point Lookout is unique in that it continues to serve as an active fire lookout during the summer. The view from the lookout surveys a broad sweep of the eastern slopes of Lookout Mountain, far into the Eastern Oregon sagebrush and ranchland, and south into the rugged Badger Creek Wilderness.

The second structure on Flag Point was this L-4 cabin constructed in 1932, and later replaced by the current structure

Since the establishment of the Badger Creek Wilderness in 1984, The Flag Point lookout and the long, rugged 1930s-era dirt road leading to it have been surrounded on three sides by federally protected wilderness (The same 1984 legislation left two other surviving lookouts in the Mount Hood area, the Devils Peak and Bull of the Woods towers, inside new wilderness areas, where they are now maintained by volunteers as hiking destinations).

The first lookout structure at Flag Point was a six-foot square cabin on a 40-foot pole tower, built in 1924. It must have been terrifying in rough conditions, and was soon replaced with the popular L-4 style cabin (pictured above) on a 30-foot pole tower in 1932, a design that was found across Oregon.

Later improvements to the second tower were made in 1955, and a series of outbuildings were added over the years, replacing the original tent camp that accompanied the first structure.

The current lookout tower and outbuildings at Flag Point

In 1973, the third and current lookout structure was built — an R-6 flat top cabin on a 41-foot tower constructed of sturdy, pressure-treated cross-timbers. Like many lookouts, the structure is primarily held in place by stay cables, and simply rests upon its four concrete foundation feet.

Though the current structure is still too young to be listed on the National Historic Register, it has been listed on the National Lookout Register. It will become eligible for the historic register in just 13 years, in 2023.

Amazingly, the tower is anchored by cables, and simply sits upon its four foundation piers

The Flag Point Lookout is also notable for the remarkable forest ecosystem that surrounds it, where stands of fir and mountain hemlock blend with western larch and ponderosa as east meets west. The rain shadow effect of the Cascade Range is plainly visible from Flag Point, where the sweeping view extends far into the sagebrush deserts of Eastern Oregon.

Ironically, these are fire forests, an ecosystem that has specifically evolved around wildfire cycles, and thus have suffered greatly from the well-intended “protection” from fire that the lookouts have provided. Today, natural fires in the Badger Creek Wilderness are likely to be allowed to burn, with the Forest Service intervening only when homes or private property outside the wilderness are threatened.

The plank staircases are beautifully constructed with rabbet and dado joints, and enclosed with galvanized steel mesh

Beneath the forest canopy, the wildflowers of Flag Point are as diverse as the conifers, with mountain and desert species mingling in the sunny, open meadows. The Divide Trail, connecting Flag Point to Lookout Mountain, provides one of the best wildflower hikes in the region in early summer, traversing through miles of meadows and rock gardens along the way.

Flag Point was an important forest destination in its time, and still serves as the hub for several forest trails that are a legacy of the early lookout era. In addition to the Divide Trail, the lookout has trails radiating to Ball Point, Gordon Butte and Badger Creek. Today, most visitors to the lookout arrive via the access road, but hikers and horse packers also regularly visit the lookout from this network of wilderness trails.

The key to the design of the Flag Point tower is a sturdy maze of treated cross-timbers

The cabin atop the Flag Point lookout consists of a 14-by-14 foot interior, surrounded by an airy exterior catwalk. Steel mesh fills the gap between catwalk railings, adding some degree of confidence for vertiginous visitors.

The small cabin is furnished with a bed, a wood stove for heat, gas cook stove, table and chair, and a solar lighting system — a modern amenity that early lookouts couldn’t have imagined.

Looking east, the view extends beyond the Cascades and across the Oregon desert country (USFS Photo)

At the center of the cabin is a map table that echoes the original Osborne fire finders used to pinpoint fire locations. Outside, a rope and pulley system is used to haul supplies and firewood to the catwalk from the base of the tower.

Water for drinking, cooking and washing must be hauled in to the tower by truck, though early lookouts simply carried water from the nearby Sunrise and Sunset springs. Outbuildings include an outhouse, woodshed and an A-frame communications shack has been added to the west of the tower.

The view to the west provides a spectacular look at Mount Hood and nearby Lookout Mountain (USFS Photo)

Visiting the Lookout

Anyone can visit the Flag Point Lookout by simply parking at the locked gate, and hiking about one quarter mile to the lookout complex. The tower is generally staffed from June 1 through October 15, so be courteous and let the lookout know you’re visiting before climbing the tower. If you’re lucky, the lookout will be on site and invite you up for a tour. If the tower is closed, you can still climb to the lower catwalk for a close-up look at the structure, and views of the surrounding terrain.

The Flag Point lookout also makes for an interesting add-on to the Divide Trail hike to Lookout Mountain. You can simply hike to the lookout along the Flag Point Road from the Divide Trail (about 3/4 mile each way), or shuttle your car to the gate, saving about a mile of road hiking, round-trip.

In winter, the Forest Service rents the lookout cabin to skiers looking for a rugged, remote experience. Of the handful of lookouts open as winter rentals, the Flag Point Lookout is one of the most challenging to reach. You can learn more about winter rentals at the lookout here.

Relic from a bygone era, this 1940s DeSoto is slowly fading into the forest near Flag Point, where it was mysteriously parked decades ago

How to Get There

Reaching the lookout is an adventure in its own right. The last few miles of forest roads are generally open from June through October. From Portland, drive east on US 26 through Government Camp, then follow Highway 35 across the White River, and down the East Fork Hood River valley, beyond the Meadows ski resort.

Turn east (right) on Road 44, where signs point to Dufur and Camp Baldwin, and follow this paved road for 8 miles to the poorly marked junction with Road 4420. Turn south (right) and follow this paved forest road as it eventually curves past the Fifteenmile Campground. Just beyond the sharp bend at the campground, watch for dirt road No. 200, heading abruptly uphill and to the right. This is the Flag Point road, and it bumps along for the next 3.5 miles to the lookout gate. Parking is available near the gate.

Note: unfortunately, the Forest Service has recently ditched this road with a series of water bars that make for very slow going, and make the trip a rough ride for passenger vehicles – take it slowly!

Proposal: Cooper Springs Trail

September 19, 2010

Cairns with cedar posts mark the way on the slopes below Cooper Spur.

One of the memorable highlights along the Timberline Trail is the starkly beautiful section between Gnarl Ridge and Cloud Cap, high on the broad east shoulder of the mountain. Here, the trail crests its highest point, at 7,335 feet, as it traverses the tundra slopes of Cooper Spur more than a thousand feet above the tree line.

However, the spectacular elevation of the Cooper Spur section is also its Achilles heel, since hikers attempting the Timberline Trail must cross a series of steep snowfields here. In most years this entire section is snowed in through late July, and some sections of trail appear to be permanently snow-covered.

Looking north along the Timberline Trail along the slopes of Cooper Spur

The trail builders constructed a series of huge cairns to mark the way through this rugged landscape, yet the snowfield crossings continue to present both a risk and route-finding obstacle to most hikers, especially in early summer. The Timberline Trail continues to draw hikers from around the world in ever-growing numbers, so an alternative route seems in order to ensure that the around-the-mountain experience continues to be world class for all visitors.

The Proposal

To provide a more reliable alternative for this segment, a new, parallel trail is proposed as part of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign. The new route would be about a mile to the east, at roughly the 6,200’ level, just below the tree line. For early season hikers, or simply those not up to the rugged combination of elevation, rock and snow on the existing trail, this new route would provide a more manageable alternative.

This new 3.5-mile route would still connect Cloud Cap to Lamberson Butte, but at a lower elevation. As shown on the map below, the proposed Cooper Springs Trail (in red) would depart from the current Timberline Trail (in green) at the current Cooper Spur junction on the north, and rejoin the Timberline Trail just below Lamberson Butte, to the south.

Click here for a large map

This option would add about a half-mile to the around-the-mountain trip, but would also save about 800’ of elevation gain, as measured in the traditional clockwise direction on the Timberline Trail. In fact, the new Cooper Springs Trail would actually drop 200’ in elevation from Cooper Spur Junction to Lamberson Spur.

This new trail wouldn’t be a formal segment of the Timberline Trail, but simply a hiking option, just as other parallel routes to the Timberline Trail already allow at Umbrella Falls, Paradise Park, Muddy Fork and Eden Park.

Today, these complementary routes along other sections of the Timberline Trail not only allow for interesting loops and less crowded conditions for hikers, they also provide detour options when trail closures occur — as happened recently along the Muddy Fork, where hikers were able to use a parallel route to avoid washouts on the main trail.

What Hikers Would See

The northern segment of the new Cooper Springs Trail would make a gradual descent from the existing 4-way junction of the Cooper Spur, Tilly Jane and Timberline trails to the tree line, curving through a series of small headwater canyons that eventually feed into Polallie Canyon. This section would cross the first of several small streams along the new route.

The northern section of the new trail from above the Timberline Trail, as viewed from the slopes of Cooper Spur.

Click here for a large map

Soon the new route would cross a sharp ridge, where under this proposal it would intersect with an extension of the Lamberson Spur Trail. This trail is an odd anomaly: the route is marked and maintained where it leaves the Cold Spring Creek Trail, but mysteriously dies out on a ridge about a mile below the tree line. A few adventurous hikers continue cross-country from this abrupt terminus to the Timberline Trail each year, but under this proposal, the Lamberson Spur Trail would be formally connected to the new Cooper Springs Trail. This new segment is shown in yellow on photo schematic, above.

Extending the Lamberson Spur route to the new Cooper Springs Trail would entail about a mile of new trail, but would be an important piece in linking the new Cooper Springs route to the existing network of trails along Cold Spring Creek and Bluegrass Ridge, to the east. Together, this network of trails could provide an important, less crowded overnight or backpacking experience than is possible on the more heavily visited sides of the mountain.

Beyond the proposed Lamberson Spur junction, the middle section of the new Cooper Springs Trail would pass through an especially interesting landscape. Here, a series of dramatic cliff-edged bluffs and talus slopes frame the view of Mount Hood and Cooper Spur, looming above, while the trail would cross through groves of ancient mountain hemlock.

The middle section of the new trail would traverse a series of little known canyons and cliff-topped bluffs below Cooper Spur.

Click here for a large map

This section of the new trail would also provide a close-up look at the aftermath of the Gnarl Fire, which burned a large swath of forest along the eastern base of the mountain in the summer of 2008.

At one point, the fire made headlines when it threatened to destroy historic structures in the area, narrowly missing the venerable Cloud Cap Inn. Though the trail would traverse above the burn, it would allow hikers to watch the recovery phase of the fire cycle unfold on the slopes, below.

Finally, in the southern section the proposed Cooper Springs Trail would traverse through dozens of rolling lupine meadows, gnarled stands of whitebark pine and mountain hemlock and unique views of the massive east face of Mount Hood and the surrounding wilderness.

The southern section of the new trail would weave through a series of little-known alpine meadows, near Lamberson Butte.

Click here for a large map

In this section, the proposed trail would traverse the slopes of Cooper Spur at the point where a series of tributaries to Cold Spring Creek emerge and flow eastward through a maze of steep canyons. The springs are continuously fed by several permanent ice fields on Cooper Spur, and thus would be a reliable water source for hikers — and are also the namesake for the proposed trail.

The new route would then rejoin the Timberline Trail just below Lamberson Butte.

What it Would Take

The proposed Cooper Springs Trail (and Lamberson Spur extension) would be entirely within the Mount Hood Wilderness, and thus must be built without the add of motorized equipment.

Normally, this presents a major obstacle to trail construction, since a typical trail requires the removal of trees and vegetation down to mineral soil — a formidable task in the rainforests of the western Cascades, even with the aid of chainsaws and power tools. However, the slopes of Cooper Spur consist mostly of soft, sandy soils, loose rock, scattered trees and open meadows, so construction of the 3.5 mile trail would be much less cumbersome with hand tools here than in other parts of the forest.

One of the Northwest Youth Corps crews that worked the Timberline Trail in 2009.

There are a number of organizations that might be interested in helping build the trail, but perhaps the most promising would be the Northwest Youth Corps, an organization that has sent crews of young people to restore wilderness trails around Mount Hood for many years.

Finally, it would take a renewed commitment from the Forest Service to expand the trail network around the mountain, and this is the largest obstacle. The agency has been doing just the opposite for many years, allowing trails to fade into oblivion for lack of basic maintenance.

But this is also where you can help: the Forest Service has the funding to provide more trails, yet needs strong public support to make trails a priority in agency budgets. Buying a forest pass simply isn’t enough, unfortunately.

Make your opinion known, and don’t accept the “lack of funding” explanation. Instead, take a look at this comparison of funding for Mount Hood and a couple of well-known national parks, and simply ask that YOUR forest to be managed with trail recreation at the top of the priority list.

How can you contact them? Just click here to send them an e-mail!

Stop Salting the Palmer Glacier!

May 25, 2010

The plowed surface of the Palmer Glacier shows up on summer evening view of Mount Hood’s south face

A recent article in Willamette Week by Adrienne So goes where The Oregonian and other media have not dared in the nearly 30 years since the controversial Palmer Lift opened the Palmer Glacier to year-round skiing. In her article, So asks the obvious question: is it really such a good idea to pour nearly a million pounds of salt on the glacier each summer to melt the ice for skiers?

But So also asks the more maddening question: how can it be that the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are fine with this practice? The sad answer lies in the cozy relationship the Forest Service maintains with the ski resorts and the ironic fact that the DEQ can only regulate the salting when damage finally shows up downstream. In other words, when it’s too late.

The Palmer Glacier is not the smallest on Mount Hood, but surely the most fragile thanks to its low elevation and southern exposure

What lies downstream from the Palmer Glacier? Initially, a steep maze of alpine canyons carries melt water from the glacier to the tree line. Soon, these mountain streams combine to become the Salmon River. The river flows just a few miles before reaching Red Top Meadows. A short distance beyond, the river enters wilderness and the broad expanse of Salmon River Meadows, by far the largest wetland complex on Mount Hood.

From the meadows, the rapidly growing river turns west, then drops into one of the wildest, deepest canyons in Oregon, thundering over a string of tall waterfalls that are so remote as to have only been discovered in the 1960s. The Salmon River National Recreation Trail follows the canyon section, and is among the most popular hikes in the Pacific Northwest, year-round.

Beyond the steep gorge section, the river slows and broadens, rambling through ancient forests where it is recognized as one of the state’s premier salmon and steelhead habitats. Here, it is strictly managed for its fisheries with special seasons and limits. Trails follow the river in this section, too, leading to shady forest camps and fishing holes. The giant cedar groves along the lower river are the most accessible ancient forest in the region, just 45 minutes from Portland.

For their part, the Timberline operators make a point of never calling the Palmer Glacier by its true name. Instead, they use the term “Palmer Snowfield” in their marketing, apparently to downplay the fact that their summertime skiing is putting one of Mount Hood’s most vulnerable glaciers at risk.

Since the construction of the Palmer Lift, Timberline ski resort operators have plowed the Palmer Glacier like an icy farm field, with the benefit of salt to soften the surface

The motivations of the Timberline resort are easy enough to understand: it’s a commercial venture (albeit on public land and in a public structure), and they are not in the business of protecting the Salmon River ecosystem for the public at large. The salting makes money for the Timberline resort, after all, or they wouldn’t do it.

But to wrap your head around the Forest Service policy of allowing the salting is to believe that dumping just under 500 tons of salt (that’s about 500 pickup loads) on Palmer Glacier each year won’t have an environmental impact. That the impacts could extend from the headwaters of this river complex to the pristine meadows, forests, waterfalls and fisheries that lie below makes the policy that much more appalling.

As destructive and shortsighted as this policy seem, there’s really nothing you and I can do about it – at least not until the salt starts showing up downstream in concentrations that constitute “pollution”. If that seems like a Catch-22, well, that’s because it is.

In the meantime, the only available alternative is awareness. You can start by reading So’s excellent article, over here (PDF):

Salt and a Wound: Summertime and salting is easy on Palmer Glacier

Next, share what you learn with those who love Mount Hood – and especially those who ski at the Timberline resort. It’s likely they don’t even know about this obviously reckless practice, and Timberline hasn’t been particularly up-front about it.

Next, print this bumper (or rear-window) sticker to kick off your own awareness campaign:

Click here for a bumper-sized version to print

There’s a worn adage that when you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. Until more is understood about the impacts of the salting practice on the Palmer Glacier and the sensitive environments that lie downstream, it’s time to stop the salting. Now.

Fire Forests of the Cascades

January 17, 2009

The Gnarl Fire of 2008 shocked Portlanders by racing across the east slopes of Mount Hood, and nearly destroying the historic buildings at Cloud Cap and Tilly Jane. But as an east side fire, the Gnarl burn was relatively small, and part of what has become an annual ritual for rural communities of fighting intense blazes along the east slope of the Cascades.

The 2008 Gnarl Fire, viewed in August from Dufur Mill Road

The 2008 Gnarl Fire, viewed in August from Dufur Mill Road

The cause for the intensity of these fires is well-known and well-documented. We know that a century of fire suppression, promotion of even-aged stands of second growth in logged areas and a changing climate are forces conspiring to burn the east side forests on a scale not seen in recent decades.

But not all of the east side fires are catastrophic, even with the fuel build-up from our history of fire suppression. The 2006 fire at Bluegrass Ridge was a glimpse into what was once a routine occurrence along the east side of the Cascades. The Bluegrass Fire began as a lightning strike in the dry season, and soon spread along the east face of the ridge in a mosaic pattern: some parts of the forest were completely killed, while others were a mix, where pockets of forest survived among the burned trees.

The aftermath of the 2006 Bluegrass Fire ranged from total destruction in areas like this, to mosaic patterns where less crowded forests existed

The aftermath of the 2006 Bluegrass Fire ranged from total destruction in areas like this, to mosaic patterns where less crowded forests existed

Most significantly, the larger, fire-resistant species like western larch and ponderosa pine often survive fires in these mosaic areas, and this was the case in the Bluegrass Fire. We will know in a year or two whether the extensive larch population in the Gnarl Fire area were similarly resistant.

The survival of these big trees is the key to the natural ecosystem that defines east side forests. Forest ecologists are now calling these east side regimes “fire forests”, as a counterpoint to the west side rain forests, where abundant rainfall is the operative element in defining the forests.

The “fire forest” name is apt, since we now know that a number of tree species in this dry forest system depend on fire for natural succession that creates mature forests. In the Mount Hood area, these east side trees are Douglas fir, western larch and ponderosa pine. All three have thick, fire-resistant bark that helps them survive moderate fires, and benefit from periodic clearing of undergrowth that competes for moisture and soil nutrients. Fires, in turn, release nutrients for the big trees, further enhancing the growth of fire-resistant species.

Western larch light up the eastside forests in autumn. Larch are among the fire-resistant species that require periodic burns for their long-term health

Western larch light up the eastside forests in autumn. Larch are among the fire-resistant species that require periodic burns for their long-term health

The question for the east side forest is not whether they will continue to burn — they have evolved with fire, after all — but rather, how we will learn to live with the fires. We now know that we cannot simply extinguish them. A century of fire suppression has created mammoth fires that we simply cannot control.

We also know that we cannot prevent forest fires from starting, since the large majority begin from lighting strikes. And we know that many more catastrophic burns will occur before the east side forests return to a more sustainable condition that mimics the natural ecosystem that once thrived.

Most ominous is the recent discovery — from tree-ring research — that the Western states are coming off an unusually wet century, and that the decades ahead are likely to carry more drought, not less. So it is imperative to help the east side forests stabilize before conditions make that proposition still more difficult.

These mature, healthy forests of western larch, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir along Bluegrass Ridge survived the fire

These mature, healthy forests of western larch, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir along Bluegrass Ridge survived the fire

A first step is continuing to thin tree plantations on logged lands to help prevent still more crowded, bug-infested forests like those that are currently driving the fire epidemic. The second step is more difficult: letting fires burn. This policy will be most difficult in the many areas where rural development has encroached on forest boundaries, but it is a necessary step. Both of these steps will require a new mindset about fire, not the least of which will be a public education shift away from Smokey Bear and fire suppression and toward a modern understanding of fire.

But a third step is most difficult of all: setting fires in prescribed locations to help restore forest balance. While the rash of east side fires in recent years has made this part of restoring forest balance less urgent, it will still be necessary — and controversial. Federal agencies have already begun employing this tool, but in cases where a controlled burn becomes a wildfire, the public is not prepared to understand why that risk is necessary — and perfectly natural. Still more public outreach and education will be needed.

The good news is that the scientists are winning this debate, and even the Forest Service has gradually begun to embrace fire ecology as part of their management philosophy. The Park Service is much further long, having successfully weathered the early criticism of their prescient decision to let the huge Yellowstone fires of the mid-1980s burn.

The remarkable resilience and recovery of Yellowstone in the intervening years has not only been vindication for that bold decision, but also an invaluable lesson to land agencies across the west who are responsible for managing “fire forests”. The time to embrace fires in our forests has arrived.

Boundary Clear Cut – Part Two

December 16, 2008
The Boundary clear cut consumed this tiny lake. The trees behind mark the wilderness boundary as it rides over the ridges

The Boundary clear cut consumed this tiny lake. The trees behind mark the wilderness boundary as it rides over the ridges

The first part of this article focused on the Forest Service failures that allowed the massive Boundary clear cut to happen on Mount Hood’s northwest shoulder. Now, a look at more of the fallout from the massive clear cut, and opportunities for restoring the area in the future.

First, some numbers. Using a conservative estimate of 100 trees per acre, the 800 acre Boundary complex contained at least 80,000 mature trees, mostly noble fir. Using the Forest Service’s Center for Urban Forest Research models (2002), a conservative estimate for storm water interception of each tree is at least 1,100 gallons per year, or some 88 million gallons of runoff from the Boundary clear cut area, alone. How much additional runoff is that? Enough to nearly fill the 33-story KOIN tower in downtown Portland.

The twin to the logged-over lake, pictured above, this peaceful tarn is located just two hundred yards away, safely inside the wilderness boundary

The twin to the logged-over lake, pictured above, this peaceful tarn is located just two hundred yards away, safely inside the wilderness boundary

Without the forest canopy, the bulk of the rain that falls upon these mountain slopes now runs off, eroding the thin soils, carrying mud and sediments to nearby streams and resulting spikes in stream flows that damage riparian areas and fish habitat. This effect is repeated, of course, across the thousands of clear cuts in the Mount Hood National Forest.

For the Boundary clear cut, the runoff impact is on the heavily logged West Fork Hood River drainage, which is already struggling to recover from the first wave of logging at the turn of the 20th Century (see “Just 75 years” article).

Like other clear cuts, the Boundary cut also triggered edge effects on the uncut forests bordering the timber sale. Because the Boundary clear cut is high elevation, and nearly crests Vista Ridge, these were impacts that timber planners surely could have expected. Yet the timber sale spread close enough to the historic Vista Ridge trail that blowdown triggered by the cut still fall across the trail with regulatory, and unnecessarily. Sadly, this was preventable.

These trees along the Vista Ridge Trail are victims of the Boundary clear cut, having been exposed to high winds by the removal of adjacent forests.

These trees along the Vista Ridge Trail are victims of the Boundary clear cut, having been exposed to high winds by the removal of adjacent forests.

What to do next? For the cut forests of the Boundary complex, the main treatments are road decommissioning and thinning operations in 15-20 years, when the plantations of young trees are likely to become a crowded monoculture.

Just beyond the edge of the Boundary cut, this lofty outcrop provides a stunning view

Just beyond the edge of the Boundary cut, this lofty outcrop provides a stunning view

But from a broader perspective, what about restoring recreation to the area? The Mount Hood National Park campaign calls for converting several roads in the area to single-track bike and horse trails, and adding a campground in proximity to these new trails, and the Vista Ridge trailhead.

There are also opportunities to connect the Vista Ridge trail to the Mazama Trailhead, across Ladd Creek. This new route would provide much-needed loop options that would disperse the heavy hiking traffic that Mount Hood experiences in summer, plus access to the little-known lakes and rocky viewpoints that lie just beyond the destruction zone of the Boundary clear cut.

The key in making this transition is restoration through recreation — bringing visitors back to the area with the express purpose of fostering a public sense of stewardship needed to ensure that a Boundary clear cut never happens again.

Vision Quest Sites

December 6, 2008
The Lookout Mountain vision quest site is perched high on rocky cliff

The Lookout Mountain vision quest site is perched high on rocky cliff

One of the great thrills of exploring remote mountain tops and rocky outcrops in the Mount Hood backcountry is stumbling upon a long-forgotten vision quest site. These are typically rock pits, large enough for a person — though modern visitors should never enter them, out of respect for both their spiritual and scientific significance.

Archaeologists are still debating the purpose of these pits. The most accepted theory is that these pits were built by Native Americans seeking a vision of their guardian spirit through a combination of physical exertion, deprivation and isolation. Under this theory, Native Americans would have spent several days building these pits, then meditating in them without food or human interaction in order to achieve a spiritual experience.

Other researchers argue that the pits were used as hunting blinds or to store food. But these alternative theories are hard to accept for locations like those around Mount Hood and in the Gorge. Most of this sites are on huge talus slopes or mountain tops, which would have been inconvenient as a food cache or for retrieving killed game.

The Lookout Mountain vision quest pit pictured here has still more mystery surrounding it. While the location of the pit is typical – high on a rocky knoll, overlooking the East Fork valley and Mount Hood – the walls of the pit are stacked higher and narrower than most, possibly due to the steepness of the site.

Looking down the steep slopes of Lookout Mountain from the vision quest pit

Looking down the steep slopes of Lookout Mountain from the vision quest pit

But even more perplexing are the worn traces of mortar between some of the stones (seen in the wall of the pit, toward the bottom of the second image). One possibility is that the mortar was an early attempt to preserve the site, given it’s fragile and exposed state. But who would have hauled both mortar and water to this site?

Perhaps early forest rangers who once manned a Forest Service guard station at High Prairie, a short distance away. The guard station was abandoned half a century ago, so this timing would be consistent with other, early 20th Century effort to “restore” Native American structures. This was famously done at several spots in Pueblo country, but might have happened here, too.

Whatever the answer, the Lookout Mountain vision quest site is among the most inspiring in the area, and it’s easy to imagine Native Americans seeking out spots like this for a spiritual journey. But it’s also easy to imagine sites like this being lost forever, for lack of a management imperative by the U.S. Forest Service to actively protect these places.

This kind of fragile resource is also among the best arguments for the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, since the Park Service has a long and proven track record of this sort of resource protection. In contrast, the Forest Service has aggressively logged much of the terrain around this site, oblivious to special places like this. So for now, obscurity is the best friend of these resources, until better stewardship finally comes to Mount Hood.


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