Each spring the parking lot at the Dog Mountain trailhead in the Columbia Gorge starts to look like Black Friday at a shopping mall: hundreds of hikers crowd the trail for the classic hike through steep meadows of blooming arrowleaf balsamroot. Who can blame them? The flower show is spectacular, even with the crowds.
But for those seeking a bit more solitude with their wildflowers — and equally impressive views — the hike up Bald Butte in the nearby Hood River Valley is a fine alternative to Dog Mountain. The blooms usually come a few weeks later here, toward the end of May and into June. Because Bald Butte lies well east of the Cascade crest, the weather is usually better here, too.
Measured in travel time from the heart of Portland, Bald Butte is a bit more distant than Dog Mountain. But the somewhat longer drives includes the gorgeous final stretch up the Hood River Valley, which is a treat in itself for hikers.
Diamond in the Rough
So, why doesn’t the Bald Butte trail see more boot traffic? One answer could be the upper trailhead, which is accessed off Surveyors Ridge Road and is the unintended gateway for 4x4s, dirt bikes and quads to illegally enter the area. While the area trails are only open to hikers, bikes and horses, motorized vehicles continue to be a problem.
A second reason for fewer visitors at Bald Butte might be the quality of the “trail” from the upper trailhead to the summit. Here, the route officially follows the Surveyors Ridge Trail (No. 688), though the “trail” is actually an old dirt road that once served as access to a fire lookout on the summit of Bald Butte.
The road is not only difficult to enforce as a “trail”, it also provides a substandard hiking surface in many spots, with the illegal OHV use destroying the surface, and leaving a difficult mess of loose cobbles and ruts for hikers to navigate.
Finally, the trail is bisected by the monstrous Bonneville Power Administration transmission corridor. This visual and ecological calamity came into being with the completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957, and is only surpassed by the dam, itself, for the negative impacts it brings to the area (see [link= http://wyeastblog.wordpress.com/2009/02/03/transmission-corridor-redux/%5DTransmission Corridor Redux[/link]
Despite these drawbacks, the hike is a spectacular one, and fills a unique niche by providing an early season mountain hike when many trails in the area are still snowed in.
More importantly, there are straightforward solutions for resolving these drawbacks, and thus the Bald Butte trail represents a diamond-in-the-rough opportunity, just waiting to shine. This article proposes a few the solutions that could greatly enhance the hiking experience on Bald Butte, while also mitigating some of the environmental problems that currently exist.
A new vision for Bald Butte
This proposal addresses four issues that currently diminish the Bald Butte trail:
1. Formalizes and manages the upper trailhead to prevent OHVs from straying onto trails.
2. Replaces sections of “road” that currently serve as “trail”.
3. Improves the hiking experience where the route crosses the BPA corridor.
4. Establishes a loop trail system that allows for better mixing of bikes and hikers.
Above all, the new trail connections in this proposal enhance the scenic experience for hikers by simply bringing them through more of the open meadows that are the main attraction — just as the newer, redesigned trails on Dog Mountain focus on the meadows and river views.
The following maps show these key elements for improving the trails at Bald Butte. The major new addition would be a loop trail starting at the lower end of the Oak Ridge Trail, and climbing the open slopes of Bald Butte.
The Surveyors Ridge Trail from the upper trailhead to the summit, where it follows the old road, would be converted to become a true trail. The new sections would be built across the BPA Corridor and along the south summit approach to Bald Butte. The current dirt road segments could then be completely decommissioned, giving the butte a much-needed rest from off-highway vehicles.
The BPA corridor, itself, would also be managed differently. Under this proposal, the Bonneville Power Administration would designate a scenic unit where the transmission corridor passes over the shoulder of Bald Butte. The agency would then manage the vegetation under the transmission lines with an eye toward integrating the corridor with the adjacent forests and meadows, and providing the best possible hiking experience.
This element of the proposal could be a pilot project for better management of BPA tranmission corridors in other areas, with new best-management practices developed to address OHVs, dumping, invasive species and other nuisances that tend to follow the BPA corridors. The proposed scenic unit is shown in purple on the proposal maps.
The main draw in the proposal would be a new trail crossing the open slopes of Bald Butte. This is an exceptionally scenic area, and the trail concept could be patterned after the “new” trail on Dog Mountain, with an eye toward creating a world-class hiking experience.
In addition to the spring wildflower spectacle, this expanded trail system on Bald Butte would provide a nearly year-round hiking and biking opportunity. The loop design would also allow for bikes to remain on the Oak Ridge Trail, with the new trail limited to hikers. This would allow hikers looking for a loop trip to use both trails, but reserving the new route for those uneasy with shared hike/bike routes.
Finally, the upper trailhead would be retained in this proposal, despite the problems it currently brings with illegal activity. The short access road to the trailhead is unsigned, poorly maintained and the surrounding area is in a raw, semi-developed state that sets the stage for the unlawful activities that occur here.
To help remedy the situation, the trailhead could be formalized and improved to appeal to legitimate forest visitors — families looking for a shorter hike or bike to the summit of Bald Butte or along the Surveyor’s Ridge Trail, for example. Despite the presence of the BPA towers, the view toward Mount Hood from the upper trailhead is sweeping, and could even serve as a picnic site or more formal viewpoint for motorists touring the area.
How to Visit Bald Butte Now
There is no need to wait until the trails at Bald Butte have been improved, as the current routes provide for terrific hike, especially in spring and early summer.
The Oak Ridge Trail serves as the first leg of the hike, beginning from the trailhead of the same name, just off Highway 35. The route then follows the Surveyors Ridge Trail past the BPA corridor and to the summit, following the old lookout road for the final segment.
A detailed hike description, with maps and photos is provided on the Portland Hikers.org Field Guide: