Posted tagged ‘Pacific Crest Trail’

White River Buried Forest

September 18, 2011

The summer of 2011 will be remembered as the year of the Dollar Lake Fire in the Mount Hood area, as much of the north side is still smoldering from a lightning-caused wildfire that ignited on August 26. Though a calamity to those who loved the verdant forests on Mount Hood’s northern slopes, the fire is a blip on the screen when compared to the many explosive events that have rearranged the mountain’s forests and topography over the millennia.

Among the most recent and fascinating of these events are the Old Maid eruptions. These explosions knocked over entire forests on the mountain’s south side like matchsticks, burying them under a deep layer of ash and volcanic debris. This article describes the Old Maid events, and how to see traces of their aftermath today.

The Old Maid Eruptions

While most tourists at Timberline Lodge on a given day are blissfully unaware that Mount Hood is living volcano, the occasional, heady odor of sulfur fumes blowing down from the crater are a reminder the “quiet” spell we are enjoying is only temporary.

[click here for a larger version]

In geologic terms, the Old Maid eruptions are incredibly recent, finally winding down in our recorded history of the early 1800s. The events are named for Old Maid Flats, the debris plain created by the eruptions in the Sandy River canyon, though the impact on the mountain was much broader.

Scientists have determined the Old Maid eruptive period to have occurred within from about 1760 to 1810 A.D. In fact, when Lewis & Clark described the shallow “quicksand” delta of the Sandy River in 1804-05, they were looking at volcanic sediments that had only recently flooded down the river from the active slopes Mount Hood.

The former floor of the White River canyon is visible as a thin layer of oxidized soil, dotted with mummified trees.

The scientific accuracy of these dates is made possible by thousands of mummified trees swept over by the Old Maid debris flows, and later exposed by streams cutting into the sediments. The White River buried forest is one of the more prominent locations where these flattened forests and the former valley floor can plainly be seen.

The Old Maid eruptions originated in the modern crater of Mount Hood, where sulfur fumes still rise from the vents known as the Devils Kitchen. The massive, 800-foot volcanic dome of Crater Rock, itself, is just 200 years old and formed during these eruptions. The heat of rising magma in the crater eventually sent pyroclastic flows down the Sandy and White River canyons — rolling clouds of super-heated ash and debris that buried the entire landscape.

A closer look at the buried valley floor reveals mummified trees.

The Old Maid eruptions deposited about one hundred feet of debris throughout the upper White River canyon, filling the formerly U-shaped glacial valley with a flat fan of volcanic boulders, cobbles and fine ash. The outflow from the White River Glacier has since carved deeply into the debris flow, revealing the old valley floor and some of the thousands of mummified trees knocked over by the Old Maid event.

A flat-topped ridge in the middle of the White River canyon known as Mesa Terrace (see earlier schematic) is a remnant of the debris flow that shows the original depth of the debris above the valley floor.

Close-up of an entire tree, tipped over and buried where it fell on the former valley floor.

Two types of debris flow swept down the southern slopes of Mount Hood during the Old Maid eruptions. The most destructive were the pyroclastic flows, which many of us are familiar with from the colossal Mount St. Helens eruption of May 18, 1980.

In addition to the hot pyroclastic flows, cooler mudflows from flash-melted glaciers and snowfields also swept down Mount Hood’s south slopes during the Old Maid events. We know the buried forests at the bottom of White River Canyon fell victim to these mudflows, as pyroclastic flows would have instantly incinerated the standing timber. Instead, the cooler debris flows simply knocked the forests over, and buried them under layers of mud and debris.

Scientists believe these trees were partially buried, then broken off by subsequent flows.

Scientists believe the old valley floor now being revealed by erosion was of glacial origin, dating back to the last major glacial advance of the White River Glacier some 10,000 years ago. Thus, forests grew undisturbed along the former valley floor of the White River for a very long time.

Hiking to the Overlook

Hiking to the White River buried forest overlook is easy and scenic, as well as historic and iconic: it follows Mount Hood’s famous Timberline Trail for 0.7 miles to the impressive rim of the White River canyon. This section of trail also serves as the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,000-mile epic trek from Mexico to Canada.

To find the trailhead, park in the lower, overflow lot located to the east of Timberline Lodge. Park near a gated dirt on the west side of the parking area. Follow this old road steeply uphill for about 200 yards to an obvious junction with the Timberline Trail, and turn right (or, if you’re coming from the lodge, follow any of the trails beyond the lodge uphill to the Timberline Trail and turn right). The Timberline Trail quickly traverses into a side-canyon, crossing the headwaters of the Salmon River.

Next, the Timberline Trail rambles across pumice-covered slopes and soon reaches a sign marking the Richard L. Kohnstamm Wilderness, created in 2009 as an addition to the wilderness complex that encircles Mount Hood. Kohnstamm was the resort operator responsible for resurrecting a struggling Timberline Lodge in the 1950s, and setting the resort on the successful path that it continues to enjoy today.

[click here for a larger, printable map]

Beyond the wilderness boundary, the trail descends across another pumice slope, then drops more steeply on a surface of loose glacial till as it traces the west moraine of the White River canyon. Soon, you will reach the overlook where the Timberline Trail follows the moraine crest, and arrives at a stand of trees. This is a good spot to stop and take in the scenery, and especially to pick out the signs of the buried forest, at the bottom of the canyon, below.

The south-facing slopes and open terrain can make this a hot, dusty hike in late summer, so be sure to carry water. You will also want a pair of binoculars to view the buried forest details more closely. If you have the time and energy after visiting the buried forest overlook, you can retrace your step to the dirt access road, then turn right and follow it to Silcox Hut, about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. The hut was the original upper terminal for the first Magic Mile ski lift in the late 1930s, and today is maintained as an historic structure.

Discovering Bald Mountain

April 13, 2011

The country is filled with “Bald Mountains”, but for sheer scenic spectacle, few can compare to the Bald Mountain that rises just four miles away from the towering west face of Mount Hood. At one time, a fire lookout stood atop this Bald Mountain, and the view from the tower must have been the envy of fire lookouts around the Northwest.

Today, Bald Mountain isn’t entirely bald, having grown a dense forest of noble fir along the crest and northern slopes over the past half-century. Yet, it was in the 1970s, when the Timberline Trail was rerouted to lead hikers across the steep, open meadows on the south slope of the mountain, that hikers became familiar with Bald Mountain. Today, this spectacular traverse continues to provide one of the most popular, exhilarating sections along the classic loop hike.

Though most visitors to Bald Mountain keep to the Timberline Trail, you can still follow the historic old path that leads to the former lookout site, with its magnificent, close-up views of Mount Hood. Thanks to the quiet efforts of a few anonymous volunteers over the decades, the trail remains open and lightly maintained, with only an occasional log to step over along the way.

As the old path climbs toward the summit, hikers find themselves in a dense, young forest, and have to use their imagination to picture the open slopes of beargrass — with no forests — that existed when the first lookout was built on “Bald” Mountain more than a century ago.

Along the old trail, hikers will also spot blazes on the few trees that stood at the time of the former lookout tower. These blazes mark most historic trails (see this recent article on blazes) in the Mount Hood area, and confirm that the present alignment of the summit path to Bald Mountain dates back to at least the World War II era, and likely before.

A look at the 1911 USGS map of Mount Hood (below) shows that a “lookout” stood on Bald Mountain long before roads crossed Lolo Pass, and decades before the Timberline Trail was built. The early lookout structure was likely no more than a wood platform, later replaced with a conventional lookout tower. Interestingly, the Beaver Lakes shown on the map have since faded away, too, filled in with forest:

The 1946 USGS map of the Mount Hood area (below) is the last to show a lookout on Bald Mountain (and the Beaver Lakes), but in the intervening years from the 1911 map, the Timberline Trail and Skyline Trail had been completed, with both routes passing just below the lookout.

In fact, it’s likely that the section of Skyline Trail from Lolo Pass to Bald Mountain was originally built for lookout access, since the trail over Lolo Pass was among the earliest built in the area, and in fact, followed an ancient Indian route connecting the Sandy and Hood River valleys.

The alternating ticks shown along the dashed trail segments on the 1946 map indicate a telephone line along the route. Today, these routes often have ceramic insulators still attached to trees, and on this route further suggest that this section of trail was originally built with the lookout in mind. The route is now part of the Pacific Crest Trail, which replaced the old Skyline Trail, and remains one of the best approaches for hiking to Bald Mountain.

What did the old tower look like?

Fire lookouts in the Pacific Northwest followed a few standard designs beginning in the 1930s, after much improvisation in the early lookout designs that were built through the 1920s. The Bald Mountain lookout probably followed this evolution, with some sort of simple platform beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, and later, a more substantial structure built to Forest Service standards.

We have a much more exact picture after June 1944, when archived Forest Service documents show a new lookout was designed, apparently to replace an existing structure on Bald Mountain. The following are samples from the 1944 architectural plans for Bald Mountain. There are no clear records of when this lookout was removed, but it was likely in the late 1950s or 1960s, when hundreds of lookouts were viewed as outmoded by the Forest Service and destroyed.

The cab — or cabin — in the 1944 designs for Bald Mountain is a 14×14 foot structure (above) that would closely resemble the surviving cab on the Devils Peak lookout, just to the southwest of Mount Hood in the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness. This simple design featured five windows per side and a low, pitched roof.

Inside the cab (below), the living space was organized around a Osborne fire finder, located in the center of the floor, surrounded by a wood stove, table, kitchen, storage cabinets, shelves and bunk. A catwalk wrapped around the outside of the cab, allowing lookouts to maintain the windows, raise and lower shutters and haul firewood and supplies up from below with pulleys.

The 14×14 foot cab rested atop a 43-foot wood-frame tower (below), complete with a spiraling stairway that ascended within the tower uprights. Though the tower was anchored directly to the ground, the main stabilization came from guy wires anchoring the tower to concrete footings in four directions.

The most remarkable aspect of this tower (and many others) is the fact that most of the materials were carried to the site over trails using livestock. That included the cut lumber, concrete, construction hardware, fixtures and windows — an amazing feat when you consider this was repeated dozens of times at lookout sites around the region.

The lookout plans for Bald Mountain also contain one “standard” element that wasn’t so standard, at least compared to other lookouts in the vicinity: a garage and storage shed built around the base of the tower. In this view, the stairway to the tower can be seen on the right, with the dashed lines above the garage marking the location of the tower uprights:

As this design detail from the 1944 plans suggests, there were a number of concrete footings used in the construction of the Bald Mountain lookout tower. Today, these seem to be the only remaining traces of the structure. Three footings are loose, and have been moved around and used by campers over the years. Other footings remain in the ground, mostly reclaimed by the undergrowth. This footing is located along the spur trail leading to the east viewpoint from the lookout site:

Visiting Bald Mountain

There is some irony in the historic Bald Mountain trail being “lost”, as the mountain is now almost completely circled by the Timberline Trail, and thousands of hikers make their way along this route every year. Almost all of these visitors walk right past the unmarked summit path leading to Bald Mountain.

But for those seeking the route less traveled, the hike to the summit is easy, provided you successfully navigate the maze of popular trails in the area. The key is knowing how to spot the unmarked junction with the Timberline Trail. Take a close look at this photo to help you recognize the spot if you choose to visit the old trail — this view is how the trail appears from either of the approaches described below:

From Lolo Pass: The Classic Approach

The classic hike begins at Lolo Pass, and follows the Pacific Crest Trail through handsome forests for three miles to the base of the Bald Mountain summit path. The total mileage on this option is 6.6 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of 1,400 feet. The following is a map of the Lolo Pass approach that accompanies the hike description I wrote for the Portland Hikers Field Guide:

Click here for a larger map

For a detailed description of the Lolo Pass approach, visit the Portland Hikers Field Guide page:

Lolo Pass to Bald Mountain Hike

The Field Guide description also includes driving instructions to the trailhead. This is a dry hike, so carry water — and in early summer, plan on the usual bugs that plaque hikers just after snow melt. My favorite time to hike this trail is on a clear day after the first autumn snow dusts the mountain in late September or October. This is when the area is free of bugs AND crowds.

From Top Spur: The Family Route

For a shorter hike that works well for families with kids (or for adults looking for a short afternoon or evening activity) you can also approach Bald Mountain from the Top Spur trailhead. Be forewarned that this is one of the most popular trailheads in the Mount Hood region, and mobbed on summer weekends.

But even on busy weekends, you can smile to yourself as you leave the crowds behind, and head up the quiet, old lookout path for some solitude — hidden in plain sight! From the summit viewpoint, you can literally look down on hikers passing hundreds of feet below on the Timberline Trail, oblivious to your presence.

Click here for a larger map

The Top Spur option is just two miles long, round-trip, with an elevation gain of 550 feet. Though short, portions of both the Top Spur and Bald Mountain trails are steep, so you will notice the elevation gain! The tradeoff for kids is the feeling of climbing a real mountain. Bring a pair of binoculars for kids to explore the details of Mount Hood or watch hawks float across the Muddy Fork Valley, below.

For a detailed description of the Top Spur approach, including travel instructions, visit the Portland Hikers Field Guide page:

Top Spur to Bald Mountain Hike

One of the most magical times to visit Bald Mountain is evening, when you can watch the awesome west face of Mount Hood light up at sunset, but still have enough light to hike back to the Top Spur trailhead.

Both hikes are usually open from mid-June through mid-November, and both require a Northwest Forest Pass to park. Both trailheads usually have portable toilets, but no water — be sure to carry your own.

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.


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