Posted tagged ‘Trailkeepers of Oregon’

The “Other” Shellrock Mountain

July 31, 2014
Mount Hood rises above Shellrock Mountain and Badlands Basin

Mount Hood rises above Shellrock Mountain and Badlands Basin

Hidden in plain sight above the Hood River Valley, Shellrock Mountain is a little-known peak with a familiar name. Though it shares a name with its better-known cousin in the Columbia River Gorge, the “other” Shellrock Mountain has much more to offer, and is easier to explore.

The “other” Shellrock Mountain is located along the Surveyors Ridge trail, a route popular with mountain bikers who ride from one glorious viewpoint to another along this well-traveled route. At one point on the trail, an obscure wooden sign points to Shellrock Mountain, but really just marks a short spur trail with a view of the south face of Shellrock. Beyond this modest view, few visitors take the time to explore the mountain or the rugged Badlands Basin, located nearby.

Hidden in plain sight: Shellrock Mountain is from Cooper Spur Road

Hidden in plain sight: Shellrock Mountain is from Cooper Spur Road

[click here for a larger view]

Reaching the summit of Shellrock Mountain involves a short, stiff off-trail scramble up the northeast slope of the peak (more about that later), where a stunning view stretches from the nearby glaciers of Mount Hood to the big peaks of the southern Washington Cascades and arid desert country of the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

Shellrock Mountain sits astride the Hood River Fault, a 20-mile long scarp that forms the east wall of the Hood River Valley. The scarp also forms the last high ridge of the Cascade Range in the Mount Hood area, with evergreen forests giving way to the arid deserts of Eastern Oregon just a few miles east of Shellrock Mountain. This proximity to the desert ecosystem brings together a blend of mountain and desert flora and fauna that make Shellrock Mountain and its surrounding area unique.

While most of the uplifted ridge along the Hood River Fault is composed of ancient layers of basalt, andesite and dacite, the Badlands Basin reveals the more recent debris of a pyroclastic flow, the same roiling mixture of steam, volcanic ash and rock that roared from Mount St. Helens in the May 1980 eruption. This flow originated from Mount Hood during its early formation.

Badlands Basin sprawls against the northern foot of Shellrock Mountain

Badlands Basin sprawls against the northern foot of Shellrock Mountain

Badlands Basin is located at the headwaters of Cat Creek, on the north flank of Shellrock Mountain. Here, the ancient pyroclastic flow has been carved into a fantastic landscape of pinnacles, ridges and goblins that is unmatched elsewhere in the region. The Badland Basin formation spreads across about 100 acres, rising nearly 1,000 above Cat Creek.

The maze of formations in Badlands Basin as viewed from Shellrock Mountain

The maze of formations in Badlands Basin as viewed from Shellrock Mountain

Exploring the Badlands Basin is a rugged and surreal experience for the rare visitors who make their way through the jagged formations. No trails go here, and the terrain is both steep and exposed. But once inside the formation, individual spires and ridges take on a new life, as their bizarre shapes come into focus on a human scale. The Badlands are surprisingly alive, too, with a unique ecosystem of desert and sun-loving alpine flora thriving in dry meadows among the rock outcrops.

Badlands Basin: “The Grizzly Bear”

Badlands Basin: “The Grizzly Bear”

Badlands Basin: “The Hippo”

Badlands Basin: “The Hippo”

Badlands Basin: “The Iguana”

Badlands Basin: “The Iguana”

Together, Shellrock Mountain and the adjacent Badlands Basin are special places that beg to be explored. While the Surveyors Ridge Trail provides a good view into the area, new trails that explore the strange formations of the Badlands up-close and reach the airy summit of Shellrock Mountain could make these places much more accessible for hikers and cyclists. What would these new trails look like?

Proposal: Shellrock Mountain Loop Trail

This proposal calls for a new trail to Shellrock Mountain and Badland Basin from the Loop Highway. Why start at the highway? It makes sense for several reasons: first, the new trailhead at Cat Creek would be only about one-third mile from the popular Dog River Trailhead, making a long and spectacular loop possible for mountain bikers, as the Dog River Trail also connects to the Surveyors Ridge Trail.

Second, a highway trailhead would make the area much more accessible and secure for all visitors, as highway trailheads are easier for law enforcement to patrol, and highway traffic, alone, acts as significant deterrent against car clouters.

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[click here for a large version]

Finally, a trailhead along the Loop Highway could be open most of the year, allowing for winter snowshoe access to the high country around Shellrock Mountain when the Surveyors Ridge Road is buried under snowdrifts.

The proposed Shellrock Mountain Loop would have two legs: a 2.5 mile northern leg would follow Cat Creek to the base of Badlands Basin, then wind through the rock formations to a junction with the Surveyors Ridge Trail. A southern leg would climb the long ridge west of Shellrock Mountain to a separate junction with the Surveyors Ridge Trail, about a mile south of the northern leg. The Surveyors Ridge trail would connect these new trails, creating the loop.

A short summit spur trail would lead from the existing Surveyors Ridge Trail to the rocky top of Shellrock Mountain, providing a side-trip option for cyclists on the ridge and the main destination for hikers on the new Shellrock loop trail.

The following oblique views show the proposed trails from both west and east perspectives:

ShellrockMountain09

[click here for a large version]

ShellrockMountain10

[click here for a large version]

What Would it Take?

In 2009, President Obama signed a bill into law creating the Mount Hood National Recreation Area (MHNRA), a small but significant new form of protection for the Mount Hood area. The MHNRA concept has mountain bikes in mind, as it provides a way to protect recreation areas in a wild state, but without bicycle restrictions (under federal law, bicycles are not allowed in designated wilderness areas).

Shellrock Mountain and Mt. Hood from the Surveyors Ridge Trail

Shellrock Mountain and Mt. Hood from the Surveyors Ridge Trail

The entirety of Shellrock Mountain and the Badlands Basin fall within the MHNRA designation, and as such, deserve to be considered for proposals like this one. The Forest Service has shown an encouraging willingness to work with mountain biking advocates to build new bike trails in the Surveyors Ridge area, too. So while the agency has generally opposed building new trails anywhere else, there is a good chance that the Shellrock Mountain Loop could be build if mountain bike advocates were to embrace the idea.

The first mile of both legs of the new trail would also fall on Hood River County land. The county currently focuses most of its energy on logging its forest holdings, but has worked with mountain bikers in the Post Canyon area to diversify the kinds of uses that county land can be dedicated to.

Nope, this sign doesn’t lead to Shellrock Mountain… yet…

Nope, this sign doesn’t lead to Shellrock Mountain… yet…

In the Shellrock Mountain area, Hood River County has already logged off the big trees, so hopefully the County would see the wisdom of shifting the focus in this area to recreation, as well – and possibly consider funding for trail construction, as well.

Most importantly, mountain biking advocates like the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) have a terrific record of trail building, and with help from other trail advocates like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), could be the catalyst in bringing together a collaborative effort of volunteers, the Forest Service and Hood River County in creating this new trail system.

How to Visit Shellrock Mountain

Sturdy hikers can visit Shellrock Mountain today with a bit of wayfinding expertise and some bushwhacking skills. The best starting point is an unofficial trailhead located along the Surveyors Ridge Road.

A brave bushwhacker heads for Shellrock’s summit

A brave bushwhacker heads for Shellrock’s summit

To reach the trailhead from Hood River, drive the Loop Highway (OR 35) ten miles south of I-84 to a crest just beyond the Mount Hood Mill, where you turn left onto Pinemont Drive. This road eventually becomes Surveyors Ridge Road, alternating between paved and gravel surfaces, but is always easily passable for any car.

At almost exactly 11 miles from where you turned off the main highway, watch for an unmarked trail heading to the right at an obvious bend in the road. Park here, and follow the short path to the Surveyors Ridge Trail, just a few feet off the gravel road. Shellrock Mountain is visible directly ahead of you!

The open summit ridge of Shellrock Mountain

The open summit ridge of Shellrock Mountain

From here, turn left (south) and follow the Surveyors Ridge trail for about one-third mile to a gentle crest along the forested east shoulder of Shellrock Mountain. If you pass the trail sign pointing to Shellrock Mountain, you’ve gone too far.

At the crest, head directly uphill on whatever path you can find through the forest, then abruptly leave the trees and reach the open east slopes of Shellrock Mountain, where you will wind among patches of manzanita and ocean spray as you work your way toward the summit. Don’t forget to look back periodically to help you retrace your steps upon your return!

Mount Hood fills the horizon from the top of Shellrock Mountain

Mount Hood fills the horizon from the top of Shellrock Mountain

Soon, you will reach the summit ridge with a series of viewpoints of the Badlands Basin (and your starting point) spreading out to the north and Mount Hood towering to the southwest.

From this vantage point, you can also see the full extent of the 2008 Gnarl Fire that burned the eastern slopes of Mount Hood, sweeping from near Gnarl Ridge on the far left horizon toward Cloud Cap, located right of center. The historic Cloud Cap Inn was barely spared by this blaze. In 2011, the Dollar Fire was started by a lightning strike west of Cloud Cap, sweeping over the right shoulder of the mountain for several miles toward Lolo Pass. For more on the Dollar Fire, click here.

Early stages of the 2008 Gnarl Fire from near Shellrock Mountain

Early stages of the 2008 Gnarl Fire from near Shellrock Mountain

You’ll want to linger on the summit, and be sure to bring along a good map to help you identify the many features near and far that can be seen from this lonely summit. For photographer, the best time to visit in in the morning, which the light on Mount Hood is at its best.

Enjoy!

2014 Mount Hood National Park Calendar

November 29, 2013

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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 by making the case for the campaign with pictures.

What the calendar looks like - oversized 11x17” pages you can actually use!

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

I’ve published the calendars through CafePress since 2004, so this year’s calendar marks the tenth 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 2014 calendar, this article tells a bit of the story behind the new images.

The 2014 Scenes

Cover: Sandy Headwall and Glacier from McGee Ridge

Cover: Sandy Headwall and Glacier from McGee Ridge

The cover photo of the Sandy Glacier headwall is really a nod to a chance encounter I had with Brent McGregor, the fearless cave explorer profiled in the Thin Ice: Exploring Mount Hood’s Glacier Caves, a recent Oregon Public Broadcasting feature. I had just posted a WyEast blog article on the program a few days prior, and happened to run into Brent and his climbing partner, Eric Guth, on the Timberline Trail that day in October.

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Brent and Eric were on their way down from spending the night in the Snow Dragon glacier cave, and provided me with an amazing personal account of their adventures inside the caves. I also learned a bit of the glacier cave geography from the spot where we met atop McGee Ridge. The cover image for the calendar was taken from that spot awhile after the (now famous) ice cave explorers continued down the trail. A most memorable evening!

January: Tamanawas Falls dressed in white

January: Tamanawas Falls dressed in white

The monthly scenes begin with a snowy afternoon at Tamanawas Falls in the January image (above). The photo was taken in December 2013, and stitched together from three separate photos — the first of three such composite images in this year’s calendar.

The conditions were perfect that day, and a bit deceptive, as this was the first big snowfall of the season — and thus we was able to simply hike up the trail without snowshoes, albeit with the aid of boot spikes.

Brother-in-law David taking in the magic at Tamanawas

Brother-in-law David taking in the magic at Tamanawas

My brother-in-law David joined me for the hike to Tamanawas Falls, celebrating his return to Oregon after spending the past thirty years living in distant places, far from the life he knew growing up here among tall trees, big mountains and countless waterfalls – the best kind of reunion!

The February image (below) is an evening scene from one of the viewpoints along the historic Bennett Pass Road. The blanket of valley fog rolled in just as the sun dropped behind the mountain ridges, making for an especially peaceful scene.

February: WyEast's under-appreciated southeast side from near Bennett Pass

February: WyEast’s under-appreciated southeast side from near Bennett Pass

Ironically, the story behind the image is anything but quiet, as I was visiting Bennett Pass on New Years Day — apparently, along with the rest of Portland area population!

A “pristine” framing of this image suffered as a result, as the fresh blanket of snow from the previous night had already been heavily trampled by the small army of skiers and snowshoers (and their dogs) that day! Otherwise, I would have loved to included this image (below), with a pretty little noble fir in the foreground in the calendar. Maybe I should bring along a rake next time..?

Heavy ski and snowshoe traffic on New Years Day!

Heavy ski and snowshoe traffic on New Years Day!

For the March image, I picked a mid-winter Gorge scene captured at Elowah Falls on McCord Creek, just west of Cascade Locks (below). This is another composite image, made from a total of six photos, with the goal of giving a panoramic feel that matches the immensity of the setting.

This is the finished image:

March: Elowah Falls in late winter hues

March: Elowah Falls in late winter hues

The six separate images look like this before merging:

Six photos make up the original panorama at Elowah

Six photos make up the original panorama at Elowah

Once merged, I cropped the final image to fit the dimensions of the calendar:

The calendar image was then snipped from the composite image

The calendar image was then snipped from the composite image

There’s a bit of a story to this scene, too: the graceful, multi-trunked bigleaf maple framing the falls will soon succumb to the power of McCord Creek, as the stream has recently eroded the bank to the point that the main trunk of the tree is hovering over the creek, in mid-air (below).

Change is coming to this maple along McCord Creek

Change is coming to this maple along McCord Creek

This section of McCord Creek has suddenly experienced a lot of erosion in the past few years, so this is part of a larger change happening to this iconic spot – much more to come as we watch the power of nature at work, and a reminder that change is constant in the natural landscape!

For April, I picked a familiar spot in the Columbia Gorge at Rowena Crest (below), where the blooming lupine and arrowleaf balsamroot frame the river and town of Lyle in the distance. It was a typically blustery day in the Gorge last spring when I visit this spot, and though the overall bloom in the east Gorge in 2013 was somewhat disappointing, the McCall Preserve at Rowena still had a very good flower show.

April: blustery winds at Rowena Crest..? Naturally!

April: blustery winds at Rowena Crest..? Naturally!

The May image (below) is from the wonderful little loop trail at Butte Creek Falls, an gorgeous little canyon in the otherwise heavily logged foothills southwest of Mount Hood. This view shows the upper falls, a quiet, understated cascade that hides an impressive cave tucked behind the falls. The main falls of Butte Creek if just downstream.

May: pretty Upper Butte Creek Falls is tucked away in serious logging country

May: pretty Upper Butte Creek Falls is tucked away in serious logging country

I enjoy this trail because of the contrasts, as the approach to the trailhead passes through some of the most horrendously cut over timber corporation holdings in Oregon. By comparison, the vibrant, mossy canyon holding Butte Creek is a reminder of what we’ve lost — and hopefully will restore, someday.

Spring is waterfall season in Oregon, so the June image stays with the theme, this time countering little-known Upper Butte Creek Falls with the queen of all Oregon cascades, Multnomah Falls (below).

June: a composite photo from a very busy viewpoint

June: a composite photo from a very busy viewpoint

This image is the third blended photo in the 2014 calendar, this time composed of three separate images (below) taken at the perennially crowded lower overlook along the Multnomah Falls trail. As with the other composite images, my goal was to give broader context to the scene — in this case, the massive array of cliffs that surround Multnomah Falls.

Three photos came together for the Multnomah Falls image

Three photos came together for the Multnomah Falls image

As always, mountain scenes fill the summer months of the calendar, starting with a view of Mount Hood’s towering west face for July (below). This image was captured in mid-July, and though a bit late for the full glory of the beargrass bloom, it does capture the final phase of the bloom. This scene is from one of the hanging meadows high on the shoulder of McGee Ridge, looking into the valley of the Muddy Fork.

July: beargrass bloom in the hanging meadows above the Muddy Fork

July: beargrass bloom in the hanging meadows above the Muddy Fork

For the August calendar scene, I chose an image from a hike to Elk Cove. It’s a bit of a repeat from past calendars, but one of my (and most everyone else, I suspect) favorite views of the mountain. The alpine bloom came late to Elk Cove this year, and still hadn’t peaked when I shot this photo in early August:

August: my annual pilgrimage to "the view" from Elk Cove

August: my annual pilgrimage to “the view” from Elk Cove

I’ve shot this scene many times, but on this particular trip several hikers passed by while I waited for the afternoon light to soften. Two groups stopped to chat and pose for me, including a pair of hiking buddies doing the Timberline Trail circuit and a family from Olympia, Washington visiting Elk Cove for the first time (below).

Round-the-mountain hikers arriving for a night at Elk Cove

Round-the-mountain hikers arriving for a night at Elk Cove

This group traveled from Olympia to visit Elk Cove

This group traveled from Olympia to visit Elk Cove

Both shots let out a little secret about my favorite photo spot at Elk Cove: it’s only about ten feet off the Timberline Trail, which crosses right through the drift of western pasque flower in the foreground!

For the September scene, I picked an image of Wiesendanger Falls on Multnomah Creek (below), named for Albert Wiesendanger, a pioneering forester in the Columbia River Gorge.

September: Albert Wiesendanger earned a place name with his falls on Multnomah Creek

September: Albert Wiesendanger earned a place name with his falls on Multnomah Creek

Most hikers are (understandably) looking upstream, toward Wiesendanger Falls, when they walk through Dutchman’s Tunnel (not a true tunnel, but more of a ledge carved into the basalt cliff) along Multnomah Creek, just below the falls.

Thus, few see this inconspicuous bronze plaque at the south end of the tunnel honoring Albert Wiesendanger:

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Wiesendanger not only had an important role in shaping of the trails and campgrounds we now enjoy in the Columbia River Gorge, he also went on to lead the Keep Oregon Green campaign. He is a little-known giant in our local history, and deserves to have his story more widely told.

The October scene isn’t from a trail, but rather, a somewhat obscure dirt road high on the shoulder of Middle Mountain (below), in the Hood River Valley. I learned of this spot several years ago, and often make the bumpy side trip if I’m passing through in early evening — it’s one of the more stunning views in the area, showing off the spectacular Upper Hood River Valley at its finest.

October: The upper Hood River Valley from a lesser-known viewpoint on Middle Mountain

October: The upper Hood River Valley from a lesser-known viewpoint on Middle Mountain

For November, I chose a photo of Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek taken a year ago (below), in early November 2012. Why? Because the monsoons we experienced in September of this year really did a number on the fall colors. Foliage was battered by the winter-like weather, and trees were deprived of the normal autumn draught conditions that help put the brilliance in our fall.

November: Tanner Creek as it would normally appear in early November

November: Tanner Creek as it would normally appear in early November

The result of our cold, wet September was a very early leaf fall and generally muted fall colors, as can be seen in these views of Wahclella Falls taken from the same spot at almost the same time of year in 2012 and 2013:

Our rough September weather in 2013 was devastating to autumn foliage

Our rough September weather in 2013 was devastating to autumn foliage

Finally, a winter scene along the East Fork of the Hood River (below) wraps up the 2014 calendar as the December image. This photograph was taken from the footbridge leading to Cold Spring Creek and Tamanawas Falls, and was captured on the same day as the opening January image in this year’s calendar.

December: The East Fork Hood River in winter

December: The East Fork Hood River in winter

Among the missing elements in this year’s calendar are scenes from the Cloud Cap area and Cooper Spur, on Mount Hood’s north side. This is largely due to the indefinite closure of the historic Cloud Cap Road, abruptly announced by the Forest Service earlier this year.

This road closure had a big impact on recreation. While it’s possible for seasoned hikers to make the much longer trek from the nearby Tilly Jane trailhead, for most (especially families and less active hikers), it means that Cooper Spur and the spectacular views of the Eliot Glacier will have to wait until another year.

Cloud Cap Road in 2010: salvage logging slash lines the road two years after the Gnarl Fire swept through in August 2008

Cloud Cap Road in 2010: salvage logging slash lines the road two years after the Gnarl Fire swept through in August 2008

The reason for the Cloud Cap Road closure is a bit more worrisome: five years after the Gnarl Fire roared through the area — and four years after an extensive salvage logging operation toppled hundreds of “hazard” trees along the road — the Forest Service has decided that standing trees must once again be felled in order to “protect the public”.

Oddly enough, the road remains open to hikers, skiers and cyclists — apparently because the hazardous trees only fall on cars? We can only hope that the scars from this latest “improvement” don’t further degrade the historic road, when huge piles of slash were left behind, where they still line the old road.

One that didn’t make it…

Metlako Falls (from the wrong side of the fence)

Metlako Falls (from the wrong side of the fence)

The above view of Metlako Falls on Eagle Creek was in my folder of favorite 2013 images to include in the annual calendar, but I decided to save the scene for another year. Why? Because in July, I headed up a mighty (okay, two-man) Trailkeepers of Oregon crew to clear out the brush that has blocked safe viewing of Metlako Falls for many years.

Previously, the only way to capture a photo like the one above, photographers had to step OVER the cable hand rail, and stand perilously close to the 200-foot brink dropping into the Eagle Creek Gorge. The hazard to hikers was bad enough, but the “sweet spot” for photos was so over-used that it was starting to erode the ground underneath it, potentially destabilizing the rest of the cliff-top Metlako Falls overlook.

Chris Alley was one half of the TKO crew, and the only hiker with a 16-foot pole pruner on the Eagle Creek Trail that day!

Chris Alley was one half of the TKO crew, and the only hiker with a 16-foot pole pruner on the Eagle Creek Trail that day!

The solution was straightforward: the Gorge unit of the Forest Service approved our plan to trim the offending brush using a 16-foot pole saw. This kept us safely on the uphill side of the cable fence, with just enough reach to clip the brush.

The task at hand: trim overgrown brush and maple limbs

The task at hand: trim overgrown brush and maple limbs

With my Trailkeepers partner Chris Alley along for the project, we made quick work of the offending branches on a rather hot, sticky day. After a couple hours of sawing and lopping, Metlako Falls was once again safely in view! This is a project I’d wanted to do for awhile, so it was great to finally have it sanctioned as a Trailkeepers of Oregon project.

The author: "I can see clearly now (the brush is gone)!"

The author: “I can see clearly now (the brush is gone)!”

Now, I’m looking forward to next spring, when I’ll head up there during the waterfall prime time to re-capture the scene — safely, this time! I’ve already been back this year, and enjoyed seeing casual hikers admiring the unobstructed falls, snapping photos on their iPhones.
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The thirteen images I chose for the 2014 calendar are from a few thousand images I’ve taken this year on close to 50 outings to Mount Hood and the Gorge! As always, the magnificent scenery only strengthened my conviction that Mount Hood should (and will!) be set aside as a National Park! Hopefully, the scenes in the calendar continue to make the case, as well.

How can you get one?

The new calendars are available online:

2014 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. You can also order them with gift wrapping at additional charge.

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 of the blog and the campaign!

Proposal: Viento Bluff Trails

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

Looking west from the summit of Viento Bluff

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

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

Trail map of the proposal

Trail map of the proposal

(Click here for a larger map)

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

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

Perspective view of the proposal

Perspective view of the proposal

(Click here for a larger map)

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

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

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

Viento Bluff Trail

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

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

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

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

Historic CCC path along Viento Creek

Historic CCC path along Viento Creek

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

Historic CCC path

Historic CCC path

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

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

Remains of the old CCC water house along Viento Creek

Remains of the old CCC water house along Viento Creek

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

Game trail leading from Viento Creek to the bluff

Game trail leading from Viento Creek to the bluff

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

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

Poison Oak heaven in the saddle south of Viento Bluff!

Poison Oak heaven in the saddle south of Viento Bluff!

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

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

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

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

Gorge panorama from Viento Bluff

Gorge panorama from Viento Bluff

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

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

East Bluff Trail

The East Bluff as seen from Viento Bluff

The East Bluff as seen from Viento Bluff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USGS marker on the summit of the East Bluff

USGS marker on the summit of the East Bluff

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

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

West Bluff Loop Trail

West Bluff from the Viento interchange

West Bluff from the Viento interchange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would it take?

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

Historic retaining wall at Viento from the CCC era

Historic retaining wall at Viento from the CCC era

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

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

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

The HCRH State Trail already has a major trailhead at Viento

The HCRH State Trail already has a major trailhead at Viento

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

What can you do..?

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

Seldom-seen rubber boa spotted along Viento Creek

Seldom-seen rubber boa spotted along Viento Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Mount Hood National Park on Hike Yeah

March 28, 2010

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of meeting Alex Head, host of the weekly Hike Yeah program. We recorded a two-part podcast that covers all aspect of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, and you can stream or download the first 30-minute segment (Podcast 40) from the Hike Yeah website now:

Hike Yeah | Podcast 40 | Mount Hood National Park Campaign

The second segment will air next Friday at 2 PM, and will appear as Podcast 41 on the Hike Yeah website. Alex is a fine interviewer, and had really done his research into the MHNP project before the show, so we were able to jump right in to the questions that people are most curious about: how would National Park management differ from the Forest Service? Would there be additional entry fees? What about my dog..?? Those questions, and many more are covered in the interview.

The second segment airing next week is a bit more expansive, as Alex focused more on things that I’m doing outside the MHNP Campaign, but I did manage to bring it back to the cause I care about most! Alex provides a terrific service with this program, so if you’re a hiker be sure to subscribe and catch his show every week.
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Edited to add in the link to the second part – rambles onto other subjects like waterfall hunts, restoring old trails and the birth of Trailkeepers of Oregon, but does get back to the main theme of Mount Hood National Park toward the end:

Hike Yeah | Podcast 41 | Mount Hood National Park Campaign

Thanks for the opportunity, Alex – it was fun!


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