Mystery of the Desert Mounds

Mount Adams framed by mysterious desert mounds found east of Mount Hood

A strange phenomenon plays out in the shadow of Mount Hood, across the broad desert ridges and plateaus of the Columbia Basin. Tens of thousands of dome-shaped soil mounds that range from a dozen feet to more than 60 feet in diameter rise atop the rocky bedrock, often in swarms that number in the hundreds. 

These mounds were given the unfortunate name of “biscuit scablands” by white emigrants arriving in the Northwest in the mid-1800s. They understandably loathed them as yet another miserable obstacle for wagon travel, no doubt having to weave among them on the rocky ground that typically surrounds these mounds. 

Later, they discovered that farming the “scablands” was equally difficult, and even today the sweeping wheat fields of the Columbia basin are still plowed around many of these odd formations where the ground has never been tamed.

White settlers arriving by wagon in the Columbia Basin in the 1800s gave “biscuit scablands” their name as they navigated thousands of these mounds along their journey (Oregon Trail Center)

Their pioneer name refers to “biscuits” of mounded soil on the scoured, rocky basalt substrate, or “scabland”, that typically surrounds the mounds. These mysterious humps in the desert are usually round, but depending on slight variations in slope, they also appear in oval and oblong shapes. 

A maze of desert mounds once covered a much larger part of the Columbia Basin, but more than a century of farming has erased many of the “biscuit” fields from the landscape. Still, even after 150 years of farming, they can still be found in the thousands, and their origin is still debated by geoscientists.

What are they?

Many theories on the formation of these mounds have been put forth since white settlement in the Pacific Northwest began. Among the early theories were Indian burial mounds, giant anthills, gopher mounds, wind-blown dunes, bison wallows and (of course!) extraterrestrials. While creative, none of these explanations are supported by field observation.

Similar mounds are found around the world, and often called “mima mounds” after the famous Mima Mounds near Olympia Washington. Recently, the early theory that they were created by pocket gophers has found favor again. 

While it sounds far-fetched, the gopher theory was boosted in the 1980s when a scientist used metal tracing to show that pocket gophers living in soil mounds in California actually pushed soil toward the top, and not outward, as was expected. This gave new life to the idea that gophers could create massive mounds over time.

Did pocket gophers create the desert mounds east of Mount Hood? Field science still says otherwise…

Scientists hoping to build on this discovery have since created a computer model to show that, over millennia, generations of pocket gophers could create large mounds on this scale.

While the renewed gopher theory might hold true for soil mounds found elsewhere in the world, the desert mounds found east of Mound Hood are different. The mounds of the Columbia Plateau are highly organized in their shape and distribution in a way that can’t be explained by the gopher model. These mounds clearly formed in direct relationship to the slopes they have formed upon, something that scientists have yet to explain with gopher models.

There’s also the fact that computer simulations of gopher activity are only as valid as the model inputs used by the scientists, especially when the simulations involve thousands of iterations, as the gopher model does. The gold standard in science is still direct field observation, and only the magnetic tracing research from the 1980s supports the gopher theory with this rigor.

So, for this article I’ve turned to original field research completed in the 1970s by a pair of Oregon graduate students. Their work continues to make the most compelling case for how our desert mounds formed. Clark Nelson of Oregon State University and John Baine Pyrch of Portland State University completed their research separately, but they came to the same conclusions on the general origin of the mounds. Both found that desert mounds are geomorphic relics from the last ice age, and were created by soil heave and sorting from repeated freezing and thawing, not gophers.

In 1973, John Pyrch completed his thesis on the origin of rock stripes, a related phenomenon to desert mounds in the Columbia Basin. Clark Nelson built on this research with his 1977 thesis focusing on soil mounds and their surrounding rock rings, the main focus of this article. Perhaps most importantly, both Pyrch and Nelson based their research on conditions specific to the Columbia Basin, as it’s likely that other origins for soil mounds exist, depending on where they originate in the world.

Clark Nelson dissected this desert mound near Shaniko in the 1970s, unlocking some of the secrets of how these soil mounds and rings of rock formed

For his field research, Clark Nelson camped out near the semi-ghost town of Shaniko, Oregon, where huge swarms of mounds fan out across the high plains. Nelson literally dissected a soil mound and its accompanying ring of stony “scabland” to understand how these features came to be. 

Clark’s field work showed the soil mounds and their stone rings to be interrelated features, formed by the same freeze-thaw cycles during the past ice age, more than 11,000 years ago, when the Columbia Plateau was much colder and much wetter than today. Because these ice age conditions have long passed, Clark also found that the mounds themselves are no longer evolving, and instead are simply geologic relics frozen in time. 

The ancient setup

According to Clark’s research, three ingredients set the stage for the formation of today’s desert mounds. First are the sprawling Columbia River flood basalts that cover much of eastern Oregon and Washington. It’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of these lava flows, as they originated near today’s Idaho border 16 million years ago and flowed all the way to the Oregon Coast of today. More than 300 of these massive flows spread for hundreds of miles over the millennia, burying the landscape in layers of basalt.

Today, we see these flood basalts prominently in the Columbia River Gorge, where the river has carved through them, revealing layer upon layer of basalt that forms rocky features like Crown Point and the cliffs behind Multnomah Falls. Clark found these expanses of solid bedrock to be an essential foundation for the soil mounds and rock rings.

The second ingredient came much more recently, at least in geologic time. As the last ice age began to wind down, continental glaciers that once extended as far south as Olympia (and scooped out the Puget Sound) began to retreat northward. The continental glaciers produced an immense amount of glacial silt that was spread far beyond the glacial extent over the millennia. We know today that wind played a major role in redistributing this glacial silt southward into Oregon, piling it in layers on top of the ancient Columbia flood basalts to depths of several feet. 

Finally, the third ingredient is the ongoing building of the Cascade Range, which has laid down countless layers of volcanic ash across the Columbia Basin over time. When Clark Nelson dissected his desert mound near Shaniko, he found both the wind-blown glacial silts and volcanic ash interspersed in the soil layers that make up the mounds. 

Nelson’s research also showed these layers of glacial and volcanic soil to be relatively undisturbed, and that the same sequence of layers could be found across groups of mounds in a given area. This observation casts further doubt on the gopher theory, since burrowing gophers would have mixed these soil layers up over time, had they been the builders of the mounds.

How the mounds formed

Clark Nelson believed the desert mounds and their rock rings formed through a process of natural sorting, where fine soil material is pushed up into mounds and rocks pushed out to the edges to form rings through countless cycles of freezing and thawing.

Nelson made his case with well-established research on the sorting effects of freeze-thaw cycles, and he argued that sorting on such a profound scale could only have happened during the end of the last ice age, when conditions were much colder and wetter than today’s arid desert climate. The schematic (below) is from Nelson’s thesis, and describes this process.

Nelson’s research also revealed that soil mounds tend to form where the soil depth is shallow atop the relatively impermeable basalt bedrock layer. As the schematic (below) from his thesis shows, the shallowness of the soil layer played an important role in forcing the sorting of rocks from fine soils through continuous movement from freezing and thawing.

Nelson believed that this freeze-thaw process, played out over millennia, created the soil mounds and rock rings in flat or gently sloping areas where the mounds were more protected from surface erosion. He observed that mounds only formed on gently sloping terrain, with less than 10 percent slope, and that they became oblong as the slope increased. 

He also observed that mounds formed in rows, aligned in the direction of the slope. This phenomenon shows the effects of gravity on the mounds as they formed, with their shapes stretching downhill when slopes increase. As shown in the first schematic in this article, Nelson described the interconnected rock rings that surround these round and oblong mounds as “nets”.

Finally, Nelson argued that only during the end of the Pleistocene epoch (the geologic term for the last ice age) would there have been enough moisture and cold to produce the thousands of freeze-thaw cycles needed to create today’s desert mounds. He believed that the climate that has since emerged in the Columbia Basin is not only too warm and dry to continue this sorting process, but that the desert climate has also protected the static mounds from erosion and being disturbed by forest cover. 

According to Clark Nelson, this is the sequence of events left us with the thousands of desert mounds we see today. He makes a compelling case based on field research in our region that stands up well against other, more generic theories on the origin of soil mounds.

For his part, John Pyrch studied the origins of rock stripes that mark many of the steeper slopes in areas where soil mounds otherwise occur. Like Clark Nelson’s work, Pyrch’s research found these stripes to be relics of the last ice age. 

First, Pyrch showed the strips to be distinct from common talus slopes, where an obvious source of rock at the head of the talus flow exists. Rock stripes lack such a source or falling rock. He also found that the desert rock stripes in the Columbia Basin aren’t moving like talus slopes, where rock is actively being added to the talus flow. Instead, rock stripes are gradually weathering but have become mostly static since their formation during the ice age. 

Pyrch also observed that rocks within these stripes are sorted, unlike talus slopes, suggesting the same ice age freeze-thaw origins as soil mounds and rock rings. Pyrch and Nelson both believed the rock stripes were simply extensions of the rock circles that surround soil mounds on flatter ground, the rock “nets” that Nelson described. As the earlier schematic from Clark Nelson’s research shows, these “nets” of interconnected rock rings eventually become so elongated as slopes steepen that they become rock stripes.

Tygh Ridge Quarry

Clark Nelson’s dissected soil mound near Shaniko has likely disappeared under sagebrush after 40 years, but a small quarry near Tygh Ridge provides a fresh cross-sections of soil mounds that illustrate their origins, as explained by Clark Nelson and John Pyrch. About six feet of the underlying basalt bedrock has been quarried here, with several soil mounds and rocks rings bisected in the process, as shown below.

A closer look (below) at one of these quarried mounds shows the distinct soil layer perched on top of the bedrock, as well as a profile of the rock ring surrounding the mound.

A closer (below) look at the floor of the quarry reveals truncated columns of basalt from the ancient lava flows that make up the bedrock under the desert mounds.

Basalt columns make up the bedrock under the mounds

The importance of basalt in the development of the mounds comes from its impermeability. Nelson believed the poor drainage typical of basalt flows ensured regular ponding of surface water, and therefore ensured a ready supply of moisture to drive the freeze-thaw cycle when the Columbia Basin was much colder and wetter.

Seeing Desert Mounds on the Ground

Desert mounds can be tough to spot on the ground, precisely because they formed on flat or gently sloping ground. But the advent of modern mapping tools has brought these features to life in a way that John Pyrch and Clark Nelson could not have imagined in the 1970s. The following image sets combine Google Earth aerial imagery with on-the-ground photos of the same areas to give a sense of what the mounds look like at eye level.

The first schematic (below) shows a flat-topped ridge in the Deschutes Canyon, just south of Tygh Ridge, with a well-developed swarm of desert mounds plainly visible. The underlying basalt layers can also be seen at the margins of the ridge, and flow lines on the ridge top can be seen where rows of mounds are aligned in the descending direction of the slope. 

[click here for a larger view]

Mounds in this schematic are round where the ground is flat, then become oblong in the direction of the slope where the ridge falls toward the canyon. The mounds finally disappear where slopes exceed 10 percent. This mound group does not include rock stripes, but in many similar examples, the stripes would continue down the canyon slopes below the lower limit of the soil mounds.

The following image shows what this terrain looks like on the ground in mid-spring, when the soil mounds are still holding moisture and supporting green vegtation, but the flat, shallow rock rings surrounding the mounds have already browned for the summer. This view is across a nearby ridge top in the Deschutes Canyon to the one shown in the previous schematic.

Mound swarm on a ridge top above the Deschutes River

The small farming community of Dufur is surrounded mostly by wheat and alfalfa fields, but a sizeable swarm of desert mounds survives due east of the community. It’s unclear why some mounds have been flattened and plowed while others were passed over by farmers, but one possible explanation could be the original depth of the soil in the mounds, and whether enough soil existed in the mounds to support farming when plowed flat.

On the ground, desert soil mounds near Dufur (below) are also most prominent in late spring, when the mounds are still green with new growth but the surrounding rock rings have browned for the summer. This view shows three separate swarms of mounds, one in front of the closest row of trees, a second swarm between the rows of trees and a third on the distant slope.

Desert mound swarms near Dufur

One of the most accessible places to see desert mounds is on the Rowena Plateau, in the Columbia River Gorge. These mounds formed at the western margin of where mounds occur in the Columbia Basin, but share all of the typical features of soil mounds. 

This aerial schematic (above) shows a couple of ice-age features whose origins have been long-debated by geologists. First, the soil mounds show up prominently, and seem to fit the explanation given by Clark Nelson for their origin. But the plateau also includes at least two kettle (or “pothole”) lakes that are typically formed by ice age glaciers leaving blocks of ice behind that are initially buried in sediments, then melt to leave a depression, or “kettle” behind.

But the “kettles” at Rowena are formed in solid basalt flows, so geologists believe they were carved into the basalt by the series of massive ice age floods known as the Missoula Floods. They believe floodwaters eroded these depressions much like the potholes commonly found in rivers, except on a massive scale.

Timing is key to the story at Rowena, as the ancient floods also swept away all but the basalt bedrock on the plateau, and any soil mounds that had formed before the floods wouldn’t have survived. The Missoula Floods occurred more than 13,000 years ago, so with the ice age winding down by about 11,700 years ago, that leaves a window of less than 2,000 years for windblown glacial and volcanic sediments to accumulate here, and for freeze-thaw action to sort the sediments into the mounds we see today. Was that enough time for these mounds to have formed according to Clark Nelson’s theories? This uniquely narrow geologic window could make Rowena Plateau the place where the mystery of the desert mounds can finally be unlocked by researchers.

On the ground at Rowena Plateau, the rock rings are prominent between the soil mounds (below). Consistent with Clark Nelson’s theory of a standing water table atop the bedrock, they often form vernal pools in winter and spring.

Rock rings surrounding the soil mounds at Rowena

Hikers on the plateau may not recognize the mounds as geologic features, but they cover most of the plateau and are surprisingly easy to spot, along with their network of rock rings (below).

Hikers passing through the soil mounds at Rowena

In this view (below), a hiking trail weaves among the mounds as it makes its way across the plateau, much as pioneer wagons must have dodged the desert mounds in the mid-1800s.

Trail meandering between desert mounds on the Rowena Plateau

Clark Nelson chose the Shaniko plateau for his field research in the 1970s, and it’s easy to see why from modern aerial photos, as shown in the following schematic (below). The terrain here slopes gently toward the surrounding canyons, creating the perfect geologic setup for soil mounds. 

The expansive extent of the desert mounds at Shaniko also shows how closely their formation follows slopes, with mounds radiating from a barely discernable high point in the plateau toward the canyons beyond the town.

This second view (below) of the Shaniko swarm of desert mounds provides some context, with a pickup truck and semi-truck captured in the aerial imagery for scale. 

In the tiny farm community of Kingsley, located a few miles south of Dufur and west of Tygh Ridge, there are more headstones than residents these days, with two pioneer cemeteries providing close-up views desert mounds. In this aerial view (below) a swarm of desert mounds has survived the plows next to the Kingsley Cemetery. Many other isolated mound swarms are located throughout the Kingsley area.

On the ground, the Kingsley mounds are prominent, especially in mid-spring when wildflowers and native grasses flourish on the mounds. The rock rings surrounding these mounds (below) are also well-developed and easy to see.

Green-topped desert mounds in spring surrounded by barren rock rings at Kingsley

As summer sets in and the desert green fades to brown, desert mounds are harder to spot. This view (below) shows the same group of mounds near the Kingsley Cemetery in June, as the last spring wildflowers on top of the mounds are fading to brown for the year.

Tawny summer colors taking hold on a swarm of soil mounds near Kingsley

Tygh Ridge is a broad, uplifted fault that forms the north wall of Tygh Valley and the lower White River canyon. The south side of the fault is steep, dropping abruptly into Tygh Valley and Deschutes River canyon, while the north slope is broad and gentle, extending nearly 10 miles toward Dufur. Because of its geology and gentle slope, the north side of Tygh Ridge provided the perfect conditions for thousands of ice age desert mounds to form. Though many have disappeared under plowed fields, thousands remain.

The aerial view in the following schematic (below) shows the swarms of mounds that seem to flow down the slopes of Tygh Ridge, and also how the mounds stretch into oblong shapes as slopes steepen into the ravines that radiate from the ridge.

A closer look at Tygh Ridge from the air (below) shows the relationship of mound shapes and orientation to the sloping terrain of the ridge. The mounds do seem to be “flowing” downhill. In a way they are, but only to the degree that the freeze-thaw sorting process that created these features was also shaped by gravity. 

[Click here for a larger view]

A closer aerial view (below) of this area on Tygh Ridge shows the order of the mounds strikingly, with longer mounds marking slopes and round mounds formed were the terrain is flatter. These patterns and the predictable order of the mounds on Tygh Ridge clearly defies the “gopher theory” that has found new life among scientists. 

The desert mounds here are plainly too ordered and predictable to be the work of gophers. Did gophers build soil mounds elsewhere in the world? Possibly. But the patterns we see in the Columbia Basin seem best explained by on-the-ground, freeze-thaw research by John Pyrch and Clark Nelson.

The desert mounds on Tygh Ridge are everywhere, though much less obvious on the ground than in aerial photos. This scene (below) shows why. The crest of Tygh Ridge, which forms the backdrop in this view, is almost entirely covered in desert mounds, and yet their low profile and the gentle slopes nearly hide them when viewed from ground level. 

Historic barn on the high slopes of Tygh Ridge

However, the closer you get to desert mounds on the ground, they more they begin to emerge in profile. These mounds on Tygh Ridge are typical, with wildflowers and bunch grasses established in the deep soil of the mound, and sparse growth in the rock rings that surround the mounds.

Mount Adams peeks between soil mounds on Tygh Ridge

Large areas along the north slope of Tygh Ridge remain unplowed, providing one of the best field laboratories for further understanding the phenomenon of desert mounds. Because the area is uplifted, it’s also some of the highest terrain (ranging from 2,500 to over 3,000 feet) in the Columbia Basin to show the desert mound phenomenon, which also might be of value for future research.

Rock Stripes

Rock stripes are abundant on the slopes of Tygh Ridge in Butler Canyon

Tygh Ridge not only has impressive displays of desert mounds, it’s also home to some of the best rock stripe examples in the area. Once group is located on a prominent shoulder of Tygh Ridge in Butler Canyon, where OR 197 crosses the ridge. 

Though this shoulder of Tygh Ridge (below) looks like an isolated bluff, it’s really just the end of a long ridge, with hundreds of desert mounds spread across the gentle crest of the ridge, out of view. It’s on the steep shoulders of the ridge that John Pyrch’s theory of rock stripes plays out. There is clearly no source of rock to feed these strips, and they are not migrating downhill like a talus slope might. Pyrch showed these to be are barely moving at all, in the absence of the ice age moisture and heavy freeze-thaw cycles that sorted them into stripes.

Rock stripes in Butler Canyon

A closer look (below) at rock strips on another shoulder of Tygh Ridge shows how the stripes correlate to the slope and to one other, marking the direction of the slope. 

Rock stripes on Tygh Ridge

While not as clearly formed as their desert mound and rock ring cousins, there is order here, with the stripes alternating with long islands of soil that Pyrch and Nelson believe are simply soil mounds becoming increasingly elongated by gravity as they slopes they formed upon became steeper.

(Author’s note: do you know John Pyrch or Clark Nelson? I tried to located them for this article with no luck, but would love to hear from them!)

_____________________

The Desert Mound Tour!

View from below the Kingsley Cemetery

If you’re up for a road trip, there’s a lonely and scenic loop through the Tygh Ridge area that provides close-up looks at desert mounds, along with sweeping views of the Cascades (on a clear day). In May and June, the route is lined with wildflowers, but the trip is fascinating to explore through summer and fall, as well. A pair of nearly forgotten pioneer cemetaries along the way make for interesting stops, too, and both are filled with wildflowers in spring.

Though this makes for an easy day-trip in a car, it could also work as a bicycle tour for cyclists open to some well-maintained gravel roads mixed in with the paved sections. With the exception of a couple of OR 197 sections along the loop, there is little or no traffic to contend with — and even the highway is lightly traveled. This is lonely country!

Here’s a map of the loop, along with a link to a larger version to print for your trip:

[Click here for a large, printable map]

The highlights of this 37-mile tour are keyed to the purple dots on the map and mileage for segments between the small orange dots is shown in the orange ovals. Here’s a segment-by-segment description of the tour:

1. From The Dalles, drive south on OR 197 for 8.7 miles to the Boyd Junction and turn left onto the Boyd Loop road. The tour begins here. Continue on this road toward Boyd.

Soon you will make a dogleg turn to the right through the tiny community of Boyd, then reach the beautiful Adkisson Bridge (A on the map) over Fifteenmile Creek. This historic 1925 structure was designed by Conde McCullough, the famed Oregon bridge engineer who designed most of the stunning bridges along the Oregon Coast Highway and several of the graceful bridge along the old scenic highway in the Columbia River Gorge. The nearby, historic Adkisson Mill completes the picturesque scene here. There’s a small pullout on the south side of the bridge.

Historic Adkisson Bridge designed by famed designer Conde McCullough

2. Reach a signed intersection with Dry Hollow Road 2.5 miles from Boyd Junction. Stay straight here and continue 6.2 miles up Long Hollow Road.

As travel through Long Hollow, you’ll notice the steep slopes of the hollow have kept the farmer’s plows mostly at bay, providing a glimpse of what the entire area once looked like, with sagebrush and wildflowers covering the desert landscape. In spring, blue Lupine and yellow Buckwheat are the predominate wildflowers here and throughout the tour. You might see deer and even antelope along this part of the tour, too, and the first desert mounds will come into view (shown on map).

A remnant of the natural desert landscape surives in Long Hollow

3. At a 3-way junction with Center Ridge Road and Tygh Ridge Road, turn right and begin following Tygh Ridge Road for the next 10.8 miles. This road is intially paved, but then turns to well-maintained gravel.

Immeidately after turning onto Tygh Ridge Road, watch for a wide shoulder pullout on a curve at the picturesque remains of the Nansene Community Hall (B on the map), located on the west (right) side of the road. This fading structure has its origins in the early 1900s when the area was still a center for sheep ranching. Now, it stands as the sole reminder of the community of Nansene, and its main residents are the hundreds of barn swallows that swoop in and out of the building and serenade visitors.

Historic Nansene Community Hall and Mount Hood

In spring, the meadows opposite the community hall (on the east side of the road) are filled with blue lupine and a view down Oak Creek Canyon toward the Deschutes River. There are great views of the meadow from along the fenceline, so please respect private property here. The view from Nansene also includes four Cascade volcanoes on a clear day: Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood, the top of Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams!

Continuing south on Tygh Ridge Road, several desert mounds appear along both sides of the road. Watch for the quarry described earlier in this article if you’d like to inspect soil mounds that have been dissected. The soil mound quarry (C on the map) is on the east side of the road. This is private land and may be gated, though the quarried mounds are visible from the main road. 

Where Tygh Ridge Road turns to gravel, look to your left for a picturesque, abandoned farmhouse (D on the map) that dates back to the days of sheep ranching, but please observe private property here. There’s a pullout on the right side, opposite the farmstead.

Abandoned farmhouse along Tygh Ridge Road

Continue on Tygh Ridge Road as it gradually turn to the west, and begins to parallel the crest of Tygh Ridge (the long, gentle ridgeline to the south with communication towers marking its summit). Tygh Ridge and nearby Tygh Valley were named for the native peoples who lived in the area before white settlement in the mid-1800s. 

In 1845, Tygh Ridge also saw the ill-fated Stephen Meek party pass through in a harrowing effort to reach The Dalles after losing their way on the Meek’s Cutoff. The “cutoff” was a supposed shortcut along the Oreogn Trail, but it turned into a dead end for the 200 wagons and 1,000 white emigrants in Stephen Meek’s party when they reached the chasm of the Deschutes Canyon. At this point, the party had come to realize that Meek had never traveled the route and they were now lost.

Mountain man Stephen Meek in the 1860s

Starving and desperate, the Meek party crossed the Deschutes River at Sherar’s Falls, using ropes to haul their dissembled wagons across in an effor that took two weeks. From there, they somehow scaled Tygh Ridge with the help of a rescue party and eventually reached The Dalles. 

Dozens died along the disatrous Meek’s Cutoff trek, and many more died of exhaustion after reaching the The Dalles in October 1845. As you travel across the sweeping north slopes of Tygh Ridge, it’s easy to imagine these weary emigrants to Oregon making their way across this terrain in creaky wagons. Their story was made into the acclaimed film “Meek’s Cutoff” in 2010.

In the westward section of Tygh Ridge Road, the continuous view sweeps from Mount Hood to Mount Adams on a clear day. Watch for a rustic, century-old barn on the left (E on the map) and several wildflower meadows and swarms of soil mounds and their accompanying rock rings on the right (F on the map) in this section of the tour.

4. Continue following Tygh Ridge Road until you reach OR 197. Turn left here in the direction of Tygh Valley, following the highway for 1.6 miles south to Dufur Gap Road, just beyond the Tygh Summit marker. Turn right to continue the tour on Dufur Gap Road.

You will now enter the Kingsley portion of the tour, which has some of the most accesible and interesting desert mounds in the area. There are several mounds in a swarm located along the east (right) side of Dufur Gap Road. This quiet road was the original highway through the area until it bypassed in the 1960s by the modern OR 197.

5. After traveling 1.2 miles on paved Dufur Gap Road come to the junction with Kingsley Road. Turn left (west) and follow gravel Kingsley Road for the next 2.6 miles.

As you continue through the Kingsley district, you’ll pass more swarms of desert mounds that have survived the plows. I’ve dubbed one group of these mounds (G on the map) as the “Garden Mounds”, as they are topped with a beautiful display of wildflowers in spring and frame a nice view of Mount Hood (see photo, below).

“Garden Mounds” along Kingsley Road with Mount Hood on the horizon

You probably won’t realize that Kingsley Road has became Hix Road at a bend by a farmhouse, but soon the route reaches a short paved section along this part of the tour, where Friend Road briefly joins Hix Road. There’s is an excellent group of desert mounds and rock rings at this intersection (H on the map), with views south to Mount Jefferson and Postage Stamp Butte. The latter is the broad western extent of Tygh Ridge and once had a fire lookout on the summit. The mounds here have especially well-developed rock rings and vernal pools in winter and spring.

6. From the junction with Friend Road, continue north along a brief paved section, then keep straight where paved Friend Road veers left and gravel Hix Road heads north. Continue on Hix Road for the next 4.0 miles. 

Heading north on Hix Road you’ll pass another farmhouse on the right before reaching a sharp right turn, where a rough, dirt road heads off to the left toward a stand of Ponderosa pine on a low crest. If you love pioneer cemeteries but fear deep ruts, I recommend parking on the shoulder here and making short walk up this road to the pioneer Kingsley Cemetery (I on the map). Thanks to  the rough access road, this is one of the loneliest places around, and in spring, yellow Balsamroot fill the cemetery. Mount Hood is big on the horizon and there are also some nice soil mounds bordering west and south sides of the cemetery.

Just beyond the dirt road spur to the Kingsley Cemetery, watch for the Kingsley Catholic Cemetery on the north side of the road (J on the map). Park on the north shoulder for a short walk to tour this beautiful pioneer cemetery, where the views on a clear day include Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. Soil mounds border this cemetery, as well, and are covered with blue Lupine and yellow Buckwheat in late spring. 

Kingsley Catholic Cemetery

The family plots in Kingsley Catholic Cemetery include a surprising number of grave markers for children, a poignant reminder that at the turn of the 20th Century the child mortatilty rate was nearly 1 in 5 in our country, thanks to deadly childhood diseases that have since been nearly eliminated by modern vaccines. 

As you resume the tour heading northeast on Hix Road, you’ll pass still more swarms of soil mounds on the right and a couple more ranches as the road makes a gradual descent to Mays Canyon. On the far horizon, you can pick out the wrinkled Columbia Hills that mark the north wall of the Columbia River Gorge and some of the hundreds of modern, white windmills that now rise along the ridges of the Columbia Basin.

7. Reach a junction with paved Dufur Gap Road 4.0 miles from where Hix Road left paved Friend Road. Head left on Dufur Gap Road and travel 1.7 miles to a junction with OR 197.

This section of Dufur Gap Road travels through Mays Canyon, where you will pass several farm homes and likely see deer and possibly antelope along the way, as well as the distinctive magpies that are common in Oregon’s desert country. 

You may also have noticed burned trees scattered throughout the Kingsley and Mays Canyon segments of the tour. These were victims of the massive Substation Fire that burned nearly 80,000 acres in July 2018. Though the ground was blackened across much of the area, wheat fields and wildflower meadows have since covered most traces of the fire in just two years, with only the scattered tree snags to remind us of the event.

8. At the junction with OR 197, turn left onto the highway and continue north 2.5 miles to Dufur, forking left onto Dufur Valley Road where a sign points to Dufur, and staying straight when the town of Dufur comes into view.

Be sure to make a stop at the Historic Balch Hotel (K on the map), which offers vintage lodging and fine meals. It’s the large brick structure on the right as you pull into this small town. Dufur has lots to offer, and makes a nice lunch stop for the tour, including a city park for picnicking.

Historic Balch Hotel in Dufur

If you make the tour during the second week of August, you’ll miss the spring wildflowers but be just in time for Vintage Dufur Days — known to old-timers as the Dufur Threshing Bee. And remember, when John F. Kennedy visited Dufur during his 1960 presidential campaign, he famously challenged the locals with “Ask not what Dufur can do ‘fer you, but rather, what you can do ‘fer Dufur!”

9. Continue through Dufur and rejoin OR 197 on the north end of town. Turn left toward The Dalles and head 3.9 miles to the Boyd Junction, which concludes the tour loop. Continue north on OR 197 to return to The Dalles.

The last secion of the tour follows OR 197 through more ranch country, but if you’re still up for another pioneer cemetery stop, don’t miss the well-maintained Dufur Community Cemetery (L on the map), located on the west (left) side of the highway, just north of Dufur. Watch or a grove of locust trees, the somewhat hard to spot cemetery driveway is just beyond. Graves here date back to the 1860s and trace some of the earliest white settlement in Oregon, when Dufur was along the Barlow Road route used by white settlers to reach the Willamette Valley. Mount Hood fills the western horizon on a clear day.

Big Jim’s Drive-in is a local institution in The Dalles

Still feeling hungry before the drive home? No trip to The Dalles is complete without a stop at Big Jim’s Drive-in, located just west of OR 197 on Highway 30, near the I-84 interchange. It has been a comfort-food institution in The Dalles since the 1960s.

You can go fancy at Big Jim’s with salmon and chips (or even grilled wild salmon!), but I recommend starting with the Jim Dandy burger basket. The house fries are excellent, and if you’re an onion ring fan, be sure to request the upgrade for $1 (or order both! You won’t regret it… though your cardiologist might). In our pandemic era, Big Jim’s has patio seating, a drive-thru and you can even call an order in from a marked space in their parking lot and have it delivered to your car window.

Travel safe, everyone!

_________________

Tom Kloster | June 2020

The Four Horsemen of the (WyEast Country) Apocalypse..?

Trail hazards of Biblical proportions? Not quite… but still worth avoiding! (“Four Horses of the Apocalypse” by Viktor Vasnetsov)

As our public lands begin to reopen this spring, a “revelation” (…ahem!) occurred to me that I should post a reminder of the four notable hazards that explorers in WyEast Country should be aware of as they head into the wilds — especially the Columbia River Gorge. 

Though not quite on the epic scale of the Biblical quartet of Death, Famine, War and Conquest (arriving on horseback!), these trail threats are real for hikers and should (and can easily) be avoided. I’ve written detailed articles on a couple of our local “horsemen” in the past, and you’ll find links within this article if you’re looking for a deeper dive. The fourth “horseman” is lesser known, will likely be a surprise to you, so read on!

The First Horseman: Ticks

Several tick species are expanding their range in Oregon, so it’s a fact of life that we all need to accept and build health and safety routines into our outdoor activity. I posted this longer article on ticks several years ago:

Ticks! Ticks! 10 Common Myths

This article continues to be the most-read post on the blog, viewed 185,000 times and counting! That’s a good sign that people are aware of the threat and becoming more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, it’s also true that a LOT of misguided and potentially dangerous misinformation and folklore about ticks is out there, so that’s why I posted the original piece.

Wood tick “questing” for CO2 emissions betraying a potential host (Bay Area Lyme Foundation)

While tick bites can be painful and become infected, the more serious concern is Lyme Disease. Not long ago, it was a distant worry for Oregonians, but over the past decade several cases have been reported from tick bites in Oregon, including in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Therefore, every hiker should become familiar with the symptoms of Lyme Disease and how to react if they appear after a tick bite — this is also covered in my earlier article on Ticks.

How to avoid: Ticks are thick in the dry forests and open meadows of the Columbia River Gorge, mostly east of Cascade Locks. They seem to be most abundant in the area between Hood River and The Dalles. When hiking in this area, always wear long pants, ideally tucked into your socks, long sleeves and avoid lingering in tall grass or brush, as this is prime tick habitat. 

Ticks find us by detecting the CO2 we emit, and they simply wait on a stem of grass or twig for us (or a deer, or any other red-blooded host) to pass by, and jump on when we brush against them. Ticks are in the arachnid family, and like their spider cousins, have eight legs. Through a behavior known as “questing”, ticks hold their front legs up to function as CO2 antennae when stalking a host (below), and simply climb on when one wanders by.

Deer Tick “questing” (University of Rhode Island)

Once onboard, ticks move quickly to locate uncovered skin and latch on to their host to feed on blood. While you might notice a tick biting you, you’re more likely to discover them when you get home from a hike, firmly embedded. So, everyone should do a complete body scan (with a hand mirror) followed by a shower after spending time in the Gorge, Clackamas Country or the sagebrush country east of Mount Hood.

Should you discover a tick, I recommend using the “Pro-Tick Remedy” tool (below) to remove it. I’m an infamous “tick magnet” and have pulled many of these unwelcome guests over the years. This simple tool works best, and it’s cheap — under $10 online. I carry one in every pack and even when I’m traveling. Tiny and effetive.

Forget the tweezers and folklore about burnt matches or kerosene, this little tool is optimized for tick removal — and comes with an attached magnifier for old folks like yours truly!

By the way, if you want to ensure you’ll bring ticks home from your next hike in the east Gorge, bring your dog! You probably won’t notice the ticks until they’re crawling around the car on the drive home, and even dogs with Advantix or similar protection can still carry plenty of ticks on their fur. I have three wonderful dogs, but I leave them home when I’m in tick country. It’s just safer for my pups and me!

The Second Horseman: Poison Oak

A beautiful and adaptive plant, our native Poison Oak occurs throughout the Columbia River Gorge, in Clackamas country and along Mount Hood’s east slope. We could even use this elegant plant in our gardens if… oh, right… it’s toxic! I posted this blog article on Poison Oak several years ago:

10 Common Poison Oak Myths

 This piece continues to get heavy traffic every year, and it’s right behind the tick article as a most-read article, with over 84,000 views and counting! That’s good news, as awareness of its appearance and habitat is everything in coping with this plant. 

“Leaves of three, let it be!” A lush patch of Poison Oak along the Wahkeena Falls trail.

Unlike ticks, Poison Oak is not stalking you… though sometimes it can feel that way when you find yourself in a dense thicket! But once you know how to spot the oak-shaped leaves, grouped in threes, it’s easy to spot and avoid. Poison Oak plant has three growth forms that are also important to recognize: it can grow as a low groundcover, in a thicket as a dense shrub and as a vine, climbing 30 feet or more up a tree trunk. All three forms develop from the same species and have the same leaf form, they are just adaptations of Poison Oak to its conditions. 

Poison Oak prefers open forests, and especially forest margins along meadows or rocky outcrops. It can almost always be found among our iconic Oregon White Oak stands in the Gorge, where its leaves are easy to confuse with the true oaks. So, when hiking in White Oak country, just assume there’s Poison Oak, as well, and tread mindfully.

Poison Oak has oils on its leaves and in its stems (and roots) that are the source of skin reactions for so many of us. The plants are deciduous, so you’re much less likely to have a reaction during the winter months, though some have reported a reaction to even the bare stems. They are most toxic in spring, when their emerging, new foliage shines with oil.

Poison Oak along the McCord Creek Trail growing in the groundcover form

How to avoid: I’ve been hiking in the Gorge for the better part of a half-century, and have never had a reaction to Poison Oak. What does this mean? For starters, I know what it looks like, where it grows and I’m careful to avoid it, and I also wear long pants and long sleeves in Poison Oak country. But it could be that I’m immune — some people are. After all, I’ve certainly come in contact with Poison Oak many times, despite my best efforts to avoid it.

However, evidence suggests that once you do develop a skin reaction to Poison Oak, you are more likely to react from future exposure. This is at odds with one of the most pervasive (and dangerous) folklore remedies out there that you can create an immunity by intentionally developing a rash. Quite the opposite, and that’s good motivation for learning what Poison Oak looks like, avoiding it, and always washing up when you get home from a day in the Gorge. 

Poison Oak on the McCord Creek Trail growing as vines that can climb thirty feet into the tree canopy

Research shows that plain old soap and water is just as effective in removing toxic oils as expensive chemicals sold as poison oak “cures”. The key is to act soon in removing any oils you might have picked up on exposed skin. I carry baby wipes in the car and to do a quick pass on exposed skin before the ride home, where I immediately take a soapy shower (after a tick check) to remove any remaining residue. All clothing from the hike goes straight to the wash with regular detergent. These simple steps are good prevention for both Poison Oak and ticks, so well worth incorporating into your hiking routine.

Did you know you can develop a Poison Oak reaction without ever touching a plant? It’s true. Just take your dog into Poison Oak country — especially off-leash, where you can’t monitor where Fido has been. Dogs aren’t so worried about counting those “leaves of three”, and why should they? Dogs (and cats) are immune to the oils. But the DO pick it up on their fur, later transferring it to unsuspecting owners on the ride home, or even days later to other people they encounter. So, it’s a good idea to leave your dog home when hiking in areas where Poison Oak is abundant.

The Third Horseman: Rattlesnakes

Our Western Rattlesnakes are a maligned lot. But as our only venomous snake, they are under-appreciated for the role they play controlling rodent populations. While Western Rattlesnakes occur throughout the Columbia River Gorge and much of WyEast country, they’re most common in the east Gorge and high desert country on the east slopes of the Cascades. The fear factor associated with rattlesnakes has led to these beautiful and beneficial creatures being heavily exterminated where their habitat overlaps ours, and they are losing that battle.

Bites from Western Rattlesnakes are rare, as these quiet predators are generally shy and avoid people. Most encounters come when hikers aren’t watching the trail ahead or traveling cross-country in rattlesnake country, and surprise or even step on one. Their strikes are almost always defensive, and preceded by a warning rattle. And they are often “dry” strikes without venom. While painful, their bites rarely cause serious tissue damage if treated within 18 hours, and death from a Western Rattlesnake bite is exceptionally rare. 

Western Rattlesnake among the spring wildflowers at Dalles Mountain Ranch State Park

The Western Rattlesnake in the above photo was resting in patch of Lupine at Dalles Mountain Ranch when I came across him (her?) while exploring cross-country a few years ago. I was still at least six feet away when the rattling alerted me of its presence, and had time to set up my camera for a photo. I was never closer than four feet, and the rattlesnake simply waited me out. It was a typical encounter with this quiet species.

How to avoid: Rattlesnakes spend most of their daylight hours coiled up in a protected spot — near their dens, which are typically under a rock, log or sagebrush. When hiking (especially off-trail), simply watch your feet when you’re stepping over these natural protections. Even if you do encounter a Western Rattlesnake, you’re more likely to get an impressive warning rattle and a defensive, coiled posture than a strike. Only by stepping on one or deliberately provoking it are you likely to trigger a strike. Decent boots, boot socks and long pants are always a good idea when hiking. Rattlesnakes are just one more reason why, though quite low on the threat list compared to ticks and Poison Oak.

The Fourth Horseman: Green Blister Beetles

Here’s one you didn’t see coming! Sure, there are plenty of bugs that can bite or sting you in the outdoors, but if you don’t have bee allergies, these are mostly an itchy nuisance. But, then there’s the Green Blister Beetle. You’ve heard of these, right? 

Green Blister Beetles in a Lupine meadow near Tygh Valley

Well, me neither — but I learned about them after encountering some in the field recently, and they have quite a storied AND toxic history. From the National Poison Control Center:

“Blister Beetles excrete a toxic blistering agent called cantharidin, which can cause irritation and blistering when it comes in contact with the eyes, skin, mouth, throat, or digestive tract. The irritation and blisters that form can be painful but usually are not life-threatening. Blister Beetles are notorious for their ancient use as an aphrodisiac. Not only is such use groundless, it can also be fatal.”

Cantharidin is also known as Spanish Fly, and has a long and deadly history of use as both a medicine and supposed aphrodisiac. When I encountered hundreds of Green Blister Beetles in a lupine meadow among sagebrush, near Tygh Valley, they struck me as both beautiful and interesting. But I’m glad I didn’t think to touch one, as I later learned how they earned their name. It’s worth reading the full warning at the National Poison Control center if you spend time hiking in east side meadows and sagebrush country:

Blister Beetles: Do Not Touch!

How to avoid: Green Blister Beetles are easy to avoid. They’re not out to get you, and for the most part ramble around on vegetation stalking other bugs as prey. Like most beetles, they can fly short distances when disturbed, and in the off-chance one lands on you, the Poison Control Center recommends gently blowing it off (vs. flicking or picking it off) and washing any exposed skin it might have come in contact with.

Green Blister Beetles mating near Tygh Valley

But more importantly, I’ve included Green Blister Beetles as the Fourth Horseman because they are quite beautiful, and a natural magnet for young kids looking to catch bugs. The Poison Control Center warning includes a sobering story of a 10-month old infant becoming dangerously ill from eating one. So, if you’re taking youngsters on hikes on the east side, it’s an opportunity to teach them about these beetles and why they should never be handled… along with how to recognize Poison Oak!

Honorable Mention – Northwest Forest Scorpion

There’s only room for four “horsemen” here… but I couldn’t resist an honorable mention for our fearsome-looking Northwest Forest Scorpion here. While these rarely-seen creatures can have an uber-primal effect on people, our native species is relatively harmless. They just look scary! Biologists equate it to a bee sting which rarely requires medical attention — a welcome alternative to its deadly cousins found around the world!

Scorpion along the Tamanawas Falls Trail — intimidating to see, but not a serious hazard for hikers

Northwest Forest Scorpions are nocturnal, so you’re unlikely to ever encounter one. They belong to the Arachnid family, and spend their nights preying upon small bugs. Scorpions live in forested canyons throughout WyEast country, typically near water, and spend their days resting under rocks or logs. I came across the scorpion in the above photo while clearing a couple of large rocks from the Tamanawas Falls trail, and found this 4-inch specimen curled up underneath.

In recent years, a thriving colony of scorpions at the top of Angels Rest were spotted, and images and videos have been making the rounds in social media, triggering reactions from fascination to horror. But unless you handle or provoke one, the risk of a sting from our native scorpion is minimal.

________________________

So, why the menacing title for this article? Mostly for fun, but also because the word Apocalypse comes from the Greek language, and describes “an unveiling of things not previously known.” Hopefully, this article has been a pint-sized “apocalypse” by that definition! 

And while our four “horsemen” are certainly consequential hazards worth avoiding in WyEast Country, they shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying the outdoors. Simple awareness and a few precautions do the job, and besides… that long highway drive to the trailhead is infinitely more dangerous than what you might encounter along the trail!

______________

Tom Kloster | WyEast Blog

Proposal: Oneonta Loop Trail

Beautiful Middle Oneonta Falls

The Columbia River Gorge is so rich with natural beauty that it’s pretty hard to pick favorites. Yet, when it comes to graceful waterfalls cascading through verdant, rainforest canyons, Oneonta Creek is near the top of my list. A previous article on this blog presented a new vision for managing access to stunning Oneonta Gorge and restoring the historic Oneonta Tunnel. This article examines Oneonta Canyon above the Oneonta Gorge, where more waterfalls and rugged beauty brought thousands to the trails here before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.

Iconic Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

The fire has since changed the Gorge landscape for most of our lifetimes, and the forest is just beginning a post-fire recovery cycle that has unfolded here countless times over the millennia. But while the starkness of the burned landscape is something that we are still adjusting to, the fire gives us a once-in-century opportunity to rethink and rebalance how we recreate in the Gorge.

Oneonta Creek experienced some of the most intense burning during the fire, and almost none of the dense forest canopy survived, and still the forest has already begun to restore itself. What can we do to restore our human presence at Oneonta in a way that will be sustainable for the next century, leaving a legacy for future generations like the one that we inherited?

Before the 2017 Fire: Signs of Stress

The spectacular scenery along the Oneonta Creek was already drawing huge, unsustainable crowds of hikers well before the Eagle Creek Fire roared through Oneonta Canyon, and the visible impacts were everywhere. Some of the impact was on the human environment, including the very trails and bridges that brought hikers into Oneonta Canyon. And some of the impact was on the land, itself, with hikers straying from developed trails to create destructive social paths and shortcuts in many spots. These informal trails had become badly eroded, often undermining the main trails, themselves. 

Social trail damage near the lower Oneonta Creek footbridge

One place where these impacts escalated alarmingly in the years before the fire was the lower footbridge on Oneonta Creek, located just above Oneonta Falls and just below Oneonta Bridge Falls. As shown in the photo above, crowds of hikers had carved a new path to a pool in the creek at the west abutment of the bridge, stripping away fragile vegetation and filling the pool with eroded debris.

The photo below shows how this social path has not only destroyed the thin layer of soil and forest understory on the slopes of Oneonta Creek, but was also undermining the main trail, itself, which was gradually sliding down the slope.

Social trail eroding both the slope and the shoulder of the main trail (on the left)

Even the lower Oneonta footbridge was in trouble before the fire. The Forest Service began posting a warning on the bridge a few years before the fire limiting it to one hiker at a time, yet another reminder of the serious disinvestment we have been making in our Gorge trails for the past thirty years. The rapid growth in visitors during this same period only increased the impact on structures like this, which were long overdue for repair or replacement.

Warning sign for hikers approaching the lower Oneonta footbridge

Meanwhile, at the east end of the lower Oneonta Bridge, curious crowds had pushed a new social path upstream, past Oneonta Bridge Falls (below). Social paths form when hikers head off-trail in search of a new viewpoint or water feature. When more hikers the steps of the first, the increasing foot traffic gradually formalizes social until they become hard to distinguish from legitimate trails — except that they are rarely “built” in a way that is sustainable, and often bring serious harm to the landscape.

Social trail heading toward Middle Oneonta Falls from the lower Oneonta Creek bridge

Meanwhile, things were getting worse on the east side of the lower Oneonta Bridge, too, where hikers had cut the short switchback just above the bridge (below) to the point that it began collapsing before the fire closed the area to the public. Why do people do this? Mostly, it’s ignorance, inexperience and overcrowding, and often by children who are not getting needed guidance from parents on why this is not okay.

Heavy damage from shortcutting on this switchback at the east end of the lower Oneonta Creek bridge

Heading beyond the lower Oneonta bridge, another major social path had formed on the west side of the creek (below), where hikers had created a long shortcut directly down the canyon slope where a long switchback exists on the main trail. The damage here was obvious and quite recent when this photo was taken about 18 months before the fire. When social paths become this prominent, the damage begins to spiral, with new or inexperienced hikers mistaking them for a legitimate route, and further compounding the problem with still more foot traffic. The overcrowding on the Oneonta Trail only added to the spiraling effect.

Hikers shortcutting this switchback have created a new social trail nearly as wide as the main Oneonta Creek trail

While hikers were causing the bulk of the impact before the fire, Mother Nature was busy in Oneonta Canyon, too. The photo below was taken after the 2017 fire, and reveals a major landslide that began moving years before the fire. The slide extends from Oneonta Creek (where it has left a pile of trees and debris visible in this photo) to the cliffs well above Oneonta Trail. A fifty-yard section of the trail was erased by the slide, with several efforts in the years just before the fire to stabilize a new route above the old trail.

Landslide along the middle section of Oneonta Creek that threatens long-term viability of the current trail

Here’s a view (below) of the landslide looking downhill toward Oneonta Creek from where the original Oneonta Creek Trail was once located. The big trees still standing in the path of the landslide in this view were burned in the fire, which will further destabilize this slope and allow the slide to accelerate in coming years.

Looking down the landslide toward Oneonta Creek in 2015, before the fire

When the original section of the Oneonta Trail was swept away by the landslide, the Forest Service built this set of stairs (below) to a new crossing of the slide, about 30 yards uphill from where the old trail had been.

Bypass trail built to temporarily navigate the Oneonta Trail landslide

This photo (below) shows the new, temporary crossing of the slide as it existed before the fire, but volunteer trail crews visiting the Oneonta Trail earlier this year report that this temporary route has also become eroded since the fire. The continued instability of the landslide raises real questions about whether a safe route can be maintained here in the near-term.

Wide angle view of the temporary route built across the landslide a few years before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire

Landslides like this are an ongoing part of the Gorge geology, but in this case, it also marks a spot where an increasingly busy social path dropped down to Middle Oneonta Falls. The growing traffic to this off-trail falls was already taking its toll on the terrain before the slide. So, was the landslide triggered by erosion along the social path? There’s no way to know, but it’s certainly possible that the social path contributed to the sudden instability of the slope.

On my last visit to the upper Oneonta Canyon before the 2017 fire, I ran into bit of trail legend named Bruce, who was a longtime trail worker in the Gorge dating back to the 1980s. He was rebuilding the approach to the slide, and we talked about how Forest Service crews were struggling to simply keep pace with the impact of growing crowds and shrinking agency staff for basic trail maintenance. Major repairs, like those required the slide, were completely overwhelming his crews.

Gorge trail crew legend Bruce (now retired) working near the slide on the Oneonta Trail in 2014

Bruce was wistful about the situation, as he was planning to retire soon, and the trails he had worked so hard on were not faring well as he prepared to turn them over to a new generation of trail workers. 

Beyond the problematic landslide, the Oneonta Trail arrives at Triple Falls, an iconic destination that most hikers are coming here for. In the years before the fire, the overlook at Triple Falls was literally crumbling under the pressure from overuse. The photo below shows the view from the main trail, where a tangle of social paths cutting directly downslope to the badly eroded viewpoint can plainly be seen.

Widespread slope damage where a network of social trails has cut into the Triple Falls overlook

A well-graded spur trail provides access to the viewpoint, but few used it. Instead, most follow the steps of this hiker (below) and simply cut directly up the slope to rejoin the trail. Over the past decade, the damage from erosion here had increased alarmingly.

Another hiker adding to the impact of the social trails at the Triple Falls overlook in 2014

Earlier this year, the volunteer trail crews assessing the Oneonta Trail captured these views of the Triple Falls overlook, showing how the burned over landscape also offers a unique opportunity to rethink and rebuild this overlook trail before hikers are allowed to return.

The Triple Falls overlook was stripped bare by the Eagle Creek Fire (photo: Trailkeepers of Oregon)
Triple Falls after the Eagle Creek Fire (photo: Trailkeepers of Oregon)

Just beyond Triple Falls, the Oneonta Trail crossed the creek on this upper footbridge (below), installed by volunteers and Forest Service crews about ten years ago.

Upper Oneonta Creek footbridge before the 2017 Gorge Fire

 This year’s volunteer crews found that the 2017 fire hadn’t spared the upper bridge, as the photo below shows. This represents yet another opportunity to think about how the area will reopened. While the bridge provides critical link to the rest of the Oneonta Creek trail system, it also led to a growing network of eroding social paths on the east side of Triple Falls.

Upper Oneonta Creek Footbridge after the Gorge Fire (photo: Trailkeepers of Oregon)

Today, we have a unique opportunity for a reboot, with the canyon just beginning its post-fire recover and still closed to the public. As traumatic as the Eagle Creek Fire was for those who love the Gorge, having the forest burned away was like lifting a window shade on the terrain beneath the forest. Where the fire destroyed a dense forest, it also laid bare the underlying terrain and geology, providing a rare opportunity to plan for our Gorge trail system as it enters its second century.

For trail builders, it’s a perfect opportunity to take a good look at the land for opportunities to refine existing trails and to build trails for future generations of hikers. This includes adjusting existing trail alignments to more stable terrain and replacing social paths with sustainable trails that can help curious hikers explore the beauty of the area without harming it. The fire also cleared the forest understory, making trail building a lot easier.

A New Vision for Oneonta

With this unique opportunity in mind, this proposal focuses on a new loop trail along the middle section of Oneonta Canyon, where little known Middle Oneonta Falls has been hidden in plain sight over the century since the first trail was built here. Middle Oneonta Falls is among of the most graceful in the Columbia Gorge, and waterfall enthusiasts have long followed the steep, brushy social path that led to the falls. I made my first trip there in the late 1970s, when I was 16 years old, and returned many times over the years.

Though my photography skills were pretty rough 38 years ago, this is how Middle Oneonta Falls looked way back in 1982. This is also where the falls would first come into view on the proposed Oneonta Loop Trail 

It’s hard to know why the original trail builders passed by Middle Oneonta Falls, and chose to route the main trail high above the falls. The falls can plainly be heard thundering in the forest below, and from one spot on the trail, the brink of the falls can be seen. But for most hikers, Middle Oneonta Falls remained unknown.

This proposal would change that, with a new loop that would not only lead hikers to Middle Oneonta Falls on a well-designed trail, but also take them behindthe falls! More on that, in a moment. Here’s the general location of the proposed loop (shown in yellow) as it relates to the existing Oneonta and Horsetail Creek trails (shown in green):

[click here for a large map]

Why build a new loop trail at Middle Oneonta Falls? One reason is pragmatic: the word is out, and this beautiful waterfall is no longer a secret, as well-worn social paths prove. And, with the forest now burned away, the falls will be plainly visible from the main Oneonta trail, making it impossible to prevent new social paths from forming as curious hikers look for a way to reach the falls.

Given these realities, this concept also focuses on how to make a new loop trail to Middle Oneonta Falls one that provides a new and much-needed destination for casual hikers and families with young kids looking for something less strenuous than what a lot of Gorge hikes require. Loops are the most popular trail option for hikers, too, since they provide a continuous stream of new scenery and adventure.

In the long-term, loops also offer a management tool that is seldom used today, but has great merit in heavily traveled places like the Gorge: one-way trails. On crowded trails in steep terrain, one of the biggest impacts comes from people simply passing other hikers coming from the option direction, gradually breaking down the shoulders of trails over time. One-way trails eliminate this problem, and the provide a better hiking experience with less sense of crowding, too.

With these trail themes in mind, what follows is a tour of the proposed Oneonta Loop Trail, using an exceptional series of aerial photos captured by the State of Oregon in the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire. 

The first view (below) captures the existing Oneonta Canyon trail system from Oneonta Falls to Triple Falls, with the proposed new loop trail shown in yellow. The new loop trail would follow the more stable east side of Oneonta Canyon, avoiding the landslide on the west side (which is also shown on the map).

[click here for a large map]

As the above map shows, another benefit of the proposed loop is that it could also serve as a reroute for the existing Oneonta Creek Trail if it becomes impossible to maintain a trail across the landslide, as the new loop would connect to the main trail upstream from the slide.

The next series of maps walk through the proposed loop trail in more detail, starting at the bottom, where the new trail would begin where a social path already extends into the canyon from the lower Oneonta Bridge (below).

[click here for a large map]

From there, the route to Middle Oneonta Falls is surprisingly straightforward (below), and quite short — less than one-half mile. This would make the falls an easy destination for young families and hikers who don’t want to tackle the longer and more strenuous climb to Triple Falls.

[click here for a large map]

Once at Middle Oneonta Falls (below), the new trail would take advantage of the huge cavern behind the falls to avoid building and maintaining another trail bridge, and simply pass behind the falls, instead. 

[click here for a large map]

For hikers coming from the Horsetail Falls trailhead, this would also be the second behind-the-falls experience, having already passed behind Ponytail Falls along the way. This would make the hike to Middle Oneonta Falls a magnet for families with kids, as nothing quite compares with being in a cave behind a waterfall for young hikers!

After passing behind Middle Oneonta Falls, the new loop trail (below) would climb the west slope of Oneonta Canyon just upstream from the slide in a series of four switchbacks, and rejoin the main trail. From there, hikers could continue on to Triple Falls or turn back to the trailhead to complete the new loop.

[click here for a large map]

The next few schematics show how the trail would pass behind beautiful Middle Oneonta Falls. The first view (below) is from slightly downstream, and shows the forested bench opposite the falls where the new trail would descend toward the cave.

[click here for a large schematic]

The next view (below) is from the base of the cliffs at the west side of the falls. The big boulder shown in the previous schematic should help you orient this view, as it is marked in both schematics. This view provides a better look into the cave, which is made up of loose river cobbles and well above the stream level in all but the heaviest runoff. Note my fellow waterfall explorer behind the 90-foot falls (!) for scale. 

[click here for a large schematic]

A third schematic of the falls (below) is from further downstream. This view gives a better sense of the large bench in front of the falls where the approach trail would be located, and how the exit from the cave would navigate a narrow spot between the creek (by the “Big Boulder”) and cliffs on the west side of the falls.

[click here for a large schematic]

As the photos in these schematics show, this is an exceptionally beautiful spot, and though it is now recovering from the fire, it would still make for an easy and popular new destination in the Gorge. Would more visitors make it less pristine? Perhaps, but on my last trips to Middle Oneonta Falls I had to clean up campfire rings built directly adjacent to the creek and carry out beer cans and trash, so it’s also true that legitimizing the trail here would bring “eyes on the forest that would help discourage this sort of thoughtless damage.

Further upstream, there’s also work to do at Triple Falls. This map (below) shows how the main trail could be relocated to follow the existing (and seldom used) spur to the viewpoint and be extended to simply bypass the section of existing trail that drives creation of social trails.

[click here for a large map]

This would provide a long-term solution to the maze of social paths that have formed between the existing trail and the Triple Falls viewpoint. This is a very simple fix, and should be done immediately, while the area is still closed to hikers and the burned over ground and exposed rock make trail construction much easier.

What would it take?

The entirety of Oneonta Canyon is within the Mount Hood National Forest, but administered by the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) unit of the Forest Service. Despite the creation of the scenic area in 1986 as a celebration of the beauty of the Gorge, there have been no new trails on Forest Service lands in the western Gorge for more than three decades. In fact, the agency has periodically proposed abandoning some of the lightly used backcountry trails in the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness that have fallen behind in maintenance. 

Oneonta Creek scene before the fire near Triple Falls

The Forest Service is reacting to a long period of strained recreation budgets dating back to the 1990s, but our recent history of disinvestment should not prevent us from looking ahead to the needs of this century. The lack of a future vision is part of what prevents new trails from being designed and built, as there are already plenty of ideas for new trails that could be sustainably built in the western Gorge to help take pressure off the existing system.

The last new trail built in this part of the Columbia River Gorge is the Wahclella Falls loop, completed in 1988. Today, this wonderful loop trail is iconic and among the most beloved in the Gorge. But until the 1980s, a brushy, sketchy user path is how hikers reached Wahclella Falls. Recognizing the need to formalize an official trail, the Forest Service worked with volunteers who completely rebuilt the old trail and added a new leg on the west side of the canyon, creating the well-designed, exceptional loop we know today.

Tiny Maidenhair spleenwort (for scale, the larger fronds at the top of Licorice fern!) are as uncommon as they are beautiful, and are found along the Oneonta Creek Trail near Triple Falls

This proposal for an Oneonta Loop trail would be a great candidate for a similar effort, with Forest Service and volunteer workers creating a new trail that would not only provide a much-needed trail option in the western Gorge, but that would also remedy the social trails that have developed and potentially serve as a new, main route if the landslide on the current trail cannot be stabilized. 

In the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire, now is a perfect time to reboot trail building in the Gorge and Oneonta would be the perfect spot to get started. The area is still closed to the public, and trail volunteers have already begin scouting the trail to assess fire damage and make plans for repairs. This scouting work could be expanded to site the new loop trail, and there’s no better way to bring volunteers to trail projects than to build new trails. 

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews building the cliff-hugging trail above Elowah Falls in 1936

And finally, consider this: almost all of the trails in the Columbia Gorge (and the rest of Mount Hood National Forest) were built over the course of just two decades, in the 1920s and 30s. Amazingly, the system we have today is less than half of what was existed before the industrial logging era began after World War II. And in that period of decline, few new trails were added.

While forest trails were initially built as basic transportation for forest rangers, the Great Depression brought a new focus on recreation and enhancing our public lands through the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA). Our best trails were built during this golden age of trail construction, when trails were designed to thrill hikers with amazing views and adventures. These federal workforce program were put in place under Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the national recovery plan, when unemployment during the Great Depression exceeded 20 percent, with no end in sight.

Sound familiar? Our normally gridlocked U.S. Congress has just allocated nearly $4 trillion in emergency funding to shore up the country as an unprecedented Coronavirus pandemic takes hold. And congressional leaders are already proposing more stimulus funding in the form of public infrastructure to continue pumping money into the economy and creating work for the jobless. Are we on the brink of another trail-building renaissance in our national forests? Quite possibly — but only if we begin planning for that possibility now.

___________________

And one more thing…

There is a LOT of confusion about place names on Oneonta Creek. USGS topographic maps show only Oneonta Falls and Triple Falls, but Oneonta Falls is shown where Middle Oneonta Falls is located. This is clearly a map error, though one that has endured (and confused) for a very long time. In fact, Oneonta Falls is the tall, narrow falls at the head of Oneonta Gorge and is identified as such in early photos of the Gorge taken long before anyone knew much about the upper canyon.

A case of mistaken waterfall identity at Oneonta…

Meanwhile, there’s a small waterfall right in front of the lower Oneonta footbridge that is often called “Middle Oneonta Falls”, only because it’s in plain sight and so few know that there’s a much larger “Middle Oneonta Falls” just a half-mile upstream. Fortunately, the USGS got Triple Falls right!

So, for the purpose of this article (and in general), I refer to the small falls by the lower footbridge as “Oneonta Bridge Falls”, just to clear things up a bit. Creative, right? Well, neither is “Triple Falls”! Or “Middle Oneonta Falls”, for that matter! But at least we know which waterfalls we’re talking about. Remember, there’s no detail too small for THIS blog!

Thanks again for reading this far, folks!

___________________

Tom Kloster | May 2020

Who was Newton Clark?

The Newton Clark Glacier flows from Mount Hood’s east face

High on Mount Hood’s broad east face is the Newton Clark Glacier, third largest of the twelve named glaciers on the mountain. Many assume a hyphen must be missing in what appears to be two surnames, especially since the two major glacial outflows from this glacier are separately known as Newton Creek and Clark Creek. Who is this Newton character… and what about Clark?

Instead, it turns out that Newton Clark was just one man who made his place in local history as one of the early surveyors mapping the Mount Hood area. And in a rarity among place names in Oregon, his full name made it to our maps, where our modern naming rules limit honorary place names to surnames. It also turns out that nearby Surveyor’s Ridge, with its popular mountain biking trail, is also named for Newton Clark, albeit anonymously.

Topo map of the Newton Clark Glacier on Mount Hood’s east face

The sprawling glacier named for Newton Clark is unique among Mount Hood’s glaciers: it’s wider than it is long! While glaciers like the Eliot, White, Coe and Reid flow down the mountain in rivers of ice, the Newton Clark Glacier is draped like a big ice blanket on the east face of the mountain high atop a steep bench formed by the Newton Clark Prow, a massive lava outcrop that prevents the glacier from flowing any further down the mountain. 

The Newton Clark Prow splits the glacier into its twin canyons, Clark Canyon to the south and Newton Canyon on the north. At nearly 8,000 feet in elevation, this jagged rock outcrop once divided a much larger ice age glacier into two rivers of ice that left today’s massive Newton Clark Moraine behind, a medial moraine that once had rivers of ice as high as the moraine flowing on both sides (you can read more on that topic in this blog article). Today, the Newton Clark Prow forms the rugged head of Newton Canyon, with summer meltwater from the glacier tumbling over its cliffs in dozens of waterfalls.

The broad Newton Clark Glacier is bordered on the north by Cooper Spur, a long, gentle ridge that extends from Cloud Cap to the summit of Mount Hood. At 8,514 feet, the summit of Cooper Spur is among the highest points in Oregon that can be reached by trail, and one of the more popular hikes on the mountain. The view from the top of Cooper Spur provides a close-up look the rugged, crevassed surface of the Newton Clark Glacier.

The Newton Clark Glacier from Cooper Spur
Giant ice pinnacles known as seracs are pushed into the air by this icefall on the Newton Clark Glacier

From below, the Newton Clark Glacier actually looks stranded (below), sitting unusually high on the mountain, with its crevasse fields spreading out in multiple directions as the glacier sprawls above the cliffs of the Newton Clark Prow.

The Newton Clark Glacier and Prow as viewed from Newton Canyon
Rare, close-up view of the Newton Clark Prow (photo: Chip Down)

Downstream, the Newton and Clark canyons eventually merge at the southern foot of the Newton Clark Moraine, where the flat, mile-wide floor of the East Fork Hood River valley begins. Here, the arms of the ice age ancestor of the Newton Clark Glacier continued for miles down the mountain toward Hood River, creating the broad, U-shaped valley we travel today on the OR 35 portion of the Mount Hood Loop Highway.

Newton and Clark creeks don’t quite merge as the converge at the foot of the Newton Clark Moraine

Surprisingly, the two glacial outflows don’t merge on the valley floor. Instead, they each flow into the East Fork Hood River separately, about a mile apart. Both Newton and Clark creeks are notoriously volatile glacial streams, each changing course on the floor of the East Fork valley during recurring flood events.

Of the two outflows, Newton Creek is the largest and most volatile stream, repeatedly sending massive debris flows down the East Fork Hood River valley over the years and washing out OR 35 in the process (more on that later). Clark Creek is less violent, but still a powerful glacial stream that challenges Timberline Trail hikers attempting to ford it during the summer glacial melt.

Now that we’ve met the Newton Clark Glacier and its sibling streams, what about the man behind the name?

Who was Newton Clark?

Newton Clark in the 1880s

Newton Clark was born in Illinois in 1838 and soon moved as a child with his family to Wisconsin as pioneer settlers. Clark spent his youth there, becoming an exceptional student and later studying surveying at the Point Bluff Institute.

In October 1860, Newton Clark married Scottish immigrant Mary A. Hill, and the two resided in North Freedom, Wisconsin. Just one year later, in September 1861, 23-year old Newton enlisted in the 14th Volunteer Infantry, Company K Wisconsin volunteers of the Union Army. His company served in 14 battles under General Ulysses. S. Grant in Civil War battles across the south. 

Newton Clark in the early 1900s

Like so many in their Civil War generation, young Newton and Mary’s married life was put on hold during his four years of service. Mary remained in Wisconsin with their young daughter during Newton’s infantry service, undoubtedly anxious for her young husband’s return from our nation’s deadliest war. 

When he left for battle, Newton said “If I never come back remember that you have our little Minnie to live for, work for her and she will be a comfort to you.” Newton later returned from battle, but their little Minnie died during his time away at war.

Newton Clark served as Quartermaster during his Civil War enlistment, and he furnished the flag that was raised above the Vicksburg, Mississippi courthouse when the war was ended on May 9, 1865. After the war, Newton was an active veteran with the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) fraternal organization. The above portrait above was taken late in is life, and proudly shows his G.A.R. insignia.

Detailed view of the G.A.R. insignia worn in the late 1800s

The G.A.R. was much more than what we think of with today’s fraternal organizations. Following the Civil War, the G.A.R. emerged as among the first and largest advocacy group on the nation’s political scene, dedicated to both political causes and the benevolent interests of their veteran members.

The G.A.R. was an important arm of the Republican Party (at the time, the progressive party in American politics), and in this capacity the organization was deeply involved in the reconstruction that followed the war. Among their efforts, the G.A.R. actively promoted voting rights for black Civil War veterans. They also became a racially integrated organization at a time when the emerging Jim Crow era was about to stall civil rights in this country with another century of racial segregation and persecution of black Americans. At its political peak in the late 1800s, the G.A.R. had nearly half a million members.

The G.A.R. Monument in Washington, D.C., located on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the National Archives (Wikipedia)

The G.A.R. also focused on advancing Republican candidates to public office and promoted patriotism and veteran’s rights across the country. This included providing pensions for veterans, creating hundreds of war memorials so that the Civil War might never be forgotten and establishment of Memorial Day as a national holiday, a legacy many of us celebrate without knowing of its origins. 

In his later years, Newton Clark served as an officer in the Ancient Order of United Workmen (A.O.U.W.) for decades, a fraternal benefit society formed to provide mutual social and financial support for its membership after the Civil War. By the late 1800s, it was the largest fraternal organization in the country, and one that Newton continued to serve until his death.

Newton and Mary’s Life in the West

Newton Clark is identified in this photo taken at Twin Oaks Farm in the Hood River Valley in 1914 (back row, center, wearing a bow tie) (photo: Hood River History)

Soon after Newton’s return from his service in the Civil War, he and Mary moved west to the new Dakota Territory that had been created in 1861, just as the Civil War erupted. There, the Clarks farmed as pioneers in what is now the state of South Dakota. 

The old Dakota Territory was massive, encompassing today’s North and South Dakota, most of Montana and the north half of Wyoming until statehood came to Wyoming and the Dakotas in 1888-89, long after the Clarks had moved again, this time to Oregon. 

During their time in the Dakota Territory, Newton and Mary continued to have children, in the wake of losing their baby daughter Minnie, eventually adding two daughters and a son to their young family. The Clarks built the first frame house in Minnehaha County, where they farmed on a homestead located two miles from today’s town of Sioux Falls. Newton also worked as a surveyor of public lands for eight years, where he laid out the sections and townships in much of the Dakota Territory.

Newton Clark entered politics while in the Dakota Territory, too. He served as school superintendent, and was chairman of the board of county commissioners in Minnehaha county for several years before serving as a state legislator in the Dakota Territorial Legislator in the early 1870s. Newton Clark’s public service in the Dakota Territory put his name on the map of today’s South Dakota, with Clark County and the county seat of Clark, South Dakota named for him.

Mary Clark (on the far right) at a garden party in the 1910s (photo: Hood River History)

The grasshopper plagues that swept the high plains in mid-1870s eventually drove Clark from the Dakota Territory, and he continued his family’s migration west to Oregon in 1877. That year, he left Mary behind to care for the children in the Dakota Territory while he joined up his parents, Thomas and Delilah Clark, who had been living in Colorado. 

Together, Newton and his parents traveled three months overland in the summer of 1877, arriving in the Hood River area on September 1. Mary Clark and their three children, William, Jeanette and Grace, eventually joined Newton and his parents in 1878, settling into their new home in Oregon.

Newton later said “I tried farming on my homestead in Dakota, but after two years of successful crops of grasshoppers, I became a disgusted with that form of agriculture and struck for Oregon, driving a team overland.”

Closer view of Mary Clark enlarged from the previous photo (photo: Hood River History)

Newton and Mary Clark arrived in Oregon with almost no money to their name, and set about creating a new life in Hood River. They were among the first pioneers to settle there, and Newton initially found work cutting cordwood and splitting shingles for other valley settlers. By 1878, he was able to purchase 160 acres on the west side of the Hood River Valley, where they built their family home. Newton’s parents built their home on an adjoining parcel.

Newton Clark said later of their new home “We found the Hood River Valley as nature had designed it and habited by a handful of the pioneers… the salubrity of the climate, its freedom from storms of wind and lightning of summer and its frigid blizzards of winter as compared with the Dakotas, all delighted us.”

Newton soon began taking contracts with the federal government to survey public lands in the rugged western and southern parts of Hood River County, establishing the section lines in the Upper Hood River Valley and surrounding mountain country that are still the basis of our maps today. Most of these areas would become part of today’s Mount Hood National Forest. Loggers in the early 1900s were still reporting survey marks on trees left by Newton Clark’s crews more than 30 years later.

Many of the section lines (the grid system based on township and range) on this early 1900s map of the Hood River Valley were surveyed by Newton Clark in the 1880s

Like today’s immigrants to Oregon, Newton Clark was drawn to explore the unmatched scenery that we sometimes take for granted. He was among the first to summit Mount Hood and he was also a member of the first party of white men to set eyes on iconic Lost Lake. 

Surveying and exploring in Mount Hood country the 1880s was difficult and dangerous. Trips into the mountains took days, with Clark’s crews carrying heavy supplies on their backs and packhorses. There were few trails, so much of the travel was cross-country, through dense, virgin forests.

Though not identified on the image, Newton Clark and Mary clearly appear beneath the arched window on the right in this photo taken at the Riverside Congregational Church in 1913 (photo: Hood River History)
A closer view of the previous photo showing Newton Clark and Mary standing behind him, looking over his right shoulder (photo: Hood River History)
Comparison of the known image of Newton Clark in 1914 at Twin Oaks (right) and 1913 Riverside Church photos (left), and it’s clearly Newton Clark in the Riverside photo (photos: Hood River History)
Comparison of the early 1910s garden party photo (left) and 1913 Riverside Church photos (right), and we can clearly see Mary Clark standing just behind her husband (photos: Hood River History)

Like other pioneer explorers of Mount Hood, Clark eventually had a feature on the mountain named for him. For unknown reasons, his full name was used in naming the Newton Clark Glacier. Perhaps this was to prevent confusion with the many features in the West named for William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition? It remains among the few places in Oregon to feature the full name of its namesake.

The Clarks left Hood River in 1888 when Newton was elected Grand Recorder of the A.O.U.W., his beloved fraternal older, though he retained some of his property in the Hood River Valley until his death. He served in this capacity with the A.O.U.W. for the next 20 years, with the family living in downtown Portland in a house at “400 Broadway”. Under Portland’s historic address system, this would have been at the corner of Broadway and Stark, where the Hotel Lucia now stands today — in theory, as least.

This illustrated map from 1890 shows a home located at the southeast corner of Broadway and Start, a few blocks from the once iconic Portland Hotel that stood where today’s Pioneer Courthouse Square is located.

While the 1890 map seems to provide a plausible case for where the Clarks lived in Portland, the fact that today’s historic Hotel Lucia (once called the Imperial) was built in 1909 at this corner clouds that history. The Clarks moved back to Hood River that year, which might make a plausible case for a new hotel going up where home had been, but newspaper accounts show them living at the same home in Portland a few years later, with their daughter. So, more research is needed to know just where the Clarks lived in Portland.

The historic Hotel Lucia was originally the Imperial, built in 1909, a full nine years before Newton and Mary Clark lived on Broadway at the end of their lives

The family returned to Hood River in 1909 when Newton retired from his A.O.U.W. office and built a new home on a hill above town that became their retirement residence.

During these later years in Hood River, the Clarks spent summers at a cabin Newton built at Lake Lyttle on the Oregon Coast, in today’s town of Rockaway Beach. Unlike today’s travelers, they didn’t follow roads to Rockaway Beach. Instead, they took the new Oregon Pacific Railway that had recently opened a route through the Coast Range from Hillsboro to Tillamook

It’s unknown if Newton’s parents joined him when the Clarks moved to Portland in 1888, but his father died in 1892 and historic accounts show his mother living with the Clark family in Portland when she died in 1905, at the age of 98. So, one possibility would be that Delilah Clark joined her son’s family when Thomas Clark passed away in 1892, though there are no history accounts to confirm this. 

What is clear is that Newton was close enough to his parents to bring them west to Hood River with his family in 1877, and later, to bring his elderly mother into his home in Portland. Somewhere out there, a portrait of the extended Clark family exists, and I’m hopeful a reader of this article might be able to help with that.

Newton Clark’s Family

True to the era, less is known about Newton Clark’s wife, Mary, beyond her husband’s description of their life together. She was a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, and according to the historical accounts available, she shared Newton’s passion and determination in their adventurous life as pioneers. 

Two of Newton and Mary’s children died while the parents were still living, baby Minnie in the early 1860s, while Newton was serving in the Civil War and later, their adult daughter Grace (Clark) Dwinell, in 1910. 

Grace finished school in Portland after the family had relocated there in 1888, and became a West Side (now Lincoln) High School graduate. What history is recorded about Grace describes her as outgoing and with a beautiful singing voice that she would often entertain with at family gatherings. 

West Side (which later became Lincoln) High School was located at 14th and Morrison in downtown Portland, seven blocks from where the Clarks live on Broadway. The school was completed in 1885, and opened while the Clarks were living in the neighborhood.
The ornate, gothic-style West Side (later called Lincoln) High School as it appeared when Newton Clark and his family lived in the neighborhood. This impressive structure is among the many grand buildings built in downtown Portland in the 1800s that were later razed as the city continued its rapid growth.

Grace Clark met young Frank Dwinnell while on a trip to visit family in Wisconsin, and he followed her back to Portland, where the two married.  They moved back to Wisconsin for a time and started a family, but sometime in the late 1890s, Grace contracted tuberculosis — then called “consumption” and the leading cause of death at the turn of the century. 

At the time, Grace attributed her illness to the harsh climate in Wisconsin, and the family relocated back to Oregon. After initially recovering from the disease, her tuberculosis eventually returned and Grace died in 1910 at the age of 37. Her funeral was held at Newton and Mary’s new home overlooking Hood River. Frank Dwinnell later moved back to Wisconsin with their young son and daughter to be near his family.

Grace (Clark) Dwinnell’s grave in the Idlewild Cemetery in Hood River

Two of Newton and Mary Clark’s children survived them, including their son William Lewis Clark and daughter Jeanette (Clark) Brazelton. Jeanette’s life is the least documented of the three Clark children who survived childhood, except that she became Mrs. W.B. Brazelton and appeared to living with her parents in their Portland home at the time of their deaths in 1918. I was unable to discover more about her life or even where she was buried for this article, so hopefully a reader will have more of Jeanette’s history to share.

William Lewis Clark followed his father’s footsteps and became a prominent civil engineer in Oregon. William was eleven when the family moved west to Oregon, and after finishing school in Hood River, he worked on his father’s survey crews. At age 19, William went to work for the Northern Pacific Railroad and later the Southern Pacific, overseeing various construction projects across the West. 

William Lewis Clark sometime around the turn of the 20th Century

William married Mary Ann Mabee in 1880 (later records show her as Estella Mabee), and the two would later have a son in 1899, Newton Mabee Clark, who would become a third-generation engineer in the Clark Family. Newton Mabee Clark attended Stanford University, graduating in 1916. He was enlisted in Stanford’s elite Student Army Training Corps, a unit of the U.S. Marines, and served in World War I. Newton M. Clark died in Seattle in 1975 and had no children.

In 1900, the year after his only son was born, William Lewis Clark left the railroads and became the City of Portland’s district engineer for next seven years. William returned with his family to Hood River in 1907, shortly before his parents made their own return to Hood River from Portland. 

For the next ten years he worked in the flour and grain business for C.H Stranahan in Hood River before returning to public service in 1917 for the Oregon Highway Department, at a time when the Historic Columbia River Highway construction was in full swing.

William Clark’s grave in the Idlewild Cemetery in Hood River

William finished his career with the City of Hood River, serving as city engineer from 1922 to (apparently) his death in April 1930, at the age of 62. Mary Ann (also listed as Estella) Clark moved to Seattle sometime after William’s death, apparently to be near their own son. She died in 1950 at the age of 75.

Back to Portland to serve his beloved A.O.U.W

Historical accounts show that Newton and Mary had moved back to Portland in about 1914. He had been called back from retirement to once again serve Grand Recorder of his beloved A.O.U.W. in the wake of so many members of the organization being called to serve active duty in World War I. If this timeline is correct, the Clarks spent just five years in Hood River after their 1909 return, and the photos in this article of the Clarks taking part in community life in Hood River marked their final days living there.

Newton and Mary Clark both died in 1918, and remarkably, both were exactly 80 years and 24 days old at the time of their deaths. Newton died on June 21 of that year at his daughter Jeanette Brazelton’s home in Portland, which seems to be the home where Newton and Mary lived in during their previous 20 years in Portland. Despite a global influenza pandemic that year, Newton died of a “paralytic stroke”, according to historical new accounts. 

The Riverside Community Church in Hood River today

Newton’s death was widely covered by newspapers in Portland and Hood River, and his funeral at Riverside Congregational Church in Hood River drew a large turnout from the community, including many of the surviving pioneers who had known the Clarks since the mid-1800s. However, Mary Clark was in failing health when her husband died, and she was unable to travel to Hood River to attend his service.

The Hood River Glacier published this tribute to Newton:

________________

Newton Clark

“A soldier, and a fighting one, for four years of his early manhood, and then a frontiersman, he experienced life as men of the following generations could not. It was a privilege to hear him recount tales of the days of the past. As everlasting as the hills and mountain crags he loved were the principles and rugged honesty of Newton Clark. He was loyal to the things he believed in and fought untiringly for their accomplishment. 

“But few men knew that Mr. Clark had passed the age of 80 years. He walked with erectness and his step was firm. News of his death brought a shock of grief to all here last Friday. His comrades, men who knew him best, and loved him, and the families of pioneers, heard the sad news with pains of deepest regrets. 

“Another of our pioneers has gone on the long trail, and we will miss him.”

The Hood River Glacier, June 27, 1918

________________

After the shock of Newton’s death, Mary seemed to be recovering and traveled to Hood River with Jeanette to visit their old home, returning in “better health and good spirits” according to news accounts. But on the morning of July 20, Jeanette found that her mother had died in the night at her home in Portland, just a month after Newton has passed away.

This tribute was published in the Hood River Glacier as the community mourned the loss of two of its most prominent pioneers:

________________

Newton and Mary Clark

“Married at North Freedom, Wisconsin on October 17, 1860, Mr. and Mrs. Newton Clark, of this city, have trodden the pathway of life’s long journey together longer than the most couples of Oregon. Yet few men or women who have not yet reached the three-score-and-ten mark are more active or vigorous than this sturdy couple, a typical product of the frontier and pioneer life. 

“With all faculties alert and hale and hearty both are enjoying their old age. Both are possessed of an optimism and enthusiasm that youth might envy.”

The Hood River Glacier, April 6, 1916 

________________

Though Newton and Mary Clark spent most of their years in Oregon living in Portland, their hearts were clearly in Hood River, where they had first carved out a life as Oregon pioneers. Not only did they choose to retire to Hood River (however briefly before Newton was called back to service), they also chose to be buried there, just a few steps from where they had buried their daughter Grace eight years before, and where their son William would be buried just twelve years after they died.

Newton Clark’s grave in the Idlewild Cemetery in Hood River
Mary Clark’s grave in the Idlewild Cemetery in Hood River, adjoining her husband’s burial spot

As I researched this article, I grew increasingly dumfounded that Newton Clark isn’t more celebrated in our local history. True, he does have a spectacular glacier named for him, which sure beats a street or local park, but his commitment to service puts him in rare company among the early pioneers in Oregon. Fortunately, his contemporaries recognized this and there are excellent historical accounts of his life, if only we take the time to discover them.

For the direct quotes from Newton Clark used in this article, I turned to a front-page interview and profile published on April 6, 1916 by the Hood River Glacier, just two years before his death. I’ve created a PDF of the entire article that [link=]you can read here.[/link]

For additional history, I turned to other news accounts from the era, as well as an excellent oral history largely written by Newton Clark, himself, in the History of Early Pioneer Families of Hood River, Oregon, compiled in 1913 by Mrs. D.M. Coon. Had these two efforts to record his life in his own words not been made, much of Newton Clark’s extraordinary contribution to our history would have ben lost to time.

And now, some unfinished business…

A Modest Proposal…

Newton Clark Glacier and the Newton Clark Moraine (center) after an early autumn snowfall on Mount Hood

Call it a burr under my saddle, but when I learned decades ago that Newton Clark was one man, not a hyphenation, it bothered me that the two outflow streams were each given one half of his name. It struck me as a combination of historical ignorance and a degree of disrespect behind that decision, wherever it came from. So, where did it come from?

My guess is that these were lighthearted names attached by an early forest ranger, long ago, when most of the features in our national forests were casually named with little thought that these names would stick for centuries to come. Perhaps even Barney Cooper, the first district ranger for the Hood River area, named these streams in the early 1900s? And if Barney came up with the names, then surely he knew Newton Clark personally? After all, Hood River was a very small community in those early days. Perhaps it was Newton Clark, himself, who came up with these names while out on a survey? 

History doesn’t provide an answer, but a look at some of the earliest topographic maps (below) confirms that both Newton and Clark creeks were named by the 1920s, when the Mount Hood Loop Highway had been completed and visitors began pouring into the area.

1920s map of Mount Hood showing Clark and Newton Creeks already named at the time the Mount Hood Loop highway was completed (lower right corner)

Whatever the reason behind the names for this pair of streams, the fact is that place names are one of the best and most durable ways to preserve our history for future generations. That’s why the confusion these names might cause remains a problem, at least in my mind.

Thus, I have a modest proposal, and it’s quite simple: add one word to the name of each stream and you not only solve the potential confusion, you also give Mary Clark her due. After all, would Newton have managed his remarkable life without a remarkable partner like Mary? Of course not. 

Therefore:

• Newton Creek should become Newton Clark Creek

• Clark Creek should become Mary Clark Creek

See how easy that is? And there’s some logic behind it, too, since Newton Creek carries the majority of the outflow from the Newton Clark Glacier. 

Here’s how this would look on the topographic maps — easy fix!

A slightly modified map…

Of course, when it comes to geographic names, nothing is easy! The Oregon Geographic Names Board (OGBN) is a volunteer panel administered by the Oregon Historical Society that serves as the overseer of geographic names in our state. New names or changes to existing names must be approved by this panel, and among their various criteria are support for public agencies (in this case the Forest Service) and the following:

“If the proposed name commemorates an individual, the person must be deceased for at least five years; a person’s surname is preferred; and the person must have some historic connection or have made a significant contribution to the local area.”

The Clarks have certainly passed the 5-year requirement, 102 years after their deaths. The second part of this requirement could be more of a challenge, but the fact that the Newton Clark Glacier already contains the full name of a historic figure would be my argument for making another exception, here. The last part is easy, as the contribution the Clarks made to the area is undeniable and well documented. Most importantly, the proposed change would also clear up potential confusion, something the OGBN also factors into their decisions.

So, I’ve added this to my list of OGBN proposals that I’ll someday submit when I have a moment, and when I do, I will reach out to the Hood River History Museum and U.S. Forest Service for their endorsements of the proposal, as well.

Exploring Newton Clark Country

Now that we’ve met Newton Clark and his family, the following is a short tour of the places named for him in Mount Hood country.

The Newton Clark Glacier sprawls across Mount Hood’s east face in this classic view from Elk Meadows

For Portlanders, the Newton Clark Glacier is on the dark side of the moon — it’s on the east face of the mountain, hidden from view from the rainy, evening side of the Cascade Range. But from the morning side of the mountain it’s prominent, and dominates the east face of Mount Hood.

Most who see the Newton Clark Glacier up-close view it from the crest of popular Cooper Spur, from nearby Elk Meadows or from Lookout Mountain, due east by five miles, across the East Fork valley. But some of the best views are from Gnarl Ridge, on the Timberline Trail. Here, the impressive scale of the Newton Creek canyon and the full width of the glacier are in full view. In summer, a series of tall waterfalls cascade from the glacier over the Newton Clark Prow and into Newton Canyon.

Vast Newton Canyon as seen from Gnarl Ridge, among the most awesome viewpoints on the mountain. The Newton Clark Glacier fills the east face of the mountain with the layered, black lava cliffs of the Newton Clark Prow at the base of the glacier

True to its name, Gnarl Ridge is home to hundreds of ancient, gnarled Whitebark pine that have survived the harsh conditions here for centuries. There’s no easy way to Gnarl Ridge. Both approaches, either from Cloud Cap or Hood River Meadows, involve a lot of climbing, though the scenery is some of the finest in Oregon. One advantage of the Cloud Cap approach is that no glacial stream crossings are required. However, several permanent, and potentially treacherous snowfields must be crossed on this highest section of the Timberline Trail.

The trail to Elk Meadows is among the most popular on the mountain, and deservedly so, and it provides a photogenic view of Mount Hood’s east face. This is a good family hike for a summer day, but it does require crossing Newton Creek without the aid of a footbridge — which can be an exciting experience. By mid-summer, Timberline Trail hikers have usually stitched together a seasonal crossing with available logs and stones, but expect wet feet when the water is high!

Footbridge over Clark Creek on the trail to Elk Meadows. In summer, the outflow creeks from the Newton Clark Glacier are milky with glacial till.

For a more remote experience, following the Newton Creek Trail to either Newton Creek or Clark Creek (or both) has dramatic views and a lot of rugged mountain terrain to explore. The route to the Newton Clark Trail crosses Clark Creek on a log bridge that has somehow survived this rowdy stream, then turns north and travels along Newton Creek before making a gradual climb along the northeast shoulder of the Newton Clark Moraine.

At the junction of the Newton Creek Trail with the Timberline Trail you can go right for a visit to Newton Creek or left to head over to Clark Creek. Or both, which is how I enjoy doing this hike.

Where Newton Creek canyon is vast and awesome, Clark Creek canyon has a few surprises, including lovely, verdant Heather Canyon, a side canyon with a string of splashing waterfalls.

A lone hiker climbs the east slope of Clark Canyon on the Timberline Trail. The Newton Clark Moraine is the massive, gray ridge on the right. Verdant Heather Canyon is on the left

The Clark Canyon headwall is also unique. The receding Newton Clark Glacier has left a wide, scoured rock amphitheater behind that has dozens of tiny streams running across its face in summer. To skiers, this is known as the “Super Bowl”, and it’s impressive to see close-up.

The headwaters of Clark Creek are among the most remote on the mountain, and feature dozens of glacial streams cascading steep cliffs below the Newton Clark Glacier

Downstream from the bowl, Clark Creek drops over a major waterfall (visible from the Timberline Trail) before reaching the debris-covered floor of the valley. This is where the Timberline Trail crosses Clark Creek, so if you like to avoid glacial stream crossings, it’s a nice turnaround spot for lunch. But if you don’t mind the crossing, a pretty waterfall on Heather Creek lies just a quarter mile beyond the Clark Creek crossing and makes for an especially lovely stop.

Clark Creek on a summer afternoon, heavy with glacial till during peak runoff

Heading the other direction on the Timberline Trail from the Newton Creek Trail junction quickly takes you to Newton Creek, proper. In most years, an impromptu rope helps hikers navigate a washed-out bank as you approach the chaotic canyon floor, and this is a preview of what can be one of the more difficult glacial crossings on the Timberline Trail. 

Newton Canyon from the Newton Creek Trail, just below the Timberline Trail

Like Clark Creek, you can skip the crossing this glacial stream and simply enjoy a lunch atop one of the many table-sized boulders that fill Newton Canyon, with a fine view of the mountain. The Newton Clark Glacier is more prominent here, and the steep cliffs of Gnarl Ridge and Lamberson Spur rise along the far canyon wall. 

The formidable crossing of Newton Creek on the Timberline Trail, one of more difficult of the many glacial stream crossings on the circuit

Newton and Clark creeks are both thick with glacial till in summer, and don’t make good water sources, but Heather Creek runs clear and there’s a tiny creek flowing into Newton Canyon where the Timberline Trail approaches the canyon floor that provides both drinking water and a couple of shady campsites.

Exploring Surveyors Ridge

Before the era of mountain biking, Surveyors Ridge Trail was a lightly used, lesser-known trail on the mountain that had originally been built for early forest travel.

Though an anonymous tribute, Surveyors Ridge is also named for Newton Clark, and it’s well worth exploring. If you’re a mountain biker, I need say no more. You’ve been there and taken in the sweeping vistas!

But if you’re a hiker, I recommend making a trip to Bald Butte, which forms the northern end of Surveyor’s Ridge. It’s known to a few as “the other Dog Mountain” for its beautiful yellow balsamroot and blue lupine meadows in May and early June each year that echo the much more popular counterpart in the Gorge. Plus, the view of Mount Hood and the upper Hood River Valley from Bald Butte are stunning.

Surveyors Ridge is named for Newton Clark, albeit anonymously. In his lifetime, few trails existed here

There are a couple of ways to get to Bald Butte. If you’re up for a stiff climb, you can take the Oak Ridge Trail (the trailhead is just south of the Hood River Ranger Station, off OR 35). This steep but scenic trail switchbacks up an open slope of Oregon white oak and spring wildflowers before entering forest and joining the Surveyors Ridge Trail. Turn left and hike a couple more miles and you’re on top of Bald Butte.

If you don’t mind driving a bit and are looking for a shorter climb, you can also take Pinemont Drive from where it intersects OR 35 (at the obvious crest between the middle and upper Hood River valleys) and follow this road for several miles to the east shoulder of Bald Butte. Watch for a gravel spur road on the right, shortly after you pass under a swath of transmission towers, and follow the spur to a trailhead under the powerlines. 

The view from the trailhead is spectacular enough, but following the trail from here (which is really the old, primitive lookout road) to the summit of Bald Butte is even more sublime, passing several wildflower meadows that bloom in May and early June.

The Surveyors Ridge Trail ends at Bald Mountain, where yellow Balsamroot and blue Lupine cover the slopes in May and early June

When you make the final ascent of Bald Butte, it’s hard to ignore the impact that off-road vehicles are having on the butte. Hopefully, the Forest Service decision to close most areas in the forest to these destructive vehicles will eventually be enforced. In the meantime, there’s a bit more on the subject in this earlier blog article on the fate of Bald Butte.

For a completely different slice of the Surveyor’s Ridge Trail, you can simply ramble the section north of Shellrock Mountain, where there are several big views of the mountain, plus a look into the weird terrain of Badlands Basin, where an ancient layer of volcanic ash and debris that has been carved into fantastic shapes. You can hike to this area from the Gibson Prairie Horse Camp. 

Mount Hood and Shellrock Mountain from the Surveyors Ridge Trail

The trail spur is located across the road, and if you turn left on the Surveyors Ridge Trail you’ll be heading toward views of Shellrock Mountain and Badlands Basin. Several handy boulders in the steep meadow pictured above make for a good destination for this short, easy hike. Turn right on Surveyors Ridge Trail, and you can take a shorter hike to Rimrock, where the views are somewhat overgrown, but still nice.

The 2006 Floods

Visiting the twin canyons of the Newton Clark Glacier is a great way to appreciate the raw power of the floods it has generated over the years. While Clark Creek can certainly hold its own, Newton Creek is the most fearsome stream on Mount Hood’s east side. Views along the lower section of the Newton Creek Trail (below) tell the story, with truck-sized boulders and stacks of 80-foot logs tossed about in a quarter-mile wide flood channel. 

Much of the more recent devastation you see here occurred in the fall of 2006, when heavy rains fell on a blanket of early snow, and combined to send a wall of rock and mud down the canyon.

Truck-sized boulders and whole trees stacked like matchsticks are silent testimony to the power of Newton Creek in this scene several miles below the glacier, where flash floods have created a debris zone a quarter mile wide. This scene is along the lower part of the Newton Creek Trail.

The debris flow roared down to Highway 35, blocking culverts, covering the road with boulders and washing out large sections of road bed. A similar event was occurring on the White River at the same time, temporarily cutting off access to the Mount Hood Meadows resort from both east and west. As sudden and violent as this event seemed, in reality it was part of an ongoing erosional process as old as the mountain, itself.

We can see this ancient story playing out in new LIDAR imagery, a form of aerial radar used to map the earth’s surface in stunning detail, revealing landforms that could never be captured with conventional surveying. Over the past decade, the Oregon LIDAR Consortium has been working to bring this new mapping technology to a larger audience, including for the Mount Hood area. LIDAR has allowed geoscientists to map the history of faults, floodplains and landslides as never before. 

The map below is from the Oregon LIDAR project, and shows how Newton and Clark creeks emerge from their narrow, twin mountain canyons to spread out on the floor of the broad East Fork Hood River valley. The valley floor is made up of loose debris deposited from these floods over the millennia, and both Newton and Clark creeks have changed course in this soft material with regularity. 

Lidar imagery in recent years has unveiled a long and recurring history of big floods and shifting stream channels in the Newton Clark flood zone. The Mount Hood Loop Highway crosses dozens of these old channels where it crosses the zone.

(Click here for a larger view of the Newton Clark Flood Zone map)

You can see this history in the maze of braided channels that show up on LIDAR. Whereas topographic maps simply show a relatively flat, featureless valley floor here, LIDAR reveals hundreds of interwoven flood channels across what we now know as the Newton Clark flood zone. 

Many of these channels were formed centuries ago, and some in our lifetimes. Some may have flowed for decades without much change, while others may have formed in a single event, then went dry. Both Newton and Clark creeks are continually on the move, and so long as the main steam of the East Fork is on the opposite, and downhill side the Mount Hood Loop Highway (OR 35), both streams will continue to wreak havoc on the highway.

In 2012 the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and ODOT replaced the bridge at White River and built massive new culverts for Clark and Newton Creeks on the east side of the mountain (below). 

To contend with the frequent flooding of Newton and Clark creeks, the Federal Highway Administration and ODOT built these massive flood control structures on OR 35 in 2012. They haven’t been tested by a major flood event… yet…

The following are a few photos taken after the water subsided in the fall of 2006, and ODOT crews were assessing the damage to OR 35. The damage shown here occurred over a 24-hour span.

A flash flood from the Newton Clark Glacier in the fall of 2006 sent walls of boulders and ash down the mountain, covering portions of Highway 35 in eight feet of debris (ODOT)
With culverts blocked by debris during the 2006 event, Newton Creek simply flowed down OR 35 (ODOT)
In this view from 2006, a raging Newton Creek simply dissolved the road bed under OR 35, leaving slabs of asphalt hanging in the air (ODOT)

So far, the new flood structures at Newton Creek have not been tested by a major flood event. But when you consider the mosaic of old stream channels in the LIDAR imagery that have been created over the centuries by hundreds of flood events, these new structures are temporary, at best. It’s only a matter of time.

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I’ve mentioned several hikes in this part of the article, and they can also be found in much more detail in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide at the links below. Enjoy!

Gnarl Ridge from Hood River Meadows Hike

Gnarl Ridge from Cloud Cap Hike

Elk Meadows Hike

Bald Butte Hike

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Hood River History Museum (photo: Hood River History)

Special thanks to the Hood River History Museum for permission to include photos from their outstanding collection of historic images in this article. Like all museums, they are closed to the public until further notice because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has an immediate impact on funding their operations, so please consider supporting the museum during this crisis with a donation. You can make one-time or ongoing monthly donations via PayPal, just go to the “donate” link on their website to support their valuable work.

And another special thanks to Oregon Hikers off-trail legend Chip Down for permission to use his photo of the Newton Clark Prow, one of the least-explored places on Mount Hood. You can read his trip report and see more of his outstanding photos of the Newton Clark backcountry over here.

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Postscript:this article was two years in the making (!), as the story of Newton Clark is told in bits and pieces in century-old sources. Despite the miracle of the internet and the astonishing information we have at our fingertips in our time, uncovering local history is still like peeling back the layers of an onion. With each new discovery, more mysteries are uncovered… and blog articles get a bit longer and a bit later!

In this spirit, please help me improve this short history of Newton and Mary Clark and their family where I’ve made errors or omissions. 

Thanks for stopping by and reading this especially long entry!

Tom Kloster | May 2020

A Second Chance and New Vision for Oneonta?

Oneonta Tunnel traffic jam at the west portal shortly after completion in 1916. The highway had not yet been paved when the tunnel opened.

In the span of just about a decade, the Oneonta Tunnel on the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) has endured a wild ride. The tunnel had been closed since the 1940s when the old highway was rerouted around the cliffs of Oneonta Bluff, and for more than half a century lived only in memories and photographs. 

Then, the tunnel was carefully restored to its original glory in 2006 as part of the ongoing effort to restore and reconnect the HCRH. But within just few years, the beautiful restoration work was badly vandalized by uncontrolled mobs of thoughtless young people unleashed upon Oneonta Gorge by social media (see “Let’s Clear the Logjam at Oneonta Gorge). Then, in September 2017, the restored timber lining was completely burned away during the Eagle Creek Fire.

Today, the tunnel stands empty and fenced-off, waiting to be brought back to life, once again. But does it make sense to restore it as before, only to set this historic gem up for more vandalism? Or could it be restored in a different way, as part of a larger vision for protecting the history and natural beauty of both the tunnel and Oneonta Gorge, while also telling the story of the scenic highway, itself? More on that idea in a moment… 

First, a look at how we got here.

Before the dams and after the railroads…

Looking at Oneonta Tunnel today, it’s hard to understand why the original highway alignment went through Oneonta Bluff to begin with, instead of simply going around it? Why wasn’t it simply built in the current alignment of the historic highway, which curves around the bluff? The answer can be seen in this photo (below) taken before the old highway was built.

Oneonta Bluff before construction of the new highway and tunnel in 1916. The new road was squeezed on the uphill side of the railroad line in many spots in the Gorge, forcing creative solutions from the visionary road designer Samuel Lancaster.

It turns out the original railroad alignment crossed Oneonta Creek on a trestle where the current highway is located today, and was also built snug against the base of Oneonta Bluff. Why was it built this way? Because in the era before Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams were completed in the 1930s (along with the many dams in the Columbia basin that followed), the Columbia River fluctuated wildly during spring runoff. So, the original rail line was built to stand above seasonal flood levels of the time.

When Samuel Lancaster assessed the situation in the 1910s, the only options for his new highway were to move the railroad or tunnel through the bluff. As with other spots in the Gorge where the railroads were an obstacle for the new highway, the second option turned out to be the most expedient, and the Oneonta Tunnel was born. 

This close-up look (below) at previous photo shows a man standing on the railroad trestle crossing Oneonta Creek, pointing to what would soon be the west portal to the new tunnel, and I believe this to be Samuel Lancaster on a survey trip — though that’s just my speculation.

Close-up view of what might be Samuel Lancaster pointing at the future west portal at the Oneonta Tunnel site

When the original alignment of the old highway opened in 1916, the new road paralleled the old railroad grade closely, especially east of the tunnel (below), where a retaining wall and wood guardrail separated the somewhat taller road grade from the railroad.

The east portal of Oneonta Tunnel shortly after completion in 1916

Sometime after the original tunnel was built, possibly in the 1930s, the railroad was moved away from the bluff, perhaps because of falling debris from the Oneonta Bluff landing on the tracks, or maybe just part of modernizing the rail line over time. The flood control provided by dams on the Columbia River beginning in the 1930s (and especially the relatively stable “pool” created behind Bonneville Dam) allowed the railroads to move several sections of their tracks in the Gorge onto extensive rock fill during this period, often well into the river, itself. 

This photo (below) from the 1930s shows the west portal of Oneonta Tunnel after the railroad had been move northward, away from Oneonta Bluff, but before the highway had been realigned to bypass the tunnel.

West approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in the late 1930s after the railroad had been moved away from the bluff, opening the door for the highway, itself, to be routed around the bluff

The tunnel at Oneonta Bluff was one of several along the old highway, though it was easily overshadowed as an attraction by the famous “tunnel with windows” at Mitchell Point, to the east and the spectacular “twin tunnels” near Mosier. What made Oneonta Tunnel famous was the view into impossibly narrow Oneonta Gorge, which suddenly appears as you approach the west portal. 

Oneonta Gorge has been a popular tourist attraction since the old highway opened in 1916. For nearly a century, adventurers have waded up the creek to the graceful 120-foot waterfall that falls into Oneonta Gorge, about a mile from the historic highway bridge. Only in recent years has overcrowding presented a serious threat to both the unique cliff ecosystem and the historic highway features here.

Early visitors to Oneonta Gorge in the 1920s

In the 1930 and 1940s, the Oregon Highway Department began a series of projects in the Gorge aimed at “modernizing” the old highway as the dawn of the 1950s freeway-building loomed. A new river-level route was built to bypass the steep climb the original route takes over Crown Point, with the new route following what is today’s I-84 alignment. 

At Tooth Rock (above Bonneville Dam) a new tunnel was blasted through the cliffs to bypass the intricate viaducts built atop the cliffs by Samuel Lancaster. That tunnel still serves eastbound I-84 today, and has become a historic feature in its own right. And at Oneonta Bluff, a new bridge and tunnel bypass (below) took advantage of the relocated railroad, and was completed in 1948.

The (then) new highway bypass bridge under construction in 1948; the original bridge is to the left, and still remains today

When the new bridge and realigned highway section opened, the original bridge Samuel Lancaster built at Oneonta Creek was left in place, thankfully, and it survives today as a elegant viewpoint into Oneonta Gorge and gateway to the tunnel. The Oneonta Tunnel was also decommissioned at the time, with fill at both entrances (below). The tunnel remained this way for the next half-century, as a curiosity for history buffs but forgotten by most.

The realigned historic highway after 1948, with the tunnel (on the right) decommissioned with rock fill at both ends

The rebirth of Oneonta Tunnel began with a bold vision for restoring and reconnecting the surviving sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway as part of the landmark 1986 Columbia River National Scenic Area act, with this simple language: 

16 U.S.C. 544j Section 12. Old Columbia River Highway: The Oregon Department of Transportation shall, in consultation with the Secretary and the Commission, the State of Oregon and the counties and cities in which the Old Columbia River Highway is located, prepare a program and undertake efforts to preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity of the remaining segments of the Old Columbia River Highway for public use as a Historic Road, including recreation trails to connect intact and usable segments.

And so began what will eventually be a four-decade effort to restore the old highway to its original grandeur, with many beautiful new segments designed as if Samuel Lancaster were still here overseeing the project. Work began elsewhere on the old route in the 1980s, but eventually came to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2006 (below). 

Restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel begins in 2006 (ODOT)

The restoration began with simply excavating the old tunnel, and later rebuilding the stone portals at both ends and installing cedar sheathing to line the interior. A new visitor’s parking area was created outside the east portal and the original white, wooden guardrails were also recreated.

Restored interior wood lining nearly complete in the Oneonta Tunnel in 2006 (ODOT)

For the next few years, the restored tunnel stood as a remarkable tribute to the work of Samuel Lancaster and our commitment to preserving the history of the Gorge. It was a popular stop for visitors and also served as fun part of a hiking loop linking the Horsetail and Oneonta trails.

Vandalism & Oneonta Gorge

Every new technology brings unintended consequences, and the advent of social media over the past two decades has been undeniably hard on our public lands. Where visitors once studied printed field guides and maps to plan their adventures, today’s decisions are more often based on a photo posted in some Facebook group or on Instagram, where hundreds will see it as the place to be right now. 

This has resulted in the “Instagram Effect”, where huge surges in visits follow social media posts, both in the immediate near-term for a given place, and in the long-term interest in hiking and the outdoors. According to a 2017 study by Nielsen Scarborough, hiking in the Pacific Northwest has nearly doubled in popularity the past ten years, with Portland and Seattle ranking second and third (in that order) in the nation for number of hiking enthusiasts — Salt Lake City took the top spot. 

Overall, that’s very good news for our society because hiking and spending time outdoors are good for all of us, and we live in a part of the world where we have some of the most spectacular places to be found anywhere in our own backyard. But the immediate effect of social media can often spell bad news when hordes of ill-equipped and ill-informed people descend upon a place that is trending on their phone.

Social media conga-line waiting to enter Oneonta Gorge in 2016 (Photo: John Speth)
Traffic jam at the Oneonta log jam in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)
Traffic jam at the second Oneonta log jam in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)
Cattle call at Oneonta Gorge in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)

Oneonta Gorge is one of the special places that fell victim to the Instagram Effect, with huge crowds of young people overwhelming the canyon on summer days over the past decade. Sadly, the Forest Service did absolutely nothing to curb the invasion, despite the obvious threat to the rare ecosystem here, and hazardous conditions presented by the infamous log-jam that has blocked the entrance to the canyon since the late 1990s (see “Let’s Clear the Logjam at Oneonta Gorge).

And another unfortunate casualty of this unmanaged overcrowding was the Oneonta Tunnel, itself, when the Oneonta Gorge mobs stopped by to record themselves for posterity in the soft, brand-new cedar walls of the restored tunnel (below). While the vandalism was maddening, the lack of any sort of public response from the Forest Service or ODOT to stem the tide was equally frustrating.

The massive defacing of the restored Oneonta Tunnel interior…
…coincided with the explosive, unmanaged crowds that descended…
…upon Oneonta Gorge in the era of social media…

The vandalism didn’t stop with the destruction of the tunnel walls, however. The unmanaged crowds also tagged spots throughout the area with graffiti, and damaged some of the priceless historic features (below) left for us by Samuel Lancaster.

Damage to historic highway features like this staircase came with the disrespectful mobs of young people coming to Oneonta Gorge over the past decade

As discouraging as the damage at Oneonta was, it was also completely predictable. The idea of limiting access to popular spots in the Gorge is one that the public land managers at the state and federal level have been loath to consider, even when overuse is clearly harming the land and our recreation infrastructure. The problem is made worse by the crazy quilt of intertwined state and federal lands in the Gorge, complicating efforts to manage access, even if the will existed.

Then the fire happened in September 2017, changing everything…

The Fire

When the Eagle Creek Fire was ignited on Labor Day weekend in 2017 by a careless firework tossed from a cliff, few imagined that it would ultimately spread to burn a 25-mile swath of the Oregon side of the Gorge, from Shepperd’s Dell on the west to the slopes of Mount Defiance on the east. In the aftermath, the entire burn zone was closed to the public, and much of it still is. While the fire closure put enormous pressure on the few trails that remained open, it also opened the door to rethinking how we access to trails within the burn zone when they are reopened. How and when that happens remains to be seen.

At Oneonta Bluff, the images of the fire were dramatic and unexpected: the inferno spread to the interior of the restored tunnel and lit up the wood lining, completely burning it away like lit fuse. Local news affiliate KPTV published these views (below) taken by fire crews as the tunnel burned.

East portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel burning in September 2017 (KPTV)
West portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel burning in September 2017 (KPTV)

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) spent the weeks after the fire in 2017 assessing the damage to the historic highway, including these photos of the burned-out tunnel (below).

West portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel after the fire in 2017 (ODOT)
East portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel after the fire in 2017 (ODOT)

Today, the scene at Oneonta Tunnel hasn’t changed that much. ODOT eventually stripped the remaining, charred timbers from the tunnel and fenced off both portals to the public (below), though vandals have since pushed the fencing aside. The area remains closed indefinitely.

Charred reminders of the fire in 2020 at Oneonta Tunnel
East portal approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020
East portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020
Gated east portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020, opened by vandals

Though it might be heresy to admit, my immediate reaction when I saw the images of the burning tunnel in 2017 was relief. There was no end in sight to the social-media driven vandalism, and the interior had pretty much been ruined at that point, so the fire presented an unexpected opportunity for a redo, someday. Quite literally, it’s an opportunity for Oneonta Tunnel to rise from the ashes, but perhaps in a new way this time.

Remembering what we lost

A new vision for restoring Oneonta Tunnel — and protecting Oneonta Gorge — begins with remembering the fine restoration work completed in 2006. What follows is a look back at what that looked like, before social media took its toll.

At the west portal to the tunnel (where the original Oneonta Bridge, with its graceful arched railings, still stands), the restoration included a gateway sign, restored, painted guardrails built in the style of the original highway and an interpretive display near the tunnel entrance (below). The design functioned as a wide, paved trail, with the idea that cyclists touring the historic highway would pull off the main road and ride through the short tunnel section on a path closed to cars.

West portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2008, shortly after the renovation

From the original highway bridge over Oneonta Creek, the view extended into Oneonta Gorge, but also down to this fanciful stairway (below) right out of a Tolkien novel. This feature of the original historic highway continues to take visitors down to the banks of Oneonta Creek (the landing Newell in the bottom center of the photo, at the base of the stairs, is the one broken by vandals in an earlier photo). Just out of view at the top of the stairs is a picturesque bench built into the mossy cliff.

Historic Oneonta Stairwell in 2008

The west portal restoration included new stonework around the timber frame that closely matched the original design (below). 

West portal of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

Inside, the restored tunnel was lined with cedar plank walls and ceiling, supported by arched beams (below).

Wood interior of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

The east portal was similar to the west end of the tunnel, with stone masonry trim supporting the portal timbers (below).

East portal of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

Like the west side, the east entrance approach (below) was designed for cyclists to leave the highway and tour the tunnel and historic bridge before returning to the main road. 

East portal approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

In practice, most of the traffic in the tunnel before the fire came from hikers and curious visitors parking on the east and west sides and walking the path to the viewpoint into Oneonta Gorge. This is partly because bicycle touring in the Gorge focuses on the extensive car-free-sections of the historic highway, though the shared-road portions of the old highway are expected to see continued growth in cycling as the entirety of the old route is fully restored.

A Fresh Start (and Vision)

Oneonta Gorge in about 1900, more than a decade before the first automobiles would travel through the Columbia River Gorge

The 2006 restoration of Oneonta Tunnel and its approaches was based on the idea of it simply serving as a bicycle and pedestrian path as part of the larger historic highway restoration project. But the tragic defacing of the newly restored tunnel is a painful reminder that it’s simply not safe to assume it will be respected if left open to the public, unprotected, as it was before. Even gates are not enough, as vandals have since demonstrated by tearing open the temporary fencing on the burned-out tunnel.

But what if we considered the tunnel and its paved approaches, including the historic highway bridge, as a useful space instead of a path? The tunnel is surprisingly wide, at 20 feet, and 125 feet long. That’s 2,500 feet of interior space! What if the tunnel were restored this time with the idea of using this as interior space? As a history museum, in fact? With the paved approaches as plazas with outdoor seating, tables and bike parking?

Though it’s not a perfect comparison, there is an excellent model to look to in southern Utah, just east of the town of Kanab, where the privately operated Moqui Cave Natural History Museum is built inside a sandstone cave. The cave was once a speakeasy, then a dance hall in the 1930s, before it was finally converted to become a museum in the 1040s.

Moqui Cave Museum near Kanab, Utah (Wikipedia)

While passing through Kanab on a recent road trip, the stonework blending with the standstone cave entrance at Moqui Cave (below) reminded me of the restored stonework at Oneonta tunnel portals, and how the entrances to the tunnel might be enclosed to create a museum space at Oneonta.

Moqui Cave Museum entrance (TripAdvisor)

Like our Oneonta Tunnel, Moqai Cave is mostly linear in shape (below), with displays of ancient Puebloan artifacts and fossil dinosaur tracks displayed along its sandstone walls.

Moqui Cave Museum interior (TripAdvisor)

These section of the Moqui Cave are roughly the same width and height of the Oneonta Tunnel, with plenty of room for both displays and walking space.

Other solutions for enclosing the entrance at Oneonta Tunnel could draw from our own Timberline Lodge, on Mount Hood. While the stone foundation for the lodge is man-made, it’s not unlike the basalt portals at Oneonta. This is the familiar main entrance on the south side of the lodge (below), showing how the massive wood entry doors are built into the arched stone lodge foundation.

Historic Timberline Lodge entrance door (Wikipedia)

About ten years ago, another entrance to Timberline Lodge was handsomely renovated (below) to become barrier-free, yet still the massive, rugged lodge style that was pioneered here. This updated design shows how modern accessibility requirements could be met at an enclosed Oneonta Tunnel.

Restored Timberline Lodge side entry door (Versatile Wood Products)

There are other examples for enclosing Oneonta Tunnel as a museum space, too. While it would be a departure from Samuel Lancaster original purpose and design to enclose the tunnel, I suspect he would approve, given how the Gorge has changed in the century since he built the original highway.

There are logistics questions, of course. Is the Oneonta Tunnel weatherproof? If the dry floors during winter the months after the 2006 renovation are any indication, than yes, having 150 feet of solid basalt above you provides good weather proofing! Does the tunnel have power? Not yet, but a power source is just across the highway along the railroad corridor. These are among the questions that would have to be answered before the tunnel could be used as a museum, but the potential is promising!

Getting a handle on parking…

One of the most vexing problems along the busy westerly section of the Historic Columbia River Highway is how to manage parking as a means for managing overall crowding. Today, parking is largely unmanaged in this part of the Gorge, which might sound great if you believe there is such a thing as “free parking” (there isn’t). But in practice, it has the opposite effect, with epic traffic jams on weekends and holidays, and travelers waiting wearily for their “free” spot at one of the waterfall pullouts.

Weekend traffic jams on the historic highway are the norm today, and result from unmanaged parking (KATU)

At Oneonta, the lack of managed parking is at the heart of the destruction that mobs descending on Oneonta Gorge brought to the area, including the defacing of the tunnel. Some simple, proven parking management steps are essential, no matter what comes next at Oneonta. First, parking spaces must be marked, with a limited number of spots available and enforced. Can’t find a spot? Come back later, or better yet, at a less crowded time. 

Second, the parking should be managed with time limits (30 minutes, 60 minutes and a some 120 minute spots for Oneonta Gorge explorers). Timed parking also allows for eventual parking fees during peak periods, which in turn, could help pay for badly-needed law enforcement in the Gorge. Eventually, it makes sense to meter all parking spots in the Gorge, but that’s going to take some a level of cooperation between ODOT, the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks that we haven’t seen before, so lots of work lies ahead on that front.

So, these are all basic tools of the trade for managing parking in urban areas, and the traffic in the Gorge is well beyond urban levels. It’s time to begin managing it with that reality in mind.

The east parking area (below) at the Oneonta Tunnel was rebuilt as part of the tunnel restoration in 2006, but is poorly designed, with a huge area dedicated to parallel parking. 

Unmarked, poorly designed shoulder parking at the new pullout east of the Oneonta Tunnel comes complete with a sidewalk, and could be easily be restriped and better managed with angled spaces

However, this relatively new parking area includes a (rarely used) sidewalk, and thus it could be striped with angled spaces that would make for more efficient parking and also include space for a tour bus pullout. ODOT would just need to take a deep breath, since this would involve visitors backing into the travel lane when exiting a spot — a bugaboo for old-school highway engineers. But drivers manage this all time in the city. We can handle it.

The west parking area (below) at Oneonta is an unfortunate free-for all, with an unmanaged shoulder that was ground zero for the huge social media crowds that began clogging Oneonta Gorge in the late 2000s. This area needs a limited number of marked, timed parking spots no matter what happens at Oneonta in the future. There’s also plenty of room for a sidewalk or marked path in front of the parking spaces, along the foot of the cliffs, similar to the new sidewalk built east of the tunnel. This would make for much safer circulation of pedestrians here.

The west parking area would also be the best place for accessible parking spaces, since it offers the shortest, easiest access to the tunnel and views of Oneonta Gorge from the historic bridge.

Looking west for inspiration… and operations?

Most who visit the iconic Vista House at Crown Point don’t know that the interpretive museum inside the building is operated as a partnership between the non-profit Friends of Vista House and Oregon State Parks.

Vista House rotunda (TripAdvisor)

The Friends formed in 1982, well before the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area was created in 1986, and have done a remarkable job bringing the Vista House back from a serious backlog of needed repairs. Today, it is among the jewels that draw visitors to the Gorge.

Vista House interpretive displays and gift shop (TripAdvisor)

In their partnership with State Parks, the Friends operate a museum inside Vista House, as well as a gift shop and espresso bar in the lower level. Proceeds from the gift shop are directed to their ongoing efforts to preserve and interpret this structure for future generations.

Vista House interpretive displays (TripAdvisor)

The unique partnership between the Friends of Vista House and Oregon State Parks is a proven, successful model, and it could be a foundation for a museum in the restored Oneonta Tunnel. Could the Friends operate a similar facility at Oneonta as part of an expanded mission? Perhaps. Or perhaps another non-profit could be formed as a steward for the tunnel, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and State Parks? 

Crucially, having a staffed presence at Oneonta would allow for effectively managing access to Oneonta Gorge, itself, using a timed entry permit system. This is a proven approach to protecting vulnerable natural areas from overuse, and the Forest Service already uses timed permits elsewhere. Ideally, this permitting function would be funded by the Forest Service, and would include interpretive services for other visitors discovering the area, as well.

Focus on Sam Lancaster’s Road?

Samuel Lancaster, the dreamer behind the Columbia River Highway

On the cut stone wall of the Vista House, a bronze plaque honoring Samuel Lancaster provides a very brief introduction to the man. Displays inside Vista House, and elsewhere in the Gorge, also tell his story in shorthand. But Lancaster’s original vision and continued legacy in shaping how we experience the Gorge deserves a more prominent place. A converted Oneonta Tunnel Museum would be a perfect place to tell that story.

The walls of the tunnel provide a combined 250 feet of display space, which could allow visitors to have a detailed look at some of the secrets of Sam Lancaster’s amazing road. The State of Oregon has a rich archive of historical photos of the highway during its construction phase, mostly unseen by the public for lack of a venue. 

These include rare photos of spectacular structures now lost to time. Among these (below) is the soaring bridge at McCord Creek, destroyed to make room for the modern freeway, and the beautiful arched bridge at Hood River, replaced with a modern concrete slab in the 1980s.

The soaring, former McCord Creek Bridge under construction in 1915 (ODOT)
The graceful former Hood River Bridge in the 1920s, replaced with a freeway-style concrete slab in the 1980s (ODOT)

A new Oneonta Tunnel Museum could tell the story of Sam Lancaster’s inspiration for the famous windowed tunnel at Mitchell Point (below), another lost treasure along the old highway destroyed by modern freeway construction.

The former Mitchel Point Tunnel of many windows (ODOT)

A new museum at Oneonta could also tell the story of the surviving gems along the old road that are now part of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. These include (below) the spectacular section between Hood River and Mosier, with its iconic twin tunnels, the beautifully crafted stone bridge at Eagle Creek and the graceful arched bridge at Shepperd’s Dell.

1920s scene along the spectacular Mosier Twin Tunnels section of the old highway
Eagle Creek Bridge construction in 1915 (note the group of stonemasons in the viewing alcove on the left)
Shepperd’s Dell Bridge on dedication day in 1916. Samuel Lancaster is riding in backseat of  the first automobile (photo trivia: the big Douglas fir at the far left in this image is still standing and survived the 2017 Eagle Creek fire with some scorching to its massive trunk!)

The story behind the building of the old highway extends beyond the genius of Samual Lancaster and the beauty of the design. The construction, itself, was a monumental undertaking, and the stories of the people who built this road deserve to be told in a lasting way for future generations.

The Lancaster story continues today, as well. Since the 1980s, ODOT, Oregon State Parks and scores of dedicated volunteers have steered the ongoing effort to restore and reconnect the old route, as called for when the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Actwas signed into law in 1986.

Many of the restoration projects are epic achievements in their own right, and deserve to have their story told for future generations to appreciate. All are inspired in some way by Samuel Lancaster’s original vision for a road blended seamlessly into the Gorge landscape in way that allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the scenery. These include handsome new bridges (below) at Warren Creek and McCord Creek, as well as a planned recreation of the Mitchell Pont Tunnel.

The new bridge over Warren Creek on the restored Columbia River Highway State Trail
The new bridge over McCord Creek on the restored Columbia River Highway State Trail

What would it take to create an Oneonta Tunnel Museum dedicated to Samuel Lancaster’s enduring vision? Capital funding, of course, but that will surely come at some point, given the current state of the tunnel after the fire. It would also take a willing non-profit partner and a strong interest from the Forest Service, ODOT and Oregon State Parks to try something different when it comes time to once again restore the tunnel. But the time to start that conversation is now, before the agencies start down the path of simply repeating mistakes from the past decade.

So, for now, this is just an idea. But in the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Samuel Lancaster and his amazing highway, there are two books that should be in every Gorge-lover’s library. And they make for especially good reading in this time in which we’re not able to visit the Gorge! 

The first is Samuel Lancaster’s own book, The Columbia: America’s Great Highway, first published in 1916 by Lancaster, himself. This book is as eccentric and sweeping as Lancaster’s own imagination, and his love for the Gorge comes through in his detailed descriptions of the natural and human history. It’s easy to see how his vision for “designing with nature” grew from his intense interest in the natural landscape of the Gorge.

Lancaster’s original book was reproduced in 2004 by Schiffer as a modern edition, and is still in print. The modern version includes restored, full-color plates from the 1916 edition, as well as additional plates that were added to a 1926 version by Sam Lancaster.

Essential reading for any Gorge lover!

A wonderful bookend to Sam Lancaster’s classic is Building the Columbia River Highway: They Said it Couldn’t Be Done by Oregon author Peg Willis. This exceptional book focuses on the highway, itself, and the collection of characters who came together to make Samuel Lancaster’s bold vision become reality.

Peg’s book also includes a terrific selection of seldom-seen historic photos of the highway during it’s original construction, reproduced with fine quality. In fact, the stories and images in this book would a perfect blueprint for the future Oneonta Tunnel Museum… someday!

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As always, thanks for stopping by and reading through yet another long-form article in our era of tweets and soundbites!

Special thanks to Oregon photographer TJ Thorne, who contributed photos of the Oneonta Gorge summer crowds for this article. Those were just a few snapshots from his iPhone, but please visit TJ’s website to see his amazing fine art nature photography from landscapes across the American West, and please consider supporting his work.

Oregon’s outdoor photographers serve as our eyes on the forest, taking us places we might otherwise never see. They help the rest of us better appreciate and protect our public lands through their dedicated work, but they need our support to continue their work. 

Thanks, TJ!

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Tom Kloster • April 2020

The Waterfalls of “Heaven and Hell”

Mist Falls from Benson State Park

Hidden in plain sight near the west entrance to the Columbia River Gorge are a string of waterfalls that flow from the slopes of Devils Rest and Angels Rest, yet are virtually unknown. At least one of them, Dalton Falls, is named. But nobody seems to agree which waterfall is the real “Dalton”.

A closer look at a 1916 touring map (below) published when the original scenic highway opened in the Gorge shows this area in detail, including a few name changes: “Fort Rock” is now Angels Rest and the domed butte at the top center-right edge is Devils Rest, which forms the headwaters of well-known Wahkeena Falls — then known as “Gordon Falls”.

Multnomah, Mist Falls and Coopey Falls are also shown, and still carry their original names (Mist Falls is one of the few landmarks in the Gorge that still carries a name given by the Lewis and Clark expedition). But tucked between Coopey Falls and Mist Falls on this old map is “Dalton Falls”, shown to be flowing from a prominent canyon on the east flank of Angels Rest (then “Fort Rock”). 

This is where the confusion begins, as the stream in this canyon does have several small cascades, but nothing that could have been easily seen from below, along the old Columbia River Highway, which seems to argue against this falls being the real “Dalton Falls” Meanwhile, one of the lesser-known waterfalls in what I am calling the “Heaven and Hell” section of the Gorge is quite prominent, and to many waterfall admirers is the rightful “Dalton Falls”. 

The photo below is from state aerial surveys taken after the Eagle Creek Fire in 2018, and shows both the familiar Mist Falls and nearby “Dalton Falls”, just to the west. 

Like Mist Falls, Dalton Falls is a two-tiered waterfall with a total height of 350 feet — not as tall as nearby Mist Falls at 520 feet, but quite tall compared to other waterfalls in the Gorge. In most years, Dalton Falls is seasonal, going dry in late summer. This is has been the main argument against this waterfall being the “real” Dalton Falls in the many debates that have unfolded over the years.

A Closer Look at Heaven and Hell

The Eagle Creek Fire and the State of Oregon’s aerial surveys that followed have pulled back the curtain on this area. With much of the once-dense forest canopy burned away, waterfall lovers can finally see just how many waterfalls have been hiding here. The following panorama is stitched together from several of these aerial photos and reveals a labyrinth of deep canyons and cliffs that make up the “Heaven and Hell” Gorge face, between Devils Rest and Angels Rest:

[click here for a very large version of the panorama]

Mist Falls is just beyond the left edge of the panorama and Coopey Falls just beyond the right side of this view. But beginning with Dalton Falls on the east, the composite photo reveals a total of seven unnamed waterfalls that can now be clearly seen in aerial images. For the sake of describing them, I’ve attached informal names to the most notable cascades (which I will explain, for better or worse).

This topographic map shows the same “Heaven and Hell” section of the Gorge face with the location of each of these waterfalls identified. Some are on seasonal streams while some some flow year-round, though even the perennial streams are not mapped in most cases. So, I’ve added them to this map, as well, for clarity:

[click here for a large version of the map]

Given the general location of these waterfalls, here’s a closer look at each one, as  captured in the State of Oregon surveys, starting from the west. The first is Foxglove Falls, located near Angels Rest (below).

“Foxglove Falls” is a working name I attached to this falls several years ago after first hearing it from Angels Rest, then getting a few glimpses of falling water through the trees. The name comes from a trail by the same name, and crossing this stream just upstream from the falls. Waterfall explorers have since scrambled down to Foxglove Falls and found a modest 50-foot cascade among a string of smaller drops as Foxglove Creek bounds down the very steep ravine below Angels Rest. 

The old Gorge touring map suggests that Foxglove Falls might be the illusive “Dalton Falls”, but it’s clearly too small and out of view to have been given this name. 

Moving east along the Gorge face, another very small, unnamed falls forms a seasonal cascade just beyond Foxglove Creek. I’ve simply labeled this as a “falls” on the panorama, as it’s one of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of seasonal falls of this scale that appear throughout the Gorge. 

Moving just a bit further east in the panoramic view, a more impressive falls emerges, with an upper tier of perhaps 80 to 100 feet in height and a lower tier of 150-200 feet. I’ve given this one the working name of “Chalice Falls” (below) for the distinct shape of the bowl carved into the basalt cliffs by the falls, which, combined with the basalt layer below, looks like a chalice to my eye. 

This is a chalice… can you see it in the carved basalt?

The lower tier of “Chalice Falls” is quite prominent, leaping out into space in a cascade that can easily be seen from below. For this reason, this is probably the best alternate candidate as the “real” Dalton Falls. However, this stream appears to be seasonal in most years, and has a smaller drainage than the suspected Dalton Falls to the east, so I’m still convinced that the presumed Dalton Falls is the real thing.

Heading east from Chalice Falls, another small waterfall appears that I’ve simply called “falls” on the panoramic view, before a much more pronounced canyon appears below the northwest slopes of Devils Rest. Most of the forest canopy survived here, so the secrets of this remote canyon aren’t revealed as readily as the rest of the “Heaven and Hell” section, but two large waterfalls are easily seen. I’ve given these the working name of “Lucifer” (with a nod to Devils Rest, upstream), with distinct upper and lower waterfalls (below).

Of the two Lucifers, the upper falls is the most interesting. Though it is partly hidden in the mist in this photo, the main Lucifer Falls (below) has a beautiful, spreading upper tier and horsetail-shaped lower tier that combine for a height of perhaps 150-200 feet.

Lower Lucifer Falls (below) is more of a long cascade, but has a tall upper tier of perhaps 70-100 feet that kicks off as much as 300 feet of continuous cascades. 

The two Lucifer waterfalls are quite hidden from view from below in a deep, forested canyon, so while this appears to be a year-round stream, it doesn’t seem like a likely candidate for as the “real” Dalton Falls, either.

Moving east from Lucifer Falls, the next prominent waterfall in the “Heaven and Hell” section leaps off a very tall basalt cliff in several twisting tiers that could easily combine for a height of 250-300 feet. I’ve given this falls the working name “Cordial Falls” for tall alcove the stream has carved here, resembling a glass cordial to my eye (below). Cordial Falls is quite graceful, fanning out along the basalt layers as it cascades down the Gorge cliffs.

This is a cordial… okay, maybe a bit of a stretch on this one..!

Look closely to the right of Cordial Falls and you can see a sizable landslide, with whole trees scattered in its wake. This event made it all the way down to the Historic Columbia River Highway, temporary blocking the road in the months after the Gorge fire.

Cordial Falls occurs on a stream that might flow year-round, so it’s possible that this stream could be the “real” Dalton Falls. But like the Lucifer waterfalls, it’s also somewhat hidden in its alcove, surrounded by big conifers. It therefore seems like another unlikely candidate for being named in those early days in the Gorge.

Which leaves the next falls to the east as the “real” Dalton Falls (below), and the State of Oregon aerial photos provide terrific detail of this very tall, two-tiered waterfall. The falls can also been seen prominently from below, along the Historic Columbia River Highway and modern I-84.

Just off to the left of the panoramic view is another falls on Dalton Creek. Lower Dalton Falls (below) is easily seen from the Historic Columbia River Highway, dropping from a cliff just west of Mist Creek, near a wide pullout on the highway.

So, there you have it — the “Heaven and Hell” waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge. You might be able to glimpse them during the winter months from I-84 (so long as you’re not doing the driving!), but for the most part these are “hidden” gems… in plain sight!

What’s in a Name?

So, why map obscure waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge? Party, because it’s fun and interesting to make new discoveries in places we think we know so well. But it’s also true that knowing (and naming) these places can help us better care for them and protect our public lands. 

In recent years, a new generation of waterfall enthusiasts has uncovered hundreds of “new” waterfalls in the Gorge and throughout Mount Hood country. Part of this new era of discovery comes from new tools, like detailed satellite images and LIDAR mapping now freely available online. But finding these hidden gems still requires old-fashion exploring on the ground, ensuring that most of these off-trail waterfalls will continue to be known first-hand to just a few.

Off-trail waterfalls like these are being discovered throughout Mount Hood country by a new generation of waterfall explorers, helping us better understand what is at stake for our unprotected public lands

Scores of these “new” waterfalls are in places like the Clackamas River basin, where the forest is still recovering from brutal logging and road construction that swept through Mount Hood country from the 1950s through the early 1990s. Had we known these waterfalls (and so many other magical places) existed when industrial logging was underway on our public lands, would we have tolerated the massive clear cuts and logging roads that marred these beautiful places? Perhaps. 

But it’s also possible that better public understanding of what was at stake might have slowed the bulldozers and chainsaws long enough to spare just a few of these places. These threats still exist for much of Mount Hood country, so long live the modern era of exploration and true appreciation for what is at stake!

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The author practicing responsible social distancing in the Gorge on March 15, before our State and Federal lands were closed to recreation by the COVID-19 pandemic

Postscript on COVID-19 from the author: we’ve all heard the words “unprecedented” and “challenging” too many times over the past few weeks, though both words do aptly describe our lives under a global pandemic. And with our public lands closed and Oregonians ordered to stay at home, you’ll be seeing few more articles on this blog. 

However, I don’t plan to tie blog themes to the global health crisis in any way, as I’m quietly honestly enjoying the opportunity to focus on something other than the crisis. Hopefully that won’t seem disrespectful or insensitive to readers. That is certainly not my intent. Instead, I hope the blog can provide a temporary distraction from the truly “unprecedented and challenging” situation that we’re all struggling through, something I think we can all use.

As always, thanks for taking the time to stop by, and of course, stay safe!

Tom Kloster | March 2020

Proposal: Historic Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail (Part 2 of 2)

Yellow paint still marks the old centerline of an abandoned section of the historic Mount Hood Loop highway, nearly covered with more than 60 years of moss and ferns.

(Part 1 of this article introduced the idea of restoring the surviving sections of the old Mount Hood Loop Highway to become part of a world-class cycle tour along this historic route. Part 2 focuses on these surviving historic sections of the old road, from Zigzag on the west side of the mountain to the Sherwood Campground on the east side, and how to bring this vision to reality)

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THE CONCEPT

In the near-century since the original Mount Hood Loop was completed in early 1920s, the old route has gradually been replaced with straighter, faster “modern” highways. In areas outside Mount Hood National Forest, the bypassed sections of the old road are mostly still in use, often serving as local roads. But inside the national forest, from Zigzag to Sherwood Campground, long sections of the old road were simply abandoned, left to revert to nature when new, modern roads were built in the 1950s and 60s. Some bypassed sections are still in use, though mostly forgotten.

This is 1930s-era map (below) shows the original alignment of the Mount Hood Loop highway in red and the approximate location of the modern highway alignments of US 26 and OR 35 superimposed in black:

[click here for a large version of this map]

The concept of reconnecting these forgotten sections of historic road is straightforward, building on the example of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) in the Columbia Gorge. As in the Gorge, places where modern highways on Mount Hood simply abandoned or bypassed the old route, the surviving segments of the old road would be the historic building blocks for creating a new “state trail”, which is simply a paved bicycle and pedestrian path closed to automobiles. 

Sections where the historic route was completely destroyed by modern highways would be reconnected with new trail, like we see in the Gorge, or with protected shoulder lanes on quiet sections of the modern highway in a couple areas.

This map shows the overall concept for restoring the route as the Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail:

[click here for the 11×17″ JPG version]

[click here for the 11×17″ PDF version]

Segments shown in blue on the concept map are where bypassed sections of the old highway still survive and segments shown in red are where new trails would connect the surviving historic segments. All of the new trail sections are proposed to follow existing forest roads to minimize costs and impacts on the forest. 

The concept map also shows several trailheads along the route where visitors would not only use to access the trail, but would also have trail information and toilets. These trailheads already exist in most cases, with several functioning as winter SnoParks that could be used year-round as part of the new trail concept.

Six Forest Service campgrounds (Tollgate, Camp Creek, Still Creek, Trillium Lake, Robinhood and Sherwood) already exist along the proposed route and two long-forgotten campgrounds (Twin Bridges and Hood River Meadows) are still intact and could easily be reopened as bikepacking-only destinations.

EXPLORING THE ROUTE

The next part of this article explores the scenic and historic highlights of the historic highway in three sections, from Rhododendron on the west side of the mountain to the Sherwood Campground and East Fork Hood River on the east side.

West Section – Rhododendron to Government Camp

The historic bridge over the Little Zigzag River survives, marking the beginning of a gracefully, winding ascent of Laurel Hill along the old loop highway

Beginning at the tiny mountain community of Zigzag, it’s possible to follow a couple bypassed segments of the old loop highway, notably along Faubion Road, but most of this section would follow a new, protected path on US 26 to Rhododendron, where the off-high trail concept begins. 

Part 1 of this article outlined the economic benefits of cycle touring, and by anchoring the west end of the new trail in Rhododendron, this small community would benefit from tourism in a way that speeding winter ski traffic simply doesn’t offer. The gateway trailhead would be located at the east end of Rhododendron, connecting to the Tollgate Campground, the first camping opportunity along the proposed route

The Barlow Road Tollgate near Rhododendron in the 1880s

From Tollgate, the new route would follow the Pioneer Bridle Trail for the next two miles to the Kiwanis Camp Road junction, on US 26. This is a lightly used section of the Pioneer Bridle Trail, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps from Tollgate to Government Camp in the 1930s. This part of the corridor follows the relatively flat valley floor of the Zigzag River, so there is plenty of room for a new trail to run parallel to the Pioneer Bridle Trail, as another option.

Pioneer Bridle Trail east of Tollgate

Once at the Kiwanis Camp Road junction, the new route would share this quiet forest road for the next next couple miles. Kiwanis Camp Road is actually a renamed, surviving section of the old highway and still provides access to the Paradise Park and Hidden Lake trails into the Mount Hood Wilderness. 

The Zigzag River passing through the old Twin Bridges campground site

Along the way, this section of old highway passes the site of the long-abandoned Twin Bridges campground, where a surviving bridge also forms the trailhead for the Paradise Park Trail. This shady old campground is quite beautiful, with the rushing Zigzag River passing through it. It could easily be reopened as a bikepacking-only camping spot along the tour.

Little Zigzag Falls

This operating section of old highway soon ends at the Little Zigzag River and the short spur trail to pretty Little Zigzag Falls. The enormous turnaround here once served as a rock quarry for the original loop highway, and has plenty of room serve as trailhead for the new state trail

From here, the old road begins an ascent of Laurel Hill, one of the most scenic and fascinating sections of the old highway. Large boulders now block the old highway at the historic bridge that crosses the Little Zigzag River, and from there, an abandoned section of the old road begins the traverse of Laurel Hill.

Abandoned historic highway section near the Little Zigzag crossing

This abandoned section of historic road crosses the upper portion of the Pioneer Bridle Trail where an unusual horse tunnel was constructed under the old highway as part of creating the Bridle Trail. It’s hard to imagine enough highway traffic in the 1930s to warrant this structure, but perhaps the trail builders were concerned about speeding Model As surprising visitors crossing the road on horseback? Whatever the reason, the stone bridge/tunnel structure is one of the many surviving gems hidden along the old highway corridor.

Pioneer Bridle Trail tunnel under an abandoned section of the historic loop highway

From the Pioneer Bridle tunnel overcrossing, the old road soon dead-ends at a tall embankment, where modern US 26 cuts across the historic route. The spot where the modern highway was built was once one of the most photographed waysides along the old highway, appearing in dozens of postcards and travel brochures. It was the first good view of the mountain from the old highway as it ascended from the floor of the Zigzag Valley to Government Camp (below).

While much of the old road has survived, the modern alignment of US 26 cut through this spot on the old loop, creating one of two gaps on Laurel Hill that will require significant structures to reconnect

Although almost all of the old highway survives where it climbs the Laurel Hill grade, this spot marks one of the two major gaps along the way that would require a significant new structure to reconnect the route. A second gap occurs at the crest of Laurel Hill, to the east, where the modern highway cuts deeply through the mountain. This map shows the surviving, abandoned sections of the historic highway along the Laurel Hill grade and upper and lower gaps that must be bridged:

[click here for a large version of this map]

On the ground, the lower Laurel Hill gap looks like this:

The lower Laurel Hill gap is at a well-known spot where a history marker points toward a short trail to one of the Barlow Road “chutes” that white migrants on the Oregon Trail endured in their final push to the Willamette Valley. 

ODOT has made this section of highway much faster and more freeway-like in recent years in the name of “safety”, but in the process made it impossible for hikers to cross the highway from the Pioneer Bridge Trail to visit the Barlow Road chute. A freeway-style median now blocks anyone from simply walking across the highway and cyclone fences have been added to the north side to make sure hikers get the message.

Given this reality, both of the Laurel Hill gaps would be great candidates for major new crossings, along the lines of work ODOT has done in the Gorge to reconnect the HCRH. This viaduct (below) was recently built by ODOT at Summit Creek, on the east side of Shellrock Mountain, where the modern I-84 alignment similarly took a bite out of an inclined section of the old highway, leaving a 40-foot drop-off where the old road once contoured downhill. This sort of solution could work at the lower Laurel Hill gap, too.

This new bicycle and pedestrian viaduct reconnects surviving segments of the original highway near Summit Creek along the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.

Beyond the Laurel Hill history marker on the south side of the modern US 26, a set of 1950s stone steps (below) leads occasional visitors up to the next section of abandoned Mount Hood Loop highway, where the old route continues its steady climb of Laurel Hill.

Stone steps leading from US 26 to the Barlow Road “chute” on Laurel Hill

This section of the abandoned route is in remarkably good shape, despite more than 60 years of no maintenance, whatsoever. It also briefly serves as the trail to a viewpoint of the Barlow Road chute — a footpath to the top of the chute resumes on the opposite side of the old highway, about 100 yards from the stone steps.

Abandoned section of the loop highway near the Barlow Road chute

When the historic highway was built in the 1920s, the Barlow Road was still clearly visible and only a few decades old. Despite the care they used elsewhere to build the scenic new road in concert with the landscape, there was no care given to preserving the old Barlow Road. Thus, the historic highway cut directly across the chute, permanently removing a piece of Oregon history. 

Today, the footpath to the top of the chute still gives a good sense of just how daunting this part of the journey was (below). This short spur trail, and others like it along the surviving sections of the old highway, would be integrated into the restored Mount Hood Loop route, providing side attractions for cyclists and hikers to explore along the way.

Looking down the Barlow Road chute from the interpretive trail

Beyond the Barlow chute, the old highway enters a very lush section of forest, where foot traffic from explorers continues to keep a section of old pavement bare (below). Scratch the surface, and even under this much understory, the old highway continues to be in very good condition and could easily be restored in the same way old sections of highway in the Gorge have been brought back to life as a trail.

Abandoned section of the old loop highway near Yocum Falls

Some of the foot traffic along the abandoned Laurel Hill section of the old loop road is headed toward a little-known user path that drops steeply down to Yocum Falls, on Camp Creek. This is a lovely spot that deserves a proper trail someday, and would make an excellent family destination, much as the Little Zigzag Falls trail is today.

Yocum Falls is mostly forgotten since the construction of the modern highway, but remains as beautiful as when it was featured on postcards in the 1920s

Yocum Falls was once well known, as the full extent of this multi-tiered cascade could be seen from along the old highway. As this old postcard from the 1920s shows (below), Camp Creek also served as a fire break for the Sherar Burn, which encompassed much of the area south of today’s US 26 in the early 1900s. You can see burned forest on the south (right) side in this photo and surviving forest on the north (left) side:

Yocum Falls in a 1920s postcard view from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

The fire also created this temporary view of the falls in the early 1900s, but the forest has since recovered and obscured the view. Today, the short hike down to the falls on the user path is required for a front-row view of Yocum Falls.

Beyond the falls, the abandoned highway makes a pronounced switchback and begins a traverse toward the crest of Laurel Hill. Here, the vegetation becomes more open, and road surface more visible (below).

Abandoned section of the old highway as it approaches the crest of Laurel Hill

Soon this abandoned section of old road makes another turn, this time onto the crest of Laurel Hill. When the historic highway was built, this stretch was still recovering from the Sherar Burn, and the summit was dense with rhododendron and beargrass that put on an annual flower show each June. This was perhaps the most iconic stop along the old route, appearing on countless postcards, calendars and print ads (below).

1940s tourism ad featuring the (then) famous view of Mount Hood from Laurel Hill

Today, most of this section has reforested, but there are still views of the mountain and opportunities for new viewpoints that could match what those Model A drivers experienced in the early days of touring on Mount Hood.

Soon, this abandoned section of old road on Laurel Hill reaches the upper gap, where ODOT has recently made the yawning cut through the crest of the hill even wider. This schematic is a view of the cut looking north (toward the mountain), with the stubs of the historic highway shown: 

If there is any good news here, it is that the modern highway cut is perpendicular to the old loop highway, making it possible to directly connect the surviving sections of the old road with a new bridge. This view (below) is from the eastern stub of the old route, where it suddenly arrives at the modern highway cut. The stub on west side of the cut is plainly visible across US 26:

This panoramic view (below) from the same spot gives a better sense of the gap and the opportunity to bride the upper Laurel Hill gap as part of restoring the old route as a trail. A bonus of bridging the upper gap would be an exceptional view of Mount Hood, which fills the northern skyline from here.

The upper gap is about 250 feet across and 40 feet deep, so are there any local examples of a bridge that could span this? One historic example is the old Moffett Creek Bridge on the HCRH, pictured below while it was being constructed in 1916. This bridge measures about 200 feet in length with a single arch.

Moffett Creek Bridge construction along the Columbia River Highway in 1916

The City of Portland recently broke ground on the new Earl Blumenauer Bridge, a bicycle and pedestrian crossing over Sullivan’s Gulch (and I-84) in Portland. This very modern design (below) might not be the best look for restoring a historic route on Mount Hood, but at 475 feet in length, this $13.7 million structure does give a sense of what it would take to span the upper gap at Laurel Hill. 

The City of Portland recently broke ground for this new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Sullivan’s Gulch, linking the Lloyd District to Portland’s Central Eastside (City of Portland)

That sounds like a big price tag, but consider that ODOT recently spent three times that amountsimply to add a lane and build a concrete median on the Laurel Hill section of US 26. It’s more about priorities and a vision for restoring the old road than available highway funding. More about that in a moment.

Moving east from the upper Laurel Hill gap, the abandoned section of the old highway continues (below) toward Government Camp, eventually reaching the Glacier View trailhead, where the surviving old highway now serves as the access road to this popular, but cramped, SnoPark.

Abandoned section of the loop highway near Government Camp

Sadly, the Forest Service recently destroyed a portion of the abandoned loop highway just west of the Glacier View trailhead, leaving heaps of senselessly plowed-up pavement behind. While destroying this section of historic road was frustrating (and possibly illegal), it can still be restored fairly easily. But this regrettable episode was another reminder of the vulnerability of the old highway without a plan to preserve and restore it.

Piles of paving line a short section of the abandoned loop highway near Government Camp where the Forest Service recently destroyed the road surface with no consideration of its historic value — a senseless reminder of the vulnerability of this precious route

From the Glacier View trailhead, the old road become an operating roadway once again, curving south to another junction with US 26, across from the new Mirror Lake trailhead, where a major new recreation site completed in 2018. This trailhead provides parking, restrooms and interpretive displays for visitors to the popular Mirror Lake trail, and is immediately adjacent to the Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort and lodge.

Plans call for a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over US 26 at the Mirror Lake trailhead, spanning one of the critical gaps necessary to reconnect the old highway route

Crossing the US 26 at this junction is a sketchy, scary experience, especially on foot or a bicycle. Fortunately, the 2014 Mount Hood Multimodal Plan, adopted jointly by the Forest Service and ODOT, calls for a major bicycle and pedestrian bridge here to allow for safe crossing by hikers, cyclists, skiers and snowshoers, so a plan is already in place to resolve this obstacle.

Middle Section – Government Camp to Barlow Pass

Mount Hood mirrored in one of the ponds at Multorpor Fen (State of Oregon)

From the Mirror Lake trailhead, the old highway loops through today’s parking lot at the Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort, then crosses US 26 again to loop through the mountain village of Government Camp. These graceful curves in the old route were bisected when the modern US 26 was built in the 1950s, leaving them intact as local access roads. However, because the Government Camp section of the old road serves as the village main street, the concept for a Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail parallels the south edge of US 26 along a proposed new trail section, and avoids two crossings of the modern highway in the process. 

However, a more interesting (but complicated) option in this area is possible along the south edge of the Multorpor Fen, an intricate network of ponds, bogs and meadows sandwiched between the east and west Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort units. The remarkable view in the photo above shows one of the ponds along this alternate route, far enough from the modern highway to make traffic noise a distant hum. However, this route would also require crossing a section of private land at Ski Bowl East. The mountain views and buffer from the highway make this an option worth considering, nonetheless.

Both options are shown on the concept map at the top of this article, and either route through the Government Camp area leads to the northern foot of Multorpor Mountain, where the concept for the state trail is to repurpose a combination of existing and abandoned forest roads as new trail to historic Summit Meadow and popular Trillium Lake, where the second and third campgrounds along the proposed trail are located.

Historic Summit Meadow, a crucial resting spot for white Oregon Trail migrants in the 1840s along the old Barlow Road
Mount Hood from Trillium Lake

From Trillium Lake, the new trail would follow existing forest roads toward Red Top Meadow, to the east, then follow a new route for about a mile to the continuation of the historic loop highway, just east of the US 26/OR 35 junction. Here, a surviving section of the old road is maintained and remains open to the public, passing the mysterious Pioneer Woman’s Grave site as it climbs toward Barlow Pass. 

Surviving section of the old loop highway near Barlow Pass that is still open for use
This massive, carved history marker once stood at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave along the old loop highway, near Barlow Pass
The badly neglected Pioneer Woman’s Grave site today

When the original highway was completed in the 1920s, a viewpoint along this section of the road was called “Buzzard Point” and inspired postcards and calendar photos in its day. Few call this spot Buzzard Point anymore, but the view survives, along with a rustic roadside fountain built of native stone and still carrying spring water to the passing public. In winter, this section of the old road is also popular with skiers and snowshoers.

This 1920s view from Buzzard Point was well-known in the heyday of the old loop highway
This surviving stone water fountain near Buzzard Point is still flowing nearly a century after it was built!

This section of the old route continues another mile or so to the large SnoPark at Barlow Pass, another important trailhead that serves both the loop highway corridor and the Pacific Crest Trail.

East Section – Barlow Pass to Sherwood Campground

Barlow Road history sign at the Barlow Pass trailhead, where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the historic loop highway

From Barlow Pass, the trail concept calls for a protected bikeway on the shoulder of OR 35, where it crosses the White River and climbs to Bennett Pass. It would be possible for the trail to take a different route along this section, but the traffic volumes and speed on OR 35 are much less intimidating than those on US 26, especially from spring through fall, when ski resort traffic all but disappears. There is also plenty of room to add protected bike lanes along this section of OR 35, including on the new bridge over the White River that was completed just a few years ago.

The Mount Hood Loop trail concept would follow this section of OR 35 as a protected bikeway from Barlow Pass to the White River and Bennett Pass
The White River crossing has always been a popular stop along the Mount Hood Loop Highway. In the early days, motorists could stop here to picnic and pick up souvenirs at “White River Park”
The White River is a notoriously wild glacial stream that has a long history of washing out the loop highway bridges — this was the first bridge to span the river as it appeared in the 1920s
This is a 1930s version of the White River Bridge, one still constructed of logs and planks
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt stopped at the White River crossing in 1937 on their famous tour of the Mount Hood Loop Highway and dedication of Timberline Lodge

Upon reaching Bennett Pass, the proposed route would once again follow an especially scenic section of bypassed historic highway, with views of waterfalls, alpine meadows and the mountain towering above.

Mount Hood from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway at Bennett Pass in the 1930s
1950s view of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Bennett Pass before the modern highway was constructed

Of the many scenes along the old road that were postcard favorites, the view of the Sahalie Falls Bridge, stone fountain and falls in the background was among the most popular. The bridge was the largest structure on the original loop highway, and a scenic highlight (you can read more about the history of the bridge in this 2013 blog article “Restoring the Sahalie Falls Bridge”)

The graceful Sahalie Falls bridge is the architectural highlight of the old loop highway, and was restored in 2013
The Sahalie Falls Bridge under construction in the 1920s
Popular postcard view of the Sahalie Falls Bridge and stone fountain from the 1920s

Today, the bridge is once again in excellent condition, having been restored by the Federal Highway Administration in 2013. For years, the bridge had been closed to automobiles because of its state of disrepair, but today it stands as perhaps the most significant historic highway feature along the old road.

From Sahalie Falls, the historic road curves east through subalpine forests before arriving at Hood River Meadows, among the largest on Mount Hood and another spot that was featured in countless postcards and advertisements during the heyday of the old road. 

1920s view of the old loop highway at Hood River Meadows. This nearly forgotten section of the old highway still operates today.

The long-abandoned Hood River Meadows campground also survives here, along the east side of the meadows, and is still in excellent condition. This site could be reopened as a second bikepacking-only camping spot along the proposed trail. 

1940s tourism ad featuring Mount Hood from the loop highway at Hood River Meadows

Next, the historic road curves toward OR 35 where it also serves as the resort access road for the Hood River Meadows ski complex. From the spot where the old road meets OR 35, there are a couple more abandoned road sections along the north edge of OR 35 that could be reconnected as part of the Loop Highway trail concept, but this is the last of the surviving sections of the old road on this part of the mountain.

From here, the trail concept would connect a series of old forest roads on a gradual descent of the East Fork Hood River valley, toward Sherwood Campground, located along the East Fork, and completing the Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail.

East Fork Hood River near Sherwood Campground in winter

Sherwood Campground is a very old, still operating campground that includes another stone fountain from the old highway, located near the campground entrance. The campground is also a jumping off point for the popular trail to Tamanawas Falls. Nearby Little John SnoPark would serve as the main eastern trailhead for the new trail, with a short connecting route the main trail. 

Historic stone fountain from the original loop Highway at Sherwood Campground
Tamanawas Falls, just off the loop highway near Sherwood Campground

Sherwood Campground would form the eastern terminus of the historic section of the proposed Loop Highway State Trail. From here the larger Mount Hood scenic loop route would follow OR 35 through the narrowing canyon of the East Fork to the wide expanse of the upper Hood River Valley. 

This narrow section of the loop highway is where a safe, protected bikeway will need to thread the needle between cliffs and the East Fork Hood River

The canyon section along the East Fork is a crux segment for the loop route, with the modern highway wedged between the river and a wall of steep cliffs and talus slopes. Engineers designing a safe bikeway through this section of road could take some inspiration from the Shellrock Mountain in the Gorge, where the HCRH State Trail threads a similar corridor between I-84 and the talus slopes of Shellrock Mountain. This crux section along the East Fork is about a mile long.

WHERE TO START?

Touring the upper Hood River Valley in the 1950s

What would it take for this concept to become a reality? A crucial first step would be a feasibility study inspired by the HCRH State Trail, with an emphasis on the potential this example offers for restoring and reconnecting historic sections of the old Mount Hood Loop Highway on Mount Hood. 

Rock crusher along the original loop highway during its construction in the 1920s

An obvious sponsor for this work would be the Oregon Department of Transportation, working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. These agencies have worked together to bring the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail to reality and have both the experience and capacity to repeat this success story on Mount Hood. The following outline could be a starting point for their work:

Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail Feasibility Study 

Purpose Statement

Restore and reconnect surviving sections of the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway from Rhododendron to Sherwood Campground as a paved state trail the combines shared right-of-way and non-motorized trail experiences.

Feasibility Study Objectives

  • Identify new, paved trail segments needed on public land to complete the loop using existing forest road alignments whenever possible.
  • Identify surviving historic resources and new interpretive opportunities along the trail.
  • Identify multimodal trailhead portals at the trail termini and at major destinations along the trail, including Rhododendron and Government Camp.
  • Identify bike-and-hike opportunities that build on soft-trail access from a new, paved state trail.
  • Coordinate and correlate route and design options and opportunities with the 2014 Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Planand the Mount Hood Scenic Byway Interpretive Plan and Design Guidelines.
  • Identify an alternate bicycle route for the Mount Hood Scenic Byway from Sandy to Rhododendron that does not follow the US 26 shoulder.
  • Identify design solutions for designing a protected shoulder bikeway in the crux section of OR 35 in the East Fork canyon.
  • Engage public and private stakeholders and the general public in developing the feasibility study.

But what would it really take..?

Railing and sidewalk repairs underway to the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013

While ODOT has directly managed construction of the HCRH State Trail in the Gorge, a lesser-known federal agency has been taking the lead in recent, similar projects on Mount Hood. A little-known division of the Federal Highway Administration known as Federal Lands Highway is gaining a growing reputation for innovative, sustainable designs in recent projects on our federal public lands. 

On Mount Hood, Federal Lands Highway oversaw the restoration of the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013, a long-overdue project that rescued this priceless structure from the brink of oblivion. Like any highway agency, they excelled at the roadway element of the project, like restoring the bridge and related structure. Other opportunities were missed, however, including improving the adjacent parking areas and providing interpretive amenities for visitors. 

Forms for new railing caps on the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013
Federal Lands Highway rebuilt the footing for the historic water fountain at Sahalie Falls as part of the bridge restoration project
The newly restored Sahalie Falls Bridge and fountain in 2014

Federal Lands Highway also completed a major reconstruction of OR 35 at Newton Creek in 2012. This project was in response to massive flooding of this surprisingly powerful glacial stream in 2006. Their work here shows some of the negatives of a highway agency taking the lead, with a very large footprint on the land and a big visual impact with over-the-top, freeway-style “safety” features that are old-school by today’s design practices.

The mega-culvert project built by Federal Lands Highway at Newton Creek in 2012

In 2012, Federal Lands Highway also completed (yet another!) bridge replacement over the White River, which was also damaged in the 2006 floods. The massive new bridge is similarly over-the-top to their work at Newton Creek, but Federal Lands Highway deserves credit for rustic design features that blend the structure with the surroundings, including native stone facing on the bridge abutments.

Western Federal Lands completed the new White River Bridge in 2012

The most promising recent work on Mount Hood by Federal Lands Highway is the completion of the new Mirror Lake Trailhead in 2018. This project involved a significant planning effort in a complex location with multiple design alternatives. Their work here involved the public, too, something their earlier work at White River, Sahalie Falls and Newton Creek neglected.

The new Mirror Lake Trailhead was completed in a partnership of Federal Lands Highway, the Forest Service and ODOT in 2018

The final result at Mirror Lake is an overall success, despite the controversy of moving the trailhead to begin with. The new trailhead is now a prototype of what other trailheads along a restored Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trailcould (and should) look like, complete with restrooms, interpretive signs, bicycle parking and accessibility for people using mobility devices.

New shoulder swales along US 26 were part of the Mirror Lake trailhead project, helping to protect water quality of Camp Creek from highway runoff
The new Mirror Lake Trailhead plaza includes restrooms, interpretive signage, bike parking and seating for visitors

Beyond the hardscape features at the new trailhead, Federal Lands Highways worked with the Forest Service to replant areas along a new paved section of trail. This work provides another useful template for how the two federal agencies could work together with ODOT in a larger restoration of the old Loop Highway as a new trail.

Though it looks a little rough, this area along the new, paved section of the Mirror Lake Trail was landscaped with native materials as part of the new trailhead project
Landscape restoration at the new trailhead included woody forest debris, native understory starts and hydro-seeding to protect newly planted areas from erosion

One of the compelling reason for Federal Lands Highway to take a leading role in a Loop Highway trail project is the unfortunate fact that ODOT has ceded the right-of-way for several of the abandoned sections of the old road to the Forest Service. This would make it difficult for ODOT to use state funds to restore these sections without a federal transportation partner like Federal Lands Highway helping to navigate these jurisdictional hurdles. 

However, governance hurdles like this existed in the Gorge, too, and state and federal partners simply worked together to resolve them, provided they had a clear mandate to work toward.

Getting behind the idea… and creating a mandate

The original Mount Hood Loop Highway in the Hood River Valley in the 1930s

Bringing this trail concept to reality will take more than a feasibility study, of course — and even that small step will take some political lifting by local officials, cycling advocates, the local tourism community and even our congressional delegation. While the money is clearly there for ODOT to begin this work, it would only happen with enough political support to begin the work.

The good news is that Oregon’s congressional delegation is increasingly interested in outdoor recreation and our tourism economy, especially when where a coalition of advocates and local officials share a common vision. With the HCRH State Trail in the Gorge nearing completion after more than 30 years of dedicated effort by advocates and ODOT, it’s a good time to consider completing the old loop as the next logical step in restoring a part of our legacy.

The idea of loop around Mount Hood began as soon as the Columbia River Highway was completed in 1915. This article in The Oregon described the first documented trip around the mountain using a patchwork of roads that existed before the Mount Hood Loop was constructed in the 1920s (large PDF versions of this article can be viewed at the links, below)

1915 Article – Page 1 (PDF)

1915 Article – Page 2 (PDF)

Rumor has it that new legislation is in the works to ramp up protection and improve recreation opportunities for Mount Hood and the Gorge. Including theMount Hood Loop Highway State Trail concept in new legislation would be an excellent catalyst for moving this idea from dream to reality. 

But could this really happen in today’s fraught political environment in Washington D.C.? Don’t rule it out: President Reagan was notorious for his hostility toward public lands, and yet he infamously “held his nose” and signed the Columbia River Gorge legislation into law in 1986, including the mandate to devise a plan to restore surviving sections of the HCRH as a trail. 

So, could this happen in the era of Trump for Mount Hood? Stay tuned…

Proposal: Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail (Part 1 of 2)

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1920s traveler admiring the view from Laurel Hill on the brand new Mount Hood Loop Highway

The year is 2035, and a family of tourists is just arriving at a local bed and breakfast in the village of Brightwood, Oregon, along the old Mount Hood Loop highway. They have just traveled 45 miles from Portland International Airport to Brightwood on the first of a six-day, world-class cycling tour of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.

On the first day of their tour they followed quiet country roads through the beautiful farms and picturesque pastures of the lower Sandy River Valley. Mount Hood floated on the horizon for much of their ride, hinting at the sights to come. After a night in Brightwood, the family will continue on to the village of Rhododendron, where the newly completed Historic Mount Hood Loop (HMHL) State Trail begins a spectacular tour of some of Oregon’s finest scenery.

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Selling huckleberries at the just-opened Little Zigzag Bridge on the loop highway in the 1920s

Inspired by the recently completed Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, this new trail follows once forgotten or abandoned segments of the historic Mount Hood Loop highway, with new connecting segments completing the route through mossy rainforests, alpine meadows and along mountain streams. Most of the new trail is far from the traffic, noise and hazards of the modern highway corridor, taking visitors back in time and pace of what it was like to experience the original loop highway more than a century ago.

A few miles up the new route, at the Little Zigzag River, the family parks their bikes for a short hike to a shady waterfall. Next, they will climb Laurel Hill along restored sections of the original highway, where route passes the nearly 200-year old ruts from covered wagons on the Oregon Trail that can still be seen. Their next stop is in Government Camp for lunch, with a visit to the Mount Hood Cultural Center and Museum.

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Mount Hood Loop Highway construction in the early 1920s at the Little Zigzag Bridge

From Government Camp, their tour descends past Summit Meadows to iconic Trillium Lake, then heads east to the White River and Hood River Meadows. At Sherwood Campground they reach the east end of the new HMHL State Trail, and park their bicycles for the night. Here, they will stay in one of the well-stocked Forest Service yurts that overlook the East Fork Hood River. After a light dinner, the family hikes the easy trail to nearby Tamanawas Falls to cap a specular day on the mountain.

On their third day, the family begins a scenic descent along the Mount Hood Loop into the orchards of the Hood River Valley, stopping in the village of Parkdale for lunch and at roadside fruit stands along the way. They arrive in the town of Hood River by late afternoon, with plenty of time to explore the town’s galleries, shops and restaurants before checking in to the historic Hood River Hotel for the third night of their tour. 

The once (and future!) tunnel with windows at Mitchell Point

From Hood River, the family spends their fourth day on the spectacular, world-famous HCRH State Trail, traveling west through the newly restored Mitchell Point Tunnel and a stop at the short, new viewpoint hike to Viento Bluffs. A bicycle-friendly hotel in Cascade Locks serves as their base for a longer, late afternoon hike along the scenic Pacific Crest Trail.

On the fifth day of their circuit, the family continues their tour on the HCRH State Trail from Cascade Locks to the west trailhead at Ainsworth State Park, where they follow the Historic Columbia River Highway west to Multnomah Falls for lunch and another short hike to the iconic Benson Bridge. Finally, they make the climb past Crown Point and then down to their final night at a Troutdale bed and breakfast, located along the Sandy River. 

From Troutdale, the family will return to PDX and a flight home after their memorable six-day, 155-mile journey along the old Mount Hood Loop — no car required!

________________

In this two-part article, we’ll explore some long-forgotten sections of the old Mount Hood Loop highway, and the potential for bringing them back to life in the same way that abandoned sections of the old Columbia River Highway have been reclaimed. But does restoring the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway as a state trail make sense?

Yes, if you consider that bicycle tourism contributes $83 billion annually to U.S. economy, according to a 2017 study by the Outdoor Industry Association. Or that bicycle tourism in Oregon brings more than $400 million to our state economy, according to a 2012 study by Travel Oregon. And studies also show that touring cyclists tend to be older, wealthier and spend more when they travel, making them a coveted market in tourism.

Bicycle touring on Grand Canyon’s car-free South Rim (NPS)

Most importantly, these tourists don’t speed home after a day on the mountain to spend their money back in Portland. Instead, they invest in the local tourism economy along their multi-day tours, supporting the local lodging, restaurants, guides, museums and galleries that rely on tourist dollars to survive.

This article opened with a story about a future family traveling the 155-mile Mount Hood Loop over six days, but more ambitious riders could easily complete the loop in two or three days. Visitors with more time could easily spend a week or more exploring side trails and the towns along the loop, including a visit to historic Timberline Lodge.

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Bicycle touring options from bold to leisurely would be possible on the restored Mount Hood Loop.

The nearly completed HCRH State Trail has also shown that local cyclists and walkers use the route in day-segments, taking advantage of the many trailheads along the way to explore the trail in sections. Some of these day-use visitors are also looking for bike-and-hike adventures on foot trails that connect to the HCRH State Trail. A new HMHL State Trail could offer the same bike-and-hike opportunities, as well as winter skiing and snowshoeing.

The National Park Service is leading the way among our federal land agencies in both promoting bicycle tourism and in managing new forms of cycling — notably, e-bikes (electric bikes), which are now permitted in several parks where motorized travel is otherwise prohibited. Why permit e-bikes? Partly because of the explosive growth in e-bikes, but also because e-bikes allow more people to experience cycling. They have zero emissions and are nearly as quiet as non-electric bikes, so they are just as compatible in natural settings as conventional bikes. Because e-bikes are opening the sport of cycling to a much wider audience, they have only added to the demand for safe, scenic places to ride, and help make the case to go big in how we plan for trails in Oregon.

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Touring on the Historic Columbia River Highway near Rowena Crest (Travel Oregon)

While Oregon has been at the forefront of promoting bicycle tourism, other states with the kind of scenery that draws national and international tourism are catching on, too. Montana now sees a half-million touring cyclists visit their state each year, and other states like Colorado and Vermont are also seeing the benefits of bicycle tourism to their small towns and rural economies.

Building on our Success in the Gorge

In 1986, a decades-long effort to restore abandoned sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway as a recreation trail began with this simple passage in the legislation that created the Columbia River National Scenic Area:

16 U.S.C. 544j Section 12. Old Columbia River Highway: The Oregon Department of Transportation shall, in consultation with the Secretary and the Commission, the State of Oregon and the counties and cities in which the Old Columbia River Highway is located, prepare a program and undertake efforts to preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity of the remaining segments of the Old Columbia River Highway for public use as a Historic Road, including recreation trails to connect intact and usable segments.

This revolutionary provision recognized both the intrinsic value of preserving and celebrating the historic highway and the exponential growth in demand for recreation opportunities in our growing region. Both principles still apply today as the original vision for creating the HCRH State Trail nears completion. 

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ODOT has gradually rebuilt a new trail in the style of Samuel Lancaster’s original design where modern freeway construction destroyed the historic Columbia River Scenic Highway.

With our proven success in saving and restoring the old highway in the Gorge, it’s the right time to look ahead toward a new vision of completing the larger Mount Hood Loop, as it once existed. Like the Columbia River Highway, the surviving historic highway segments on Mount Hood are at serious risk of being lost forever. Neither ODOT nor the Forest Service have any plans to “preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity” of this remaining piece of the old Mount Hood Loop.

The Vision: Restoring the Mount Hood Loop Experience

Much of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway was abandoned or bypassed in the late 1950s, when the modern, “straightened” route we know today was constructed. 

Over the decades much of the “modern” road was incrementally widened from the original two lanes in the 1960s to four lanes in over the past two decades making it much more of a “freeway” than a “scenic highway”. Most recently, ODOT spent tens of millions to make our “scenic” highway even wider at Laurel Hill, near Government Camp, in order to add lanes and a freeway-style concrete median. 

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No shortage of funding, here… ODOT just spent $37 million blasting away more of Laurel Hill in order to widen Highway 26 and add a freeway-style concrete median.

Today, drivers brave enough to pull off at the few pullouts that remain on US 26 are overwhelmed by the noise of speeding traffic and trucks. Few cyclists even consider making this scary trip, which means fewer touring cyclists to support the mountain economy.

The good news? Half-hidden under 60 years of moss and ferns, a series of historic bridges, stone fountains and other historic features still survive from the original loop highway, with spectacular roadside scenery that can’t be matched by the modern road. These historic features are mostly neglected, if not outright abandoned, and are waiting for a new vision to bring them back to life.

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The old Little Zigzag Bridge survives under a century of moss. The huckleberry pickers pictured in the second photo in this article were standing just to the left of this view.

The template for saving these historic remnants and repurposing them to become part of a new recreation route would have seemed farfetched thirty years ago. Today, our newly restored HCRH State Trail not only serves as a perfect model for how to fund, design and build such a facility, it also reminds us that the Gorge trail is part of the larger vision, with the two trails connecting to trace the entire Mount Hood Loop of the 1920s.

Three Trail Sections

It turns out the entire route of the proposed HMHL State Trail falls along the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway corridor, a special highway designation extending from Troutdale to Hood River.

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This is very good news as a starting point for restoring and reconnecting the old highway as part of the Mount Hood Loop. From a bureaucracy perspective, it means the route is already designated in a way that allows ODOT to spend money in the corridor on projects that make it safer and more scenic for visitors using any mode of travel. But if you read the scenic byway description, it’s pretty clear that bicycles are an afterthought. It doesn’t have to be that way.

For the purpose of this proposal, the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway route is the foundation for the trail concept that would restore and reconnect surviving historic sections of the original highway. Like the Historic Columbia River Highway corridor, the idea is to restore bypassed sections of the original highway to reconnect the other, surviving sections as a continuous route. 

This combination of existing and restored routes is organized into three sections that generally follow the existing Mount Hood National Scenic Byway corridor, beginning in Troutdale. The west and east sections are shared roads that mostly need better signage, while the middle, historic section would be a mix of shared roads and paved trails that follow restored highway segments connected by new trail segments. 

Here’s a description of each of the three segments of the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway, reimagined:

West Section – Troutdale to Rhododendron: The west leg of the route would follow much of the existing scenic byway from Troutdale to Sandy, traveling through the sprawling nurseries and berry fields of East Multnomah County. The current scenic byway route joins heavily traveled US 26 in Sandy, following the highway all the way to Mount Hood. It’s a noisy and dangerous route for anyone, but especially cyclists. Therefore, instead of joining US 26 there, the reimagined route would head in a different direction.

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The terrifying ride along Mount Hood 26 makes this section of the Mount Hood Scenic Byway anything but scenic for cyclists (photo: Married with Bikes blog)

From Sandy, the new Mount Hood National Scenic Byway route would turn east to follow historic Marmot Road and Barlow Trail Road to the mountain community of Zigzag. From there, a short section of old highway along the Faubion Loop and a very short, protected bike path along US 26 would complete the connection to the Rhododendron community. 

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: West Section

This quiet, safer and more scenic alternative route is shown in dashed red on the above map. Along the way, visitors would travel through picturesque farmland with Mount Hood views and the forest communities of Marmot, Brightwood, Zigzag and Rhododendron. Several riverside parks and the Sandy Ridge mountain bike park are also located along this part of the route.

Design elements along this 37-mile segment would build on existing scenic byway guidelines, with improved way-finding and interpretive signs that would help cyclists and drivers more easily follow the loop and locate lodging and other services.

Historic Highway Section – Rhododendron to Sherwood Camp:This section is the main focus of the proposed Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail and extends from Rhododendron to Sherwood Campground.This section includes several miles of bypassed and abandoned highway that have the potential to become a spectacular, world-class cycling experience. Today, many of these historic features are at risk, with no plans by ODOT or the Forest Service to protect them.

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The Forest Service destroyed the original paved surface a half-mile section of the historic loop highway in 2012 for no particular reason. Fortunately, the roadbed was left intact.
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Fans of the surviving sections of the old highway are out there! This sign was posted where the Forest Service destroyed the historic highway surface in the previous photo (Photo: Guy Meacham)

From Rhododendron, the section of the Mount Hood Loop route would follow a series of connecting multi-use trails that would combine with still-operating segments and long-abandoned secxtions of the old highway for the next 28 miles, traversing some of the most scenic places along the Mount Hood loop, all the while avoiding busy US 26.

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: Historic Section

Along the way, the proposed route would pass several historic bridges, campgrounds, historic Government Camp and traces of the original Barlow Road that formed the final stretch of the Oregon Trail. There are many possible side trips along this historic section of the proposed loop, including the historic Timberline Lodge and several trailheads with bike-and-hike opportunities.

East Section – Sherwood Camp to Hood River: From the Sherwood Campground, the remaining 27 miles of the restoredMount Hood Loop would follow OR 35, a much less busy, two-lane highway with room for a shoulder bikeway. This section of the loop route would follow the same alignment as the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway, traversing some of Oregon’s most beautiful landscapes in the orchards and forests of the Hood River Valley.

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: East Section

The east section ends at the town of Hood River, which lies at the mid-point of the HCRH State Trail. The 51-mile return route to Troutdale begins here, and traverses the exceptional scenery of the western Columbia River Gorge, including Multnomah Falls and Crown Point.

Through some miracle, this original fountain that once graced the old highway survives nearly a century later at Sherwood Camp, just a few feet from the modern highway. This is just one of many historic traces of the old route that have survived and call out for a new vision to protect and restore them.

There is no shortage of scenery along the Mount Hood Loop, but many visitors who come today are surprised and disappointed by the lack of pullouts, interpretive signs and heavy highway and winter ski resort traffic that makes it all but impossible to enjoy the modern highway. 

Can we reimagine the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway to provide a better alternative to the rush of the modern highways by restoring the surviving segments of the historic highway? Our experience in the Gorge says yes, and the old Mount Hood Loop could join the Gorge as a world-class touring destination. But what would it take to get there?

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Next up in Part 2: how we get there, including a virtual tour the surviving sections of the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway and the opportunities for restoring this exceptionally scenic old road as a state trail.

2020 MHNP Campaign Calendar!

2020 MHNP Campaign Calendar Cover

The coming year marks the 16th annual scenic calendar that I’ve assembled for the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, with each calendar drawing from photos from the previous year of Mount Hood country. In the beginning, the proceeds helped defray the costs of the campaign website and (beginning in 2008) the WyEast Blog. But for the past several years, all proceeds have gone to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), our premier trail stewards and advocates in Oregon (more on that toward the end of this article).

Looking back, the early calendars were more than a bit rough, especially given the clunky on-demand printing options in those early days of the internet and the emerging state of digital cameras, too! This is the “homey” inaugural cover that featured Elk Cove as it appeared way back in 2004:

The first calendar! Way back in 2004… a bit rough…

Over the years, the calendar has evolved, and on-demand printing quality has become downright exceptional. Each year I set aside my favorite photos over the course of the year, typically a few dozen by the time calendar season rolls around. Then the hard part begins: picking just 13 images to tell the story of Mount Hood and the Gorge. And as in years passed, this blog article tells a bit of the backstory behind images in the new calendar and includes a few photos that didn’t make the calendar.

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For 2020, the cover image is from a favorite spot on Middle Mountain, the rambling series of forested buttes that separate the upper and lower portions of the Hood River Valley. The sylvan view of Mount Hood from here is hard to match:

The stunning view of the Upper Hood River Valley frm Middle Mountain

But the story of Middle Mountain is a bit less idyllic. Though most of the mountain is owned by Hood River County, the agency still hasn’t gotten the memo on modern, sustainable forestry and continues to aggressively log these public lands with old-school clearcuts. 

This makes for low (or at least lower) taxes for Hood River County residents, but at the expense of future sustainability of the forest — which means future generations in Hood River are really paying the tab. This rather large clearcut (below) appeared this year, just east of the spot where the cover image for the calendar was captured, on a climate-vulnerable south-facing slope. 

Still doing 1950s forestry practices in Hood River County…

Will the forest recover here once again, as it always has before? Probably. But Pacific Northwest forest scientists are warning Oregonians not to take our low-elevation Douglas fir forests for granted, as they may not return, especially on hot south and west-facing slopes. Consider that just uphill from this spot some slopes on Middle Mountain are already too dry to support conifers, and are home to a few scattered Oregon white oak trees. Now would be a good time for Hood River County to adopt a longer view of its forests, and begin planning for more selective, sustainable harvests that don’t put the survival of their forests at risk.

For the January calendar image, I chose a close-up of the Sandy Headwall, which forms Mount Hood’s towering west face. This is a favorite spot for me after the first big snowfall of the year, when the mountain is suddenly transformed into a glowing white pyramid:

January features the Sandy Headwall on Mount Hood’s west face

I have a little secret to share about this view, too. It turns out I’m not much of an “alpenglow” fan, which is downright sacrilegious for a photographer to admit! So, you’re unlikely to see one in the annual calendar. I just prefer the long shadows and shades of blue and ivory that light up in the hour beforesunset that are featured in the January image.

If you’re not familiar, alpenglow is that rosy cast that often appears at or just after sunset, and pictured on waytoo many postcards and calendars — at least for my taste! But my other little secret is that I still capture plenty of alpenglow photos, too. Who knows, maybe my tastes will change someday? 

The following image didn’t make the calendar, but it shows the transformation from the above view that unfolded over the course of 30 minutes or as sun dropped over the horizon that cold, October evening:

Some people really like Alpenglow… apparently…

February also features another snow scene, this time along the White River, when the stream nearly disappeared under ten feet of snow last winter:

February features the White River smothered in winter snow

But the White River photo came courtesy of an aborted snowshoe trip that day at nearby Pocket Creek. My plan was to hike up to a view of Mount Hood and Elk Mountain from the north slopes of Gunsight Ridge. I had made the trip about ten years ago and liked the sense of depth that having Elk Mountain in front of Mount Hood created from this angle. Instead, here’s what I found when I reached the viewpoint:

Erm… what happened to my view..!?

This isn’t the first viewpoint that has disappeared behind growing forests in my years of exploring Mount Hood, nor am I sad that the view went away. After all, this one came courtesy of a 1980s Forest Service clearcut, and while the view was nice, a recovered forest is even better. And besides, I still have this photo from 2009 to remind me of view that once existed here:

The view in 2009 was a bit more expansive!

So, I returned to the trailhead that day and headed over to the White River for a short snowshoe trip in the evening light. While I picked a photo of the river and mountain for the calendar, there were some very pretty views unfolding behind me, too. These images capture the last rays of winter sun lighting up the crests of Bonney Butte and Barlow Butte. They may not be calendar-worthy, but are lovely scenes, nonetheless:

The frosted crest of Bonney Butte lights up as the sun goes down
Snowy Barlow Butte at sunset

For the March calendar image, I picked a scene from Rowena Plateau, a spot famous for its spectacular displays of yellow Balsamroot and blue Lupine. The calendar view looks north across the Columbia River to the Washington community of Lyle, a town that nests seamlessly into the Gorge landscape, thanks in large part to the protections of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area:

March features the annual flower spectacle on the Rowena Plateau

But the view behind me that day was pretty nice, too, though it didn’t make it into the calendar. This image (below) looks south toward McCall Point from the same vantage point, with still more drifts of wildflowers spreading across the terraced slopes:

Wildflower drifts on the slopes of McCall Point

For April, I chose a popular scene along the Old Salmon River Trail on Mount Hood’s southwest side just as the bright greens of spring were exploding in this rainforest. Here, a grove of 600-year old Western red cedar and Douglas fir somehow avoided several cycles of logging in the 1800s and 1900s to survive as the closest ancient forest to Portland:

April features ancient rainforests along the Old Salmon River Trail

How big is that Western red cedar on left? I’ve been asked that question a few times, and short of actually measuring it, I stepped in front of the camera to serve as a human yardstick (well, two yards, as I’m exactly six feet tall). Subtract a few inches for my hat, and I’d estimate the trunk to be about 15 feet across at the base and about 10 feet thick a bit further up. 

What do you think?

Ancient hiker among the forest ancients…

One thing is for sure, we’re so fortunate that these old sentinels have survived to give us a glimpse into what many of our rainforest valleys used to look like. 

Further down the trail, I also captured this scene (below) of a pair of leaning giants that mark the spot of an ancient nurse log, long since rotted away and revealing the roots that once anchored these trees to the nurse log when they were youngsters. Someday, they will fall and become nurse logs, too, repeating the rainforest cycle.

Nurse log babies a century later…

This unique pair of trees is easy to find if you’re exploring the Old Salmon River Trail. They’re located right along the river (below), at a scenic spot just off the trail where there are plenty of boulders for picnics and even a tiny beach in summer. It’s just beyond one of the rustic footbridges along the trail, and downstream from the ancient tree grove.

The Salmon River along the Old Salmon River Trail… alas, this photo didn’t make the calendar!

For May, I chose another photo from the Rowena Plateau, partly because it was such a good bloom this year, but also for the gnarled Oregon white oak that grows on this little knoll (below).

May features White oaks at Rowena surrounded by bouquets of Balsamroot and Lupine

After exploring Rowena that day, I crossed the river and spent the evening over at Columbia Hills State Park, in Washington. While this sprawling preserve is certainly no secret these days, you can still count on it being pretty lonely once you hike into the vast meadows along the park’s trails. 

This is the scene looking back toward The Dalles and Mount Hood as the sun dropped over the horizon on that lovely spring day:

Vast wildflower meadows sweep toward the Columbia River and Mount Hood at Columbia Hills State Park

For June, I selected an old standby, the understated but elegant Upper Butte Creek Falls (below), located in the Santiam State Forest. I visit Butte Creek at least twice each year, just because the area is so delightful, and also because it’s a showcase of what Oregon’s state forests could be.

The Oregon Department of Forestry has gradually expanded recreation opportunities throughout the state forest system over the past couple of decades, in recognition of growing demand for trails in our state. It’s an uphill battle, as state forests have generally been viewed by our state and local governments as a cash register, thanks to 1930s era laws that have traditionally been interpreted as promoting logging above all else. 

June features lovely Upper Butte Creek Falls in the Santiam State Forest

Today, a group of Oregon counties are actually suing the state for “retroactive” payments based on this interpretation, though it’s an absurd and misguided case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. If successful, the “state” (that’s you and me) could pay over $1 billion to a handful of counties (possibly you, possibly me) to right this purported wrong. This power play further underscores the need to radically rethink how we manage our state forests in an era of climate change and changing values among the public.

While the area along the Butte Creek trail remains a verdant rainforest, it’s really just an island, with much of the surrounding public forest logged in the past, and planned for more logging. Adjacent private timberlands are faring even worse, with companies like Weyerhaeuser liquidating their holdings with massive clear cuts in the lower Butte Creek canyon.

The changing climate is starting to take its toll here, too. This view of Butte Creek Falls was taken on the same visit as the June calendar image, but as the photo shows, the creek is running at perhaps a third of its “normal” June flow after dry spring this year, with much of the falls already running dry. We’re learning that “normal” is no longer as drought years continue to become the new normal.

Low water in June at Butte Creek Falls

The warning signs of the changing climate are already showing up on the rocky viewpoint above Butte Creek Falls, where several Douglas fir (below) finally succumbed to the stress of summer droughts this year on the thin, exposed soils of this outcropping. 

Early victims of climate change above Butte Creek

This is how climate change is beginning to make its mark throughout our forests, with trees growing in poor or thin soils lacking the groundwater moisture to make it through summer droughts. These trees are often further weakened and eventually killed by insects and diseases that attack drought-stressed forests. 

The good news is that a new generation of forest scientists is sounding the alarm and as we’ve seen, a new generation of young people are made climate change their rallying cry. So, while we’re very late in taking action, I’m optimistic that Oregon will emerge as a leader in tackling climate change, starting with our magnificent forests.

For July, I chose another waterfall scene, this time in the sagebrush deserts east of Mount Hood, where the White River crashes over a string of three waterfalls on its way into the Deschutes River canyon (below).

July features thundering White River Falls

Most people hike the paved trail into the rugged canyon, which begins an impressive, but partly obscured view of the dramatic upper falls. But few follow the fenced canyon rim upstream to this nice profile (below), just a short distance off the paved route. From here, the basalt buttes and mesas of Tygh Valley fill the horizon and remnants from the early 1900s power plant that once hummed here are visible on a side channel, below. 

A different take on White River Falls

In 2011, I posted this article with a proposal for expanding tiny White River Falls State Park to save it from the kind of development it had just dodged at the time. Hopefully, we’ll eventually see White River Falls better protected and some of its history restored and preserved!

The August image in the new calendar is from my beloved Owl Point, a spot on the north side of Mount Hood that I visit several times each year as a volunteer for Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO). In this view (below), evening shadows were starting to reach across the talus slopes below Owl Point, where low mats of purple Davidson’s penstemon painted the summer scene. 

August features Owl Point in the Mount Hood Wilderness… of course!

I was alone that day, scouting the trail for an upcoming TKO volunteer work party, so I had the luxury of spending a lot of time just watching the evening unfold through my camera. For photographers, clouds are always the unpredictable frosting that can make (or break) a photo, and the lovely wisps in the calendar image floated in from nowhere to frame the mountain while I sat soaking in the view. 

I joined a TKO trail crew the next weekend for our second year of “officially” caring for the Old Vista Ridge Trail to Owl Point since TKO formally adopted the trail from the Forest Service in 2018. We had a great turnout, with crews clearing several logs with crosscut saws and doing some major rock work (below) where TKO will be realigning a confusing switchback along the trail.

TKO volunteers doing some serious rock work on the Old Vista Ridge Trail
TKO crews at Owl Point in August, celebrated a day of successful trail stewardship

For September, something a little different for the calendar: Sawmill Falls on the Little North Fork of the Santiam River (below). This is a well-known spot on the Opal Creek trail, but the surprise is that I’d somehow never hiked this trail, despite growing up in Portland and having spent a lot of time exploring nearby Henline Creek over the past several years. But my explanation is fairly simple: this has been among the most notoriously crowded trails in Oregon for many years, and I’ve always just shied away.

September features Sawmill Falls in the Opal Creek Wilderness

Then my friend Jeff e-mailed to remind me that we were way overdue for a hike, and so we picked Opal Creek as one that neither of us had checked the box on before. It turned out to be a lovely day on a very pretty trail, and because we had picked a weekday, it was surprisingly quiet, too.

The photo of Sawmill Falls gives a better sense of the weather that day — lots of sun, and so this image is among a very few long-exposure waterfall scenes I’ve attempted in full sun. It’s also a blended image from three separate exposures, which is a lot of work to capture an scene! One benefit of shooting in the sun was the opportunity to include some puffy clouds and blue sky as a backdrop, making this a very “summery” image.

Here’s a secret about my good friend Jeff: he’s the founder of TKO!

The conditions were more forgiving that day when we reached the bridge above Opal Pool, as a nice bank of clouds floated over and provided the kind of overcast that I’m normally looking for with long-exposure waterfall photos. Here’s a view (below) of Opal Creek taken from the footbridge that didn’t make the calendar:

Opal Creek cascade from the bridge above Opal Pool

The October image in the new calendar is from a roadside pullout that nobody seems to stop at, and yet it provides a very nice view of Mount Hood and the East Fork Hood River (below). This spot is on a rise along Highway 35, just south of the Highway Department maintenance yard. 

October features the East Fork Hood River and Mount Hood after an early snowfall

If you stop here in mid-October, you’ll enjoy quite a show, with brilliant Cottonwood lighting up the valley floor in shades of bright yellow and gold and Oregon white oak in the foreground providing orange and red accents. And if you pick a clear day after the first snowfall, Mount Hood will light up the horizon with a bright new jacket of white. 

How bright are the fall colors? Here’s the exact scene a few months earlier, for comparison:

The East Fork overlook as it appears for most of the spring and summer…

Like the earlier scene near Bennett Pass, this viewpoint is gradually becoming obscured, too. You can see the difference in the two Ponderosa pines on the left side of the photo. The larger, more distant tree (at the edge of the photo) hasn’t changed as visibly, but the younger Ponderosa (second from left) is quickly blocking the view of the river. 

For comparison, here’s a photo from 2008 showing just how much the younger pine has grown, along with the Oregon white oak in the right foreground:

…and the East Fork overlook in 2008, when the trees were much smaller!

In this case, however, the East Fork Hood River is on the side of tourists and photographers. The river is famously volatile, thanks to its glacial origins on Mount Hood, and periodically undercuts the steep banks here, taking whole trees in the process. This is a scene of almost constant change, and I won’t be surprised if the younger Ponderosa nearest the river eventually becomes driftwood on its way downriver!

The October image is also from the Hood River Valley, and also a roadside view. This well-known scene is located on Laurance Lake Drive, just off Clear Creek Road, near Parkdale. Thanks in no small part to Oregon’s statewide planning laws, this remains an operating farm more than a 170 years after the area was first cleared by white settlers.

November features Mount Hood from the road to Laurance Lake

The patch of Cottonwoods at the center of the field that provide the fall color show have been growing there for some time, too — or at least they are descendants from an earlier grove. This view (below) from the 1940s shows how the area appeared when most of the roads were still gravel and twenty years before the reservoir we know as Laurance Lake was even constructed. This image is from the Oregon State Archives, and staged for tourism ads, as you might guess!

1940s tourism stock photo from the same spot as the November calendar image!

Here’s a tip if you’re exploring the Hood River Valley in October and the Cottonwoods have turned. At about the same time the Western larch along the upper stretches of the East Fork and east slopes of Mount Hood area also turning to their fall shades of yellow and gold.

In fact, the November calendar photo was just a stop on the way for me as I headed up to the mountain to take in the Western larch colors. These photos feature the east side of Mount Hood and its many groves of Larch as viewed from the slopes of Lookout Mountain, and are among those that didn’t make the calendar this year.

Western larch lighting up the east slopes of Mount Hood
Mount Hood framed by golden Western Larch on the slopes of Lookout Mountain

For December, I chose another scene along the East Fork Hood River, albeit lesser known. This spot (below) is near the confluence of the East Fork with Polallie Creek, and was captured after a couple days of freezing fog in the upper Hood River Valley:

December features this frosty scene along the East Fork Hood River

This is one of my favorite times to be in the forest, though it can be a bit treacherous! The unmatched scenery makes the slippery trip worth it, as the frosted forests combine with the fog to create a truly magical scene. 

Here are a couple more images from that day in the freezing fog that didn’t make the calendar:

East Fork Hood River freezing fog event
Frost-flocked Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine on the slopes above the East Fork

Since switching to Zazzle to produce the annual calendars, I’ve had a back page to work with, and I have used this space to feature a few wildflower photos from the past year (below).

Nine wildflower shots from hikes throughout Mount Hood country this year fill in the back cover of the calendar

Each wildflower image has a story behind it, and among the most memorable is the Buckwheat in the lower right corner. This little plant was growing at the summit of Lookout Mountain (below), in the Badger Creek Wilderness, east of Mount Hood. 

Buckwheat adding color to the rocky summit of Lookout Mountain

Buckwheat is a tough, low-growing, drought tolerant wildflower that thrives in the rocky soils there, but what made the spot memorable were the thousands (millions?) of Ladybugs swarming on the summit that day. Entomologists tell us that several inspect species migrate to ridges and mountains from adjacent valleys to mate, keeping their gene pool stable and healthy in the process, but I’m thinking they might just enjoy the mountain views, too? 

Hard to photograph, but picture this on every surface on the summit of Lookout Mountain!

The Wild rose in the top row is also in foreground of this image of Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge (below). I considered this image for the calendar, but skipped it until I can capture a more prolific flower display in the foreground… maybe next year!

Gorgeous Gorge! But the Wild rose blooms..? Meh…

Finally, the white Mockorange in the center of the bottom row was captured at this somewhat obscure spot along Butcher Knife Ridge (below), in the West Fork Hood Valley. This was another also-ran as a calendar image, but watch for some exciting news in a future blog story about this corner of Mount Hood country!

Mount Hood rising above the West Fork valley and framed by Mockorange blossoms

If you’d like a calendar, they’re easy to order online for $25 from Zazzle. Just follow this link:

2020 Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar

They’re beautifully printed by Zazzle, ship quickly and make nice gifts! And I’ll also be donating all proceeds to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).

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If you’ve followed the WyEast blog for a while, you probably noticed that things look a bit different around here, as of this month. It’s true, a mere eleven years after I made this first post…

You know, that first article was just weird..!

…I’ve changed the WordPress theme for the blog. But I do admit that I didn’t have much choice. My most recent posts were having serious formatting problems, as in my last post (below) where the column text and photos were out of alignment. Other less obvious problems were popping up when publishing new posts, making what for a very cumbersome process.

Alert! Formatting unraveling! Abort! Abort!

In digging through pages of tedious WordPress documentation to figure out what was up, I finally came across this unwelcome message:

Aargh!!

What? My theme is retired? Since when..?  And who says! 

Ah, the pace of progress. So, recognizing that things would only get worse, I’ve spent the past couple weeks customizing a “modern” theme called “Hemingway” to retain as much of the look and readability of the blog as I can. I’ll probably need to continue tweaking the settings, so thanks in advance for your patience!

If you’re wondering about the new banner, the backstory is that I originally created banner below. However, it didn’t work well with the new theme, which resizes the banner for whatever device the user is viewing, and decapitated Mount Hood in the process! Aargh!

Sigh… the one that didn’t work out…

So, I opted to continue the “misty forest” look from the original banner, which was from a scene captured in 2008 near Horsetail Creek in the Gorge. The new banner draws from image captured of Horsetail Creek, Katanai Rock, located in Ainsworth State Park.

The original Katanai Rock image was taken several years ago, on a spring day as storm clouds were just clearing from the walls of the Gorge, creating a mystical scene that Tolkien might have dreamed up:

Mists on Katanai Rock as a storm clears…

To create the banner, I converted the original image to sepia and did some toning to soften the shadows a bit:

…and the sepia version…

[click here for the large view of Katanai Rock]

Look closely at the large view and there’s a wispy waterfall floating down the west side of Katanai Rock and lots of massive old trees wrapped in mist… it’s Rivendell!

Finally, the new banner incorporates just the top of Katanai Rock in a crop that allows it to adjust to anything from an iPhone to a 27″ monitor like the one I’m working on, right now:

…which becomes the new banner!

So, that’s how the new look came about! And as with each of the previous 11 years on the blog, I’m looking forward to another year of articles. I’ve got lots of topics in the hopper, and hopefully some that you will enjoy and find worth reading.

Thank you for stopping by over the past year, and thank you for being a friend of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge!

I’ll see you on the trail in 2020!

Tom KlosterWyEast Blog

13 things to know… before you stand under the Mistletoe!

Douglas fir east of Mount Hood engulfed in Dwarf Mistletoe

“Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright…”

Did you know that we have an unlikely cousin to the holiday mistletoe growing prolifically across Mount Hood country? Unlike the species you’re likely to find hanging over a doorway (known as Leafy mistletoe of the genus Phoradendron) or even from our Willamette Valley white oak stands, this cousin is the lesser known Dwarf mistletoe, of the genus Arceuthobium. And unlike the holiday version, this humble Mistletoe is hard to spot, though signs of its presence in our forests are very obvious. 

Familiar Leafy Mistletoe growing on an Oregon white oak in the Willamette Valley (OSU Extension)

Like their holiday cousins, Dwarf mistletoe are parasitic plants that require a living host to survive, and in our corner of the world their hosts are mostly the big conifers. Dwarf mistletoe grow by extending root-like structures known as “haustoria” into the growing tissue of their host, and producing shoots outside the bark of their host where flowers and fruit form, and where their seeds spread to other hosts. 

Sound a little creepy? Perhaps, given how we humans tend to view parasites. But these plants are also quite fascinating, and historically they have had a bad reputation, thanks to the timber industry and its enduring reluctance to see the forest for more than the saw logs they might produce.

So, here are some things to know (and maybe even love?) about Dwarf mistletoe next time you venture out among these humble parasites:

1. They are commonly called Witches Broom.This is self-explanatory, as an infected tree (especially Douglas fir) tends to grow dense masses of branches in response to an infection that can hang down like brooms. This is the easiest way to spot Dwarf mistletoe in the forest.

“Witches broom” on a Douglas fir
Typical Dwarf Mistletoe infection on a Douglas Fir

2. They are gendered.Mistletoes occur in male and female forms, with the male plants producing pollen and the family plants producing fruits and seed. Both the male and female forms can reside in the same host — and a single host can have multiple active Mistletoe infections.

3. Their berries pack some heat!Ripe Mistletoe berries are designed to explode in late summer, shooting seeds as much as 50 feet in the air (!) to land on nearby, potential host trees. Their seeds are sticky and adhere to whatever they land on, and this feature also means that birds and small animals help disperse the seed when they visit host trees with ripe Mistletoe fruit and carry the seeds to other trees on their fur or feathers. While this firepower allows Mistletoe to spread to nearby hosts and to the understory below, it also allows the plant to move upward in its host tree, as much as one foot per year.

Mistletoe fruit emerging from a true fir (Wikimedia)
Dwarf Mistletoe infections gradually moving up toward the healthy part of a large Douglas fir

4. They like their hosts on the softer side. With seeds shooting in all directions at high velocity, Dwarf mistletoe might seem somewhat indiscriminate in their reproduction. But it turns out they are playing the odds, as sprouting seeds usually invade host tissue that is less than five years old. This is why young trees in the understory beneath a large, infected tree are so vulnerable. However, Mistletoe typically does not infect trees younger than 10 years, for reasons yet unknown.

5. They’re early — and prolific — bloomers.For the first couple of years after a Dwarf mistletoe seedling has attached to a new host, the young plant quietly sends its haustoria into the tree’s living tissues, feeding on water and nutrients from the host as the Mistletoe grows. After a couple years, the site of the infection swells and over the next few years the new Mistletoe begins producing aerial shoots, flowering and eventually producing fruit. Within five years, a new Mistletoe plant has gone from seed to what can be many successive cycles of fruiting from a single infected site on a tree.

This big Douglas fir is marked by dozens of Dwarf mistletoe infections positioned to spread seeds far and wide in the surrounding forest

6. They like the East side.Dwarf mistletoe species grow throughout Oregon, but in Mount Hood country they are most prolific on the dry east side of the mountain. This isn’t because they have an aversion to wet weather, but instead, because…

7. ….they are host-species specific!There are many species of Dwarf mistletoe, and most specific to just one or two host species, Many of these preferred host species also happen to grow on the east slope of the Cascades. Here are the most common Dwarf mistletoes in Mount Hood Country, most named for their hosts:

• Douglas-fir dwarf mistletoe

• Western larch dwarf mistletoe

• Western dwarf mistletoe (host is Ponderosa pine)

• Lodgepole pine dwarf mistletoe

• Western white pine dwarf mistletoe

• True fir dwarf mistletoe (hosts are White fir and Grand fir)

• Western hemlock dwarf mistletoe (also infects some true firs)

• Mountain hemlock dwarf mistletoe

The effects of these Dwarf mistletoe species on their hosts vary widely. Douglas fir is most affected by its species of Dwarf mistletoe, often producing very large brooms. Western larch can also be heavily affected when their brittle limbs give way to the weight of brooms. By comparison, Hemlocks less than 120 years in age are typically not affected by the infestations and other hosts show very little effect from infections. This is why we’re unlikely to even notice many of the Mistletoe-hosting trees in our forests.

Dwarf mistletoe probably infected the declining tree on the left first, then spread to infected tree on the right that still retains much of its foliage

8. They can eventually kill their hosts.Heavily infected trees can eventually lose so much foliage from having their living tissue invaded by multiple Dwarf mistletoe infections that they can no longer survive. This is common among Douglas firs, where its accompanying Mistletoe species significantly disrupts growth and produces very large brooms. But the Mistletoe infestation is often simply the gateway to other invaders that are often more fatal to the host tree. These include bark beetles, rusts and other fungi that invade trees affected by Mistletoe. Heavily affected trees typically die 10-15 years from their first Dwarf mistletoe infection.

This young Douglas fir is slowly dying from its Dwarf mistletoe infection

9. They favor stressed trees.Trees growing in poor soils or affected by drought are more susceptible to infestations. This could be why Douglas fir on the dry east side of the Cascades are more likely to host Dwarf Mistletoe. But this is also an example of the role that this parasite plays in forest succession and, over millennia, the evolution of its host species. By preying on the weakest among their hosts, Mistletoe mimic so many examples in nature where predation on sick or frail helps improve the gene pool of the prey species. 

10. They love fire suppression. We have been learning our lesson from a century of forest fire prevention the hard way in recent years with the string of long-overdue, catastrophic fires that have swept through Mount Hood country. This is especially true on the east side forests, where regular, low intensity fires are an important part of forest healthy. Fire suppression since the 1920s has left us with stressed, unhealthy forests with enormous fuel buildups that will take decades to restore to health. But this is good news if you’re Dwarf mistletoe, as the parasite thrives in these forests, spreading quickly among the stressed hosts.

This recently thinned plantation shows widespread Dwarf mistletoe in the “healthy” trees left standing

11. They love forest plantations. There are so many reasons why mono-culture tree plantations in logged areas of our forests are a bad idea, and susceptibility to Mistletoe infestations is just one more, since these parasites are host-species parasites. This is especially true for Douglas fir plantations, the timber industry favorite, and also a species that is more significantly affected by Mistletoe infections than most other conifers. Dwarf mistletoe can spread especially quickly in these overgrown, same-species plantations.

12. They create valuable habitat! Yes, they are parasites that can kill their host, but Dwarf mistletoe have been part of our forest ecosystem for millennia and are just as natural as the forest itself. The brooms they create high in the crowns of conifers might be unsightly to us, but they provide habitat for birds and small mammals for nesting and feeding, and chipmunks feed on their stems and seeds. Large brooms also provide protected resting sites under infected trees for deer and elk. 

Killed treetops of infected trees also provide perches and nesting sites for raptors and owls. Decayed areas in standing trees resulting from fungi invading Mistletoe-infected sites can serve as essential habitat for cavity-nesting birds and small mammals, too.

Treetops killed by Dwarf mistletoe create roosts for raptors and owls

13. They are good for forests!Really? Yes, because in a healthy, balanced ecosystem, the effect of Dwarf mistletoe in selectively killing trees is beneficial to the forest by creating canopy gaps and standing snags that are known to increase plant and animal diversity. Likewise, healthy, multi-story forests are also less vulnerable to severe Dwarf mistletoe infections, which (of course!) is how this ecological balance has evolved in our forests.

These recently killed Douglas fir will become wildlife trees as snags, and create a healthy opening in this mature forest

That last point underscores that the “solution” to the widespread Mistletoe infections we see in many of today’s east side forests is really to recognize the abundance of Mistletoe as a symptom, not the problem. Restoring today’s stressed, logged-over forests and clear-cut plantations to the mixed conifer stands that once thrived across Mount Hood country is the simplest answer. It’s also the only sustainable answer.

The good news is that the Forest Service is gradually moving in this direction with gradual plantation thinning starting to take hold in the Mount Hood area and even the occasional use of fire as a management tool in other parts of Oregon. Not everyone agrees with plantation thinning, but so far, the results appear to support continuing this practice, at least until the most overgrown plantations have been thinned to a semblance of a natural forest.

Dead witches broom skeleton cascades down a large (and still living) Douglas fir near Mount Hood

Unfortunately, the current Forest Plan guiding these decisions for Mount Hood is nearly 30 years old, and the plantation thinning being done under this plan is not being done with a vision or bringing natural forests back, but rather, to simply prepare the remaining forest for more timber harvests. 

This is yet another reason why a new plan and long-term vision of forest health is desperately needed for Mount Hood, one that centers on sustainable uses like recreation, native fish recovery and clean drinking water for our growing region, not just meeting timber harvest quotas. I’m confident that we’re gradually moving in that direction, if very slowly.

In the meantime, take a second look next time you’re out in the forest to appreciate this lesser-known parasite… when you find yourself standing under the Mistletoe!

Kohnstamm Memorial Trail?

Entering the Kohnstamm Memorial Wilderness

When President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 into law on March 30, 2009, more than a dozen new pocket wilderness areas and additions to existing wilderness were created around Mount Hood and in the Clackamas watershed. 

Among these, the Richard L. Kohnstamm Memorial Area expanded the Mount Hood Wilderness to the east of Timberline Lodge to encompass the White River canyon, extending from Mount Hood’s crater to about the 5,000 foot level, including a segment of the Timberline Trail and Pacific Crest Trail that traverses the canyon. This wilderness addition was created to “recognize the balance between wild and developed areas in the national public lands system and to create a tribute to the man who saved Timberline Lodge.”

The wilder side of the Timberline area is now the Kohnstamm Memorial Area, an extension of the Mount Hood Wilderness just east of the lodge

Richard Kohnstamm was the longtime force behind the RLK Company, operators of the Timberline Resort, which has a permit to operate the historic Timberline Lodge, which in turn is owned by the American public. 

After his duty as a gunner during World War II, Kohnstamm returned home to earn his masters degree in social work from Columbia University. After college, he moved to Portland to take a job at a local social services non-profit. Soon after arriving here, he made a visit to Timberline Lodge, where he was immediately taken with the beauty of the massive building. 

Richard Kohnstamm at Timberline in 1957 (Oregon Encyclopedia)

But Kohnstamm saw a tarnished jewel, as the lodge had quickly fallen into disrepair following its construction by the Works Progress Administration in 1937. The Forest Service had revoked the operating permit for the lodge and was looking for a new operator, and so began the Kohnstamm era at Timberline. By all accounts, he did, indeed, save the lodge. 

Kohnstamm soon teamed with John Mills to found the Friends of Timberline, a non-profit dedicated to preservation of the history, art and architecture of the remarkable building. The unique partnership between the Forest Service, Friends of Timberline and the RLK Company to preserve the lodge in perpetuity continues to this day, and is known as the Timberline Triumvirate. 

Today, the lodge continues to thrive, and summer resort operations have now expanded to include a controversial bike park centered on the Jeff Flood chairlift. After years of legal challenges, the RLK Company build miles of bicycle trails descending from main lodge to the base of the lift, where cyclists can load themselves and their bikes for a quick ride back to the top. 

The Timberline Resort’s new bike park opened this summer (photo: Timberline)

It’s a high-adrenaline activity made easy, with no hills to climb. But the development of this new attraction underscored the fact that the Timberline resort operators and Forest Service have done little over the decades to enhance the hiking experience around the lodge, despite plenty of demand. 

The reason is pretty obvious: hikers don’t buy lift tickets. Yes, some hikers help fill the hotel rooms in summer, and still more stop by to support the restaurants in the lodge, but filling ski lifts continues to the focus at Timberline.

Bikes riding the Jeff Flood lift back to the lodge (photo: Timberline)

Today, hikers at Timberline are limited to walking along the Timberline Trail or hiking the Mountaineer Trail, a semi-loop that climbs to a lift terminal, where it dead-ends at a dirt service road. Hikers usually follow the steep, dusty road back to lodge to complete a loop.

But perhaps the Richard L Kohnstamm Memorial Area could be inspiration for the Forest Service and RLK Company to bring new trails to the area, and a create a more welcoming trailhead for visitors who aren’t staying at the lodging or paying to ride the resort lifts? In that spirit, the following is a concept for a new trail that would be an instant classic on the mountain, rivaled only by the popular Cooper Spur Trail on Mount Hood’s north side for elevation and close-up looks into an active glacier.

Proposal: Kohnstamm Glacier View Trail

The proposed Glacier View Trail would climb the broad ridge that separates the White River and Salmon River canyons, just east of Timberline Lodge. The new trail would begin just across the Salmon River from the lodge, at a junction along the Timberline Trail, and end at Glacier View, a scenic high point on the ridge between the Palmer and White River glaciers. 

This viewpoint is already visited by a few intrepid explorers each year for its spectacular views into Mount Hood’s crater and the rugged crevasses of the White River Glacier. The schematic below shows how the new route would appear from Timberline Lodge:

(click image to enlarge)

Another perspective (below) of the proposed trail shows the route as it would appear from further east along the Timberline Trail, where it travels along the rim of White River canyon. This angle also shows the tumbling descent of the White River Glacier and the steep west wall of the canyon that would provide several overlooks from the new trail:

(click image to enlarge)

Thanks to the gentle, open terrain, the new trail would climb in broad, graded switchbacks, eventually reaching an elevation of 8,200 feet. This is just shy of the elevation of Cooper Spur, and would make the Kohnstamm Glacier View Trail the second-highest trail on the mountain.

The viewpoint at Glacier View (below) is already marked by a stone windbreak built by hikers that complements several handy boulders (below) to make this a fine spot for relaxing and taking in the view.

End of the trail at Glacier View (photo: Google)

From the Glacier View viewpoint, Mount Hood’s crater and the upper reaches of the White River Glacier (below) are surprisingly rugged and impressive, given the generally gentle terrain of Mount Hood’s south side. From this perspective, the Steel Cliffs and Crater Rock dominate the view as they tower over the glacier.

Mount Hood’s crater and the upper reach of the White River Glacier from Glacier View (photo: Google)
White River Glacier from Glacier View (photo: Google)

But the scene-stealer is the White River Glacier, which stair-steps down a series of icefalls directly in front of Glacier View (below), providing a close-up look into the workings of an active glacier. Lucky hikers might even hear the glacier occasionally moving from this close-up perspective as it grinds its way down the mountain.

Crevasses in the White River Glacier below Glacier View (photo: Google)

The view to the south from Glacier View (below) features the long, crevasse-fractured lower reaches of the White River Glacier, and below, the maze of sandy ravines which make up the sprawling White River Canyon. The deserts of Eastern Oregon are on the east (left) horizon from this perspective, and the Oregon Cascades spread out to the south.

The view down the White River Canyon from Glacier View (photo: Google)

The hike to Glacier View from Timberilne Lodge on the proposed Kohnstamm Trail would be about 2.5 miles long, climbing about 2,300 feet along the way, and would undoubtedly become a marquee hike on the mountain, if similar trails like Cooper Spur and McNeil Point are any gauge. But the backlog of trail needs at Timberline extend beyond having a marquee viewpoint hike like this. 

The Kohnstamm trail concept therefore includes other trail improvements in the Timberline area that would round out the trail system here. The following schematic (below) include building a new 1.4 mile trail from the upper stub of the Mountaineer Trail to Timberline Lodge, allowing hikers to complete the popular loop without walking the dusty, somewhat miserable service road below Silcox hut, often dodging resort vehicles along the way.

(click image to enlarge)

The broader Kohnstamm trail concept also calls for using the east parking area as a day-hiking hub in the summer months, with clearly marked trailheads that would consolidate the maze of confusing user trails that are increasingly carving up the wildflower meadows here. The new hub would also include restrooms, interpretive displays, picnic tables and other hiker amenities that would make for a better hiking experience.

Time for a makeover? Abandoned lift terminal at the proposed trail hub

A more ambitious element of the concept is to convert the neglected bones of an abandoned lodge structure (above) at the east parking area to become a hiker’s hut where visitors could relax after a hike, fill water bottles or learn about hiking options from Mount Hood’s volunteer trail ambassadors. 

This element might even tempt the Timberline resort operators to help make these trail concepts a reality if it offered an opportunity to provide concessions to hikers. After all, hiking is the fastest growing activity on the mountain (and on public lands), not skiing (or even mountain biking). Creating a hiking hub could be an opportunity for the Timberline operators to evolve their future vision for the resort to better match what people are coming to the mountain for.

What would it take?

Trail building is typically heavy work that involves clearing vegetation and building a smooth tread where rocks and roots are the rule. But the proposed Kohnstamm Trail would be very different, as the entire route is above the tree line and would be on the loose volcanic debris that makes up the smooth south side of Mount Hood. Trail building here would be much simpler, from the ease of surveying without trees and vegetation to get in the way, to actual trail construction in the soft soil surface. For these reasons, much of this work would be ideal for volunteers to help with.

In reality, the greatest obstacles to realizing this concept would likely be regulatory. Convincing the Forest Service to permit a new trail would be a tall hurdle, in itself. But if the Timberline resort operators were behind the idea, it would almost certainly be approved, especially if the resort embraced building and maintaining the trail hub improvements. Who knows, maybe they will even spot this article..?

Author’s Confessions…

As a postscript, I thought I’d post a few confessions from days of yore. I grew up in Portland and began skiing at Timberline Lodge as a tiny tot. I continued to avidly ski at the Mount Hood resorts for many years until giving up alpine skiing in the early 90s, largely in response to the expansion of the Meadows resort into lovely Heather Canyon, a deal-breaker for me. I loved the sport, but saw the beauty of the mountain under continual threat from the resort operations — and still do. Today, I make due with snow shoes and occasional trips on Nordic skis, though I do miss the thrill of alpine skiing!

The author skiing Timberline in 1978

An earlier awakening for me came in 1978, with the construction of the Palmer Lift at Timberline. This lift completed Richard Kohnstamm’s vision for year-round skiing on the mountain. But it was the first lift on Mount Hood to climb that far above the tree line, and was an immediate eyesore. Sadly, the conversion of the Palmer Glacier to become plowed rectangle of salted snow (see “Stop Salting the Palmer Glacier!”) that can be seen for miles completed the travesty.

That Palmer Lift debacle was soon followed by an even more egregious lift at Mount Bachelor, one that I wrote about 37 years ago in this (ahem!) riveting bit of self-righteous student journalism! (below)

(click image to enlarge)

When I stumbled across this old clipping from my days as a columnist at the Oregon State University student newspaper, I initially winced at the creative flourishes (…hey, I was 20 years old!). But my sentiments about these lifts — and the Heather Canyon lift at Meadows — remain unchanged. They were a step too far, and represented a real failure of the Forest Service to protect the mountain from over-development.

That said, I do believe the ski resorts can be managed in a more sustainable way that doesn’t harm the mountain. We’re certainly not there yet, and because all three of the major resorts (Timberline, Ski Bowl and Meadows) all sit on public land, I believe we all have a right to help determine that more sustainable future. 

In this article, I’ve made a case for accommodating more than just lift ticket purchasers in the recreation vision at Timberline Lodge. In future articles I’ll make the case for rounding out the mission for the other resorts in a way that meets the broader interests of those of us who own the land.

After the Fire: What Recovery Looks Like

PCTA trail volunteers at Tunnel Falls in July (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Rock-star trail volunteer (and friend of the WyEast Blog!) Nate Zaremskiy has shared another update on the forest recovery in the upper Eagle Creek canyon, at the heart of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge (see Nate’s first batch of images in this earlier blog article). Nate captured these images in July as part of a Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) trail stewardship effort to continue restoring the Eagle Creek trail.

We’ll start with a visual rundown of some of the waterfalls that draw hikers to Eagle Creek from around the world. First up is Sevenmile Falls, a lesser-known falls at the head of the series of cascades on Eagle Creek. The fire was less intense here, with some of the forest canopy and intact and riparian zone along Eagle Creek rebounding quickly (below).

Fire recovery at Sevenmile Falls (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Moving downstream, the area around spectacular Twister Falls is recovering more slowly. The fire burned intensely on the rocky slopes flanking the falls, though many trees in the riparian strip upstream from the falls survived the fire (as seen in the distance in the photo, below).

Fire recovery at Twister Falls (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Tunnel Falls (opening photo) appears almost as if there had never been a fire, with the cliffs around the falls green and verdant. But a wider view of this spot would show an intensely burned forest above the falls that is only beginning to recover, as we saw in Nate’s earlier photos.

Continuing downstream, the next waterfall in the series is Grand Union Falls, a thundering just below the confluence of the East and main forks of Eagle Creek. The forest here largely dodged the fire, with many big conifers surviving along the stream corridor (below).

Restored “basalt ledge” trail section above Grand Union Falls (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

The handiwork of the PCTA crews can be seen in the above view of the infamous “basalt ledge”, where the Eagle Creek Trail is blasted uncomfortably through solid basalt columns along a sheer cliff face. The fire triggered a cliff collapse here, burying the trail in tons of rock. Over the past several months, PCTA volunteers meticulously cleared this section of trail, tipping huge boulders over the edge on at a time.

Nate’s photo update of the upper waterfalls ends here, but his new images also reveal an encouraging recovery underway in the burned forests of the upper Eagle Creek canyon. In moist side canyons the understory is rebounding in abundance, with familiar forest plants like Devils club, Sword fern and Lady fern covering the once-burned ground (below).

Lush understory recovery in a moist side canyon on the upper Eagle Creek Trail (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Along other, drier canyon slopes Fireweed (or “Firestar”? See “A Rose by any other name” on this blog) has exploded on the landscape, blanketing the burned soil as would be expected from this ultimate pioneer in forest fire recovery. Nate and his volunteers were sometimes shoulder-deep in Fireweed as they hiked along the upper sections of the Eagle Creek Trail (below).

Fireweed leading the recovery on the upper Eagle Creek Trail (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Shoulder-high Fireweed on the upper Eagle Creek Trail (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

In other parts of the burn, the unburned roots and stems of the understory that survived the fire underground are now pushing new growth above the burned soil. Even in areas where no trees survived the flames, understory survivors like Vine Maple, Thimbleberry and Oregon grape can be seen in abundance in views like this (below):

Recovering understory in a heavily burned section of the upper Eagle Creek canyon (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Even the most intensely burned areas in the upper reaches of the Eagle Creek canyon are showing signs of life, with Oregon Grape, Salal and Ocean Spray emerging from roots that survived beneath the ashes (below).

Recovery is slower in the most intensely burned areas, but is still underway (Photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

The forest recovery in the Eagle Creek burn is just beginning a cycle that has played out countless times before in Western Oregon forests, especially in the steep, thin-soiled country of the Columbia River Gorge. So, what can we expect as the recover continues to unfold? It turns out we have a good preview of things to come with a pair of recent burns in the Clackamas River canyon, fifty miles to the south, where the forests and terrain are very similar to the Gorge.

What’s next? Learning from the Clackamas Fires

Two recent fires have swept through the steep-walled canyon of the lower Clackamas River. In 2014, the 36 Pit Fire burned 5,524-acres in the canyon. This was a scary September blaze that drew required 1,000 fire fighters to contain the fire from burning utility lines and toward homes near the town of Estacada. The 36 Pit Fire burned much of the South Fork Clackamas River canyon, a newly designated wilderness area, as well as several miles of the main Clackamas River canyon.

Forest recovery following the 36 Pit Fire the Clackamas River Canyon

Like Eagle Creek, the 36 Pit Fire burn was the result of careless teenagers, in this case started by illegal target shooters. Five years later, this gives us a look at what the Eagle Creek burn will look like in another 3-4 years. The view below is typical of the 36 Pit Fire, with broadleaf understory species quickly recovering in the burned canyon.

In this view (below) a trio of maples — Bigleaf maple, Douglas maple and Vine maple — dominate the recovery along a canyon slops. Most are growing from the surviving roots of trees whose tops were killed in the fire. This ability to recover from surviving roots gives broadleaf trees a leg up over conifers like Douglas fir.

Five years of slope recovery after the 36 Pit Fire

Another scene (below) from the canyon floor shows how areas with more ground moisture have fared five years after the 36 Pit Fire. Here, the conifer overstory largely survived the fire, and even some of the broadleaf trees have survived, in part because the were less drought-stressed than trees higher up the slopes when the fire swept through. This is typical of burns and can be seen throughout the Eagle Creek burn, as well, with well-hydrated trees in moist areas better able to withstand the intense heat of the fire.

Here, Bigleaf maples on either side of the view are sprouting new growth from midway up their partially burned trunks. These damaged trunks of these trees may not survive over the long term, but most are also sprouting new shoots from their base — an insurance policy in their effort to survive. The understory throughout this part of the canyon floor is exploding with new growth from roots that largely survived the fire and benefit from the moisture here in their recovery. Thimbleberry (in the foreground) is especially prolific here.

Understory growth has exploded along the moist canyon floor

The following scene (below) is also typical of the 36 Pit Fire at five years, with the conifer overstory mostly surviving the fire on this low slope, and the understory rejuvenated by the burn. When scientists describe a “beneficial” fire, this is an example of the benefits. Beneath the surviving conifers in this view, the white, skeletal trunks of burned Vine Maple and Red alder rise above vibrant new growth emerging from the roots of these trees. This lush new growth provides browse for deer, elk and other species, and new habitat for small wildlife, while also protecting the steep forest soils from erosion.

Vine maple emerging from surviving roots of tops killed by the 36 Pit Fire

In September 2002, the much smaller Bowl Fire swept through 339 acres of mature forest along the west end of the Clackamas River Trail, just upstream from Fish Creek. Like the Eagle Creek and 36 Pit fires, the relatively small Bowl Fire was human-caused, with the ignition point along the Clackamas River Trail, likely by a hiker. More than 300 firefighters were called out to fight this blaze.

Fifteen years of recovery has transformed the canyon slopes burned in the Bowl Fire from black to lush green

Today, The Bowl Fire provides a look 15 years into the future for the Eagle Creek burn, and the rate of recovery here is striking. These views (above and below) from the heart of the Bowl Fire show 20-25 foot Bigleaf maple and Red alder thriving among the surviving conifers and burned snags. Vine maple, Douglas maple, Elderberry and even a few young Western red cedar complete this vibrant scene of forest rejuvenated by fire.

The forest recovery from the Bowl Fire give us a glimpse of what the burned areas of the Gorge will look like in another 10-12 years

Growing up in Oregon, I was taught that many of these broadleaf tree species that are leading the fire recovery in the Clackamas River canyon and at Eagle Creek were “trash trees”, good for firewood and little more. But as our society continues our crash course in the folly of fire suppression and ecological benefits of fire, these species are emerging as hard-working heroes in post-fire forest recovery.

The Unsung Heroes of Fire Recovery

It’s worth getting to know these trees as more than “trash trees”. Here are five of the most prominent heroes, beginning with Bigleaf maple (below). These impressive trees are iconic in the Pacific Northwest, and highly adaptable. They thrive as towering giants in rainforest canyons, where they are coated in moss and Licorice fern, but can also eke out a living in shaded pockets among the basalt cliffs of the dry deserts of the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Their secret is an ability to grow in sun or shade and endure our summer droughts.

Forest recovery hero: Bigleaf Maple

As we’ve seen in the Gorge and Clackamas River canyon burns, Bigleaf maple roots are quite resistant to fire. Throughout the Bowl Fire and 36 Pit Fire, roots of thousands of burned Bigleaf maple have produced vigorous new shoots from their base, some of which will grow to become the multi-trunked Bigleaf maple that are so familiar to us (and providing some insight into how some of those multi-trunked trees got their start!). Their surviving roots and rapid recovery not only holds the forest soil together, their huge leaves also begin the process of rebuilding the forest duff layer that usually burns away in forest fires, another critical role these trees play in the fire cycle.

Vine maple (below) are perhaps the next most prominent tree emerging in the understory of the Bowl Fire and 36 Pit Fire. Like Bigleaf maple, they emerge from surviving roots of burned trees, but Vine maple have the added advantage of a sprawling growth habit (thus their name) when growing in shady forest settings, and these vine-like limbs often form roots wherever they touch the forest floor. When the exposed limbs are burned away by fire, each of these surviving, rooted sections can emerge as a new tree, forming several trees where one existed before the fire. Vine maples are abundant in the forest understory throughout the Cascades, so their survival and rapid recovery after fire is especially important in stabilizing burned slopes.

Forest recovery hero: Vine maple

Douglas maple (below) is a close cousin to Vine maple and also fairly common in the Clackamas River canyon and Columbia River Gorge. What they lack in sheer number they make up for in strategic location, as these maples thrive in drier, sunnier locations than Vine maple, and these areas are often the slowest to recover after fire. Douglas maple emerging from the roots of burned trees on dry slopes can play an important niche role in stabilizing slopes and helping spur the recovery of the forest understory.

Forest recovery hero: Douglas Maple

Red elderberry (below) are a shrub or small tree that is a common companion to the trio of maples in the recovering understory of the Clackamas River canyon. Like the maples, they often emerge from the surviving roots after fire. Elderberry also thrive in disturbed areas, so this species is also likely emerge as seedlings in a burn zone, as well.

Forest recovery hero: Elderberry

This is probably as good a place as any to point out that the red berries of Red elderberry are not safe to eat. They contain an acid that can lead to cyanide poisoning in humans (did that get your attention?). However, the berries and leaves are an important food source for birds and wildlife, another important function of this species in a recovering forest.

One of the most prolific species emerging in the Clackamas River burn zone is Thimbleberry (below), a dense, woody shrub related to blackberries and another important food source for birds and wildlife after a fire. Their soft, fuzzy berries are also edible for humans, as most hikers know. Thimbleberry also appear in many of the recovery photos of the upper Eagle Creek canyon that Nate Zaremskiy shared.

Forest recovery hero: Thimbleberry

Finally, a less welcome “hero” in the post-fire forest recovery (to us humans, at least) is Poison oak. This amazingly adaptable, rather handsome shrub (and vine — it can grow in both forms) is found throughout the Columbia River Gorge as well as the lower Clackamas River canyon. In this view (below), Poison oak is emerging in the Clackamas burn zone alongside Thimbleberry, shiny with the oil that causes so much havoc in humans.

Like the other pioneers of the recovery, Poison oak grows from surviving roots and seems to benefit from fire with renewed growth and vigor. Poison oak also likes filtered sun in forest margins, so a tree canopy thinned by fire can create a perfect habit for this species. Like Thimbleberry and Elderberry, Poison oak is (surprisingly) an important browse for deer in recovering forests.

Forest recovery (gulp!) “hero”..? Poison oak!

Many other woody plants and hardy perennials also play an important role in the recovery of the forest understory, including Ocean spray, Oregon grape, Fireweed, ferns, and native grasses. These fast-growing, broad leafed plants are critical in quickly stabilized burned slopes, rebuilding a protective duff layer and providing shade and cover for wildlife to return.

So, if forests are so good at recovering from fire, can they recover from logging in much the same way? Read on.

Learning to be Part of the Fire Cycle?

If logged-over forests were left to their own recovery process, they would follow much sequence as a burned forest, with the understory rebounding quickly. However, fire usually leaves both surviving overstory trees and standing dead wood that are critical in the recovery by helping regenerate the forest with seedlings from the surviving trees, habitat in the form of standing snags and by providing nutrients from fallen, decaying dead wood. But even with the overstory cut and hauled away as saw logs, a clearcut could still recover quickly if the understory… if it were simply allowed to regenerate this way.

“It became necessary to destroy the forest in order to save it..?”

And therein lies the rub. Time is money to the logging industry, and they still view the broadleaf species that lead our forest recovery as “trash trees”, something to be piled up and burned in slash piles. So, the standard practice today is to shortcut the natural recovery process our forests have evolved to do, and simply kill the understory before it can even grow.

This is done by repeated helicopter spraying of clearcuts with massive amounts of herbicide after a forest has been cut, typically a year or two after the logging operation. This produces the brown dead zone that we are sadly familiar with in Oregon. Having killed the entire understory, cloned plantation conifers are then planted among the stumps with the goal of growing another round of marketable conifers in as short a period as possible. Time is money and trees are a “farm” not a forest to the logging industry.

These Douglas fir cultivars were bred for rapid growth and planted to shortcut a necessary stage in the recovery process, which is great for the corporate timber shareholders but very bad for forest health.

It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that shortcutting the natural recovery process after logging also shortchanges the health of the forest over the long term, robbing the soil of nutrients that would normally be replaced in the recovery process and exposing the logged area to erosion and the introduction of invasive species (a rampant problem in clearcuts). Destroying the understory also robs a recovering clearcut of its ability to provide browse and cover for wildlife — ironically, one of the selling points the logging industry likes to use in its mass marketing defense of current logging practices.

In Oregon, this approach to fast-tracking forests is completely legal, though it is clearly very bad for our forests, streams and wildlife. As Oregon’s economy continues to diversify and become less reliant on the number of raw logs we can cut and export to other countries to actually mill (also a common practice in Oregon), cracks are beginning to form in the public tolerance for this practice. Most notably, private logging corporations are increasingly being held accountable for their herbicides entering streams and drifting into residential areas.

The understory in the uncut forest bordering this corporate logging operation shows what should be growing among the stumps, here. Instead, tiny first seedlings were planted after herbicides were used to kill everything else on this slope directly above the West Fork Hood River. This is standard forest practice in Oregon, sadly.

So, there’s some hope that the logging industry can someday evolve to embracing a natural recovery strategy, if only because they may not be able to afford the legal liability of pouring herbicides on our forests over the long term. Who knows, maybe the industry will eventually move to selective harvests and away from the practices of clearcutting if herbicides are either banned or simply too expensive to continue using?

The recent fires in the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Hood Wilderness and Clackamas River canyon may already be helping change industry our logging industry practices, too. These fires have all unfolded on greater Portland’s doorstep and have engulfed some of the most visited public lands in the Pacific Northwest.

While the initial public reaction was shock at seeing these forests burn, we are now seeing a broad public education and realization of the benefits of fire in our forests, with both surprise and awe in how quickly the forests are recovering.

Skeletons from the 1991 Multnomah Falls fire rise above recovering forests in this scene taken before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, when part of this forest burned again to continue the fire and recovery cycle in the Gorge.

That’s good news, because a public that understands how forests really work is a good check against the corporate interests who fund the steady stream of print and broadcast media propaganda telling us how great industrial logging really is for everyone.

Are we at a tipping point where science and the public interest will finally govern how the logging industry operates in Oregon? Maybe. But there’s certainly no downside to the heightened public awareness and appreciation of the role of fires in our forests. We do seem to have turned that corner…

Mountain Beaver? 13 Things to Know!

Mountain Beaver happy to be stuffed (?) in the Longmire Museum (Wikimedia)

While you may be a regular visitor to our forests, you might not know what a Mountain Beaver is, or that they exist in abundance on the west side of the Cascades. Most people don’t, as these are shy and seldom seen creatures. But if you are a hiker, you’ve almost certainly cursed their treacherous dens that show up along trails that pass through their mountain habitat.

Look out! Mountain Beaver burrow along the Timberline Trail (WyEast Blog)

This article is a brief introduction to this humble species. And while Mountain Beaver may not be the flashiest creature in our forests, they make up for it in uniqueness. Here are 13 surprising things to know about this unusual animal:

1. They’re not really beavers..? Not even close, though they do belong to the enormous Rodentia order that includes porcupine, beaver, squirrels, chipmunks and dozens of mice species. Mountain Beaver belong to the Aplodontiidae family and are its sole species in North America, Aplodontia rufa, meaning red-haired or tawny. Like true beavers, (and all rodents), Mountain Beaver are defined by their large incisors, which they also use to chew through limbs and small trees. Unlike beavers, they have short, furry tails and are much smaller, weighing around three pounds, where North American Beaver can weigh anywhere from 35 to 65 pounds.

Mountain Beaver (University of Michigan)

2. They are ancient! The species, that is. While a typical Mountain Beaver lives just 6-10 years, the species dates back in its current form to the Miocene, a geologic era that stretches from about 5 million years ago to 25 million years ago. Thus, they are considered a living fossil, with bone structures that predate that found in all other North American rodents.

This means Mountain Beaver existed pretty much as we find them today at a time when sabre-tooth cats, three-toed horses and oreodonts were roaming Oregon, and early humans were just about to split off from the Chimpanzee family tree in eastern Africa. The Cascade Mountains that now define their range had yet to form. They are survivors!

Todays Mountain Beaver lived alongside thousands of now-extinct Miocene mammals (Wikimedia)

3. They only live here..? Mountain Beaver are found only in a narrow band between the west slopes of the Cascades and the Pacific coast, stretching from northern California through coastal British Columbia. But while their range is small, they are abundant here, and not considered to be a species at risk. There are seven recognized subspecies of Mountain Beaver, and one subspecies called the Point Arena Mountain Beaver is listed as an endangered species. These rare, endangered relatives live in a small area on the Mendocino Coast in California, south of the main Mountain Beaver range. There were only about 200 to 500 members of this subspecies estimated to be surviving when they were listed in 1998.

Within their range, Mountain Beaver thrive in moist deciduous mountain forests and wooded foothills. They prefer deciduous forests, so at higher elevations, this often means in steep avalanche chutes lined with Red alder and lush understory where conifers dominate most of the forest. This is also where hikers are most likely to encounter their dens – watch your step when you cross through Red alder stands in the mountains!

4. They live alone. Like many in the large Rodentia order, Mountain Beaver live alone. This is most surprising when you encounter their extensive burrow systems, which can occupy a quarter acre and suggest the work of a colony (like prairie dogs). Though their burrows often interconnect, they defend their burrows against their neighbors. Vacant burrows are quickly occupied by other Mountain Beaver and reused.

Simplified schematic of a Mountain Beaver burrow system (WDFW)

5. They’re mostly underground… nowadays. Mountain Beaver venture out to gather food, but don’t travel far far, and otherwise live much of their life in the expansive tunnels they dig. Their tunnels are highly organized, with multiple entrances and dedicated rooms for nesting, storing food, toilet and “earth balls” — round rocks or hard clay that are believed to serve as plugs within their tunnel systems and upon which Mountain Beaver sharpen their incisors.

However, they can also climb trees and swim short distances, a vestige from when scientists think their Miocene ancestors were tree dwellers.

Tiny eyes and big diggers for feet make for a fine a life underground! (Northwest Wildlife Online)

6. They work the night shift. Mountain Beaver rarely emerge from their dens during the day, preferring to gather food at night when the outside world is as dark as their burrows, and predators are less likely to spot them. While they have poor hearing and eyesight, their sense of smell and touch is excellent, making them well suited for the night shift. It’s unknown whether they are able to wear uniforms, perform security detail or eat stale donuts, however…

7. They can whistle! While they are mostly quiet animals, Mountain Beavers can issue a sharp whistle or squeal to defend their burrows. They can also be heard grinding or clicking their teeth while in their burrows or foraging for food or as a defense. But while they can whistle, they apparently cannot carry a tune… at least according to scientists.

Mountain Beaver are cute as infants… right? (PAWS Wildlife)

8. They have secret love lives..? Little is known about their love lives, except that they seem to reproduce at two years of age. Mountain Beaver mating has never been observed, perhaps because it occurs during the winter months when they are underground. They produce litters of 2-3 young in early spring, and these young soon venture out to find their own solitary plots to make their homes. Unlike humans, grown Mountain Beaver offspring do not return to their parent’s home after college to live in the extra burrow, rent-free, however.

9. They eat their food twice! It’s gross to us, but true: they eat their poop pellets after the first time thru to further digest any remaining nutrients (hey, so do rabbits, so not so weird!). But they keep their dens tidy and store the twice-digested poops in dedicated toilet chambers in their dens. And really, is a Mountain Beaver poop pellet that much more disgusting than a mystery McNugget stamped out at a chicken rendering plant..? “Food” for thought…

Collected Mounted Beaver greens outside a burrow (USFS)

10. They have cast-iron stomachs! Their diet consists largely of Sword fern and Bracken fern leaves, which makes Mountain Beaver unique, as Bracken fern is poisonous to most herbivores. They also consume Red alder leaves, another common species in the open, deciduous forests they prefer. Their short tails and slightly opposable thumbs allow them sit up while eating, holding food between their front feet. Their agile thumbs also reportedly come in handy for operating a TV remote or texting other Mountain Beaver.

Adult Mountain Beaver (USFS)

11. They don’t hibernate. Mountain Beaver don’t hibernate, though they are rarely seen in winter, when their burrows are often under a blanket of snow at higher elevations in their habitat. Instead, they spend the winter underground, living on stored food they have gathered and catching up on social media.

12. They’re a favorite entree! Not surprisingly, Mountain Beaver are a favorite and filling snack for our larger carnivores, including bobcat, cougar, coyotes and even large raptors, including hawks, eagles and owls. Increasingly, humans are becoming a predator of Mountain Beaver, not for food, but because they have begun to colonize areas where their digging and habit of topping young saplings marks them as a pest.

Sadly, they are still kill-trapped and poisoned for this reason on corporate timberlands. Fortunately, pubic awareness of the value of these animals is gradually increasing, especially in the Puget Sound region, where land owners are encouraged to relocate animals or simply learn to live with them (after all, they were clearly here first!).

13. Clark the Mountain Beaver has a book out..! Oh, you didn’t know there was a celebrity Mountain Beaver? Well, it turns out that Washington author Karen B. Shea has written a wonderful children’s book about a resident Mountain Beaver in her yard who goes by the name of Clark. If you have little hikers in your family, this would be a nice way to introduce them to an animal they might otherwise never learn to appreciate.

Mountain Beaver happy to be stuffed (?) in the Longmire Museum (Wikimedia)

You can support this local author and pick up a copy of Karen’s book (beautifully illustrated by Kelly Halpin) at Clark the Mountain Beaver’s website. Here, you’ll also find an accompanying coloring book and links to Clark’s YouTube channel (yes, you read that right):

Clark the Mountain Beaver

So, next time you stumble across one of their cavernous dens, you can smile knowing it was dug by a prehistoric survivor that hasn’t changed all that much in 50 million years. Clearly, the Mountain Beaver lives by the credo “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

And as always, we can learn something from even the humblest of species. Just watch your step in the process…

Restore the Metlako Viewpoint?

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A view of Metlako Falls from days gone by…

The Eagle Creek canyon is the undisputed jewel of the Columbia River Gorge, thanks to a string of dramatic waterfalls and a precarious, cliff-hugging trail built over 100 years ago by visionary Forest Service pioneers. But starting in late 2016, a series of calamities over the course of just a year reshaped Eagle Creek for the foreseeable future.

The first of these events came in late December 2016, when a huge section of cliff at Metlako Falls calved off, damming Eagle Creek with a massive pile of debris and erasing the iconic viewpoint of the falls (where the above photo was taken in 2013) forever.

Round two was the sprawling Eagle Creek Fire the followed in September 2017, burning all but a few strips of streamside forest in the Eagle Creek draining. Then, sometime in early 2018, another massive cliff collapse occurred at Punchbowl Falls, rerouting the entire creek and forever changing still another iconic view.

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The old viewpoint at Metlako Falls

Changes on this scale are nothing new in the Gorge. In fact, they are the very processes that created the scenery we enjoy today. Without fire, we wouldn’t have cliff top meadows, gnarled Oregon white oak groves and huckleberry fields on the highest ridges that rim the Gorge. Without landslides and cliff collapses, we wouldn’t have vertical basalt canyons and the towering waterfalls within them. In this way, the changes at Eagle Creek have given us a rare look at the natural forces behind the beauty, and a chance to better understand and appreciate the ongoing evolution of this very unique place.

Since the 2017 fire, volunteer trail crews have been working with the Forest Service to restore the Eagle Creek Trail. The fire heavily impacted the trail (see Eagle Creek: One Year After the Fire), and volunteers have invested thousands of hours clearing logs and debris and rebuilding much of the trail tread. For its part, the Forest Service is working to replace several large footbridges that were destroyed by the fire.

With the reopening of the trail imminent (perhaps as early as this year) there remain plenty of questions about how Eagle Creek will be better managed in the future to prevent a recovering ecosystem from being impacted by swarms of visitors. This article focuses on anticipating and managing these impacts at Metlako Falls, where hikers will almost certainly create a cobweb of user trails in search of an alternative to the collapsed viewpoint, especially now that the dense understory that once hid the falls from the trail has burned away in the fire.

Opportunity from calamity..?

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The author trimming brush at the old Metlako Viewpoint in 2013 (Photo: Christopher Alley)

The joy of the old Metlako Falls overlook was in the discovery. A pair of modest spur trails dropped through forest to a sudden and spectacular overlook, where a pair of braided cable railings stood between you and the sheer, 200-foot drop into Eagle Creek.

As iconic as the view up the narrow gorge to Metlako Falls was, it was also tedious to maintain. The cliff top just below the railings was dense with understory, which regularly grew to obscure the view of the falls. Trimming the brush required professional crews equipped to descend the cliff with ropes or volunteers willing to pack a pole pruning saw up the trail. It was an ongoing battle, with the understory winning — and hikers inevitably crawling over the railing for a better look. It’s a miracle that nobody (that I know of) slipped over the side at the old overlook!

In this way, the cliff collapse in 2016 and fire in 2017 offer an opportunity to create a new viewpoint at Metlako Falls that is both easier to maintain and provides less incentive for hikers to explore beyond the trail. I believe such a spot exists and that a spur trail to this new viewpoint could easily be developed by the volunteer crews already working to restore the Eagle Creek Trail. I also believe that without creating a new viewpoint, the crush of hikers who use this trail will seek one out, creating a hazard for hikers and harming the recovering landscape in the process.

Cue the helicopter!

Here’s a not-so-secret scoop: for the past decade or so, daredevil kayakers have been sailing over Metlako Falls as part of the “extreme kayaking” phenomenon of waterfall jumping. These stunts at Metlako Falls have been regularly recorded for social media (of course!) and thus a well-worn user path already descended to a viewpoint directly opposite the falls well before the Eagle Creek Fire swept through the area.

The post-fire absence of forest understory will make this user trail all the more obvious, and thus my confidence that it will become a heavily used boot path when the main trail reopens if a planned alternative isn’t provided. The time to act is now, before hordes of hikers are allowed back into Eagle Creek.

So, where is this not-so-secret user path? The following views from one of the State of Oregon helicopter surveys of the Eagle Creek Burn were taken in 2018, and show the unofficial Metlako Falls viewpoint nicely.

This wide view (below) is looking downstream, with Metlako Falls hidden in trees, but the deep pool created by the 2016 cliff collapse showing up prominently. I’ve marked both the site of the original viewpoint and where the proposed new viewpoint would be, roughly located where the kayaker path now leads:

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This closer view (below) shows more detail of the proposed new viewpoint. Notably, it’s located atop a sheer basalt cliff that would provide a clear view, but could also discourage hikers from venturing beyond the viewpoint. Also notable are the many surviving conifers on the bench that forms the viewpoint that will help stabilize this area in coming years as the understory recovers from the fire.

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What does Metlako Falls look like from this new perspective? It’s a straight on view that resembles a verytall Punch Bowl Falls, based on the many kayaker photos out there. This unattributed social media image shows a kayaker jumping the falls from the not-so-secret viewpoint in about 2015:

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Metlako daredevil as viewed from the proposed viewpoint (Source: Unknown)

This State of Oregon aerial view (below) was taken from almost directly above Eagle Creek as is rushes toward the brink of Metlako Falls and provides another good look at the basalt columns that are the foundation for the proposed new viewpoint:

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This aerial view (below) is from above the proposed viewpoint, looking back at Metlako Falls. From this angle, it really does resemble a very tall Punch Bowl Falls, complete with a deep amphitheater behind the falls and rock fins hemming in the splash pool on the downstream side:

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This wide view (below) is the reverse of the opening State of Oregon aerial, looking upstream toward Metlako Falls. This view shows the debris from the 2016 cliff collapse and the dammed section Eagle Creek above the debris pile.

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But there’s also a surprise next to Metlako Falls in this view. The slender cascade dropping into the opposite side of the Metlako amphitheater is Sorenson Falls, a seldom-seen beauty not visible from the old viewpoint. Could the new viewpoint be designed to allow this beautiful falls to be seen, as well? I think so — and in that way, the new viewpoint might be even more spectacular than the old one!

So, how do we do this?

While the Forest Service has been reluctant to even consider new trails in the Gorge in recent years, the Eagle Creek Fire may have created a window of opportunity for rethinking the status quo. However, the need for a formal environmental assessment is often a Forest Service obstacle to building new trails, even if the agency is open to the idea. But there’s a shorter path for the proposed Metlako Falls viewpoint. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) calls out “categorical exclusions” for certain activities that exempts them from having to complete an environmental assessment. The proposed viewpoint easily meets this test.

This is because one of the “exclusions” under NEPA are trails negatively impact by natural events (like a fire or cliff collapse) and the Act gives great latitude to the Forest Service when relocating or realigning trails in response to such events. The Forest Service would still need to rely on agency scientists to complete a site evaluation of a proposed spur route for soil stability and other design considerations, but much of the expensive and effort required for a full environmental assessment can be avoided.

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The new spur trail would be very short — only about 100 yards in length and descending about 50 feet in elevation from the existing Eagle Creek Trail (see schematic, above). This not only helps make the case for a categorical exclusion, it also puts the proposed trail within reach for volunteers to both design and construct in cooperation with the Forest Service.

The viewpoint, itself, would likely require the Forest Service to design of some sort of cable railing, perhaps similar to the old viewpoint and the Punch Bowl Falls overlook, or possibly a deck similar to the structure at Panther Creek Falls. But even this detail is within reach for trail volunteers to constructing, with the Forest Service simply providing the design and materials.

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Misty Metlako Falls in the winter of 2014

If some other alternative isn’t provided, hikers will almost certainly follow the kayaker’s user trail to the unofficial Metlako Falls viewpoint when the Eagle Creek Trail is reopened. With volunteer crews already working to reopen the trail, it makes sense to build this viewpoint spur now. My hope is that we can be proactive and create a stable, sustainable way for hikers to view the falls before thousands of boots on poorly aligned user trails force the Forest Service to react.

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Postscript: I probably should have included this when I posted the article, but you can comment directly to the Forest Service in support of this proposal on their website:

Click here for the Forest Service comments page

Farewell, Forest Service Webcams…?

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Moonrise from the Gorge Webcam on September 26, 2014 (USFS)

For the past many years, one of my morning rituals has been to check on the Forest Service air quality cameras located above Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood and in the eastern Columbia River Gorge, near Wishram, Washington. The Hood came was pointed south, toward Mount Jefferson and the Gorge cam was pointed west, toward Mount Hood.

I use past tense to describe these cameras because they were abruptly turned off toward the end of the latest shutdown of the federal government. This article focuses on why these cameras were important, why they might have been shut down and why they should be brought back on line.

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Hazy sunset behind Mount Hood from the Gorge Webcam on November 11, 2014 (USFS)

Wilderness Webcam Program

Like many federal agencies, the Forest Service has maintained an air quality monitoring program for decades in response to the Clean Air Act. Most famously, this includes measuring the acid rain falling on public forests as a result of urban air pollution, a phenomenon that was first documented in eastern forests in the 1970s and 80s. In Oregon, the Forest Service air quality program came to the forefront more recently, when their monitoring of lichens for trace pollutants helped alert state authorities to toxic levels of emissions coming from a glass factory in Portland.

The wilderness webcams help the Forest Service measure air pollution in places like Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge that are in close proximity to major urban areas and vulnerable to growing air toxics and particulate pollution.

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Sunrise from the Gorge Webcam on October 16, 2015 (USFS)

Under this program, not all Forest Service lands are created equal. Areas defined as “Class I” by the agency are of critical concern and the Forest Service has been tasked with establishing targets to help monitor and potentially regulate pollution “loads” for these areas. The targets are based on levels of pollution that measurably impact wilderness ecosystems. The Mount Hood Wilderness and Mount Jefferson Wilderness are among the Class I areas in Oregon, as is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Given the unprecedented hostility toward environmental protections (and science, itself) by the Trump administration, the Forest Service air quality program seems a likely target by the industry-friendly political appointees who now lead our public land agencies. This was certainly my suspicion when the following message popped up in place of the wilderness webcam page in early February:

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The end of the Forest Service Wilderness Webcams..?

The webcams went offline toward the end of the most recent federal government shutdown, when a deal to reopen the government was in sight, which didn’t make sense from a funding or resource argument. This took me back to a more nefarious objective: perhaps the shutdown was a simply a convenient time to kill off the air quality program, when few would notice?

There’s reason for alarm, too. While the webcams are a handy (and often inspiring!) resource for the general public, they also represent a threat to the polluters who are now in league with the Trump administration in their assault on environmental protections. They provide ongoing, measurable documentation on the state of the environment, without which protections can’t really be enacted or enforced.

The webcams are also increasingly important to the Portland region, as we learned during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. While scientists are still debating the potential ecological value of forest fire smoke in late summer (some believe it provides an important cooling effect during the last weeks of our annual drought), the public health effects on humans are decidedly hazardous.

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Mount Jefferson floating above the cloud deck from the Hood Webcam on November 24, 2018 (USFS)

Most forest ecologists believe we have entered a new era of catastrophic fires that will make heavy smoke the norm in Oregon and across the west for decades to come. The webcams not only provide ongoing monitoring of these effects for scientists, they also help the public see (and avoid) the forests when smoke has reached unhealthy levels.

So, why now?

I reached out to the Forest Service with these questions and received a prompt response and a few answers. The agency position is that a tight Forest Service budget is forcing tough decisions, especially for programs involving field equipment that require ongoing operations and maintenance. This explanation aligns with the well-documented reality that a larger and growing share of the USFS budget is channeled into forest fire response each summer, draining other programs of funds.

More concerning in the response is that the decision to shut down the wilderness webcams was apparently made at Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., where a single government contractor had maintained the national network of cameras.

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Late snowstorm captured by the Hood Webcam on June 10, 2018 (USFS)

Putting nefarious influences aside (including the dubious motives of former Georgia Governor Sunny Perdue, who unfortunately serves as Secretary of Agriculture and thus is also overseeing the Forest Service), it’s also true that the entire agency has experienced declining funding for basic programs over the past several years because of ballooning forest fire costs and the ongoing dysfunction of Congress and its inability to actually pass a budget.

On a more encouraging note, the Forest Service response did suggest that local forests may adopt the wilderness webcams and operate them on a regional level, noting that the agency was “well aware of the importance of the cameras.” That’s good news, and hopefully, this will come to pass.

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Sunset from the Gorge Webcam on November 30, 2012 (USFS)

While this blog exists to challenge the historic mission of extraction and exploitation by the USFS, the scientists within the organization have long been the conscience of the agency. They have helped gradually steer the agency toward a more sustainable mission, albeit confounded by ongoing Congressional and White House mandates for more logging and less environmental protection.

Cutbacks to tiny programs like air quality monitoring are just another reminder of the conflicted and unsustainable mission the Forest Service has been tasked with, and where science ranks in the political pecking order.

In the meantime, more Gorge Cam memories… and action?

While we wait to learn the fate of the wilderness webcams, here are some images to enjoy from the Gorge webcam that I downloaded in September 2016. Perhaps my favorite in this series is this remarkably peaceful twilight scene that includes an unusually calm Columbia River reflecting the sky. The linked larger version (below) gives a sense of the quality of images that have been gathered from the wilderness cams over the years — large version of all images have been archived in high definition for scientists to use in research… until now, that is.

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Twilight reflecting on a calm Columbia River from the Gorge Webcam on September 26, 2016 (USFS)

[Click here for a large image]

This September 7, 2016 evening view from the Gorge webcam shows a series of lenticular clouds forming over Mount Hood on a late summer evening, a surprisingly common phenomenon when Pacific storms are approaching that is often masked by clouds (visible low on the horizon) for Portlanders on the west side of the mountain.

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A view of lenticular clouds forming over Mount Hood from the Gorge Webcam on September 7, 2016 (USFS)

The Gorge webcam also captured dozens of stunning sunsets over the years, like this beautiful display from September 29, 2016 that could easily be mistaken for a watercolor painting:

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Watercolor sunset captured by the Gorge Webcam on September 29, 2016 (USFS)

This subtle scene (below) not only captures the late evening mood of the Gorge as high clouds from a new storm are approaching, it also captures distant lights in The Dalles and beyond that help scientists monitor particulate pollution.

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Last rays of daylight captured by the Gorge Webcam on September 16, 2016 (USFS)

Hopefully, we’ll have more scenes like these to follow in the future. But in the meantime, what can we do to bring back the wilderness webcams and defend the Forest Service air quality program? It’s always worth calling our U.S. Senators and congressional delegation, especially if you’re concerned about the broader hostility the Trump administration shown toward public lands and environmental protection. With the U.S. House back in an oversight role this year, the Democrats in the Oregon delegation are once again powerful allies in pushing back on the Trump agenda.

However, the decision might come down to our regional Forest Service administrators, and it’s easy to comment as a supporter of the Wilderness Webcams and the air quality program. You can find a feedback form over here on the Pacific Northwest Region website:

Pacific Northwest Region USFS Comments

Please take a moment to weigh in!