One of the great thrills of exploring remote mountain tops and rocky outcrops in the Mount Hood backcountry is stumbling upon a long-forgotten vision quest site. These are typically rock pits, large enough for a person — though modern visitors should never enter them, out of respect for both their spiritual and scientific significance.
Archaeologists are still debating the purpose of these pits. The most accepted theory is that these pits were built by Native Americans seeking a vision of their guardian spirit through a combination of physical exertion, deprivation and isolation. Under this theory, Native Americans would have spent several days building these pits, then meditating in them without food or human interaction in order to achieve a spiritual experience.
Other researchers argue that the pits were used as hunting blinds or to store food. But these alternative theories are hard to accept for locations like those around Mount Hood and in the Gorge. Most of this sites are on huge talus slopes or mountain tops, which would have been inconvenient as a food cache or for retrieving killed game.
The Lookout Mountain vision quest pit pictured here has still more mystery surrounding it. While the location of the pit is typical – high on a rocky knoll, overlooking the East Fork valley and Mount Hood – the walls of the pit are stacked higher and narrower than most, possibly due to the steepness of the site.
But even more perplexing are the worn traces of mortar between some of the stones (seen in the wall of the pit, toward the bottom of the second image). One possibility is that the mortar was an early attempt to preserve the site, given it’s fragile and exposed state. But who would have hauled both mortar and water to this site?
Perhaps early forest rangers who once manned a Forest Service guard station at High Prairie, a short distance away. The guard station was abandoned half a century ago, so this timing would be consistent with other, early 20th Century effort to “restore” Native American structures. This was famously done at several spots in Pueblo country, but might have happened here, too.
Whatever the answer, the Lookout Mountain vision quest site is among the most inspiring in the area, and it’s easy to imagine Native Americans seeking out spots like this for a spiritual journey. But it’s also easy to imagine sites like this being lost forever, for lack of a management imperative by the U.S. Forest Service to actively protect these places.
This kind of fragile resource is also among the best arguments for the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, since the Park Service has a long and proven track record of this sort of resource protection. In contrast, the Forest Service has aggressively logged much of the terrain around this site, oblivious to special places like this. So for now, obscurity is the best friend of these resources, until better stewardship finally comes to Mount Hood.