The Hidden Shame of Latourell

Since tourists first began exploring Samuel Lancaster’s graceful new Columbia River Highway in 1915, Latourell Falls has been a favorite stop. In the early days, a pair of roadhouses (the Falls Chalet and the Falls Villa) flanked the highway at the east end of the dramatic highway bridge spanning the creek, and offered lunch with a view of the falls.

Today, the falls are the main focus of Guy Talbot State Park, with thousands of visitors each year exploring the series of loop trails that circle the lower falls and follow Latourell Creek to the upper falls.

The Falls Chalet in 1915

The scenes along Latourell Creek are beautiful and iconic, and most visitors simply accept that this place will be protected forever for the public. Yet, experienced hikers notice something different about this western-most of the waterfall trails in the Columbia Gorge: it’s not pristine, at least not in the way that other streams in the Gorge are. Despite the beautiful setting, big trees, wildflowers and waterfalls, something about this stream seems degraded.

When crossing the rustic footbridge at the thundering base of Latourell Falls, there is often a distinct odor of algae in the air. A closer look at the stream reveals not only algae on the rocks, but also crusty mineral deposits that also suggest degraded water quality in this beautiful stream, and would help explain the algae blooms.

This close-up view (below) is a detailed look at the lower right corner of the previous image of Latourell Falls. The close-up view reveals white mineral deposits and yellow-grown algae stains on several boulders and cobbles. This view also shows fine silt deposits (brown areas in the lower right) that suggest some sort of major disturbance in the watershed.

Why is this? What’s behind the water quality problems on this otherwise untouched stream?

Going to the Source

Upstream from the waterfalls and throngs of visitors along the lower canyon section of Latourell Creek, an explanation for the degraded water quality is revealed. Though few visitors to the lower reaches of the stream would imagine it, the headwaters of Latourell Creek are privately owned, with a number of homes and a lot of logging along the stream.

Amazingly, more than three quarters of the Latourell Creek watershed lies outside the protection of public parks and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA).

While the private homes are partly responsible for the nutrients that feed algae and leave mineral deposits in Latourell Creek (from lawn chemicals, septic tanks and other sources), the aggressive logging of private lands in the upper watershed is the greatest risk to stream quality.

The environmental impact of logging in the headwaters is painfully obvious, with canyon slopes recklessly harvested in clearcuts. This is a discredited, outmoded form of timber management that shouldn’t be practiced anywhere, much less a stream of this caliber that flows into a National Scenic Area.

The clearcut photos shown here were taken in the summer of 2010, with most of these harvests just a couple of years old. In this view (below), an older clear cut can also be seen on the hillside across the canyon, and is just beginning to recover with a light green layer of growth. Most of these forests have been cut several times, with ever-shortened growth cycles between harvests, thanks to a growing market value for marginal timber.

In this view (below) raw skid roads in the lower right drain directly into Latourell Creek, which flows along the tree line, at the edge of the clearcut. Erosion from bare slopes and logging roads is responsible for the most fine sediments (mud) seen below, in the protected sections of Latourell Creek. These sediments not only spoil the stream bottom, they also introduce minerals at a rate which promotes the growth of algae, which in turn, can also harm stream health.

Sadly, Oregon law continues to allow timber harvesting using the clearcut method, and the few environmental protections that do exist for stream protection on private timberlands are little compensation for the effects of clear cutting.

The tragic reality is that in Oregon, the timber lobby is still king. Twenty years of non-stop public relations advertising (kicked off during the early 90s Spotted Owl crisis) by Big Timber have been surprisingly effective in keeping the public largely misinformed on what is really happening in private forests.

In this view (below) of upper Latourell Creek, the private property owner has left the minimal amount of riparian “buffer” required by Oregon law. The trees in this photo are less than ten feet from the edge of Latourell Creek, and most of what you see is actually growing on the opposite bank from the clearcut. Clearly, this practice threatens severe erosion and sediments from the logged area entering the stream in a region where rainfall amounts can reach 100 inches annually.

Clearcuts threaten more than steams and water quality, however. In the 1990s, the Oregon timber lobby was forced to accept limits on clearcutting above roads and dwellings because of a number of catastrophic slides that had been triggered around the state by the practice.

Yet, few limits on logging below developed roads exist, and in the case of the upper Latourell canyon clearcuts, the impact of logging on the slopes below the local roadways is real. In the following view, large trees have not only been recklessly cut from the slope below the road, but the remaining smaller trees and shrubs have been sprayed with herbicide — a routine treatment after clearcutting — and thus killing what was left of root systems that help hold the slope together. As the image indicates, there are already active slides along this slope, triggering road repair costs that will fall upon the public to fix, not the private land owner.

This photo (below) shows the slide repair in more detail — a 200-foot section of road that has already been filled and patched repeatedly, and now will likely continue to fail thanks to a slope that has been further destabilized by aggressive logging.

What’s the Solution?

For much of Oregon, the fate of clearcutting is an open question, with the timber lobby thus far successful in its efforts to prevent the practice from being outlawed. That’s a shame, and a sad commentary on our state politics. But in the case of Latourell Creek, there’s another option.

When the authors of the Columbia River National Scenic Area (CRNSA) were drawing up maps, they focused on scenery and what could be seen from points along the Columbia River. As a result, the scenic act ignored a crucial lesson learned from the newer national parks of the 1960s — most notoriously, Redwoods National Park — that when acquiring park lands, complete ecosystems and watersheds should define the boundaries.

A look at the CRNSA boundary in the Latourell Creek headwaters shows the problem: the upper watershed falls outside the scenic area, and thus is excluded as a place for meaningful regulation or public land acquisition.

Click here for a larger map

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. These lands should be added to the CRNSA, and managed holistically, with the health of the spectacular lower canyon in mind.

After all, Latourell Creek is the only major stream on the Oregon side of the Gorge to straddle the boundary, and thus a good case can be made for amending the CRNSA boundary to incorporate the complete watershed. This would allow for better regulation of private lands in the headwaters, at a minimum, and also allow for CRNSA land acquisition funds to be used here.

Upper Latourell Falls

Another argument in favor of expanding the CRNSA boundary is the convenience of Larch Mountain Road in defining the Latourell Creek watershed. This popular recreation route is already viewed as “part” of the scenic area, albeit outside the boundary in this section. Therefore, an expanded boundary would allow the full Larch Mountain Road corridor to be managed as an extension of the scenic area. This extent is reflected on the map, above.

What Would it Take?

Amending the CRNSA requires an act of Congress, and though it sounds daunting, minor changes to federal boundaries of this sort are common as “riders” on larger federal lands bills.

While better regulation of private lands in the upper Latourell watershed would surely come from an expanded CRNSA, the chief benefit would be the ability to acquire lands for restoration. Already, the Forest Service has acquired hundreds of acres of private elsewhere in the Gorge, and the upper reaches of Latourell Creek would be best protected by fully restoring the watershed.

Upper Latourell Falls

Yet another option could be for advocacy organizations — like the Friends of the Columbia Gorge or Trust for Public Lands — to acquire the upper watershed lands. However, these groups generally operate inside the existing CRNSA boundary, and focus limited funds on still-pristine lands or those with exceptional scenic value.

In the end, it seems that our best bet is for the Oregon Congressional delegation to consider a “housekeeping” update to the CRNSA, including boundary refinements. Perhaps a 20-year review of the CRNSA is in order in 2016?

Discovering Bald Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did the old tower look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visiting Bald Mountain

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

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

From Lolo Pass: The Classic Approach

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

Click here for a larger map

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

Lolo Pass to Bald Mountain Hike

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

From Top Spur: The Family Route

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

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

Click here for a larger map

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

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

Top Spur to Bald Mountain Hike

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

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