Mount Hood National Forest (MHNF) recently completed a much-needed, $1.7 million overhaul of its dated Zigzag Ranger Station, the de-facto visitor gateway to Mount Hood. The new ranger station and visitor center not only provide a modern facility for forest visitors, it was also designed to compliment the rare collection of historic forest buildings that sprawl across the Zigzag campus, the entirety of which was listed on the National Historic Register in 1986. It’s a big step forward for Mount Hood.
Meanwhile, the Upper Sandy Guard Station, located just a few miles away near popular Ramona Falls, has fallen into serious disrepair, all but abandoned after years of neglect. The Upper Sandy Guard Station is also listed on the National Historic Register (in 2009), yet now is on the brink of collapse. Basic repairs would cost a fraction of what the Zigzag project cost, so why the disparity?
This is a two-part story about the two historic ranger stations, one reborn and the other about to die, and how this frustrating chain of events came to pass. And, most importantly, how the Upper Sandy Guard Station might still be saved.
No Welcome Mat?
Mount Hood has always lacked a truly functional visitor center. For years the 1960s-era Zigzag ranger station, with its cluttered, cramped public counter, served as the main stop for visitors new to the area. The old Mount Hood National Forest headquarters was actually worse, located in a rundown section of east Division Street in Gresham, next to mini-storage. It was hardly an inspiring “gateway” to Mount Hood.
A relatively new forest headquarters building was constructed in Sandy in the 1990s with a more aesthetic design the 1990s, but is awkwardly located in a suburban industrial park, where the public is discouraged from visiting the building. Few travelers even realize they are passing the building, though it is within plain view of the Mount Hood highway.
The new headquarters in Sandy was a missed opportunity to build a visitor gateway on a scale that reflects the millions who visit the mountain each year. Most regrettable was the decision to locate the building two miles from downtown Sandy, where it could have been easily found by visitors, but also would have complemented other visitor facilities there, and reinforced the tourism economy that is so important to the town of Sandy.
By the late 1990s, the Forest Service had formed a partnership with Clackamas County and the Mount Hood Chamber to open a new visitor facility in a vacant commercial space on the Mount Hood Village RV resort grounds, a few miles west of Zigzag. This odd arrangement operated into the mid-2000s, but was eventually closed due to county budget cuts. Relatively few visitors found their way to this location, anyway, so the closure mostly impacted hikers who had enjoyed the convenience of a public restroom.
After the RV resort experiment, the visitor gateway to Mount Hood reverted to an outdoor kiosk at the 1960s-era Zigzag Ranger Station. A portable toilet was added to the parking area to complete the outdoor facilities. This arrangement served as the main visitor experience until last summer, when the handsome new ranger station and visitor center opened.
The good news is that the original Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) era Zigzag Ranger Station also survives, along with nineteen other historic structures on the Zigzag site. To the credit of the MHNF, all of these structures have been well preserved over the decades for their historic significance at a time when historic forest service structure around the nation are rapidly fading away.
While the visitor gateway to Mount Hood bounced around over the past several decades, other national forests in the region were moving ahead with bold visitor centers that signaled a new focus on recreation. Notably, the Willamette National Forest built four expansive new ranger stations in the 2000s on far less travelled forest gateways than loop highway approach to Mount Hood, including a dramatic new Detroit Ranger Station (below), which opened in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Mount Hood National Forest limped along with the fading 1960s era Zigzag Ranger Station and a similarly dated and cramped Estacada Ranger Station. The Hood River Ranger Station is even worse, a leased space until recently, and little more than a portable building.
Perhaps a bit of intra-agency envy ensued, as the Mount Hood National Forest finally assembled funding in 2012 for a major upgrade to the Zigzag Ranger Station. Requests for construction bids were titled the “Mount Hood Scenic Byway Portal Project”, a fitting acknowledgement of the main focus of the building upgrade.
The New Zigzag Ranger Station
The new Zigzag Ranger Station (below) is tucked into the historic complex at Zigzag, east of the original ranger station and incorporating the 1960s era building. Though not as grandiose as the new gateway structures in nearby Willamette National Forest, the new Zigzag facility has an attractive, rustic design that complements the surrounding historic structures rather than overshadow them.
DKA Architecture of Seattle designed the project, which includes a remodel of the old 1960s structure with new additions that double the square footage of the facility. Payne Construction of Portland was selected from a competitive bid to build the new facility.
The new ranger station and visitor center has three main elements: (1) the indoor reception and visitors area, backed by administrative offices and conferences rooms, (2) an outdoor plaza and display gazebo and (3) separate public restrooms. The new ranger station structure is clad in clapboard siding and shingled gable roof, echoing the Cascadian architecture of the original 1935 structure.
HBB Landscape Architecture of Seattle designed the mostly rustic landscaping around the new structure. Modern touches to the landscape include a concrete, railed wheelchair ramp and sleek lighting bollards. The landscape design appropriately focuses on native plants, including sword fern, salal, Oregon grape, rhododendron and even some stonecrop tucked into a rock retaining wall, all just getting started, but well suited to thrive here.
The very modern public restroom is located across the small parking area from the new ranger station and visitor center. The proximity to US 26 and dramatic improvement over the portable toilets (yikes!) that used to be here will make these restrooms a popular stop along the loop highway – and hopefully inspire travelers to take a few minutes and explore the visitor center, as well.
The restroom exterior design has a nice touch: the traditional 1930s “open pine tree” logo is incorporated into the center gable post, a thoughtful nod to the collection of historic CCC buildings that surround the new facility. The restroom includes a single bicycle rack — minimal, but easy to expand over time, thanks to the spacious plaza in front of the restroom.
The informational kiosk in the plaza is still not complete (assuming there will eventually be information posted here!), which apparently inspired Zigzag staff to begin tacking fliers to the brand new siding near the front door with thumbtacks. That’s not how most of us would treat freshly painted siding on our homes, so it’s disappointing to see on such a beautiful new facility (not to mention that a nearly identical poster hangs two feet away, in the window on the main door).
Likewise, the Zigzag District staff has chained a cheap galvanized trashcan to the sleek new entry rails at the main entrance stairway — jarring against the handsome new architecture, and perhaps just a temporary solution. Hopefully, a permanent trash and recycling station is on order for the plaza area!
Another gap in an otherwise fine new design for the ranger station is the lack of benches and tables outside the visitor facility. It’s another detail that can easily be addressed, and perhaps was anticipated in the landscape design, as well. The new ranger station is a pleasant place to be, and visitors will want to spend time here.
Overall, the new Zigzag ranger station and visitors center is a very big step forward, and a welcome development for those discovering Mount Hood for the first time. While the $1.7 million price tag may seem steep to some, it’s a very reasonable expense for a facility of this scale — and especially given the context of some 2.6 million visitors pouring into the area each year. Hopefully, similar facilities will eventually be constructed at the Hood River and Clackamas gateways to Mount Hood, as well.
But for many, the substantial price tag for the new Zigzag ranger station raises another question: if we can afford to build a brand new station at Zigzag, why can’t we afford to simply stabilize the beautiful Upper Sandy Guard Station, which teeters on the brink of being lost forever?
Next: Part Two of this article looks at the fate of the Upper Sandy Guard Station