Big changes are coming to the Mirror Lake Trail on Mount Hood, perhaps the single most visited trail on the mountain. This is the second of three articles on the future of Mirror Lake, and the need for a broader vision to guide recreation in the area. This article focuses on the alternatives under consideration for a new trailhead.
It’s true. We’re about to lose the historic Mirror Lake trailhead along Highway 26. If you’re like me (and countless other Oregonians), you might have been introduced to hiking and the great outdoors along this classic family trail.
The visibility and convenience of the Mirror Lake trailhead, with its prominent location along the last bend of the Mount Hood Loop Highway as you approach Government Camp, is one of the main reasons this trail has functioned as a “gateway” for novice hikers, stopping at the first trail they see. The short hike to the lake has also made this trip friendly and fun for families with very young kids.
Until recently, the Mirror Lake Trail was also the perfect place to learn the sport of snowshoeing — until the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) closed the trailhead to winter parking in 2010, that is.
The 2010 winter closure foreshadowed the future, as ODOT always intended to close the trailhead entirely. Now, after years of back and forth with the Forest Service and an array of advocacy groups, and ODOT has won this battle. ODOT’s determination to morph our loop highway into an urban-style freeway came in the form of the $37 million widening project now underway (read more about there here: https://wyeastblog.org/2014/06/30/u-s-26-construction-begins/), and in the tradition of most state highway departments, it was an unstoppable force.
Planning the New Trailhead
Now that the Forest Service has agreed to relocate the trailhead, a little-known branch of the federal government known as the Western Federal Lands Highway Division is taking the lead on finding a new site on behalf of both ODOT and the Forest Service. The planning process kicked off in earnest on October 29 with a lightly attended open house at the Zigzag Ranger District, and the proposal details have since been added to the project website.
You may have seen other changes in the area. ODOT is midway through a major widening of the Mount Hood Highway that will bring a freeway-style concrete barrier to the entire Laurel Hill grade, from Government Camp all the way down to the Kiwanis Camp Road (the old highway section that leads to Little Zigzag Falls).
This means the historic trailheads at Laurel Hill and Mirror Lake will only be accessible from the eastbound highway. Portland area hikers leaving Mirror Lake would need to drive east to Government Camp and turn around to head west. Likewise, hikers coming from the east would need to drive to the bottom of the hill, and turn around at Kiwanis Camp Road to reach the Laurel Hill and Mirror Lake trailheads.
Given the implications of the new highway median, the Forest Service has conceded to move the trailhead, and not further explore options for keeping the historic trailhead open to general use. To help this effort, the Forest Service received a grant in 2014 that helped fund the analysis of different trailhead options.
The most promising of the various trailhead options under consideration from a logistics standpoint is simply using the Ski Bowl parking area (which, like the rest of the Ski Bowl land, is owned by the public with a long-term lease granted to Ski Bowl to operate here). Not surprisingly, the resort is concerned about sharing their highway access, and was present at the October 29 project open house.
Despite the resort’s concerns, the FHWA and Forest Service have nonetheless ruled out other possible sites (described later in this article), and are now focused solely on the Ski Bowl site with several design options under consideration. The following map shows the four options in relation to the Ski Bowl parking lot:
The preferred site has other complications. Much of the land here is within a protected stream buffer that follows Camp Creek. Government Camp’s sewage treatment facility is also located here (in the center of the map, above, and pictured below), and must be designed around for both security and aesthetic reasons.
The new trailhead project proposes about fifty parking spaces in the new parking area. That sounds small (and is), considering the crowds on a typical weekend at Mirror Lake, but that’s intentional. The Forest Service is looking to reduce the human impact on Mirror Lake, with a parking area sized to what they see as the optimal maximum for the area (more on this later in the article).
With the proposed new parking area and trail located adjacent to Ski Bowl, there is obviously a large existing parking area that will allow a lot more than 50 cars at trailhead in the off-season for the resort, so it’s unclear of limiting the number of spaces can really limit the number of hikers on the trail. The Ski Bowl resort’s concerns are mostly about winter use, when snowshoers and backcountry skiers could overflow to use the resort parking area and displace resort visitors.
The Forest Service and ODOT are proposing to plow the new trailhead parking area in winter and (presumably) add it to the SnoPark system, so this represents a big improvement over the current situation.
Since the ODOT winter closure of the existing trailhead was put in place, snowshoers have simply walked the shoulder of Highway 26 from Ski Bowl to gain access to the historic trailhead — a potentially dangerous (and rather scary) idea. Providing plowed winter access at the new trailhead should resolve this problem.
Another benefit of locating the new trailhead at the Ski Bowl site is proximity to Government Camp. The village has been working hard to become a year-round resort community with a network of new trails now surrounding the community. All four design options would create much better access to Mirror Lake and the surrounding wilderness area for Government Camp visitors and residents, albeit with a sketchy highway crossing.
Considering the Options
With the approximate site for the new trailhead already selected at Ski Bowl, the FHWA and the Forest Service are now concentrating on design options. The Ski Bowl site has many physical limitations, so the focus is on how to integrate the new trailhead with the various site constraints presented by the proximity to Ski Bowl, including the wastewater treatment plant and a 340-foot protected buffer along Camp Creek, itself.
The first design (Option 1) features a suburban style cul-de-sac that would double back from the west approach along Highway 26, running parallel to the highway:
This option would require a lot of tree removal as well as extensive fill under the turnaround portion. It would also extend into the protected buffer along Camp Creek. The turnaround is oversized for snowplows, but this design also creates a practical parking enforcement issue during the snow-free seasons, as hikers would almost certainly park in the turnaround during busy summer weekend.
The second design (Option 2) features a triangular loop tucked behind the wastewater treatment plant:
This design is an improvement over the first option because it allows for more efficient plowing and use of paved areas. The landscaped center area could even function as a useful place for a few picnic tables for waiting visitors meeting at the trailhead during the snow-free seasons.
The loop in Option 2 could also make it more efficient for law enforcement to patrol and for users to spot suspicious activity. However, like the first design, this option intrudes significantly into the 340-foot protected buffer along Camp Creek and would require removal of a fairly large number of trees.
The third design (Option 3) features a tighter loop that omits the landscaped center included in the second option:
Like the first two options, this version extends significantly into the protected buffer along Camp Creek and would require a fair amount of fill and tree removal. Like the second option, Option 3 makes efficient use of paved areas and the loop design would make for easier plowing and patrolling by law enforcement.
The fourth option is the “preferred” option by FHWA and the Forest Service:
This option is preferred mostly because it falls outside the protected 340-foot Camp Creek buffer. I walked the site with the Zigzag District Ranger in late 2014, and while it does make sense as the most compact design, it’s also an attempt to squeeze a lot into a very narrow, surprisingly steep strip of land between the treatment plant and highway.
While the mockup illustration (above) for Option 4 shows a few trees left between the parking area and treatment plant, in reality it would be difficult to achieve the amount of fill required to build the new parking area without removing all of the trees along the north edge of the treatment plant. Over time, this could be remedied with new tree plantings along the fill slope, but in the near term, visitors would enjoy a birds-eye view of the open settling ponds and the treatment plant operators may be concerned about this new level of public visibility.
Tree removal is a concern in all of the designs, as this area contains stands of Alaska cedar, a high-elevation cousin of Western red cedar found throughout the Government Camp area, but relatively uncommon in the Cascades.
All four options feature a very tight turning sequence for drivers arriving from the west, with a right turn into the shared driveway with the Ski Bowl resort, and almost immediately a second right turn into the trailhead parking. These turns create a blind corner for approaching traffic that probably warrants a deceleration lane along the highway — especially given ODOT’s determination to promote high-speed travel along the loop highway.
No Longer Considered…
The FHWA and Forest Service have already dropped some intriguing trailhead locations that I will briefly describe here. For context, the map below shows four of the five sites original sites (those located closest to Government Camp) considered — the four final design options now under consideration are all located at Site 2 on this map:
Site 1 is at the end of the Kiwanis Camp Road, which is really an original segment of the Mount Hood Loop Highway:
This site already serves as the trailhead for the Little Zigzag Falls trail and a closed section of the old highway leads to the Pioneer Bridle Trail. This site was dropped because of the added distance to reach Mirror Lake and the difficulty in creating a trail crossing over Highway 26 for hikers.
Site 2 is the Ski Bowl location where the previously described design options are still under study:
Sites 3 and 4 are located along another portion of the original Mount Hood Highway, opposite Site 2 and the Ski Bowl parking area:
The Glacier View snow park and trailhead is already located along this segment of old highway, and the concept behind both Sites 3 and 4 was to build a larger, shared snow park with a pedestrian bridge over Highway 26 to connect to the Mirror Lake trail. These sites were dropped because of the scale and complexity of spanning Highway 26 with a foot bridge, especially after the highway widening project greatly increased the width of the highway, itself.
Site 5 is located at a quarry at the foot of Laurel Hill, below a prominent rocky knob along the highway created by the road cut (and known as the “Map Curve” to ODOT):
While this site was dropped because of its distance from Mirror Lake, it nevertheless offers exciting opportunities as an alternative trailhead and the potential for a broader strategy to manage the heavy visitation to Mirror Lake. Part 3 of this series will explore the possibility of a larger trail network and more hiking options as a strategy for reducing the pressure on Mirror Lake in the long term.
Tragedy of the Commons?
As disappointing as it may be to lose the historic Mirror Lake trailhead, there are some clear environmental benefits that could be achieved.
First, the new trailhead will about a mile east of the historic trailhead, meaning a longer hike by about two miles, round trip. While this will make the trail less accessible to young families, it’s also true that the lake is showing serious damage from overuse. If the more distant trailhead discourages a few hikers, that could be a win for the lake.
As I have argued before on this blog, placing physical barriers to outdoor recreation is tragically short sighted if our goal as a society it to encourage people to be more active and to enjoy and take responsibility for our public lands. Thus, I favor other strategies for addressing heavy use on trails, including peak parking fees at the busiest trailheads.
Eventually, the Mount Hood National Forest will have to adopt a real parking strategy on some of its most heavily used sites, but the agency so far has not acknowledged that reality. Instead, its planners are viewing washed-out bridges (Ramona Falls) and trailhead closures (Mirror Lake) as helpful interventions to tame the masses. That’s a poor solution pretending to be a strategy.
Nonetheless, the Forest Service is clearly a long way from adopting a comprehensive trailhead parking policy at Mount Hood, so for Mirror Lake. Making the hike more difficult is probably the only near-term option if the number of hikers can actually be reduced, however short-sighted the approach.
Moving the Mirror Lake trailhead could also allow for a meaningful effort by ODOT and the Forest Service to protect Camp Creek from sediment and runoff pollution from Highway 26.
While ODOT is spending tens of millions to carve away solid rock slopes in order to widen the highway, no funds were set aside to improve stream protection for Camp Creek. The creek is home to protected salmon and steelhead, and eventually it flows into the Sandy River — one of the few spawning streams in the Columbia River system with no dams to block fish passage.
The Forest Service has indicated a commitment to decommission and restore the historic trailhead once the new trailhead has been constructed. That’s a good start, but it’s unclear whether channeling highway runoff away from Camp Creek is part of that plan.
Ideally, ODOT would construct a concrete curb to divert highway runoff for the entire 1-mile highway section that abuts Camp Creek, from the historic trailhead east to the Ski Bowl entrance.
The actual drainage design would more complex, as the amount of runoff here is clearly enough to erode dozens of rills into the shoulder and directly to Camp Creek, as shown in the photos above. But the removal of the Mirror Lake trailhead represents an opportunity for ODOT to show it cares about more than just moving ski traffic at slightly higher speeds.
The agency also has the funds to address highway runoff into Camp Creek as part of the current widening project, as all ODOT projects include hefty contingency set-asides for just this sort of unanticipated expense — as much as one third of the overall project budget is typically “contingency”.
How to Comment
If you love Mirror Lake or care about Camp Creek, it’s worth commenting on the trailhead relocation project, if only because precious few will take the time to do so. The FHWA, ODOT and Forest Service really do take public comments into consideration, especially when it brings new information to their decisions.
Here are two suggested areas to focus on your comments on:
What would you like to see in the preferred alternative (Option 4)?
Are you frustrated with the winter closure of the existing Mirror Lake trailhead? Be sure to mention this in your comments on the proposed new trailhead, as it will need to be design to be plowed and subsequently added to the Snow Park system to serve as a year-round trailhead.
Consider commenting on other trailhead amenities, as well, such as restrooms, secure bicycle parking, trash cans, drinking fountain, signage, picnic tables, a safe pedestrian crossing on Highway 26 for hikers coming from Government Camp or any other feature you’d like to see.
How would you like to see Camp Creek protected?
The project vaguely proposes to restore the existing shoulder parking area to some sort of natural condition. Consider commenting on how this restoration might work to benefit Camp Creek, which is now heavily affected by highway runoff and the impacts of parking here.
In particular, mention the need to divert highway runoff away from Camp Creek for the entire 1-mile stretch from the old trailhead to the Ski Bowl entrance. The proposed parking area restoration is the perfect opportunity to address the larger need to improve the watershed health.
You can comment to Seth Young at the Federal Highway Administration via e-mail or learn more about the project here:
Mirror Lake Trailhead Project Information:
Federal Highway Administration
Seth English-Young, Environmental Specialist
Western Federal Lands Highway Division
610 East Fifth Street
Vancouver, WA 98661-3801
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Thanks for helping guide the future of Mirror Lake!