Archive for the ‘Sentinel Trees’ category

Horkelia Meadow… or is it Hackelia?

June 26, 2018
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Mount Hood from Horkelia Meadow

On the east side of Mount Hood lies a pretty mountain meadow that is visited by thousands each year, but known to very few. Right about now, this little meadow is in its peak summer bloom, thanks to a low snowpack this year. The place is Horkelia Meadow, a modest, subalpine gem in the Fire Forest country of the eastern Cascades.

If you’ve ever traveled Lookout Mountain Road to the High Prairie trailhead, you’ve passed right through Horkelia Meadow, though you can be forgiven for not being familiar with the name. Years ago, a Forest Service sign marked the spot, but only a discarded signpost remains today.

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Horkelia Meadow straddles popular Lookout Mountain Road

Horkelia Meadow marks an area where a layer of underlying volcanic rock forces the water table to the surface at the top of the steep western scarp of Lookout Mountain. The geology creates a number of springs in the vicinity, and at rolling Horkelia Meadow, the soils are just moist enough to keep the surrounding conifer forests at bay.

The resulting meadow is the perfect habitat for an array of wildflowers and wildlife. You’re likely to see elk and deer sign here, as well as raptors in the big trees that edge the meadow, preying on mice, voles and even the snowshoe hare that live here.

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Horkelia Meadow is located in the subalpine forests on the north slopes of Lookout Mountain

Among the earliest blooms of summer at Horkelia Meadow come from a wildflower commonly known as Jessica Sticktight, Blue Stickseedof simply Stickseed. These are showy flowers that line the borders of Horkelia meadow, along the forest margins.

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Blue Stickseed

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Blue Stickseed flower detail

The common name “Stickseed” is self-explanatory when you look at the seed pods that form after the bloom, with each fruit covered in sticky spikes (below). When they dry out in late summer, they’re well designed to hitch a ride on passing wildlife — or your hiking socks!

But what caught my eye after a recent visit to the meadow was the botanical name for Blue Stickseed: Hackelia micrantha.Surely, there must be a connection to the naming of Horkelia Meadow?

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Seed pod on Blue Stickseed (photo: California Native Plant Society)

After searching through a stack of wildflower guides and web resources, I learned that Horkelia fusca or Tawny Horkelia does, indeed, grow in the area. It has been spotted at nearby Bottle Prairie and Brooks Meadow, both located to the north of Horkelia Meadow and about 1,000 feet lower in elevation.

So, a return trip was in order to see if Horkelia fuscaactually grows at Horkelia Meadow. Sure enough, it’s scattered throughout the lower sections of the meadow, far from Lookoout Mountain Road. Where Blue Stickseed is abundant throughout the meadow, Tawny Horkelia is scattered about, sometimes in open forest along the meadow edges, sometimes in dry spots near the center of the lower meadow.

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Tawny Horkelia at its namesake meadow

Compared to the showy Blue Stickseed, Tawny Horkelia is a humble bystander in the meadow. These are modest little plants, happy to fill a niche in the ecosystem, but mostly noticeable to wildflower fans.

Therefore, my hunch is that a case of mistaken identity made its way onto Forest Service maps, as Hackelia micrantha— the Blue Stickseed — is lush and very prominent in the meadow during its bloom, and worthy of being its namesake. It’s also dominates along the heavily traveled upper meadow, where Lookout Mountain Road passes through, and where Tawny Horkelia doesn’t seem to grow.

Meanwhile, it also seems that Horkelia Meadow was named fairly recently. The original primitive road was built through the meadow in the 1930s as part of the Bennett Pass Road (see this article on the blog), but Forest Service maps suggest that the Horkelia Meadow was named sometime in the early 1970s.

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[Click here for large view]

This is when industrial logging and associated road building went into high gear in the Lookout Mountain area (see below), and the old dirt road to Lookout Mountain was rebuilt and graveled to handle log trucks. During this period, named landmarks were helpful for logging crews navigating the tangle of new roads. I think Horkelia Meadow was (mis)named for that very purpose.

Horkelia Meadow has a bouquet of wildflower species and is a fine spot for a casual ramble to explore its secrets — hidden in plain sight! In early summer the Blue Stickseed are joined by Larkspur sprinkled throughout the meadow. Later, Scarlet Gilia, yellow Buckwheat and blue Lupine take over in a second wave of flowers.

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Larkspur in early June at Horkelia Meadow

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Lupine just beginning to bloom in early June at Horkelia Meadow

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Scarlet Gilia in late June at Horkelia Meadow

In addition to the wildflowers, low thickets of Sticky Currant also grow on the meadow margins and along fallen trees that have dropped into the meadow (below). The summer berries on this species of currant are (as the name suggests) sticky and not edible, but the flowers put on an attractive show in early summer.

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Sticky currant at Horkelia Meadow

The summer wildflower show also extends into the shade of the forests that surround Horkelia Meadow, with lush carpets of Vanilla Leaf (below), white Anemone and other wildflowers more commonly found in the wet forests along the Cascade crest.

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Vanilla Leaf at Horkelia Meadow

Fire suppression in the 20th century combined with aggressive clear cutting by the Forest Service over the past four decades has disrupted much of the Fire Forest ecosystem on the east side of Mount Hood. In many areas, the result is a crowded thicket of true firs, replacing the fire-dependent species of Ponderosa pine, Western larch, Lodgepole pine and Douglas fir that used to dominate. This, in turn, has triggered a cycle of beetle infestations among the crowded, weakened fir forests across the mountains of Eastern Oregon, often followed by catastrophic fires that kill even the fire-dependent tree species.

The good news is that the Forest Service has begun thinning some of these unnatural forests in an effort to restore the Fire Forest structure, including the use of controlled burns in some areas (see “Fire Forests of the Cascades”) Over time, this could help restore the natural forest ecosystem.

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A walk around Horkelia Meadow shows remnants of the old Fire Forest cycle that once dominated the area, creating open, park-like forests under towering trees. If you look closely, you can even find a few traces (above) of the last forest fire to sweep through the area, decades ago, when the forests were much different than today.

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A trio of fire-dependent Western Larch along the east margins of Horkelia Meadow

Whether fire returns to the areas as a planned burn or natural event, the Fire Forest species are still here and ready to resume their role as the dominant trees of this ecosystem… if we will allow it.

Exploring Horkelia Meadow

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[Click here for a handy, large map to print for your tour!]

The old Fire Forest remnants scattered around Horkelia Meadow, some living and some standing as skeleton trees, provide easy landmarks for a tour. The starting point for exploring the meadow is the high point at the east end of the meadow, just off the Lookout Mountain road (from the recommended parking spot described at the end of the article, follow the road uphill for 100 yards).

At this upper end of Horkelia Meadow stands a gnarled, burly skeleton of what I call the “Big Bear Tree” (below), as it looks like it might be lumbering off into the woods, having lost his top. The low, dense branching on this ancient skeleton suggests this was an enormous Englemann spruce, a species that thrives in forests along the Cascade crest, especially along meadow margins. A living Englemann spurce can be found at the lower edge of of the main meadow, below.

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The “Big Bear” skeleton tree at the upper end of Horkelia Meadow

In early summer, the meadows around the “Big Bear Tree” are also filled with Blue Stickseed and Larkspur.

Heading downhill and across the road, pass a larch grove and head toward the bones of a very large, double-trunked Ponderosa pine (below). I call this old tree the “Patriarch” because it clearly ruled over Horkelia Meadow until fairly recently. Air photos show this giant still standing and alive in 2005, but toppled by 2010. The amount of bark left on the trunk is a good indicator of how recently this tree died.

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“Patriarch Tree” at the center of the meadow, a huge, double-trunked Ponderosa pine that has toppled within the last decade or so

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Newly toppled Patriarch Tree at Horkelia Meadow

Next, head downhill into the main meadow, located to the west and tucked away from the road, out of sight to passing travelers. Here, a large, multi-trunked Ponderosa Pine I call “The Flyswatter” towers over the scene at the north end of the meadow. This big snag is a favorite of raptors, especially owls, and is actually two snags, with the tall, single-trunked skeleton of what was likely a Grand fir wrapped in the bleached limbs of the old Ponderosa.

As you walk toward “The Flyswatter”, look for a couple of handsome Lodgepole pine growing along the east margin of the main meadow, another important species in Fire Forests.

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“The Flyswatter” skeleton tree and the lower part of Horkelia Meadow

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“The Flyswatter” tree skeleton

Just beyond “The Flyswatter” (and over a large, collapsed trunk you’ll need to navigate) is the mostly hidden northwest meadow. This pretty spot used to be guarded by another large Ponderosa pine that has long since become a skeleton, and now lies across the meadow. Based on air photos, it looks to have fallen sometime in the 1970s (below). I call this one the “Dragon Tail” tree (below).

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The “Dragon Tail” tree in the hidden northwest meadow

Returning to the main meadow, a pair of big Ponderosa pine come into view (below) at the top of the slope. I call these the “Odd Couple”, as one is a nearly perfect Ponderosa specimen, while its twin is anything but, with a twisted, leaning top and huge, gnarled branches. Both were once in the shadow of the massive “Patriarch Tree”, whose skeleton lies just a few yards away.

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The heart of Horkelia Meadow, with the “Odd Couple” to the left of center

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The “Odd Couple” at the center of Horkelia Meadow

The grassy, shaded landing between this pair of Ponderosa makes a nice spot to relax and enjoy the surrounding meadow. From here, you can appreciate the tortured life of the southernmost tree of the pair. The deep scar running down the west side of its trunk and deep wound at the base of the trunk suggest a lightning strike — a common cause of demise for big trees that grow in exposed places like Horkelia Meadow (below).

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Scarred trunk of the southernmost “Odd Couple” pair

Lightning may have taken out the nearby Patriarch Tree, too — seen here from the Odd Couple:

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The “Patriarch Tree” skeleton lies just beyond the “Odd Couple”

Look up into the tortured twin and you can see (below) that the main trunk is really a surviving limb that took over to replace the main trunk after the original top was destroyed — whether by lighting or simply a windstorm.

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The curvy, leaning top of the southern “Odd Couple” twin

The base of this old tree (below) shows another familiar trademark of big Ponderosa pine, a broad dome of “puzzle pieces” that have accumulated around the tree over the decades. These platforms of accumulated bark chips and pine needles give these handsome trees their park-like appearance, as if the meadow has been carefully trimmed around the tree.

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Ponderosa bark piled up to form an apron around this giant at Horkelia Meadow

Ponderosa don’t choose to be multi-trunked, but they can adapt this way when topped by weather or lightening. The extra load of lateral limbs adapting to become a replacement trunk results in some very impressive trees, with upturned limbs 18″ or more across emerging from the trunk of the twisting “Odd Couple” twin (below). Over time, though, these trees are still more prone to collapse than single-trunked trees from heavy snow accumulation or wind on their bulky branch structure.

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Heavy-duty limbs on the more gnarled of the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pair

The bark on Ponderosa pine is both fascinating and beautiful. The puzzle-like flakes (below) continually shed as the bark on the tree grows. The dark furrows in the bark form as the tree expands under its thick bark jacket, pulling it apart

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Bark detail on the more gnarled of the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pine

Ponderosa pine bark on a mature tree can be several inches thick, and this is the main defense against fire, a needed and necessary part of the Fire Forest ecosystem. The combination of protective bark and high crown allows the biggest trees to survive multiple fires and thrive to produce offspring after each successive burn. In this way, the recently fallen “Patriarch Tree” could easily be the parent of the “Odd Couple” and other big Ponderosa pine around Horkelia Meadow.

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Recent cones from the more gnarled twin of the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pine at Horkelia Meadow

The gnarled sibling in the “Odd Couple” has had a harder life that its twin, for sure, but it continues to generate cones and seeds (above). In the end, that’s all a Ponderosa Pine lives to do, no matter how funky its shape. Over time, the toughest, most resilient trees decide the future of the forest with their offspring.

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Old fire rings between the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pine trees

If you do find yourself having a snack or picnic under the “Odd Couple”, you won’t be the first. Nearly lost in a thick carpet of Ponderosa needles is a pair of old fire rings (above). How long since these were uses? Decades, perhaps? They could even date back to a time when herders brought sheep up from the Dufur Valley to graze the slopes of Lookout Mountain in the early 1900s, and have since been forgotten in this little meadow (and just in case, please leave them be as remnants from an earlier time).

So, where’s the mountain?

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Mount Hood from the lower south meadow

The upper and main meadows offer occasional peeks at the top of Mount Hood, but the best views are from the south meadows, located downslope from Lookout Mountain Road, beyond a curtain of trees. Here, the western scarp of Lookout Mountain begins to fall away quickly, with the south meadows perched above steep forested slopes, below.

To reach the hidden south meadows, head across the main meadow through a gap in the trees that is directly in line with the Odd Couple. Here, you’ll arrive at the top of the upper south meadow, and you can then meander downhill through another gap to the larger, lower south meadow. Mount Hood Views abound here, and the lower meadow is also a fine spot for a picnic.

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Bluegrass Ridge from the lower south meadow

The view from the lower south meadow also includes Blue Grass Ridge, which forms the eastern edge of the Mount Hood Wilderness. From here, you can see the traces of the 2006 Bluegrass Fire that burned most of the crest of Bluegrass Ridge, and the 2008 Gnarl Fire that burned the eastern slopes of Mount Hood all the way to Cloud Cap Inn, on the northwest horizon.

These recent burns are recovering quickly, with a bright green understory of Western larch, Lodgepole pine and White pine emerging under a ghost forest of bleached snags. While these were the first fires to burn the east slope of the mountain in more than a century, the landscape they left behind is what the area looked like before fire suppression in the 20th Century — a diverse mosaic of mature and recovering Fire Forests.

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Shark fishing in the south meadow… can you see “Jaws”?

There are a few more name-worthy skeleton trees along the way as you drop down to the lower south meadow. First, you’ll pass a bleached stump that I originally called “Jaws”, but then spotted a “fisherman” complete with a deep sea fishing rod just up the hill — and thus, “Shark Fishing” for this trio (above).

At the top of the lower meadow a pair of stout Ponderosa skeletons are the “Goal Posts” (perhaps because it’s World Cup season). The meadows just below the “Goal Posts” have an excellent mix of wildflowers right now, too, and are where the Scarlet Gilia were in bloom on my last visit.

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The Goal Posts in the lower south meadow

I know it’s a little silly to name all of these ghost trees, but hopefully it will help navigate the meadows if you choose to visit. It’s also a way for me to stop and appreciate the story each of these silent old patriarchs has to tell… and it’s just fun, too!

Horkelia Meadow at Work

I used to worry that fallen trees would eventually consume precious meadows with the accumulating debris, but it turns out that the meadows do just fine in consuming the trees, instead. One phenomenon you might notice as you explore Horkelia Meadow is log traces. These look like very straight trails, at first, but are really just places where fallen trees have nearly been absorbed into the meadow, and the grasses and wildflowers have all but covered what’s left of the fallen log.

There’s a prominent log trace in the upper south meadow that tells the story nicely. Fuzzy air photos from the mid-1990s (below) show a pair of fallen, bleached skeleton trees lying intact across the meadow. These trees could easily have stood as snags for decades after they died, but once on the ground, trees begin to decompose much more quickly.

Fifteen years later, in 2010, air photos show that the smaller of the two skeleton trees had really begun to fall apart, while the larger tree was mostly intact and still many of it’s bleached limbs.

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[Click here for a large view]

By last summer, however, air photos show the smaller tree had faded to a line of decaying wood in the meadow and the larger tree has lost most of its remaining limbs over the previous seven years. Today, the smaller tree has left just a trace in the meadow, and will soon completely disappear.

This cycle has played out countless times at Horkelia Meadow over the centuries, with many trees falling and fading into the meadow, each adding more valuable organic matter to the soil in the process. While new trees continue to emerge along the meadow margins, they’ll eventually suffer the same fate, too. The meadow is holding its own in this battle with the surrounding forest!

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Young Grand Fir growing where an old giant once stood

As you explore the lower south meadow, you may notice a lot of blowdown along the lower margins of the meadow. These trees weren’t brought down by old age or meadow moisture, but instead were victims of a late 1980s clearcut. The extent of the clearcut is obvious on the map at the top of the article, and as you can see, it is littered with blowdown.

The fallen trees in the clearcut all point uphill. That’s because the prevailing winds coming from the west pushed them that way after the surrounding forests were logging, leaving the remaining trees suddenly exposed them to the full brunt of winter storms. Some of these could have simply been left behind by loggers — perhaps they too small to bother cutting — and larger trees might have been left to reseed the clearcut. Most have since toppled.

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Heavy blowdown on the edges of the 1980s Horkelia clearcut

Other blowdown along the margins of the meadow occurred in areas where trees were clearly left standing as a failed “buffer” to protect the meadow — a common practice that has destroyed thousands of trees along similar clearcut margins throughout the Mount Hood area. And after thirty years, the clearcut is just beginning to recover from logging, yet another reminder that high elevation clearcuts in the Cascades were never a sustainable practice, and never should have happened. Let’s hope we’ve seen the end of it here.

If you walk through the old clearcut, you’ll also notice hundreds of what look like small, nylon mesh bags sprinkled about. These were used to protect new  seedlings when the clearcut was stocked with a new “plantation” of trees. It’s another failed effort, as most of these seedlings did not survive the harsh winters and dry summers here.

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Non-biodegradable seedling nets from the 1980s logging at Horkelia Meadow

Unfortunately, you will also notice these little mesh bags throughout the lower south meadow. Whether intentional or simply through sloppy incompetence, the Forest Service actually “replanted” a natural meadow when the adjacent clearcut was replanted. What were they thinking? Fortunately, all that survives are the dozens of nylon bags, and the meadow remains intact and thriving today.

If you’re looking for a community service, scout troop or other group project and want to help Horkelia Meadow out, I suspect the Forest Service would give you the okay to retrieve these bags from the meadow. Unfortunately, they are not biodegradable, so will be there until they are removed. They’re held down by metal stakes, but can be pulled out by hand if you wear a pair of heavy gloves. Give the Hood River Ranger District a call if you’re up for the task!

How to get there…

Horkelia Meadow is easy to visit, and makes for a nice add-on to your trip to Lookout Mountain or other hikes in the area. It’s best visited in morning or evening, as the southwest exposure is often hot during the summer. You can walk the margins of the meadow in under an hour and gain a nice appreciation of flora, large and small, of this lesser-known spot.

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All that’s left of the old Horkelia Meadow sign is this old signpost

To find the meadow, follow paved Forest Road 44 about 3.5 miles from the Highway 35 junction, toward Dufur. Just beyond the busy Surveyors Ridge Trailhead (on the left), watch for the poorly signed Lookout Mountain (Road 4410), on the right. Horkelia Meadow straddles this dusty, sometimes bumpy gravel road 1.3 miles from the Forest Road 44 junction.

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Park at the marked Forest Road 140 spur

I recommend parking at the junction with primitive road 140, on the left as just as you reach Horkelia Meadow. There’s room to park here without impacting the meadow wildflowers, but be sure you don’t blog the spur road.

To tour the meadow, walk up the road to the upper end, watching for the “Big Bear” skeleton on the left, then use the map at the top of this article to find your way.

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Botany class exploring Horkelia Meadow

To help protect the area, please follow these basic rules of meadow etiquette when exploring, as there is no developed trail at Horkelia Meadow:

  • Hose or brush off boots before every hike to help slow the spread of invasive species, especially when hiking off-trail
  • Don’t gather flowers, seeds or anything else in the meadows — “take only memories (and photos) and leave only footprints”
  • Don’t step on flowering plants, step between them
  • Try not to follow faint paths you might encounter in the meadows — while they are likely deer or elk trails, repeated walking on them could make them permanent
  • No fires, dogs, loud voices or drones (aargh!) that might disturb the wildlife and other visitors when venturing off-trail, especially in meadows

You’ll undoubtedly have the place to yourself — but if you should see a car parked along the road, consider stopping another time for your visit.

Thanks, and enjoy Horkelia Meadow! Or is it Hackelia Meadow…?

2018 Mount Hood National Park Calendar!

December 24, 2017
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Mount Hood’s imposing west face is featured on the cover

[click here for a large image]

Each year since the Mount Hood National Park Campaign began in 2004, I’ve published a wall calendar to celebrate the many reasons why Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge should be our next national park. You can pick up this year’s calendar here:

2018 Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar

The monthly layout remains the same as last year, with a classic “grid” design that serves nicely as a working calendar for kitchens or offices. The finished calendar hangs 14 inches wide by 22 inches tall, with a white wire binding, and the print quality of the photos is excellent!

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In the past I’ve used calendar sales help cover some of the modest costs of keeping the campaign website and WyEast blog up and running, but beginning this year I will shift to sending all proceeds to Trailkeepers of Oregon, and in turn, TKO’s coming efforts to help recover our Columbia River Gorge trails from the impacts of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.

The great thing about putting these calendars together is that it ensures I continue exploring new places in the gorge and on the mountain, as each calendar consists exclusively of photos I’ve taken over the previous year. In this year’s calendar article, I’ll provide some of the stories behind the photos in the new Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar — sort of a visual year-in-review!

The WyEast Year in Images

The following is a rundown of the 12 images inside the calendar by month, with a link to a large version of each image, too (you can see them by clicking the link beneath each preview image).

The 2018 calendar begins with the cover image (at the top of the article), featuring the steep Sandy Headwall on Mount Hood’s imposing west face. This is the view Portlanders have of their mountain from afar, but a close-up look from along the Timberline Trail reveals the crevassed Sandy and Reid glaciers tumbling down the slopes and the deep Muddy Fork canyon, almost directly below. This is Mount Hood’s “tallest” side, with a vertical rise of more than 7,000 feet from the Muddy Fork valley floor to the 11,250-foot summit.

The January image in the new calendar features a chilly Cold Spring Creek on Mount Hood’s east slope:

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Cold Spring Creek in Winter

[click here for a large image]

Only a few years ago, the snowshoe hike along Cold Spring Creek to Tamanawas Falls was completely off the radar for most, but in recent years its popularity has soared, and the trailhead is now packed on winter weekends.

One twist this year was a Forest Service noticed tacked up at the trailhead:

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Hmm…

As it turned out, what apparently was a difficult rock fall to negotiate over the summer was much easier to travel with a couple feet of snow covering the debris. The rocks fell in a section of canyon just below the falls that experienced an enormous cliff collapse in the early 2000s, and continues to be active.

For February, I selected a photo from a near-perfect winter day in the upper White River Canyon, along the popular Boy Scout Ridge snowshoe route:

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Upper White River Canyon

[click here for a large image]

The day began with clear blue skies, which is glorious, of course, but not so great for photography. After reaching a favorite viewpoint in the upper canyon, though, bands of clouds began floating in, making for some memorable scenes of a cloud-framed mountain. The photo below was taken on the way out that day, as evening shadows began to stretch across the lower canyon.

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White River and Mount Hood

[click here for a large image]

As covered in previous articles, fire in the Columbia River Gorge is as much a part of the ecology as the trees, themselves. But if you had told me the extent of the Eagle Creek Fire last spring, I wouldn’t have believed you.

For hikers, it’s almost like the Eagle Creek Fire was connecting dots among favorite Columbia River Gorge beauty spots, with only a few of the iconic waterfalls that make the Oregon side of the Gorge famous escaping the flames. So, even knowing and accepting that fire is a necessary and beneficial part of the ecosystem still doesn’t blunt the harsh reality that this fire felt personal. And it’s going to take awhile to heal.

As the fire raged west toward Portland last September, my immediate thought was Tanner Creek, the next drainage to the west of Eagle Creek and directly in the path of the inferno. If I had to pick a spot that embodies almost everything that defines the Columbia River Gorge, Tanner Creek’s lower canyon is it, culminating with spectacular Wahclella Falls.

This canyon is as fine a temple as nature can create, and it’s a sanctuary I visit many times each year. This is my most treasured place in the Gorge… and now I wondered “Would it burn?”

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Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek

[click here for a large image]

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Waterfall enthusiasts visiting the altar at Wahclella Falls last spring

I didn’t know the answer to that question until a week or two ago, when I came upon some aerial photos of the Gorge taken sometime this fall. My scientific acceptance — embrace, in fact — of fire in our forests aside, I was selfishly relieved to see that the deep gorge surrounding Wahclella Falls had somehow been missed by the fire. Or had simply resisted it.

This photo shows Wahclella Falls and its iconic grove of Western Red Cedar mostly intact, though much of the surrounding Tanner Creek canyon was severely burned:

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Wahclella Falls after the fire

Wahclella Falls is at the bottom of the photo, and Tanner Creek’s lesser-known upper gorge and the string of waterfalls that continue above Wahclella Falls can also be seen in this view. This is a place where I hope to see a trail, someday. Maybe in the destruction of the forest we’ll see new trails to places like this, where we take in new sights while also watching our Gorge recover?

For the March image, I selected another Gorge waterfall. This is the last in a string of waterfalls on Moffett Creek, located immediately to the west of Tanner, Creek. This falls is generally known as Moffett Creek Falls or simply Moffett Falls:

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Moffett Falls

 [click here for a large image]

This waterfall is off-trail, and requires walking a mile or so up the streambed of Moffett Creek to reach it. I first visited this falls in the early 1980s, and have returned several times over the years. Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a massive rock fall occurred here, and completely changed the landscape below the falls and the canyon slopes to the west.

Before the fire, the scene was already one of recovering forests, with young groves of Red Alder flanking the falls and lining the rearranged creek for 100 yards downstream. The Eagle Creek fire was just the most recent calamity to sweep through this spot, and such is the dynamic, often cataclysmic nature of the Columbia River Gorge.

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Snowdrifts on Moffett Creek in mid-April!

Our trip last April was complicated by an extremely late snowpack, following a very wet and snowy winter in the Gorge. The canyon, itself, was a tangle of downfall from the harsh winter, making it a rough trip compared to previous years.

How did the fire affect Moffett Falls? Much more significantly than Wahclella Falls, on nearby Tanner Creek. Like Tanner Creek, Moffett Creek is located just west of Eagle Creek and was in the direct path of the fire during its most explosive, early phase. As this aerial photo taken sometime this fall shows, the entire forest around Moffett Falls appears to have been killed by the flames:

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Someday, I hope to see a trail to Moffett Creek’s waterfalls, too. Who knows, maybe the changes wrought by the fire will allow the Forest Service to consider that possibility? It turns out this idea isn’t new, at all. In fact, it was proposed in January 1916, when the brand new (now historic) Columbia River Highway was about to open:

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Excerpt from The Oregonian (January 30, 1916)

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Map excerpt from The Oregonian showing the proposed Moffett Creek Trail (January 30, 1916)

More about that trail concept, and the need for a long-term trail plan for the Gorge in a future article…!

Did you know that today’s Silver Creek State Park has been proposed to become a national monument or park at least a couple of times in the past? It makes sense, given the spectacular concentration of waterfalls within this beautiful preserve, and especially with the legacy of trails and lodges left by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during their 1930s heyday. Many believe it to be a national park or monument today!

With this in mind, I selected a scene from a May visit to Silver Creek’s North Fork as a reminder that there are more than simply the show-stopper waterfalls to this amazing place:

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North Fork Silver Creek

[click here for a large image]

While our current regime in Washington D.C. is more focused on tearing away protections from our public in order to sell our resources off to corporate interests at bargain prices, it’s also true that the exploitation/conservation pendulum in our country swings both ways.

In some ways, the outrageous anti-environment, anti-science and anti-public lands extremism we’re seeing with the Trump administration has already kicked off a counter-movement. It can’t come soon enough, and hopefully you’ve joined in the opposition, too.

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Misty Silver Creek Forest

Someday, when the pendulum does swing, Silver Creek would make an excellent unit of a future Mount Hood National Park. Why? Because the current park contains just a small slice of Silver Creek’s larger ecosystem, and today’s beautiful scenes of waterfalls and mossy glades are increasingly threatened by upstream development and industrial-scale logging. Watch for a future article on this topic, too!

While on the subject of threatened places, the June image in the 2018 calendar captures another such spot on the other side of Mount Hood: Bald Butte, located along the east wall of the Hood River Valley:

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Mount Hood in late May from Bald Butte’s sprawling meadows

[click here for a large image]

This lovely butte rises directly above the Hood River Ranger Station, so close that Forest Service workers can enjoy the expansive wildflower spectacle from their offices, about a mile-and-a-half away as the crow flies, and some 2,200 vertical feet below.

You’d think being at the Forest Service’s front door would give pause to those who view our public lands as their personal playground to destroy. But Hood River County has a lot of off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts, and some in that community make a point of illegally driving their jeeps, quads and dirt bikes up the fragile slopes of Bald Butte — despite prominent signage prohibiting their use and periodic efforts to block them.

This is an ongoing battle with rogues that will someday be won, but it will take the OHV community policing itself to make the change happen. There will never be enough Forest Service crews to fill that void.

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Growing OHV damage to Bald Butte

How bad it is? Well, the old lookout track that serves as the hikers trail to the summit has become deeply rutted by illegal jeep and motorcycle users, which in turn, has inspired them to form parallel tracks on the open wildflower slopes (above). It will take decades for the damage to recover, even if the law breakers were stopped today.

Meanwhile, dirt bikers have hauled in chainsaws in order to carve new trails through the forests on the east slopes of Bald Butte. It’s not a pretty picture, and so far, nobody in the OHV community seems to be stepping up to confront the lawlessness.

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Dirt bike tracks don’t lie…

The Forest Service has indicated an interest to work with trail organizations (like TKO) to step up the efforts to keep OHV vandals out of Bald Butte, but in the meantime, they’re doing a lot of damage — which, in turn, is a black eye for anyone who enjoys using OHVs responsibly. Let’s hope they will join in the effort to protect Bald Butte, too.

For more about Bald Butte, and comparison photos that show the rapid progression of the OHV damage there, please see this earlier article on the blog – you can read it here.

For the July calendar image, I picked this 3-part composite of the Muddy Fork and Mount Hood. Look closely and you can see the series of towering waterfalls that drop from the hanging valleys on Yocum Ridge, in upper right. This is one of Mount Hood’s most rugged and untamed spots:

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Mount Hood’s Muddy Fork canyon

[click here for a large image]

Though we had a decent snowpack in the Cascades in 2017, it melted fast when summer arrived, and many trails on Mount Hood’s west slopes were opening by late June. So, when college friends David and Robin, from Colorado, called to say they would be in Portland and wanted to spend a day on the mountain, the hike to the Muddy Fork Crossing was the perfect choice!

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Old friends and The Mountain

It turned out to be a bluebird day, but what I found most interesting as we caught up on our parallel lives was their reaction to being in Pacific Northwest alpine country, again. Though David grew up here, he still marveled at the magnificence of our forests, especially the huge Noble fir groves we passed through, and Robin was especially taken with the amount of water, everywhere!

It was a timely reminder for me to never take our unique ecosystems for granted. Colorado has more big peaks than most any state of the country, but we are unique in our abundance or water and the verdant landscape it brings, from our rainforests, streams and lakes to the glaciers that hang from our peaks.

As we head into the uncertainty of climate change in coming decades, we’ll need to learn to view these seemingly abundant resources as precious and threatened, and no longer something to take for granted.

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Finally!

Another surprise along the hike was a new sign — finally! — marking the well-trod “cut off” that shortcuts the Timberline Trail where Bald Mountain (not to be confused with Bald Butte) meets McGee Ridge. I’m sure there was some official slight-of-hand required for the Forest Service to post this junction, as it is simply a user trail, and thus unsanctioned. But it’s a good call that will help hikers better negotiate the maze of trails in this area.

For August, I selected a photo from a favorite meadow perched along a ridge I call the White River Rim. A fragile island of Whitebark Pine, Mountain Hemlock and Subalpine Fir groves grow here, hemmed in on both sides by deep, perpetually eroding canyons of loose sand and boulder.

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Lupine fields on the White River Rim

[click here for a large image]

To the east of the rim is a maze of deep ravines that make up the White River Canyon. As the White River continues to cut into the loose volcanic slopes, here, whole sections of the ridge-top forests and wildflower meadows perched on the rim slide into the canyon.

The Salmon River is gradually eroding the rim from the west, as well, though less voraciously than the White River. In some spots, the flat ridge top is just a few feet wide, and losing ground fast. This is one of the most dynamic areas on the mountain.

The image below is also from along the rim above the White River, looking south and away from the mountain. This view captures the skeleton of a magnificent Mountain Hemlock and its still-surviving grove companions:

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Sentinel Whitepark Pine on the White River Rim

[click here for a large image]

Mountain Hemlock often growth in tight, circular groves, and I suspect botanists will someday discover that these groves communicate in some way as part of their collective strategy for survival, just as Douglas Fir are now known to communicate. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard summed it us this way:

“I wondered, could Douglas fir recognize its own kin, like mama grizzly and her cub? So we set about an experiment, and we grew mother trees with kin and stranger’s seedlings. And it turns out they do recognize their kin. 

“Mother trees colonize their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings.

“So we’ve used isotope tracing to trace carbon moving from an injured mother tree down her trunk into the mycorrhizal network and into her neighboring seedlings, not only carbon but also defense signals. And these two compounds have increased the resistance of those seedlings to future stresses. So trees talk.”

Botanists once viewed a dying or dead tree in a grove like this as one whose biomass had grown too large to support in drought periods, but could another explanation be that the larger tree simply opted to turn over the future of the grove to its younger siblings? We still have so much to learn from our forests…

The September image in the new calendar captures an intersection of three threads of good fortune: an afternoon away form work to visit the mountain, clear weather after an early autumn snowstorm and moonrise over Illumination Saddle, the narrow ridge that connect Illumination Rock to the main summit ridges of Mount Hood.

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Moonrise over Illumination Saddle

[click here for a large image]

Time off from work on a clear autumn day was by design, but the moonrise was pure luck. While there are web tools for figuring out celestial paths from any point on the ground, I do confess that I’m not likely to use them. I simply sat at a favorite spot on the summit of Bald Mountain (not Bald Butte!) for an hour or so, waiting for the sunset, and was suddenly treated to the moon emerging over the saddle as an unexpected surprise!

So, why not use the modern tools? Partly, it just seems like a chore in what should be an enjoyable hobby. But I’d also be turning what was a wonderful surprise into one more thing to worry about — and that’s not why I head into the woods, after all. There’s something to be said for turning over the keys to Mother Nature, right?

And on that point, perhaps the best memory from that cold evening on Bald Mountain last fall was watching the sun set through the trees on the hike back down through the ancient Noble Fir forest.

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Winter sunset in the Noble forest

This grove of 300-year old giants somehow escaped the chainsaws when the Clear Fork valley, below, was logged in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It remains as a rare reminder of what used to be — and what will be again, if we allow it.

For the October image, fall colors were in order, and with the Gorge trails mostly closed by the Eagle Creek Fire, I headed south to Butte Creek, located just north of Silver Falls State Park in the Santiam State Forest. I picked a serene scene along the creek…

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Butte Creek in autumn

[click here for a large image]

…though this peaceful spot is just 100 yards or so above Butte Creek Falls, which was raging that day, after a series of Pacific fronts had rolled through.

Butte Creek Falls is among my favorites, anywhere, and I’ve included it in past calendars. So, thus the quieter stream scene for 2018, but here’s a look at the high water at the falls that day:

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Butte Creek Falls

[click here for a large image]

Even more than nearby Silver Falls State Park, the Butte Creek canyon (and its twin, Abiqua Creek, just over the ridge) is in desperate need of a better management vision, and would make for an excellent extension of a future Mount Hood National Park. More about that in a future article, as well..!

Though I’ve hiked the short loop trail at Butte Creek many times, the fire in the Gorge had forest ecology and the role of fire in my mind on this visit, and noticed a small army of “legacy trees” throughout the rainforest here.

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The skeletons of Butte Creek’s “legacy trees” are hiding in plain sight

These ancient stumps and snags are from the last big fire to come through the area are called “legacy trees” for the benefits they bring from the old forest to the new. This area likely burned more than a century ago, yet the skeletons of the old forest still serve a crucial role in the health of the new forest.

As they slowly decay, old snags and stumps provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, and once fallen, they become “nurse logs”, upon which new trees grow. They also provide nutrients to the precious mountain soil as they decay — something a log hauled off to become lumber or cardboard can never do.

For November in the new calendar, I selected an image from the upper Hood River Valley, with Mount Hood rising above fields owned by a family that has continuously farmed the valley since the 1800s. On this day in late October, the Cottonwood grove at the center of the photo was in peak form, and the fresh coat of snow on the mountain was softened by a light haze in the air from farmers burning orchard trimmings.

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Upper Hood River Valley in autumn

[click here for a large image]

But this wasn’t my first attempt at the photo! As shown below, I’d stopped here a couple of weeks earlier, after another early snowfall had blanketed the mountain. At that point, the Cottonwoods were still in their summer green, but what a different two weeks makes! I’ve cropped images from both visits identically for comparison:

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Hood River Valley scene in mid-October…

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…and two weeks later!

Notice how much sharper the mountain was on the earlier visit? It could have been wind conditions sweeping away smoke from orchard fires that day, or perhaps the burning season hadn’t begun, yet? Nonetheless, I liked the depth created by the haze in the second view, too.

For the December image, I picked this view of Tamanawas Falls on Cold Spring Creek, captured the same day as the opening photo of the creek in the January image. This is always a magical spot, but I’ll share a couple of details about the trip that made the day memorable.

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Tamanawas Falls on Cold Spring Creek

[click here for a large image]

First, it’s always an icebox in Cold Spring Canyon in winter. Why? Because the low sun angle in winter months can’t reach the canyon floor due to the steep terrain in all directions. So, while the above image looks like it was taken on an overcast day, the view straight up was of a bright blue sky.

The image below shows the cliff section where the recent rock fall occurred, and you can see that the trees on the canyon rim are basking in sun and have shed much of their snow.

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Sunshine above, icebox below…

For slow shutter speed waterfall photographers (like me), this icebox canyon effect means a perpetually cold canyon in winter, but also very good photo conditions. There is one exception to the shady icebox, and that’s when the sun very briefly finds its way through the upper canyon of Cold Spring Creek and lights up the top of the falls for a few minutes. Here’s what that looked like on a trip in 2015:

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Patience pays if you want to catch the winter sunburst at Tamanawas Falls!

The other story behind this photo is found in the following image. The black metal wand is actually part of a tripod leg (and possibly a piece of my pride, too) that snapped off when I took a fairly long, unscheduled slide down the ice-covered slopes near the falls that day.

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Winter gear, somewhat intact…

My mistake was trying to get a little too close for a different angle on the falls, and my humility was only magnified by the fact that a young snowshoeing family watched the whole thing unfold in front of them. As I pretended to calmly fold up my mangled tripod as if it were all a planned event, I overheard their young son say to his parents “Woah! Did you see that man crash and burn??” Yes, I’m afraid everyone did..!

The Zazzle calendar format I’ve been using for the past couple of years also offer a back page, so I’ve continued to use that for wildflower photos that otherwise wouldn’t make it into the calendar.

From the top left for the 2018 calendar, reading right, they are Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Mariposa Lily, Oregon Sunshine, Bicolor Triteleia, Paintbrush, Lupine, Tiger Lily, Larkspur and Bleeding Heart:

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[click here for a large image]

That’s it for the 2018 calendar, but what about the photos I couldn’t fit in..?

One that didn’t make it…

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Elk Cove on Mount Hood’s north side

[click here for a large image]

I’ve made at least one trip to Elk Cove every summer for as long as I can remember, and have a particular spot that I always shoot from (though I also try new spots each year, too!). It’s a favorite scene, but has also been in many calendars in past years, so Elk Cove is taking the year off from the 2018 calendar.

But worse, it seemed like bad luck to use this photo, given the somewhat scary tumble I took on the way back to the trailhead later that day.

It began with staying too late on the mountain for that gorgeous early evening light, then getting waylaid on the way down the Vista Ridge Trail trail by (more!) plump huckleberries. I filled another water bottle, then hoofed it at high speed in the growing darkness, hoping to avoid digging that annoying headlamp out of my pack.

That was my final error. Just 3/4 mile from the trailhead, where the Vista Ridge Trail crosses a rocky, dusty section in the Dollar Lake Burn, I tripped on a particularly sneaky rock and went airborne, crashing into the base of a bleached snag. Fortunately for my head, I had put my arm out ahead of me in the fall. Unfortunately for my arm, it took the brunt of the blow.

It hurt a LOT, and I just laid there for a moment, trying to figure out if I was seriously hurt. Nope, all parts seemed to be functioning… except better my better judgment, of course!

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Ridiculous… but functional!

What followed was a frantic search, first for my tripod (which I had hurled into the ravine below the trail during the fall), then in my pack for my headlamp (where WAS it?) as my right forearm ballooned up to alarming dimensions. Then came a very long 3/4 mile down the trail to the car.

Once there, I was further chagrined to see that I was, in fact, the last person on the trail that day… more humble pie on the menu! Fortunately, I wasn’t more seriously injured in the fall, or worse, knocked unconscious. Gulp. I ran through a list of the emergency supplies I keep in my pack in my mind…

Meanwhile, my bloated arm was now turning purple, so I turned an extra boot sock into a makeshift wrap and packed a couple of ice bricks from the cooler. I feared a broken arm — after all, I’d broken this arm twice as a kid (don’t ask). The long drive down the mountain was “interesting” without the benefit of an opposing thumb on my sore arm, and I let out a big sigh of relief when I finally arrived at home later that night.

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The radiologist remarked on my unusually curvy bones, courtesy a pair of childhood breaks… but no break this time!

X-rays a few days later confirmed that I just had a very deep bruise (to both forearm AND pride, it turns out), and several weeks of alternating hot and cold packs followed as things gradually got back to normal.

But MORE importantly, I was able to return to the scene of the crash a couple weeks after the event and recover my tripod — yes, the tripod I purchased to replace the one I smashed at Tamanawas Falls!

Here are a couple of schematics that tell the embarrassing story:

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The scene of the crash…

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…and my poor tripod!

The Elk Cove trip was my most painful fiasco of 2017, but not the only one over the past summer. The other would belong to…

…an epic eclipse fiasco!

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Recon data for the eclipse!

You may have heard: we experience a total eclipse in WyEast Country last August! I thought long and hard about setting up camp somewhere south of Mount Hood, in the path of totality, but having taken just one day off work, decided to avoid the predicted crowds and traffic jams (which did happen!)

Instead, I set up at my beloved Owl Point, on the north edge of the Mount Hood wilderness, and just outside the path of totality (as shown in the map, above). I’m not sure what I expected, but I came prepared with two cameras and two tripods (below) to document the scene at five-minute intervals. I left home at 5 AM and was on the trail by 7:30, anticipating great things!

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Dual camera setup, weird light underway

It did turn out to be a memorable experience, but certainly not the beautiful spectacle I had imagined.

First, the strange light during the eclipse was not really pleasant — more just weird and eerie. It made sense to me later, that simply blocking out the sun mid-day would create a cast more like what we see when there’s heavy forest fire smoke in the atmosphere — harsh reddish-yellow — as opposed to the soft colors we see at sunset, when the sun’s rays are filtered through a lot more atmosphere.

I also learned what the scientists had been telling us: that even with near totality, the sun is blindingly powerful, so from this point just outside the path of totality, it was more “dimmed” than “dark” outside. That said, the birds did go quiet, as advertised. That part was surprisingly creepy.

While I plunked away at intervals with my big cameras, I also captured a few with my phone — including this panorama as totality approached. An eerie scene, yes, but what really jumped out is that I also captured the image of the sun in the lens reflections. I’ve enlarged a section, below:

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Just short of totality… note the blue dots!

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Close-up of blue dots reveals the to be reflections of the eclipse in the camera lens!

The following views capture the scene just before and during totality from Owl Point:

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The view from Owl Point just before totality… weird!

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The view from Owl Point at totality… kinda creepy!

What I found most interesting (beyond the weird colors) is that I could see the far side of the path of totality over the west shoulder of the mountain during totality. That gave me the best sense of what the event was all about, and I was glad to have experienced it, though it was definitely not what I was expecting. Just a very interesting experience.

On the way out that day in August, I took the opportunity to pick a water bottle full of plump huckleberries, and also some time to reflect on my place in the universe. I had lost a close family member in July, and a day alone on the mountain was just what I needed to sort out my feelings and replay some good memories in my mind.

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Tasty consolation prize!

The mountains are great for that sort of thing, and we’re so lucky to live in a place where we have that luxury right in our backyard.

And the huckleberries? They were converted into tasty muffins the next day!

Looking ahead to 2018

I’m looking forward to posting a few more articles in the coming year than has been my recent pace. There’s a lot to cover on the WyEast beat, and I’ll be refocusing my volunteer efforts a bit more on advocacy this year, including this blog.

The Eagle Creek recovery effort will be a recurring theme, of course. There is so much to learn from the fire, and there are many crucial choices ahead for land management, too. In particular, I’ll be weighing in on a few topics that I think our non-profit advocates have a blind spot for, or perhaps are shying away from.

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The author at Abiqua Falls a week or so ago…

Most importantly, I’ll spend as much time as I can out in WyEast Country, exploring, documenting and celebrating our precious public lands. As always, thanks for reading the blog, and I hope to see you out there, too!

See you on the trail in 2018!

Tom Kloster

WyEast Blog

Owl Point Sentinel Tree

July 31, 2017
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Mount Hood from Owl Point in October 2006

Just over a decade has passed since I first visited Owl Point, a spectacular rocky viewpoint along the Old Vista Ridge Trail, on Mount Hood’s north side. At the time, the trail had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect, but it has since rebounded thanks to volunteers pitching in.

Since that first visit, I’ve been to Owl Point every year to admire and photograph the dramatic view of Mount Hood and enjoy the relative solitude, compared to many other places on the mountain. I’ve watched the landscape change, sometimes dramatically, as was the case with the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire that swept the north side of Mount Hood. But I’ve also watched more subtle changes as the details of this beautiful spot become ever more familiar.

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The author at Owl Point in 2008 (Photo: Andy Prahl)

One of those more subtle features is a craggy Noble Fir perched among the boulders on the exposed south flank of Owl Point. This old survivor can be seen in the far left of one of the first photos I shot in 2006 (at the top of the article) and in the photo, above, taken in 2008 by trail volunteer Andy Prahl.

If you’ve followed this blog over the years, you’ve seen earlier articles about “sentinel trees”. These are trees that seem to defy the odds and elements in their size, grandeur or simple tenacity in finding a way to survive. This tree certainly qualifies.

From an aesthetic perspective, the old Noble Fir at Owl Point is a gift for photographers, adding testimony to the rugged, often harsh conditions found there. The old tree also adds a nice visual balance and interest to the scene. So, in this way the Owl Point sentinel tree has become an old friend to this photographer.

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Owl Point in July 2011, with the old Noble Fir on the left – just days before the Dollar Lake Fire

In 2011, I visited Owl Point just a few days before the catastrophic Dollar Lake Fire swept across the north slopes of Mount Hood, burning 6,300 acres of subalpine wilderness. The photo above is among the last that I captured of the once-green forests on the mountain before the fire changed the landscape.

Though the fire burned for more than two months that summer, Owl Point and the Old Vista Ridge Trail were somehow spared and the craggy old Noble Fir sentinel tree at Old Point lived on.

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The Dollar Lake Fire in 2011

After the fire, Owl Point served as one of the best places to absorb the full scope of the Dollar Lake Fire, with nearly the entire extent of the burn visible from there. While the brown swath of scorched trees was jarring to look at, it was also a reminder that fire is a regular and necessary visitor to our forests.

The forests we lost to the fire have since given us a new window into how new forests emerge from the ashes, a process as old as the forests, themselves.

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Browned slopes of Mount Hood one year after the fire in 2012

The old Noble Fir sentinel tree at Owl Point had witnessed fire before the Dollar Lake Fire, and from a much closer vantage point. Sometime in the early 1900s, a similarly large fire swept across the high country north of Mount Hood, scorching Owl Point and thousands of acres in the surrounding area.

This 1952 photo (below) shows the forest recovery from this earlier fire at Owl Point just getting underway, decades after the burn. In fact, the area is still in recovery today, a century after the fire.

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Early 1900s burn that swept across Owl Point (Courtesy: Hood River History Museum)

The view from 1952 is an inverse scene from what we see today, with a scorched foreground and lush, green slopes on Mount Hood. These contrasting images over time area a reminder of the fire cycles that are as natural to the area as rain and wind.

A closer look at the 1952 photo reveals several trees that survived the older fire, thanks to their isolation in the open talus fields below Owl Point:

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These trees on the talus slopes of Owl Point survived the earlier fire

One of these fortunate survivors is the sentinel tree at Owl Point that we know today. Though only 30-40 feet tall, it could easily be a century or more old, stunted by the harsh conditions on the talus slope.

While the old Noble Fir at Owl Point appears to have dodged a couple of forest fires in its lifetime, the tree began to show signs of stress in 2012, the year after the Dollar Lake Fire. Foliage (below) from some of its lower limbs began to drop, suggesting the beginning of its decline.

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Owl Point sentinel tree in 2012, one year after the Dollar Lake Fire

By 2014 (below), the signs of stress were more ominous, and it was clear that the old sentinel tree was losing its battle to survive the elements at Owl Point.

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Owl Point sentinel tree in 2014

After the snowpack melted off in 2016, the situation for the old tree had become dire as it struggled to maintain the remaining foliage in its crown (below), a sign that the tree might not survive the season.

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Stress claims the crown of the Owl Point sentinel tree in 2016

But a closer look (below) this summer at the dying tree tells a different story. While the exposed upper portion of the tree has clearly lost its battle, a fringe of healthy new foliage is thriving around the base of the tree. It turns out that while the Owl Point Noble Fir has lost its main trunk, it is still very much alive.

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Owl Point sentinel tree finally succumbs to the elements in 2017

An even closer look at the base of the old tree (below) shows the secret of “krummholz”, the name for stunted trees that survive in harsh alpine environments. Trees like this Noble Fir adapt to their conditions by producing new leaders from their lowest branches to replace dying or broken tops.

These new leaders on Noble Fir growing as krummholz often form dense mats of foliage at the base of a tree, low enough to be protected by winter snowpack from the harshest weather conditions. This is clearly the case for the Owl Point sentinel tree.

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A new beginning for the Owl Point Noble Fir…

The classic example of a krummholz in Mount Hood country is the Whitebark Pine, a tree that thrives above 5,000 feet, often gnarled beyond imagination by the elements. The example below shows the skeleton of an ancient Whitebark Pine (on Lookout Mountain), surrounded by new leaders that have merged from limbs flattened to the ground by winter snowpack.

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Ancient Whitebark Pine krummholz on Lookout Mountain

While winter conditions regularly shear off new growth that pokes above the snowpack on a krummholz, a rapidly growing new trunk like the one emerging at the base of the Owl Point sentinel tree can eventually survive and grow to replace the older tree. This is clearly a slow process, and one that I won’t likely be around to witness!

But in the near-term, photographers like me will be able to watch the dying trunk of the Owl Point sentinel tree gradually weathering to become a dramatic sun-bleached snag that will be photogenic in its own right. And, as the new leader continues to rise from the base of the old trunk, this striking old tree will continue tell a powerful story of survival.

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You can visit Owl Point and see its sentinel Noble Fir by following the 4-mile round trip Old Vista Ridge hike from the Vista Ridge Trailhead. The hike is described here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.

 

Meet the (Northwest) Maples!

May 31, 2016
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The author hanging out with a few Bigleaf Maple giants

Fair or not, we’re not really known for our native maple trees here in the Pacific Northwest. And while we can’t compete with the fall color spectacle of New England’s sprawling maple forests, our trio of native maples have (arguably) a lot more personality!

For example, our massive Bigleaf Maple is the largest maple species in the world, dwarfing anything found in New England forests in scale and grandeur. Likewise, the diminutive Vine Maple is prized as an ornamental for its graceful beauty and dependable fall color. Lesser known is our Douglas Maple, a close cousin of the Vine Maple, but with a personality all its own.

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Comparison of the three Northwest maple species

This article is brief introduction to our native maples, and tips for identifying them on the trail next time you’re out exploring our Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.

Bigleaf Maple (Acer macroplyllum)

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Bigleaf Maple grove forming a green awning over Tanner Creek

Bigleaf Maple can grow to 100 feet tall and 50 feet wide, towering over most other broadleaf trees in Northwest forests. These are high-octane maples: young trees can grow 5-6 feet per year, and stumps from cut or fallen trees typically sprout dozens of new shoots that often grow to become impressive, multi-stemmed trees.

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Bigleaf Maple

As their name suggests, Bigleaf Maple have leaves that can grow to as much as 12” across, and are commonly up to 8” wide. If you have young kids, you’ve undoubtedly brought them home by the handful as souvenirs, as their sheer size is irresistible to young hikers.

In spring, Bigleaf Maple are covered with clusters of yellow-green blossoms that mature to become fuzzy “samaras”, the familiar winged seeds that float through the air when they ripen, like tiny helicopters. In fall, their leaves turn to bright yellow and light orange, depending on exposure. Their bark is rough and becomes deeply furrowed with age.

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Bigleaf Maple in autumn

Bigleaf Maple like moist soils with good drainage, so you’ll find them along canyon floors and lower-elevation mountain slopes from the Cascades west to the Pacific. However, you can sometimes spot them in the arid eastern end of the Columbia Gorge, growing along the shady north side of cliffs or in slot canyons protected from the harsh desert climate.

In their preferred west side rainforests, mature Bigleaf Maple are usually draped with a thick layer of moss, which in turn creates the perfect habitat for Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), a species that gets its name from the licorice-flavored rhizomes it uses to ramble over rocks and up mossy tree trunks.

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Moss-draped Bigleaf Maple with Licorice Fern

Bigleaf Maple aren’t commonly planted as urban trees, in part because of their ultimate size and huge root systems can overwhelm a small garden and lift patios and sidewalks. But you can find them in many urban parks where they have more room to spread out. Though their main commercial value comes as firewood, woodworkers also value burled wood from mature maples.

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The author (with his better half) circa 1993 with the world’s largest Bigleaf Maple. This giant stood near Jewell Oregon until it fell to a storm in March 2011

The largest Bigleaf Maple in the world stood near the elk refuge at Jewell, Oregon until just a few years ago. This massive tree was estimated to be 200 years old with a trunk measured at 12 feet in diameter! A Pacific storm in March 2011 toppled this gnarled patriarch. Another giant in Marion County has since assumed the title of largest in the world.

Vine Maple (Acer circinatum)

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Vine Maple sprawling in front of Ponytail Falls

Vine Maple is easy to love. These graceful little trees are as tough as they are adaptable, happily growing as a sprawling “vine” in the shade of deep forests and as a dense, stocky shrub in full sun. In Cascade rainforest environments, Vine Maple can dominate the understory, forming an impressive thicket for off-trail explorers to navigate.

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Vine Maple

These little trees rarely exceed 20 feet in height, and usually form multiple sprawling trunks as they mature. Their leaves are small – just 2-4” in diameter, with 5-9 lobes (most often 7 lobes).

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Vine Maple in autumn

In fall, forest-dwelling Vine Maple take on a bright yellow color, while those growing in full sun take on dazzling shades of crimson and orange.

Like their Bigleaf cousins, Vine Maple reproduce with winged samaras, though in their deep forest habitat, they usually spread by simply sprawling and rooting where their contorted stems touch the ground. Their bark is bright green in shade and tan or yellow-green in full sun.

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Vine Maple samaras

Vine Maple have roughly the same range in the Pacific Northwest as Bigleaf Maple, favoring moist mountain canyons and slopes. This puts Vine Maple square in the path of industrial logging, but if there is a tree that can cope with the timber industry, this is it.

Vine Maple not only survive clear cutting operations, they often survive the destructive mass herbicide treatments still used by the timber industry to destroy all native vegetation prior to planting a monoculture conifer seedlings on logged-off land.

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Though Weyerhauser Inc. did its corporate best to kill anything that survived their logging operations in this clearcut with the practice of post-logging herbicide treatments, this Vine Maple is cheerfully pushing up a thicket of new shoots from the base of its poisoned trunk

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A closer view of this tough Vine Maple reveals new shoots sprouting from a limb burned and cracked by heavy application of post-logging industrial herbicides

Vine Maple are a perfect native species for urban gardens in the Pacific Northwest, thriving on neglect and adaptable to sun or shade. As a result, they are readily available in commercial nurseries, but you can also collect them from most public lands for non-commercial use with a permit. The best time to dig is early spring, before buds break, so it pays to learn how to identify them by their stems before you dig.

Douglas Maple (Acer glabrum)

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Douglas Maple

The least known of the Northwest maples, the Douglas Maple (sometimes called the Rocky Mountain Maple) is quite similar to the Vine Maple. While the two share the same range from the Cascades west to the Pacific, Douglas Maple is more likely to inhabit drier sites on mountain slopes and talus margins. Its range also extends to the Blue Mountains and Northern Rockies.

Douglas Maple are more upright in form than Vine Maple, growing to 20 feet in a spreading vase shape. Their leaves are small, just 2-5” wide with 3 lobes, and noticeably serrated compared to Vine Maple. These are key features in distinguishing the two, as these species often grow right next to each other in their native habitat. Douglas Maple bark is also like Vine Maple, light green becoming tan as trees age.

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Three lobes, serrated (or “serrate”) leaf edges and bright red stems help distinguish Douglas Maple from its cousin, the Vine Maple

Like its maple cousins, the Douglas Maple also reproduces with winged samaras. In fall, their leaves take on brilliant shades of yellow, red and orange that rival Vine Maple for showiness.

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Douglas Maple in autumn

Though uncommon as a urban tree, Douglas Maple are just as adaptable as Vine Maple to city gardens. Because they are rarely found in commercial nurseries, collecting them from public lands with a permit is the best option.

Where to See Them?

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Winter is a great time to see Bigleaf Maple, when bare branches reveal their gnarled, moss-blanketed form. This winter scene is along Tanner Creek in the Columbia Gorge.

You can see magnificent Bigleaf Maple stands in the Columbia Gorge along most of the popular streamside trails, though some of the best can be found along the Latourell Falls loop trail and the popular Eagle Creek trail. The loop trail at Silver Creek State Park near Silverton is also famous for its Bigleaf Maple stands and impressive shows of fall color.

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Vine Maple thrive in the understory of tall conifer stands like this in the Columbia River Gorge

Vine Maple can be seen on most any trail in the Gorge or on Mount Hood, but for fall color, it’s hard to beat the view of Mount Hood from the Lost Lake loop trail, framed with brilliant Vine Maple. The Ramona Falls loop on the west side of Mount Hood has beautiful stream scenes frames by Vine Maple.

Though its range extends to the Pacific, Douglas Maple is most prominent on the east slopes of the Cascades, including most trails in the eastern Columbia Gorge from Starvation Creek to Mosier. The Tamanawas Falls trail at the eastern foot of Mount Hood has especially abundant stands, with excellent fall color shows in early October.

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Bigleaf Maple in autumn along McCord Creek in the Columbia River Gorge.

For a trifecta hike that includes all three of our native maple species along a single trail, try the Elowah Falls hike, where magnificent Bigleaf Maple line McCord Creek, Vine Maple fill the understory under tall conifer stands and Douglas Maple grow from the rocky slopes high above Elowah Falls.

All of these hikes can be found in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide. Enjoy!

Mount Hood’s Ancient Whitebarks

August 2, 2013
Ancient Whitebark pine on Gnarl Ridge

Ancient Whitebark pine on Gnarl Ridge

If you have spent much time in Mount Hood’s alpine country, you probably already recognize the Whitebark pine. This rugged cousin to our more common Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines thrives where no other trees can, braving subzero winters and hot, dry summers at the upper extreme of timberline.

Ancient Whitebark pine grove on Lookout Mountain

Ancient Whitebark pine grove on Lookout Mountain

Whitebark pine is easy to identify on Mount Hood. True to their name, they have white bark on younger limbs, and their typically gnarled, picturesque forum is iconic in our Cascade Mountain landscape. These slow-growing patriarchs often live to 500 years or more, with some trees known to survive for more than 1,000 years.

In protected stands below the tree line, they can grow 60-70 feet tall (around Cloud Cap Inn), while in open areas, they creep along the ground, forming a “krummholz” — a low mat of branches stunted by the elements (famously, on Gnarl Ridge, which draws its name from the ancient Whitebarks that grow there).

Whitebark pines have limber branches to withstand the elements

Whitebark pines have limber branches to withstand the elements

Up close, Whitebark pine can be identified by its needles, with five per bundle (compared to two for Lodgepole and three for Ponderosa pine). Whitebark cones don’t open when dry, yet are hardly ever found intact. That’s because of the unique, mutual relationship these trees have with a bird called Clark’s nutcracker, named for William Clark, co-captain of the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery expedition.

Clark’s nutcracker subsists almost entirely on the large, nutritious seeds hidden in Whitebark cones. These birds have evolved with an ability to crack the cones and store the seeds in buried caches, for later consumption. The Whitebark pine, in turn, is almost completely dependent on these birds for reproduction, when young seedlings sprout from seeds cached by the nutcracker.

Clark's Nutcracker at Crater Lake (Wikimedia)

Clark’s Nutcracker at Crater Lake (Wikimedia)

In this way, the Whitebark pine is considered by scientists to be a “keystone” species at the center of a broad, highly dependent web of life. In addition to its co-mutual relationship with Clark’s nutcracker, Whitebarks also support other high-elevation species, serving as “islands” of life in otherwise barren alpine zones. These islands shelter mammals, birds and insects migrating through alpine areas and serve as permanent habitat for many mountain plant and animal species.

Whitebark pine seeds serve as a direct food source for several other species in addition to Clark’s nutcracker. The seeds are large and high in fat, and at least 12 species of birds are known to feed on them. The seeds are also a primary good source for ground squirrels living in alpine zones, where they store large quantities of seed in “middens”.

Surprisingly, Whitebark seeds are also an important food source for black bear and the grizzly bear, with both bear species raiding the middens of ground squirrels. For grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area, Whitebark pine seeds are considered so important in the their diet that the long-term viability of the bear population is linked to the survival of the Whitebark.

A Species in Trouble

Sadly, the Whitebark pine is in deep trouble. The triple threat of (1) an exotic fungal disease known as white pine blister rust, (2) mass infestations of mountain pine beetle and (3) the effects of fire suppression have weakened and killed millions of these trees across Mountain West.

Blister rust (boundary shown in red) has affected almost all Whitebark pine range (green) in North America

Blister rust (boundary shown in red) has affected almost all Whitebark pine range (green) in North America

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) estimated in 2007 that 800,000 acres of Whitebarks have been lost across the west, an startling statistic given the small, rare alpine habitat that these trees need to survive.

Global warming may turn out to be the nail in the coffin for this venerable species, as less hardy tree species continue to crowd and compete for space in areas once habitable only by the Whitebark pine.

Massive Whitebark pine die-off in Yellowstone (USFWS)

Massive Whitebark pine die-off in Yellowstone (USFWS)

Several efforts to save the species are underway. In July 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that the Whitebark pine needed federal protection and that without it, the tree would soon be extinct within as few as two to three generations. However, the tree has not been formally listed in the United States as endangered, due to federal agency funding constraints.

In June 2012, the Canadian federal government declared Whitebark pine endangered, making it the first tree species to be declared endangered in Western Canada.

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The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation is a science-based, non-profit organization that exists to conserve and restore the Whitebark pine, but their efforts are dependent on support from the public in making the survival of this species a priority with our land management agencies.

Conservation efforts for the Whitebark focus on harvesting seeds from trees that seem to have a natural resistance to white pine blister rust and restoring the role of fire in forest management. Both strategies will require the full engagement of our federal land agencies, and thus the need for a non-profit like the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation to press the issue in our utterly dysfunctional national government. Please consider supporting them!

Lookout Mountain Sentinels

One of the best places to view ancient Whitebark pine up close is along the crest of Lookout Mountain, located due east of Mount Hood. Like most Whitebark stands around Mount Hood, the trees on Lookout Mountain are in decline, yet hundreds have (so far) survived the triple threat facing the species.

A large stand of Whitebark pine just below the main summit of Lookout Mountain provides a stark example of the die-off that is affecting the species. As shown in the photos below (1983 and 2008), scores of trees in this stand have died in recent years:

Healthy stands of Whitebark pine thrived on the south slope of Lookout Mountain in 1983

Healthy stands of Whitebark pine thrived on the south slope of Lookout Mountain in 1983

Over the past decade, almost the entire stand of Whitebark pine on the south slope has died

Over the past decade, almost the entire stand of Whitebark pine on the south slope has died

The Lookout Mountain grove is on the hot, dry south slope of the peak, so the trees here are clearly stressed by the environment, even without the blister rust and beetle attacks now affecting the species.

On the more protected east slope of the main summit, a remarkable group of ancient Whitebark pine (pictured below) is soldiering on, though some of the oldest sentinels in this group now seem to be fading fast.

Whitebark patriarch near the summit of Lookout Mountain beginning to show stress in 2002

Whitebark patriarch near the summit of Lookout Mountain beginning to show stress in 2002

By 2013, only one of the ancient tree's five trunks is still alive, though healthy younger trees are growing nearby

By 2013, only one of the ancient tree’s five trunks is still alive, though healthy younger trees are growing nearby

Some of the trees in the eastern group are truly ancient. Several were cut in 1930, when a road was built to the summit and a lookout tower constructed. Amazingly, the bleached stumps of these old trees still survive, more than 80 years later.

One of these stumps measuring about a foot across still shows its growth rings, showing that it was 280 years old when it was cut in 1930! This means the tree started life on Lookout Mountain in 1650, twenty years before the Hudson Bay Company was formed under a charter from King Charles II. This tree was already 174 years by the time Dr. John McLoughlin established his Hudson Bay Company outpost at Fort Vancouver, in 1824, and more than 200 years old before tiny Portland, Oregon was incorporated in 1851.

A particularly ancient patriarch in this grove (shown in the photo pairs above and below) grows due east of the summit, along the Divide Trail. This old survivor appears to be the oldest Whitebark pine on Lookout Mountain. While it’s age is unknown, the diameter of its multiple trunks substantially exceeds that of the nearby cut trees, so this ancient sentinel could be 300-500 years old, or more.

A profile view of the patriarch tree in 2002 shows health growth on the eastern trunk (center)

A profile view of the patriarch tree in 2002 shows health growth on the eastern trunk (center)

This profile view from 2013 shows significant dieback on the eastern trunk over the past decade (center)

This profile view from 2013 shows significant dieback on the eastern trunk over the past decade (center)

Sadly, this old veteran is fading fast, with only one living trunk surviving as of this summer. Even as the old tree succumbs to the elements, it continues to serve as a fascinating, beautiful testament to the struggle that Whitebark pines face in their preferred habitat.

A closer look at the old tree (below) shows five sprawling trunks, each more than a foot in diameter. This old survivor looks a bit like a huge, grey octopus (complete with two weathered eyes, looking back at you!).

At its center, the patriarch Whitebark sprawls like an octopus, with five major trunks, each more than a foot in diameter

At its center, the patriarch Whitebark sprawls like an octopus, with five major trunks, each more than a foot in diameter

Ancient Whitebarks at this elevation are typically a twisted tangle of living and dead trunks, and in the case of the Lookout Mountain patriarch tree, only the north and east of the five main trunks survive.

As the photos that follow illustrate, the north trunk may have seen its last summer this year, as its remaining needles suddenly died back as of early July. The surviving east trunk is in better shape, with several green boughs, but its needles obviously lack the vigor of nearby, younger Whitebarks. Clearly, the old giant is in its final years of living after centuries on this unforgiving mountain slope.

A rusty remnant from the days when a lookout tower stood on the mountain hangs on one of the living limbs of the patriarch Whitebark pine

A rusty remnant from the days when a lookout tower stood on the mountain hangs on one of the living limbs of the patriarch Whitebark pine

The bleached bones where the patriarch tree has died back can survive for decades in the arid alpine climate of Lookout Mountain

The bleached bones where the patriarch tree has died back can survive for decades in the arid alpine climate of Lookout Mountain

Yellowing needles on the remaining (east) living trunk of the patriarch Whitebark spell trouble for this old tree

Yellowing needles on the remaining (east) living trunk of the patriarch Whitebark spell trouble for this old tree

This view shows the north trunk of the Patriarch tree, thriving as recently as 2002, but now reduced to a thicket of dead shoots

This view shows the north trunk of the Patriarch tree, thriving as recently as 2002, but now reduced to a thicket of dead shoots

After centuries of growth, this dying cluster of limbs on the north trunk of the patriarch Whitebark marks the last sign of life on this trunk of the old tree, a startling reminder of how quickly our Whitebark pine forests are fading

After centuries of growth, this dying cluster of limbs on the north trunk of the patriarch Whitebark marks the last sign of life on this trunk of the old tree, a startling reminder of how quickly our Whitebark pine forests are fading

As discouraging as the plight of the Whitebark pine might be, the efforts by our federal land agencies and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation provide at least a shot at saving the species — and the complex alpine ecosystem that it anchors.

The saga of the American bison provides some encouragement. The species numbered 60 million prior to western expansion, but was decimated to an estimated 541 animals before protection and restoration efforts began in earnest. Today, about 500,000 bison are known to exist, with about 15,000 restored as wild herds. Hopefully, a similar success story for the Whitebark pine will be recounted by future generations, thanks to our current efforts to save the tree.

Exploring Lookout Mountain

The loop hike to Lookout Mountain from High Prairie makes a fine summer outing for families. The full loop covers just 3.2 miles and climbs about 550 feet, and the sweeping summit views provide a big payoff for the moderate effort.

Though the trail is usually snow-free from late June through mid-October, the hike is best in late July and early August, long enough after snowmelt to be mostly bug-free, but early enough to enjoy some of the wildflowers that summer brings to the mountain.

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(click here for a large, printable map)

The best way to hike the loop is to start with the west leg. This is a rustic trail that immediately heads to the right from the High Prairie trailhead, gently climbing through beautiful meadows and open forests. Stay straight where boot paths appear from both sides at about 0.8 miles, and soon reach the first dramatic view along the hike: Mount Hood, framed by a brick-red slope of volcanic cinders and spires.

Red cinders frame Mount Hood from the east leg of the Lookout Mountain loop

Red cinders frame Mount Hood from the east leg of the Lookout Mountain loop

At about 1.3 miles, the west leg meets the Gumjuwac Trail on the south slope of Lookout Mountain. Turn left here, and soon reach the west summit of Lookout Mountain, with a commanding view of Mount Hood and the East Fork Hood River valley, more than 3,000 feet below.

The flat rock outcrops here make for a nice destination in their own right, but to see the old Whitebark pines, you’ll want to continue the hike. The trail now turns east, and follows the summit crest of Lookout Mountain, with several dramatic viewpoints and interesting rock outcrops along the way. A number of Whitebark pine also line the trail, though these trees are protected enough to be in an upright form. The views from the crest are into the winding canyons of the Badger Creek valley, to the south.

Mount Hood from the west summit of Lookout Mountain

Mount Hood from the west summit of Lookout Mountain

The summit crest traverse continues for about 0.3 miles before reaching the old lookout road in a saddle below the main summit. To reach the top, go right (uphill) on the old road and pass through one of the decimated Whitebark stands as you near the main summit of Lookout Mountain. You will reach the summit about 0.2 miles from the saddle, where you can see the crumbing foundations of the 1930 lookout structure and nearby garage.

From the summit, views extend far into the high deserts of Eastern Oregon, south to Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters and north to Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams. Mount Hood dominates the western skyline. A bit closer are the meadows of High Prairie, where you started your hike, and the tiny lookout tower atop Flag Point, to the east. Badger Lake can also be seen nestled in the forested wilderness to the south.

The view east from the summit of Lookout Mountain

The view east from the summit of Lookout Mountain

To complete the east leg of the loop, simply follow the old lookout road back to the trailhead, passing through handsome mountain hemlock forests and the upper meadows of High Prairie along the way.

To visit the patriarch Whitebark pine described in this article, watch for the Divide Trail on your left as you descend from the top — just a few hundred feet from the summit. The patriarch tree is on the left, just a few yards down the Divide Trail. Use care around the tree so that future generations can enjoy its beauty — whether still living or as a bleached reminder of what once was.
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Directions to High Prairie

To reach the trailhead at High Prairie, follow Highway 35 from Hood River (or Government Camp) to the Forest Road 44 junction, where signs point to Dufur and Camp Baldwin. Drive 3.8 miles on this paved road and watch for a poorly signed, gravel Road 4410 on the right. Follow this dusty collection of washboards and potholes for 4.5 miles to High Prairie, turning right at a T-intersection in the meadow to drive the final 200 yards to the trailhead.

A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park here. Pit toilets are provided. Carry water, as no reliable sources are found on this hike.

The Ancient Rowena Oak

May 27, 2013
The Rowena Oak

The Rowena Oak

Somewhere under the heading of “hidden in plain sight” is a remarkable Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) growing just a few yards from the Historic Columbia River Highway, near Rowena Crest. I stumbled across this old sentinel a few weeks ago while exploring the sprawling fields of arrowleaf balsamroot that Rowena is known for.

The venerable Rowena oak is not a particularly graceful tree: you won’t find it in coffee table books or on postcards. Though the gnarled trunks of these slow-growing trees are often living works of art, the Rowena oak is as much a battered monument to simple survival as it is a living sculpture. But it’s well worth a visit for anyone who loves ancient trees, and makes for a unique stop for those exploring the old highway.

Dry Canyon Bridge and McCall Point from Rowena Plateau

Dry Canyon Bridge and McCall Point from Rowena Plateau

The tree is located in a most unlikely spot, near the brink of craggy Dry Canyon, a Missoula Flood feature that is part of the Rowena Dell canyon complex.

The sheer canyon walls are a reminder that the oaks surviving the harsh Rowena climate are anchored in a very thin layer of soil, atop hundreds of feet of layered basalt. This semi-desert ecosystem has an average of just 14 inches of rain per year, with hot, dry summers and freezing winters, and our infamous Gorge winds ready to strike up at any time, year-round.

The fact that Oregon white oaks can live to be hundreds of years old in this environment is truly remarkable. Part of their secret lies in a large taproot that not only anchors the trees in this windy, hostile environment, but also provides trees access to deep groundwater stored in the layers of basalt bedrock. The main taproot in these trees is complemented by a strong lateral root system, giving our native oaks an especially impressive root structure compared to most other tree species.

Dry Canyon and Rowena Dell from the highway bridge

Dry Canyon and Rowena Dell from the highway bridge

Despite these challenges, the oak trees of the dry savannah found at Rowena are thriving, and even the ancient sentinels in these groves are blooming and producing acorns with each spring.

The Rowena Oak grows just a few yards from the historic Dry Canyon bridge, and was clearly here to witness the construction Samuel Lancaster’s Historic Columbia River Highway and Conde McCullough’s iconic highway bridge over the rocky gorge in 1921. The old tree probably stood witness to first railroads being built in the late 1800s, as well — and the rise and fall of the salmon canning industry that swept through the Gorge toward the end of the 1800s.

The Rowena Oak with the Dry Canyon Bridge in the background

The Rowena Oak with the Dry Canyon Bridge in the background

In fact, at roughly two feet in diameter, the Rowena Oak could easily pre-date the arrival of Europeans in this part of North America. An Oregon State University (OSU) study of similar Oregon white oak habitat in Southern Oregon found that trees greater than 15″ in diameter were consistently 200 years or more years in age. The oldest oak in the OSU study was a whopping 429 years old, truly a testament to survival.

The huge, cascading Rowena Oak hangs into the protected niche of Dry Canyon

The huge, cascading Rowena Oak hangs into the protected niche of Dry Canyon

The arid climate at Rowena may be tough on trees, but it also helps preserve the life history of the old giants as they gradually succumb to the elements. Their broken tops and limbs are often preserved exactly where they fell decades ago, as mute testimony to the years of hardship these ancient trees have endured.

The Rowena oak is a great example, as it is surrounded by its own debris from decades of the ice storms, relentless winds and even the occasional lightning strike that are part of survival in the Gorge. The density of Oregon White oak wood helps in the preservation, as well — the same hardness that preserves its wood in the wild is also why these trees have historically been used to make furniture, flooring and barrels.

The Rowena Oak with Sevenmile Hill in the distance

The Rowena Oak with Sevenmile Hill in the distance

The Rowena oak has huge, twin trunks, the top of each toppled long ago by the elements. Lacking a top, the tree relies on four massive, sprawling limbs to survive, highlighting another survival secret of this species: Oregon White Oak sprouts prolifically from dormant buds on stumps and along trunks when tops are cut or broken off. This ability to adapt helped the Rowena oak survive what could have been catastrophic damage for most tree species.

The eastern of the two trunks points two massive, arching limbs toward the rim of Dry Canyon, and a closer look reveals yet another survival secret of this ancient tree: a tangle of branches cascade over the cliff like a leafy waterfall, with a lush canopy protected from the worst of the Gorge weather that sweeps across the top of the plateau.

A closer look at the sprawling Rowena Oak

A closer look at the sprawling Rowena Oak

A third major limb, nearly a foot thick, snakes a surprising 50 feet from the eastern trunk, along the exposed cliff edge of the canyon. This huge limb hovers just 2-3 feet above the ground — yet doesn’t touch — thanks to the tremendous strength of its wood.

The huge, contorted limbs of the Rowena Oak have "eyes" that seem to be watching curious visitors!

The huge, contorted limbs of the Rowena Oak have “eyes” that seem to be watching curious visitors!

The western of the two main trunks has just one surviving major limb, a crooked, cracked affair that touches ground at several points, surrounded by the bleached bones of its own branches, broken off over the decades. Each of the fracture points in this broken old limb is marked with a thicket of new sprouts, showing how this old tree continues to regenerate, extending its long life.

One of the many bleached "bones" that help tell the survival story of the Rowena Oak

One of the many bleached “bones” that help tell the survival story of the Rowena Oak

While the Rowena Oak may look haggard, its growing limbs are healthy, putting out annual bursts of new leaves each spring, along with surprisingly abundant flower clusters. These will soon yield acorns, completing a reproductive cycle this tree has likely repeated since the time when Lewis and Clark passed by, if not longer.

Spring brings another flush of new leaves on the venerable Rowena Oak

Spring brings another flush of new leaves on the venerable Rowena Oak

Spring blossoms on the Rowena Oak

Spring blossoms on the Rowena Oak

Though most have been stripped by the elements or wildlife, several acorns from last year’s crop are still attached to the Rowena Oak, waiting to be dispersed. A mature Oregon white oak can produce anywhere from 20 to 50 lbs of acorns in a season, depending on growing conditions.

Acorns may look tough, but they are designed to sprout new tree seedlings as soon as moisture and warmth allow, as the seeds only remain viable for a year or so. Only a very few will sprout, and only a tiny fraction of seedlings will survive to become trees.

A few acorns from last season are still attached to the Rowena Oak

A few acorns from last season are still attached to the Rowena Oak

The thickets of younger Oregon white oak trees we see in some parts of the Gorge today may be the result of fire suppression over the past century. Studies of Oregon white oak groves in the Willamette Valley by Oregon State University suggest that pre-settlement fires regularly thinned out seedlings, allowing established oak trees to thrive without the competition of young oaks. Fire also kept other, competing tree species at bay that otherwise would have crowded out the native white oaks.

Visiting the Rowena Oak

Though the spectacular fields of yellow balsamroot and blue lupine have mostly faded, Rowena is always fascinating to explore. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages a sizeable conservation preserve covering much of the area.

Visiting the Rowena Oak

Visiting the Rowena Oak

(click here for a larger map in a new window)

A lower trail leads across the Rowena Plateau to a cliff-edge view of the Columbia River, and an upper trail climbs to McCall Point to a sweeping view of Mount Hood and the Gorge. Less adventurous hikers can still enjoy terrific views of the Gorge by simply hiking the first quarter mile or so of these trails, so there are hiking options for every ability.

The Rowena Oak is located just a few steps off the Historic Columbia River Highway, immediately west of the Dry Canyon Bridge. Roadside parking is available as you approach the bridge from Mosier. Simply walk uphill along the west edge of the canyon, and you will immediately spot the old oak from a low rise adjacent to the highway. This is an easy, rewarding stop for families with young kids, as the tree tells a fascinating story of survival.

Spectacular river views reward hikers on the Rowena Plateau trail

Spectacular river views reward hikers on the Rowena Plateau trail

The longer hikes to the Rowena Plateau and McCall Point are quite busy during April and May during the wildflower bloom, but you’ll have them to yourself later in summer and fall, when the flowers are gone but the landscape is just as impressive. While the upper trail leads to broad views of the Columbia River and Mount Hood, the lower trail has a unique pair of “kolk” lakes formed during the Missoula Floods, and equally impressive views of the river and Rowena Dell.

Springtime balsamroot atop McCall Point on the upper trail

Springtime balsamroot atop McCall Point on the upper trail

As with all eastern Gorge hikes, use caution hiking in the heat of summer, as there is little tree canopy to shade these trails. The Nature Conservancy also asks that you stay on the trails, and be aware of the triple hazard of rattlesnakes, poison oak and ticks that are standard for the eastern Gorge. The first two in this list are easy to avoid, but you should prepare for ticks, and follow more rigorous precautions (see this recent article on ticks for a few tips). Note that the trails at Rowena are closed in the winter, when they can be slick and potentially hazardous.

The Wahclella Maple

July 27, 2012

Autumn sunburst lights up the Wahclella maple in late 2011

Sometime last winter a picturesque bigleaf maple framing Wahclella Falls tumbled into Tanner Creek, likely under the stress of heavy snow or ice. In any other spot, this event might have gone unnoticed, but the Wahclella maple had the distinction of a front row seat at one of the most visited and photographed waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge.

“Change is the only constant. Hanging on is the only sin.”
-Denise McCluggage

Tanner Creek gorge is no stranger to change. In the spring of 1973, a massive collapse of the west wall, just below Wahclella Falls, sent a huge landslide into the creek, temporarily forming a 30-foot deep lake behind the jumble of house-size boulders. Today, the popular Wahclella Falls trail crosses the landslide, providing a close-up view of the natural forces that have created this magnificent place.

By contrast, the demise of the Wahclella maple is a very small change, indeed. But a closer look provides a glimpse into some of the more subtle changes that are part of the perpetually unfolding evolution this beautiful landscape. The following are nearly identical photos captured six years apart, in 2006 and 2012, and the changes over that short span are surprising:

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Comparing these images, one obvious change is in the stream, itself where (1) an enormous log has been pushed downstream by the force of Tanner Creek, testament to the power of high water. In the center of the scene (2) a young bigleaf maple has doubled in height, obscuring the huge boulder that once sheltered the tree, and on course to obscure the footbridge, as well. New growth is also filling in (3) along the new section of raised trail built on gabions in the 1990s (gabions are wire mesh baskets filled with rock, and were used to build up the trail along the edge of Tanner Creek)

The main change to this scene is the Wahclella maple (4), itself. Because the tree fell into a brushy riparian thicket, the fallen trunk and limbs have already been largely overtaken by lush spring growth of the understory. In a few short years, the fallen tree will disappear under a thick layer of moss and ferns, completing the forest cycle.

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But the story of the fallen Wahclella maple doesn’t end there, thanks to the unique adaptive abilities of bigleaf maple. Unlike most of our large tree species, bigleaf maple is prolific in sprouting new stems from stumps or upturned root balls. The massive, multi-trunked giants that appear in our forests are the result of this form of regeneration.

The Wahclella maple is already re-growing from its shattered trunk

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In this way, the Wahclella maple already seems to be making a comeback. With its former trunk still lying nearby, the shattered base of the tree has sprouted several new shoots this spring. In time, there’s a good chance that some of these shoots will grow to form a new, multi-trunked tree, perhaps one that is even more magnificent for future generations of photographers.

In the meantime, the old maple tree is a reminder that the beauty of the area is forever a work in progress, and how fortunate we are to watch the each stroke of nature unfold.

“The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.”
-Dean Acheson

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How to visit Wahclella Falls

Though hardly a secret anymore , the hike to Wahclella Falls remains a less traveled alternative to other short waterfall hikes in the Gorge. The trail is generally open year-round, though the best times for photography are in May/June, when spring greenery is at its peak, and in late October, when the bigleaf maples light up the forest with bright yellow and orange hues.

[Click here for a larger, printable version of this map]

This is a terrific family trail, thanks to several dramatic footbridges, two waterfalls, a staircase, caves (!) and several streamside spots safe for wading or skipping stones. Young kids should be kept close, however, since there are also some steep drop offs along sections of the trail. For kids, midweek in midsummer is a perfect time to visit.

Another fascinating time to visit with kids is during the fall spawning season, when the stream below the hatchery diversion dam is filled with returning salmon and steelhead within easy view of the trail.

Wahclella Falls is a family favorite

The trailhead for Wahclella Falls is easy to find. Follow I-84 east from Portland to Bonneville Dam (Exit 40), turning right at the first stop sign then immediately right into the trailhead parking area along Tanner Creek, where a Northwest Forest Pass is required. Portable toilets are provided at the trailhead from spring through early fall.

The trail begins at a gate at the south end of the parking area, and initially follows a rustic gavel road to a small diversion dam that provides water for the Bonneville Fish Hatchery. From here, the route crosses a footbridge in front of Munra Falls, and becomes a proper hiking path. Head right (downhill) at a fork in the trail 0.7 miles from the trailhead to begin the loop through the towering amphitheater surrounding Wahclella Falls, then retrace your steps 0.7 miles to the trailhead after completing the 0.6 mile loop portion of the trail. Enjoy!