Proposal: Oneonta Loop Trail

Beautiful Middle Oneonta Falls

The Columbia River Gorge is so rich with natural beauty that it’s pretty hard to pick favorites. Yet, when it comes to graceful waterfalls cascading through verdant, rainforest canyons, Oneonta Creek is near the top of my list. A previous article on this blog presented a new vision for managing access to stunning Oneonta Gorge and restoring the historic Oneonta Tunnel. This article examines Oneonta Canyon above the Oneonta Gorge, where more waterfalls and rugged beauty brought thousands to the trails here before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.

Iconic Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

The fire has since changed the Gorge landscape for most of our lifetimes, and the forest is just beginning a post-fire recovery cycle that has unfolded here countless times over the millennia. But while the starkness of the burned landscape is something that we are still adjusting to, the fire gives us a once-in-century opportunity to rethink and rebalance how we recreate in the Gorge.

Oneonta Creek experienced some of the most intense burning during the fire, and almost none of the dense forest canopy survived, and still the forest has already begun to restore itself. What can we do to restore our human presence at Oneonta in a way that will be sustainable for the next century, leaving a legacy for future generations like the one that we inherited?

Before the 2017 Fire: Signs of Stress

The spectacular scenery along the Oneonta Creek was already drawing huge, unsustainable crowds of hikers well before the Eagle Creek Fire roared through Oneonta Canyon, and the visible impacts were everywhere. Some of the impact was on the human environment, including the very trails and bridges that brought hikers into Oneonta Canyon. And some of the impact was on the land, itself, with hikers straying from developed trails to create destructive social paths and shortcuts in many spots. These informal trails had become badly eroded, often undermining the main trails, themselves. 

Social trail damage near the lower Oneonta Creek footbridge

One place where these impacts escalated alarmingly in the years before the fire was the lower footbridge on Oneonta Creek, located just above Oneonta Falls and just below Oneonta Bridge Falls. As shown in the photo above, crowds of hikers had carved a new path to a pool in the creek at the west abutment of the bridge, stripping away fragile vegetation and filling the pool with eroded debris.

The photo below shows how this social path has not only destroyed the thin layer of soil and forest understory on the slopes of Oneonta Creek, but was also undermining the main trail, itself, which was gradually sliding down the slope.

Social trail eroding both the slope and the shoulder of the main trail (on the left)

Even the lower Oneonta footbridge was in trouble before the fire. The Forest Service began posting a warning on the bridge a few years before the fire limiting it to one hiker at a time, yet another reminder of the serious disinvestment we have been making in our Gorge trails for the past thirty years. The rapid growth in visitors during this same period only increased the impact on structures like this, which were long overdue for repair or replacement.

Warning sign for hikers approaching the lower Oneonta footbridge

Meanwhile, at the east end of the lower Oneonta Bridge, curious crowds had pushed a new social path upstream, past Oneonta Bridge Falls (below). Social paths form when hikers head off-trail in search of a new viewpoint or water feature. When more hikers the steps of the first, the increasing foot traffic gradually formalizes social until they become hard to distinguish from legitimate trails — except that they are rarely “built” in a way that is sustainable, and often bring serious harm to the landscape.

Social trail heading toward Middle Oneonta Falls from the lower Oneonta Creek bridge

Meanwhile, things were getting worse on the east side of the lower Oneonta Bridge, too, where hikers had cut the short switchback just above the bridge (below) to the point that it began collapsing before the fire closed the area to the public. Why do people do this? Mostly, it’s ignorance, inexperience and overcrowding, and often by children who are not getting needed guidance from parents on why this is not okay.

Heavy damage from shortcutting on this switchback at the east end of the lower Oneonta Creek bridge

Heading beyond the lower Oneonta bridge, another major social path had formed on the west side of the creek (below), where hikers had created a long shortcut directly down the canyon slope where a long switchback exists on the main trail. The damage here was obvious and quite recent when this photo was taken about 18 months before the fire. When social paths become this prominent, the damage begins to spiral, with new or inexperienced hikers mistaking them for a legitimate route, and further compounding the problem with still more foot traffic. The overcrowding on the Oneonta Trail only added to the spiraling effect.

Hikers shortcutting this switchback have created a new social trail nearly as wide as the main Oneonta Creek trail

While hikers were causing the bulk of the impact before the fire, Mother Nature was busy in Oneonta Canyon, too. The photo below was taken after the 2017 fire, and reveals a major landslide that began moving years before the fire. The slide extends from Oneonta Creek (where it has left a pile of trees and debris visible in this photo) to the cliffs well above Oneonta Trail. A fifty-yard section of the trail was erased by the slide, with several efforts in the years just before the fire to stabilize a new route above the old trail.

Landslide along the middle section of Oneonta Creek that threatens long-term viability of the current trail

Here’s a view (below) of the landslide looking downhill toward Oneonta Creek from where the original Oneonta Creek Trail was once located. The big trees still standing in the path of the landslide in this view were burned in the fire, which will further destabilize this slope and allow the slide to accelerate in coming years.

Looking down the landslide toward Oneonta Creek in 2015, before the fire

When the original section of the Oneonta Trail was swept away by the landslide, the Forest Service built this set of stairs (below) to a new crossing of the slide, about 30 yards uphill from where the old trail had been.

Bypass trail built to temporarily navigate the Oneonta Trail landslide

This photo (below) shows the new, temporary crossing of the slide as it existed before the fire, but volunteer trail crews visiting the Oneonta Trail earlier this year report that this temporary route has also become eroded since the fire. The continued instability of the landslide raises real questions about whether a safe route can be maintained here in the near-term.

Wide angle view of the temporary route built across the landslide a few years before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire

Landslides like this are an ongoing part of the Gorge geology, but in this case, it also marks a spot where an increasingly busy social path dropped down to Middle Oneonta Falls. The growing traffic to this off-trail falls was already taking its toll on the terrain before the slide. So, was the landslide triggered by erosion along the social path? There’s no way to know, but it’s certainly possible that the social path contributed to the sudden instability of the slope.

On my last visit to the upper Oneonta Canyon before the 2017 fire, I ran into bit of trail legend named Bruce, who was a longtime trail worker in the Gorge dating back to the 1980s. He was rebuilding the approach to the slide, and we talked about how Forest Service crews were struggling to simply keep pace with the impact of growing crowds and shrinking agency staff for basic trail maintenance. Major repairs, like those required the slide, were completely overwhelming his crews.

Gorge trail crew legend Bruce (now retired) working near the slide on the Oneonta Trail in 2014

Bruce was wistful about the situation, as he was planning to retire soon, and the trails he had worked so hard on were not faring well as he prepared to turn them over to a new generation of trail workers. 

Beyond the problematic landslide, the Oneonta Trail arrives at Triple Falls, an iconic destination that most hikers are coming here for. In the years before the fire, the overlook at Triple Falls was literally crumbling under the pressure from overuse. The photo below shows the view from the main trail, where a tangle of social paths cutting directly downslope to the badly eroded viewpoint can plainly be seen.

Widespread slope damage where a network of social trails has cut into the Triple Falls overlook

A well-graded spur trail provides access to the viewpoint, but few used it. Instead, most follow the steps of this hiker (below) and simply cut directly up the slope to rejoin the trail. Over the past decade, the damage from erosion here had increased alarmingly.

Another hiker adding to the impact of the social trails at the Triple Falls overlook in 2014

Earlier this year, the volunteer trail crews assessing the Oneonta Trail captured these views of the Triple Falls overlook, showing how the burned over landscape also offers a unique opportunity to rethink and rebuild this overlook trail before hikers are allowed to return.

The Triple Falls overlook was stripped bare by the Eagle Creek Fire (photo: Trailkeepers of Oregon)
Triple Falls after the Eagle Creek Fire (photo: Trailkeepers of Oregon)

Just beyond Triple Falls, the Oneonta Trail crossed the creek on this upper footbridge (below), installed by volunteers and Forest Service crews about ten years ago.

Upper Oneonta Creek footbridge before the 2017 Gorge Fire

 This year’s volunteer crews found that the 2017 fire hadn’t spared the upper bridge, as the photo below shows. This represents yet another opportunity to think about how the area will reopened. While the bridge provides critical link to the rest of the Oneonta Creek trail system, it also led to a growing network of eroding social paths on the east side of Triple Falls.

Upper Oneonta Creek Footbridge after the Gorge Fire (photo: Trailkeepers of Oregon)

Today, we have a unique opportunity for a reboot, with the canyon just beginning its post-fire recover and still closed to the public. As traumatic as the Eagle Creek Fire was for those who love the Gorge, having the forest burned away was like lifting a window shade on the terrain beneath the forest. Where the fire destroyed a dense forest, it also laid bare the underlying terrain and geology, providing a rare opportunity to plan for our Gorge trail system as it enters its second century.

For trail builders, it’s a perfect opportunity to take a good look at the land for opportunities to refine existing trails and to build trails for future generations of hikers. This includes adjusting existing trail alignments to more stable terrain and replacing social paths with sustainable trails that can help curious hikers explore the beauty of the area without harming it. The fire also cleared the forest understory, making trail building a lot easier.

A New Vision for Oneonta

With this unique opportunity in mind, this proposal focuses on a new loop trail along the middle section of Oneonta Canyon, where little known Middle Oneonta Falls has been hidden in plain sight over the century since the first trail was built here. Middle Oneonta Falls is among of the most graceful in the Columbia Gorge, and waterfall enthusiasts have long followed the steep, brushy social path that led to the falls. I made my first trip there in the late 1970s, when I was 16 years old, and returned many times over the years.

Though my photography skills were pretty rough 38 years ago, this is how Middle Oneonta Falls looked way back in 1982. This is also where the falls would first come into view on the proposed Oneonta Loop Trail 

It’s hard to know why the original trail builders passed by Middle Oneonta Falls, and chose to route the main trail high above the falls. The falls can plainly be heard thundering in the forest below, and from one spot on the trail, the brink of the falls can be seen. But for most hikers, Middle Oneonta Falls remained unknown.

This proposal would change that, with a new loop that would not only lead hikers to Middle Oneonta Falls on a well-designed trail, but also take them behindthe falls! More on that, in a moment. Here’s the general location of the proposed loop (shown in yellow) as it relates to the existing Oneonta and Horsetail Creek trails (shown in green):

[click here for a large map]

Why build a new loop trail at Middle Oneonta Falls? One reason is pragmatic: the word is out, and this beautiful waterfall is no longer a secret, as well-worn social paths prove. And, with the forest now burned away, the falls will be plainly visible from the main Oneonta trail, making it impossible to prevent new social paths from forming as curious hikers look for a way to reach the falls.

Given these realities, this concept also focuses on how to make a new loop trail to Middle Oneonta Falls one that provides a new and much-needed destination for casual hikers and families with young kids looking for something less strenuous than what a lot of Gorge hikes require. Loops are the most popular trail option for hikers, too, since they provide a continuous stream of new scenery and adventure.

In the long-term, loops also offer a management tool that is seldom used today, but has great merit in heavily traveled places like the Gorge: one-way trails. On crowded trails in steep terrain, one of the biggest impacts comes from people simply passing other hikers coming from the option direction, gradually breaking down the shoulders of trails over time. One-way trails eliminate this problem, and the provide a better hiking experience with less sense of crowding, too.

With these trail themes in mind, what follows is a tour of the proposed Oneonta Loop Trail, using an exceptional series of aerial photos captured by the State of Oregon in the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire. 

The first view (below) captures the existing Oneonta Canyon trail system from Oneonta Falls to Triple Falls, with the proposed new loop trail shown in yellow. The new loop trail would follow the more stable east side of Oneonta Canyon, avoiding the landslide on the west side (which is also shown on the map).

[click here for a large map]

As the above map shows, another benefit of the proposed loop is that it could also serve as a reroute for the existing Oneonta Creek Trail if it becomes impossible to maintain a trail across the landslide, as the new loop would connect to the main trail upstream from the slide.

The next series of maps walk through the proposed loop trail in more detail, starting at the bottom, where the new trail would begin where a social path already extends into the canyon from the lower Oneonta Bridge (below).

[click here for a large map]

From there, the route to Middle Oneonta Falls is surprisingly straightforward (below), and quite short — less than one-half mile. This would make the falls an easy destination for young families and hikers who don’t want to tackle the longer and more strenuous climb to Triple Falls.

[click here for a large map]

Once at Middle Oneonta Falls (below), the new trail would take advantage of the huge cavern behind the falls to avoid building and maintaining another trail bridge, and simply pass behind the falls, instead. 

[click here for a large map]

For hikers coming from the Horsetail Falls trailhead, this would also be the second behind-the-falls experience, having already passed behind Ponytail Falls along the way. This would make the hike to Middle Oneonta Falls a magnet for families with kids, as nothing quite compares with being in a cave behind a waterfall for young hikers!

After passing behind Middle Oneonta Falls, the new loop trail (below) would climb the west slope of Oneonta Canyon just upstream from the slide in a series of four switchbacks, and rejoin the main trail. From there, hikers could continue on to Triple Falls or turn back to the trailhead to complete the new loop.

[click here for a large map]

The next few schematics show how the trail would pass behind beautiful Middle Oneonta Falls. The first view (below) is from slightly downstream, and shows the forested bench opposite the falls where the new trail would descend toward the cave.

[click here for a large schematic]

The next view (below) is from the base of the cliffs at the west side of the falls. The big boulder shown in the previous schematic should help you orient this view, as it is marked in both schematics. This view provides a better look into the cave, which is made up of loose river cobbles and well above the stream level in all but the heaviest runoff. Note my fellow waterfall explorer behind the 90-foot falls (!) for scale. 

[click here for a large schematic]

A third schematic of the falls (below) is from further downstream. This view gives a better sense of the large bench in front of the falls where the approach trail would be located, and how the exit from the cave would navigate a narrow spot between the creek (by the “Big Boulder”) and cliffs on the west side of the falls.

[click here for a large schematic]

As the photos in these schematics show, this is an exceptionally beautiful spot, and though it is now recovering from the fire, it would still make for an easy and popular new destination in the Gorge. Would more visitors make it less pristine? Perhaps, but on my last trips to Middle Oneonta Falls I had to clean up campfire rings built directly adjacent to the creek and carry out beer cans and trash, so it’s also true that legitimizing the trail here would bring “eyes on the forest that would help discourage this sort of thoughtless damage.

Further upstream, there’s also work to do at Triple Falls. This map (below) shows how the main trail could be relocated to follow the existing (and seldom used) spur to the viewpoint and be extended to simply bypass the section of existing trail that drives creation of social trails.

[click here for a large map]

This would provide a long-term solution to the maze of social paths that have formed between the existing trail and the Triple Falls viewpoint. This is a very simple fix, and should be done immediately, while the area is still closed to hikers and the burned over ground and exposed rock make trail construction much easier.

What would it take?

The entirety of Oneonta Canyon is within the Mount Hood National Forest, but administered by the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) unit of the Forest Service. Despite the creation of the scenic area in 1986 as a celebration of the beauty of the Gorge, there have been no new trails on Forest Service lands in the western Gorge for more than three decades. In fact, the agency has periodically proposed abandoning some of the lightly used backcountry trails in the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness that have fallen behind in maintenance. 

Oneonta Creek scene before the fire near Triple Falls

The Forest Service is reacting to a long period of strained recreation budgets dating back to the 1990s, but our recent history of disinvestment should not prevent us from looking ahead to the needs of this century. The lack of a future vision is part of what prevents new trails from being designed and built, as there are already plenty of ideas for new trails that could be sustainably built in the western Gorge to help take pressure off the existing system.

The last new trail built in this part of the Columbia River Gorge is the Wahclella Falls loop, completed in 1988. Today, this wonderful loop trail is iconic and among the most beloved in the Gorge. But until the 1980s, a brushy, sketchy user path is how hikers reached Wahclella Falls. Recognizing the need to formalize an official trail, the Forest Service worked with volunteers who completely rebuilt the old trail and added a new leg on the west side of the canyon, creating the well-designed, exceptional loop we know today.

Tiny Maidenhair spleenwort (for scale, the larger fronds at the top of Licorice fern!) are as uncommon as they are beautiful, and are found along the Oneonta Creek Trail near Triple Falls

This proposal for an Oneonta Loop trail would be a great candidate for a similar effort, with Forest Service and volunteer workers creating a new trail that would not only provide a much-needed trail option in the western Gorge, but that would also remedy the social trails that have developed and potentially serve as a new, main route if the landslide on the current trail cannot be stabilized. 

In the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire, now is a perfect time to reboot trail building in the Gorge and Oneonta would be the perfect spot to get started. The area is still closed to the public, and trail volunteers have already begin scouting the trail to assess fire damage and make plans for repairs. This scouting work could be expanded to site the new loop trail, and there’s no better way to bring volunteers to trail projects than to build new trails. 

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews building the cliff-hugging trail above Elowah Falls in 1936

And finally, consider this: almost all of the trails in the Columbia Gorge (and the rest of Mount Hood National Forest) were built over the course of just two decades, in the 1920s and 30s. Amazingly, the system we have today is less than half of what was existed before the industrial logging era began after World War II. And in that period of decline, few new trails were added.

While forest trails were initially built as basic transportation for forest rangers, the Great Depression brought a new focus on recreation and enhancing our public lands through the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA). Our best trails were built during this golden age of trail construction, when trails were designed to thrill hikers with amazing views and adventures. These federal workforce program were put in place under Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the national recovery plan, when unemployment during the Great Depression exceeded 20 percent, with no end in sight.

Sound familiar? Our normally gridlocked U.S. Congress has just allocated nearly $4 trillion in emergency funding to shore up the country as an unprecedented Coronavirus pandemic takes hold. And congressional leaders are already proposing more stimulus funding in the form of public infrastructure to continue pumping money into the economy and creating work for the jobless. Are we on the brink of another trail-building renaissance in our national forests? Quite possibly — but only if we begin planning for that possibility now.

___________________

And one more thing…

There is a LOT of confusion about place names on Oneonta Creek. USGS topographic maps show only Oneonta Falls and Triple Falls, but Oneonta Falls is shown where Middle Oneonta Falls is located. This is clearly a map error, though one that has endured (and confused) for a very long time. In fact, Oneonta Falls is the tall, narrow falls at the head of Oneonta Gorge and is identified as such in early photos of the Gorge taken long before anyone knew much about the upper canyon.

A case of mistaken waterfall identity at Oneonta…

Meanwhile, there’s a small waterfall right in front of the lower Oneonta footbridge that is often called “Middle Oneonta Falls”, only because it’s in plain sight and so few know that there’s a much larger “Middle Oneonta Falls” just a half-mile upstream. Fortunately, the USGS got Triple Falls right!

So, for the purpose of this article (and in general), I refer to the small falls by the lower footbridge as “Oneonta Bridge Falls”, just to clear things up a bit. Creative, right? Well, neither is “Triple Falls”! Or “Middle Oneonta Falls”, for that matter! But at least we know which waterfalls we’re talking about. Remember, there’s no detail too small for THIS blog!

Thanks again for reading this far, folks!

___________________

Tom Kloster | May 2020

Who was Newton Clark?

The Newton Clark Glacier flows from Mount Hood’s east face

High on Mount Hood’s broad east face is the Newton Clark Glacier, third largest of the twelve named glaciers on the mountain. Many assume a hyphen must be missing in what appears to be two surnames, especially since the two major glacial outflows from this glacier are separately known as Newton Creek and Clark Creek. Who is this Newton character… and what about Clark?

Instead, it turns out that Newton Clark was just one man who made his place in local history as one of the early surveyors mapping the Mount Hood area. And in a rarity among place names in Oregon, his full name made it to our maps, where our modern naming rules limit honorary place names to surnames. It also turns out that nearby Surveyor’s Ridge, with its popular mountain biking trail, is also named for Newton Clark, albeit anonymously.

Topo map of the Newton Clark Glacier on Mount Hood’s east face

The sprawling glacier named for Newton Clark is unique among Mount Hood’s glaciers: it’s wider than it is long! While glaciers like the Eliot, White, Coe and Reid flow down the mountain in rivers of ice, the Newton Clark Glacier is draped like a big ice blanket on the east face of the mountain high atop a steep bench formed by the Newton Clark Prow, a massive lava outcrop that prevents the glacier from flowing any further down the mountain. 

The Newton Clark Prow splits the glacier into its twin canyons, Clark Canyon to the south and Newton Canyon on the north. At nearly 8,000 feet in elevation, this jagged rock outcrop once divided a much larger ice age glacier into two rivers of ice that left today’s massive Newton Clark Moraine behind, a medial moraine that once had rivers of ice as high as the moraine flowing on both sides (you can read more on that topic in this blog article). Today, the Newton Clark Prow forms the rugged head of Newton Canyon, with summer meltwater from the glacier tumbling over its cliffs in dozens of waterfalls.

The broad Newton Clark Glacier is bordered on the north by Cooper Spur, a long, gentle ridge that extends from Cloud Cap to the summit of Mount Hood. At 8,514 feet, the summit of Cooper Spur is among the highest points in Oregon that can be reached by trail, and one of the more popular hikes on the mountain. The view from the top of Cooper Spur provides a close-up look the rugged, crevassed surface of the Newton Clark Glacier.

The Newton Clark Glacier from Cooper Spur
Giant ice pinnacles known as seracs are pushed into the air by this icefall on the Newton Clark Glacier

From below, the Newton Clark Glacier actually looks stranded (below), sitting unusually high on the mountain, with its crevasse fields spreading out in multiple directions as the glacier sprawls above the cliffs of the Newton Clark Prow.

The Newton Clark Glacier and Prow as viewed from Newton Canyon
Rare, close-up view of the Newton Clark Prow (photo: Chip Down)

Downstream, the Newton and Clark canyons eventually merge at the southern foot of the Newton Clark Moraine, where the flat, mile-wide floor of the East Fork Hood River valley begins. Here, the arms of the ice age ancestor of the Newton Clark Glacier continued for miles down the mountain toward Hood River, creating the broad, U-shaped valley we travel today on the OR 35 portion of the Mount Hood Loop Highway.

Newton and Clark creeks don’t quite merge as the converge at the foot of the Newton Clark Moraine

Surprisingly, the two glacial outflows don’t merge on the valley floor. Instead, they each flow into the East Fork Hood River separately, about a mile apart. Both Newton and Clark creeks are notoriously volatile glacial streams, each changing course on the floor of the East Fork valley during recurring flood events.

Of the two outflows, Newton Creek is the largest and most volatile stream, repeatedly sending massive debris flows down the East Fork Hood River valley over the years and washing out OR 35 in the process (more on that later). Clark Creek is less violent, but still a powerful glacial stream that challenges Timberline Trail hikers attempting to ford it during the summer glacial melt.

Now that we’ve met the Newton Clark Glacier and its sibling streams, what about the man behind the name?

Who was Newton Clark?

Newton Clark in the 1880s

Newton Clark was born in Illinois in 1838 and soon moved as a child with his family to Wisconsin as pioneer settlers. Clark spent his youth there, becoming an exceptional student and later studying surveying at the Point Bluff Institute.

In October 1860, Newton Clark married Scottish immigrant Mary A. Hill, and the two resided in North Freedom, Wisconsin. Just one year later, in September 1861, 23-year old Newton enlisted in the 14th Volunteer Infantry, Company K Wisconsin volunteers of the Union Army. His company served in 14 battles under General Ulysses. S. Grant in Civil War battles across the south. 

Newton Clark in the early 1900s

Like so many in their Civil War generation, young Newton and Mary’s married life was put on hold during his four years of service. Mary remained in Wisconsin with their young daughter during Newton’s infantry service, undoubtedly anxious for her young husband’s return from our nation’s deadliest war. 

When he left for battle, Newton said “If I never come back remember that you have our little Minnie to live for, work for her and she will be a comfort to you.” Newton later returned from battle, but their little Minnie died during his time away at war.

Newton Clark served as Quartermaster during his Civil War enlistment, and he furnished the flag that was raised above the Vicksburg, Mississippi courthouse when the war was ended on May 9, 1865. After the war, Newton was an active veteran with the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) fraternal organization. The above portrait above was taken late in is life, and proudly shows his G.A.R. insignia.

Detailed view of the G.A.R. insignia worn in the late 1800s

The G.A.R. was much more than what we think of with today’s fraternal organizations. Following the Civil War, the G.A.R. emerged as among the first and largest advocacy group on the nation’s political scene, dedicated to both political causes and the benevolent interests of their veteran members.

The G.A.R. was an important arm of the Republican Party (at the time, the progressive party in American politics), and in this capacity the organization was deeply involved in the reconstruction that followed the war. Among their efforts, the G.A.R. actively promoted voting rights for black Civil War veterans. They also became a racially integrated organization at a time when the emerging Jim Crow era was about to stall civil rights in this country with another century of racial segregation and persecution of black Americans. At its political peak in the late 1800s, the G.A.R. had nearly half a million members.

The G.A.R. Monument in Washington, D.C., located on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the National Archives (Wikipedia)

The G.A.R. also focused on advancing Republican candidates to public office and promoted patriotism and veteran’s rights across the country. This included providing pensions for veterans, creating hundreds of war memorials so that the Civil War might never be forgotten and establishment of Memorial Day as a national holiday, a legacy many of us celebrate without knowing of its origins. 

In his later years, Newton Clark served as an officer in the Ancient Order of United Workmen (A.O.U.W.) for decades, a fraternal benefit society formed to provide mutual social and financial support for its membership after the Civil War. By the late 1800s, it was the largest fraternal organization in the country, and one that Newton continued to serve until his death.

Newton and Mary’s Life in the West

Newton Clark is identified in this photo taken at Twin Oaks Farm in the Hood River Valley in 1914 (back row, center, wearing a bow tie) (photo: Hood River History)

Soon after Newton’s return from his service in the Civil War, he and Mary moved west to the new Dakota Territory that had been created in 1861, just as the Civil War erupted. There, the Clarks farmed as pioneers in what is now the state of South Dakota. 

The old Dakota Territory was massive, encompassing today’s North and South Dakota, most of Montana and the north half of Wyoming until statehood came to Wyoming and the Dakotas in 1888-89, long after the Clarks had moved again, this time to Oregon. 

During their time in the Dakota Territory, Newton and Mary continued to have children, in the wake of losing their baby daughter Minnie, eventually adding two daughters and a son to their young family. The Clarks built the first frame house in Minnehaha County, where they farmed on a homestead located two miles from today’s town of Sioux Falls. Newton also worked as a surveyor of public lands for eight years, where he laid out the sections and townships in much of the Dakota Territory.

Newton Clark entered politics while in the Dakota Territory, too. He served as school superintendent, and was chairman of the board of county commissioners in Minnehaha county for several years before serving as a state legislator in the Dakota Territorial Legislator in the early 1870s. Newton Clark’s public service in the Dakota Territory put his name on the map of today’s South Dakota, with Clark County and the county seat of Clark, South Dakota named for him.

Mary Clark (on the far right) at a garden party in the 1910s (photo: Hood River History)

The grasshopper plagues that swept the high plains in mid-1870s eventually drove Clark from the Dakota Territory, and he continued his family’s migration west to Oregon in 1877. That year, he left Mary behind to care for the children in the Dakota Territory while he joined up his parents, Thomas and Delilah Clark, who had been living in Colorado. 

Together, Newton and his parents traveled three months overland in the summer of 1877, arriving in the Hood River area on September 1. Mary Clark and their three children, William, Jeanette and Grace, eventually joined Newton and his parents in 1878, settling into their new home in Oregon.

Newton later said “I tried farming on my homestead in Dakota, but after two years of successful crops of grasshoppers, I became a disgusted with that form of agriculture and struck for Oregon, driving a team overland.”

Closer view of Mary Clark enlarged from the previous photo (photo: Hood River History)

Newton and Mary Clark arrived in Oregon with almost no money to their name, and set about creating a new life in Hood River. They were among the first pioneers to settle there, and Newton initially found work cutting cordwood and splitting shingles for other valley settlers. By 1878, he was able to purchase 160 acres on the west side of the Hood River Valley, where they built their family home. Newton’s parents built their home on an adjoining parcel.

Newton Clark said later of their new home “We found the Hood River Valley as nature had designed it and habited by a handful of the pioneers… the salubrity of the climate, its freedom from storms of wind and lightning of summer and its frigid blizzards of winter as compared with the Dakotas, all delighted us.”

Newton soon began taking contracts with the federal government to survey public lands in the rugged western and southern parts of Hood River County, establishing the section lines in the Upper Hood River Valley and surrounding mountain country that are still the basis of our maps today. Most of these areas would become part of today’s Mount Hood National Forest. Loggers in the early 1900s were still reporting survey marks on trees left by Newton Clark’s crews more than 30 years later.

Many of the section lines (the grid system based on township and range) on this early 1900s map of the Hood River Valley were surveyed by Newton Clark in the 1880s

Like today’s immigrants to Oregon, Newton Clark was drawn to explore the unmatched scenery that we sometimes take for granted. He was among the first to summit Mount Hood and he was also a member of the first party of white men to set eyes on iconic Lost Lake. 

Surveying and exploring in Mount Hood country the 1880s was difficult and dangerous. Trips into the mountains took days, with Clark’s crews carrying heavy supplies on their backs and packhorses. There were few trails, so much of the travel was cross-country, through dense, virgin forests.

Though not identified on the image, Newton Clark and Mary clearly appear beneath the arched window on the right in this photo taken at the Riverside Congregational Church in 1913 (photo: Hood River History)
A closer view of the previous photo showing Newton Clark and Mary standing behind him, looking over his right shoulder (photo: Hood River History)
Comparison of the known image of Newton Clark in 1914 at Twin Oaks (right) and 1913 Riverside Church photos (left), and it’s clearly Newton Clark in the Riverside photo (photos: Hood River History)
Comparison of the early 1910s garden party photo (left) and 1913 Riverside Church photos (right), and we can clearly see Mary Clark standing just behind her husband (photos: Hood River History)

Like other pioneer explorers of Mount Hood, Clark eventually had a feature on the mountain named for him. For unknown reasons, his full name was used in naming the Newton Clark Glacier. Perhaps this was to prevent confusion with the many features in the West named for William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition? It remains among the few places in Oregon to feature the full name of its namesake.

The Clarks left Hood River in 1888 when Newton was elected Grand Recorder of the A.O.U.W., his beloved fraternal older, though he retained some of his property in the Hood River Valley until his death. He served in this capacity with the A.O.U.W. for the next 20 years, with the family living in downtown Portland in a house at “400 Broadway”. Under Portland’s historic address system, this would have been at the corner of Broadway and Stark, where the Hotel Lucia now stands today — in theory, as least.

This illustrated map from 1890 shows a home located at the southeast corner of Broadway and Start, a few blocks from the once iconic Portland Hotel that stood where today’s Pioneer Courthouse Square is located.

While the 1890 map seems to provide a plausible case for where the Clarks lived in Portland, the fact that today’s historic Hotel Lucia (once called the Imperial) was built in 1909 at this corner clouds that history. The Clarks moved back to Hood River that year, which might make a plausible case for a new hotel going up where home had been, but newspaper accounts show them living at the same home in Portland a few years later, with their daughter. So, more research is needed to know just where the Clarks lived in Portland.

The historic Hotel Lucia was originally the Imperial, built in 1909, a full nine years before Newton and Mary Clark lived on Broadway at the end of their lives

The family returned to Hood River in 1909 when Newton retired from his A.O.U.W. office and built a new home on a hill above town that became their retirement residence.

During these later years in Hood River, the Clarks spent summers at a cabin Newton built at Lake Lyttle on the Oregon Coast, in today’s town of Rockaway Beach. Unlike today’s travelers, they didn’t follow roads to Rockaway Beach. Instead, they took the new Oregon Pacific Railway that had recently opened a route through the Coast Range from Hillsboro to Tillamook

It’s unknown if Newton’s parents joined him when the Clarks moved to Portland in 1888, but his father died in 1892 and historic accounts show his mother living with the Clark family in Portland when she died in 1905, at the age of 98. So, one possibility would be that Delilah Clark joined her son’s family when Thomas Clark passed away in 1892, though there are no history accounts to confirm this. 

What is clear is that Newton was close enough to his parents to bring them west to Hood River with his family in 1877, and later, to bring his elderly mother into his home in Portland. Somewhere out there, a portrait of the extended Clark family exists, and I’m hopeful a reader of this article might be able to help with that.

Newton Clark’s Family

True to the era, less is known about Newton Clark’s wife, Mary, beyond her husband’s description of their life together. She was a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, and according to the historical accounts available, she shared Newton’s passion and determination in their adventurous life as pioneers. 

Two of Newton and Mary’s children died while the parents were still living, baby Minnie in the early 1860s, while Newton was serving in the Civil War and later, their adult daughter Grace (Clark) Dwinell, in 1910. 

Grace finished school in Portland after the family had relocated there in 1888, and became a West Side (now Lincoln) High School graduate. What history is recorded about Grace describes her as outgoing and with a beautiful singing voice that she would often entertain with at family gatherings. 

West Side (which later became Lincoln) High School was located at 14th and Morrison in downtown Portland, seven blocks from where the Clarks live on Broadway. The school was completed in 1885, and opened while the Clarks were living in the neighborhood.
The ornate, gothic-style West Side (later called Lincoln) High School as it appeared when Newton Clark and his family lived in the neighborhood. This impressive structure is among the many grand buildings built in downtown Portland in the 1800s that were later razed as the city continued its rapid growth.

Grace Clark met young Frank Dwinnell while on a trip to visit family in Wisconsin, and he followed her back to Portland, where the two married.  They moved back to Wisconsin for a time and started a family, but sometime in the late 1890s, Grace contracted tuberculosis — then called “consumption” and the leading cause of death at the turn of the century. 

At the time, Grace attributed her illness to the harsh climate in Wisconsin, and the family relocated back to Oregon. After initially recovering from the disease, her tuberculosis eventually returned and Grace died in 1910 at the age of 37. Her funeral was held at Newton and Mary’s new home overlooking Hood River. Frank Dwinnell later moved back to Wisconsin with their young son and daughter to be near his family.

Grace (Clark) Dwinnell’s grave in the Idlewild Cemetery in Hood River

Two of Newton and Mary Clark’s children survived them, including their son William Lewis Clark and daughter Jeanette (Clark) Brazelton. Jeanette’s life is the least documented of the three Clark children who survived childhood, except that she became Mrs. W.B. Brazelton and appeared to living with her parents in their Portland home at the time of their deaths in 1918. I was unable to discover more about her life or even where she was buried for this article, so hopefully a reader will have more of Jeanette’s history to share.

William Lewis Clark followed his father’s footsteps and became a prominent civil engineer in Oregon. William was eleven when the family moved west to Oregon, and after finishing school in Hood River, he worked on his father’s survey crews. At age 19, William went to work for the Northern Pacific Railroad and later the Southern Pacific, overseeing various construction projects across the West. 

William Lewis Clark sometime around the turn of the 20th Century

William married Mary Ann Mabee in 1880 (later records show her as Estella Mabee), and the two would later have a son in 1899, Newton Mabee Clark, who would become a third-generation engineer in the Clark Family. Newton Mabee Clark attended Stanford University, graduating in 1916. He was enlisted in Stanford’s elite Student Army Training Corps, a unit of the U.S. Marines, and served in World War I. Newton M. Clark died in Seattle in 1975 and had no children.

In 1900, the year after his only son was born, William Lewis Clark left the railroads and became the City of Portland’s district engineer for next seven years. William returned with his family to Hood River in 1907, shortly before his parents made their own return to Hood River from Portland. 

For the next ten years he worked in the flour and grain business for C.H Stranahan in Hood River before returning to public service in 1917 for the Oregon Highway Department, at a time when the Historic Columbia River Highway construction was in full swing.

William Clark’s grave in the Idlewild Cemetery in Hood River

William finished his career with the City of Hood River, serving as city engineer from 1922 to (apparently) his death in April 1930, at the age of 62. Mary Ann (also listed as Estella) Clark moved to Seattle sometime after William’s death, apparently to be near their own son. She died in 1950 at the age of 75.

Back to Portland to serve his beloved A.O.U.W

Historical accounts show that Newton and Mary had moved back to Portland in about 1914. He had been called back from retirement to once again serve Grand Recorder of his beloved A.O.U.W. in the wake of so many members of the organization being called to serve active duty in World War I. If this timeline is correct, the Clarks spent just five years in Hood River after their 1909 return, and the photos in this article of the Clarks taking part in community life in Hood River marked their final days living there.

Newton and Mary Clark both died in 1918, and remarkably, both were exactly 80 years and 24 days old at the time of their deaths. Newton died on June 21 of that year at his daughter Jeanette Brazelton’s home in Portland, which seems to be the home where Newton and Mary lived in during their previous 20 years in Portland. Despite a global influenza pandemic that year, Newton died of a “paralytic stroke”, according to historical new accounts. 

The Riverside Community Church in Hood River today

Newton’s death was widely covered by newspapers in Portland and Hood River, and his funeral at Riverside Congregational Church in Hood River drew a large turnout from the community, including many of the surviving pioneers who had known the Clarks since the mid-1800s. However, Mary Clark was in failing health when her husband died, and she was unable to travel to Hood River to attend his service.

The Hood River Glacier published this tribute to Newton:

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Newton Clark

“A soldier, and a fighting one, for four years of his early manhood, and then a frontiersman, he experienced life as men of the following generations could not. It was a privilege to hear him recount tales of the days of the past. As everlasting as the hills and mountain crags he loved were the principles and rugged honesty of Newton Clark. He was loyal to the things he believed in and fought untiringly for their accomplishment. 

“But few men knew that Mr. Clark had passed the age of 80 years. He walked with erectness and his step was firm. News of his death brought a shock of grief to all here last Friday. His comrades, men who knew him best, and loved him, and the families of pioneers, heard the sad news with pains of deepest regrets. 

“Another of our pioneers has gone on the long trail, and we will miss him.”

The Hood River Glacier, June 27, 1918

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After the shock of Newton’s death, Mary seemed to be recovering and traveled to Hood River with Jeanette to visit their old home, returning in “better health and good spirits” according to news accounts. But on the morning of July 20, Jeanette found that her mother had died in the night at her home in Portland, just a month after Newton has passed away.

This tribute was published in the Hood River Glacier as the community mourned the loss of two of its most prominent pioneers:

________________

Newton and Mary Clark

“Married at North Freedom, Wisconsin on October 17, 1860, Mr. and Mrs. Newton Clark, of this city, have trodden the pathway of life’s long journey together longer than the most couples of Oregon. Yet few men or women who have not yet reached the three-score-and-ten mark are more active or vigorous than this sturdy couple, a typical product of the frontier and pioneer life. 

“With all faculties alert and hale and hearty both are enjoying their old age. Both are possessed of an optimism and enthusiasm that youth might envy.”

The Hood River Glacier, April 6, 1916 

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Though Newton and Mary Clark spent most of their years in Oregon living in Portland, their hearts were clearly in Hood River, where they had first carved out a life as Oregon pioneers. Not only did they choose to retire to Hood River (however briefly before Newton was called back to service), they also chose to be buried there, just a few steps from where they had buried their daughter Grace eight years before, and where their son William would be buried just twelve years after they died.

Newton Clark’s grave in the Idlewild Cemetery in Hood River
Mary Clark’s grave in the Idlewild Cemetery in Hood River, adjoining her husband’s burial spot

As I researched this article, I grew increasingly dumfounded that Newton Clark isn’t more celebrated in our local history. True, he does have a spectacular glacier named for him, which sure beats a street or local park, but his commitment to service puts him in rare company among the early pioneers in Oregon. Fortunately, his contemporaries recognized this and there are excellent historical accounts of his life, if only we take the time to discover them.

For the direct quotes from Newton Clark used in this article, I turned to a front-page interview and profile published on April 6, 1916 by the Hood River Glacier, just two years before his death. I’ve created a PDF of the entire article that [link=]you can read here.[/link]

For additional history, I turned to other news accounts from the era, as well as an excellent oral history largely written by Newton Clark, himself, in the History of Early Pioneer Families of Hood River, Oregon, compiled in 1913 by Mrs. D.M. Coon. Had these two efforts to record his life in his own words not been made, much of Newton Clark’s extraordinary contribution to our history would have ben lost to time.

And now, some unfinished business…

A Modest Proposal…

Newton Clark Glacier and the Newton Clark Moraine (center) after an early autumn snowfall on Mount Hood

Call it a burr under my saddle, but when I learned decades ago that Newton Clark was one man, not a hyphenation, it bothered me that the two outflow streams were each given one half of his name. It struck me as a combination of historical ignorance and a degree of disrespect behind that decision, wherever it came from. So, where did it come from?

My guess is that these were lighthearted names attached by an early forest ranger, long ago, when most of the features in our national forests were casually named with little thought that these names would stick for centuries to come. Perhaps even Barney Cooper, the first district ranger for the Hood River area, named these streams in the early 1900s? And if Barney came up with the names, then surely he knew Newton Clark personally? After all, Hood River was a very small community in those early days. Perhaps it was Newton Clark, himself, who came up with these names while out on a survey? 

History doesn’t provide an answer, but a look at some of the earliest topographic maps (below) confirms that both Newton and Clark creeks were named by the 1920s, when the Mount Hood Loop Highway had been completed and visitors began pouring into the area.

1920s map of Mount Hood showing Clark and Newton Creeks already named at the time the Mount Hood Loop highway was completed (lower right corner)

Whatever the reason behind the names for this pair of streams, the fact is that place names are one of the best and most durable ways to preserve our history for future generations. That’s why the confusion these names might cause remains a problem, at least in my mind.

Thus, I have a modest proposal, and it’s quite simple: add one word to the name of each stream and you not only solve the potential confusion, you also give Mary Clark her due. After all, would Newton have managed his remarkable life without a remarkable partner like Mary? Of course not. 

Therefore:

• Newton Creek should become Newton Clark Creek

• Clark Creek should become Mary Clark Creek

See how easy that is? And there’s some logic behind it, too, since Newton Creek carries the majority of the outflow from the Newton Clark Glacier. 

Here’s how this would look on the topographic maps — easy fix!

A slightly modified map…

Of course, when it comes to geographic names, nothing is easy! The Oregon Geographic Names Board (OGBN) is a volunteer panel administered by the Oregon Historical Society that serves as the overseer of geographic names in our state. New names or changes to existing names must be approved by this panel, and among their various criteria are support for public agencies (in this case the Forest Service) and the following:

“If the proposed name commemorates an individual, the person must be deceased for at least five years; a person’s surname is preferred; and the person must have some historic connection or have made a significant contribution to the local area.”

The Clarks have certainly passed the 5-year requirement, 102 years after their deaths. The second part of this requirement could be more of a challenge, but the fact that the Newton Clark Glacier already contains the full name of a historic figure would be my argument for making another exception, here. The last part is easy, as the contribution the Clarks made to the area is undeniable and well documented. Most importantly, the proposed change would also clear up potential confusion, something the OGBN also factors into their decisions.

So, I’ve added this to my list of OGBN proposals that I’ll someday submit when I have a moment, and when I do, I will reach out to the Hood River History Museum and U.S. Forest Service for their endorsements of the proposal, as well.

Exploring Newton Clark Country

Now that we’ve met Newton Clark and his family, the following is a short tour of the places named for him in Mount Hood country.

The Newton Clark Glacier sprawls across Mount Hood’s east face in this classic view from Elk Meadows

For Portlanders, the Newton Clark Glacier is on the dark side of the moon — it’s on the east face of the mountain, hidden from view from the rainy, evening side of the Cascade Range. But from the morning side of the mountain it’s prominent, and dominates the east face of Mount Hood.

Most who see the Newton Clark Glacier up-close view it from the crest of popular Cooper Spur, from nearby Elk Meadows or from Lookout Mountain, due east by five miles, across the East Fork valley. But some of the best views are from Gnarl Ridge, on the Timberline Trail. Here, the impressive scale of the Newton Creek canyon and the full width of the glacier are in full view. In summer, a series of tall waterfalls cascade from the glacier over the Newton Clark Prow and into Newton Canyon.

Vast Newton Canyon as seen from Gnarl Ridge, among the most awesome viewpoints on the mountain. The Newton Clark Glacier fills the east face of the mountain with the layered, black lava cliffs of the Newton Clark Prow at the base of the glacier

True to its name, Gnarl Ridge is home to hundreds of ancient, gnarled Whitebark pine that have survived the harsh conditions here for centuries. There’s no easy way to Gnarl Ridge. Both approaches, either from Cloud Cap or Hood River Meadows, involve a lot of climbing, though the scenery is some of the finest in Oregon. One advantage of the Cloud Cap approach is that no glacial stream crossings are required. However, several permanent, and potentially treacherous snowfields must be crossed on this highest section of the Timberline Trail.

The trail to Elk Meadows is among the most popular on the mountain, and deservedly so, and it provides a photogenic view of Mount Hood’s east face. This is a good family hike for a summer day, but it does require crossing Newton Creek without the aid of a footbridge — which can be an exciting experience. By mid-summer, Timberline Trail hikers have usually stitched together a seasonal crossing with available logs and stones, but expect wet feet when the water is high!

Footbridge over Clark Creek on the trail to Elk Meadows. In summer, the outflow creeks from the Newton Clark Glacier are milky with glacial till.

For a more remote experience, following the Newton Creek Trail to either Newton Creek or Clark Creek (or both) has dramatic views and a lot of rugged mountain terrain to explore. The route to the Newton Clark Trail crosses Clark Creek on a log bridge that has somehow survived this rowdy stream, then turns north and travels along Newton Creek before making a gradual climb along the northeast shoulder of the Newton Clark Moraine.

At the junction of the Newton Creek Trail with the Timberline Trail you can go right for a visit to Newton Creek or left to head over to Clark Creek. Or both, which is how I enjoy doing this hike.

Where Newton Creek canyon is vast and awesome, Clark Creek canyon has a few surprises, including lovely, verdant Heather Canyon, a side canyon with a string of splashing waterfalls.

A lone hiker climbs the east slope of Clark Canyon on the Timberline Trail. The Newton Clark Moraine is the massive, gray ridge on the right. Verdant Heather Canyon is on the left

The Clark Canyon headwall is also unique. The receding Newton Clark Glacier has left a wide, scoured rock amphitheater behind that has dozens of tiny streams running across its face in summer. To skiers, this is known as the “Super Bowl”, and it’s impressive to see close-up.

The headwaters of Clark Creek are among the most remote on the mountain, and feature dozens of glacial streams cascading steep cliffs below the Newton Clark Glacier

Downstream from the bowl, Clark Creek drops over a major waterfall (visible from the Timberline Trail) before reaching the debris-covered floor of the valley. This is where the Timberline Trail crosses Clark Creek, so if you like to avoid glacial stream crossings, it’s a nice turnaround spot for lunch. But if you don’t mind the crossing, a pretty waterfall on Heather Creek lies just a quarter mile beyond the Clark Creek crossing and makes for an especially lovely stop.

Clark Creek on a summer afternoon, heavy with glacial till during peak runoff

Heading the other direction on the Timberline Trail from the Newton Creek Trail junction quickly takes you to Newton Creek, proper. In most years, an impromptu rope helps hikers navigate a washed-out bank as you approach the chaotic canyon floor, and this is a preview of what can be one of the more difficult glacial crossings on the Timberline Trail. 

Newton Canyon from the Newton Creek Trail, just below the Timberline Trail

Like Clark Creek, you can skip the crossing this glacial stream and simply enjoy a lunch atop one of the many table-sized boulders that fill Newton Canyon, with a fine view of the mountain. The Newton Clark Glacier is more prominent here, and the steep cliffs of Gnarl Ridge and Lamberson Spur rise along the far canyon wall. 

The formidable crossing of Newton Creek on the Timberline Trail, one of more difficult of the many glacial stream crossings on the circuit

Newton and Clark creeks are both thick with glacial till in summer, and don’t make good water sources, but Heather Creek runs clear and there’s a tiny creek flowing into Newton Canyon where the Timberline Trail approaches the canyon floor that provides both drinking water and a couple of shady campsites.

Exploring Surveyors Ridge

Before the era of mountain biking, Surveyors Ridge Trail was a lightly used, lesser-known trail on the mountain that had originally been built for early forest travel.

Though an anonymous tribute, Surveyors Ridge is also named for Newton Clark, and it’s well worth exploring. If you’re a mountain biker, I need say no more. You’ve been there and taken in the sweeping vistas!

But if you’re a hiker, I recommend making a trip to Bald Butte, which forms the northern end of Surveyor’s Ridge. It’s known to a few as “the other Dog Mountain” for its beautiful yellow balsamroot and blue lupine meadows in May and early June each year that echo the much more popular counterpart in the Gorge. Plus, the view of Mount Hood and the upper Hood River Valley from Bald Butte are stunning.

Surveyors Ridge is named for Newton Clark, albeit anonymously. In his lifetime, few trails existed here

There are a couple of ways to get to Bald Butte. If you’re up for a stiff climb, you can take the Oak Ridge Trail (the trailhead is just south of the Hood River Ranger Station, off OR 35). This steep but scenic trail switchbacks up an open slope of Oregon white oak and spring wildflowers before entering forest and joining the Surveyors Ridge Trail. Turn left and hike a couple more miles and you’re on top of Bald Butte.

If you don’t mind driving a bit and are looking for a shorter climb, you can also take Pinemont Drive from where it intersects OR 35 (at the obvious crest between the middle and upper Hood River valleys) and follow this road for several miles to the east shoulder of Bald Butte. Watch for a gravel spur road on the right, shortly after you pass under a swath of transmission towers, and follow the spur to a trailhead under the powerlines. 

The view from the trailhead is spectacular enough, but following the trail from here (which is really the old, primitive lookout road) to the summit of Bald Butte is even more sublime, passing several wildflower meadows that bloom in May and early June.

The Surveyors Ridge Trail ends at Bald Mountain, where yellow Balsamroot and blue Lupine cover the slopes in May and early June

When you make the final ascent of Bald Butte, it’s hard to ignore the impact that off-road vehicles are having on the butte. Hopefully, the Forest Service decision to close most areas in the forest to these destructive vehicles will eventually be enforced. In the meantime, there’s a bit more on the subject in this earlier blog article on the fate of Bald Butte.

For a completely different slice of the Surveyor’s Ridge Trail, you can simply ramble the section north of Shellrock Mountain, where there are several big views of the mountain, plus a look into the weird terrain of Badlands Basin, where an ancient layer of volcanic ash and debris that has been carved into fantastic shapes. You can hike to this area from the Gibson Prairie Horse Camp. 

Mount Hood and Shellrock Mountain from the Surveyors Ridge Trail

The trail spur is located across the road, and if you turn left on the Surveyors Ridge Trail you’ll be heading toward views of Shellrock Mountain and Badlands Basin. Several handy boulders in the steep meadow pictured above make for a good destination for this short, easy hike. Turn right on Surveyors Ridge Trail, and you can take a shorter hike to Rimrock, where the views are somewhat overgrown, but still nice.

The 2006 Floods

Visiting the twin canyons of the Newton Clark Glacier is a great way to appreciate the raw power of the floods it has generated over the years. While Clark Creek can certainly hold its own, Newton Creek is the most fearsome stream on Mount Hood’s east side. Views along the lower section of the Newton Creek Trail (below) tell the story, with truck-sized boulders and stacks of 80-foot logs tossed about in a quarter-mile wide flood channel. 

Much of the more recent devastation you see here occurred in the fall of 2006, when heavy rains fell on a blanket of early snow, and combined to send a wall of rock and mud down the canyon.

Truck-sized boulders and whole trees stacked like matchsticks are silent testimony to the power of Newton Creek in this scene several miles below the glacier, where flash floods have created a debris zone a quarter mile wide. This scene is along the lower part of the Newton Creek Trail.

The debris flow roared down to Highway 35, blocking culverts, covering the road with boulders and washing out large sections of road bed. A similar event was occurring on the White River at the same time, temporarily cutting off access to the Mount Hood Meadows resort from both east and west. As sudden and violent as this event seemed, in reality it was part of an ongoing erosional process as old as the mountain, itself.

We can see this ancient story playing out in new LIDAR imagery, a form of aerial radar used to map the earth’s surface in stunning detail, revealing landforms that could never be captured with conventional surveying. Over the past decade, the Oregon LIDAR Consortium has been working to bring this new mapping technology to a larger audience, including for the Mount Hood area. LIDAR has allowed geoscientists to map the history of faults, floodplains and landslides as never before. 

The map below is from the Oregon LIDAR project, and shows how Newton and Clark creeks emerge from their narrow, twin mountain canyons to spread out on the floor of the broad East Fork Hood River valley. The valley floor is made up of loose debris deposited from these floods over the millennia, and both Newton and Clark creeks have changed course in this soft material with regularity. 

Lidar imagery in recent years has unveiled a long and recurring history of big floods and shifting stream channels in the Newton Clark flood zone. The Mount Hood Loop Highway crosses dozens of these old channels where it crosses the zone.

(Click here for a larger view of the Newton Clark Flood Zone map)

You can see this history in the maze of braided channels that show up on LIDAR. Whereas topographic maps simply show a relatively flat, featureless valley floor here, LIDAR reveals hundreds of interwoven flood channels across what we now know as the Newton Clark flood zone. 

Many of these channels were formed centuries ago, and some in our lifetimes. Some may have flowed for decades without much change, while others may have formed in a single event, then went dry. Both Newton and Clark creeks are continually on the move, and so long as the main steam of the East Fork is on the opposite, and downhill side the Mount Hood Loop Highway (OR 35), both streams will continue to wreak havoc on the highway.

In 2012 the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and ODOT replaced the bridge at White River and built massive new culverts for Clark and Newton Creeks on the east side of the mountain (below). 

To contend with the frequent flooding of Newton and Clark creeks, the Federal Highway Administration and ODOT built these massive flood control structures on OR 35 in 2012. They haven’t been tested by a major flood event… yet…

The following are a few photos taken after the water subsided in the fall of 2006, and ODOT crews were assessing the damage to OR 35. The damage shown here occurred over a 24-hour span.

A flash flood from the Newton Clark Glacier in the fall of 2006 sent walls of boulders and ash down the mountain, covering portions of Highway 35 in eight feet of debris (ODOT)
With culverts blocked by debris during the 2006 event, Newton Creek simply flowed down OR 35 (ODOT)
In this view from 2006, a raging Newton Creek simply dissolved the road bed under OR 35, leaving slabs of asphalt hanging in the air (ODOT)

So far, the new flood structures at Newton Creek have not been tested by a major flood event. But when you consider the mosaic of old stream channels in the LIDAR imagery that have been created over the centuries by hundreds of flood events, these new structures are temporary, at best. It’s only a matter of time.

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I’ve mentioned several hikes in this part of the article, and they can also be found in much more detail in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide at the links below. Enjoy!

Gnarl Ridge from Hood River Meadows Hike

Gnarl Ridge from Cloud Cap Hike

Elk Meadows Hike

Bald Butte Hike

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Hood River History Museum (photo: Hood River History)

Special thanks to the Hood River History Museum for permission to include photos from their outstanding collection of historic images in this article. Like all museums, they are closed to the public until further notice because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has an immediate impact on funding their operations, so please consider supporting the museum during this crisis with a donation. You can make one-time or ongoing monthly donations via PayPal, just go to the “donate” link on their website to support their valuable work.

And another special thanks to Oregon Hikers off-trail legend Chip Down for permission to use his photo of the Newton Clark Prow, one of the least-explored places on Mount Hood. You can read his trip report and see more of his outstanding photos of the Newton Clark backcountry over here.

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Postscript:this article was two years in the making (!), as the story of Newton Clark is told in bits and pieces in century-old sources. Despite the miracle of the internet and the astonishing information we have at our fingertips in our time, uncovering local history is still like peeling back the layers of an onion. With each new discovery, more mysteries are uncovered… and blog articles get a bit longer and a bit later!

In this spirit, please help me improve this short history of Newton and Mary Clark and their family where I’ve made errors or omissions. 

Thanks for stopping by and reading this especially long entry!

Tom Kloster | May 2020

A Second Chance and New Vision for Oneonta?

Oneonta Tunnel traffic jam at the west portal shortly after completion in 1916. The highway had not yet been paved when the tunnel opened.

In the span of just about a decade, the Oneonta Tunnel on the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) has endured a wild ride. The tunnel had been closed since the 1940s when the old highway was rerouted around the cliffs of Oneonta Bluff, and for more than half a century lived only in memories and photographs. 

Then, the tunnel was carefully restored to its original glory in 2006 as part of the ongoing effort to restore and reconnect the HCRH. But within just few years, the beautiful restoration work was badly vandalized by uncontrolled mobs of thoughtless young people unleashed upon Oneonta Gorge by social media (see “Let’s Clear the Logjam at Oneonta Gorge). Then, in September 2017, the restored timber lining was completely burned away during the Eagle Creek Fire.

Today, the tunnel stands empty and fenced-off, waiting to be brought back to life, once again. But does it make sense to restore it as before, only to set this historic gem up for more vandalism? Or could it be restored in a different way, as part of a larger vision for protecting the history and natural beauty of both the tunnel and Oneonta Gorge, while also telling the story of the scenic highway, itself? More on that idea in a moment… 

First, a look at how we got here.

Before the dams and after the railroads…

Looking at Oneonta Tunnel today, it’s hard to understand why the original highway alignment went through Oneonta Bluff to begin with, instead of simply going around it? Why wasn’t it simply built in the current alignment of the historic highway, which curves around the bluff? The answer can be seen in this photo (below) taken before the old highway was built.

Oneonta Bluff before construction of the new highway and tunnel in 1916. The new road was squeezed on the uphill side of the railroad line in many spots in the Gorge, forcing creative solutions from the visionary road designer Samuel Lancaster.

It turns out the original railroad alignment crossed Oneonta Creek on a trestle where the current highway is located today, and was also built snug against the base of Oneonta Bluff. Why was it built this way? Because in the era before Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams were completed in the 1930s (along with the many dams in the Columbia basin that followed), the Columbia River fluctuated wildly during spring runoff. So, the original rail line was built to stand above seasonal flood levels of the time.

When Samuel Lancaster assessed the situation in the 1910s, the only options for his new highway were to move the railroad or tunnel through the bluff. As with other spots in the Gorge where the railroads were an obstacle for the new highway, the second option turned out to be the most expedient, and the Oneonta Tunnel was born. 

This close-up look (below) at previous photo shows a man standing on the railroad trestle crossing Oneonta Creek, pointing to what would soon be the west portal to the new tunnel, and I believe this to be Samuel Lancaster on a survey trip — though that’s just my speculation.

Close-up view of what might be Samuel Lancaster pointing at the future west portal at the Oneonta Tunnel site

When the original alignment of the old highway opened in 1916, the new road paralleled the old railroad grade closely, especially east of the tunnel (below), where a retaining wall and wood guardrail separated the somewhat taller road grade from the railroad.

The east portal of Oneonta Tunnel shortly after completion in 1916

Sometime after the original tunnel was built, possibly in the 1930s, the railroad was moved away from the bluff, perhaps because of falling debris from the Oneonta Bluff landing on the tracks, or maybe just part of modernizing the rail line over time. The flood control provided by dams on the Columbia River beginning in the 1930s (and especially the relatively stable “pool” created behind Bonneville Dam) allowed the railroads to move several sections of their tracks in the Gorge onto extensive rock fill during this period, often well into the river, itself. 

This photo (below) from the 1930s shows the west portal of Oneonta Tunnel after the railroad had been move northward, away from Oneonta Bluff, but before the highway had been realigned to bypass the tunnel.

West approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in the late 1930s after the railroad had been moved away from the bluff, opening the door for the highway, itself, to be routed around the bluff

The tunnel at Oneonta Bluff was one of several along the old highway, though it was easily overshadowed as an attraction by the famous “tunnel with windows” at Mitchell Point, to the east and the spectacular “twin tunnels” near Mosier. What made Oneonta Tunnel famous was the view into impossibly narrow Oneonta Gorge, which suddenly appears as you approach the west portal. 

Oneonta Gorge has been a popular tourist attraction since the old highway opened in 1916. For nearly a century, adventurers have waded up the creek to the graceful 120-foot waterfall that falls into Oneonta Gorge, about a mile from the historic highway bridge. Only in recent years has overcrowding presented a serious threat to both the unique cliff ecosystem and the historic highway features here.

Early visitors to Oneonta Gorge in the 1920s

In the 1930 and 1940s, the Oregon Highway Department began a series of projects in the Gorge aimed at “modernizing” the old highway as the dawn of the 1950s freeway-building loomed. A new river-level route was built to bypass the steep climb the original route takes over Crown Point, with the new route following what is today’s I-84 alignment. 

At Tooth Rock (above Bonneville Dam) a new tunnel was blasted through the cliffs to bypass the intricate viaducts built atop the cliffs by Samuel Lancaster. That tunnel still serves eastbound I-84 today, and has become a historic feature in its own right. And at Oneonta Bluff, a new bridge and tunnel bypass (below) took advantage of the relocated railroad, and was completed in 1948.

The (then) new highway bypass bridge under construction in 1948; the original bridge is to the left, and still remains today

When the new bridge and realigned highway section opened, the original bridge Samuel Lancaster built at Oneonta Creek was left in place, thankfully, and it survives today as a elegant viewpoint into Oneonta Gorge and gateway to the tunnel. The Oneonta Tunnel was also decommissioned at the time, with fill at both entrances (below). The tunnel remained this way for the next half-century, as a curiosity for history buffs but forgotten by most.

The realigned historic highway after 1948, with the tunnel (on the right) decommissioned with rock fill at both ends

The rebirth of Oneonta Tunnel began with a bold vision for restoring and reconnecting the surviving sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway as part of the landmark 1986 Columbia River National Scenic Area act, with this simple language: 

16 U.S.C. 544j Section 12. Old Columbia River Highway: The Oregon Department of Transportation shall, in consultation with the Secretary and the Commission, the State of Oregon and the counties and cities in which the Old Columbia River Highway is located, prepare a program and undertake efforts to preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity of the remaining segments of the Old Columbia River Highway for public use as a Historic Road, including recreation trails to connect intact and usable segments.

And so began what will eventually be a four-decade effort to restore the old highway to its original grandeur, with many beautiful new segments designed as if Samuel Lancaster were still here overseeing the project. Work began elsewhere on the old route in the 1980s, but eventually came to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2006 (below). 

Restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel begins in 2006 (ODOT)

The restoration began with simply excavating the old tunnel, and later rebuilding the stone portals at both ends and installing cedar sheathing to line the interior. A new visitor’s parking area was created outside the east portal and the original white, wooden guardrails were also recreated.

Restored interior wood lining nearly complete in the Oneonta Tunnel in 2006 (ODOT)

For the next few years, the restored tunnel stood as a remarkable tribute to the work of Samuel Lancaster and our commitment to preserving the history of the Gorge. It was a popular stop for visitors and also served as fun part of a hiking loop linking the Horsetail and Oneonta trails.

Vandalism & Oneonta Gorge

Every new technology brings unintended consequences, and the advent of social media over the past two decades has been undeniably hard on our public lands. Where visitors once studied printed field guides and maps to plan their adventures, today’s decisions are more often based on a photo posted in some Facebook group or on Instagram, where hundreds will see it as the place to be right now. 

This has resulted in the “Instagram Effect”, where huge surges in visits follow social media posts, both in the immediate near-term for a given place, and in the long-term interest in hiking and the outdoors. According to a 2017 study by Nielsen Scarborough, hiking in the Pacific Northwest has nearly doubled in popularity the past ten years, with Portland and Seattle ranking second and third (in that order) in the nation for number of hiking enthusiasts — Salt Lake City took the top spot. 

Overall, that’s very good news for our society because hiking and spending time outdoors are good for all of us, and we live in a part of the world where we have some of the most spectacular places to be found anywhere in our own backyard. But the immediate effect of social media can often spell bad news when hordes of ill-equipped and ill-informed people descend upon a place that is trending on their phone.

Social media conga-line waiting to enter Oneonta Gorge in 2016 (Photo: John Speth)
Traffic jam at the Oneonta log jam in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)
Traffic jam at the second Oneonta log jam in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)
Cattle call at Oneonta Gorge in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)

Oneonta Gorge is one of the special places that fell victim to the Instagram Effect, with huge crowds of young people overwhelming the canyon on summer days over the past decade. Sadly, the Forest Service did absolutely nothing to curb the invasion, despite the obvious threat to the rare ecosystem here, and hazardous conditions presented by the infamous log-jam that has blocked the entrance to the canyon since the late 1990s (see “Let’s Clear the Logjam at Oneonta Gorge).

And another unfortunate casualty of this unmanaged overcrowding was the Oneonta Tunnel, itself, when the Oneonta Gorge mobs stopped by to record themselves for posterity in the soft, brand-new cedar walls of the restored tunnel (below). While the vandalism was maddening, the lack of any sort of public response from the Forest Service or ODOT to stem the tide was equally frustrating.

The massive defacing of the restored Oneonta Tunnel interior…
…coincided with the explosive, unmanaged crowds that descended…
…upon Oneonta Gorge in the era of social media…

The vandalism didn’t stop with the destruction of the tunnel walls, however. The unmanaged crowds also tagged spots throughout the area with graffiti, and damaged some of the priceless historic features (below) left for us by Samuel Lancaster.

Damage to historic highway features like this staircase came with the disrespectful mobs of young people coming to Oneonta Gorge over the past decade

As discouraging as the damage at Oneonta was, it was also completely predictable. The idea of limiting access to popular spots in the Gorge is one that the public land managers at the state and federal level have been loath to consider, even when overuse is clearly harming the land and our recreation infrastructure. The problem is made worse by the crazy quilt of intertwined state and federal lands in the Gorge, complicating efforts to manage access, even if the will existed.

Then the fire happened in September 2017, changing everything…

The Fire

When the Eagle Creek Fire was ignited on Labor Day weekend in 2017 by a careless firework tossed from a cliff, few imagined that it would ultimately spread to burn a 25-mile swath of the Oregon side of the Gorge, from Shepperd’s Dell on the west to the slopes of Mount Defiance on the east. In the aftermath, the entire burn zone was closed to the public, and much of it still is. While the fire closure put enormous pressure on the few trails that remained open, it also opened the door to rethinking how we access to trails within the burn zone when they are reopened. How and when that happens remains to be seen.

At Oneonta Bluff, the images of the fire were dramatic and unexpected: the inferno spread to the interior of the restored tunnel and lit up the wood lining, completely burning it away like lit fuse. Local news affiliate KPTV published these views (below) taken by fire crews as the tunnel burned.

East portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel burning in September 2017 (KPTV)
West portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel burning in September 2017 (KPTV)

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) spent the weeks after the fire in 2017 assessing the damage to the historic highway, including these photos of the burned-out tunnel (below).

West portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel after the fire in 2017 (ODOT)
East portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel after the fire in 2017 (ODOT)

Today, the scene at Oneonta Tunnel hasn’t changed that much. ODOT eventually stripped the remaining, charred timbers from the tunnel and fenced off both portals to the public (below), though vandals have since pushed the fencing aside. The area remains closed indefinitely.

Charred reminders of the fire in 2020 at Oneonta Tunnel
East portal approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020
East portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020
Gated east portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020, opened by vandals

Though it might be heresy to admit, my immediate reaction when I saw the images of the burning tunnel in 2017 was relief. There was no end in sight to the social-media driven vandalism, and the interior had pretty much been ruined at that point, so the fire presented an unexpected opportunity for a redo, someday. Quite literally, it’s an opportunity for Oneonta Tunnel to rise from the ashes, but perhaps in a new way this time.

Remembering what we lost

A new vision for restoring Oneonta Tunnel — and protecting Oneonta Gorge — begins with remembering the fine restoration work completed in 2006. What follows is a look back at what that looked like, before social media took its toll.

At the west portal to the tunnel (where the original Oneonta Bridge, with its graceful arched railings, still stands), the restoration included a gateway sign, restored, painted guardrails built in the style of the original highway and an interpretive display near the tunnel entrance (below). The design functioned as a wide, paved trail, with the idea that cyclists touring the historic highway would pull off the main road and ride through the short tunnel section on a path closed to cars.

West portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2008, shortly after the renovation

From the original highway bridge over Oneonta Creek, the view extended into Oneonta Gorge, but also down to this fanciful stairway (below) right out of a Tolkien novel. This feature of the original historic highway continues to take visitors down to the banks of Oneonta Creek (the landing Newell in the bottom center of the photo, at the base of the stairs, is the one broken by vandals in an earlier photo). Just out of view at the top of the stairs is a picturesque bench built into the mossy cliff.

Historic Oneonta Stairwell in 2008

The west portal restoration included new stonework around the timber frame that closely matched the original design (below). 

West portal of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

Inside, the restored tunnel was lined with cedar plank walls and ceiling, supported by arched beams (below).

Wood interior of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

The east portal was similar to the west end of the tunnel, with stone masonry trim supporting the portal timbers (below).

East portal of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

Like the west side, the east entrance approach (below) was designed for cyclists to leave the highway and tour the tunnel and historic bridge before returning to the main road. 

East portal approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

In practice, most of the traffic in the tunnel before the fire came from hikers and curious visitors parking on the east and west sides and walking the path to the viewpoint into Oneonta Gorge. This is partly because bicycle touring in the Gorge focuses on the extensive car-free-sections of the historic highway, though the shared-road portions of the old highway are expected to see continued growth in cycling as the entirety of the old route is fully restored.

A Fresh Start (and Vision)

Oneonta Gorge in about 1900, more than a decade before the first automobiles would travel through the Columbia River Gorge

The 2006 restoration of Oneonta Tunnel and its approaches was based on the idea of it simply serving as a bicycle and pedestrian path as part of the larger historic highway restoration project. But the tragic defacing of the newly restored tunnel is a painful reminder that it’s simply not safe to assume it will be respected if left open to the public, unprotected, as it was before. Even gates are not enough, as vandals have since demonstrated by tearing open the temporary fencing on the burned-out tunnel.

But what if we considered the tunnel and its paved approaches, including the historic highway bridge, as a useful space instead of a path? The tunnel is surprisingly wide, at 20 feet, and 125 feet long. That’s 2,500 feet of interior space! What if the tunnel were restored this time with the idea of using this as interior space? As a history museum, in fact? With the paved approaches as plazas with outdoor seating, tables and bike parking?

Though it’s not a perfect comparison, there is an excellent model to look to in southern Utah, just east of the town of Kanab, where the privately operated Moqui Cave Natural History Museum is built inside a sandstone cave. The cave was once a speakeasy, then a dance hall in the 1930s, before it was finally converted to become a museum in the 1040s.

Moqui Cave Museum near Kanab, Utah (Wikipedia)

While passing through Kanab on a recent road trip, the stonework blending with the standstone cave entrance at Moqui Cave (below) reminded me of the restored stonework at Oneonta tunnel portals, and how the entrances to the tunnel might be enclosed to create a museum space at Oneonta.

Moqui Cave Museum entrance (TripAdvisor)

Like our Oneonta Tunnel, Moqai Cave is mostly linear in shape (below), with displays of ancient Puebloan artifacts and fossil dinosaur tracks displayed along its sandstone walls.

Moqui Cave Museum interior (TripAdvisor)

These section of the Moqui Cave are roughly the same width and height of the Oneonta Tunnel, with plenty of room for both displays and walking space.

Other solutions for enclosing the entrance at Oneonta Tunnel could draw from our own Timberline Lodge, on Mount Hood. While the stone foundation for the lodge is man-made, it’s not unlike the basalt portals at Oneonta. This is the familiar main entrance on the south side of the lodge (below), showing how the massive wood entry doors are built into the arched stone lodge foundation.

Historic Timberline Lodge entrance door (Wikipedia)

About ten years ago, another entrance to Timberline Lodge was handsomely renovated (below) to become barrier-free, yet still the massive, rugged lodge style that was pioneered here. This updated design shows how modern accessibility requirements could be met at an enclosed Oneonta Tunnel.

Restored Timberline Lodge side entry door (Versatile Wood Products)

There are other examples for enclosing Oneonta Tunnel as a museum space, too. While it would be a departure from Samuel Lancaster original purpose and design to enclose the tunnel, I suspect he would approve, given how the Gorge has changed in the century since he built the original highway.

There are logistics questions, of course. Is the Oneonta Tunnel weatherproof? If the dry floors during winter the months after the 2006 renovation are any indication, than yes, having 150 feet of solid basalt above you provides good weather proofing! Does the tunnel have power? Not yet, but a power source is just across the highway along the railroad corridor. These are among the questions that would have to be answered before the tunnel could be used as a museum, but the potential is promising!

Getting a handle on parking…

One of the most vexing problems along the busy westerly section of the Historic Columbia River Highway is how to manage parking as a means for managing overall crowding. Today, parking is largely unmanaged in this part of the Gorge, which might sound great if you believe there is such a thing as “free parking” (there isn’t). But in practice, it has the opposite effect, with epic traffic jams on weekends and holidays, and travelers waiting wearily for their “free” spot at one of the waterfall pullouts.

Weekend traffic jams on the historic highway are the norm today, and result from unmanaged parking (KATU)

At Oneonta, the lack of managed parking is at the heart of the destruction that mobs descending on Oneonta Gorge brought to the area, including the defacing of the tunnel. Some simple, proven parking management steps are essential, no matter what comes next at Oneonta. First, parking spaces must be marked, with a limited number of spots available and enforced. Can’t find a spot? Come back later, or better yet, at a less crowded time. 

Second, the parking should be managed with time limits (30 minutes, 60 minutes and a some 120 minute spots for Oneonta Gorge explorers). Timed parking also allows for eventual parking fees during peak periods, which in turn, could help pay for badly-needed law enforcement in the Gorge. Eventually, it makes sense to meter all parking spots in the Gorge, but that’s going to take some a level of cooperation between ODOT, the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks that we haven’t seen before, so lots of work lies ahead on that front.

So, these are all basic tools of the trade for managing parking in urban areas, and the traffic in the Gorge is well beyond urban levels. It’s time to begin managing it with that reality in mind.

The east parking area (below) at the Oneonta Tunnel was rebuilt as part of the tunnel restoration in 2006, but is poorly designed, with a huge area dedicated to parallel parking. 

Unmarked, poorly designed shoulder parking at the new pullout east of the Oneonta Tunnel comes complete with a sidewalk, and could be easily be restriped and better managed with angled spaces

However, this relatively new parking area includes a (rarely used) sidewalk, and thus it could be striped with angled spaces that would make for more efficient parking and also include space for a tour bus pullout. ODOT would just need to take a deep breath, since this would involve visitors backing into the travel lane when exiting a spot — a bugaboo for old-school highway engineers. But drivers manage this all time in the city. We can handle it.

The west parking area (below) at Oneonta is an unfortunate free-for all, with an unmanaged shoulder that was ground zero for the huge social media crowds that began clogging Oneonta Gorge in the late 2000s. This area needs a limited number of marked, timed parking spots no matter what happens at Oneonta in the future. There’s also plenty of room for a sidewalk or marked path in front of the parking spaces, along the foot of the cliffs, similar to the new sidewalk built east of the tunnel. This would make for much safer circulation of pedestrians here.

The west parking area would also be the best place for accessible parking spaces, since it offers the shortest, easiest access to the tunnel and views of Oneonta Gorge from the historic bridge.

Looking west for inspiration… and operations?

Most who visit the iconic Vista House at Crown Point don’t know that the interpretive museum inside the building is operated as a partnership between the non-profit Friends of Vista House and Oregon State Parks.

Vista House rotunda (TripAdvisor)

The Friends formed in 1982, well before the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area was created in 1986, and have done a remarkable job bringing the Vista House back from a serious backlog of needed repairs. Today, it is among the jewels that draw visitors to the Gorge.

Vista House interpretive displays and gift shop (TripAdvisor)

In their partnership with State Parks, the Friends operate a museum inside Vista House, as well as a gift shop and espresso bar in the lower level. Proceeds from the gift shop are directed to their ongoing efforts to preserve and interpret this structure for future generations.

Vista House interpretive displays (TripAdvisor)

The unique partnership between the Friends of Vista House and Oregon State Parks is a proven, successful model, and it could be a foundation for a museum in the restored Oneonta Tunnel. Could the Friends operate a similar facility at Oneonta as part of an expanded mission? Perhaps. Or perhaps another non-profit could be formed as a steward for the tunnel, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and State Parks? 

Crucially, having a staffed presence at Oneonta would allow for effectively managing access to Oneonta Gorge, itself, using a timed entry permit system. This is a proven approach to protecting vulnerable natural areas from overuse, and the Forest Service already uses timed permits elsewhere. Ideally, this permitting function would be funded by the Forest Service, and would include interpretive services for other visitors discovering the area, as well.

Focus on Sam Lancaster’s Road?

Samuel Lancaster, the dreamer behind the Columbia River Highway

On the cut stone wall of the Vista House, a bronze plaque honoring Samuel Lancaster provides a very brief introduction to the man. Displays inside Vista House, and elsewhere in the Gorge, also tell his story in shorthand. But Lancaster’s original vision and continued legacy in shaping how we experience the Gorge deserves a more prominent place. A converted Oneonta Tunnel Museum would be a perfect place to tell that story.

The walls of the tunnel provide a combined 250 feet of display space, which could allow visitors to have a detailed look at some of the secrets of Sam Lancaster’s amazing road. The State of Oregon has a rich archive of historical photos of the highway during its construction phase, mostly unseen by the public for lack of a venue. 

These include rare photos of spectacular structures now lost to time. Among these (below) is the soaring bridge at McCord Creek, destroyed to make room for the modern freeway, and the beautiful arched bridge at Hood River, replaced with a modern concrete slab in the 1980s.

The soaring, former McCord Creek Bridge under construction in 1915 (ODOT)
The graceful former Hood River Bridge in the 1920s, replaced with a freeway-style concrete slab in the 1980s (ODOT)

A new Oneonta Tunnel Museum could tell the story of Sam Lancaster’s inspiration for the famous windowed tunnel at Mitchell Point (below), another lost treasure along the old highway destroyed by modern freeway construction.

The former Mitchel Point Tunnel of many windows (ODOT)

A new museum at Oneonta could also tell the story of the surviving gems along the old road that are now part of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. These include (below) the spectacular section between Hood River and Mosier, with its iconic twin tunnels, the beautifully crafted stone bridge at Eagle Creek and the graceful arched bridge at Shepperd’s Dell.

1920s scene along the spectacular Mosier Twin Tunnels section of the old highway
Eagle Creek Bridge construction in 1915 (note the group of stonemasons in the viewing alcove on the left)
Shepperd’s Dell Bridge on dedication day in 1916. Samuel Lancaster is riding in backseat of  the first automobile (photo trivia: the big Douglas fir at the far left in this image is still standing and survived the 2017 Eagle Creek fire with some scorching to its massive trunk!)

The story behind the building of the old highway extends beyond the genius of Samual Lancaster and the beauty of the design. The construction, itself, was a monumental undertaking, and the stories of the people who built this road deserve to be told in a lasting way for future generations.

The Lancaster story continues today, as well. Since the 1980s, ODOT, Oregon State Parks and scores of dedicated volunteers have steered the ongoing effort to restore and reconnect the old route, as called for when the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Actwas signed into law in 1986.

Many of the restoration projects are epic achievements in their own right, and deserve to have their story told for future generations to appreciate. All are inspired in some way by Samuel Lancaster’s original vision for a road blended seamlessly into the Gorge landscape in way that allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the scenery. These include handsome new bridges (below) at Warren Creek and McCord Creek, as well as a planned recreation of the Mitchell Pont Tunnel.

The new bridge over Warren Creek on the restored Columbia River Highway State Trail
The new bridge over McCord Creek on the restored Columbia River Highway State Trail

What would it take to create an Oneonta Tunnel Museum dedicated to Samuel Lancaster’s enduring vision? Capital funding, of course, but that will surely come at some point, given the current state of the tunnel after the fire. It would also take a willing non-profit partner and a strong interest from the Forest Service, ODOT and Oregon State Parks to try something different when it comes time to once again restore the tunnel. But the time to start that conversation is now, before the agencies start down the path of simply repeating mistakes from the past decade.

So, for now, this is just an idea. But in the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Samuel Lancaster and his amazing highway, there are two books that should be in every Gorge-lover’s library. And they make for especially good reading in this time in which we’re not able to visit the Gorge! 

The first is Samuel Lancaster’s own book, The Columbia: America’s Great Highway, first published in 1916 by Lancaster, himself. This book is as eccentric and sweeping as Lancaster’s own imagination, and his love for the Gorge comes through in his detailed descriptions of the natural and human history. It’s easy to see how his vision for “designing with nature” grew from his intense interest in the natural landscape of the Gorge.

Lancaster’s original book was reproduced in 2004 by Schiffer as a modern edition, and is still in print. The modern version includes restored, full-color plates from the 1916 edition, as well as additional plates that were added to a 1926 version by Sam Lancaster.

Essential reading for any Gorge lover!

A wonderful bookend to Sam Lancaster’s classic is Building the Columbia River Highway: They Said it Couldn’t Be Done by Oregon author Peg Willis. This exceptional book focuses on the highway, itself, and the collection of characters who came together to make Samuel Lancaster’s bold vision become reality.

Peg’s book also includes a terrific selection of seldom-seen historic photos of the highway during it’s original construction, reproduced with fine quality. In fact, the stories and images in this book would a perfect blueprint for the future Oneonta Tunnel Museum… someday!

_________________

As always, thanks for stopping by and reading through yet another long-form article in our era of tweets and soundbites!

Special thanks to Oregon photographer TJ Thorne, who contributed photos of the Oneonta Gorge summer crowds for this article. Those were just a few snapshots from his iPhone, but please visit TJ’s website to see his amazing fine art nature photography from landscapes across the American West, and please consider supporting his work.

Oregon’s outdoor photographers serve as our eyes on the forest, taking us places we might otherwise never see. They help the rest of us better appreciate and protect our public lands through their dedicated work, but they need our support to continue their work. 

Thanks, TJ!

_________________

Tom Kloster • April 2020

The Waterfalls of “Heaven and Hell”

Mist Falls from Benson State Park

Hidden in plain sight near the west entrance to the Columbia River Gorge are a string of waterfalls that flow from the slopes of Devils Rest and Angels Rest, yet are virtually unknown. At least one of them, Dalton Falls, is named. But nobody seems to agree which waterfall is the real “Dalton”.

A closer look at a 1916 touring map (below) published when the original scenic highway opened in the Gorge shows this area in detail, including a few name changes: “Fort Rock” is now Angels Rest and the domed butte at the top center-right edge is Devils Rest, which forms the headwaters of well-known Wahkeena Falls — then known as “Gordon Falls”.

Multnomah, Mist Falls and Coopey Falls are also shown, and still carry their original names (Mist Falls is one of the few landmarks in the Gorge that still carries a name given by the Lewis and Clark expedition). But tucked between Coopey Falls and Mist Falls on this old map is “Dalton Falls”, shown to be flowing from a prominent canyon on the east flank of Angels Rest (then “Fort Rock”). 

This is where the confusion begins, as the stream in this canyon does have several small cascades, but nothing that could have been easily seen from below, along the old Columbia River Highway, which seems to argue against this falls being the real “Dalton Falls” Meanwhile, one of the lesser-known waterfalls in what I am calling the “Heaven and Hell” section of the Gorge is quite prominent, and to many waterfall admirers is the rightful “Dalton Falls”. 

The photo below is from state aerial surveys taken after the Eagle Creek Fire in 2018, and shows both the familiar Mist Falls and nearby “Dalton Falls”, just to the west. 

Like Mist Falls, Dalton Falls is a two-tiered waterfall with a total height of 350 feet — not as tall as nearby Mist Falls at 520 feet, but quite tall compared to other waterfalls in the Gorge. In most years, Dalton Falls is seasonal, going dry in late summer. This is has been the main argument against this waterfall being the “real” Dalton Falls in the many debates that have unfolded over the years.

A Closer Look at Heaven and Hell

The Eagle Creek Fire and the State of Oregon’s aerial surveys that followed have pulled back the curtain on this area. With much of the once-dense forest canopy burned away, waterfall lovers can finally see just how many waterfalls have been hiding here. The following panorama is stitched together from several of these aerial photos and reveals a labyrinth of deep canyons and cliffs that make up the “Heaven and Hell” Gorge face, between Devils Rest and Angels Rest:

[click here for a very large version of the panorama]

Mist Falls is just beyond the left edge of the panorama and Coopey Falls just beyond the right side of this view. But beginning with Dalton Falls on the east, the composite photo reveals a total of seven unnamed waterfalls that can now be clearly seen in aerial images. For the sake of describing them, I’ve attached informal names to the most notable cascades (which I will explain, for better or worse).

This topographic map shows the same “Heaven and Hell” section of the Gorge face with the location of each of these waterfalls identified. Some are on seasonal streams while some some flow year-round, though even the perennial streams are not mapped in most cases. So, I’ve added them to this map, as well, for clarity:

[click here for a large version of the map]

Given the general location of these waterfalls, here’s a closer look at each one, as  captured in the State of Oregon surveys, starting from the west. The first is Foxglove Falls, located near Angels Rest (below).

“Foxglove Falls” is a working name I attached to this falls several years ago after first hearing it from Angels Rest, then getting a few glimpses of falling water through the trees. The name comes from a trail by the same name, and crossing this stream just upstream from the falls. Waterfall explorers have since scrambled down to Foxglove Falls and found a modest 50-foot cascade among a string of smaller drops as Foxglove Creek bounds down the very steep ravine below Angels Rest. 

The old Gorge touring map suggests that Foxglove Falls might be the illusive “Dalton Falls”, but it’s clearly too small and out of view to have been given this name. 

Moving east along the Gorge face, another very small, unnamed falls forms a seasonal cascade just beyond Foxglove Creek. I’ve simply labeled this as a “falls” on the panorama, as it’s one of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of seasonal falls of this scale that appear throughout the Gorge. 

Moving just a bit further east in the panoramic view, a more impressive falls emerges, with an upper tier of perhaps 80 to 100 feet in height and a lower tier of 150-200 feet. I’ve given this one the working name of “Chalice Falls” (below) for the distinct shape of the bowl carved into the basalt cliffs by the falls, which, combined with the basalt layer below, looks like a chalice to my eye. 

This is a chalice… can you see it in the carved basalt?

The lower tier of “Chalice Falls” is quite prominent, leaping out into space in a cascade that can easily be seen from below. For this reason, this is probably the best alternate candidate as the “real” Dalton Falls. However, this stream appears to be seasonal in most years, and has a smaller drainage than the suspected Dalton Falls to the east, so I’m still convinced that the presumed Dalton Falls is the real thing.

Heading east from Chalice Falls, another small waterfall appears that I’ve simply called “falls” on the panoramic view, before a much more pronounced canyon appears below the northwest slopes of Devils Rest. Most of the forest canopy survived here, so the secrets of this remote canyon aren’t revealed as readily as the rest of the “Heaven and Hell” section, but two large waterfalls are easily seen. I’ve given these the working name of “Lucifer” (with a nod to Devils Rest, upstream), with distinct upper and lower waterfalls (below).

Of the two Lucifers, the upper falls is the most interesting. Though it is partly hidden in the mist in this photo, the main Lucifer Falls (below) has a beautiful, spreading upper tier and horsetail-shaped lower tier that combine for a height of perhaps 150-200 feet.

Lower Lucifer Falls (below) is more of a long cascade, but has a tall upper tier of perhaps 70-100 feet that kicks off as much as 300 feet of continuous cascades. 

The two Lucifer waterfalls are quite hidden from view from below in a deep, forested canyon, so while this appears to be a year-round stream, it doesn’t seem like a likely candidate for as the “real” Dalton Falls, either.

Moving east from Lucifer Falls, the next prominent waterfall in the “Heaven and Hell” section leaps off a very tall basalt cliff in several twisting tiers that could easily combine for a height of 250-300 feet. I’ve given this falls the working name “Cordial Falls” for tall alcove the stream has carved here, resembling a glass cordial to my eye (below). Cordial Falls is quite graceful, fanning out along the basalt layers as it cascades down the Gorge cliffs.

This is a cordial… okay, maybe a bit of a stretch on this one..!

Look closely to the right of Cordial Falls and you can see a sizable landslide, with whole trees scattered in its wake. This event made it all the way down to the Historic Columbia River Highway, temporary blocking the road in the months after the Gorge fire.

Cordial Falls occurs on a stream that might flow year-round, so it’s possible that this stream could be the “real” Dalton Falls. But like the Lucifer waterfalls, it’s also somewhat hidden in its alcove, surrounded by big conifers. It therefore seems like another unlikely candidate for being named in those early days in the Gorge.

Which leaves the next falls to the east as the “real” Dalton Falls (below), and the State of Oregon aerial photos provide terrific detail of this very tall, two-tiered waterfall. The falls can also been seen prominently from below, along the Historic Columbia River Highway and modern I-84.

Just off to the left of the panoramic view is another falls on Dalton Creek. Lower Dalton Falls (below) is easily seen from the Historic Columbia River Highway, dropping from a cliff just west of Mist Creek, near a wide pullout on the highway.

So, there you have it — the “Heaven and Hell” waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge. You might be able to glimpse them during the winter months from I-84 (so long as you’re not doing the driving!), but for the most part these are “hidden” gems… in plain sight!

What’s in a Name?

So, why map obscure waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge? Party, because it’s fun and interesting to make new discoveries in places we think we know so well. But it’s also true that knowing (and naming) these places can help us better care for them and protect our public lands. 

In recent years, a new generation of waterfall enthusiasts has uncovered hundreds of “new” waterfalls in the Gorge and throughout Mount Hood country. Part of this new era of discovery comes from new tools, like detailed satellite images and LIDAR mapping now freely available online. But finding these hidden gems still requires old-fashion exploring on the ground, ensuring that most of these off-trail waterfalls will continue to be known first-hand to just a few.

Off-trail waterfalls like these are being discovered throughout Mount Hood country by a new generation of waterfall explorers, helping us better understand what is at stake for our unprotected public lands

Scores of these “new” waterfalls are in places like the Clackamas River basin, where the forest is still recovering from brutal logging and road construction that swept through Mount Hood country from the 1950s through the early 1990s. Had we known these waterfalls (and so many other magical places) existed when industrial logging was underway on our public lands, would we have tolerated the massive clear cuts and logging roads that marred these beautiful places? Perhaps. 

But it’s also possible that better public understanding of what was at stake might have slowed the bulldozers and chainsaws long enough to spare just a few of these places. These threats still exist for much of Mount Hood country, so long live the modern era of exploration and true appreciation for what is at stake!

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The author practicing responsible social distancing in the Gorge on March 15, before our State and Federal lands were closed to recreation by the COVID-19 pandemic

Postscript on COVID-19 from the author: we’ve all heard the words “unprecedented” and “challenging” too many times over the past few weeks, though both words do aptly describe our lives under a global pandemic. And with our public lands closed and Oregonians ordered to stay at home, you’ll be seeing few more articles on this blog. 

However, I don’t plan to tie blog themes to the global health crisis in any way, as I’m quietly honestly enjoying the opportunity to focus on something other than the crisis. Hopefully that won’t seem disrespectful or insensitive to readers. That is certainly not my intent. Instead, I hope the blog can provide a temporary distraction from the truly “unprecedented and challenging” situation that we’re all struggling through, something I think we can all use.

As always, thanks for taking the time to stop by, and of course, stay safe!

Tom Kloster | March 2020

Proposal: Historic Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail (Part 2 of 2)

Yellow paint still marks the old centerline of an abandoned section of the historic Mount Hood Loop highway, nearly covered with more than 60 years of moss and ferns.

(Part 1 of this article introduced the idea of restoring the surviving sections of the old Mount Hood Loop Highway to become part of a world-class cycle tour along this historic route. Part 2 focuses on these surviving historic sections of the old road, from Zigzag on the west side of the mountain to the Sherwood Campground on the east side, and how to bring this vision to reality)

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THE CONCEPT

In the near-century since the original Mount Hood Loop was completed in early 1920s, the old route has gradually been replaced with straighter, faster “modern” highways. In areas outside Mount Hood National Forest, the bypassed sections of the old road are mostly still in use, often serving as local roads. But inside the national forest, from Zigzag to Sherwood Campground, long sections of the old road were simply abandoned, left to revert to nature when new, modern roads were built in the 1950s and 60s. Some bypassed sections are still in use, though mostly forgotten.

This is 1930s-era map (below) shows the original alignment of the Mount Hood Loop highway in red and the approximate location of the modern highway alignments of US 26 and OR 35 superimposed in black:

[click here for a large version of this map]

The concept of reconnecting these forgotten sections of historic road is straightforward, building on the example of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) in the Columbia Gorge. As in the Gorge, places where modern highways on Mount Hood simply abandoned or bypassed the old route, the surviving segments of the old road would be the historic building blocks for creating a new “state trail”, which is simply a paved bicycle and pedestrian path closed to automobiles. 

Sections where the historic route was completely destroyed by modern highways would be reconnected with new trail, like we see in the Gorge, or with protected shoulder lanes on quiet sections of the modern highway in a couple areas.

This map shows the overall concept for restoring the route as the Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail:

[click here for the 11×17″ JPG version]

[click here for the 11×17″ PDF version]

Segments shown in blue on the concept map are where bypassed sections of the old highway still survive and segments shown in red are where new trails would connect the surviving historic segments. All of the new trail sections are proposed to follow existing forest roads to minimize costs and impacts on the forest. 

The concept map also shows several trailheads along the route where visitors would not only use to access the trail, but would also have trail information and toilets. These trailheads already exist in most cases, with several functioning as winter SnoParks that could be used year-round as part of the new trail concept.

Six Forest Service campgrounds (Tollgate, Camp Creek, Still Creek, Trillium Lake, Robinhood and Sherwood) already exist along the proposed route and two long-forgotten campgrounds (Twin Bridges and Hood River Meadows) are still intact and could easily be reopened as bikepacking-only destinations.

EXPLORING THE ROUTE

The next part of this article explores the scenic and historic highlights of the historic highway in three sections, from Rhododendron on the west side of the mountain to the Sherwood Campground and East Fork Hood River on the east side.

West Section – Rhododendron to Government Camp

The historic bridge over the Little Zigzag River survives, marking the beginning of a gracefully, winding ascent of Laurel Hill along the old loop highway

Beginning at the tiny mountain community of Zigzag, it’s possible to follow a couple bypassed segments of the old loop highway, notably along Faubion Road, but most of this section would follow a new, protected path on US 26 to Rhododendron, where the off-high trail concept begins. 

Part 1 of this article outlined the economic benefits of cycle touring, and by anchoring the west end of the new trail in Rhododendron, this small community would benefit from tourism in a way that speeding winter ski traffic simply doesn’t offer. The gateway trailhead would be located at the east end of Rhododendron, connecting to the Tollgate Campground, the first camping opportunity along the proposed route

The Barlow Road Tollgate near Rhododendron in the 1880s

From Tollgate, the new route would follow the Pioneer Bridle Trail for the next two miles to the Kiwanis Camp Road junction, on US 26. This is a lightly used section of the Pioneer Bridle Trail, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps from Tollgate to Government Camp in the 1930s. This part of the corridor follows the relatively flat valley floor of the Zigzag River, so there is plenty of room for a new trail to run parallel to the Pioneer Bridle Trail, as another option.

Pioneer Bridle Trail east of Tollgate

Once at the Kiwanis Camp Road junction, the new route would share this quiet forest road for the next next couple miles. Kiwanis Camp Road is actually a renamed, surviving section of the old highway and still provides access to the Paradise Park and Hidden Lake trails into the Mount Hood Wilderness. 

The Zigzag River passing through the old Twin Bridges campground site

Along the way, this section of old highway passes the site of the long-abandoned Twin Bridges campground, where a surviving bridge also forms the trailhead for the Paradise Park Trail. This shady old campground is quite beautiful, with the rushing Zigzag River passing through it. It could easily be reopened as a bikepacking-only camping spot along the tour.

Little Zigzag Falls

This operating section of old highway soon ends at the Little Zigzag River and the short spur trail to pretty Little Zigzag Falls. The enormous turnaround here once served as a rock quarry for the original loop highway, and has plenty of room serve as trailhead for the new state trail

From here, the old road begins an ascent of Laurel Hill, one of the most scenic and fascinating sections of the old highway. Large boulders now block the old highway at the historic bridge that crosses the Little Zigzag River, and from there, an abandoned section of the old road begins the traverse of Laurel Hill.

Abandoned historic highway section near the Little Zigzag crossing

This abandoned section of historic road crosses the upper portion of the Pioneer Bridle Trail where an unusual horse tunnel was constructed under the old highway as part of creating the Bridle Trail. It’s hard to imagine enough highway traffic in the 1930s to warrant this structure, but perhaps the trail builders were concerned about speeding Model As surprising visitors crossing the road on horseback? Whatever the reason, the stone bridge/tunnel structure is one of the many surviving gems hidden along the old highway corridor.

Pioneer Bridle Trail tunnel under an abandoned section of the historic loop highway

From the Pioneer Bridle tunnel overcrossing, the old road soon dead-ends at a tall embankment, where modern US 26 cuts across the historic route. The spot where the modern highway was built was once one of the most photographed waysides along the old highway, appearing in dozens of postcards and travel brochures. It was the first good view of the mountain from the old highway as it ascended from the floor of the Zigzag Valley to Government Camp (below).

While much of the old road has survived, the modern alignment of US 26 cut through this spot on the old loop, creating one of two gaps on Laurel Hill that will require significant structures to reconnect

Although almost all of the old highway survives where it climbs the Laurel Hill grade, this spot marks one of the two major gaps along the way that would require a significant new structure to reconnect the route. A second gap occurs at the crest of Laurel Hill, to the east, where the modern highway cuts deeply through the mountain. This map shows the surviving, abandoned sections of the historic highway along the Laurel Hill grade and upper and lower gaps that must be bridged:

[click here for a large version of this map]

On the ground, the lower Laurel Hill gap looks like this:

The lower Laurel Hill gap is at a well-known spot where a history marker points toward a short trail to one of the Barlow Road “chutes” that white migrants on the Oregon Trail endured in their final push to the Willamette Valley. 

ODOT has made this section of highway much faster and more freeway-like in recent years in the name of “safety”, but in the process made it impossible for hikers to cross the highway from the Pioneer Bridge Trail to visit the Barlow Road chute. A freeway-style median now blocks anyone from simply walking across the highway and cyclone fences have been added to the north side to make sure hikers get the message.

Given this reality, both of the Laurel Hill gaps would be great candidates for major new crossings, along the lines of work ODOT has done in the Gorge to reconnect the HCRH. This viaduct (below) was recently built by ODOT at Summit Creek, on the east side of Shellrock Mountain, where the modern I-84 alignment similarly took a bite out of an inclined section of the old highway, leaving a 40-foot drop-off where the old road once contoured downhill. This sort of solution could work at the lower Laurel Hill gap, too.

This new bicycle and pedestrian viaduct reconnects surviving segments of the original highway near Summit Creek along the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.

Beyond the Laurel Hill history marker on the south side of the modern US 26, a set of 1950s stone steps (below) leads occasional visitors up to the next section of abandoned Mount Hood Loop highway, where the old route continues its steady climb of Laurel Hill.

Stone steps leading from US 26 to the Barlow Road “chute” on Laurel Hill

This section of the abandoned route is in remarkably good shape, despite more than 60 years of no maintenance, whatsoever. It also briefly serves as the trail to a viewpoint of the Barlow Road chute — a footpath to the top of the chute resumes on the opposite side of the old highway, about 100 yards from the stone steps.

Abandoned section of the loop highway near the Barlow Road chute

When the historic highway was built in the 1920s, the Barlow Road was still clearly visible and only a few decades old. Despite the care they used elsewhere to build the scenic new road in concert with the landscape, there was no care given to preserving the old Barlow Road. Thus, the historic highway cut directly across the chute, permanently removing a piece of Oregon history. 

Today, the footpath to the top of the chute still gives a good sense of just how daunting this part of the journey was (below). This short spur trail, and others like it along the surviving sections of the old highway, would be integrated into the restored Mount Hood Loop route, providing side attractions for cyclists and hikers to explore along the way.

Looking down the Barlow Road chute from the interpretive trail

Beyond the Barlow chute, the old highway enters a very lush section of forest, where foot traffic from explorers continues to keep a section of old pavement bare (below). Scratch the surface, and even under this much understory, the old highway continues to be in very good condition and could easily be restored in the same way old sections of highway in the Gorge have been brought back to life as a trail.

Abandoned section of the old loop highway near Yocum Falls

Some of the foot traffic along the abandoned Laurel Hill section of the old loop road is headed toward a little-known user path that drops steeply down to Yocum Falls, on Camp Creek. This is a lovely spot that deserves a proper trail someday, and would make an excellent family destination, much as the Little Zigzag Falls trail is today.

Yocum Falls is mostly forgotten since the construction of the modern highway, but remains as beautiful as when it was featured on postcards in the 1920s

Yocum Falls was once well known, as the full extent of this multi-tiered cascade could be seen from along the old highway. As this old postcard from the 1920s shows (below), Camp Creek also served as a fire break for the Sherar Burn, which encompassed much of the area south of today’s US 26 in the early 1900s. You can see burned forest on the south (right) side in this photo and surviving forest on the north (left) side:

Yocum Falls in a 1920s postcard view from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

The fire also created this temporary view of the falls in the early 1900s, but the forest has since recovered and obscured the view. Today, the short hike down to the falls on the user path is required for a front-row view of Yocum Falls.

Beyond the falls, the abandoned highway makes a pronounced switchback and begins a traverse toward the crest of Laurel Hill. Here, the vegetation becomes more open, and road surface more visible (below).

Abandoned section of the old highway as it approaches the crest of Laurel Hill

Soon this abandoned section of old road makes another turn, this time onto the crest of Laurel Hill. When the historic highway was built, this stretch was still recovering from the Sherar Burn, and the summit was dense with rhododendron and beargrass that put on an annual flower show each June. This was perhaps the most iconic stop along the old route, appearing on countless postcards, calendars and print ads (below).

1940s tourism ad featuring the (then) famous view of Mount Hood from Laurel Hill

Today, most of this section has reforested, but there are still views of the mountain and opportunities for new viewpoints that could match what those Model A drivers experienced in the early days of touring on Mount Hood.

Soon, this abandoned section of old road on Laurel Hill reaches the upper gap, where ODOT has recently made the yawning cut through the crest of the hill even wider. This schematic is a view of the cut looking north (toward the mountain), with the stubs of the historic highway shown: 

If there is any good news here, it is that the modern highway cut is perpendicular to the old loop highway, making it possible to directly connect the surviving sections of the old road with a new bridge. This view (below) is from the eastern stub of the old route, where it suddenly arrives at the modern highway cut. The stub on west side of the cut is plainly visible across US 26:

This panoramic view (below) from the same spot gives a better sense of the gap and the opportunity to bride the upper Laurel Hill gap as part of restoring the old route as a trail. A bonus of bridging the upper gap would be an exceptional view of Mount Hood, which fills the northern skyline from here.

The upper gap is about 250 feet across and 40 feet deep, so are there any local examples of a bridge that could span this? One historic example is the old Moffett Creek Bridge on the HCRH, pictured below while it was being constructed in 1916. This bridge measures about 200 feet in length with a single arch.

Moffett Creek Bridge construction along the Columbia River Highway in 1916

The City of Portland recently broke ground on the new Earl Blumenauer Bridge, a bicycle and pedestrian crossing over Sullivan’s Gulch (and I-84) in Portland. This very modern design (below) might not be the best look for restoring a historic route on Mount Hood, but at 475 feet in length, this $13.7 million structure does give a sense of what it would take to span the upper gap at Laurel Hill. 

The City of Portland recently broke ground for this new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Sullivan’s Gulch, linking the Lloyd District to Portland’s Central Eastside (City of Portland)

That sounds like a big price tag, but consider that ODOT recently spent three times that amountsimply to add a lane and build a concrete median on the Laurel Hill section of US 26. It’s more about priorities and a vision for restoring the old road than available highway funding. More about that in a moment.

Moving east from the upper Laurel Hill gap, the abandoned section of the old highway continues (below) toward Government Camp, eventually reaching the Glacier View trailhead, where the surviving old highway now serves as the access road to this popular, but cramped, SnoPark.

Abandoned section of the loop highway near Government Camp

Sadly, the Forest Service recently destroyed a portion of the abandoned loop highway just west of the Glacier View trailhead, leaving heaps of senselessly plowed-up pavement behind. While destroying this section of historic road was frustrating (and possibly illegal), it can still be restored fairly easily. But this regrettable episode was another reminder of the vulnerability of the old highway without a plan to preserve and restore it.

Piles of paving line a short section of the abandoned loop highway near Government Camp where the Forest Service recently destroyed the road surface with no consideration of its historic value — a senseless reminder of the vulnerability of this precious route

From the Glacier View trailhead, the old road become an operating roadway once again, curving south to another junction with US 26, across from the new Mirror Lake trailhead, where a major new recreation site completed in 2018. This trailhead provides parking, restrooms and interpretive displays for visitors to the popular Mirror Lake trail, and is immediately adjacent to the Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort and lodge.

Plans call for a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over US 26 at the Mirror Lake trailhead, spanning one of the critical gaps necessary to reconnect the old highway route

Crossing the US 26 at this junction is a sketchy, scary experience, especially on foot or a bicycle. Fortunately, the 2014 Mount Hood Multimodal Plan, adopted jointly by the Forest Service and ODOT, calls for a major bicycle and pedestrian bridge here to allow for safe crossing by hikers, cyclists, skiers and snowshoers, so a plan is already in place to resolve this obstacle.

Middle Section – Government Camp to Barlow Pass

Mount Hood mirrored in one of the ponds at Multorpor Fen (State of Oregon)

From the Mirror Lake trailhead, the old highway loops through today’s parking lot at the Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort, then crosses US 26 again to loop through the mountain village of Government Camp. These graceful curves in the old route were bisected when the modern US 26 was built in the 1950s, leaving them intact as local access roads. However, because the Government Camp section of the old road serves as the village main street, the concept for a Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail parallels the south edge of US 26 along a proposed new trail section, and avoids two crossings of the modern highway in the process. 

However, a more interesting (but complicated) option in this area is possible along the south edge of the Multorpor Fen, an intricate network of ponds, bogs and meadows sandwiched between the east and west Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort units. The remarkable view in the photo above shows one of the ponds along this alternate route, far enough from the modern highway to make traffic noise a distant hum. However, this route would also require crossing a section of private land at Ski Bowl East. The mountain views and buffer from the highway make this an option worth considering, nonetheless.

Both options are shown on the concept map at the top of this article, and either route through the Government Camp area leads to the northern foot of Multorpor Mountain, where the concept for the state trail is to repurpose a combination of existing and abandoned forest roads as new trail to historic Summit Meadow and popular Trillium Lake, where the second and third campgrounds along the proposed trail are located.

Historic Summit Meadow, a crucial resting spot for white Oregon Trail migrants in the 1840s along the old Barlow Road
Mount Hood from Trillium Lake

From Trillium Lake, the new trail would follow existing forest roads toward Red Top Meadow, to the east, then follow a new route for about a mile to the continuation of the historic loop highway, just east of the US 26/OR 35 junction. Here, a surviving section of the old road is maintained and remains open to the public, passing the mysterious Pioneer Woman’s Grave site as it climbs toward Barlow Pass. 

Surviving section of the old loop highway near Barlow Pass that is still open for use
This massive, carved history marker once stood at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave along the old loop highway, near Barlow Pass
The badly neglected Pioneer Woman’s Grave site today

When the original highway was completed in the 1920s, a viewpoint along this section of the road was called “Buzzard Point” and inspired postcards and calendar photos in its day. Few call this spot Buzzard Point anymore, but the view survives, along with a rustic roadside fountain built of native stone and still carrying spring water to the passing public. In winter, this section of the old road is also popular with skiers and snowshoers.

This 1920s view from Buzzard Point was well-known in the heyday of the old loop highway
This surviving stone water fountain near Buzzard Point is still flowing nearly a century after it was built!

This section of the old route continues another mile or so to the large SnoPark at Barlow Pass, another important trailhead that serves both the loop highway corridor and the Pacific Crest Trail.

East Section – Barlow Pass to Sherwood Campground

Barlow Road history sign at the Barlow Pass trailhead, where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the historic loop highway

From Barlow Pass, the trail concept calls for a protected bikeway on the shoulder of OR 35, where it crosses the White River and climbs to Bennett Pass. It would be possible for the trail to take a different route along this section, but the traffic volumes and speed on OR 35 are much less intimidating than those on US 26, especially from spring through fall, when ski resort traffic all but disappears. There is also plenty of room to add protected bike lanes along this section of OR 35, including on the new bridge over the White River that was completed just a few years ago.

The Mount Hood Loop trail concept would follow this section of OR 35 as a protected bikeway from Barlow Pass to the White River and Bennett Pass
The White River crossing has always been a popular stop along the Mount Hood Loop Highway. In the early days, motorists could stop here to picnic and pick up souvenirs at “White River Park”
The White River is a notoriously wild glacial stream that has a long history of washing out the loop highway bridges — this was the first bridge to span the river as it appeared in the 1920s
This is a 1930s version of the White River Bridge, one still constructed of logs and planks
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt stopped at the White River crossing in 1937 on their famous tour of the Mount Hood Loop Highway and dedication of Timberline Lodge

Upon reaching Bennett Pass, the proposed route would once again follow an especially scenic section of bypassed historic highway, with views of waterfalls, alpine meadows and the mountain towering above.

Mount Hood from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway at Bennett Pass in the 1930s
1950s view of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Bennett Pass before the modern highway was constructed

Of the many scenes along the old road that were postcard favorites, the view of the Sahalie Falls Bridge, stone fountain and falls in the background was among the most popular. The bridge was the largest structure on the original loop highway, and a scenic highlight (you can read more about the history of the bridge in this 2013 blog article “Restoring the Sahalie Falls Bridge”)

The graceful Sahalie Falls bridge is the architectural highlight of the old loop highway, and was restored in 2013
The Sahalie Falls Bridge under construction in the 1920s
Popular postcard view of the Sahalie Falls Bridge and stone fountain from the 1920s

Today, the bridge is once again in excellent condition, having been restored by the Federal Highway Administration in 2013. For years, the bridge had been closed to automobiles because of its state of disrepair, but today it stands as perhaps the most significant historic highway feature along the old road.

From Sahalie Falls, the historic road curves east through subalpine forests before arriving at Hood River Meadows, among the largest on Mount Hood and another spot that was featured in countless postcards and advertisements during the heyday of the old road. 

1920s view of the old loop highway at Hood River Meadows. This nearly forgotten section of the old highway still operates today.

The long-abandoned Hood River Meadows campground also survives here, along the east side of the meadows, and is still in excellent condition. This site could be reopened as a second bikepacking-only camping spot along the proposed trail. 

1940s tourism ad featuring Mount Hood from the loop highway at Hood River Meadows

Next, the historic road curves toward OR 35 where it also serves as the resort access road for the Hood River Meadows ski complex. From the spot where the old road meets OR 35, there are a couple more abandoned road sections along the north edge of OR 35 that could be reconnected as part of the Loop Highway trail concept, but this is the last of the surviving sections of the old road on this part of the mountain.

From here, the trail concept would connect a series of old forest roads on a gradual descent of the East Fork Hood River valley, toward Sherwood Campground, located along the East Fork, and completing the Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail.

East Fork Hood River near Sherwood Campground in winter

Sherwood Campground is a very old, still operating campground that includes another stone fountain from the old highway, located near the campground entrance. The campground is also a jumping off point for the popular trail to Tamanawas Falls. Nearby Little John SnoPark would serve as the main eastern trailhead for the new trail, with a short connecting route the main trail. 

Historic stone fountain from the original loop Highway at Sherwood Campground
Tamanawas Falls, just off the loop highway near Sherwood Campground

Sherwood Campground would form the eastern terminus of the historic section of the proposed Loop Highway State Trail. From here the larger Mount Hood scenic loop route would follow OR 35 through the narrowing canyon of the East Fork to the wide expanse of the upper Hood River Valley. 

This narrow section of the loop highway is where a safe, protected bikeway will need to thread the needle between cliffs and the East Fork Hood River

The canyon section along the East Fork is a crux segment for the loop route, with the modern highway wedged between the river and a wall of steep cliffs and talus slopes. Engineers designing a safe bikeway through this section of road could take some inspiration from the Shellrock Mountain in the Gorge, where the HCRH State Trail threads a similar corridor between I-84 and the talus slopes of Shellrock Mountain. This crux section along the East Fork is about a mile long.

WHERE TO START?

Touring the upper Hood River Valley in the 1950s

What would it take for this concept to become a reality? A crucial first step would be a feasibility study inspired by the HCRH State Trail, with an emphasis on the potential this example offers for restoring and reconnecting historic sections of the old Mount Hood Loop Highway on Mount Hood. 

Rock crusher along the original loop highway during its construction in the 1920s

An obvious sponsor for this work would be the Oregon Department of Transportation, working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. These agencies have worked together to bring the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail to reality and have both the experience and capacity to repeat this success story on Mount Hood. The following outline could be a starting point for their work:

Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail Feasibility Study 

Purpose Statement

Restore and reconnect surviving sections of the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway from Rhododendron to Sherwood Campground as a paved state trail the combines shared right-of-way and non-motorized trail experiences.

Feasibility Study Objectives

  • Identify new, paved trail segments needed on public land to complete the loop using existing forest road alignments whenever possible.
  • Identify surviving historic resources and new interpretive opportunities along the trail.
  • Identify multimodal trailhead portals at the trail termini and at major destinations along the trail, including Rhododendron and Government Camp.
  • Identify bike-and-hike opportunities that build on soft-trail access from a new, paved state trail.
  • Coordinate and correlate route and design options and opportunities with the 2014 Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Planand the Mount Hood Scenic Byway Interpretive Plan and Design Guidelines.
  • Identify an alternate bicycle route for the Mount Hood Scenic Byway from Sandy to Rhododendron that does not follow the US 26 shoulder.
  • Identify design solutions for designing a protected shoulder bikeway in the crux section of OR 35 in the East Fork canyon.
  • Engage public and private stakeholders and the general public in developing the feasibility study.

But what would it really take..?

Railing and sidewalk repairs underway to the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013

While ODOT has directly managed construction of the HCRH State Trail in the Gorge, a lesser-known federal agency has been taking the lead in recent, similar projects on Mount Hood. A little-known division of the Federal Highway Administration known as Federal Lands Highway is gaining a growing reputation for innovative, sustainable designs in recent projects on our federal public lands. 

On Mount Hood, Federal Lands Highway oversaw the restoration of the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013, a long-overdue project that rescued this priceless structure from the brink of oblivion. Like any highway agency, they excelled at the roadway element of the project, like restoring the bridge and related structure. Other opportunities were missed, however, including improving the adjacent parking areas and providing interpretive amenities for visitors. 

Forms for new railing caps on the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013
Federal Lands Highway rebuilt the footing for the historic water fountain at Sahalie Falls as part of the bridge restoration project
The newly restored Sahalie Falls Bridge and fountain in 2014

Federal Lands Highway also completed a major reconstruction of OR 35 at Newton Creek in 2012. This project was in response to massive flooding of this surprisingly powerful glacial stream in 2006. Their work here shows some of the negatives of a highway agency taking the lead, with a very large footprint on the land and a big visual impact with over-the-top, freeway-style “safety” features that are old-school by today’s design practices.

The mega-culvert project built by Federal Lands Highway at Newton Creek in 2012

In 2012, Federal Lands Highway also completed (yet another!) bridge replacement over the White River, which was also damaged in the 2006 floods. The massive new bridge is similarly over-the-top to their work at Newton Creek, but Federal Lands Highway deserves credit for rustic design features that blend the structure with the surroundings, including native stone facing on the bridge abutments.

Western Federal Lands completed the new White River Bridge in 2012

The most promising recent work on Mount Hood by Federal Lands Highway is the completion of the new Mirror Lake Trailhead in 2018. This project involved a significant planning effort in a complex location with multiple design alternatives. Their work here involved the public, too, something their earlier work at White River, Sahalie Falls and Newton Creek neglected.

The new Mirror Lake Trailhead was completed in a partnership of Federal Lands Highway, the Forest Service and ODOT in 2018

The final result at Mirror Lake is an overall success, despite the controversy of moving the trailhead to begin with. The new trailhead is now a prototype of what other trailheads along a restored Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trailcould (and should) look like, complete with restrooms, interpretive signs, bicycle parking and accessibility for people using mobility devices.

New shoulder swales along US 26 were part of the Mirror Lake trailhead project, helping to protect water quality of Camp Creek from highway runoff
The new Mirror Lake Trailhead plaza includes restrooms, interpretive signage, bike parking and seating for visitors

Beyond the hardscape features at the new trailhead, Federal Lands Highways worked with the Forest Service to replant areas along a new paved section of trail. This work provides another useful template for how the two federal agencies could work together with ODOT in a larger restoration of the old Loop Highway as a new trail.

Though it looks a little rough, this area along the new, paved section of the Mirror Lake Trail was landscaped with native materials as part of the new trailhead project
Landscape restoration at the new trailhead included woody forest debris, native understory starts and hydro-seeding to protect newly planted areas from erosion

One of the compelling reason for Federal Lands Highway to take a leading role in a Loop Highway trail project is the unfortunate fact that ODOT has ceded the right-of-way for several of the abandoned sections of the old road to the Forest Service. This would make it difficult for ODOT to use state funds to restore these sections without a federal transportation partner like Federal Lands Highway helping to navigate these jurisdictional hurdles. 

However, governance hurdles like this existed in the Gorge, too, and state and federal partners simply worked together to resolve them, provided they had a clear mandate to work toward.

Getting behind the idea… and creating a mandate

The original Mount Hood Loop Highway in the Hood River Valley in the 1930s

Bringing this trail concept to reality will take more than a feasibility study, of course — and even that small step will take some political lifting by local officials, cycling advocates, the local tourism community and even our congressional delegation. While the money is clearly there for ODOT to begin this work, it would only happen with enough political support to begin the work.

The good news is that Oregon’s congressional delegation is increasingly interested in outdoor recreation and our tourism economy, especially when where a coalition of advocates and local officials share a common vision. With the HCRH State Trail in the Gorge nearing completion after more than 30 years of dedicated effort by advocates and ODOT, it’s a good time to consider completing the old loop as the next logical step in restoring a part of our legacy.

The idea of loop around Mount Hood began as soon as the Columbia River Highway was completed in 1915. This article in The Oregon described the first documented trip around the mountain using a patchwork of roads that existed before the Mount Hood Loop was constructed in the 1920s (large PDF versions of this article can be viewed at the links, below)

1915 Article – Page 1 (PDF)

1915 Article – Page 2 (PDF)

Rumor has it that new legislation is in the works to ramp up protection and improve recreation opportunities for Mount Hood and the Gorge. Including theMount Hood Loop Highway State Trail concept in new legislation would be an excellent catalyst for moving this idea from dream to reality. 

But could this really happen in today’s fraught political environment in Washington D.C.? Don’t rule it out: President Reagan was notorious for his hostility toward public lands, and yet he infamously “held his nose” and signed the Columbia River Gorge legislation into law in 1986, including the mandate to devise a plan to restore surviving sections of the HCRH as a trail. 

So, could this happen in the era of Trump for Mount Hood? Stay tuned…

Proposal: Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail (Part 1 of 2)

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1920s traveler admiring the view from Laurel Hill on the brand new Mount Hood Loop Highway

The year is 2035, and a family of tourists is just arriving at a local bed and breakfast in the village of Brightwood, Oregon, along the old Mount Hood Loop highway. They have just traveled 45 miles from Portland International Airport to Brightwood on the first of a six-day, world-class cycling tour of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.

On the first day of their tour they followed quiet country roads through the beautiful farms and picturesque pastures of the lower Sandy River Valley. Mount Hood floated on the horizon for much of their ride, hinting at the sights to come. After a night in Brightwood, the family will continue on to the village of Rhododendron, where the newly completed Historic Mount Hood Loop (HMHL) State Trail begins a spectacular tour of some of Oregon’s finest scenery.

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Selling huckleberries at the just-opened Little Zigzag Bridge on the loop highway in the 1920s

Inspired by the recently completed Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, this new trail follows once forgotten or abandoned segments of the historic Mount Hood Loop highway, with new connecting segments completing the route through mossy rainforests, alpine meadows and along mountain streams. Most of the new trail is far from the traffic, noise and hazards of the modern highway corridor, taking visitors back in time and pace of what it was like to experience the original loop highway more than a century ago.

A few miles up the new route, at the Little Zigzag River, the family parks their bikes for a short hike to a shady waterfall. Next, they will climb Laurel Hill along restored sections of the original highway, where route passes the nearly 200-year old ruts from covered wagons on the Oregon Trail that can still be seen. Their next stop is in Government Camp for lunch, with a visit to the Mount Hood Cultural Center and Museum.

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Mount Hood Loop Highway construction in the early 1920s at the Little Zigzag Bridge

From Government Camp, their tour descends past Summit Meadows to iconic Trillium Lake, then heads east to the White River and Hood River Meadows. At Sherwood Campground they reach the east end of the new HMHL State Trail, and park their bicycles for the night. Here, they will stay in one of the well-stocked Forest Service yurts that overlook the East Fork Hood River. After a light dinner, the family hikes the easy trail to nearby Tamanawas Falls to cap a specular day on the mountain.

On their third day, the family begins a scenic descent along the Mount Hood Loop into the orchards of the Hood River Valley, stopping in the village of Parkdale for lunch and at roadside fruit stands along the way. They arrive in the town of Hood River by late afternoon, with plenty of time to explore the town’s galleries, shops and restaurants before checking in to the historic Hood River Hotel for the third night of their tour. 

The once (and future!) tunnel with windows at Mitchell Point

From Hood River, the family spends their fourth day on the spectacular, world-famous HCRH State Trail, traveling west through the newly restored Mitchell Point Tunnel and a stop at the short, new viewpoint hike to Viento Bluffs. A bicycle-friendly hotel in Cascade Locks serves as their base for a longer, late afternoon hike along the scenic Pacific Crest Trail.

On the fifth day of their circuit, the family continues their tour on the HCRH State Trail from Cascade Locks to the west trailhead at Ainsworth State Park, where they follow the Historic Columbia River Highway west to Multnomah Falls for lunch and another short hike to the iconic Benson Bridge. Finally, they make the climb past Crown Point and then down to their final night at a Troutdale bed and breakfast, located along the Sandy River. 

From Troutdale, the family will return to PDX and a flight home after their memorable six-day, 155-mile journey along the old Mount Hood Loop — no car required!

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In this two-part article, we’ll explore some long-forgotten sections of the old Mount Hood Loop highway, and the potential for bringing them back to life in the same way that abandoned sections of the old Columbia River Highway have been reclaimed. But does restoring the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway as a state trail make sense?

Yes, if you consider that bicycle tourism contributes $83 billion annually to U.S. economy, according to a 2017 study by the Outdoor Industry Association. Or that bicycle tourism in Oregon brings more than $400 million to our state economy, according to a 2012 study by Travel Oregon. And studies also show that touring cyclists tend to be older, wealthier and spend more when they travel, making them a coveted market in tourism.

Bicycle touring on Grand Canyon’s car-free South Rim (NPS)

Most importantly, these tourists don’t speed home after a day on the mountain to spend their money back in Portland. Instead, they invest in the local tourism economy along their multi-day tours, supporting the local lodging, restaurants, guides, museums and galleries that rely on tourist dollars to survive.

This article opened with a story about a future family traveling the 155-mile Mount Hood Loop over six days, but more ambitious riders could easily complete the loop in two or three days. Visitors with more time could easily spend a week or more exploring side trails and the towns along the loop, including a visit to historic Timberline Lodge.

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Bicycle touring options from bold to leisurely would be possible on the restored Mount Hood Loop.

The nearly completed HCRH State Trail has also shown that local cyclists and walkers use the route in day-segments, taking advantage of the many trailheads along the way to explore the trail in sections. Some of these day-use visitors are also looking for bike-and-hike adventures on foot trails that connect to the HCRH State Trail. A new HMHL State Trail could offer the same bike-and-hike opportunities, as well as winter skiing and snowshoeing.

The National Park Service is leading the way among our federal land agencies in both promoting bicycle tourism and in managing new forms of cycling — notably, e-bikes (electric bikes), which are now permitted in several parks where motorized travel is otherwise prohibited. Why permit e-bikes? Partly because of the explosive growth in e-bikes, but also because e-bikes allow more people to experience cycling. They have zero emissions and are nearly as quiet as non-electric bikes, so they are just as compatible in natural settings as conventional bikes. Because e-bikes are opening the sport of cycling to a much wider audience, they have only added to the demand for safe, scenic places to ride, and help make the case to go big in how we plan for trails in Oregon.

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Touring on the Historic Columbia River Highway near Rowena Crest (Travel Oregon)

While Oregon has been at the forefront of promoting bicycle tourism, other states with the kind of scenery that draws national and international tourism are catching on, too. Montana now sees a half-million touring cyclists visit their state each year, and other states like Colorado and Vermont are also seeing the benefits of bicycle tourism to their small towns and rural economies.

Building on our Success in the Gorge

In 1986, a decades-long effort to restore abandoned sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway as a recreation trail began with this simple passage in the legislation that created the Columbia River National Scenic Area:

16 U.S.C. 544j Section 12. Old Columbia River Highway: The Oregon Department of Transportation shall, in consultation with the Secretary and the Commission, the State of Oregon and the counties and cities in which the Old Columbia River Highway is located, prepare a program and undertake efforts to preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity of the remaining segments of the Old Columbia River Highway for public use as a Historic Road, including recreation trails to connect intact and usable segments.

This revolutionary provision recognized both the intrinsic value of preserving and celebrating the historic highway and the exponential growth in demand for recreation opportunities in our growing region. Both principles still apply today as the original vision for creating the HCRH State Trail nears completion. 

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ODOT has gradually rebuilt a new trail in the style of Samuel Lancaster’s original design where modern freeway construction destroyed the historic Columbia River Scenic Highway.

With our proven success in saving and restoring the old highway in the Gorge, it’s the right time to look ahead toward a new vision of completing the larger Mount Hood Loop, as it once existed. Like the Columbia River Highway, the surviving historic highway segments on Mount Hood are at serious risk of being lost forever. Neither ODOT nor the Forest Service have any plans to “preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity” of this remaining piece of the old Mount Hood Loop.

The Vision: Restoring the Mount Hood Loop Experience

Much of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway was abandoned or bypassed in the late 1950s, when the modern, “straightened” route we know today was constructed. 

Over the decades much of the “modern” road was incrementally widened from the original two lanes in the 1960s to four lanes in over the past two decades making it much more of a “freeway” than a “scenic highway”. Most recently, ODOT spent tens of millions to make our “scenic” highway even wider at Laurel Hill, near Government Camp, in order to add lanes and a freeway-style concrete median. 

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No shortage of funding, here… ODOT just spent $37 million blasting away more of Laurel Hill in order to widen Highway 26 and add a freeway-style concrete median.

Today, drivers brave enough to pull off at the few pullouts that remain on US 26 are overwhelmed by the noise of speeding traffic and trucks. Few cyclists even consider making this scary trip, which means fewer touring cyclists to support the mountain economy.

The good news? Half-hidden under 60 years of moss and ferns, a series of historic bridges, stone fountains and other historic features still survive from the original loop highway, with spectacular roadside scenery that can’t be matched by the modern road. These historic features are mostly neglected, if not outright abandoned, and are waiting for a new vision to bring them back to life.

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The old Little Zigzag Bridge survives under a century of moss. The huckleberry pickers pictured in the second photo in this article were standing just to the left of this view.

The template for saving these historic remnants and repurposing them to become part of a new recreation route would have seemed farfetched thirty years ago. Today, our newly restored HCRH State Trail not only serves as a perfect model for how to fund, design and build such a facility, it also reminds us that the Gorge trail is part of the larger vision, with the two trails connecting to trace the entire Mount Hood Loop of the 1920s.

Three Trail Sections

It turns out the entire route of the proposed HMHL State Trail falls along the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway corridor, a special highway designation extending from Troutdale to Hood River.

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This is very good news as a starting point for restoring and reconnecting the old highway as part of the Mount Hood Loop. From a bureaucracy perspective, it means the route is already designated in a way that allows ODOT to spend money in the corridor on projects that make it safer and more scenic for visitors using any mode of travel. But if you read the scenic byway description, it’s pretty clear that bicycles are an afterthought. It doesn’t have to be that way.

For the purpose of this proposal, the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway route is the foundation for the trail concept that would restore and reconnect surviving historic sections of the original highway. Like the Historic Columbia River Highway corridor, the idea is to restore bypassed sections of the original highway to reconnect the other, surviving sections as a continuous route. 

This combination of existing and restored routes is organized into three sections that generally follow the existing Mount Hood National Scenic Byway corridor, beginning in Troutdale. The west and east sections are shared roads that mostly need better signage, while the middle, historic section would be a mix of shared roads and paved trails that follow restored highway segments connected by new trail segments. 

Here’s a description of each of the three segments of the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway, reimagined:

West Section – Troutdale to Rhododendron: The west leg of the route would follow much of the existing scenic byway from Troutdale to Sandy, traveling through the sprawling nurseries and berry fields of East Multnomah County. The current scenic byway route joins heavily traveled US 26 in Sandy, following the highway all the way to Mount Hood. It’s a noisy and dangerous route for anyone, but especially cyclists. Therefore, instead of joining US 26 there, the reimagined route would head in a different direction.

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The terrifying ride along Mount Hood 26 makes this section of the Mount Hood Scenic Byway anything but scenic for cyclists (photo: Married with Bikes blog)

From Sandy, the new Mount Hood National Scenic Byway route would turn east to follow historic Marmot Road and Barlow Trail Road to the mountain community of Zigzag. From there, a short section of old highway along the Faubion Loop and a very short, protected bike path along US 26 would complete the connection to the Rhododendron community. 

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: West Section

This quiet, safer and more scenic alternative route is shown in dashed red on the above map. Along the way, visitors would travel through picturesque farmland with Mount Hood views and the forest communities of Marmot, Brightwood, Zigzag and Rhododendron. Several riverside parks and the Sandy Ridge mountain bike park are also located along this part of the route.

Design elements along this 37-mile segment would build on existing scenic byway guidelines, with improved way-finding and interpretive signs that would help cyclists and drivers more easily follow the loop and locate lodging and other services.

Historic Highway Section – Rhododendron to Sherwood Camp:This section is the main focus of the proposed Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail and extends from Rhododendron to Sherwood Campground.This section includes several miles of bypassed and abandoned highway that have the potential to become a spectacular, world-class cycling experience. Today, many of these historic features are at risk, with no plans by ODOT or the Forest Service to protect them.

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The Forest Service destroyed the original paved surface a half-mile section of the historic loop highway in 2012 for no particular reason. Fortunately, the roadbed was left intact.
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Fans of the surviving sections of the old highway are out there! This sign was posted where the Forest Service destroyed the historic highway surface in the previous photo (Photo: Guy Meacham)

From Rhododendron, the section of the Mount Hood Loop route would follow a series of connecting multi-use trails that would combine with still-operating segments and long-abandoned secxtions of the old highway for the next 28 miles, traversing some of the most scenic places along the Mount Hood loop, all the while avoiding busy US 26.

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: Historic Section

Along the way, the proposed route would pass several historic bridges, campgrounds, historic Government Camp and traces of the original Barlow Road that formed the final stretch of the Oregon Trail. There are many possible side trips along this historic section of the proposed loop, including the historic Timberline Lodge and several trailheads with bike-and-hike opportunities.

East Section – Sherwood Camp to Hood River: From the Sherwood Campground, the remaining 27 miles of the restoredMount Hood Loop would follow OR 35, a much less busy, two-lane highway with room for a shoulder bikeway. This section of the loop route would follow the same alignment as the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway, traversing some of Oregon’s most beautiful landscapes in the orchards and forests of the Hood River Valley.

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: East Section

The east section ends at the town of Hood River, which lies at the mid-point of the HCRH State Trail. The 51-mile return route to Troutdale begins here, and traverses the exceptional scenery of the western Columbia River Gorge, including Multnomah Falls and Crown Point.

Through some miracle, this original fountain that once graced the old highway survives nearly a century later at Sherwood Camp, just a few feet from the modern highway. This is just one of many historic traces of the old route that have survived and call out for a new vision to protect and restore them.

There is no shortage of scenery along the Mount Hood Loop, but many visitors who come today are surprised and disappointed by the lack of pullouts, interpretive signs and heavy highway and winter ski resort traffic that makes it all but impossible to enjoy the modern highway. 

Can we reimagine the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway to provide a better alternative to the rush of the modern highways by restoring the surviving segments of the historic highway? Our experience in the Gorge says yes, and the old Mount Hood Loop could join the Gorge as a world-class touring destination. But what would it take to get there?

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Next up in Part 2: how we get there, including a virtual tour the surviving sections of the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway and the opportunities for restoring this exceptionally scenic old road as a state trail.

Kohnstamm Memorial Trail?

Entering the Kohnstamm Memorial Wilderness

When President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 into law on March 30, 2009, more than a dozen new pocket wilderness areas and additions to existing wilderness were created around Mount Hood and in the Clackamas watershed. 

Among these, the Richard L. Kohnstamm Memorial Area expanded the Mount Hood Wilderness to the east of Timberline Lodge to encompass the White River canyon, extending from Mount Hood’s crater to about the 5,000 foot level, including a segment of the Timberline Trail and Pacific Crest Trail that traverses the canyon. This wilderness addition was created to “recognize the balance between wild and developed areas in the national public lands system and to create a tribute to the man who saved Timberline Lodge.”

The wilder side of the Timberline area is now the Kohnstamm Memorial Area, an extension of the Mount Hood Wilderness just east of the lodge

Richard Kohnstamm was the longtime force behind the RLK Company, operators of the Timberline Resort, which has a permit to operate the historic Timberline Lodge, which in turn is owned by the American public. 

After his duty as a gunner during World War II, Kohnstamm returned home to earn his masters degree in social work from Columbia University. After college, he moved to Portland to take a job at a local social services non-profit. Soon after arriving here, he made a visit to Timberline Lodge, where he was immediately taken with the beauty of the massive building. 

Richard Kohnstamm at Timberline in 1957 (Oregon Encyclopedia)

But Kohnstamm saw a tarnished jewel, as the lodge had quickly fallen into disrepair following its construction by the Works Progress Administration in 1937. The Forest Service had revoked the operating permit for the lodge and was looking for a new operator, and so began the Kohnstamm era at Timberline. By all accounts, he did, indeed, save the lodge. 

Kohnstamm soon teamed with John Mills to found the Friends of Timberline, a non-profit dedicated to preservation of the history, art and architecture of the remarkable building. The unique partnership between the Forest Service, Friends of Timberline and the RLK Company to preserve the lodge in perpetuity continues to this day, and is known as the Timberline Triumvirate. 

Today, the lodge continues to thrive, and summer resort operations have now expanded to include a controversial bike park centered on the Jeff Flood chairlift. After years of legal challenges, the RLK Company build miles of bicycle trails descending from main lodge to the base of the lift, where cyclists can load themselves and their bikes for a quick ride back to the top. 

The Timberline Resort’s new bike park opened this summer (photo: Timberline)

It’s a high-adrenaline activity made easy, with no hills to climb. But the development of this new attraction underscored the fact that the Timberline resort operators and Forest Service have done little over the decades to enhance the hiking experience around the lodge, despite plenty of demand. 

The reason is pretty obvious: hikers don’t buy lift tickets. Yes, some hikers help fill the hotel rooms in summer, and still more stop by to support the restaurants in the lodge, but filling ski lifts continues to the focus at Timberline.

Bikes riding the Jeff Flood lift back to the lodge (photo: Timberline)

Today, hikers at Timberline are limited to walking along the Timberline Trail or hiking the Mountaineer Trail, a semi-loop that climbs to a lift terminal, where it dead-ends at a dirt service road. Hikers usually follow the steep, dusty road back to lodge to complete a loop.

But perhaps the Richard L Kohnstamm Memorial Area could be inspiration for the Forest Service and RLK Company to bring new trails to the area, and a create a more welcoming trailhead for visitors who aren’t staying at the lodging or paying to ride the resort lifts? In that spirit, the following is a concept for a new trail that would be an instant classic on the mountain, rivaled only by the popular Cooper Spur Trail on Mount Hood’s north side for elevation and close-up looks into an active glacier.

Proposal: Kohnstamm Glacier View Trail

The proposed Glacier View Trail would climb the broad ridge that separates the White River and Salmon River canyons, just east of Timberline Lodge. The new trail would begin just across the Salmon River from the lodge, at a junction along the Timberline Trail, and end at Glacier View, a scenic high point on the ridge between the Palmer and White River glaciers. 

This viewpoint is already visited by a few intrepid explorers each year for its spectacular views into Mount Hood’s crater and the rugged crevasses of the White River Glacier. The schematic below shows how the new route would appear from Timberline Lodge:

(click image to enlarge)

Another perspective (below) of the proposed trail shows the route as it would appear from further east along the Timberline Trail, where it travels along the rim of White River canyon. This angle also shows the tumbling descent of the White River Glacier and the steep west wall of the canyon that would provide several overlooks from the new trail:

(click image to enlarge)

Thanks to the gentle, open terrain, the new trail would climb in broad, graded switchbacks, eventually reaching an elevation of 8,200 feet. This is just shy of the elevation of Cooper Spur, and would make the Kohnstamm Glacier View Trail the second-highest trail on the mountain.

The viewpoint at Glacier View (below) is already marked by a stone windbreak built by hikers that complements several handy boulders (below) to make this a fine spot for relaxing and taking in the view.

End of the trail at Glacier View (photo: Google)

From the Glacier View viewpoint, Mount Hood’s crater and the upper reaches of the White River Glacier (below) are surprisingly rugged and impressive, given the generally gentle terrain of Mount Hood’s south side. From this perspective, the Steel Cliffs and Crater Rock dominate the view as they tower over the glacier.

Mount Hood’s crater and the upper reach of the White River Glacier from Glacier View (photo: Google)
White River Glacier from Glacier View (photo: Google)

But the scene-stealer is the White River Glacier, which stair-steps down a series of icefalls directly in front of Glacier View (below), providing a close-up look into the workings of an active glacier. Lucky hikers might even hear the glacier occasionally moving from this close-up perspective as it grinds its way down the mountain.

Crevasses in the White River Glacier below Glacier View (photo: Google)

The view to the south from Glacier View (below) features the long, crevasse-fractured lower reaches of the White River Glacier, and below, the maze of sandy ravines which make up the sprawling White River Canyon. The deserts of Eastern Oregon are on the east (left) horizon from this perspective, and the Oregon Cascades spread out to the south.

The view down the White River Canyon from Glacier View (photo: Google)

The hike to Glacier View from Timberilne Lodge on the proposed Kohnstamm Trail would be about 2.5 miles long, climbing about 2,300 feet along the way, and would undoubtedly become a marquee hike on the mountain, if similar trails like Cooper Spur and McNeil Point are any gauge. But the backlog of trail needs at Timberline extend beyond having a marquee viewpoint hike like this. 

The Kohnstamm trail concept therefore includes other trail improvements in the Timberline area that would round out the trail system here. The following schematic (below) include building a new 1.4 mile trail from the upper stub of the Mountaineer Trail to Timberline Lodge, allowing hikers to complete the popular loop without walking the dusty, somewhat miserable service road below Silcox hut, often dodging resort vehicles along the way.

(click image to enlarge)

The broader Kohnstamm trail concept also calls for using the east parking area as a day-hiking hub in the summer months, with clearly marked trailheads that would consolidate the maze of confusing user trails that are increasingly carving up the wildflower meadows here. The new hub would also include restrooms, interpretive displays, picnic tables and other hiker amenities that would make for a better hiking experience.

Time for a makeover? Abandoned lift terminal at the proposed trail hub

A more ambitious element of the concept is to convert the neglected bones of an abandoned lodge structure (above) at the east parking area to become a hiker’s hut where visitors could relax after a hike, fill water bottles or learn about hiking options from Mount Hood’s volunteer trail ambassadors. 

This element might even tempt the Timberline resort operators to help make these trail concepts a reality if it offered an opportunity to provide concessions to hikers. After all, hiking is the fastest growing activity on the mountain (and on public lands), not skiing (or even mountain biking). Creating a hiking hub could be an opportunity for the Timberline operators to evolve their future vision for the resort to better match what people are coming to the mountain for.

What would it take?

Trail building is typically heavy work that involves clearing vegetation and building a smooth tread where rocks and roots are the rule. But the proposed Kohnstamm Trail would be very different, as the entire route is above the tree line and would be on the loose volcanic debris that makes up the smooth south side of Mount Hood. Trail building here would be much simpler, from the ease of surveying without trees and vegetation to get in the way, to actual trail construction in the soft soil surface. For these reasons, much of this work would be ideal for volunteers to help with.

In reality, the greatest obstacles to realizing this concept would likely be regulatory. Convincing the Forest Service to permit a new trail would be a tall hurdle, in itself. But if the Timberline resort operators were behind the idea, it would almost certainly be approved, especially if the resort embraced building and maintaining the trail hub improvements. Who knows, maybe they will even spot this article..?

Author’s Confessions…

As a postscript, I thought I’d post a few confessions from days of yore. I grew up in Portland and began skiing at Timberline Lodge as a tiny tot. I continued to avidly ski at the Mount Hood resorts for many years until giving up alpine skiing in the early 90s, largely in response to the expansion of the Meadows resort into lovely Heather Canyon, a deal-breaker for me. I loved the sport, but saw the beauty of the mountain under continual threat from the resort operations — and still do. Today, I make due with snow shoes and occasional trips on Nordic skis, though I do miss the thrill of alpine skiing!

The author skiing Timberline in 1978

An earlier awakening for me came in 1978, with the construction of the Palmer Lift at Timberline. This lift completed Richard Kohnstamm’s vision for year-round skiing on the mountain. But it was the first lift on Mount Hood to climb that far above the tree line, and was an immediate eyesore. Sadly, the conversion of the Palmer Glacier to become plowed rectangle of salted snow (see “Stop Salting the Palmer Glacier!”) that can be seen for miles completed the travesty.

That Palmer Lift debacle was soon followed by an even more egregious lift at Mount Bachelor, one that I wrote about 37 years ago in this (ahem!) riveting bit of self-righteous student journalism! (below)

(click image to enlarge)

When I stumbled across this old clipping from my days as a columnist at the Oregon State University student newspaper, I initially winced at the creative flourishes (…hey, I was 20 years old!). But my sentiments about these lifts — and the Heather Canyon lift at Meadows — remain unchanged. They were a step too far, and represented a real failure of the Forest Service to protect the mountain from over-development.

That said, I do believe the ski resorts can be managed in a more sustainable way that doesn’t harm the mountain. We’re certainly not there yet, and because all three of the major resorts (Timberline, Ski Bowl and Meadows) all sit on public land, I believe we all have a right to help determine that more sustainable future. 

In this article, I’ve made a case for accommodating more than just lift ticket purchasers in the recreation vision at Timberline Lodge. In future articles I’ll make the case for rounding out the mission for the other resorts in a way that meets the broader interests of those of us who own the land.

Restore the Metlako Viewpoint?

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A view of Metlako Falls from days gone by…

The Eagle Creek canyon is the undisputed jewel of the Columbia River Gorge, thanks to a string of dramatic waterfalls and a precarious, cliff-hugging trail built over 100 years ago by visionary Forest Service pioneers. But starting in late 2016, a series of calamities over the course of just a year reshaped Eagle Creek for the foreseeable future.

The first of these events came in late December 2016, when a huge section of cliff at Metlako Falls calved off, damming Eagle Creek with a massive pile of debris and erasing the iconic viewpoint of the falls (where the above photo was taken in 2013) forever.

Round two was the sprawling Eagle Creek Fire the followed in September 2017, burning all but a few strips of streamside forest in the Eagle Creek draining. Then, sometime in early 2018, another massive cliff collapse occurred at Punchbowl Falls, rerouting the entire creek and forever changing still another iconic view.

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The old viewpoint at Metlako Falls

Changes on this scale are nothing new in the Gorge. In fact, they are the very processes that created the scenery we enjoy today. Without fire, we wouldn’t have cliff top meadows, gnarled Oregon white oak groves and huckleberry fields on the highest ridges that rim the Gorge. Without landslides and cliff collapses, we wouldn’t have vertical basalt canyons and the towering waterfalls within them. In this way, the changes at Eagle Creek have given us a rare look at the natural forces behind the beauty, and a chance to better understand and appreciate the ongoing evolution of this very unique place.

Since the 2017 fire, volunteer trail crews have been working with the Forest Service to restore the Eagle Creek Trail. The fire heavily impacted the trail (see Eagle Creek: One Year After the Fire), and volunteers have invested thousands of hours clearing logs and debris and rebuilding much of the trail tread. For its part, the Forest Service is working to replace several large footbridges that were destroyed by the fire.

With the reopening of the trail imminent (perhaps as early as this year) there remain plenty of questions about how Eagle Creek will be better managed in the future to prevent a recovering ecosystem from being impacted by swarms of visitors. This article focuses on anticipating and managing these impacts at Metlako Falls, where hikers will almost certainly create a cobweb of user trails in search of an alternative to the collapsed viewpoint, especially now that the dense understory that once hid the falls from the trail has burned away in the fire.

Opportunity from calamity..?

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The author trimming brush at the old Metlako Viewpoint in 2013 (Photo: Christopher Alley)

The joy of the old Metlako Falls overlook was in the discovery. A pair of modest spur trails dropped through forest to a sudden and spectacular overlook, where a pair of braided cable railings stood between you and the sheer, 200-foot drop into Eagle Creek.

As iconic as the view up the narrow gorge to Metlako Falls was, it was also tedious to maintain. The cliff top just below the railings was dense with understory, which regularly grew to obscure the view of the falls. Trimming the brush required professional crews equipped to descend the cliff with ropes or volunteers willing to pack a pole pruning saw up the trail. It was an ongoing battle, with the understory winning — and hikers inevitably crawling over the railing for a better look. It’s a miracle that nobody (that I know of) slipped over the side at the old overlook!

In this way, the cliff collapse in 2016 and fire in 2017 offer an opportunity to create a new viewpoint at Metlako Falls that is both easier to maintain and provides less incentive for hikers to explore beyond the trail. I believe such a spot exists and that a spur trail to this new viewpoint could easily be developed by the volunteer crews already working to restore the Eagle Creek Trail. I also believe that without creating a new viewpoint, the crush of hikers who use this trail will seek one out, creating a hazard for hikers and harming the recovering landscape in the process.

Cue the helicopter!

Here’s a not-so-secret scoop: for the past decade or so, daredevil kayakers have been sailing over Metlako Falls as part of the “extreme kayaking” phenomenon of waterfall jumping. These stunts at Metlako Falls have been regularly recorded for social media (of course!) and thus a well-worn user path already descended to a viewpoint directly opposite the falls well before the Eagle Creek Fire swept through the area.

The post-fire absence of forest understory will make this user trail all the more obvious, and thus my confidence that it will become a heavily used boot path when the main trail reopens if a planned alternative isn’t provided. The time to act is now, before hordes of hikers are allowed back into Eagle Creek.

So, where is this not-so-secret user path? The following views from one of the State of Oregon helicopter surveys of the Eagle Creek Burn were taken in 2018, and show the unofficial Metlako Falls viewpoint nicely.

This wide view (below) is looking downstream, with Metlako Falls hidden in trees, but the deep pool created by the 2016 cliff collapse showing up prominently. I’ve marked both the site of the original viewpoint and where the proposed new viewpoint would be, roughly located where the kayaker path now leads:

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This closer view (below) shows more detail of the proposed new viewpoint. Notably, it’s located atop a sheer basalt cliff that would provide a clear view, but could also discourage hikers from venturing beyond the viewpoint. Also notable are the many surviving conifers on the bench that forms the viewpoint that will help stabilize this area in coming years as the understory recovers from the fire.

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What does Metlako Falls look like from this new perspective? It’s a straight on view that resembles a verytall Punch Bowl Falls, based on the many kayaker photos out there. This unattributed social media image shows a kayaker jumping the falls from the not-so-secret viewpoint in about 2015:

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Metlako daredevil as viewed from the proposed viewpoint (Source: Unknown)

This State of Oregon aerial view (below) was taken from almost directly above Eagle Creek as is rushes toward the brink of Metlako Falls and provides another good look at the basalt columns that are the foundation for the proposed new viewpoint:

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This aerial view (below) is from above the proposed viewpoint, looking back at Metlako Falls. From this angle, it really does resemble a very tall Punch Bowl Falls, complete with a deep amphitheater behind the falls and rock fins hemming in the splash pool on the downstream side:

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This wide view (below) is the reverse of the opening State of Oregon aerial, looking upstream toward Metlako Falls. This view shows the debris from the 2016 cliff collapse and the dammed section Eagle Creek above the debris pile.

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But there’s also a surprise next to Metlako Falls in this view. The slender cascade dropping into the opposite side of the Metlako amphitheater is Sorenson Falls, a seldom-seen beauty not visible from the old viewpoint. Could the new viewpoint be designed to allow this beautiful falls to be seen, as well? I think so — and in that way, the new viewpoint might be even more spectacular than the old one!

So, how do we do this?

While the Forest Service has been reluctant to even consider new trails in the Gorge in recent years, the Eagle Creek Fire may have created a window of opportunity for rethinking the status quo. However, the need for a formal environmental assessment is often a Forest Service obstacle to building new trails, even if the agency is open to the idea. But there’s a shorter path for the proposed Metlako Falls viewpoint. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) calls out “categorical exclusions” for certain activities that exempts them from having to complete an environmental assessment. The proposed viewpoint easily meets this test.

This is because one of the “exclusions” under NEPA are trails negatively impact by natural events (like a fire or cliff collapse) and the Act gives great latitude to the Forest Service when relocating or realigning trails in response to such events. The Forest Service would still need to rely on agency scientists to complete a site evaluation of a proposed spur route for soil stability and other design considerations, but much of the expensive and effort required for a full environmental assessment can be avoided.

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The new spur trail would be very short — only about 100 yards in length and descending about 50 feet in elevation from the existing Eagle Creek Trail (see schematic, above). This not only helps make the case for a categorical exclusion, it also puts the proposed trail within reach for volunteers to both design and construct in cooperation with the Forest Service.

The viewpoint, itself, would likely require the Forest Service to design of some sort of cable railing, perhaps similar to the old viewpoint and the Punch Bowl Falls overlook, or possibly a deck similar to the structure at Panther Creek Falls. But even this detail is within reach for trail volunteers to constructing, with the Forest Service simply providing the design and materials.

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Misty Metlako Falls in the winter of 2014

If some other alternative isn’t provided, hikers will almost certainly follow the kayaker’s user trail to the unofficial Metlako Falls viewpoint when the Eagle Creek Trail is reopened. With volunteer crews already working to reopen the trail, it makes sense to build this viewpoint spur now. My hope is that we can be proactive and create a stable, sustainable way for hikers to view the falls before thousands of boots on poorly aligned user trails force the Forest Service to react.

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Postscript: I probably should have included this when I posted the article, but you can comment directly to the Forest Service in support of this proposal on their website:

Click here for the Forest Service comments page

After the Fire: A Closer Look (Part 2 of 2)

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January sunset in the Eagle Creek burn, near Elowah Falls

This is the second article in a two-part series that explores a remarkable set of stunning, often startling aerial photos captured by the State of Oregon in early December. Their purpose was to assess the risks for landslides and flooding from the bare, burned Columbia River Gorge slopes following the September 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. But these amazing photos also provide the first detailed look at the impact of the fire, and for those who love the Gorge, a visual sense of how our most treasured places fared.

The first article covered the west end of the burn, from Shepperd’s Dell to Ainsworth State Park. This article covers the eastern part of the burn, from Yeon State Park to Shellrock Mountain. More information on the photos follows the article.

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Ainsworth State Park and McCord Creek

This first image in this second part of the series looks east from above Ainsworth State Park, toward Bonnevillle Dam. The Gorge was heavily burned along this stretch, from the banks of the Columbia River at the community of Warrendale to the tall crests of Wauneka Point and Nesmith Ridge.

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Looking east from above Ainsworth State Park toward Bonneville Dam (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The huge amphitheater along the Nesmith Point trail is on the right in the above view, and appears to be heavily burned. Little-known Wauneka Point is in the upper left corner of the photo, and also appears to be badly burned, as shown in a close-up view (below):

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Scorched Wauneka Point after the fire (State of Oregon)

Wauneka Point is notable for its remoteness. Some reach this spot by scaling the ridge from nearly 3,000 feet below, at Elowah Falls, while others follow the faint Wauneka Point Trail from the headwaters of Moffett Creek. This is fortunate, as the rocky outcrop of Wauneka Point also has one of the most elaborate and unusual Indian pit complexes found in the Gorge.

Fires here are a regular occurrence, too — photos from the early 1900s show a recovering forest and hundreds of bleached snags along Wauneka Ridge, much as the ridge now appears after the Eagle Creek Fire. It’s likely that Native Americans living along the lower Columbia River periodically burned these ridge tops to promote huckleberry, beargrass and other sun-loving foods and materials that were gathered in the higher elevations of the Gorge.

Another detailed look at this photo helps explain why parts of the Upper McCord Creek Trail were so heavily impacted by debris after the fire. This close-up view (below) shows extensive landslides on the slopes above the trail that have released tons of loose rock and debris onto the section of trail that switchbacks up the slope beneath the cliff band. While slides like these will eventually be stabilized by recovering forests, more debris is certain in the near-term, as the forest understory begins to take hold.

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Landslides on the slopes above the Upper McCord Creek Trail (State of Oregon)

Another detail that emerges from this photo is the widely varied pattern of a “mosaic” fire, from blackened, completely burned forests to green, intact conifer stands that have survived the initial heat and stress of the fire. A closer look (below) at a section of forest that straddles the Nesmith Point Trail shows a heavily burned area in the center, surrounded by surviving forest.

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Mosaic burn patterns straddling the Nesmith Point Trail (State of Oregon)

This mosaic burn pattern is beneficial for the forest ecology, as it rejuvenates the understory where the canopy has survived, while creating forest openings that will eventually create a more diverse forest where the burn destroyed old canopy:

This close-up view (below) shows the McCord Creek delta, where it enters the Columbia River:

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McCord Creek Delta (State of Oregon)

Tributary deltas like these are likely to grow significantly throughout the Eagle Creek Burn area in coming years as erosion from burned slopes loads up the creeks with extra rock and gravel. This is another beneficial aspect from the fire cycle, with gravel deltas and debris in streams providing some of the best fish and riparian habitat in the Gorge.

This spectacular image (below) from the State of Oregon series captures the massive amphitheater that holds Elowah Falls, on McCord Creek. The twin cascade of Upper McCord Creek Falls is also visible, just above Elowah Falls, as well as the bridges of I-84, the Union Pacific Railroad and the recently built Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail:

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Elowah Falls and McCord Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Though much of the McCord Creek drainage was badly burned in the fire, some of the tree canopy survived, especially the tall conifers that grow along the creek below Elowah Falls (below).

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Elowah Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

We won’t know the fate of the beautiful Bigleaf maple groves that line the creek in the lower McCord Creek canyon until later this spring, but it’s unlikely their crowns have survived. Unlike Douglas fir and other conifers, maples lack thick, insulating bark needed to survive the heat of the fire, nor the height to protect their upper branches from the flames. Instead, maples have evolved to simply regrow from their surviving roots after fire, often forming multi-trunked trees with a circle of shoots that emerge from around the skeleton of the parent tree.

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Elowah’s graceful Bigleaf maple groves in autumn, lighting up the forest in 2014

While many riparian strips within the Eagle Creek Burn resisted the fire, some of the steepest slopes along McCord Creek below Elowah Falls (below) were badly burned. The geology of this section of the canyon doesn’t help the cause, as it consists of loose, slide-prone Eagle Creek Formation clays and gravels. This notoriously unstable formation is responsible for most of the ongoing slides and collapses that occur in the Gorge, including the epic Table Mountain landslide that briefly created the fabled Bridge of the Gods in 1450 A.D., near today’s Cascade Locks.

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Slide-prone McCord Creek below Elowah Falls (State of Oregon)

On a recent tour of this section of the McCord Creek Trail with State Park officials, it was clear (below) that a complete re-route of this iconic trail may be needed over the long term if this already slide-prone section of the trail further deteriorates as a result of the fire:

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Post-fire landslide damage below Elowah Falls

As difficult as it is to absorb these images of devastation from the Eagle Creek Fire in places like this, it’s also an opportunity to watch and learn from the forest recovery that is already underway. While I won’t see tall groves of mossy Bigleaf maples arching over McCord Creek again in my lifetime, many of today’s Millennials will live to see a substantial return of forests across much of the Eagle Creek Burn.

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Beautiful McCord Creek canyon before the fire; today’s Millennials will live to see young forests like this return to the Gorge in their lifetime

This photo provides a even closer view of the Elowah Falls amphitheater and Upper McCord Creek Falls:

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Elowah Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The fire was more intense in the McCord Creek canyon, above Elowah Falls, including these slopes (below) above Upper McCord Creek Falls, as this close-up view shows. Here, the trail can be seen on the bare slope adjacent to the falls:

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Upper McCord Creek Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Here is a closer look at Upper McCord Creek Falls from a January visit with State Park officials that confirms the devastating impact of the fire here:

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Upper McCord Creek Falls in January

Few trees survived in this area, and erosion is severe in several of the small streams that flow into McCord Creek from Nesmith Ridge. Yet, even with the devastation from the fire, signs of the recovery were already apparent in January, just four months after the fire, with new vegetation emerging in the middle of winter.

The burned riparian forest along the upper section of McCord Creek included 50-60 year old stands of Bigleaf maple and Red alder, and both species appear to have been killed by the fire. Unlike maple, the alder stands are less likely to regrow from surviving roots, and instead mostly rely on new seedlings. Red alder are uniquely adapted and prolific at this, and are among the first trees to colonize burned or disturbed areas.

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Upper McCord Creek Falls framed by Red alder before the fire

Still considered a “weed tree” by a timber industry more interested in lumber than healthy forests, these trees (and other pioneering, soil-stabilizing broadleaf species) are still sprayed with herbicides in recovering clearcuts to allow rows of hand-planted Douglas fir seedlings to grow, instead. Yet, Red alder are an essential species in the process of natural forest recovery in the Pacific Northwest. While the big conifers will take many decades to once again tower above McCord Creek, a scene with Red alder framing the creek, like the one shown above, may be just 20-25 years in the future if they are allowed to grow.

As an early colonizer, Red alder not only help to quickly stabilize exposed soils, they also serve as a nitrogen fixer, restoring 80-200 pounds of nitrogen per acre through their roots when pioneering a disturbed site. As the forest recovery unfolds in the Eagle Creek burn, these humble trees will stabilize some of the toughest terrain and help other species that follow become established in the rich soil they create. This process may not be the fasted way to grow lumber, but it’s the most sustainable way to ensure the long-term health of our forests.

This photo from the State of Oregon series shows a mostly scorched forest in the upper McCord Creek canyon, with only a few surviving trees:

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Upper McCord Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at the photo shows a few surviving bands of forest that will help begin the recovery. This section of surviving trees will also help shade a section of McCord Creek as other, more heavily burned parts of the watershed recover:

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Patches of surviving forest along upper McCord Creek (State of Oregon)

This photo also provides another peek at Wauneka Point, mostly burned but with a few surviving tree stands that will help restore the forest on this ridge:

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A few surviving trees at Wauneka Point after the fire (State of Oregon)

The faint, historic trail to Wauneka Point from the Moffett Creek trail was already in jeopardy of being lost to lack maintenance and use, and sadly, the fire may seal its fate in becoming another “lost trail”. Debris from burned trees will quickly overwhelm the path without some periodic maintenance, something that has not occurred here for many years.

The burn provides an opportunity to rethink trails like the one on Wauneka Point, including making new connections to allow hikers to more easily use them from more accessible trailheads along the highway corridor.

Moffett Creek, Munra Point and Tanner Creek

Moving east of Wauneka Point, the next photo of the Eagle Creek Burn provides a glimpse into remote Moffett Creek canyon, one of the wildest, most untouched places in the Columbia River Gorge:

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Moffett Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

At about the time the original Columbia River Highway was built in the early 1900s, a group of Portlanders proposed a daring trail into Moffett Creek canyon, much like what was built along Eagle Creek at the time, but the project stalled. Today there are no trails into Moffett Creek canyon, though a few visit Moffett Falls each year by following the creek a mile upstream from where the stream flows into the Columbia River. A few more explorers climb farther, to beautiful Wahe Falls, but only the most intrepid explorers have rappelled down the string of 11 spectacular waterfalls hidden in the depths of Moffett Creek canyon.

Some of the big conifers in the lower canyon appear to have survived the fire, but this close-up view (below) of Moffett Falls shows that the forest around the falls was less fortunate:

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Moffett Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Last April, I visited Moffett Falls with a friend, and was surprised by the number of fallen trees and debris in the lower canyon from the rough winter of 2016-17, but I never imagined that the entire forest would soon burn. This is Moffett Falls as it looked last spring, before the fire:

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Moffett Falls in April 2017

This photo from the State of Oregon series shows the lesser-known mid-section of Moffett Creek canyon, with Wahe Falls at the bottom of the photo:

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Moffett Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This section of Moffett Creek canyon was heavily impacted by the fire, and most of the forest killed by the flames. The recovery here will go unnoticed by most, though the few who explored this beautiful canyon before the fire will find these images difficult to absorb.

Here’s a close-up view of Wahe Falls from the previous photo, showing that all the big conifers around the falls were killed by the fire:

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Wahe Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Moving upstream, the burn was less devastating in the next section of Moffett Creek canyon, where towering Kwaneesum Falls is located:

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Upper Moffett Creek canyon and Kwaneesum Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Kwaneesum is the tallest of Moffett’s eleven waterfalls, named by local waterfall explorer Zach Forsyth with the Chinook word meaning “forever, eternity or always.” This closer look at Kwanesum Falls shows many of the big conifers below the falls surviving the fire:

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Kwaneesum Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

An even closer look (below) at the forest below the falls reveals the complex burn patterns that result from the unusually steep topography of the Columbia River Gorge. Here, some trees were killed by the fire, while others survived. The Western red cedar on the left was singed on just one side, and may have enough green foliage to survive:

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Complex burn patterns along Moffett Creek (State of Oregon)

Few have ever seen Moffett Creek and few of us were ever destined to because of its remoteness. The canyon will also recover beyond the reach of humans, as it has many times before over the centuries. For a wonderful glimpse into some of the secrets this canyon holds, and a look at the lush beauty before the fire, you can pick up Zach Forsyth’s excellent Moffett Creek book in his “Hidden Treasures” series over here.

The next photo in the series (below) shows the lower canyon of Moffett Creek and the eastern flank of popular Munra Point, a rocky spine that towers above the Bonneville area, and forms the divide between Moffett and Tanner creeks:

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Munra Point and Moffett Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Munra Point is perhaps the most popular “unofficial” trail in the Gorge — or Oregon, for that matter. While it was once a lightly visited secret, the growing Portland region and advent of social media has turned this steep goat path into an actual zoo on summer weekends. The Forest Service has made no attempt to manage the user trail to Munra Point, as it’s “off the system” and in recent years it has suffered serious damage and erosion as the web of steep user paths has grown here.

This closer view (below) of the trail corridor suggests that the Eagle Creek F Fire had it out for the Munra Point trail, as the worst of the burn managed to focus on the route of this unofficial trail:

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The user trail to Munra Point follows the burned ridge at center-left in this view (State of Oregon)

The burned forest and subsequent erosion on these steep slopes will make it dangerous and unsustainable for hikers to continue to flock to this trail. It’s time for the Forest Service to officially close the unofficial Munra Point trail. The slopes will take decades to recover from the fire, and maybe someday a better-designed trail could be reopened, once the forest has recovered. For now, Munra Point deserves a long rest from our collective hiking boots.

Moving east, the next photo in the series (below) shows the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, the bridges of I-84, the Union Pacific Railroad bridge and (if you look closely) the old Tanner Creek Bridge on the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. Just beyond is the lower section of the Tanner Creek canyon, one of the most beloved places in the Gorge:

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Bonneville hatchery and Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Despite being just one ridge away from the origin of the Eagle Creek Fire, the lower Tanner Creek canyon seems to have fared surprisingly well, as shown by this close-up view (below). Some of the largest, oldest trees in the Columbia River Gorge make their home here, and many seem to have survived the fire intact.

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Lower Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

This photo in the series is taken from high above the lower Tanner Creek canyon, looking into the amphitheater that holds Wahclella Falls, one of the most visited and loved places in the Gorge:

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Tanner Creek and Wahclella Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This view also shows the narrow gorge above Wahclella Falls, where little-known Swawaa and Sundance falls are located just upstream along Tanner Creek. The wide view also shows how much more severely the upper canyon burned, above the waterfalls.

In past articles, I’ve proposed extending the Tanner Creek trail to this string of upstream waterfalls, but it’s unclear if the fire will open new opportunities for trails or slow down efforts to build them. There will be pressures in both directions within our public land agencies and among Gorge advocates. My hope is that we can build new trails while the terrain is relatively open and it’s relatively easy to survey, plan and build new routes.

While the fire clearly swept through the understory of this part of Tanner Creek canyon, much of the conifer forest immediately around iconic Wahclella Falls seems to have survived the fire, as seen in this close-up from the photo above:

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Wahclella Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This will come as relief to many, though we’ll only know the long-term fate of these survivors after they have endured a couple of summer drought cycles.

The fate of the groves of Bigleaf maple and Oregon white oak (below) that also thrived here is less certain. We’ll know in spring when deciduous trees begin leafing out.

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Bigleaf maples lighting up Wahclella Falls in autumn 2012, before the fire

The next photo in the series (below) shows upper Tanner Creek canyon, with an extensive mosaic burn pattern, and many trees along the canyon floor and west canyon wall surviving. The east slope of the canyon, below Tanner Ridge and Tanner Butte, appears to have burned more severely:

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Upper Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This close-up (below) of an unnamed rock outcrop and talus slope on the west wall of the canyon shows another potential benefit of the fire. Among the signature habitats in the Columbia River Gorge are the many remote talus slopes that support unique species, and in particular, the Pika. These tiny relatives of rabbits live exclusively in talus, and the Gorge is home to the only known low-elevation population in the world, as Pika typically live in subalpine talus.

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Cleared talus slopes above Tanner Creek (State of Oregon)

Assuming low-elevation Columbia Gorge pika living in talus slopes like these survived the fire, itself, the effect of burning off encroaching forest is a long-term benefit for these animals by preserving the open talus and promoting growth of sun-loving grasses, wildflowers and huckleberries that Pika depend on.

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Pika gathering huckleberry leaves (ODFW)

Another larger species that might benefit from cleared talus and ridge tops is the mountain goat — if it is reintroduced here, or migrates from where it has been re-introduced elsewhere. A 1970s effort to bring them back to the Columbia Gorge was not successful, but perhaps now is the time to try again?

This close-up view (below) of upper Tanner Creek shows the high degree of mosaic burn on the canyon floor that will not only help the forest recover, but also allow for a healthier forest of mixed, multi-aged stands to develop over coming decades:

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Mosaic burn pattern along upper Tanner Creek (State of Oregon)

The next photo in the State of Oregon series shows the impact of the Eagle Creek Fire on Tooth Rock, the legendary pinch-point for travel through the Columbia Gorge, from early railroads to modern freeways:

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Tooth Rock after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Tooth Rock is just a couple of miles from where the fire started, and one of the first places to burn, closing the highway and railroad for days. This close-up view (below) from the above photo shows a section of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail at Tooth Rock where erosion and landslides unleashed from the burn will be an ongoing concern until the understory recovers:

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Historic Highway viaduct at Tooth Rock (State of Oregon)

If you’ve traveled through the Columbia Gorge since the fire, you have probably noticed the protective fencing above the Tooth Rock Tunnel and fresh stumps where burned trees were cut by the highway department to prevent them from falling onto the highway.

This close-up view (below) shows the larger concern, where active slides threaten the historic highway, as well as the portal to the Tooth Rock Tunnel and Union Pacific tunnels, located below the westbound I-84 viaduct:

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Stacked transportation routes threatened by slides at Tooth Rock (State of Oregon)

And so the ongoing struggle to find passage around Tooth Rock continues, as the successive roads, rails, tunnels and viaducts making their way around and through the rock over the past 150 years may all share a common fate if these landslides continue to grow.

Eagle Creek: at the Heart of the Inferno

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Eagle Creek forest burning as the fire began to unfold last September (US Forest Service)

The intensity of the fire damage to the forests in Oneonta, McCord and Tanner creek canyons might lead you to think the Eagle Creek canyon would have fared worse, since the fire was started here. But the State of Oregon aerial photo series shows the forest canopy in many of the most treasured spots along Eagle Creek surviving the fire, with many areas having a beneficial, mosaic burn pattern.

The mosaic pattern is immediately apparent in this opening view, looking into the canyon from above the Eagle Creek fish hatchery and I-84:

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Looking into the Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at this view shows that much of the forest along the lower canyon near the Eagle Creek trailhead survived. The historic Eagle Creek Campground is also located in this area:

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Lower Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

A still closer look (below) shows that the understory on the west (right) side of Eagle Creek in area stretch burned, while much of the conifer overstory has survived, so far:

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West side of lower Eagle Creek (State of Oregon)

The next photo in the series jumps two miles upstream along Eagle Creek to Metlako Gorge, so the extent of the burn in the intervening section of the Eagle Creek Trail is still only known to Forest Service rangers who have been busy assessing trail conditions in the burn area.

This photo (below) looking south into Metlako Gorge shows more mosaic burn pattern, with an intact forest canopy in some areas and dying trees in others. Sorenson Creek Falls (on the left) and Metlako Falls spill into the gorge at the far end:

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Metlako Gorge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo shows that the understory was cleared by the fire on the slopes below the Eagle Creek Trail, located directly above the falls. The two familiar Douglas fir trees that lean over the gorge just below Metlako Falls also seem to have been killed by the fire:

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Sorenson Creek Falls and Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This fascinating (below) photo from the series shows the former Metlako Falls viewpoint, once located on a short spur trail through a wooded ravine that led to a dizzying perch along the gorge rim. In late December 2016, a massive section of the basalt cliff fell away here, taking the viewpoint (and its cable railings!) with it and filling the gorge below with 30 feet of debris:

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The 2016 Metlako Gorge landslide after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

In this earlier blog article, I covered the landslide event in detail, but the new aerial views provide a much more complete understanding of the full scope and scale of the collapse.

This closer look at the photo (below) shows the scale of the collapse, including a barn-sized chunk of solid basalt that managed to land in Eagle Creek intact. The giant, intact boulder gives a good sense of just how much of the original cliff broke away:

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Close-up view of the 2016 Metlako Gorge landslide (State of Oregon)

A still closer look (below) shows the impact of the collapse on Eagle Creek, with a deep bank of rock and soil debris banked against the east wall of the gorge, and huge pile of boulders in the creek trapping a log jam of whole trees behind it:

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Logjam created by the 2016 Metlako Gorge landslide (State of Oregon)

This photo from the series (below) of the newly formed Metlako Gorge cliff face helps explain why the cliff collapse happened. The waterfall cascading down the newly exposed scarp is located just upstream from where the overlook was located, and emerges from the small ravine the spur trail followed to the old overlook:

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Metlako Gorge landslide scarp after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this new waterfall (below) shows that the entire stream actually emerges at the brink of the falls, where groundwater flowing beneath the forest surface has reached the solid basalt layer and is forced toward the cliff.

Constant hydraulic pressure and occasional freezing where this underground water source seeped into cracks in the basalt layer and the sheer weight of the vertical cliff pulling outward created the conditions for what is a fairly regular event in the Columbia River Gorge: outer layers of exposed basalt cliffs calving off as the elements pry them loose.

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A new waterfall where the Metlako Falls viewpoint once was (State of Oregon)

What did Metlako Gorge look like before the landslide? It was an idyllic, widely photographed scene of exceptional beauty. This image (below) is no longer possible after the cliff collapse, but the 2017 Eagle Creek fire also destroyed some of the big trees that framed the falls. This view will only live in our photos and memories:

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Metlako Falls before the viewpoint collapse — and the Eagle Creek fire

This aerial view from the series provides a more detailed look at Metlako Falls, including a rarely seen section of Eagle Creek just above the falls and the surrounding forest:

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Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at this photo shows that the fire completely burned away the understory around the falls, and many of the trees here are clearly struggling to survive. Soils in the rocky Columbia Gorge canyons are thin and competition is fierce among big trees during summer droughts, so we won’t really know how trees with this degree of fire damage will fare for another year or two.

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Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

As I worked my way through the hundreds of photos in the State of Oregon series, I expected to find a shot of Punch Bowl Falls similar to the previous view of Metlako Falls. After all, Punch Bowl is easily among most photographed spots in the Columbia Gorge (and Oregon), second only to Multnomah Falls. But after my first pass through the set, I was disappointed not to find a good view of the Punch Bowl, of all places!

However, I later came across the following image in a group of several that were more difficult to identify, and noticed the undercut cliff wall tucked among the trees in the lower left edge of the photo:

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Is that Punch Bowl Falls down there..? (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Looking more closely (below) at this part of the photo reveals it to be the “weeping wall” that towers above the lower Punch Bowl amphitheater, across from the cobble beach that fills with hundreds of hikers and swimmers on summer weekends. Then I noticed a bare spot that marks the “jumping” spot on the high cliff that hangs above the east side of Punch Bowl Falls — and the trail overlook, in the trees high above the falls:

18bEagleCreekPunchBowlFalls

…that’s a downstream view of Punch Bowl Falls! (State of Oregon)

The good news from this photo is that several stands of big conifers immediately around Punch Bowl Falls not only survived the fire, but look to have completely dodged the flames. That would be good news, as these trees may now live to grow for another century or two, helping the surrounding burn recover and passing along their survivor genes in the process.

Many of the big trees around Punch Bowl Falls have survived at least one other major fire, as much of the Eagle Creek canyon burned in a fire around the turn of the 20th Century. This early 1900s view (below) shows the aftermath of that fire, with large gravel bars filling the Punch Bowl, itself. This material was released by erosion that resulted from that earlier fire, and in coming decades, we are likely to see new gravel bars like this appear in Eagle Creek, once again:

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Early 1900s view of Punch Bowl Falls

Most hikers on the Eagle Creek Trail know Tish Creek from its tall — and recently replaced — footbridge. But a few intrepid hikers know that a beautiful waterfall on Tish Creek is located upstream from the trail, reachable by a rough off-trail bushwhack. This little-known spot also seems to have dodged the worst of the fire, as seen in this view aerial view from the series:

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Tish Creek Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Moving upstream from Punch Bowl Falls, the photo from the series shows Loowit Gorge, just downstream from Loowit Falls and High Bridge:

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Loowit Gorge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Eagle Creek was clearly a barrier for the fire in this area, with the west (right) slopes near Loowit Creek completely burned, while the forest canopy on the east slope (where the Eagle Creek Trail is located) seems to have mostly survived, but with burned trunks to show for it.

This aerial view from the series shows Loowit Falls (at the bottom, where it joins Eagle Creek) and little-known Upper Loowit Falls in the distance:

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Loowit and Upper Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at this view of Loowit Falls shows a forest that was largely killed by the fire, as even the trees with a few surviving limbs in their crowns are unlikely to survive the stress of losing so much of their canopy:

20bEagleCreekLoowitFallsUpperLoowitFalls

Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

What did Loowit Falls look like before the fire? It was among the most graceful and photographed in the Columbia Gorge, drifting down a moss-covered basalt wall into a perfect bowl carved into solid rock over the millennia:

20cEagleCreekLoowitFalls

Loowit Falls before the burn, surrounded by big conifers (State of Oregon)

Upper Loowit Falls fared worse (below), with the entire forest killed by the fire. In recent years, the word has gotten out on the relatively easy off-trail route to this falls, so like Middle Oneonta Falls, this might be a good candidate for formalizing a spur trail. This could be done as part of restoring the overall trail system at Eagle Creek, when trail planners can see the terrain as never before, and have the opportunity to provide more hiking options in this popular area.

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Upper Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This photo from the series looks downstream along a section of Eagle Creek above High Bridge:

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Eagle Creek above High Bridge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The burn is extensive here, though a few stands of forest canopy seem to have survived. A close look at the tributary falls in the upper left corner of this view shows Benson Falls, another beautiful, lesser-known waterfall that only a few have visited:

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Benson Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Graceful Benson Falls can be reached by scrambling up a side canyon from near High Bridge. This similar view from another photo in the series shows the falls more clearly, and while the burn cleared much of the understory here, many of the big conifers near the falls appear to have survived:

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Benson Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Benson Falls could be another candidate for a short spur trail as part of restoring the Eagle Creek Trail in the burn area and providing new trail opportunities.

Moving upstream, the next photo in the State of Oregon series shows a section of Eagle Creek located below Skoonichuk Falls, the next in the chain of waterfalls along the Eagle Creek Trail:

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Eagle Creek and Skoonichuk Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Much of the forest in this section of Eagle Creek canyon was completely killed by the fire, though a few conifers survived immediately around Skoonichuk Falls, as seen in this close-up view:

22bEagleCreekSkoonichuck

Skoonichuk Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

Unfortunately, the aerial photo series does not include a view of Grand Union Falls and Tunnel Falls (on the East Fork), the next two major waterfalls along the Eagle Creek Trail, so only the Forest Service rangers know the extent of the fire impact there. But the photo series does include this view of Twister Falls, located on the main fork of Eagle Creek, just up the trail from Tunnel Falls:

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Twister Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Eagle Creek formed another firebreak here, though in the opposite direction from what previous photos showed at Loowit Gorge. Here, the forest canopy on the west (right) side of the canyon appears to have mostly survived, while the east side canopy was mostly killed by the fire.

This close-up view (below) of the photo shows the infamous “Vertigo Mile” section of the Eagle Creek Trail, where the exposed route curves around a dizzying cliff above Twister Falls. The fire damage here is readily apparent on the slopes above the trail, with only a few conifers hanging on to some of their foliage:

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Twister Falls and the Vertigo Mile after the fire (State of Oregon)

These trees are unlikely to weather summer drought stress in coming years as they attempt to survive with only portion of their crowns intact. As will be the case throughout the burn, debris from heavily burned slopes like this will continue to slide onto adjacent trails until the forest understory has returned to stabilize the soil. This will likely play out for several years.

The groves of big conifers at the base of Twister Falls (below) seem to have fared much better, possibly untouched by the fire:

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These big trees below Twister Falls survived the fire (State of Oregon)

Like the big trees that survived by Punch Bowl Falls, these giants will help the surrounding burn recover by helping to reseed burned slopes and providing shade to help keep Eagle Creek cool in summer and early fall.

This view from the brink of Twister Falls (below) from before the fire shows the narrow slot that holds this tall waterfall. In coming years, watch for logjams to form in narrow spots like this along Eagle Creek:

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Twister Falls before the fire

This photo in the series shows Sevenmile Falls, the last in the string of major waterfalls along the Eagle Creek Trail:

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Sevenmile Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The understory burned off in this section of forest, but the conifer overstory seems to have survived, mostly intact. This close-up view from the photo shows a more impacted section of forest where the Eagle Creek Trail passes Sevenmile Falls:

24bEagleCreekSevenmileFalls

Sevenmile Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

This photo from the series provides a view from high above the upper Eagle Creek canyon, looking downstream (north) toward the Columbia River, and gives a sense of how the forests in the upper canyon fared:

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Upper Eagle Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

While forests along many of the ridge tops were completely killed by the fire, many of the lower slopes in this photo (below) show a beneficial mosaic burn, with wide bands of surviving forest canopy:

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Mosaic burn pattern in the upper Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

The condition of trails in this part of the Eagle Creek network is unknown, as the Eagle Creek fire merged with the earlier Indian Creek fire in this area. The Indian Creek fire started weeks before the Eagle Creek fire, but spread less aggressively, mostly burning in relatively high elevation areas above the canyon floor.

Herman Creek and Shellrock Mountain

The State of Oregon photo series doesn’t provide much detail on the Herman Creek canyon, though the fire clearly burned significant portions of Nick Eaton Ridge (seen below, forming the east side of the canyon on the left in the photo). This photo was taken from directly above the Port of Cascade Locks, looking south:

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Herman Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

From this limited view, the pattern seems similar to Eagle Creek: killed forests along ridge tops, mosaic burn patterns closer to the canyon floor and some of the largest conifers surviving along Herman Creek (below).

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Mosaic burn pattern at Herman Creek (State of Oregon)

The final image in this set focuses on Shellrock Mountain, the eastern extent of the State of Oregon photo survey (below):

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Summit Creek and Shellrock Mountain after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at the lower left corner of the photo (below) shows little-known Camp Benson Falls, the lower of two significant waterfalls on Summit Creek, and the ongoing construction of the latest phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail:

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Summit Creek and Camp Benson Falls (State of Oregon)

Most of the burn here is also in a mosaic pattern, including along the steep talus slopes of Shellrock Mountain (below). Switchbacks from an old trail leading to the summit show in this view, as well:

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Shellrock Mountain forests after the fire (State of Oregon)

The amazing photo survey ends here, roughly coinciding with the eastern extent of the Eagle Creek Fire. Though the photos were focused on assessing potential impacts of burned slopes on highways and other infrastructure in the Gorge, they also serve as an invaluable snapshot of conditions as they existed immediately after the fire. These images will give future land managers and researchers a highly detailed benchmark for tracking the recovery of the Gorge ecosystem over coming decades.

While simply restoring the historic trail network will be a big job, the reality of growing demand in our region for new trails and experiences in the Gorge didn’t go away with the fire. These photos also provide a unique opportunity for today’s State Parks and Forest Service planners to consider new trails and trail realignments while the terrain is easy to survey and trail construction more straightforward than when the understory is intact.

The fire has created a once in a century opportunity to rethink the trails in the Gorge with our rapidly growing population in mind, and is an opportunity that should not be missed. It also provides an opportunity to link the responsible expansion of recreation opportunities to the forest recovery, itself, allowing hikers to watch and learn as a new forest grows here.

After the Fire: the Verdict

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Smoky skies in the Gorge during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire

Those who love the Gorge already know this unfortunately sequence of events: the Eagle Creek Fire began on September 2, 2017, when a Vancouver teenager tossed illegal fireworks into the canyon from cliffs along the Eagle Creek trail. The fire quickly exploded into an inferno, burning more than 48,000 acres along the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, and briefly igniting a small fire on the Washington side when embers floated over to the slopes of Aldrich Mountain.

This month, a Hood River County judge sentenced the teen to five years of probation and 1,920 hours (48 weeks) of community service with the U.S. Forest Service. That’s more volunteer time that many Americans contribute over a lifetime. Much of that work will be in the form of restoring and rebuilding trails damaged by the fire, no doubt, and hopefully this mandated service will inspire the unnamed teen to dedicate his life to protecting our public lands after this tragedy.

The public reaction to the sentence was swift: many felt it was too lenient, given the scope and devastation of the fire. Others felt it fair and forgiving, as it gives the teen a chance to potentially direct his life toward stewardship and protecting the Gorge. Here is the statement the young man made to the court as part of sentencing:

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Letter of apology from the teen who started the Eagle Creek Fire

[click here for a more readable version]

I fall into the second category in my own reaction, and don’t see a reason to destroy a young life because of a mistake that went horribly wrong. Most of us made similarly stupid decisions in our teens, and were simply fortunate enough not to have had consequences of this scale to answer to.

I also see this sequence of events as a metaphor that all who love the Gorge can learn from: today’s kids are increasingly isolated from nature and spending time on our public lands. Learning to understand, appreciate and respect nature is something that all kids should experience, and might have prevented the Eagle Creek Fire, too.

The teen who started the Eagle Creek Fire will spend nearly a year in his young life working to help with the recovery effort as part of his sentence and will surely learn these lessons. But what if all kids in our growing region simply spent a few hours working on a trail or helping to restore the burn in some other way? How would that change the way in which future generations care for the Gorge? How could we all help to bring out youth closer to nature as we work to restore the Gorge?

Epilogue: Learning to Embrace the Burn

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Bleached snags from the 1991 Multnomah Falls fire rising from a sea of young conifers in 2004

Reactions to the first in this two-part article ranged from sadness and anger over places lost to the fire to a degree of hope and guarded optimism about the opportunity to rethink how we manage the Gorge in the future.

While the full impact of the Eagle Creek Fire is still being assessed, the best option moving forward is to embrace the reality of the burn as an opportunity to learn, grow and pitch in. That’s something we can all do, including supporting organizations like Friends of the Gorge and Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) who will be at the forefront of bringing volunteers to the major job of restoration.

So far, the public response has been overwhelming, with several TKO trail events filling up almost immediately this year, and long waiting lists forming for future events. That’s encouraging! Let’s hope it continues, as the recovery will take many years.

Many will continue to grieve the magnificent forests and idyllic landscapes lost to the fire, too. That’s a very human response to losing a place that is home to so many of us. But it’s also true that the recovery has already begun, and that each year in the recovery process will bring new opportunities to learn and appreciate how the Gorge ecosystem has recovered countless times from fire over the millennia.

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Young conifers growing among the snags from the 1991 Multnomah Falls fire in 2004

For those of us at (or past) the middle of our lives, our memories of what was will have to fill some of the void we feel. But younger visitors to the Gorge will see whole new forests grow among the bleached snags that will soon mark much of the burn area, and the very youngest visitors will live to see tall forests grow here, again.

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2004 view of young trees rapidly filling in the 1991 burn area above Angels Rest

What will the recovery look like? The 1991 Multnomah Falls Fire gives us the best glimpse into what to expect as the Eagle Creek recovery unfolds. For those who were around in 1991, the Multnomah Falls Fire swept from the falls west to Angels Rest, scorching much of the Gorge wall along the way. I’ve included a few photos of the burn area taken in 2004, just 13 years after the fire.

At that point in the recovery, trees killed by the 1991 fire still dominated the landscape, but a young forest seemed to be exploding from the burn area, with conifers already 10-15 feet tall and growing quickly. Today, some of these trees are twice that tall, and on the way to becoming a mature forest canopy.

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2004 view of the 1991 Multnomah Falls burn, with young trees rapidly overtaking the ghost forest of burned trees

It shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that the Gorge ecosystem can recover quickly and without our help. But with thousands of people living in the Gorge and millions visiting each year, we will also need to learn how to accept fire as part of the forest cycle if we hope to avoid catastrophic burns like the Eagle Creek Fire in the future.

What will that take? One essential tool will be prescribed burns. These are purposely set fires designed to burn a relatively small, controlled area with a relatively cool fire that most of the forest canopy can survive. The goal of a prescribed burn is a mosaic pattern like those found in parts of the Eagle Creek Burn where the fire intensity was less and allowed most trees to survive.

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2015 prescribed burn in Yosemite National Park (National Park Service)

Prescribed burns are typically set in late fall, when humidity is high and the rainy season is near and can be counted on to completely extinguish the fire. The Eagle Creek burn occurred in late summer when humidity was low, the forests very dry after two months of drought and the first substantial fall rains were weeks away. The famous Gorge winds only added to the volatility. These conditions combined to allow the fire to burn hot and spread for weeks.

Prescribed burns are now an accepted forest practice, and increasingly used by the Forest Service and National Park Service to reverse the harm done by a century of fire suppression. But preventing future fires on the scale of the Eagle Creek Fire will also require all of us to accept limits on how we use the Gorge. This may be more difficult to accept than prescribed burning, especially given the patchwork of public agencies responsible for managing the Gorge.

What sorts of limits are needed? Restored trails in the burn area will be vulnerable for years to come, and subject to more damage if the same level of foot traffic experienced before the fire is allowed to return. The public agencies that manage the Gorge will need to define and identify reasonable carrying capacities for the most popular trails, and enforce access limits with trail-specific permits, parking management and by offering new trail options for a growing region.

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Our children’s grandchildren will experience the Eagle Creek burn like this: scattered ghost stumps from today’s burned trees among a green rainforest of 100-year old trees

Seasonal limits may be required, too. The Gorge was a tinderbox waiting to burn last September when the Vancouver teen tossed fireworks into the Eagle Creek canyon, starting the fire. But it could have easily started from an untended campfire or careless smoker, too.

In the future, seasonal trail limits and temporary closures should also be considered when fire conditions in the Gorge are especially dangerous. This could not only help prevent overly destructive burns in the forests that still remain, but also acknowledges that thousands of Gorge residents and their homes were also threatened by the fire. Their safety should be a core consideration in deciding when to close Gorge trails because of fire risk.

Changes to current management practices will be hard to bring about with a reluctant public, but the Eagle Creek Fire might have given us the perfect moment to educate ourselves on the need to change our ways and think about how our impact on the Gorge will play out for future generations. While much was lost in the fire, we’ve also been given a unique opportunity to change course for the better. I’m optimistic that we will!

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Back to the future: the Gorge was recovering from an earlier fire in this 1903 view (WyEast Blog)

[click here for a large image]

I chose the above, hand-colored photo to close this two-part article, as it provides needed perspective of our place in the broader cycle of life in the Columbia Gorge. This Kiser Brothers image was taken in 1903 from a spot just downstream from Beacon Rock, on the Washington side of the river. Across the still, reflective Columbia, the cliffs marking McCord Creek canyon can be seen, with the snow-covered slopes of Nesmith Ridge and Wauneka Point rising above.

In 1903, the Oregon side of the Gorge was just beginning to recover from an extensive fire that swept a good portion of what we now know as the Eagle Creek Burn. Past is prologue, and this is what the Gorge will look like in our immediate future, as another burn cycle unfolds.

While it’s very different scene than the green forests we have enjoyed, it’s also undeniably beautiful in a rugged, wild way. The fire is part of an essential cycle, and more importantly, an opportunity for all of us to rethink how we care for our Gorge.

I’ve also included a link to a large version of the Kiser Brothers photo, and encourage you to print a copy to hang on a bulletin board or your refrigerator as part of learning to embrace the Eagle Creek burn. This snapshot from the distant past has helped me begin to embrace the new reality of the Gorge, and I hope will help you, too.

Thanks for reading!

________________

Author’s note about the photos: a friend of the blog pointed me to the amazing cache of photos featured in this two-part article, and while you could probably acquire them from the State of Oregon, I would encourage you to let our public agency staff focus their time on the Gorge recovery, not chasing down photo requests.  

With this in mind, I’ve posting the very best of the photos here, and have included links to very large images for those looking to use or share them. These photos should be credited to “State of Oregon” where noted in this article, not this blog. They are in the public domain.

________________

Proposal: Raker Point Trail

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The view from Raker Point in a 1930s postcard

Each year, thousands visit beautiful Lost Lake, one of the most beautiful and iconic places in Mount Hood country. The view of Mount Hood mirrored in the lake has been photographed countless times and has graced hundreds of postcards, calendars and scenic books. Some visitors to the lake climb the old lookout trail to Lost Lake Butte, which provides a sweeping view of the mountain, but only glimpses of the lake as once-burned forests continue to recover there.

Yet, not long ago, another dramatic view was possible: Lost Lake nestled in the forests beneath Mount Hood, framed with blooming Pacific Rhododendrons. This scene was captured from the crest of Raker Point, a rocky spur due north of Lost Lake, and briefly a forest lookout site in the early 1930s.

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The view from Raker Point as captured in a Ray Atkeson postcard in the late 1940s

The view from Raker Point appeared in early postcards, and was later captured by Oregon’s famed photographer Ray Atkeson (above) in images that appeared widely in calendars, postcards and even automobile ads (below) in the 1950s.

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1951 Lincoln ad featuring the view from Raker Point

Ironically, the famous images captured by Atkeson were made possible by the industrial logging that began sweeping our national forests in the decades following World War II. By the late 1940s, a logging spur pushed over the saddle between Sawtooth Ridge and Raker Point, providing easy access to the spectacular view, even as it enabled the destruction of old growth forests that once grew there.

Today, the old logging road to Raker Point has been decommissioned by the Forest Service and the clearcut slopes are slowly recovering. Now, Raker Point has become all but forgotten.

Where is Raker Point?

04RakerPointFromLostLake2001

Raker Point isn’t the tallest or most impressive among the Cascade peaks that rise up around Lost Lake, but it is the best positioned for a grand view of the lake and Mount Hood. Raker Point can be seen from the Lakeshore Trail, where it rounds the south end of the lake, as shown above.

When the Forest Service first brought a road to Lost Lake and lookout towers to the Lost Lake area in the 1920s and early 1930s, Raker Point was much more prominent, thanks to wildfires in the early 1900s that had cleared both Raker Point and Lost Lake Butte. Their open summits made ideal forest lookout sites.

This early 1930s view shows Raker Point and other nearby peaks from Hiyu Mountain, another lookout site located several miles to the south, and Raker Point’s bald summit clearly stands out:

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[click here for a larger image]

A closer 1933 view from nearby Lost Lake Butte in 1933 shows the scorched summit of Raker Point much more clearly. The impressive old growth forests of the Lost Lake Basin are also on display in this view:

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Scorched Raker Point from Lost Lake Butte in the early 1930s

This rare 1933 perspective of Raker Point and Lost Lake is from Sawtooth Ridge, where a temporary (and misnamed) “Raker Point” lookout was briefly located:

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[click here for a larger panorama]

The origin of Raker Point’s name is unclear, but it’s likely that an early Forest Service ranger or surveyor named the peak — and perhaps was the namesake, too?

Today, forests have returned to all but the rocky summit and surrounding talus slopes on Raker Point. This view (below) from the Lake Branch Road shows the now green slopes, with just a small opening near the top of the butte. Does this mean the classic view of Lost Lake and Mount Hood captured by Ray Atkeson in the 1940s has been lost?

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Raker Point rises above the talus fields along the Lake Branch Road

The answer can be found on the opposite side of Raker Point. This view from Indian Mountain, located a few miles north and across the Lake Branch Valley from Raker Point, shows the still open, rocky crest framed in talus slopes and groves of Noble Fir:

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The rocky crest of Raker Point from the north, as viewed from Indian Mountain

While rhododendrons may not thrive on the summit, the views of Mount Hood and Lost Lake are clearly still intact, though probably framed in Noble fir boughs and drifts of huckleberries.

The Proposal

The Lost Lake area already has a fine network of trails, but a new route to Raker Point would bring needed opportunities to this popular recreation area.

First, the classic view from Raker Point is reason enough to warrant trail access to the summit. But a trail to Raker Point would also serve as a more attainable challenge for families visiting Lost Lake.

Today, hikers can make the 2-mile trek to the summit of Lost Lake Butte. Yet, while the view from there is excellent, it pales in comparison to Raker Point. More importantly, a trail to Raker Point would shave 400 feet of elevation gain in half the distance compared to the Lost Lake Butte hike, making it much more accessible to casual hikers and families with young children.

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[click here for a large map]

The proposed trail is simple: it would begin along a segment of the Old Skyline Trail that traverses the base of the Raker Point, and connects to the nearby campground, resort cabins and lodge at Lost Lake.

Trail building would be straightforward, as well. The area is outside protected wilderness, so would not present limitations on the use of power saws and or other heavy equipment in the construction. The modest 1-mile length of the proposed new trail also puts it within financial reach in this era of cash-strapped federal land agencies.

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[click here for a large panorama]

The new trail would also be accessible from trailheads along the Lake Branch Road, allowing hikers to visit the trail without adding to the crowds and congestion at Lost Lake, proper.

What would it take to make this happen? Interest from Forest Service officials, for sure, but support from the Lost Lake Resort operators, in particular, could put this new trail on a fast track. The resort would clearly benefit from a new family-friendly trail option near the lodge, and would be powerful advocates if they were to bring this argument to the Forest Service.

So, consider mentioning the idea if you happen to visit the resort this summer..!

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Postscript: at about the time I was writing this article, uber-adventurer Paul Turner was exploring Raker Point and nearby Sawtooth Ridge. He posted some excellent photos from his trip over here on the Oregon Hikers forum. Thanks, Paul!

Big Changes coming to the Gorge Power Line…

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These venerable steel towers will soon be a memory in the Gorge

 

Author’s preface: having spent more than 30 years in public service, it frustrates me to see any level of government making anything less than a consistent, substantial and meaningful effort to engage the broader public in its decision making. All public entities should be held to this high standard, whether local, state or federal.

So, when I stumbled across the Bonneville Power Association (BPA) decision to significantly rebuild the prominent power line corridor that links Bonneville Dam to Hood River, I was disappointed to learn that the decision involved a handful of select stakeholders and two short windows for public comment that saw little notice or participation. We should expect more, and the BPA should step up its commitment to real public engagement, not meager efforts that do little more than check regulatory boxes.

_______________

According to a retired BPA employee who once joined me on a hike near Starvation Creek, the daring alignment of the power line corridor that provided the first electricity from Bonneville Dam to Hood River is the doing of no less than Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the story goes, FDR was on his famous tour of the Mount Hood Loop Highway on September 28, 1937, with stops to inspect Bonneville Dam and dedicate Timberline Lodge.

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BPA workers building the daring new power lines across Shellrock Mountain in 1937 (BPA)

After leaving Bonneville, FDR asked about the power lines that were under construction, and a BPA official told the president they would be built on slopes high above the Gorge, where the terrain was easier to navigate. FDR reportedly barked at the official “I want those power lines down here, where the people can see the electricity that we’re bringing to their communities!”

So began the project to build the BPA power lines across the rugged cliff faces of the Columbia River Gorge. Amazingly, most of the work was done by hand, with pack mules carrying materials to the often dizzying cliff-top tower locations. While it’s hard to view any power line as “scenic”, the sheer audacity in how these towers were designed and built can’t help but impress hikers passing under them today.

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The Shellrock Mountain power line and trail today

The Bonneville to Hood River corridor is one among many power lines that transmit hydro-power along the Columbia, but this corridor is notable in that much of it is serviced through a network of trails where the terrain was too extreme to support service roads. Many of these trails have morphed into recreation trails over the years.

Big Changes Coming this Summer

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Trees marked for cutting at Viento State Park

After eighty years of maintaining the Gorge power line corridor in much the same state, the BPA is about to significantly change both the look of the towers and some of the access routes. I stumbled across this reality earlier this spring when I was exploring the area above Viento State Park, where I encountered a few dozen mature Douglas fir marked for cutting.

At first, I thought it might be a thinning project of some sort, but upon some research, discovered that the BPA was about to replace all of the steel towers and many of the wood pole towers along the corridor and expand several of the access spur roads. Up to 30 of the new towers will be steel “mono-poles”, a departure in both look and height from somewhat rustic old structures that now exist on the corridor.

The project also proposes to remove up to 747 trees to allow access roads to be widened and rebuilt, and the BPA proposes “temporary disturbance” to over 58 acres and “permanent disturbance” to about one-third of an acre.

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More trees marked for cutting in the Gorge power line corridor

For the scoping phase of this project, the BPA opened a public comment period of six weeks and held a public meeting in Hood River in the spring of 2014. They received 12 written comments during the scoping phase and four people attended this meeting. Sadly, this dismal turnout was during the critical window for raising issues to be considered by the BPA as part of the environmental assessment.

The agency also reached out to tribes and a few interest groups they have long engaged in their public outreach, but their effort falls short of a meaningful commitment to fully engage the public, as evidenced by the meager input they received. The BPA held a second public meeting and opened a final six-week comment period on the draft environmental assessment last fall. As one of the largest and most reliably funded public agencies in existence, the BPA can and should do better.

Who Weighed in?

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The BPA’s overly aggressive removal of native vegetation in the power line corridor and subsequent abundance of invasive species was a theme in comments received

While the BPA received very little input from their limited effort to reach out to the public, there were a few commenters. The Friends of the Columbia River Gorge were one again our reliable and invaluable watchdogs in the Gorge weighed in with extensive comments, including the following on the BPA proposal:

[The BPA should] mitigate scenic impacts by installing new structures that would be less visually discordant in the landscape. Where steel towers are needed, we ask that weathering steel be employed to reduce visibility.

Include a robust invasive species eradication and restoration strategy. The BPA transmission line corridor is frequently infested with invasive plants, such as Armenian blackberry. While replacing structures, BPA should remove invasive plants and restore native vegetation communities that would be compatible with long-term vegetation management requirements. 


BPA should also thoroughly document existing native vegetation communities and determine the need for future vegetation management. BPA’s past vegetation removal efforts have removed vegetation that poses no threat to the transmission line system, which unnecessarily harms wildlife habitat and creates openings for invasive plants.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association also weighed in, with concerns about how the proposed changes could degrade the PCT where the power line crosses the trail near the Bridge of the Gods trailhead. Among their concerns:

The existing view from the trail is a long line of sight down a decidedly unnatural appearing power line corridor, crisscrossed with roads. Forest Service scenery management principles dictate that developments viewed from a sensitive viewing area should strive to mimic “the form, line, color, texture, and pattern common to the landscape.”

Contrary to this, the improved roads will stand out visually as artificial, in what’s already an artificial corridor of cleared vegetation. The improvements would disrupt the PCT traveler’s experience because they clearly mark human manipulation and diminish the desired sense of remoteness from civilization.

While it’s suboptimal for the PCT to follow any road at all, at least the existing condition of the road is rustic. Upgrades to the road, including resurfacing with imported materials, will make it appear and feel more industrialized for the PCT traveler. A related effect, because the road is already dominant over the trail, is that people get lost and continue to follow the road, despite trail signage. Improving the road would exacerbate this situation. 


 The trail crosses directly under one of the structures, in fact, between the poles and their guy lines. This site can’t help but appear impacted by the proposed improvements. There will be three poles instead of two, and, clearly a good deal of ground disturbance involved in upgrading this structure. 


These exacerbated visual impacts to the trail could be best ameliorated by reconfiguring the intersection, and reconstructing portions of the PCT where necessary to meet the BPA line in a spot that lends itself better to disguise. Such a trail relocation would be as much as .5 mile long, and would require its own NEPA study. We propose that this NEPA study, and subsequent trail construction by PCTA’s volunteer crews, be funded by BPA as a mitigation measure. 


The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) unit of the U.S. Forest Service wrote extensive comments, mostly reminding the BPA of regulatory requirements related to the Gorge and the need to conduct environmental assessments when trails or other recreation facilities within the corridor would be significantly impact. The CRGNSA did not comment on opportunities to improve the access trails along the corridor to serve as recreational trails.

What to Expect this Summer?

This project is now going forward in largely the form that was first proposed in 2014 as the preferred action by the BPA. What does this mean for your favorite trails in the Gorge? Here’s are some key excerpts from the BPA’s 410-page draft environmental assessment, beginning with a project overview:

“The Proposed Action is to: (1) rebuild portions of the Bonneville-Hood River transmission line within the rebuild area for the Project (the 22-mile-long segment from structure 1/5 to the Hood River Substation); (2) rebuild the Cascade Locks Tap [author’s note: this is the point where the community of Cascade Locks taps into the power line corridor]; and (3) improve and extend the access road and trail system that allows BPA access to and from the transmission line. Specifically, the Proposed Action would involve the following components:

  • Removal of wood-pole and lattice-steel H-frame transmission line structures constructed prior to 1999 (including cross arms, insulators, hardware, and guy wires) and replacement with a combination of wood-pole H-frame structures and steel-monopole structures. 

  • Retirement of unnecessary transmission line structures. 

  • Replacements of conductors and guy wires. 

  • Replacement of insulators and hardware in locations with no structure or conductor replacement. 

  • Improvement, reconstruction, and extension of existing access roads and trails. 

  • Installation or replacement of bridges, fords, culverts, and access road gates. 

  • Establishment of temporary staging areas, helicopter flight yards, and tensioning sites (for pulling and tensioning conductors). 

  • Installation of temporary guard structures for stringing lines over roads and other utilities. 
  • Removal of vegetation at various locations along the transmission line right-of-way and access 
roads. 

  • Re-vegetation of areas disturbed by construction activities.

Hikers are mostly likely to notice the changes on trails that also serve as access to the power lines or cross the corridor, including the Pacific Crest Trail, Starvation Ridge, Mount Defiance, Wygant and Mitchell Point trails. Off-trail explorers will also see changes in the bluffs above Viento State Park and on Shellrock Mountain.

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The Mount Defiance and Starvation Ridge Trails could be noticeably affected where they pass through the power line corridor

Here’s an except from the environmental assessment that describes the changes we will likely see in these places:

“BPA currently uses a combination of existing roads and foot trails to access the transmission line. BPA holds permits and access road and foot trail easements for access across public and private land. Through these permits and easements, BPA has previously constructed roads and foot trails to access the transmission line. These access roads and foot trails are primarily located within the transmission line right-of-way, but there are also some access roads and foot trails located outside the right-of-way where required due to terrain constraints or other factors.

In a few locations, BPA currently does not have express easement rights to use some existing roads or foot trails that provide access to the transmission line. At these locations, BPA would acquire about 4.4 miles of easement rights to use various sections of the existing roads and trails. Generally, BPA obtains a 50-foot-wide easement for access road rights and 20-foot-wide easements for foot trails.  

BPA’s existing access roads for the line are typically 14 feet wide with an additional 3-foot offset from each side for slopes or drainage ditches, resulting in a total disturbance width of about 20 feet. Access road reconstruction and improvement activities associated with the Proposed Action would occur within this prism, except in areas with curves or on steep slopes where work would occur outside of this prism because of necessary cut and fill.

In areas with identified sensitive resources, such as wetlands or sensitive habitat, access road widths would be reduced to 12 feet and the offsets on either side would be reduced to 2 feet, for a total area of disturbance of 16 feet to minimize temporary and permanent impacts.  

Trail reconstruction or extension activities would result in a typical trail bed width of 18 inches that would require a total clearing area of 2 to 4 feet. For trails crossing steep talus areas, such as Shellrock Mountain, trail bed widths may be as small as 12 inches due terrain constraints. To provide trail stability in these steep areas, sideboards would be installed with rebar or rocks would be keyed into the hill.

On talus slopes, the trail bed would be comprised of compacted course surface material. In non-talus areas, the trail bed would be at grade and would consist of native material. All trail work areas would be accessed by foot and trail improvement, reconstruction, or extension work would be conducted with hand held equipment.”

More information on the project can be found on the BPA’s project website.

It’s never to late to be heard…

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BPA power line tower to be replaced on the Viento Bluffs

With a little more effort in their public outreach (like contacting trail organizations), the BPA would certainly have heard plenty of comments from the general public, and especially from hikers who regularly visit the corridor. Much of the commentary would likely have focused on how popular trails like Starvation Ridge and Mount Defiance will be impacted by the project.

But it could also have been an opportunity for hikers to propose expanded use of the power line trails by hikers, including areas like Shellrock Mountain and the area between Starvation Creek and Viento Creek that have tremendous scenic value. While the Forest Service declined to call out this opportunity, these trail sections also could help complete Gorge Trail 400.

No doubt the BPA wouldn’t be enthusiastic about bringing more hikers to the corridor, but the land belongs to the public and there’s no reason not to make full use of the routes the BPA will be building and maintaining with our public funds.

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The BPA corridor crossing Shellrock Mountain (BPA)

Is it too late to weigh in? Yes, for the most part. The project entered the final stage of the environmental impact process this spring and is scheduled to move into construction this summer. But if you’re concerned about how the construction is proceeding on the ground, you can contact the BPA directly with your concerns or comments:

Chad Hamel

Project Manager

Bonneville Power Administration

P.O. Box 61409

Vancouver, WA  98666-1409

Tel 800-622-4519

The most interesting section of BPA trail that is not currently a signed route is the trail over Shellrock Mountain. While this is only for the most experienced hikers today, it’s a great adventure that includes magnificent views of the Gorge that few enjoy. Hopefully, this route will someday be connected to Gorge Trail 400 — as it should have been as part of this project.

In the meantime, consider exploring the corridor by visiting the connecting trails at Mitchell Point, Wygant Peak, Starvation Creek and where the PCT crosses the corridor on the route to Dry Creek Falls.

Most of the land in the corridor is in public ownership and managed by Oregon Parks and Recreation or the U.S. Forest Service, so you are free to walk the trails and service roads here. This is the best way to see first-hand how your public lands are being managed, even if the BPA has let us down in their efforts to involve the public in this project.

Warren Falls: A Postscript (Part 1 of 2)

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Warren Falls lives! Well, on a few days each year, after heavy rainfall…

The campaign to restore Warren Falls in the Columbia River Gorge is over, at least for now.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is putting the final touches on the latest section of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, from Starvation Creek to Lindsey Creek (more on that in part two of this article), and undoing their diversion tunnel at Warren Falls was not part of the deal.

While Warren Creek now has an especially handsome bridge on the new state trail, the dry cliffs of beautiful Warren Falls (below) will continue to be a ghostly testament to the arrogance and carelessness of our modern age – except on those rare stormy days each winter when the falls briefly reappears (above).

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Warren Falls as it exists most of the time… for now…

Restoring the falls would have been the perfect companion to the HCRH State Trail project, itself an epic restoration project. Samuel Lancaster would surely have approved, too. It was a once in a century opportunity to do the work while heavy equipment was right in front of the falls. But if fighting City Hall is an uphill battle, then the castle walls at ODOT are still more foreboding.

The agency isn’t a monolith. There was encouragement and support from sympathetic professionals at ODOT along the way, albeit plenty of opposition from others. In the end, the agency formerly known only as the Oregon Highway Department revealed its roots, reluctant to step beyond its narrow right-of-way.

And yet the Historic Highway State Trail project, itself, is a bold step forward from simply building highways, and one the agency has been truly committed to. Thus, I’m hopeful about ODOT’s future, and the new state trail has much for us to be proud of.

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So very close… but not this time…

[click here for a larger view]

Perhaps most disappointing is ODOT’s lack of ownership and sense of responsibility for a stream diversion project that today would be considered a crime against nature. Even when Warren Creek was diverted and the falls destroyed in 1939, it was jarringly at odds with the vision and reverence for the landscape of Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway, and should have sent up red flags for the Highway Department.

Still more astonishing was learning during the course of this project that none other than Conde McCullough – engineering deity to many as the designer of Oregon’s most treasured highway bridges of the 1920s and 30s – signed off on the diversion project while serving as chief engineer!

Worse, we also learned along the way that it was completely illegal to destroy the falls, even back in 1939, as revealed in this article on the blog.  Oregon wasn’t a very big place back then, so it’s hard to believe the law protecting the falls went unnoticed at the time… but the truth on that point will likely never be known.

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Warren Falls flows briefly in 2015

Perhaps the greatest irony in the Warren Falls saga is that the original diversion project was designed to protect one the bridges on Sam Lancaster’s famous new road – by destroying one of the more spectacular waterfalls along the route. Lancaster died in March 1941, so it’s doubtful that he was even aware of the project as it moved forward in 1939. Let’s hope so, anyway.

Today, the crumbling diversion dam and tunnel are still listed as “assets” by ODOT, but are really just orphans, and now all but forgotten by the agency for the foreseeable future. Short of Oregon Parks and Recreation (OPRD) taking on the decommissioning as part of some sort of larger Warren Creek restoration project, the most likely outcome is continued deterioration of the diversion structure until nature finally reclaims it.

So, the campaign to restore Warren Falls is over… or is it?

Postscript… and premonition?

After years of attending meetings, writing letters, giving tours to all manner of advocates and officials and even a segment on OPB’s “Oregon Field Guide”, there weren’t many stones left to turn in coaxing ODOT to bring Warren Falls back to its original glory. On the surface, there’s very little to show for the effort.

But is that really true? It depends on how you define victory.

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OPB crew at Warren Falls in 2012

Yes, in the immediate future ODOT will continue to treat Warren Creek like a glorified storm culvert, and the former Warren Falls will continue to be a depository for “trash” (what the original engineers called the rock and woody debris we now know are essential to a stream health) separated from the creek’s flow. That’s a shame, and a missed opportunity for the agency to show that it has evolved from its “Highway Department” past.

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OPB crew above Warren Falls in 2012

But over the past five years, tens of thousands of people have learned the story of Warren Falls thanks to the OPB coverage, thousands more have viewed the WyEast Blog stories here and on the Restore Warren Falls Facebook page, and hundreds have visited the falls site, with more making the side trip each year to pay homage to what once was – and will be, again.

Until they see the silent cliffs where Warren Falls once flowed, most of these visitors have no idea that today’s Hole-in-the-Wall Falls is simply a man-made attraction that came at the cost of destroying Warren Falls. Armed with the history of Warren Falls, few who visit can view it as anything less than an environmental tragedy.

So, despite losing this round, Warren Falls has a lot of new friends, and a lot of people who love the Gorge have gained a better understanding of the lasting cost of “progress” and the chore of undoing our handiwork, even in places we seek to protect most.

Which brings me to…

(Not so) Secrets of the Monkey Wrench Gang…

Oh, how I wish I could share all of the schemes for liberating Warren Falls that have come my way over the past five years! They range from temporary performance art to more permanent alterations that would probably be illegal… if any governing entities were actually concerned about the fate of Warren Falls.

Still more surprising is the range of Monkey-Wrench-Gang-wannabes who proposed taking the restoration of Warren Falls into their own hands: you’ll just have to use your imagination, but some were rather prominent folks who left me speechless with their audacious plans.

So, I’ll share a few highlights, with the strict caveat from the WyEast Blog Legal Department:

NONE OF THESE ACTIVITIES APPEARS TO BE LEGAL, at least not without prior permission from the OPRD or ODOT (and good luck with that, by the way), and therefore the following DOES NOT CONDONE OR ENDORSE these ideas in any way!

Whew. Okay, well one of the most popular schemes is to roll plastic tarps over the giant “trash rack” that forms the screen over the Warren diversion tunnel. This would allow the pristine waters of Warren Creek to ride a plastic liner above the tunnel and over the natural falls. Sort of a giant slippery-slide, but with a real surprise at the end!

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The massive “trash rack” that turned Warren Falls dry in 1939

Someday (on my deathbed, or possibly at the dedication of a restored Warren Falls?) I may reveal an especially prominent individual who personally pitched a version of the slippery slide to me – truly, one of the more unexpected twists in this five-year saga!

Most versions of the slippery slide focused on getting a really good look at what an unaltered Warren Falls looked like via a temporary restoration. But Warren Creek gets pretty wild and wooly in winter, so this would likely be a very brief restoration.

There’s also the question of what would happen to the tarps, once swept away, as there is a lot of potential for adding more man-made junk to an already defaced stream (assuming the tarps didn’t get hung up on the cliffs or left hanging form the outflow to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls).

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OPB’s Michael Bendixen filming the “trash rack” above the brink of Warren Falls in 2012

Others suggested (WyEast Blog Legal Department repeat notice: not condoning this!) speeding up the “weathering” process that has already begun to expose and compromise the steel beams that form the “trash rack” at the top of the falls.

It turns out that in just the ten years since I’ve been advocating to restore the falls, this part of the diversion has shown noticeable deterioration, and seems to be speeding up. It turns out the top of the “trash rack” is the weakest point in the design, and is steadily unraveling. So, I’m not sure Mother Nature needs much help at this point, despite the enthusiastic volunteers out there.

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OPB’s Michael Bendixen on top of the “trash rack” that rests on a cobble dam that is gradually eroding away

These photos show the vulnerability of the steel “trash rack” beams where the mortar that once fully embedded them above the diversion tunnel has been significantly compromised since 1939 by the relentless flow Warren Creek:

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A closer look at the lip of the “trash rack” showing the masonry cap on the cobble dam

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The masonry cap has worn thin where it anchors the top of the “trash rack” and a small garden flourishes where debris has clogged the giant grate

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Creative types see an opportunity to speed up the demise of the “trash rack” where these steel beams are almost freed from the concrete cap by weathering

The motive for speeding up the release of the beams varies among schemes and schemers.

One version is to allow enough stream material to pass under the protective “trash rack” to plug up the surprisingly narrow diversion tunnel leading to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls. Which is just 60” in diameter. This is probably what Mother Nature has in mind, though it may take awhile.

Another angle on speeding up the weathering at the top of the steel beams is to allow larger debris (logs, large rocks) to wedge between the beams, thus acting as levers to literally tear it apart with hydraulic pressure during high stream flow. To a large extent, this is already happening, as at least half the rack is plugged with smaller cobbles that are twisting and bending the steel beams with the effects of freeze and thaw during the winter months.

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Vince Patton from Oregon Field Guide inspecting the access vault on the west end of the “trash rack”

At least one Warren Falls fan spotted the open vault above the west end of the diversion structure and suggested diverting the creek into this hole (WyEast Blog Legal Department reprise: this is not an endorsement! Plus, you might fall into a tunnel that spit out as a man-made waterfall!), where it could move debris large enough to plug the bypass tunnel. I’m not positive, but I think solid basalt prevents this from happening – either through creative monkey-wrenching or courtesy Mother Nature. But I was impressed at the attention to detail from those who love Warren Falls!

As much as I enjoyed hearing these inspired pitches for a DIY restoration of Warren Falls, one of the reasons I advocated for removing the “trash rack” structure and filling the bypass tunnel in an orderly way was to avoid having a bunch of steel debris entombed at the lip of this beautiful falls. I’d still much prefer a thoughtful decommissioning of the diversion over a disorganized mess – whether triggered by humans or nature.

We owe it to future generations to do this right. And who knows, we may still get the chance!

What the Future Holds: Warren’s Cousins

Short of an unforeseen intervention, the restoration of Warren Falls by forces of nature will take awhile. But it turns out that Warren Falls has some similarly trod-upon cousins in the area who have suffered flagrant abuse, then been abandoned to recover on their own.

The good news: in all cases, nature is winning… albeit, very slowly.

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White River Falls needlessly goes dry each summer, thanks to a derelict Pacific Power diversion that sends the river around the falls (visible dropping in on the right).

A spectacular example is White River Falls, located in a state park by that name on the east side of Mount Hood. The falls is just upstream from the confluence of the White River with the Deschutes River.

More than a century ago, the Wasco Milling Company diverted much of the falls to a giant pipeline that fed a powerhouse downstream. Energy from the powerhouse was transmitted to The Dalles. Wasco Milling later sold the plant to Pacific Power, and it was finally shut down in 1960, when the land was transferred to the state of Oregon.

Pacific Power left quite a mess behind. The abandoned power plant, numerous pipelines and the diversion dam all still survive on state park land today. During high runoff in winter and spring the diversion channel is overwhelmed, and the former glory of White River Falls is on display. But by late summer, the entire flow is still diverted into the bypass channel, tumbling around the falls where the diversion pipe once existed.

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The derelict diversion channel at White River Falls

In this way, the situation at White River is not unlike present-day Hole-in-the-Wall Falls burping out of the Warren Falls bypass tunnel where it once connected to a flume that carried the creek over the old highway and to the Columbia River.

And like Warren Falls, the bypass channel “falls” at White River is a sad, ugly duckling compared to the magnificent original falls. But while there is no plan to formally decommission the diversion at White River Falls, the approach to the diversion dam is increasingly clogged with silt and debris, and should eventually fail, finally closing the chapter on the Wasco Milling Company era.

A few years ago, I reported on a now-scrapped scheme by Wasco County officials to reboot the White River generating plant, proving once again the wise words of John Muir: “Nothing dollarable is safe.” Even in an Oregon state park, it turns out.

A closer cousin to Warren Falls is popular Bridal Veil Falls, located at the far west end of the Columbia Gorge. Though few of the thousands of visitors who hike to the base of Bridal Veil Falls each year can even imagine what this spot looked like just a few decades ago, it was one of the most heavily degraded areas in the Gorge.

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The lower tier of famous Bridal Veil Falls was altered for mill operations! Who knew?

The mill town of Bridal Veil was once located just 100 yards below the falls, though the town is now nothing more than concrete foundations and rusted cables covered in moss and undergrowth. In this eastward view (below) from the early 1900s, today’s Bridal Veil exit from I-84 to Multnomah Falls would be located near the buildings at the far end of the mill town.

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The mill town of Bridal Veil in the early 1900s

The pile of rough-cut timber in the foreground marks the terminus of log flumes that fed the Bridal Veil mill. At least three timber flumes carried logs and rough lumber to the mill from the slopes of Larch Mountain. One flume closely followed Bridal Veil Creek with the kind of roller coaster ride theme park “log rides” have tried to replicate ever since.

In the scene below (from about 1900) the audacious scale of the flume is evident as it courses down the canyon, about a mile above Bridal Veil Falls, and just below Middle Bridal Veil Falls. The area had already been heavily logged by this time and the stream was viewed as nothing more than a steady water source and convenient path for moving old-growth timber to the mill.

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The main flume followed a ravaged Bridal Veil canyon to the mill

This view (below) of the converging flumes coming into the mill site conceals Bridal Veil Falls, which is located directly beneath the flumes. Today’s trail to the falls would have travelled under all three flumes where they converge in this scene.

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Flumes over Bridal Veil Falls (the falls is located directly below the flumes)

Bridal Veil Falls not only had a trio of log flumes passing overhead, the falls itself was also modified by the mill, presumably to carry water to the mill (though this is just my own speculation – I’d love to hear from mill historians who know more about this!)

The photo below shows the falls in the late 1800s, just before the lower tier had been raised about 15 feet, creating a pool below the upper tier and allowing for a diversion structure (?) to presumably carry a piped portion of the creek to the nearby mill.

During periods of low water today, you can still see parts of the diversion structure at Bridal Veil Falls poking from the water (below).

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Lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls as it exists today

Here are detailed views of the diversion structure that raised the lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls to what we see today:

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A closer look at what seems to be a cobble dam that raised the height of the lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls…

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…and a still closer look…

This rare view from the early 1900s shows the diversion structure already in ruins or perhaps under construction? In either case, its purpose only lasted a short period, and in this way the falls is a kindred spirit to Warren Falls, where the short-lived diversion functioned for barely a decade before becoming obsolete and abandoned.

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The cobble dam shortly after construction… or perhaps after it was abandoned?

Today, there are still a lot of concrete and steel reminders of the mill town, though they’re often hidden in plain sight, under layers of rust, moss and ferns. For example, this view (below) of the stream below Bridal Veil Falls reveals a “boulder” that is actually a concrete footing and an intake pipe for one of the mill ponds.

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Mill relics hiding under moss at Bridal Veil Falls

Other large waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were impacted by the mill operation, but have recovered dramatically in the decades since the mill finally closed in the 1960s. Here are then-and-now photos of Middle and Upper Bridal Veil Falls:

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[click here for a larger version]

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[click here for a larger version]

In more recent years, stolen automobiles have periodically been pushed from the cliffs along historic Palmer Mill Road into Bridal Veil canyon. Some of these dumped vehicles have been pulled from the canyon, but others are too difficult to reach, and are slowly fading into the forest.

While they have undoubtedly released engine fluids into the creek and have plastic parts that will last for decades, nature and Bridal Veil Creek are nonetheless making short work of the rest of these vehicles.

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Moss and ferns consuming a dumped Hyundai Santa Fe just above Upper Bridal Veil Falls (photo courtesy Jamen Lee)

Unlike Warren Falls, the waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were never completely diverted from their natural streambed, yet the overall impact of logging and milling at Bridal Veil had a much larger impact on the larger watershed than anything Warren Creek endured. The fact that Mother Nature has consumed most of what wasn’t salvaged when the flumes were pulled from Bridal Veil canyon in the mid-1900s is an inspiration for the ongoing recovery of Warren Falls.

In time, all traces of our impact on the environment really can heal – provided we allow it to happen. Responsibly cleaning up after ourselves would be a more noble path, of course, but at least nature seems to forgive us in time… so far.

Warren Falls Lives!

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False alarm! Horsetail does look a lot like Warren Falls, though…

A few weeks ago, the local waterfall hunting community had a brief moment of excitement when a vintage 1918 film seemed to include a rare view of Warren Falls! But after looking more closely at the images, it turned out to be Horsetail Falls in very low flow. So, the hunt for a photograph of Warren Falls before the 1939 diversion project continues.

But the similarity was real, so the following is a rough guess of what we might see – and perhaps, sooner than we think: Warren Falls flowing again, returning its amazing amphitheater to mossy green, as the diversion structure continues to crumble into history.

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For waterfall devotees, this is Horsetail Falls superimposed on Warren’s dry cliff with the reversed base of Dry Creek Falls providing the foreground.

[click here for a large version]

Of course, we already know what a small amount of flow over Warren Falls looks like during high runoff events, as shown in previous photos in this article. What we don’t know is what the full force of Warren Creek might look like coming over this 120-foot escarpment, and especially what it might do with 77 years of accumulated stream debris piled at the base of the natural falls.

We have a pretty good idea, though, based on recent dam removals around the Pacific Northwest. It turns out that streams are surprisingly quick to redistribute accumulated debris and restore themselves to their natural stream state, as we’ve seen with dam removals on the Hood, Little Sandy and White Salmon rivers.

Today, Warren Creek below falls has been reduced to ditch, radically moved by ODOT from its former channel in the 1950s and devoid of the rocks and woody debris essential to a healthy stream since 1939, thanks to the “trash rack”.

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Add some rocks and logs to lower Warren Creek and it might look like this someday

[click here for a large version]

When Warren Falls returns, the huge pile of stream debris will begin to move downstream, and the debris-starved lower section of Warren Creek will develop the pools and eddies necessary for salmon and steelhead to spawn, as imagined above.

The good news is that the new HCRH State Trail passes high and wide over Warren Creek, ensuring that the creek can evolve back to a natural state in the future without a redux of the 1930s highway impacts that led to the diversion of Warren Falls.

When will Warren Falls return? Not just now… but perhaps sooner than we think.

Meanwhile, we wait… and watch.

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(Part two of this article will focus on a review of the newly completed Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail segment from Starvation Creek to Wonder Creek, and passing Warren Falls)

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 To revisit the complete history of the Restore Warren Falls project, here are earlier WyEast blog articles on the subject:

 An Overdue Warren Falls Update (and a bombshell!)

“Warren Falls Lives… Again?”

Warren Falls Solutions

“Warren Falls, we’re ready for your closeup…”

 Warren Falls Mystery… Solved!

Restoring Warren Creek Falls

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Warren Falls on Oregon Field Guide

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Restore Warren Falls on Facebook!

 

 

 

Fireweed: a rose by any other name..?

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Fireweed frames Umbrella Falls on the East Fork Hood River

Somewhere in the long history of botanical naming slander was committed, as the common name “Fireweed” was given to one of the most beautiful and useful plants found in our forests – and around the world. Thus, the noble Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) comes to be associated with notoriously invasive plants like Horseweed, Bindweed, Chickweed, Tumbleweed and Pigweed!

But Fireweed is anything but a weed, at least by the most common definitions:

weed  (wēd) noun

A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one that grows where it is not wanted and often grows or spreads fast or takes the place of desired plants.

To the contrary, Fireweed is a widespread native in northern latitudes, growing from sea level to timberline in a remarkable range of habitats. The common name is half-right, as Fireweed is among the first and most prolific plants to return to burned areas, performing an essential role in stabilizing soil and providing shade for other flora to gradually return. Fireweed is equally at home in moist meadows, forest margins and wherever the ground has been disturbed by human or natural activity.

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Fireweed has carpeted the 2011 Dollar Fire on the north slopes of Mount Hood

The string of fires over the past decade on the east and north slopes of Mount Hood have brought a sea of brilliant Fireweed blossoms to the mountain each summer. Fireweed spreads readily by seed, but are hardy perennials, so they provide years of soil stabilization once established in burned forests or disturbed areas.

Fireweed blossoms are spectacular: their spikes can grow as tall as six feet, though typically they are 3-4 feet in height. Their flowering plumes can have 50 or more blossoms, opening first at the base of the spike and progressing through their long blooming season, typically from June to September.

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Fireweed flower spike

Each Fireweed blossom has four petals that alternate with four narrow sepals, surrounding white stamen and a pistil that splits in fourths.

Depending on your eyes, the blossoms are anything from hot pink to bright fuchsia. The flower stems are often bright crimson, as well, adding to the striking appearance of these plants during their bloom season.

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Fireweed flower spike

The leaves on Fireweed long, narrow strips, radiating from the stem like steps on a ladder. Their leaves give the Fireweed its Latin name of “angustifolium” (meaning narrow-leaved). A close look at the leaves reveals an unusual feature: circular veins looping back to the leaf stem instead of terminating at the edges like most plants.

Given their adaptability to the wide range of habitats we have in Oregon, it’s not surprising that Fireweed is found across much of North America, as well as northern Europe:

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Fireweed is especially common in the boreal snow forests of Alaska and Canada, where the provincial flag of the Yukon Territory incorporates the Fireweed blossom:

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While Fireweed has an important ecological role as a pioneer species in burned areas, it was also collected by native peoples in the Northwest for a variety of human uses. Its leaves were brewed to make tea, and nutrient-rich spring shoots were collected as edible greens. Even the fluffy silk from its seed pods were used for weaving.

Today, Fireweed honey and other products from its nectar are still made where the flower is in abundance in places like Alaska, Canada and Northern Europe.

Fireweed Life Cycle

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Young Fireweed patch in a recently burned area

Fireweed is a perennial species with the spirit of an annual. While it springs to life from hardy roots and stems each spring, Fireweed grows as easily from its abundant seeds as any annual species, and thus its ability to quickly colonize burned or disturbed areas.

Young plants often produce one large flower spike and a couple of small spikes from auxiliary buds along the main stem. The young Fireweed shown in the photo above are typical, with young plants growing in a dense patch, each producing one main flower spike.

As Fireweed plants continue to grow over successive seasons, they form multiple branches, each with one or more large flower spike. In this way, a single mature plant is eventually capable of producing dozens of spikes. The image below shows a larger, mature Fireweed with several large flower clusters growing from the main plant.

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Mature Fireweed with multiple stems

Just as the blossoms of Fireweed open progressively beginning from the base of the flower spikes toward, older blossoms soon produce elongated pink seed capsules (below) even as the tip of the flower spike is still producing blossoms.

Within each capsule, seeds are attached to a fluff of silk that acts as a tiny parachute to carry them far and wide when the capsule splits open. This is the secret to the Fireweed’s remarkable ability to colonize.

A single Fireweed plant can produce 300 to 400 seeds per capsule and as many as 80,000 seeds per plant that will float as far as the wind will take them. Seeds can persist in the soil for years and survive fire, further helping the plant function as a pioneer species in burned areas.

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Fireweed seed capsules opening to reveal silk seed parachutes (USDA)

Fireweed seedlings quickly grow to form their first flower spike and produce seeds by their second year, while also establishing rhizomes that allow mature plants to spread and form clumps.

The first seedlings in a burn often take root where fire debris provides protection and mulch, with new plants quickly filling in the gaps in the first years after a fire. First year Fireweed seedlings look like this:

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First year Fireweed seedlings

This two-year old seedling is coming into its prime in a still scorched area of the Dollar Fire burn, along the Vista Ridge trail:

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Second-year Fireweed with a main flower spike and several auxiliary spikes

This more mature Fireweed plant has begun to spread its rhizomes and form a clump as it sends up multiple flower spikes in a protected spot by a fallen tree:

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Mature Fireweed

Adding to their colorful display, Fireweed leaves often turn to blazing shades of red and crimson in autumn, another showy feature of this remarkable plant:

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Fireweed foliage in autumn shades of red (USDA)

At higher elevations, the perennial stems of Fireweed are flattened by winter snowpack, but can survive the winter cold to produce broader clumps when new growth emerges in the next growing season.

What’s in a name?

With all of its beauty, versatility and ecological function, why isn’t the Fireweed more celebrated – outside of the Yukon Territory, that is?

Oh, be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”

(Juliet Capulet, upon seeing her first Fireweed..?)

 One reason might be its humble name, so one option would be to revert to the British name of “Rosebay Willowherb”, a common name with origins in its herbal use dating to the late 1500s.

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Fireweed frames Mount Hood from Waucoma Ridge

But in the spirit of bucking norms and traditions, how another option that could be a more complimentary, modern version of it’s weedy current name? Like Fireroot? Or Fireflower? How about Fireleaf? Nope… doesn’t quite work.

How about… Firestar! Hmm… this minor adjustment would honor its essential role in stabilizing burned forests, but with a positive spin – after all, it is a “star” in this role! What do you think?

Yes, it would be a really big lift. A quick web search reveals an aerospace company, energy crystals, software brand, sci-fi novel, rolling fire doors and… a mutant Marvel Comics superheroine! If all of the above are anything like the Yukon Territory, they’d be honored to share their corporate namesake with a beautiful wildflower, right?

Where to see Fire…. star!

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Fireweed crowds the Vista Ridge trail as it passes through the Dollar Fire burn

I’m not really sure how to go about establishing a new common name for a flower, but since many have multiple common names, it must be possible. So, why not try?

In that spirit, here are a couple of trails where you can enjoy magnificent displays of Firestar on the slopes of Mount Hood from mid-July into September:

Elk Cove Trail: this moderately steep trail travels through the heart of the 2011 Dollar Fire, passing near the origin of the fire just below the Coe Overlook and lots of Firestar. The overlook makes a good stopping point for those looking for a shorter hike, though Elk Cove is always a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

Vista Ridge to Eden Park & Cairn Basin: this moderately graded trail hikes through the western expanse of the 2011 Dollar Fire, passing fields of Firestar along the way before looping through idyllic Eden Park and Cairn Basin. Be prepared for a couple crossings of Ladd Creek, a glacial stream that fluctuates with summer melt on hot afternoons.

Enjoy!

“Princess of the Pacific Northwest”

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The “Princess of the Pacific Northwest” in her regal summer robes (Mount Hood from Elk Cove)

A friend alerted me last week to some unexpected publicity for the Mount Hood National Park Campaign: a mention in Backpacker Magazine’s special National Parks issue! If you’ve followed the blog for awhile, this isn’t the first time the park idea for Mount Hood has made the national media – Sunset Magazine suggested included the mountain in a similar piece a few years ago, as covered in this blog article.

I should confess to not reading this magazine much, as it as always seemed a bit fluffy and gear-obsessed. But while I’ll excerpt the Mount Hood mention here, it’s definitely worth picking up a copy of the National Park issue (August 2016 issue, on newsstands now).

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Backpacker’s special National Parks issue on newsstands now (August 2016)

There are surprisingly thorough articles in this issue of Backpacker on the state of our National Parks, covering everything from the worrisome lack of diversity among parks visitors to the impacts that we are all seeing as our public lands grow increasingly popular. There’s even a piece on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, a new effort to reboot the spirit and scope of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps in our time.

The Mount Hood National Park mention comes way back on page 102 of the magazine. Four future parks are profiled as “top contenders” for joining the park system, including our own Mount Hood (and Columbia River Gorge), Driftless Rivers in the upper Midwest, Upper Bald River in Tennessee and Maine Woods, where National Monument status seems closer than ever after years of determined effort.

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Mount Hood at the top of the list! The “Princess of the Pacific Northwest”

But Mount Hood gets the lead and photo (Mirror Lake) in the piece, along with the wonderful tagline “Princess of the Pacific Northwest”. Mount Hood has sometimes been called the “Queen of the Cascades” over the years in a nod to “King” Rainier (often called the “Monarch of the Cascades”), but “princess” works well, too!

The article suggests the Eagle Creek trail as the best pick for exploring for new visitors. It’s also a good choice for underscoring the connection between Mount Hood and the Gorge, with the Mount Hood Loop the new national park together.

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Sure, you can read about Mount Hood here, but this issue of Backpacker is worth picking up, with several good articles on our National Parks

But what would the best pick for an alpine hike have been? Most likely the short, popular trail to Mirror Lake or maybe something near Timberline Lodge, as the south side does seem to be the default for national media coverage. But local hikers would also look to McNeil Point, Elk Cove, Cooper Spur or Gnarl Ridge as the finest Mount Hood trail experiences.

And as much as Mount Hood is (deceivingly) serene and lovely in the photo from Trillium Lake, I would have picked one of the more rugged sides for the article, like the towering west face from Lolo Pass…

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“Princess of the Pacific Northwest” in her elegant winter robes (Lolo Pass)

…or the rugged north face from the Eliot Glacier moraine…

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“Princess of the Pacific Northwest” showing her wild side (Eliot Glacier)

…or even something lesser-known, like Badlands Basin on the east side, in Mount Hood’s ran shadow…

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“Princess of the Pacific Northwest” from the less-traveled east side (Badland Basin)

…but those images can wait until Backpacker Magazine profiles Mount Hood as the NEWEST national park in the system, one that finally protects the Princess of the Pacific Northwest” for all time!

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In other media mentions, the Oregonian ran this “what if” piece on national parks that didn’t happen a couple weeks ago. It includes an interesting (if incomplete) history of the idea for Mount Hood, but oddly it makes no mention of the Gorge, which came very close to national park status when the Gorge Act was coming together in the 1980s.

Unfinished business, to be sure… but an idea whose time will come!

‘Tis a lesson you should heed

Try, try, try again

If at first you don’t succeed

Try, try, try again

-Thomas H. Palmer and Frederick Maryat (1847)

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A New Vision: Restoring Hiyu Mountain

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Early 1900s view of Mount Hood and Bull Run Lake, with Hiyu Mountain on the far right and Sentinel Peak on the left

Hidden in plain sight at the foot of Mount Hood and the headwaters of Portland’s Bull Run watershed, Hiyu Mountain is a little-known, much abused gem. No one knows why this graceful, crescent-shaped mountain was named with the Chinook jargon word for “much” or “many”, and sadly, only a very few know of Hiyu Mountain today.

This little mountain deserves better. The broader vision of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign is to heal and restore Mount Hood and the Gorge as a place for conservation and sustainable recreation, ending a century of increasing commercial exploitation and profiteering. As part of this vision, Hiyu Mountain could once again become a place of “hiyu” beauty, where snowcapped WyEast fills the horizon and where Bull Run Lake, indigo source of Portland’s drinking water, could finally be seen and celebrated by the public these lands belong to.

Two Worlds

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Dodge Island and Mount Hood from Bull Run Lake; Hiyu Mountain is the tall, crescent-shaped ridge rising behind the island (photo courtesy Guy Meacham)

Hiyu Mountain rises 1,500 feet directly above Bull Run Lake, the uppermost source of Portland’s water supply. Lolo Pass is on the south shoulder of the mountain, connecting the Hood River and Sandy River valleys. The two sides of Hiyu Mountain mountain couldn’t be more different.

The northern slope that forms the shoreline of the Bull Run Lake is almost untouched by man, almost as pristine as it was when the Bull Run Watershed was established in the late 1800s.

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Early 1900s map of Hiyu Mountain and Bull Run Lake

Massive old growth Noble fir forests tower along these northern slopes, where rain and snow from Pacific storm fronts is captured, emerging in the crystal mountain springs that form the headwaters of the Bull Run River.

Almost no one visits this part of Bull Run, save for an occasional Portland Water Bureau worker. This land has been strictly off-limits to the public for nearly 120 years, and remained untouched even as the Bull Run Reserve was developed as a municipal watershed.

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Early 1900s map showing Hiyu Mountain and the first trails over Lolo Pass

On the south slope of Hiyu Mountain things were surprisingly pristine until the 1950s. This area was also part of the original Bull Run Reserve, but was later ceded – in large part because the south slopes of Hiyu Mountain drain to the Clear Fork of the Sandy River, and away from the Bull Run watershed.

Since the 1950s, a conspiracy of forces has almost completely altered the south face of the mountain and its summit crest. By the mid-1950s, the Forest Service had begun what would become an extensive industrial logging zone here, mining ancient trees in dozens of sprawling, high-elevation clear cuts in the remote Clear Fork valley.

These forests will take centuries to recover, and are today mostly thickets of plantation conifers in woeful need of thinning. The maze of logging roads constructed to cut the forests are now buckling and sliding into disrepair on the steep mountain slopes.