This category includes detailed proposals for better managing Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge in the tradition of our National Parks — a preview of what the future Mount Hood National Park might look like!
St. Peters Dome rising above the January 13 Bucher Creek debris flow that swept across I-84, killing one person (ODOT)
It seems a world away as we enter yet another summer drought, with record-breaking heat waves and an early wildfire season in WyEast country. Yet, just a few months ago, on January 13th, the tragic story of a Warrendale Resident being swept away in her car by a winter debris flow in the Columbia Gorge filled our local news. The event closed a 10-mile section of I-84 from Ainsworth State Park to Tanner Creek and the area was evacuated after the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning.
Some of the local media coverage also connected the dots, reporting on the long history of dangerous debris flows in this part of the Gorge. This was not a freak tragedy, but rather, a completely predictable event. The well-known hazard zone stretches from Ainsworth State Park on the west to Yeon State Park, five miles to the east, encompassing the hamlets of Dodson and Warrendale in its path. While the steep walls throughout the Gorge are infamous for producing rockfall and landslides, this stretch is notoriously active. Why?
Geoscientists don’t have a particular name for this geologically active area, but the unifying feature is a near-vertical wall that I will call the Nesmith Escarpment for the purpose of this article. The name that comes from Nesmith Point, which has the distinction of being the tallest feature on the Gorge rim, rising nearly 4,000 feet from the banks of Columbia River. The Nesmith Escarpment was largely created by the ancient, catastrophic Missoula Floods that shaped much of what we know as the Columbia River Gorge during the last ice, more than 13,000 years ago. These floods repeatedly scoured the Gorge with torrents hundreds of feet deep, often enough to overtop today’s Crown Point and Rowena Plateau.
Tumalt Creek is the largest of the volatile streams that flow from the towering, over-steepened Gorge walls of the Nesmith Escarpment(ODOT)
As the massive Missoula Floods cut into the slopes below Nesmith Point, the over-steepened terrain began to collapse into the river. It’s a process that continues to this day, gradually expanding the escarpment and leaving behind sheer basalt towers of resistant bedrock along the lower slopes. Of these, St. Peters Dome is the most prominent, along with Rock of Ages and Katanai Rock (the informal name for the impressive monolith that rises just east of St. Peters Dome).
The headwaters of Tumalt Creek flow from the highest walls of the Nesmith Escarpment, where the red, volcanic layers of the Nesmith Volcano that rests on the Gorge rim have been exposed by erosion (ODOT)
Adding to the geologic uniqueness of the Nesmith Escarpment is Nesmith Point, itself. Located at the top of the escarpment, the familiar layer-cake stack of basalt flows that make up so much of the Gorge geology gives way at Nesmith Point to bright red and yellow layers of clay and cinders that reveal the uppermost part of the escarpment to be the remains of a volcano. The northern half of the volcano has been torn away over the millennia by the growing escarpment, leaving a visible cross-section of the volcanic dome. The surviving, southern half of the Nesmith volcano is gently sloping, like other dome volcanoes that line the Oregon side of the Gorge (the familiar peaks of Larch Mountain and Mount Defiance among them).
The result of all this erosion is a 3-mile-long amphitheater of collapsing layers of volcanic debris and basalt walls resting uncomfortably and over-steepened upon ancient sediments at the base of the cliffs that make for a slippery, unstable foundation. Rain, winter freezes and gravity will therefore continue to chip away at the escarpment for millennia.
Over the many centuries since the Missoula Floods, this relentless erosion has built a huge apron of what geoscientists call an “alluvial fan” at the base of the Nesmith Escarpment. This name describes the flood debris that accumulates where canyon streams prone to flash-flooding suddenly reach a valley floor, slowing and depositing debris over time. The resulting layers typically form a broad, gently sloped wedge shaped like a fan. For the purpose of this article, the fan at the base of the Nesmith Escarpment will be referred to as the Nesmith Fan.
(Source: State of Wyoming)
(Source: City of Scottsdale)
One of the defining features of an alluvial fan is the erratic, constantly shifting course of the streams that create them. Because of their shallow slope and the accumulation of debris, these streams continually change course as they spread their loads of rock and gravel on the fan.
If the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan were located in a desert environment, these defining features would be exposed and easy to see. But in the forested western Gorge, the dense rainforest vegetation quickly covers debris flows with new growth, often within five or ten years, making it hard to recognize how active the geology really is. It’s therefore easy to understand why settlements like Dodson and Warrendale were built upon on the Nesmith Fan, where the fertile ground and gentle terrain were friendly to farming and home sites. The spectacular cliffs of the Nesmith Escarpment simply provided a beautiful backdrop for these communities. Yet, it’s also an increasingly hazardous place for anyone to live.
The image below shows the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan in a way that wasn’t possible until LIDAR technology was developed. LIDAR allows highly detailed images of topography even in areas like the Gorge, where dense forests cover the terrain. The LIDAR view shows the steep walls of the escarpment in stark relief, including the hundreds of steep ravines that have formed along the escarpment.
Lidar view of the Nesmith Escarpment and debris fan
The LIDAR view also reveals the alluvial deposits that make up the Nesmith Fan to be a series of hundreds (or even thousands) of overlapping debris flows from the roughly dozen streams that flow from the Nesmith Escarpment, each helping to gradually build the enormous alluvial fan. The wrinkled surface of the fan reveals the hundreds of flood channels that have developed over the millennia as countless debris flows have swept down from the cliffs above.
This view (looking east toward Dodson from Ainsworth State Park) shows the vulnerability of I-84 and the Union Pacific Railroad where they cross the 3-mile-wide expanse of the Nesmith Fan. The 2021 debris flows and flooding damage to the Ainsworth interchange can be seen at the center of the photo, where the interstate was temporary closed by the event (ODOT)
During the very wet winter of 1996, a series of major debris flow roared down from the Nesmith Escarpment, sweeping cars off I-84 and closing the freeway for several days. A train on the Union Pacific line was knocked off its tracks and many home were damaged.
During the event, debris from Leavens Creek, near St. Peters Dome, swept toward the Dodson area, eventually engulfing the Royse house, which was located near the Ainsworth interchange. The scene was shocking, burying the home in debris that rose to the second floor and destroying outbuildings on the Royse farm. You can read Carol Royse’s riveting account of the event on Portland State researcher Kenneth Cruikshank’s excellent web page describing the 1996 debris flows here.
The Royse House in Dodson (with St. Peters Dome beyond) after a series of debris flows on Leavens Creek engulfed the structure in 1996 (The Oregonian)
The Royse home stood half-buried and visible from the freeway for many years, becoming a prominent reminder of the power of the Gorge. By the mid-2000s, a new forest of Red alder and Cottonwood had already enveloped the debris path and the Royse home, eventually obscuring it from view until the Eagle Creek Fire destroyed both the structure and newly established forest in 2017.
The more recent debris flows in January of this year struck some of the same spots that were impacted in the 1996 and 2001 events. The Tumalt Creek drainage was once again very active, sending debris onto I-84 and closing the freeway. To the west, the Leavens and Bucher creek drainages also sent debris onto the highway and the site of the former Royse home.
As jarring as these changes are to us, this cycle of destruction, rebirth and more destruction has unfolded hundreds of times on the Nesmith Fan. It’s simply part of the ongoing evolution of the landscape.
How do they start?
Debris flows are a mud and rock version of an snow avalanche. They typically begin with oversaturated soils on steep terrain that suddenly liquifies from its own weight. Once it begins to move, the flow can incorporate still more oversaturated soil as it gathers speed, just as a snow avalanche triggers downslope snow to move. The steepness of the terrain is a key factor in how fast a debris flow can move, and on very steep slopes they can reach as much as 100 miles per hour, though they typically slow as the debris reaches the base of the slope and spreads out to form alluvial fans.
These towering twin cascades where Bucher Creek originates along the Nesmith Escarpment rival Multnomah Falls in height. The impossibly steep terrain here is the source of both the debris and sudden flash floods that have helped build the Nesmith Fan, far below (ODOT)
A heavy rain event can also trigger a debris flow by creating stream flooding that erodes and undermines stream banks, causing debris to slide from canyon walls. This form of debris flow is common in the larger canyons in the Columbia Gorge, but less so on the Nesmith Escarpment, where most of the streams are small and only flow seasonally. Here, it’s the steepness of the slopes and the unstable geology that makes the area so prone to debris flows.
Debris flows are different from landslides. A debris flow is typically quite liquid and fast moving, like cake batter being poured into pan. Landslides are typically slow, with a large mass sliding as a whole, like an omelet sliding from a skillet onto a plate. In the Gorge, landslides are common and mostly occur where the underlying geology is oversaturated and allows the overlying terrain to move. The upper walls of the Nesmith Escarpment are scared by hundreds of landslides, and in the right conditions, these slide can trigger debris flows that spread far beyond the landslide.
What about fires and logging?
A third trigger for debris flows is the sudden removal of the forest overstory. The big trees in our Pacific Northwest forests capture and hold a tremendous amount of rain on their surfaces that never reaches the ground, with some of the moisture directly absorbed by the trees and much of it simply evaporating. Clear cut logging removes this buffer, allowing much more precipitation to suddenly reach the soil, triggering erosion, landslides and debris flows.
Logging roads are especially impactful by cutting into the soil profile on steep slopes and allowing runoff to infiltrate under the soil layer and destabilized soils. This is well-documented as a source of major landslides in heavily logged areas. Thankfully, most of the forested western end of the Gorge is protected from logging, including the Nesmith Escarpment (though early white settlers logged these areas of the Gorge extensively)
The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire has not only destabilized steep slopes throughout the burn by killing the protective forest cover, it also revealed the tortured landscape of braided flood channels on the Nesmith Fan once hidden under dense vegetation. This image from just after the fire shows a volunteer trail crew scouting Trail 400 where it crosses the fan. The route curves in and out of the dozens of channels and debris piles formed by past flood events
Fire can have a similar effect on runoff when the forest canopy is completely killed. This is why new research shows that attempting to log recently burned areas can have serious effects by disturbing newly exposed soils and worsening the increased erosion that would already result from fires.
In the Gorge, the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire burned most of the Nesmith Escarpment, raising serious concerns about the debris flow activity accelerating here in the coming decades. The debris flows earlier this year may have been the first major events to have been triggered as much by deforestation from the fire as by oversaturated soils. The following photo pair shows the extent of the burn on the Nesmith Escarpment, with the first photo taken just a few weeks before the fire in 2017 and the second photo taken in 2018, when the fire’s impact was clearly visible.
The January 2021 debris flow
The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has been making regular flights over the Eagle Creek Fire burn since late 2017 to monitor for potential flooding and landslides. While the main purpose of these surveys is to anticipate impacts on the highway, ODOT is also amassing an invaluable library of historic photos that document the fire and resulting geologic events in a way that has never been done before.
Their most recent flight includes photos from the January 2021 debris flows that tell the story in a way that words cannot match:
This view looking west toward the Ainsworth Interchange shows how Bucher Creek had completely covered the south half of the interchange and sent mud and debris flowing east on the freeway, itself. The 1996 and 2001 debris flows impacted much of the same area (ODOT)
A closer look at the 2021 debris flows where the Ainsworth interchange was overwhelmed with debris. A green highway sign marks what used to be a freeway on-ramp (ODOT)
Bucher creek briefly pushed the lobe of mud and debris in the lower right of this view directly toward the home in the first photo, before changing direction to the path the creek is following in this photo. This is a good example of how accumulated debris regularly forces the streams that carry the debris into new channels. (ODOT)
This view looking back at the Bucher Creek debris flow lobe shows just how close it came to the home and outbuildings shown in the previous photo (ODOT)
The view down Bucher Creek debris flow toward St. Peters Dome and the Columbia River from near the crest of the Nesmith Escarpment (ODOT)
Landslide in burned timber near the crest of the Nesmith Escarpment. This landslide fed debris directly into the Bucher Creek debris flow, and onto the freeway more than 3,500 feet below (ODOT)
What to do?
It’s tempting to wish away future geologic hazards by taking comfort from what we perceive to be more predictable past. After all, the modern Gorge we know has been evolving for more than 13,000 years, and long periods of slope stabilization have marked recent centuries. But can we count on periods of stability in a future that will be shaped by global climate change?
Almost surely not. All indications are for more volatility in both weather and flood events like those that have built the Nesmith Fan. Recent evidence increasingly supports the reality that our landscapes are changing along with the climate. In a 2016 report on landslide risks by Multnomah County, the number of events escalated over the past 25 years, including at the Nesmith Escarpment (see table, below).
The best path for adapting to this reality and becoming more resilient in response to future events is to accept the ongoing risk from the Nesmith Escarpment. In the near-term, this means regularly repairing I-84 and the parallel Union Pacific railroad after flood events that will become increasingly common and disruptive. It also means installing early warning systems along these routes for the traveling public and commers, as well as the residents of the area who live in harm’s way.
The 2021 debris flow along Tumalt Creek during this year’s series of flood events on the Nesmith Fan was a textbook example of why adapting in the near-term to protect existing infrastructure is a tall order. The following images show just how unpredictable and unmanageable this steam has become for ODOT.
Once Tumalt Creek reaches the foot of the Nesmith Escarpment and begins to flow across the fan, its course continually shifts and changes, making it very difficult to predict where each debris flow event might be headed (ODOT)
A single culvert (above) carries Tumalt Creek under the freeway and frontage road, but the Nesmith Fan is a maze of shifting streambeds by definition, making it nearly impossible to force streams to obey culvert locations (ODOT)
The channel carrying the debris flow on Tumalt Creek that overwhelmed the frontage road and I-84 in February later dried up, with the creek shifting to another channel after the flood (ODOT)
This screen was installed at another culvert that Tumalt Creek has swept through in past debris flow eventsl. While this device might keep small debris flows from overwhelming the culvert, it has no chance against the increasingly large debris flows that we can expect on the Nesmith Fan (ODOT)
This is the view from the frontage road looking upstream at the large, main culvert intended for Tumalt Creek – though it had shifted out of the channel when this photo was taken a few months after the February event. The flatness of the terrain on the Nesmith Fan is evident here, with no obvious stream chanel except for the grading and contouring by highway crews (ODOT)
Adapting to a new reality
In the long term, coping with debris flows also means facing some tough questions for those who live on the Nesmith Fan. For some, it’s a place where families have settled for generations. For others, it’s a dream home they’ve put their life savings into on the Columbia River in the heart of the Gorge. But for anyone who lives here, the risks are real and growing – as the death of a local resident in this year’s debris flows reminds us.
Across the country, climate change and rising sea levels are impacting millions of homes and businesses built in floodplains formerly classified as “100-year”, but now seeing regular flooding. In the past, the U.S. Government has provided public flood insurance for those living or operating a business in a flood zone, but the increasing frequency of catastrophic events in flood and hurricane-prone regions like the Mississippi Valley, Texas, Florida and Carolina coasts is pushing federal flood insurance premiums sharply up. This does not bode well for those living and working in hazard zones in the Pacific Northwest, including the rural communities scattered across the Nesmith Fan.
Notices like this will become a way of life for Nesmith Fan residents in coming years
In some places along the Mississippi Valley, the federal government has begun simply relocating homes, and even whole towns, rather than rebuilding them in harm’s way. Could this be a model for the Nesmith Fan? Possibly, though most of the private homes in the path of debris flows are not in the flood plain, and may not be eligible for any form of subsidized federal insurance or assistance, short of a disaster.
A more direct approach that could be taken at the state level is a simple buy-out, over time. Where flood-prone areas in other parts of the country might simply have value as farm or grazing land, the Gorge is a world class scenic area, and both public land agencies and non-profits are actively acquiring land for conservation and public use. As Gorge locations go, it’s hard to find a spot as spectacular as the Nesmith Fan and the escarpment that rises above it.
Already, the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks have acquired land on the Nesmith Fan for recreation and to provide habitat under the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area provisions, including at least two parcels with coveted river access. Permanent funding of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund last year should also help jump-start public acquisitions in the Gorge that have stalled in recent years, and could help spur land owners considering their options.
Katanai Rock (left) and St. Peters Dome (right) rise above orchards at Dodson in this 1940s view from the old Columbia River Highway
Recent events are surely changing the dynamic for landowners in the Gorge, as well. Would some residents living on the Nesmith Fan be more open to a buy-out after witnessing the devastation of last year’s debris flows, knowing that more are likely to come in the wake of the Eagle Creek Fire? Probably. Others – especially the string of luxury homes along the Columbia River – might be more motivated by legacy, and for these folks, non-profit conservation trusts and easements could be a tool for transitioning private land into public ownership over time.
In the meantime, expect more flooding, debris flows and periodic closures of I-84 during the rainy months. And probably more fires in summer, too. This is the new normal in the Realm of St. Peter, after all, and it’s a cycle that will continue for all our lifetimes, and beyond.
Tribal fishing platforms line the Columbia River as Mount Hood floats on the horizon at the proposed Columbia Hills pumped energy project site
A few folks had questions about the Goldendale Energy Project (what I called the “Columbia Hills Energy Project” in my last post), so I thought I’d post some resources for anyone looking to learn more about the project and how to help the coalition of opponents.
“The Barlow Cutoff” by William Henry Jackson (1930)
One of the loneliest landmarks in WyEast Country is approaching the century mark, and while the years have not been kind, it’s a spot that deserves to be preserved. The place is the Pioneer Woman’s Grave, located along a long-bypassed section of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway.
Roadbuilders discovered the grave in 1924 while building the original loop road. The grave was marked by an old wagon tongue and the remains of a woman were buried in a makeshift box built from wagon sideboards. Based on oral histories from Barlow Road tollgate operators, some historians believe this woman was survived by her husband and two young children, who continued on to the Willamette Valley after burying her here in the mid-1840s.
The Pioneer Woman’s Grave is just off OR 35 where a surviving section of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway heads off into the forest
The grave is located just east of the busy US 26/OR 35 interchange, where a small, brown sign along modern OR 35 points to the historic site along a scenic and surprisingly well-preserved section of the original highway route. Today, the site is underwhelming, to say the least. The grave is marked by a haphazard pile of stones on the shoulder of the old road, and “graced” with all manner of ephemera left by visitors.
Pioneer Woman’s Grave in 2020
Several years ago, the Forest Service installed a new interpretive sign broadly describing the origins of the grave, but without much cultural context or detail. The sign is mounted in a heavy timber frame that gives a nod to a much larger, carved version built here in the 1930s.
Relatively new Forest Service interpretive sign at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave
A brass plaque near the grave was placed here by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a non-profit organization that maintains historic markers around Oregon (and the country). The original plaque was installed on the grave, itself. The current plaque was moved to a boulder a few feet from the grave in 1982.
D.A.R. plaque at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave
D.A.R. plaque at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave
Beyond the signs and plaques, the Pioneer Woman’s Grave historic site can only be described as rundown and shabby. The set of timber steps that climb a low berm that fronts the site is rotting away. Foot traffic has largely bypassed the crude steps and trampled whatever vegetation was once growing along the berm.
Crumbling wood steps at the grave memorial
The wood cross on the Pioneer Woman’s Grave is long gone, and the remaining pile of rocks doesn’t exactly inspire reverence and respect. The few who might notice the nearby dedication plaque and interpretive sign learn that this is a grave site, but the overall scene is haphazard and kind of sad.
Remembrances… or Disrespect?
In recent years, “offerings” left by visitors have escalated at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave. They range from flowers and sentimental toys to a few religious tokens left in earnest. But mostly, the memorial has become cacophony of random tchotchkes that have little to do with the site or respect for the human remains that lie beneath the stones. To give a sense of the scene, here’s recent sampling of these offerings from a few weeks ago:
Flowers, fir cones and a plastic robot…
…superhero metal CDs…
…bubble gum and taco sauce…
…Minions, ammunition and COVID masks…
…and a severed jumper cable clamp.
If the original intent of this roadside monument was to honor nameless migrants who perished along Oregon Trail, then today’s version has lost its way. The Pioneer Woman’s Grave deserves better, and even some modest improvements would bring needed dignity to the site. More about that in a moment, but first, there is inspiration to be gained from other historic burial sites along the Oregon Trail.
Remembering the dead along the Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail was a dangerous, often deadly trip for white migrants crossing into the West, with an estimated 1 in 10 dying along the way. Most were buried where they died, and their surviving families simply continued their push westward. Many of these graves are now preserved and celebrated as part of our traditional view of white settlement of the West.
In the early 1970s, one of these graves along a branch of the Oregon Trail, just east of Casper, Wyoming, was uncovered while a rancher was building a new road. Anthropology students from Casper College exhumed the remains and discovered this to be the burial place of 1852 pioneer Quintina Snodderly.
For many years, the Quintina Snodderly story was a mystery until owners of the ranch tracked down a descendent living in Scio, Oregon. We know from her skeletal remains that she was likely crushed under a wagon wheel, perhaps stumbling or falling while walking aside a wagon. Most who arrived on the Oregon Trail walked much of the way to reduce the burden for ox teams pulling heavy wagons.
Quintina’s surviving husband Jacob and their eight children made it to Scio, in the mid-Willamette Valley of the Oregon Territory, by the fall of 1852. Jacob died in 1889 at the age of 78, thirty years after Oregon became a state in 1859, and is buried in Scio.
Newly restored Quintina Snodderly grave as it appeared in 1987 (findagrave.com)
The Oregon-California Trail Association took the lead in reburying Quintina Snodderly’s remains in 1987, covering the grave with cobbles that replicated typical burials along the trail in the mid-1800s and surrounding the grave site with a wooden corral fence (above) to help preserve it. An interpretive marker (below) describes Quintina Snodderly’s journey and story.
Quintina Snodderly plaque placed by the Oregon-California Trails Association (findagrave.com)
Not far from the Snodderly grave in the North Platte valley of Wyoming are the twin graves of Martin Ringo and J.P. Parker, who also died along the Oregon Trail. Parker was from Iowa and died in 1860, though nothing else is known about him. Martin Ringo died tragically from a self-inflicted shotgun injury that was graphically described in newspaper accounts of the day:
“Just after daylight on the morning of July 30, 1864 Mr. Ringo stepped out… of the wagon, as I suppose, for the purpose of looking around to see if Indians were in sight and his shotgun went off accidentally in his own hands, the load entering at his right eye and coming out at the top of his head. At the report of his gun I saw his hat blown up 20 feet in the air and his brains were scattered in all directions. I never saw a more heartrending sight, and to see the distress and agony of his wife and children was painful in the extreme. Mr. Ringo’s death cast a gloom over the whole company… He was buried near the place he was shot in as decent a manner as was possible with the facilities on the plains” (Liberty Missouri Tribune, 1864)
Martin Ringo’s legacy played out after his death when his grieving widow Mary pushed forward, eventually raising their children in California’s Central Valley. Their oldest son John, who was 14 years old when his father was killed, brought infamy to the respected family name. He emerged as an outlaw and gunfighter in Arizona, the man known as Johnny Ringo who was killed near Tombstone, Arizona. His murder is unsolved, but speculation has included a revenge killing by either Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp, notoriety that Martin Ringo couldn’t have imagined for his son!
The J.P. Parker and Martin Ringo graves near Casper, Wyoming (WyomingHistory.org)
Like the Snodderly grave, the Ringo-Parker graves are located on private ranch land, but have been preserved with a simple metal rail fence and marked with an interpretive marker placed by the Oregon-California Trails Association.
The Pioneer Woman’s grave was discovered during construction of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway in 1924, and were later placed under a cobble grave by road workers, much as Oregon Trail migrants buried their dead along the trail. A small cross was added to the grave (below). This soon became a popular stop for motorists along the new loop highway.
First restoration of the Pioneer Woman’s Grave along the (then unpaved) Mount Hood Loop Highway in the early 1930s
According to the Forest Service, the restored Pioneer Woman’s Grave was formally dedicated in 1931 by Forest Supervisor Thomas Sherrard and members of the Portland Progressive Club. Based on the photo of the ceremony (below), the site wasn’t improved for visitors at the time, simply marked as a gravesite.
Dedication of the restored Pioneer Woman’s Grave in 1931 (USFS)
In 1936, the DAR added a plaque to the grave, and shortly thereafter, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) craftsmen working with the Forest Service placed a large interpretive sign there that would stand for many years.
1930s view of the Pioneer Woman’s Grave with the large, carved Forest Service sign added to the site. Note the original DAR plaque installed on the grave, itself.
1930s postcard with the sign text replaced and reversed for easier reading!
The DAR has marked another “unknown” Oregon pioneer grave to the west, the Pioneer Child Grave in Multnomah County. This historic grave also survived highway builders, albeit on an epic scale compared to the Pioneer Woman’s Grave. In 1849 a family traveling the Columbia Gorge route of the Oregon Trail camped at a spring near today’s Wilkes School on their final push to Oregon City. That night, their 11-year-old daughter died, apparently after a long illness. She was buried there in the next day in a makeshift coffin and her parents moved on to Oregon City, never returning.
The current location of the Pioneer Child’s grave memorial is at the corner of NE 169th and Wilkes Avenue in Gresham.
The story of the Pioneer Child later caught the imagination of students at the original Wilkes School, located near the grave, and they took it upon themselves to build a picket fence around the site and tend to the grave. In 1949, the construction of the original Banfield Freeway threatened the grave, and a former student of Wilkes School began a campaign to mark the grave with a memorial to protect it from future freeway widening. Finally, in 1955 a large boulder brought in by the Union Pacific Railroad was placed at the grave and a bronze plaque describing the site history was installed and dedicated.
In 1989 a freeway widening project once again threatened the grave and memorial. The DAR worked with highway engineers to relocated the Pioneer Child memorial to the south side of the widened Banfield Freeway, at what is now the corner of 149th and Wilkes Road. The original grave site is also marked by a plaque set in concrete along the Union Pacific Railroad, on the opposite side of the freeway from the memorial and inaccessible to the public.
The Daughters of the American Revolution placed this plaque on the Pioneer Child grave when the first Banfield Freeway was constructed in the early 1950s
Over the years volunteers have periodically tended to the grave, though the location in front of the freeway maintenance gate and adjacent, massive freeway sound wall still seems precarious. The monument is directly across from the modern Wilkes School, and perhaps someday the school grounds might make for a more respectful and protected location.
Telling the whole story
Romanticized scenes showing Indians and white migrants in peaceful interaction continue the myth that white settlement of Indian lands was a “manifest destiny”.
In recent years, our traditional view of the Oregon Trail has continued to evolve as white Americans have begun to acknowledge the role of white settlement in the West as a major contributor to the broader genocide of Native Americans who had lived here for millennia. For their part, Indians living along the migration route were largely friendly and helpful to white settlers. This, despite the threat the steady stream of migrants posed to their way of life and how white mythology portrayed “hostile Indians” in our history and arts. In fact, more Indians than whites were killed in trail conflicts between the migrants and the native peoples whose lands the Oregon Trail invaded.
This larger story deserves more attention as we continue to curate the history of the Oregon Trail along its route, not just the story of the white migrants who traveled it. Some newer interpretive signs have begun to acknowledge that white American myths celebrating the western migration completely ignore the devastating toll and continued trauma that genocide has wrought upon Native Americans. We still have a long way to go in our society reckoning. A simple start would be to include an Indian perspective at every site where more than a simple grave marker exists.
What could the future hold for the Pioneer Woman?
1940s visitor and the massive Pioneer Woman’s Grave sign that was installed in the 1930s
Despite the somewhat new interpretive sign, the Pioneer Woman’s Grave on Mount Hood has become a sad and disrespectful eyesore. So, what could be done to improve it and pay more appropriate respect to the history of the site? The other Oregon Trail graves described in this article provide some working examples of how the site might be restored.
But the Pioneer Woman’s Grave is different, since it lies along the final stretch of the migration route to Oregon. That these pioneers came close to their dream of reaching the Willamette Valley, only to fall short by a few days is especially poignant. Does a pile of rocks convey that cruel fate? Not really. But what about a more formal marker?
Pioneer cemeteries on both side of the Cascades include many white migrants who traveled the trail, and drawing from the period style of these cemeteries could be an appropriate way to bring more dignity to the Pioneer Woman’s Grave that a heap of stones. Fine examples exist in a pair of cemeteries located in the lonely Kingsley district, just off the original Barlow Road route, on the east side of Mount Hood (and featured in this recent article on Desert Mounds). These historic cemeteries are filled with pioneer graves, most in the Victorian-style of the mid-1800s. Many include wrought-iron fences to mark family plots, as seen in this example from the upper cemetery in Kingsley (below).
The Upper Kingsley Cemetery in the desert country east of Mount Hood lies along the Barlow Road and has many graves dating to the mid-to-late 1800s. This cemetery provides inspiration for period-specific grave fencing and monuments that could be appropriate for the Pioneer Woman’s grave.
Creating a fenced, mini-cemetery could be a historically accurate way to protect the Pioneer Woman’s Grave from foot traffic and bring a sense of dignity to the site. For example, the decapitated obelisk monument (perhaps it once had a cross on top?) shown below is also in the upper Kingsley Cemetery, and dates to the late 1800s. A monument like this could also provide a non-religious model for more formally marking the Pioneer Woman’s Grave in a period-specific manner.
This century-old monument in the Upper Kingsley Cemetery lost its top, but could still be a model for a new marker at a rededicated Pioneer Woman’s Grave.
While these treatments would depart from the crude graves that were built along the Oregon Trail, they do represent what pioneers would have placed upon these graves if they’d had the means — and how they marked graves of the era in the pioneer settlements they created along the trail and in the Willamette Valley.
Other details at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave need attention, too. The crude timber steps placed in the road embankment don’t do justice to the site, nor do they help visitors. Most simply walk up the dirt slope. A low stone retaining wall with more substantial steps and a ramp would be a welcome addition in a site makeover.
A real missed opportunity at the current site is the proximity to one of the best-preserved sections of the original Barlow Road, located just a few yards from the Pioneer Woman’s Grave, where the trail fords a fork of the Salmon River. This could make for an excellent interpretive trail, perhaps built to be accessible so that visitors with limited mobility or using mobility devices could experience traveling in the path of pioneer wagons.
Deep ruts left by pioneer wagons are plainly visible just a few yards from the Pioneer Woman’s Grave and could be incorporated into the interpretive experience (Photo by John Sparks and OregonHikers.org)
Perhaps most importantly, the site needs context about the native people whose trails the Barlow Road borrowed as it was blazed over the shoulder of Mount Hood by Sam Barlow. Today’s tribes continue to fish and gather berries and other foods and plant materials from the forest, as they have for millennia. This is just one story from an Indian perspective that could be told as part of providing cultural context and acknowledging the ultimate cost of white migration to native peoples at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave.
How to Visit?
Though our forests are currently closed by fires, you can walk a section of the original wagon route from Barlow Road to the Pioneer Woman’s Grave describe in this Oregon Hikers Field Guide entry. And you can always simply stop by the grave by following the old highway segment west from the Barlow Pass trailhead or following signs on OR 35 just past the US 26 junction.
Wildcat Mountain’s (now) forested summit as viewed from a surviving meadow along McIntyre Ridge
From Portland, the broad, densely forested slopes of Wildcat Mountain blend in with the surrounding Cascade foothills. The Mount Hood Loop Highway ruses past the northern foot of the mountain (the iconic Ivy Bear restaurant is located by Wildcat Creek, one of many streams that flow from the mountain). Wildcat Mountain Road (Forest Road 36) is the main access to the area, along with its extension, Forest Road 3626. Both are paved roads, and provide quick access from nearby communities to the west.
A century ago, the Wildcat Mountain was much different. Historic fires had repeatedly swept across the its slopes, creating sprawling Beargrass meadows along the broad northern shoulder of Wildcat Mountain known as McIntyre Ridge. Sheep were grazed here in the late 1800s and a fire lookout was constructed on the (then) bald, windswept summit of Wildcat Mountain in the 1930s.
White migrants to Oregon arriving along the Barlow Road in the mid-1800s made land claims to the lower slopes of Wildcat Mountain, logging the forests and clearing pastures that are still farmed today. The unclaimed upper slopes were eventually incorporated into the Cascade Range Forest Reserve in 1893, a predecessor of today’s Mount Hood National Forest. This marked the beginning of aggressive fire suppression in our national forests and heavy logging of the standing trees on the mountain.
This 1933 view from the (then open) summit of Wildcat Mountain shows the wide-open expanse of McIntyre Ridge spreading out to the north, thanks to repeated fires that maintained the extensive Beargrass meadows. Only fragments of these meadows survive today
Most of the claimed lands on the lower slopes of Wildcat Mountain have since been acquired as corporate timber holdings, and these forests have been repeatedly logged since the mid-1900s. The Forest Service logged much of the unburned forest on public lands on the middle slopes of Wildcat Mountain from the 1950s through the late 1980s. Meanwhile, fire suppression was allowing the open, upper slopes on McIntyre Ridge to gradually reforest.
As recently at the late 1960s, when Don and Roberta Lowe’s classic “100 Oregon Hiking Trails” was published, the old lookout trail along McIntyre Ridge to the summit of Wildcat Mountain still passed through broad meadows. They described being able to pick out the downtown buildings of Portland from the open summit. And as recently as the early 1990s, Mount Hood could still be easily seen from the top of Wildcat Mountain, though a rising forest of Mountain hemlock and Noble fir were rapidly advancing toward the summit.
Roberta Lowe and friends enjoying the view that existed on Wildcat Mountain until forests overcame the summit in the 1990s (from “62 Trails Northern Oregon Cascades” by Don & Roberta Lowe)
Today, the view from the summit of Wildcat Mountain has all but disappeared, mostly overtaken by the advancing forest. If you know where to look, you can still find remains of the old forest lookout among the trees. McIntyre Ridge still has a few Beargrass meadows along the historic lookout trail, though most have also been overtaken by forest. But this is a temporary state, as recent wildfires in the Gorge and on Mount Hood have reminded us. Wildcat Mountain will burn again, and there’s good reason to believe that the summit and McIntyre Ridge burned fairly regularly in the past, before human fire suppression.
The Struggle for Wildcat Mountain
The changes to Wildcat Mountain’s forests and meadows over the past several decades are just part of the story. The area has also been a source of intense struggle over public land management. The Forest Service aggressively managed the forests here for log production well into the 1980s, and this helped trigger the creation of the 62,000-acre Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness in 1984. Wildcat Mountain and McIntyre Ridge formed the western edge of the new preserve. At the time, the new wilderness was unique in that it focused primarily on protecting forests, whereas Oregon’s wilderness areas prior to 1984 were mainly “rock and ice” preserves centered on the big Cascade peaks, away from prime logging areas.
Mount Hood emerging from the clouds after a November snowfall on Wildcat Mountain. This scene was captured in 1989 as Pacific rhododendron and young Noble fir were beginning to overtake the once open summit
However, the creation of the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness did little to change Forest Service management of the public lands adjacent to the new wilderness, and the focus on logging continued on the remaining, unprotected slopes of Wildcat Mountain. The resulting tangle of logging roads on both public and private lands in this area became a magnet for illegal off-road vehicles and target shooting, largely because its close proximity to Portland. This has become a serious and ongoing challenge for forest managers and law enforcement.
Forest Service logging on Wildcat Mountain had mainly focused on areas below Forest Road 3626, which contours across the gentle west slope just above the 3,000-foot level. This did not go unnoticed by conservationists and the Oregon Congressional delegation, and in 2009, most of the remaining uncut forests on Wildcat Mountain were added to the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness by Congress, with Road 3626 serving as the expanded wilderness boundary.
Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness boundary sign along the Douglas Trail
This more recent expansion of the wilderness has only added to tensions with target shooters and off-road vehicles. Both groups have had a heavy impact on the area in recent years, with shooting galleries littered with trash and large trees literally felled by overwhelming gunfire. Off-roaders have illegally pushed miles into the wilderness, creating new “roads” to bypass Forest Service barriers. Illegal dumping also become a problem, adding to the problems facing land managers.
Timber corporations have responded to the lawlessness by closing their lands to any shooting, and the Forest Service closed a 4-mile section of Forest Road 12 to target shooting, as well. This has had the unintended effect of pushing target shooters and off-roaders still further along Forest Road 3626, and into the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness.
Most of today’s shooters aren’t hunters. They’re usually young, suburban kids packing high-powered weapons and handguns and showing little respect for our public lands. These shooters were in a closed area immediately adjacent to Wildcat Mountain Road
Sadly, the lawlessness in the area has also had dampening effect on hikers, a negative feedback loop that only encourages more lawless behavior. Illegal target shooters, off-roaders and dumpers go to places where they think they won’t be seen. Bringing more hikers to Wildcat Mountain is one of the best and most sustainable ways to discourage these illegal activities. It’s a proven concept known as “eyes on the forest”.
But it’s going to take some work. Today, the vandalized trailheads, shot-up or missing signage and vanishing trail views on the mountain are combining to make this convenient, beautiful wilderness destination an afterthought for hikers as they head for already crowded, more distant options where they won’t have to confront these problems.
Bullet-riddled sign announcing the Forest Service ban on shooting along sections of Forest Road 3626 on Wildcat Mountain. This sign was eventually destroyed by shooters
Shooters along Wildcat Mountain Road and Road 3626 have toppled dozens of full-sized trees with thousands of rounds fired at targets attached to the trees, or simply in a deliberate effort to drop them
On a recent visit to the New McIntyre Trailhead, I pulled up behind a truck full of young shooters. I hopped out and said “hello” and began to pull out my pack and hiking poles. When they realized I wasn’t going anywhere soon, they abruptly packed up and left. Even better, three more groups of hikers arrived shortly thereafter — and I’m quite certain other shooters came upon this group of parked cars that day and reversed course, too. That’s how the “eyes on the forest” effect of positive, legal recreation can chase away lawless activity.
Off-roaders have been increasingly bold in crossing into the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness in the Wildcat Mountain area in recent years. When the Forest Service placed boulders at the New McIntyre Trailhead in the mid-2000s, off-roaders simply pushed through a new “road” through dense forest to skirt the boulders. This illegal road continues to be used by off-roaders to take their trucks and ATVs into the wilderness area today.
The “road” on the left was created illegally by off-roaders in jeeps and ATVs in the late 2000s to bypass barriers placed at the McIntyre Ridge Trailhead. The actual trail is on the right and leads to the trailhead
The lower portion of the McIntyre Ridge Trail travels through open forest on a very old forest road. This has allowed off-roaders to drive along the trail for nearly a mile into the wilderness area, damaging both the trail and the forest floor where they have simply created new routes where logs have fallen across the trail, blocking their path.
The McIntyre Ridge Trail is on the left, but off-roaders created the road on the right to bypass the two trees flanking the trail. This spot is one-half mile inside the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness
A tree dropped across the McIntyre Ridge Trail in 2019 and off-roaders simply plowed through the forest on the left to create a new route for their vehicles, This spot is well inside the wilderness boundary
Off-roaders have been chopping down trees to widen the McIntyre Ridge where the trail narrows about a mile from the trailhead, an outrageous violation of federal law in a protected wilderness area
Where the McIntyre Ridge Trail eventually narrows, off-roaders have even been cutting trees to push their vehicles further into the wilderness. This level of lawlessness has been happening for many years, and it long past time to finally shut it down.
This article contains a series of modest proposals for turning the situation around on Wildcat Mountain by making it preferred hiking destination through improvements to the trails and trailheads. These include new signage, improved trailheads and some creative trail re-routing to bring back the views that hikers look for in their trail experience. How can this be done? More on that at the end of this article.
Wildcat Mountain will burn again, and if the series of large fires on Mount Hood and in the Columbia River Gorge are any indication, we will see fire much more frequently in this century as a result of heavy fire suppression in the 20th Century. Someday, Wildcat Mountain and McIntyre Ridge might even return to the expansive complex of meadows that once existed here over time.
Mount Hood from the lower McIntyre Ridge Trail
Until that day, there are still magnificent views to be had if you know where to look. On the existing McIntyre Ridge Trail to Wildcat Mountain, two prominent viewpoints remain — a pocket view of Mount Hood near the trailhead (pictured above) and a more sweeping view of the mountain from a surviving meadow further along the ridge.
This latter viewpoint is the focus for most who hike the McIntyre Ridge Trail. Some years ago, the Forest Service allowed a memorial bench to be installed here, and though it is gradually collapsing under the weight of winter snows, the view it was designed for survives. This spot is often called the “Bench Viewpoint”, and remains a popular hiking destination, despite the problems in the Wildcat Mountain area.
The “bench” viewpoint along the McIntyre Ridge Trail, the most common destination for hikers today
But it turns out that a couple more viewpoints are tucked into the forest just off the McIntyre Ridge Trail, and with some modest trail realignments they would make for a much more scenic gateway into the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness.
The first is a rocky wall called “Kinnikinnick Cliff”. It rises directly above the existing trail, and offers a commanding view of Mount Hood and the entire Hoodland corridor, 3,000 feet below. Mount Adams, Mount Rainier and the Goat Rocks can be seen to the north, and the rugged canyons and forested ridges of the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness spread out to the southeast. This viewpoint is just over a mile from the unofficial New McIntyre Trailhead and would offer a nice option for casual hikers who want to experience wilderness with big views.
Kinnickinnick Cliff is mostly unseen from the McIntire Ridge Trail, though it rises directly above it in a rugged wall with sweeping view
Mount Hood rises above the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness in this panoramic view from Kinnickinnick Cliff. Smoke from the White River fire is visible in this August 2020 view, partly obscuring the mountain. Mount Adams and Mount Rainier can also be seen also on the northern horizon
Rerouting the existing trail to visit Kinnikinnick Cliff also has the benefit of bypassing an especially tedious section along the existing trail that I call “Misery Hill”. Though not particularly long, it’s very steep and badly eroded, and there’s no way to fix this problematic section of trail without a major reroute. Thus, the concept of moving the trail to the top of Kinnikinnick Cliff to provide a better grade along with a spectacular new view.
The “Misery Hill” section of the McIntyre Ridge Trail interrupts and otherwise well-graded trail and should be bypassed
The second hidden viewpoint is also just off the existing trail, located south of Kinnikinnick Cliff and just north of the largest of the remaining Beargrass meadows along the trail. This view is from the top of a beautiful talus slope that drops down the east side of McIntyre Ridge. The vista extends across the remote Boulder Creek canyon, below, and into the heart of the Salmon-Huckleberry and Roaring River wilderness areas. Mount Hood also peeks between the trees along the north edge of the talus viewpoint.
The talus viewpoint is just a few yards off the existing McIntyre Trail and provides a view deep into the remote ridges and canyons of the Salmon-Huckleberry and Roaring River wilderness areas
Rerouting the trail to visit the Talus Viewpoint is straightforward. Though hidden from the existing trail, the viewpoint is only 100 feet away, separated from the exiting trail by a low ridge. A modest realignment in the trail would add the Talus Viewpoint as another scenic highlight and destination for hikers along the McIntyre Ridge Trail.
The following maps show these proposed trail concepts:
Taking hikers to new viewpoints is a great way to increase interest in the Wildcat Mountain area, as well as make the wilderness experience more satisfying for anyone hiking the McIntyre Ridge Trail. Just a few more law-abiding visitors to the area could have a big impact on pushing the unlawful activity away from Wildcat Mountain, too — a virtuous cycle that is within reach.
Hikers will put up with a lot to reach a favorite trail, but they shouldn’t have to. Until just a few years ago, the McIntyre Ridge Trail was accessed from Highway 26, where an especially rough Bureau of Land Management (BLM) logging spur climbs the north end of the ridge. This miserable route ended abruptly in the middle of a clear cut, with little room for parking. Worse, shooters and vandals were trashing the area. Because of this, the BLM abruptly closed the access road in the mid-2000s, with no consideration for an alternative access to the McIntyre Ridge Trail.
Hikers at the unofficial New McIntyre trailhead on Wildcat Mountain
The current and unofficial “New McIntyre” trailhead is simply a turnaround at the end of a short logging spur at the north end of Forest Road 3626. From this turnaround, hikers are able to follow an old skid road a short distance to the McIntyre Ridge Trail, joining it about a mile above of the original trailhead. While not recognized by the Forest Service, this unofficial trailhead is now the de facto access to McIntyre Ridge.
In the beginning (in the late 2000s), this turnaround was lightly visited and made for an excellent and safe parking spot for hikers. The half-mile gravel spur road from Forest Road 3626 was in good condition and easily traveled by passenger cars. This didn’t last long. As private timber corporations began to gate their road network on the lower slopes of Wildcat Mountain, illegal shooting, dumping and off-road activity eventually “discovered” the New McIntyre Trailhead.
Shooters have “discovered” the New McIntyre trailhead as other shooting galleries on Wildcat Mountain have been closed
Shooters at the New McIntyre trailhead recently felled two mature trees used as targets and other trees have been seriously injured
This big tree has suffered collateral damage from target shooters at the New McIntyre because it stands just 20 feet behind one of the target trees. Its bark has been seriously compromised by stray gunfire, with pitch bleeding from much of its trunk. If the shooting stopped tomorrow, this tree might survive
Shooters don’t like to be seen. The young men in the pickup disappearing in the distance are making a hasty exit from the New McIntire Trailhead after I showed up and began to unload my hiking gear
The damage is discouraging. Trees are badly scarred by target shooters, with some already toppled by assault. Boulders placed by the Forest Service to keep off-road vehicles out of the wilderness have been vandalized by taggers and the OHVs have simply built a new road into the wilderness that bypasses the barriers. In the center of the turnaround, heaps of half-burned garbage, beer cans and shell casings are routinely scattered around a large bonfire pit. The access road has devolved into a chain of massive mud holes, thanks to OHVs using it as a “play” area.
On a recent visit to the New McIntyre Trailhead, I was pleasantly surprised to find a 2-person Forest Service crew there picking up the place. But without new users coming here to self-enforce this as a lawful recreation area, it will be an endless cat-and-mouse chase for the Forest Service. They simply don’t have the crews needed to heavily patrol Wildcat Mountain to keep up with the mess left behind by shooters and off-roaders.
Burned trash left by shooters at the New McIntyre Trailhead
There’s no question who left this burned garbage behind at the New McIntyre Trailhead. Alcohol containers are almost always mixed in with the shooter trash and vandalism
These Forest Service crews arrived at the New McIntyre trailhead on a recent July weekend to clean up after shooters. They reported cleaning up this spot before, along with other illegal shooting sites along Wildcat Mountain Road
Though the current situation is frustrating, the fix is straightforward. First, the Forest Service should formally recognize the New McIntyre Trailhead as the main access point for the McIntyre Ridge Trailhead. Next, the access road (Forest Road 108) and turnaround should be graded and graveled to improve both the appearance and accessibility for hikers.
Crucially, more barrier boulders should also be added to block the illegal OHV road that bypasses the old barrier. Finally, the tagging and vandalism on the old barrier rocks should be sandblasted from them, as painted messages on rocks only encourages more tagging and shooting.
Off-road vehicle “play” in recent years has turned the short access road to the New McIntyre trailhead into an obstacle course of mud pits and ruts
“No Shooting” stencils on the boulders placed around the New McIntyre trailhead were well-intended, by have only drawn more tagging and vandalism
This “No Shooting” stencil at the New McIntyre trailhead has drown gunfire at close range. Combined with empty beer trash scattered about, this spectacle stands as a reminder that today’s shooters are often both reckless and intoxicated, a dangerous combination
Finally, the New McIntyre Trailhead needs signage — a signboard with a map of the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, a trailhead marker pointing to the McIntyre Ridge Trail and a wilderness entry marker that can be seen from the trailhead. Will these be shot up by the shooters? Initially, yes. They probably will. But if enough cars are parked at this trailhead, the shooters and off-roaders will eventually find another place to do their work.
Similar improvements are needed at the nearby Douglas Trailhead, as well. Though it was built less than 10 years ago, the off-roaders and shooters have already had a pretty big impact there, too. Today, the trailhead needs a cosmetic overhaul and the decommissioned road that leads to the old trailhead needs to be decommissioned — again.
The Douglas Trailhead was relocated a few years ago to reduce the amount of lawlessness, but shooters and off-roaders have continued their assault
This used to be the wilderness entry sign at the Douglas Trailhead, before shooters and vandals tagged the plexiglass sign cover, then shot it to pieces
The Douglas Trailhead used to be located at an old quarry that was a locus of illegal activity and closed off when the new trailhead was built. Off-roaders have since re-opened the road to the quarry and pushed past barriers placed by the forest service to continue their destruction here
This landscape island at the new Douglas Trailhead turnaround has become another OHV “play” feature, with jeeps and ATVs driving right over the top
The goal is simple: the Douglas and New McIntyre trailheads must feel safe and well-maintained for hikers to finally tip the scales on Wildcat Mountain toward lawful, low-impact recreation. This can be done with some modest improvements and some persistence by the Forest Service.
The half-mile spur road to the New McIntyre Trailhead is an obvious liability for hikers attempting to visit the area, but Wildcat Mountain Road (Road 36) and Road 3626 both need help, too. The good news is that both are paved and in surprisingly good condition. The bad news is that signage is non-existent, thanks to shooters and other vandalism. This also undermines the sense of safety needed to draw hikers to the area, and it just makes the roads needlessly hard to navigate.
Shooters made a target out of this sign pleading with off-roaders to stay on the road. The obscure third bullet is meaningless, anyway, since the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness boundary along Road 3626 are not marked
Today, much of Wildcat Mountain Road is already closed to target shooting, but you’d never know it on a summer weekend, when carloads of mostly young men continue to come here to shoot. Signs that once explained what was off-limits and what was still open for shooting have long since been shot to pieces and removed. Even with the signage, the partial closure was confusing and too difficult to enforce.
Instead, it’s time to close the entirety of the Wildcat Mountain Road system to target shooting, including the private timber holdings, since they have already closed their properties. There are plenty of other places for shooters to go, and even lawful target shooting is incompatible with the adjacent Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness. The folks who live along the lower sections of Wildcat Mountain Road would certainly embrace a no-shooting policy, too, as they also suffer the brunt of lawless activity.
Shooter damage to a sign along Forest Road 2636
This hard-to-find sign buried in the brush along Wildcat Mountain Road (Road 26) is likely seen by none
One tool for enforcing a shooting closure would be to make good use of the steel Forest Service gate on Wildcat Mountain Road near the forest boundary. The gate is located just below the spur road to the Douglas Trailhead, and could simply be closed when the upper slopes of Wildcat Mountain are covered in snow — roughly November through April.
Forest Service gate on Wildcat Mountain Road (Road 26)
Why close the area in winter? It turns out that some of the worst vandalism and OHV use occurs during these months, when few hikers are here to provide eyes on the forest. This may not be a needed as a long-term solution, but it could help change behavior and begin to turn the tide in the near term.
Making it Happen
How can all of this happen? The good news is that it wouldn’t cost much. The Forest Service already has budgets for road maintenance, and repairs to the New McIntyre spur road and turnaround could be prioritized for those funds. Likewise, signage for the trailhead and wayfinding signs along Wildcat Mountain Road and Road 3626 could also be prioritized in existing Forest Service maintenance budgets.
Beargrass meadow in full bloom along the McIntyre Ridge Trail
Closing the area to target shooters? That’s an administrative action that can be done overnight, assuming the Forest Service is willing to make that call. It should be an easy one, as the damage left behind is harming the forest and already costing the agency to patrol and clean up. It’s a case that hiking and trail advocates will need to make in order to move the agency forward.
Designing new trails is often a heavier lift with the Forest Service, as this usually require an environmental analysis, planning and surveying. However, “realigning” an existing trail can often be done without an exhaustive environmental analysis, so the proposals in this article might be less problematic to move forward than a completely new trail.
July Beargrass blooms frame Mount Hood on McIntyre Ridge
Even better, both of the trail realignments proposed here are close to the trailhead and very close to Portland, making them excellent candidates for volunteer organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) to take on as day trips.
Can all of this really happen? The answer is “yes” if the problem statement is “how do we simultaneously improve access to the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness while ending lawless behavior in the area.” That’s a compelling and proven strategy. So, let’s take back Wildcat Mountain!
Officially, Mount Hood has twelve glaciers, though two — the Langille on the north side and Palmer on the south side — seem to have slowed to permanent snowfield status. The distinction comes from downward movement, which typically results in cracks, or crevasses, in the moving ice. Crevasses are the telltale sign of a living glacier.
Living glaciers are conveyor belts for mountain ice, capturing and compacting snowfall into ice at the top of the glacier, which then begins to flow downhill from the sheer weight of the accumulation. This downward movement becomes river of ice that carries immense amounts of rock and debris captured in the ice, eventually carving U-shaped valleys in the mountain.
Mount Hood’s largest glaciers carved the huge canyons we see radiating in all directions from the mountain today. These canyons were made when the glaciers were much larger, during the Pleistocene ice age that ended several thousand years ago. The ice on Mount Hood has since retreated, though today’s much smaller glaciers continue their excavating high on the mountain.
The smallest glaciers on Mount Hood are the Coalman Glacier, located high in the volcano’s crater, and the Glisan Glacier, located on the northwest shoulder of the mountain. They are tiny compared to the impressive Eliot, Ladd, Coe and Sandy glaciers, but these tiny glaciers are still moving, have well-developed crevasses and both are clearly separate from the larger glaciers. Thus, they were recognized as living glaciers in their own right when Mount Hood was being mapped more than a century ago.
Another tiny glacier is without a formal name, and would have been Mount Hood’s thirteenth glacier had it been mapped with the others in the early 1900s. Known informally as the Little Sandy Glacier, this small body of ice is perched on the rocky shoulder of Cathedral Ridge, near the Glisan Glacier. The Little Sandy hangs on cliffs high above the sprawling Sandy Glacier, which it drains into.
The map below shows each of Mount Hood’s glaciers, from the tiny Glisan to the massive Eliot, largest on the mountain:
This article takes a closer look at these lesser-known, tiny glaciers. While small, all three have been surprisingly resilient in the era of climate change, when our glaciers are rapidly shrinking. Their tiny size and survival (so far) makes them helpful indicators of the long-term effects of global warming on Mount Hood, and a visual reminder of just how fragile our alpine ecosystems are as the planet continues to heat up.
The Coalman Glacier
This glacier is known to few, and yet is probably the most visited on Mount Hood. The Coalman Glacier fills the crater of Mount Hood, extending from below the summit to Crater Rock, and is crossed by thousands of climbers following the popular south side route to the summit each year. Along their climb, they follow a ridge of ice along the glacier called “The Hogsback” to the Coalman Glacier’s “bergschrund”, the name given to a crevasse that typically forms near the top of most glaciers, and a common feature to many glaciers on Mount Hood. For climbers on Mount Hood, the bergschrund on the Coalman Glacier is simply called “The Bergschrund”, and it is the main technical obstacle on the south side route to the summit.
The entire Coalman Glacier lies above 10,000 feet, and as a result, this tiny glacier is well-situated to survive a warming climate. Historic photos (shown later in this article) suggest the Coalman Glacier was once connected to the White River Glacier, located immediately below, as recently as the late 1800s.
The Coalman Glacier was named for Elijah “Lige” Coalman, the legendary mountain guide who manned the former fire lookout on the summit of Mount Hood from 1915 to 1933. Lige Coalman climbed Mount Hood nearly 600 times in his lifetime, sometimes making multiple climbs in one day to carry 100 pound loads of supplies to the summit lookout. In Jack Grauer’s classic Mount Hood: A Complete History, he describes Lige Coalman’s legendary stamina:
“…The great vitality of Coleman was demonstrated by one day he spent in 1910. He and a climbing client ate breakfast at the hotel in Government Camp. They then climbed to the summit of Mount Hood and down to Cloud Cap Inn where the client wanted to go. After lunch at Cloud Cap, Lige climbed back over the summit and arrived for dinner at Government Camp at 5:00 p.m.”
The Coalman Glacier was formally recognized as a separate body of ice from the nearby White River and Zigzag glaciers in the 1930s. However, this tiny glacier went unnamed until Lige Coalman died in 1970, and the Oregon Geographic Names Board named the small glacier he had navigated hundreds of times in his memory. Fittingly, Lige Coalman’s ashes were spread on Mount Hood’s summit.
Though the south side route is considered the easiest way to the summit of Mount Hood, every route on the mountain is dangerous. Many tragedies have unfolded over the decades on the Coalman Glacier, when climbers have fallen into The Bergschrund crevasse or slid into the steaming volcanic vents in the crater. Perhaps most notorious was the May 2002 climbing disaster, when three climbers were killed and four injured by a disastrous fall into The Bergschrund.
While the 2002 accident was tragic enough, it was the rescue operation that made the incident infamous when an Air Force helicopter suddenly crashed onto the Coalman Glacier, rolling several times before coming to a rest below the Hogsback. News cameras hovering above the scene broadcast the event in real-time, and the sensational footage was seen around the world. Though several Air Force crew were injured, nobody was killed in the helicopter crash.
The Glisan Glacier
The Glisan is Mount Hood’s smallest named glacier, tucked against Cathedral Ridge on the northwest side of the mountain. This tiny glacier is hidden in plain sight, located directly above popular Cairn Basin and McNeil Point, where thousands of hikers pass by on the Timberline Trail every year. It was named for Rodney Lawrence Glisan Jr. by the Oregon Geographic Names Board in 1938. The name was proposed by the Mazamas, Mount Hood’s iconic climbing club, following an expedition to the northwest side of the mountain in 1937.
Glisan was a prominent Portland lawyer and civic leader in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and son of one of the founding fathers of the city. He served on the Portland City Council and in the Oregon Legislature, as well as other civic roles. But his passion was for the outdoors, and as a Mazama, Rodney Glisan climbed most of the major Cascade and Sierra peaks during his eventful life.
The glacier that carries Rodney Glisan’s name was once much larger, and its outflow carved a steep canyon lined with vertical cliffs that now form the shoulder of the lower ramparts of Cathedral Ridge. Today, this rugged canyon is without trails and unknown to most who visit the mountain.
Most hikers visiting McNeil Ridge wouldn’t know they’re looking at the Glisan Glacier as they make the final climb above the tree line, but the glacier’s outflow is a popular stop along the way. This beautiful stream flows through some of the finest wildflower meadows on the mountain (pictured above).
Oddly enough, this glacial stream is unnamed, though it’s much larger than many named streams on the mountain. In fact, it’s the only glacial outflow on the mountain that is unnamed. Thus, on my growing list of planned submissions to the Oregon Geographic Names Board is to simply name this pretty stream “Glisan Creek”, since it’s a prominent and helpful landmark along the Timberline Trail. Naming the creek might bring a bit more awareness and appreciation for the tiny Glisan Glacier, too!
As Mount Hood’s glaciers go, the Glisan isn’t much to look at today. The glacier is much smaller than when it was named in the 1930s, judging by topographic maps (below) that show a lower portion of the glacier that has since become a series of permanent snowfields that are no longer part of the glacier.
The Glisan Glacier also has an odd shape, wider than it is long. Presumably, this is due to both shrinking over the past century and possibly winter wind patterns affecting snow accumulation on this little body of ice. But it is moving, with a prominent series of crevasses opening up every summer on its crest. It’s also surprisingly resilient in its modern, shortened state, bucking the trend (for now) of shrinking glaciers throughout the Cascades.
Topographic maps still show the former extent of the Glisan Glacier in the mid-1900s, when it extended to nearly 6,000 feet in elevation. Today, the glacier has retreated to about the 7,000-foot level.
The position of the Glisan Glacier on northwest side of the mountain could also be part of the explanation for its resilience. The glacier flows from the north side of Cathedral Ridge, where it is protected from the hottest late summer sun, and it also benefits from being in the direct path of winter storms that slam the west face of the mountain with heavy snowfall. Will the Glisan Glacier continue to survive? Possibly, thanks to its protected position and having already retreated to the 7,000-foot elevation. Time will tell.
The Little Sandy Glacier
This little glacier should have been Mount Hood’s thirteenth named glacier, but it has the misfortune of lying very close to the much larger Sandy Glacier and was passed over when the first topographic maps were created in the early 1900s. And yet, it was called out in Forest Conditions in the Cascade Range, the seminal 1902 original survey of the (then) “Cascade Forest Reserve”, the precursor to the national forests that now stretch the length of the Oregon Cascades:
It was tiny then, at just 80 acres. But at the time of the 1902 survey, the Reid, Langille, Palmer and Coalman glaciers had yet to be named, so this will be my argument in adding the Little Sandy Glacier to my (still!) growing list of name proposals for the Oregon Board of Geographic Names to consider.
Why is a name important for this tiny glacier? In part, because without names we tend to not pay attention to important features on our public lands, usually to their detriment. But in the case of the Little Sandy Glacier, there are some good public safety arguments, since the glacier is adjacent to a couple of the climbing routes used on the mountain. Formalizing its name could help search and rescue efforts compared to the informal use of the name today.
Like the nearby Glisan Glacier, the Little Sandy is oddly shaped. Wider than it is long, it hangs seemingly precariously on a massive cliff and is heavily fractured with crevasses. In summer, meltwater from the Little Sandy cascades over long cliff and down a talus slope where it then flows under the Sandy Glacier, joining other meltwater streams there.
What does the future hold for the Little Sandy Glacier? Like the Glisan Glacier, it benefits from heavy snow accumulation where winter storms pound the west face of the mountain. Yet, unlike the Glisan, the Little Sandy Glacier hangs on a southwest-facing wall and is exposed to direct afternoon sun in summer.
Surprisngly, this doesn’t seem to have dramatically affected the size of the glacier over the years, perhaps because it sits so high on the mountain. The base of the glacier is at an elevation of about 8,400 feet (higher than Mt. St. Helens) and the upper extent of the glacier begins just above 9,000 feet. This combination of high elevation and heavy winter snowpack suggest the Little Sandy Glacier will continue to survive for some time to come, even as global warming continues to shrink Mount Hood’s glaciers.
Tracking Mount Hood’s Changing Glaciers
Who is tracking the changes in Mount Hood’s glaciers? The answer is a collection of federal and state agencies, university researchers and non-profits concerned with the rapid changes unfolding on the mountain.
The U.S. Geological Survey has the most comprehensive monitoring program for Mount Hood, though it is mainly focused on volcanic hazards presented by the mountain. From this perspective, the glaciers and permanent snowfields on Mount Hood represent a disaster risk in the event of renewed volcanic activity, as past eruptions have triggered massive mudflows when snow and ice were abruptly melted by steam and hot ash.
The late 1700s eruptions that created today’s Crater Rock and the smooth south side that Timberline Lodge sits on also sent mudflows down the Sandy River to its confluence with the Columbia River. The delta of mud and volcanic ash at the confluence gave the river its name, when the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the scene just a few years after the event, calling it the “quick sand river”. The potential reach of future mudflows is why the USGS continues to monitor Mount Hood’s glaciers.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other water resource and fisheries agencies are also tracking the glaciers from the perspective of downstream water supplies and quality. Mount Hood’s glaciers not only provide critical irrigation and drinking water for those who live and farm around the mountain, they also ensure cool water temperatures in summer that are critical for endangered salmon and steelhead survival.
Dr. Fountain’s research features photo pairing where historic images of Mount Hood’s glaciers have been recreated to show a century of change on the mountain. These images (above and at the top of the article) of the White River and Eliot glaciers are examples, and show the power of these comparisons in understanding the scale and pace of change.
The following is a shorter-term comparison of my own images of the Eliot Glacier, taken in 2002 and 2019 at about the same time of year (in late summer). Look closely, and the changes are profound even in this 17-year timeframe. Geologists call the boundary on a glacier where melting exceeds accumulation the “firn line”. Typically, glaciers appear as mostly ice and snow above the firn line compared to much more rock and glacial till below the firn line, where the ice is melting away and leaving debris behind.
In 2002, the firn line on the Eliot Glacier had risen the lower icefall as the glacier receded, as shown in the image pair, above. The 2002 firn line is indicated by the white and blue ice still dominating the lower icefall. But by 2019, the firn line had moved partway up the lower icefall, as shown in the second image. Over time, scientists expect the glaciers on Mount continue to gradually retreat in this way as they increasingly losing more ice than they gain each year in our warming climate.
What Lies Ahead?
Will Mount Hood’s glaciers completely disappear? Perhaps, someday, if global warming goes unchecked. If climate change can be slowed, we may see the glaciers stabilize as smaller versions of what we see today. While the few remaining glaciers in the Rockies are already very small and on the brink of disappearing, glaciers on the big volcanoes of the Cascades of Oregon and Washington are still large and active. They have advantage of a very wet and cool winter climate that ensures heavy snowfall at the highest elevations, even as the climate warms.
One way to preview the future of Mount Hood’s glaciers is to look south to California’s Mount Shasta, at the lower end of the Cascade Range. At just over 14,000 feet, Shasta is tall enough to have seven named glaciers, even in a much warmer climate — though only four seem to still be active. Compare that to Mount Rainier, in Washington, which is also a 14,000-foot volcano, but has 26 glaciers, with several very large, active glaciers that dwarf anything found on Mount Shasta or Mount Hood.
The difference is latitude, of course. Climate change is having the effect if sliding us gradually toward the warmer climate we see to the south today, at Mount Shasta, where glaciers are smaller, but still survive above the 10,000-foot level. If Shasta is an indicator, then glaciers will continue to flow for some time at the upper elevations of Mount Hood and the other big volcanoes in northern Oregon and Washington for some time to come, perhaps even surviving if climate change remains unchecked.
In the meantime, the changes on Mount Hood are just one more reminder of how climate change is impacting almost every aspect of our lives and our natural legacy, and why changing the human behavior that is driving climate change is the existential challenge of our time. Though time is short, we can still ensure that future generations will see spectacular glaciers flowing down Mount Hood’s slopes in the next century.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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. 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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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:
“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
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
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.
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…
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.
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.
• 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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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…
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
The west portal restoration included new stonework around the timber frame that closely matched the original design (below).
Inside, the restored tunnel was lined with cedar plank walls and ceiling, supported by arched beams (below).
The east portal was similar to the west end of the tunnel, with stone masonry trim supporting the portal timbers (below).
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
(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)
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:
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:
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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..?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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..?
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!
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)
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.
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.
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..?
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Looking east from above Ainsworth State Park toward Bonneville Dam (State of Oregon)
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):
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.
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.
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:
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:
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
Moffett Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Upper Moffett Creek canyon and Kwaneesum Falls (State of Oregon)
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Bonneville hatchery and Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)
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.
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:
Tanner Creek and Wahclella Falls (State of Oregon)
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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
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:
Looking into the Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
The 2016 Metlako Gorge landslide after the fire (State of Oregon)
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:
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:
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:
Metlako Gorge landslide scarp after the fire (State of Oregon)
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
Is that Punch Bowl Falls down there..? (State of Oregon)
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:
…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: