The Waterfalls of “Heaven and Hell”

Mist Falls from Benson State Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Closer Look at Heaven and Hell

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large version of the map]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s in a Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Kloster | March 2020

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

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

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

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THE CONCEPT

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

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

[click here for a large version of this map]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXPLORING THE ROUTE

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

West Section – Rhododendron to Government Camp

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

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

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

The Barlow Road Tollgate near Rhododendron in the 1880s

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

Pioneer Bridle Trail east of Tollgate

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

The Zigzag River passing through the old Twin Bridges campground site

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

Little Zigzag Falls

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

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

Abandoned historic highway section near the Little Zigzag crossing

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large version of this map]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abandoned section of the loop highway near the Barlow Road chute

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

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

Looking down the Barlow Road chute from the interpretive trail

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

Abandoned section of the old loop highway near Yocum Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moffett Creek Bridge construction along the Columbia River Highway in 1916

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

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

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

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

Abandoned section of the loop highway near Government Camp

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

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

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

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

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

Middle Section – Government Camp to Barlow Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Section – Barlow Pass to Sherwood Campground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Fork Hood River near Sherwood Campground in winter

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE TO START?

Touring the upper Hood River Valley in the 1950s

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

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

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

Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail Feasibility Study 

Purpose Statement

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

Feasibility Study Objectives

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

But what would it really take..?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Federal Lands completed the new White River Bridge in 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting behind the idea… and creating a mandate

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

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

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

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

1915 Article – Page 1 (PDF)

1915 Article – Page 2 (PDF)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building on our Success in the Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

The Vision: Restoring the Mount Hood Loop Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Trail Sections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: West Section

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

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

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

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

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

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: Historic Section

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

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

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: East Section

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

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

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

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

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

Kohnstamm Memorial Trail?

Entering the Kohnstamm Memorial Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Kohnstamm at Timberline in 1957 (Oregon Encyclopedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proposal: Kohnstamm Glacier View Trail

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

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

(click image to enlarge)

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

(click image to enlarge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(click image to enlarge)

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

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

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

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

What would it take?

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

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

Author’s Confessions…

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

The author skiing Timberline in 1978

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

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

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

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

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

Restore the Metlako Viewpoint?

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A view of Metlako Falls from days gone by…

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

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

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

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The old viewpoint at Metlako Falls

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

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

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

Opportunity from calamity..?

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

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

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

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

Cue the helicopter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how do we do this?

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

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

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

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

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Misty Metlako Falls in the winter of 2014

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

______________________

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

Click here for the Forest Service comments page

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

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January sunset in the Eagle Creek burn, near Elowah Falls

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

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

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Ainsworth State Park and McCord Creek

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Scorched Wauneka Point after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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McCord Creek Delta (State of Oregon)

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

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

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Elowah Falls and McCord Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Elowah Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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

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

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Post-fire landslide damage below Elowah Falls

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

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

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

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Elowah Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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Upper McCord Creek Falls in January

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

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

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Upper McCord Creek Falls framed by Red alder before the fire

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

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

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

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Upper McCord Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moffett Creek, Munra Point and Tanner Creek

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

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Moffett Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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Moffett Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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Moffett Falls in April 2017

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

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Moffett Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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Wahe Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Kwaneesum Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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Complex burn patterns along Moffett Creek (State of Oregon)

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

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

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Munra Point and Moffett Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonneville hatchery and Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Lower Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

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

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Tanner Creek and Wahclella Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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Wahclella Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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

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Upper Tanner Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Cleared talus slopes above Tanner Creek (State of Oregon)

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

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Pika gathering huckleberry leaves (ODFW)

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

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

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

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

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Tooth Rock after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Historic Highway viaduct at Tooth Rock (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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

Eagle Creek: at the Heart of the Inferno

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

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

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

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Looking into the Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Lower Eagle Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

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

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West side of lower Eagle Creek (State of Oregon)

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

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

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Metlako Gorge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Metlako Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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Early 1900s view of Punch Bowl Falls

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

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Tish Creek Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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Loowit Gorge after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

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Upper Loowit Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Benson Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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Benson Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Skoonichuk Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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Twister Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twister Falls before the fire

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

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Sevenmile Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Sevenmile Falls after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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

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

Herman Creek and Shellrock Mountain

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

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Herman Creek canyon after the fire (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Mosaic burn pattern at Herman Creek (State of Oregon)

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

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

[click here for a large photo]

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

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Summit Creek and Camp Benson Falls (State of Oregon)

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

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Shellrock Mountain forests after the fire (State of Oregon)

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

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

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

After the Fire: the Verdict

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Smoky skies in the Gorge during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire

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

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

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

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

[click here for a more readable version]

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

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

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

Epilogue: Learning to Embrace the Burn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large image]

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

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

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

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Proposal: Raker Point Trail

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The view from Raker Point in a 1930s postcard

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

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

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

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

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1951 Lincoln ad featuring the view from Raker Point

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

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

Where is Raker Point?

04RakerPointFromLostLake2001

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

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

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

05HiyuMountainView1930s

[click here for a larger image]

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

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

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

07RakerPointWest1933

[click here for a larger panorama]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Proposal

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

First, the classic view from Raker Point is reason enough to warrant trail access to the summit. But a trail to Raker Point would also serve as a more attainable challenge for families visiting Lost Lake.

Today, hikers can make the 2-mile trek to the summit of Lost Lake Butte. Yet, while the view from there is excellent, it pales in comparison to Raker Point. More importantly, a trail to Raker Point would shave 400 feet of elevation gain in half the distance compared to the Lost Lake Butte hike, making it much more accessible to casual hikers and families with young children.

10RakerPointProposal

[click here for a large map]

The proposed trail is simple: it would begin along a segment of the Old Skyline Trail that traverses the base of the Raker Point, and connects to the nearby campground, resort cabins and lodge at Lost Lake.

Trail building would be straightforward, as well. The area is outside protected wilderness, so would not present limitations on the use of power saws and or other heavy equipment in the construction. The modest 1-mile length of the proposed new trail also puts it within financial reach in this era of cash-strapped federal land agencies.

11LostLakeButteWestPanorama1933

[click here for a large panorama]

The new trail would also be accessible from trailheads along the Lake Branch Road, allowing hikers to visit the trail without adding to the crowds and congestion at Lost Lake, proper.

What would it take to make this happen? Interest from Forest Service officials, for sure, but support from the Lost Lake Resort operators, in particular, could put this new trail on a fast track. The resort would clearly benefit from a new family-friendly trail option near the lodge, and would be powerful advocates if they were to bring this argument to the Forest Service.

So, consider mentioning the idea if you happen to visit the resort this summer..!

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Postscript: at about the time I was writing this article, uber-adventurer Paul Turner was exploring Raker Point and nearby Sawtooth Ridge. He posted some excellent photos from his trip over here on the Oregon Hikers forum. Thanks, Paul!