Archive for the ‘Trips’ category

Meet the (Northwest) Maples!

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

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

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

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Comparison of the three Northwest maple species

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

Bigleaf Maple (Acer macroplyllum)

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Bigleaf Maple grove forming a green awning over Tanner Creek

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

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Bigleaf Maple

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

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

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Bigleaf Maple in autumn

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

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

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Moss-draped Bigleaf Maple with Licorice Fern

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

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

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

Vine Maple (Acer circinatum)

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Vine Maple sprawling in front of Ponytail Falls

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

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Vine Maple

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

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Vine Maple in autumn

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

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

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Vine Maple samaras

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

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

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

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

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

Douglas Maple (Acer glabrum)

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Douglas Maple

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

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

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

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

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Douglas Maple in autumn

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

Where to See Them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Campaign Calendar!

January 3, 2016

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Each year since 2004, I’ve produced an annual “Mount Hood National Park Campaign Scenic Calendar”. It’s mostly for fun and to showcase the mountain (and Gorge) in a way that helps move beyond the too-often heard “it’s too [fill in the defeatist excuse] to become a national park.”

Wrong! In fact, the spectacular scenery, dramatic human history and sheer diversity of ecosystems in such a compact space make it a perfect candidate! Thus, the “idea campaign”, now entering its 12th year.

Each scenic calendar does put a modest $4 into keeping the campaign website and this blog up and running, but the main reason for picking one up is to simply enjoy looking at our someday national park through every month of the year. They sell for $29.95 over on my new campaign store:

Mount Hood National Park Campaign Store

If you’ve purchased a campaign calendar before, you’ll note that I’ve moved from CafePress to Zazzle for printing. This is in part due to CafePress dropping large format calendars from their offerings. But in truth, I’ve had mixed experiences with the company in recent years, and have heard the same from others who purchased calendars there. So, it was time to bail.

By contrast, Zazzle seems to provide a much better customer experience and the print quality is exceptional – especially compared to CafePress. I’ve been impressed, and I think you’ll be pleased, too!

Now, bear with me as I indulge in my annual reflections from the past year as illustrated by photos from the 2016 calendar…

The Cover Shot

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Mount Hood and valley fog from Gumjuwac Overlook

The view on the cover of the 2016 calendar is from a favorite viewpoint that is surprisingly unknown and never crowded. It’s along the Gumjuwac Trail, and the combination of a steady climb and not much information on maps or guidebooks to indicate a viewpoint seems to have kept this spot out of the mainstream… for now!

The cover shot came on one of those bright blue mountain days when the East Fork Hood River valley was blanketed in dense, freezing fog, thanks to a classic temperature inversion.

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Silver thaw on vine maple along the Gumjuwac Trail

The temperature at the trailhead along the East Fork that November day was a foggy 28 degrees. The first part of the climb along the Gumjuwac Trail was through a wonderland of glazed trees before breaking out of the fog about 1,500 feet above the trailhead. There, the temperature was suddenly in the 40s and allowed for a relatively balmy lunch in the sun!

The Monthly Images

For the January image in the 2016 calendar, I chose a photo taken along the historic Bennett Pass Road (below) after the first big snowfall of the 2014-15 winter season. As it turned out, it was also the last big snowfall! We soon entered a long year of drought in the Pacific Northwest that left the Cascades with the lightest snow pack in years.

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January features Mount Hood from Bennett Pass Road

The February image of the north face of Mount Hood (below) was taken from a mostly bare Old Vista Ridge Trail in mid-May, with a fresh coast of spring snow at the upper elevations of the mountain that belied the ongoing drought. The trail would normally have 5-10 feet of snow on the ground at that time of year, but the drought of 2015 was already well underway, and many mountain trails were eerily snow-free by early June.

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February features a close-up of the north face of Mount Hood

For March, I chose a close-up photo of Wahclella Falls (below) on Tanner Creek taken in early May. This has become one of the most popular trails in the Gorge, and remains my favorite, as well. In 2015, I hiked this lovely trail a total of seven times, spanning the four seasons.

On this particular trip, an impromptu, full-blown Bohemian wedding unfolded on the rocks above the falls while I was shooting this image – complete with baskets of rose petals and various acoustic instruments wafting (somewhat in tune) above the roar the falls. It was undoubtedly an unforgettable wedding for the lucky couple, and just another quirky Gorge experience for hikers passing through..!

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March features Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek

The Wahclella Falls photo required a bit more commitment than simply showing up with a tripod. The falls are well-guarded with huge, truck-sized boulders, so to capture this image I packed creek waders and eased out to about mid-thigh in very “refreshing” water to get a clear view of the falls. After 20 minutes in the stream, it took awhile for the circulation to return to my legs…

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Thawing my legs after some quality time in the middle of Tanner Creek

This year I started a new guided hike series for the Friends of the Gorge focuses on waterfall photography for beginners. Tanner Creek is the perfect trail for this, with world-class scenery along a short, safe loop trail.

Though the main goal for most hikers at Tanner Creek is Wahclella Falls, the lower creek is especially good for learning the camera basics of long exposures and filters. The April scene (below) was captured during one of these guided hikes.

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April features a sylvan scene along lower Tanner Creek

While poking around the boulders along Tanner Creek for a good photo that day, I nearly stepped on a pair of garter snakes (below) sunning themselves in the filtered sunlight. I assume this to be a mother and offspring, but will defer to the herpetologists on that point!

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Garter snakes on the banks of Tanner Creek

For the May image, I selected a perennial favorite of a lot of photographers, Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek (below). This is one of those spots that just calls out “national park!” It’s a completely unique waterfall that perfectly captures the elements that make Gorge scenes like this unmistakable: bright, crystal clear streams tumbling over sculpted black basalt, framed by velvet blankets of moss and ferns and shaded by the lush foliage of the Cascade rainforest. It’s no wonder the Gorge waterfalls have become iconic, drawing admirers from around the world.

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May features Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

The trail to Triple Falls was briefly closed on a couple of occasions in 2015 thanks to a large landslide that occurred just below Middle Oneonta Falls, about a half mile below Triple Falls. On the way down from my trip to Triple Falls, I ran into Bruce Dungey (below), a U.S. Forest Service trail crew legend who has worked for the agency for 38 years and in the Gorge since 1992. He had been fine-tuning a temporary route his crew had built through the landslide.

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Forest Service trail crew legend Bruce Dungey working on the big slide that briefly closed the Oneonta Trail last year

We chatted as he was packing up his gear and hiked back to the trailhead together. Bruce quietly lamented the collapse of funding for trail crews in the Gorge over the time he has worked here. As recently as the 1990s, three crew leaders (including him) each led a crew of five working on Gorge trails. Today, there are a total of three trail workers remaining for the entire scenic area.

During the same period, Bruce has seen trail use explode, and he and his remaining crew are struggling just to keep up with the sheer numbers of hikers. Making things worse are bizarre new “sports” like trail bombing, where hikers intentionally cut across switchbacks for the fun of it, in a race to get to the bottom.

Bruce will soon be retiring, taking an immense amount of knowledge of the Gorge trails with him. My conversation with him was yet another reminder that we all need to work together to rearrange our priorities, and move recreation funding to the top of the priority list at our federal agencies.

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June features Owl Point on the Old Vista Ridge Trail

The June image is another from Owl Point (above), a beautiful rocky perch along the Old Vista Ridge Trail. The trail here was almost lost to neglect after being dropped from Forest Service maintenance in the 1970s, but since 2007, this old gem has been gradually restored by a small army of anonymous volunteers.

Today, the old trail looks better than ever, keeping alive one of the earliest routes built on the mountain. Hikers have noticed: the summit register at Owl Point recorded more than 60 entries in 2015, including visitors from as far away as Japan and Europe, and Owl Point is now featured in several hiking guides.

The Owl Point hike took special meaning for me this year, as I was able to take an old friend and college roommate (below) there for a one-day reunion. We couldn’t have had a more idyllic day. It’s no secret that trails are the perfect place for reconnecting with old friends!

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Old friends and mountain trails are a perfect combination!

For July, I selected one of my few wildflower scenes from 2015 (below), captured along the Timberline Trail near Timberline Lodge.

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July features the Timberline Trail near Timberline Lodge

The early wildflower bloom caught many hikers by surprise, with places like Elk Cove and Paradise Park peaking a full month early from their typical August bloom time. I was among them, and completely missed the bloom at Elk Cove for the first time in over a decade.

The following side-by-side shows Elk Cove still blooming in late August in 2012 and completely gone to seed by August 4 in 2015:

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The August image in the new calendar is also from the Timberline Trail, this time in a sloping lupine meadow captured in early July on the brink of White River Canyon (below).

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August features lupine meadows on the slopes of White River Canyon

The vastness of the White River Canyon is always an awesome thing to see, and despite the retreat of the White River Glacier, its rugged terminus is still an impressive sight, too. It’s hard to know just how far the glacier will recede with climate change upon us, but it’s fair to say that the lower extent in this photo from last summer (below) may be gone in just a few years, leaving a few moraines behind to mark its former extent.

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White River Glacier is receding in a warming climate…

For September, I chose a photo of the relatively new log bridge on the Trail 400 (The Gorge Trail) over Gorton Creek (below). This handsome footbridge replaced a nearly identical version that had decayed enough to become unstable a few years ago. But the new bridge has quickly weathered to appear as if it has been here for decades, making this is one of the more photogenic spots in the Gorge. It’s rarely busy here, so also a favorite escape of mine on otherwise crowded weekends in the Gorge.

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September features the Gorge 400 Trail bridge over Gorton Creek

When approaching the Gorton Creek area, this sign (below) at the entrance of the Wyeth Campground always seems odd – after all, most campgrounds in the Gorge have piped water systems from nearby springs.

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Surprising sign at the Wyeth Campground…

But the story behind the water problems at Wyeth unfolds as you approach Emerald Falls, the unofficial name for the photogenic lower cascade on Gorton Creek. A 1930s-era diversion dam and pipe system at the falls has gradually been falling apart, with various jury-rigged efforts to keep the system functioning over the years.

When I visited Gorton Creek this year, the latest fix consisting of a riprap of logs (below) had been placed beneath a new section of water line leading to the campground. It’s unclear if this fix will actually restore potable water at Wyeth, but there’s apparently a renewed effort by the Forest Service to do so.

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The fragile, exposed waterworks below Emerald Falls

Fall colors were surprisingly good this year, despite the devastating drought that saw many deciduous trees dropping their leaves in mid-August. By late October, however, many Gorge trails were lighting up with the familiar bright yellow displays we expect from our resident maples, including Elowah Falls (below).

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October features Elowah Falls

The Elowah Falls photo is actually a 3-image, blended panorama from a long-forgotten overlook that was bypassed when the modern trails were built in the McCord Creek area. It still provides one of the finest views of the falls, but only if you know where to find the old trail!

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November features tunra swans at Mirror Lake, below Crown Point

For November, I selected an image from “the other” Mirror Lake described in this blog article. While I was able to capture some fall colors and even a group of tundra swans flying through the scene, my main goal in visiting this spot was to replicate an 1870s image of this same spot (below), as captured on glass slides by pioneering photographer Frank Haynes.

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Echo Bay Comparison (1880s – 2015)

Click here for a larger image

I didn’t quite nail it, in part because I didn’t want to spook the abundant waterfowl resting here, and also because I was running out of dry land to walk on. But it was fun to trace the footsteps of an early photographer. Next time, I’ll try getting a bit closer to the exact spot where Frank Haynes stood by visiting outside of the migratory season for swans, geese and ducks.

For December, I picked a somewhat unconventional (for me) image of a group of mountain hemlock, noble fir and Alaska cedar near Barlow Pass after the first (and only) heavy snowfall, below.

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December features a winter wonderland near Barlow Pass

But my real goal on that early snowshoe trip last winter was a different photo, the view of Mount Hood from the Buzzard Point overlook (below) along the historic loop highway. In the end, I thought I’d break from tradition and use a more intimate scene for the calendar – hopefully, you will agree, and apologies if you prefer the alpenglow scene!

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Later that evening near Barlow Pass

The new calendar format offered by Zazzle also gives me the back cover of the calendar to design, and that’s a major enhancement over CafePress. I thought long and hard about what to put on the back, and ended up doing a wildflower collage (below), since close-up images of flora never make it into my calendars.

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The back cover features nine of my favorite wildflower images

For the curious, the flora were taken at the following locations, starting in the upper left and working across:

Top Row:

  • Vine maple near Clear lake
  • Clackamas White Iris near Pup Creek Falls
  • Fairy Slipper (or Calypso) orchid near Cabin Creek

Middle Row:

  • Tiger lily along the Horsetail Creek trail
  • Columbine near the base of Elowah Falls
  • Paintbrush along the summit of Hood River Mountain

Bottom Row:

  • Chocolate lily in the hanging meadows above Warren Creek
  • Gentian along McGee Creek
  • Maidenhair fern near Upper McCord Creek Falls

That’s it for this year’s calendar! Looking ahead toward 2016, I hope to keep up my current pace of WyEast articles as I focus more of my efforts as a volunteer for Trailkeepers of Oregon, among other pursuits. And spend time on the trail, of course!

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“You know, this would make a GREAT national park!”

As always, thanks for reading this blog, and especially for the kind comments you’ve sent over the years. I’ve never felt better about Mount Hood and the Gorge someday getting the recognition (and Park Service stewardship) they deserve! That’s largely because of a passionate new generation of Millennials who are questioning the tactics and somewhat stale vision of the conservation movement’s old guard.

While it’s true that we oldsters have savvy and insight borne of experience, it’s also true that fighting too many battles can leave activists tired and resigned. So, bring on the new blood with their refreshing idealism and optimism! We are about to hand them the keys to the movement, and I very much like where they want to take us.

Happy trails to you in 2016!

Tom Kloster | Wy’East Blog

How will the summer of 2015 affect our fall colors?

September 30, 2015
Shepperd's Dell dressed in autumn golds

Shepperd’s Dell dressed in autumn golds

Oregon may not have the neon rainbow of New England’s fall colors, but we put on a pretty good show if you know where and when to look. However, 2015 will be different, as the extended drought and scorching summer heat has already affected our fall colors this year, even before the leaves began to turn.

To understand why, you have to start with the basics of how leaf colors change with the seasons, and how weather and other factors influence the autumn show each year.

Leaf Biology 101!

Most of our northwest deciduous trees and shrubs leaf out in spring, grow green leaves through the summer, then turn to various shades of yellow and gold in fall, with a few red leaves in the mix. Vine maple, huckleberry and mountain ash provide our most brilliant reds, and most of the larger deciduous trees in our forests turn to some shade of gold, orange or yellow.

Vine maple colors range from pale yellow (in shade) to bright crimson (in full sun)

Vine maple colors range from pale yellow (in shade) to bright crimson (in full sun)

The green color in summer and spring foliage comes from chlorophyll, the amazing molecule that absorbs sunlight and allows for photosynthesis — the process by which plants convert sunlight into carbohydrates (sugars) essential to their growth.

During the spring and summer growing seasons, chlorophyll is produced continually, keeping deciduous leaves green. But as the days shorten with the approach of winter, the decrease in sunlight triggers a change in how cells in the stem of each leaf divide, gradually blocking the flow of both nutrients and chlorophyll to leaves. The cells that form this barrier within the leaf stem are known as the “abscission layer”.

Like vine maple, mountain ash fall colors range from light yellow to brilliant red, based on sun exposure

Like vine maple, mountain ash fall colors range from light yellow to brilliant red, based on sun exposure

Ready for more leaf biology? Well, the yellows, reds and golds of autumn are colors that already reside in leaves, but are revealed as the change to the flow of chlorophyll is blocked by the development of the abscission layer in early fall.

Yellows and golds in fall leaves come from “xanthophylls”, a pigment thought to regulate light in the photosynthesis process. Reds and purples come from “anthocyanins”, a molecule that is believed to complement the green of cholorophyll in the photosynthesis process — but is more commonly is found in flowers, where it functions to attract pollinators.

Dark, cool and wet…

Okay, enough leaf biology! If deciduous leaves are certain to turn color in autumn by their very chemistry, how do environmental factors fit into the leaf cycle? Here are the key forces that shape the timing and brilliance (or lack thereof) in our autumn color show:

Bright sun and cool temperatures: a crisp, abrupt fall pattern speeds up and pronounces the abscission process by which chlorophyll is blocked from leaves. This helps to promote sudden and dramatic color shows. Likewise, a mild, extended Indian Summer tends to slow the process, with a more gradual color change and leaves changing and falling over a longer period.

Cool mountain nights and bright, sunny days set these vine maple ablaze on Mount Hood's Vista Ridge

Cool mountain nights and bright, sunny days set these vine maple ablaze on Mount Hood’s Vista Ridge

Bright days and cool nights also enhance reds and purples in plants with abundant anthocyanins in their leaves. These include vine maple, huckleberry and mountain ash, our most vibrant fall foliage. That’s also why these colors are more prominent at higher elevations where bright days cool nights are guaranteed, even as the valleys are under a blanket of fog.

Early frosts: contrary to popular belief, early frosts hurt fall colors more than they help, as the production of anthocyanin-based colors of red and purple are abruptly interrupted by a premature formation of the abscission layer. If you’ve hiked in the mountains in late August after an early cold snap, you’ve undoubtedly seen a carpet of dropped leaves under huckleberries and other deciduous shrubs.

Drought: like early frosts, drought can trigger a premature formation of the abscission layer, leading to early color change and leaf drop. If you’ve been hiking in the Gorge or on Mount Hood this summer, you likely saw this effect of the drought we are experiencing. While some leaves survive later into autumn, the broader effect is a muted show, as many leaves have already dropped long before the typical fall color season. This is has already been the effect of the drought this year in both the Gorge and on Mount Hood.

Early autumn storms: the arrival of a Pineapple Express storm pattern during Labor Day week of 2013 did a fine job of stripping our maples and other deciduous trees of many of their leaves weeks before they would normally turn and begin to lose their foliage. It’s not common for early storms of this magnitude in our region, so it might be the most notorious culprit in stealing our fall colors!

The colors in this view of Umbrella Falls on Mount Hood are mostly huckleberry -- red when in full sun and yellow in shady stream areas

The colors in this view of Umbrella Falls on Mount Hood are mostly huckleberry — red when in full sun and yellow in shady stream areas

In an ideal year, normal rainfall in spring and summer are followed by a cool, dry Indian summer with warm days and cool nights in the 40s or 50s. This year, we’ve got the Indian summer condtions, but the drought has already triggered leaf drop in a lot of our deciduous forests. Thus, we’re likely to have a so-so color display this Fall.

Where and When to Catch the Colors

A muted fall color display this year shouldn’t keep you from heading out to enjoy it! In a typical year, the high country colors peak in September through early October. Mid-elevation areas and canyons usually peak from mid-October through mid-November, depending on the mix of tree species.

Here are some of the best spots in the Mount Hood area to catch the autumn color:

Elk Cove from Vista Ridge – this 9-mile out-and-back hike is one of the best for exploring Mount Hood’s high country without having to ford glacial streams or suffer huge elevation gains (though you will gain substantial elevation). In September of a typical year, fall colors light up the trail, especially as you descend into Elk Cove, but note that the colors are long gone from this hike in our drought year — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Elk Cove in late September (in a typical year)

Elk Cove in late September (in a typical year)

Clackamas River Trail – another close option for Portlanders, with a moderately long hike to Pup Creek Falls, albeit with moderate elevation gain. This trail is lined with bigleaf maple, but also has impressive vine maple shows in a recovering burn section that bring shades or red and coral to the trail in October. You’ll also see Douglas maple here, a close but less common cousin to vine maple — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Brilliant vine maple along the Clackamas River Trail

Brilliant vine maple along the Clackamas River Trail

Lookout Mountain Loop – Always a spectacular hike on a clear day, in October you will also see the annual spectacle of western larch turning golden yellow across the eastern slopes of the Cascades. Larch are a deciduous conifer — a rarity, and an impressive sight — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Whole mountainsides around Lookout Mountain light up with western larch turning in mid-to-late October

Whole mountainsides around Lookout Mountain light up with western larch turning in mid-to-late October

Latourell Falls Loop – Very close to Portland, this is a popular family hike that visits two waterfalls in a lovely rainforest canyon. In late October, bigleaf maple that dominate the forests here light up in shades of yellow and orange, often covering the trail ankle-deep in their huge leaves — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

The Latourell Falls loop trail still has some color in early November

The Latourell Falls loop trail still has some color in early November

Starvation Creek Loop – like the Latourell loop, Starvation Creek has an abundance of bigleaf maple, but the crisper weather and abundant sun of the eastern Gorge often makes for a brighter show here. Families can simply explore the paved trails around the main falls, but the Lower Starvation hike makes for a fun, if sometimes steep loop past more waterfalls and clifftop viewpoints — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Bigleaf and vine maple put on a reliable show at Starvation Creek Falls in October

Bigleaf and vine maple put on a reliable show at Starvation Creek Falls in October

Butte Creek Trail – an under-appreciated family trail that does require navigating some harshly managed corporate timber holdings. The outrageous, utterly unsustainable clear-cutting only makes the pristine public forests and waterfalls along the trail that much more spectacular in comparison. This is an ideal October hike, with fall colors typically peaking in the last half of the month. This trail really shines in rainy or overcast weather, when the rainforest glows with countless autumn shades of yellow, gold and orange against a backdrop of deep green – see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

The author ankle-deep in maple leaves on the Butte Creek Trail

The author ankle-deep in maple leaves on the Butte Creek Trail

The great thing about taking in fall colors is that the weather really doesn’t matter — a soggy hike through the brilliant yellows of bigleaf and vine maple in a waterfall canyon is just as spectacular as a sunny day hiking through a sea of red and orange in Mount Hood’s huckleberry fields.

Better yet, if you have kids, it’s also a great time to expose them to hiking and exploring the outdoors… though you should also plan on hauling home a hand-picked collection of autumn leaves..!

Enjoy!

The Other Mirror Lake

August 19, 2015
"Palisades, Columbia River" This 1880s scene captured by Frank J. Haynes, official photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad. Crown Point (then called "Thor's Heights") and its lacy waterfall are the backdrop for what was known as Echo Bay in the early days of settlement.

“Palisades, Columbia River” This 1880s scene captured by Frank J. Haynes, official photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad. Crown Point (then called “Thor’s Heights”) and its lacy waterfall are the backdrop for what was known as Echo Bay in the early days of settlement.

Though seen by far more travelers than the famous Mirror Lake on Mount Hood, a stunning lake by the same name in the Columbia Gorge is unknown to most. That’s because most of the visitors to the “other” Mirror Lake, in plain sight at the foot of Crown Point, are usually speeding by on I-84. Stealing a glimpse of this lovely lake while dodging the steady stream of Walmart trucks that race through the Gorge is risky business!

This “other” Mirror Lake also has a deeper identity crisis: after all, it has only been around since the modern highway through the Gorge was built in the 1950s, and sliced off what was once an inlet to the Columbia to form the shallow lake we know today.

"Echo Bay, Columbia River" by Frank J. Haynes (1885)

“Echo Bay, Columbia River” by Frank J. Haynes (1885)

When the earliest photographers were visiting the Gorge in the 1880s, the inlet was known as Echo Bay, formed where Young Creek (the stream that flows from nearby Shepperd’s Dell) meandered through extensive wetlands, and finally into the Columbia River.

The idyllic scene of Echo Bay in the late 1800s was framed by stately stands of Black cottonwood and Oregon ash, a rocky basalt island with a gnarled grove of Oregon white oak, flocks of ducks and geese and a wispy waterfall cascading down the massive cliffs of Crown Point, above. All of these scenic ingredients are still found there, today, albeit hemmed in by roads and railroads.

Early 1900s view of Crown Point, Echo Bay, Rooster Rock and the salmon cannery from Chanticleer Point.

Early 1900s view of Crown Point, Echo Bay, Rooster Rock and the salmon cannery from Chanticleer Point.

With an 800-foot buttress on one side and the main steam of the Columbia River on the other, Echo Bay was the path of least resistance when the railroads came to the Gorge in the late 1800s. Today’s Union Pacific tracks generally follow the historic railroad alignment, traversing the base of Crown Point along the south shore of the bay, and passing within a few feet of Crown Point’s waterfall.

This early 1900s topographic map shows Echo Bay as it existed until World War II (under the words Rooster Rock). Crown Point isn't labeled on this early map, but is the marked by the sharp bend in the historic highway directly adjacent to Echo Bay.

This early 1900s topographic map shows Echo Bay as it existed until World War II (under the words Rooster Rock). Crown Point isn’t labeled on this early map, but is the marked by the sharp bend in the historic highway directly adjacent to Echo Bay.

Another early map view, this time from around 1900, showing the steep access road that connected the cannery at Rooster Rock to Chanticleer Point and the historic Columbia River Highway on the rim of the Gorge.

Another early map view, this time from around 1900, showing the steep access road that connected the cannery at Rooster Rock to Chanticleer Point and the historic Columbia River Highway on the rim of the Gorge.

Later in the 1800s, a salmon cannery opened near the mouth of the bay, at another small cove at the western base of Rooster Rock (the cannery was also located near the spot where the Lewis and Clark Expedition had camped on November 2, 1805 on their westward journey). Until the late 1940s, the only land access to the cannery was along a narrow dirt road that descended from the rim of the Gorge at Chanticleer Point (explorers can still follow that old road, and state parks planners are considering reopening it as a trail in the future).

Rooster Rock and salmon cannery in the early 1900s.

Rooster Rock and salmon cannery in the early 1900s.

Few travelers used the old cannery road, so for more than sixty years of the post-settlement era in the Gorge, Echo Bay was most seen from train windows, or glimpsed from the high cliffs along the Historic Columbia River Highway after it was completed in 1916.

  1920s view east from near Chanticleer Point showing Rooster Rock, the salmon cannery, original railroad, Echo Bay and Crown Point.


1920s view east from near Chanticleer Point showing Rooster Rock, the salmon cannery, original railroad, Echo Bay and Crown Point.

1920s view east from Crown Point showing the wetlands and meadows of Young Creek that extended east from Echo Bay (the edge of the bay is in the lower left corner of this photo)

1920s view east from Crown Point showing the wetlands and meadows of Young Creek that extended east from Echo Bay (the edge of the bay is in the lower left corner of this photo)

By the end of World War II, the old highway was deemed too slow and narrow for the 20th Century and Americans were increasingly interested in traveling by automobile, not rail. So, by the 1940s a massive project to build a river-level, modern highway through the Gorge was underway.

The modern highway through the Gorge was built in a nearly straight line on twenty feet of rock fill across the lowlands below Crown Point. The elevated road kept the highway surface above flood levels, but also served as a dike, cutting off Echo Bay from the river and forming the strong of small lakes we know today.

1920s view from Chanticleer Point with the approximate route of the modern highway shown as the dashed orange line, along with other landmarks in the Gorge.

1920s view from Chanticleer Point with the approximate route of the modern highway shown as the dashed orange line, along with other landmarks in the Gorge.

[click here for a larger view]

At some point in the 1950s, the largest of these lakes became known as Mirror Lake, though the origin of the name is unknown. The newly created Mirror Lake joined a very long list of lakes with that name, and notably a very famous cousin that mirrors Mount Hood.

While the changes to the area that came with the 1950s construction of the modern highway through the Gorge were mostly in the negative column for the natural environment, the convenient new road access did allow ODOT (which once operated our state park system) to build a large new state park at Rooster Rock in the mid-1950s.

This 1954 map shows the (then new) modern highway and Mirror Lake of today, though the lake had not yet been named the Rooster Rock interchange and park developments had not been constructed.

This 1954 map shows the (then new) modern highway and Mirror Lake of today, though the lake had not yet been named the Rooster Rock interchange and park developments had not been constructed.

Land acquisition for the new Rooster Rock State Park began in 1937, and continued well beyond the development of the park, with a total area of nearly 900 acres by the mid-1980s.

The new park included its very own interchange on the highway, though it was built at the cost of pushing the eastbound exit ramp over a filled area of the lake. Hundreds of paved parking spots were build along a half-mile stretch of beach that once lined the Columbia River here, and Rooster Rock became one of the most heavily-visited state parks in Oregon.

The brand-new interchange and Rooster Rock State Park as it appeared in the late 1950s, adjacent to Mirror Lake.

The brand-new interchange and Rooster Rock State Park as it appeared in the late 1950s, adjacent to Mirror Lake.

Today, the beach (and the accompanying crowds) at Rooster Rock have mostly eroded away, in part because of changes in dredging of the shipping channel. Yet, one remnant of the former Echo Bay can still be seen here, as a small, unnamed cove at the eastern foot of Rooster Rock that is the truncated mouth of Echo Bay, cut off by the modern highway. The little cove now hosts a boat dock, and is easily seen by eastbound highway travelers.

The boat docks in the remnant of Echo Bay that still survives north of the highway, below Rooster Rock (the cliffs of Crown Point are in the background; photo Oregon State Pqrks).

The boat docks in the remnant of Echo Bay that still survives north of the highway, below Rooster Rock (the cliffs of Crown Point are in the background; photo Oregon State Pqrks).

Young Creek still flows into Mirror Lake, but is now channeled through a culvert under the highway to the small cove by Rooster Rock, where it then flows into the Columbia River.

For more than a century, the lowlands along Young Creek and Echo Bay were farmed by early settlers in the area, but in recent decades the entirety of the original Young Creek wetlands adjacent to Mirror Lake have come into public ownership as part of Rooster Rock State Park.

1950s view of the Young Creek lowlands east of Mirror Lake and the (then) new Highway 30.

1950s view of the Young Creek lowlands east of Mirror Lake and the (then) new Highway 30.

The State of Oregon has since been restoring the Young Creek lowland to its former natural state as a wildlife reserve, with a lush mosaic of tree stands, meadows, marshes and ponds. Mirror Lake, itself, has become a surprising haven for waterfowl, with flocks of geese, ducks and white egrets resting and nesting there — a surprising and welcome twist in an area so heavily impacted by human activity over the past 150 years.

Visiting Mirror Lake

While a lake flanked on one side by a freeway and a railroad on the other might not seem like a promising hiking destination, the views of Mirror Lake are just as spectacular today as they were when the first photographers visited Echo Bay in the 1880s.

You can visit the modern lake by taking the eastbound Rooster Rock State Park exit. The park access road curves left, across the freeway overpass. Instead, park on the gravel shoulder on the right, where a gated service road drops to the lake.

Modern topo maps of the Mirror Lake, Crown Point and the Rooster Rock State Park area.

Modern topo maps of the Mirror Lake, Crown Point and the Rooster Rock State Park area.

(click here for a larger map view)

You can follow the service road and explore along the lakeshore in about the same spot that Frank Haynes captured the iconic view at the top of this article in 1885. All of the land here is public, so feel free to explore and reflect on both the long human history and natural beauty of this remarkable spot!

Finally, a chance to save Punchbowl Falls!

January 31, 2015
Mount Hood rises in the distance above Punchbowl Falls

Mount Hood rises in the distance above Punchbowl Falls

After nearly 150 years in private ownership, a spectacular basalt gorge along the West Fork Hood River might finally be preserved as a new park. The second of two community meetings on the proposal is rapidly approaching, and is well worth attending if you’re interested in the future of this magnificent place:

Punchbowl Falls Community Workshop
Tuesday, February 10th – 6-7:30 pm
Hood River County Offices
601 State Street, Hood River

If you can’t make the meeting, the county has also set up an online comment forum: click here to complete the survey

About the Proposal

The centerpiece of this exciting proposal is Punchbowl Falls, a cousin to the more famous Punch Bowl Falls on Eagle Creek, in the Columbia Gorge. Both are textbook examples of a “punch bowl” waterfall, pouring into huge, circular bowls carved over the millennia by the upwelling action of the plunging waterfalls. While the more famous Punch Bowl Falls is taller, the Punchbowl Falls on the West Fork is far more powerful, and has carved a much larger amphitheater.

But first, a word about names, as much confusion exists between these waterfall cousins: the lesser-known “Punchbowl” on the West Fork is spelled as one word, while the more famous “Punch Bowl” falls on Eagle Creek uses two words. It’s subtle difference, but important, as these are the official USGS names for the waterfalls, as shown on the maps below:

PunchBowl01

The story of how Punchbowl Falls may finally be preserved for the public began in 2006, when the Western Rivers Conservancy acquired a 20-acre parcel containing the falls from West Fork from Longview Fiber (this is a company that has been aggressively clear-cutting its vast holdings in the upper West Fork watershed over the past decade at an alarming and reckless pace in recent years, so the risk to Punchbowl Falls was real).

The surrounding 82 acres that make up the balance of the Western Rivers property were purchased from Pacificorp in 2010, in tandem with the utility removing its Powerdale Dam, a few miles downstream on the main branch of the Hood River. This purchase includes the beautiful and rugged confluence of the East and West Forks of the Hood River, a powerful spot that remains surprisingly wild and pristine, given the long human presence in this area.

This acquisition marks the beginning of an ambitious effort by the Western Rivers Conservancy to acquire and restore thousands of acres of unprotected West Fork watershed that have been ravaged by relentless logging over the past 130 years, and the eventual restoration of native salmon runs to this beautiful canyon.

Peering into the huge amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

Peering into the huge amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

The removal of the dam and consolidation of private land in the spectacular Punchbowl Falls area are huge developments toward the long-term restoration of the Hood River riparian system.

But much work lies ahead, and the most immediate question is whether Hood River County can secure the funds to purchase the 102 acre Punchbowl Falls site from Western Rivers Conservancy for $578,000 — an asking price that is about half the value of the property.

To reach this goal, Hood River County is an application for an Oregon Parks and Recreation (OPRD) grant for purchase of this Punchbowl site. An unsuccessful application was submitted, but failed to win OPRD funding, so in this round the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC), a local land-use advocacy group, is sponsoring community outreach activities to help broaden support for the county park proposal.

Early 1900s postcard view of salmon jumping Punchbowl Falls

Early 1900s postcard view of salmon jumping Punchbowl Falls

The area has a long history of recreation as a popular swimming and fishing, which explains why the HRVRC events thus far have had a very strong response: 60 people attended the first community workshop in January, and more than 400 responses have been submitted to the comment website.

Should Hood River County fail to secure state funding for purchase of the site in the near future, the Western River Conservancy is likely to eventually sell the property to another private conservation group, putting future public access in question. While the site has never been more protected from private development, continued public access is now very much at stake.

Early 1900s swimmers cross the falls on a giant old-growth log; note the log bridge in the background where the modern high bridge is now located (Hood River History Museum)

Early 1900s swimmers cross the falls on a giant old-growth log; note the log bridge in the background where the modern high bridge is now located (Hood River History Museum)

It’s apparently common for small communities like Hood River County to win funding on a second try from OPRD for projects like this, so your feedback and support is important in helping make the case to the State of Oregon that Punchbowl Falls and the Hood River confluence deserve to be both protected and forever open to the public as a park.

Please take the time to complete the survey if you can’t make the final county meeting in February: Punchbowl Falls Park Survey

Here’s a map of the proposal from the Hood River County website to familiarize you with the area:

PunchBowl05

Click here for a larger PDF version of the map.

A Virtual Tour of the Site

If you haven’t been to Punchbowl Falls, here’s a brief virtual tour. The visit starts at this unassuming steel gate at a large parking turnout, just before Punchbowl Road crosses a high bridge over the West Fork:

The gate at the Punchbowl Falls trailhead

The gate at the Punchbowl Falls trailhead

A short walk down a rustic service road leads to a maze of informal side paths veering off to the left, toward the imposing rim of the West Fork gorge.

The main attraction here is the massive basalt amphitheater carved by Punchbowl Falls. The walls of the canyon provide some of the best displays of columnar basalt jointing found anywhere in the region. How large is the amphitheater? The scale is hard to appreciate from photos, but Portland’s Memorial Coliseum would fit inside, with headroom to spare!

Looking into the Punchbowl from the east

Looking into the Punchbowl from the east

The curving concrete structure to the right of the falls is a fish ladder constructed in 1957 to improve fish passage (though early photos clearly show fish climbing the falls). A closer look at the fish ladder reveals a dilapidated wooden staircase attached to the basalt columns on the far wall of the canyon. The stairs appear to have been added at the time the fish ladder was constructed:

A rickety staircase descends the west wall of the canyon to the fish ladder

A rickety staircase descends the west wall of the canyon to the fish ladder

An even closer look shows the staircase to be in a serious state of disrepair, and a potentially dangerous hazard to the many swimmers who flock to the Punchbowl in summer:

That last step to the fish ladder is a doozy..!

That last step to the fish ladder is a doozy..!

This is an example of the kind of feedback to include when you comment on the park proposal — for example, simply removing the stairs, and perhaps removing or modifying the fish ladder (below) could help it blend these features with the natural surroundings and make the area safer for visitors.

Downstream view of the fish ladder…

Downstream view of the fish ladder…

….and the upstream view

….and the upstream view

A look downstream from above Punchbowl Falls reveals another waterfall cascading into the gorge from the west. This is the falls on Dead Point Creek, which flows from the high slopes of Mt. Defiance into the Hood River:

Downstream view from above the Punchbowl to Dead Point Falls

Downstream view from above the Punchbowl to Dead Point Falls

The structures above Dead Point Falls are part of a fish hatchery built by the State of Oregon in 1920. The state sold the hatchery at some point in the past, and it is now owned by Troutlodge, a private company that grows and markets fish eggs from several hatcheries in the western states. The hatchery has also been on the market over the past year, but (unfortunately) is not part of the park proposal at this time. Perhaps this could be a second phase of a county park purchase?

Walking downstream along the canyon rim, Dead Point Falls comes into full view. The falls and the canyon wall below the hatchery are fully within the lands owned by the Western Rivers Conservancy, and part of the park proposal:

Dead Point Falls

Dead Point Falls

A closer look at the Dead Point Falls shows a second tier spilling in from the right side. This is the outflow from the hatchery ponds, located behind the buildings that can be seen from the canyon rim, and makes for a unique waterfall:

Dead Point Falls

Dead Point Falls

One of the buildings in the 1920 fish hatchery complex on Dead Point Creek

One of the buildings in the 1920 fish hatchery complex on Dead Point Creek

After visiting a series of waterfall viewpoints along the canyon rim, the network of boot paths curves back to the primitive service road, which descends gently toward the confluence of the West and East Forks of the Hood River — about 1/2 mile downstream from the trailhead.

The confluence is a remarkable place where two powerful rivers collide, creating an enormous gravel bar that makes for a fine lunch spot for taking in the scene. The West Fork enters the confluence at a leisurely pace, emerging from a deep pool between basalt buttresses. The East Fork (shown below) makes a more raucous entrance, roaring around a sharp bend in a series of steep rapids as it tumbles toward the West Fork.

The confluence of the East and West Forks

The confluence of the East and West Forks

The confluence area is fully contained within the Western Rivers Conservancy property, and would be part of a future park. The conservancy holdings include the west (far) wall of the canyon for another mile downstream from this spot, and about the first half-mile of the east wall of the canyon beyond the East Fork is included.

After returning to the trailhead parking area, it’s worth taking a few minutes to walk down Punchbowl Road to the dizzying concrete bridge that spans the upper gorge. There’s plenty of room to safely walk on the bridge, but the side walls are low enough that you’ll want to keep an eye on young kids and pets on a leash.

The dizzying view into Punchbowl Gorge from the bridge

The dizzying view into Punchbowl Gorge from the bridge

From the bridge vantage point, the West Fork corkscrews through a narrow gorge carved into spectacular basalt formations. The gorge area surrounding the bridge is also within the Western Rivers Conservancy holdings, and part of the park proposal.

The proposed park site also has trail access in the Winans community, located on the east side of the East Fork, where Iowa Street joins the Dee Highway, north of the Dee junction. This trail is much less traveled than those in the Punchbowl Falls area, and mainly used for fishing access to the area below the confluence.

How to find Punchbowl Falls?

If you would like to visit the area after reading this virtual tour, simply follow the Dee Highway from Hood River to the old mill town of Dee, forking to the right and following signs to Lost Lake. Immediately after crossing the East Fork in Dee, head right at a sprawling 3-way intersection, then go straight at another 3-way junction, onto Punchbowl Road. Watch for a large parking area on the right after a short distance, just before the road crosses the high bridge over the Punchbowl gorge.

2015 Calendar… and looking back on 2014!

December 30, 2014
The view from Owl Point is the cover image for 2015

The view from Owl Point is the cover image for 2015

Each year since 2004 I’ve published a wall calendar dedicated to the special places that make Mount Hood and the Gorge a national treasure — and of national park caliber! You can pick one up for $30 at the Mount Hood National Park Campaign store at CafePress, and you’ll also be supporting the campaign website and this blog when you do!

The following is a preview of the calendar images I picked for the 2015 edition, along with some backstory behind the photos. All of the photos were taken from November 2013 through October 2014. Part of the challenge each year is to come up with 13 new calendar-worthy images, which in turn ensures that I get out on the trail and poke around my favorite haunts, plus a few new spots whenever I can!

For January, I picked a close-up view of the upper Sandy Glacier and the towering cliffs of the Sandy Headwall. This view came from an early snowfall last winter, one of several trips I made to the Bald Mountain and McGee Ridge:

January features the upper Sandy Glacier and towering Sandy Headwall

January features the upper Sandy Glacier and towering Sandy Headwall

On one of those trips to the McGee Ridge viewpoint, I had just set up my camera and tripod along the Timberline Trail when a pair of climbers came down from the mountain. They were obviously not typical hikers, and soon I realized that they were the explorers I had just written a blog article about! “Sandy Glacier Caves: Realm of the Snow Dragon!” was written partly in anticipation of the Oregon Field Guide 2013 premiere episode that featured the glacier Caves… and my new trail acquaintances, Brent McGregor and Eric Guth.

Look closely, and you can see Eric and Brent's boot prints in the snow near the Snow Dragon cave

Look closely, and you can see Eric and Brent’s boot prints in the snow near the Snow Dragon cave

Brent and Eric pointed out several features around the glacier caves from our vantage point. I was later able to add a postscript to the original article to elaborate on some of the new details about their discovery that I learned that day on the trail.

Eric Guth and Brent McGregor on the trail in 2013

Eric Guth and Brent McGregor on the trail in 2013

I’ve also been able to help Brent with his historic research on the formation of the glacier caves with a series of images I’d taken of the Sandy Glacier since the early 2000s. I’ve photographed the glacier in detail pretty much every year for more than a decade, mostly because of it’s scenic beauty, so it was great to discover a more practical use for all those photos!

For February, I picked a photo from a memorable winter day on Mount Defiance (below) after a bank of freezing fog had settled in on the mountain for several days. Nearly every surface was covered with long, beautifully developed ice crystals that had grown undisturbed in the almost still air of the freezing fog layer.

February features a frosty forest on the slopes of Mt. Defiance

February features a frosty forest on the slopes of Mt. Defiance

On that frosty day, I also stopped to photograph the sign shown below on the way up to Mount Defiance, as it showed amazing insight and precision by the Hood River County road department in deciding where to stop plowing!

Winter wonderland ahead!

Winter wonderland ahead!

For March, I picked a scene from the Pacific Crest Trail where it climbs along the west rim of the White River canyon. This section of trail is also part of the Timberline Trail, and is surprisingly overlooked, given the views and close proximity to Timberline Lodge.

March features the White River Canyon from the Pacific Crest Trail

March features the White River Canyon from the Pacific Crest Trail

I posted an article in 2011 on the buried forests that can be seen here. The deeply carved maze of ravines that make up the White River canyon are cut into volcanic debris from the Old Maid eruptions that occurred from 1760 to 1810, and subsequent erosion has revealed some of the well-preserved trees that were buried in these eruptions. The 2011 article describes how to view these old specimens.

I also enjoyed watching a lenticular cloud form over the mountain in the hour or two that I sat on the canyon rim that evening last winter — one of my favorite mountain phenomena. You can see just the beginning of the cloud over the summit in the calendar view, and the tiny sliver later blossomed into the classic lenticular cloud shown in the view below, as I was packing up for the day:

Lenticular cloud forming over The Mountain

Lenticular cloud forming over The Mountain

Lenticular clouds typically form when moist air from approaching weather fronts is compressed as it passes over the big volcanoes in the Cascade Range. They often form as much as a day before the cloud bands of a Pacific front actually arrive, so are a useful barometer of changing conditions.

For April, I picked something a little different: a desert scene just a few miles east of the mountain, where the same White River that originates from its namesake glacier in the previous scene flows east into the rugged rimrock country of Oregon’s High Desert, shown below:

April features the lower falls at White River Falls State Park

April features the lower falls at White River Falls State Park

Over the millennia, the White River has carved through many layers of Columbia River basalt to form its desert canyon, but as it approaches the confluence with the Deschutes, the river encounters an especially tough series of basalt layers. The result is the spectacular White River Falls, a misty green emerald in the desert, protected in a small state park.

The lower falls pictured in the April image is about one-half mile downstream from the main falls, and well off the popular trail in the area. The calendar image is actually just a cropped portion of a very wide panorama (below) that captures more of the rugged scene at the lower falls.

Original jumbo-pano that the calendar image was cropped from

Original jumbo-pano that the calendar image was cropped from

The scoured bedrock in the foreground of this view is testament to volatile nature of the White River: seasonal floods regularly surge to this depth, engulfing the floor of the canyon.

In another 2011 article titled “Close Call at White River Falls”, I described the threats to this magnificent area, and why it deserved better protection — perhaps someday a unit of Mount Hood National Park?

The old powerhouse at White River Falls

The old powerhouse at White River Falls

In addition to the natural scenery, the canyon is home to the fascinating ruins of an early 1900s hydroelectric plant. Desert weather has helped preserve the many relics in the area, but arid conditions haven’t prevented vandals from taking an increasing toll on priceless historic resources.

The powerhouse is amazingly well-preserved inside

The powerhouse is amazingly well-preserved inside

Hopefully, we can someday stabilize the White River Falls site and preserve the remaining traces of history for future generations to explore.

For May, I chose another unusual image for a Mount Hood National Park calendar: Middle North Falls on Silver Creek. Why? Mostly because what we now know as Silver Falls State Park was once proposed to become a national park in the 1920s! It would have been a terrific addition. The scenery, alone blows away many of the existing national parks monuments in our park system!

May features the famous Middle North Falls on Silver Creek

May features the famous Middle North Falls on Silver Creek

Alas, the national park proposal failed after a National Park Service study deemed the logged-over landscape of the 1920s too ravaged to be worthy of park status. Thankfully, that didn’t stop the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s from building the elaborate, magnificent trail system and beautiful South Falls Lodge (listed on the National Historic Register in 1983) that we still enjoy today.

The national park idea for Silver Falls resurfaced again in 2008, when Oregon State Senator (then Representative) Fred Girod proposed it during a special session. Notably, Dr. Girod is a Republican from Stayton, representing the Senate district that encompasses Silver Falls State Park, so maybe we’ll see the idea resurrected in the future? I like that maverick thinking, Senator!

Trail ranger leading a kids hike at Silver Creek -- how very cool!

Trail ranger leading a kids hike at Silver Creek — how very cool!

On the visit last spring when I photographed Middle North Falls, I was reminded that Oregon’s state parks do a pretty good job of embracing the national park tradition at Silver Creek when a young ranger appeared, leading a group of youngsters on a day hike. Kudos to Oregon Parks and Recreation Department for providing programs like these!

Could Silver Falls State Park become a unit of a future Mount Hood National Park? Why not! One tangible benefit would be the opportunity to expand the footprint from the current park boundaries to include the rest of the upper watershed of Silver Creek. The park more than doubled in size in 1958, when a federally funded expansion added in a portion of the headwaters, bringing the park to the present size of just over 90,000 areas.

The amazing, national-park-quality amphitheater behind North Falls

The amazing, national-park-quality amphitheater behind North Falls

Yet, heavy logging and large private inholdings upstream continue to impact Silver Creek stream with silt and algae blooms. These impacts could easily be reversed if the upper watershed were managed for conservation and recreation, instead — especially if the park were expanded to include the upper watershed and its associated habitat.

For June, I picked an image of Butte Creek Falls, a nearby cousin to Silver Creek located even closer to Mount Hood, within the Santiam State Forest. Like Silver Creek, the upper watershed of Butte Creek is heavily logged, with some obvious sediment and algae in the stream as a result.

June features Butte Creek Falls

June features Butte Creek Falls

Also like Silver Creek, the health of Butte Creek could be turned around with a shift to managing for conservation and recreation. Unlike Silver Creek, most of the lands in the upstream watershed are already held in the public trust by the State of Oregon.

Unfortunately, our state forests are held captive by a legislature determined to log them to feed the state general fund — and to ensure that rural counties that already pay only a fraction of the property taxes levied in other parts of Oregon aren’t inconvenienced with paying for their own schools.

Therefore, the best way to restore Butte Creek would be to transfer it to Oregon Parks and Recreation Department as a very large state park… or incorporate it into a future Mount Hood National Park! At a minimum, it’s time for the Santiam State forest to focus on restoring forests and protecting watersheds, not just future timber sales.

Always travel with an automotive repair expert!

Always travel with an automotive repair expert!

The behind-the-scenes, somewhat embarrassing story that goes with the Butte Creek Falls image is one of my hiking buddy Jamie Chabot helping change a flat tire after our trip to Butte Creek and nearby Abiqua Falls. We managed to take a couple of wrong turns in the maze of logging roads and clearcuts that surround the small preserve containing Butte Creek: at some point, I jumped out to survey the canyon below to figure out where we went wrong… only to hear a HISSSSSSS coming from one of the rear tires!

There was no room to pull off to the side, so we were in the awkward predicament of having the car up on a jack in the middle of an active logging road. Fortunately, we were able to install the spare before a loaded log truck came barreling our way! My belated apologies to Jamie for doing the heavy work while I took pictures… but somebody had to document the episode for posterity!

Jamie was also my hiking companion on a couple of trips to Owl Point last summer. This has been an annual favorite of mine since a group of volunteers from the Portland Hikers forum rescued the Old Vista Ridge from being lost to official Forest Service neglect in 2007.

Each year, the trail seems to get better, thanks to a lot of unofficial TLC from anonymous trail tenders. Today, the Old Vista Ridge trail is in great shape and now forms the boundary of the expanded Mount Hood Wilderness, so in that sense has been etched into legal permanence. Hopefully, it will eventually make it back onto the Forest Service inventory of officially maintained trails, a status it clearly deserves.

July features Mount Hood from Owl Point

July features Mount Hood from Owl Point

There are now several geocaches and a trail log tucked along the historic old trail, and it’s amazing to see how busy the area has become now that it has been featured in several popular hiking guides (including Williams Sullivan’s “100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon” and Paul Gerald’s “60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Portland”).

One trail log had more than 60 entries for just 2014, including this wonderful entry from a young family introducing their kids to the adventures of hiking and exploring the Mount Hood backcountry at a very young age:

My favorite Old Vista Ridge trail log entry… ever..!

My favorite Old Vista Ridge trail log entry… ever..!

One of my favorite experiences on the trail is seeing young families introducing their junior hikers to our public lands, battered field guides in hand. Just like my own formative experiences just a few decades ago.

For August, I picked an image from another of my favorite spots, just off the Cooper Spur trail, above the lower extent of the Eliot Glacier. This image was taken on one of those days when clouds were wrapped around the mountain for much of the day, but suddenly cleared for a few minutes — just long enough to capture a few photos before the mountain disappeared, once again:

August features the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood's north flank

August features the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood’s north flank

I certainly do not mind sitting on the shoulder of the mountain waiting out the clouds (there’s no such thing as a bad day on the mountain, after all!), but a bonus during this wait was learning a new bird species (to me), as a pair of these small birds (below) stopped by to check me out:

Horned lark at Cooper Spur

Horned lark at Cooper Spur

This is a horned lark, a wintertime migrant to our area, and the pair I saw had likely arrived recently when I spotted them last August. The Portland area actually has a year-round resident population of streaked horned larks, which look similar to horned larks and are a threatened species. These are details I learned after the trip from the helpful folks at the Portland Audubon Society.

According to Audubon staff, horned Larks are widespread songbirds of fields, deserts, and tundra, where they forage for seeds and insects, and sing a high, tinkling song — and thus were quite at home in the tundra conditions of Mount Hood’s high east side. Though they are considered common, they have undergone a sharp decline in the last half-century. Their very generalized range map shows them wintering from the Cascades west and breeding in summer in Canada tundra/steppe terrain.

For September I picked an image from Wyeast Basin, taken toward the end of a lovely early autumn day as a family and their dog ambled across the sprawling meadow. Wyeast Basin is remarkable for the surprising number of springs bubbling up from the mountain slopes and racing one another downhill, often just a few feet apart.

September features early autumn colors at WyEast Basin

September features early autumn colors at WyEast Basin

While this view (above) from the calendar is the familiar scene at WyEast Basin, I also turned my tripod around to capture the web of springs and streamlets flowing north toward the big Washington volcanoes, on the distant horizon. The talus slopes of Owl Point can also be seen in the distance from here, just above the tree line.

The view north to Owl Point and the Washington Cascades from WyEast Basin

The view north to Owl Point and the Washington Cascades from WyEast Basin

For October, the scene is from Elk Meadows, perhaps the most photogenic of the string of alpine meadows on Mount Hood’s rugged north side. In this view, the Coe Glacier tumbles below the summit, and 7,853-foot Barrett Spur looms darkly on the left. Avalanches roll off Barrett Spur in winter, sometimes with devastating effect on the alpine forests below, as the many bleached snags and stumps in Elk Cove suggest.

October features beautiful Elk Cove in autumn

October features beautiful Elk Cove in autumn

My companions for the Elk Cove hike this fall were Jamie Chabot and Jeff Statt. I met both when Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) was founded in 2007: Jeff was the founding president of the new non-profit, and Jamie the original creative force behind the TKO logo, Portland Hikers calendars and the TKO web identity.

Tom, Jamie & Jeff enjoying a little slice of paradise at Elk Cove

Tom, Jamie & Jeff enjoying a little slice of paradise at Elk Cove

Both Jeff and Jamie continue to support TKO after all these years as the organization continues to grow, and we still meet up for periodic trail stewardship projects together. I’m honored to have them as trail friends, and having them along on this hike made it extra-special!

For November, I picked a familiar view of Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek, taken during an especially wet week in the Gorge. Normally, the somewhat muddy runoff in this scene would be a deal-killer for photos, but I came around to the idea that in this case, it told the story of swollen Cascade streams during the stormy months of late autumn rather nicely, so added it to the mix.

November features a swollen Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

November features a swollen Triple Falls on Oneonta Creek

I was memorably soaked on the hike to Triple Falls, not because rain is particularly unique in the Gorge, but because I had just re-ducked my trusty canvas hat (for waterproofing)… but had left it drying in the oven, at home! I discovered this fact at the Oneonta trailhead, so circled back to the Multhnomah Falls lodge to see what sort of hats were in stock.

It turns out that baseball caps are the ONLY option at the Multnomah Falls lodge — and I HATE baseball caps! (primarily because they don’t fit all that well on my basketball-sized head..!) Well, at least I could support my alma mater, and I hit the trail $20 poorer with a ridiculous, ill-fitting beanie that (sort of) kept my large, bald head dry…

You would hate baseball caps, too, if you had a basketball-sized head like mine…

You would hate baseball caps, too, if you had a basketball-sized head like mine…

Once on the trail, I also ran across one of the most extensive landslides to form in recent years, cutting away a 100-foot swath of the Oneonta Trail along a steep canyon section. Trail crews had constructed a temporary crossing of the slide, but just a few days after that trip in November, the slide claimed more ground, erasing the temporary trail. Such is the ongoing challenge of keeping trails open in the very active landscapes of the Gorge and Mount Hood!

A rip-roaring Oneonta Creek after the first big autumn storms

A rip-roaring Oneonta Creek after the first big autumn storms

For December, I picked a late fall image of Elowah Falls, taken from one of the long-bypassed viewpoints along the original Civilian Conservation Corps route described in this recent article on McCord Creek.

December features a wide pano of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek

December features a wide pano of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek

Photographing a 213′ waterfall at close range means a wide-angle lens and blending some images. In this case, I merged three vertical images taken with my 11mm lens to create the panoramic view. This is my first time photographing from this spot, and I will definitely return!

By now you’ve been introduced to my trail buddy Jamie, and on the way out from Elowah Falls that day I ran into Jamie and his two boys! They were headed toward the upper falls on McCord Creek on that very busy hiking day in the Gorge. It was great to see Jamie passing on the hiking tradition to boys!

Jamie and his rugged boys hitting the trail at McCord Creek

Jamie and his rugged boys hitting the trail at McCord Creek

That’s it for the 2015 Mount Hood National Park Campaign calendar highlights, and now for a few thoughts on the blog…

Thanks for another year!

I launched the WyEast Blog in 2008 as a simpler way to promote Mount Hood and the Gorge as “national park-worthy” than updates to the project website would allow. And though I didn’t post quite as often this year for a whole variety of reasons (mostly, real life getting in the way), I was amazed to see the readership for the WyEast Blog continue to grow in 2014.

Yours truly taking in the first big snowfall on Mount Hood in early November

Yours truly taking in the first big snowfall on Mount Hood in early November

In early 2014, the monthly page views edged above the 5,000 mark for the first time, and jumped well above that mark during the peak hiking months of spring and summer. More importantly, the list of official blog followers has grown steadily to 141 this year. These are the true Mount Hood and Gorge junkies that I have in mind when I post to the blog, and these are also the folks who send me both nice notes and periodic corrections — both are greatly appreciated!

I posted a total of 14 articles this year, down a bit from previous years, but bringing the six-year total to 136 articles. I’ve also got a bunch of new articles in the oven, ready to post when time allows. So, the WyEast Blog will be around for awhile!

The two most popular articles continue to be:

10 Common Poison Oak Myths (2012)

Ticks! Ticks! (10 common myths) (2013)

The “ticks” article has been viewed 38,147 times since I posted it in 2013, and the poison oak piece 21,545 times — sort of amazing! But these numbers have validated my obsession with providing thorough, detailed, geek-worthy articles that are more in the magazine format than typical blog fare.

Taking in the fall colors at Butte Creek

Taking in the fall colors at Butte Creek

So, enough facts, figures and anecdotes: if you’ve read this far in my annual, somewhat (ahem!) self-indulgent post, THANK YOU for being a reader… and most importantly, thanks for being a friend of Mount Hood and the Gorge!

See you on the trail in 2015!

Tom Kloster
WyEast Blog

Rediscovering McCord Creek!

November 29, 2014
McCord Creek takes on more subtle hues in winter

McCord Creek takes on more subtle hues in winter

Beautiful McCord Creek boasts a pair of impressive waterfalls that are among the most photogenic in the Columbia River Gorge. The falls are tucked into John B. Yeon State Park, a lesser-known park located about halfway between Multnomah Falls and Cascade Locks.

The rustic CCC-era trails to McCord Creek’s waterfalls have been “discovered” in recent years from spring through fall by crowds of weekend hikers. Yet, the area is surprisingly un-crowded during the wet winter months, from late fall through early spring, and the muted winter tones are just as beautiful.

The area also has a long and fascinating human history that is on display throughout the hike, if you know where to look. This article provides a guide to both the trail and the history of the McCord Creek area.

Frank Warren's salmon cannery (site of today's Warrendale) in 1902

Frank Warren’s salmon cannery (site of today’s Warrendale) in 1902

The human history in this part of the Gorge stretches back thousands of years, as the river was home to a thriving culture of Native American peoples.

The Upper Chinookan people of the Columbia River Gorge fished the legendary autumn salmon runs and picked huckleberries and other wild fruits and forage before moving away from the river during the often harsh winters that we know so well today. An especially elaborate example of the mysterious stone pits thought to be built by native people for ceremonial purposes can still be found high above McCord Creek, on Wauneka Point.

White settlement came to the Gorge in the 1800s, and ushered in an era of profound tragedy for the native people, with epidemics of measles and other European diseases decimating native populations, and white settlement displacing native peoples from places they had inhabited for millennia. It’s an uncomfortable reality to confront today, but also important to never forget as we try to understand our history.

White settlers were equally destructive for the land and natural resources, as well. In a matter of a few decades, the Gorge slopes were almost completely logged of ancient forests and giant fish wheels built along the river were part of the commercial overfishing that nearly collapsed the salmon runs that had sustained Native Americans here for thousands of years.

Frank and Anna Warren in the early 1900s

Frank and Anna Warren in the early 1900s

Frank Warren was among the prominent industrialists operating fish wheels to supply a cannery he built at Warrendale. Today, only a residential district by that name remains to mark the site, just downstream from McCord Creek.

In the heyday of the Columbia River canneries at the turn of the 20th Century, canned salmon from the Warren packing company was exported around the world, and Columbia River canned salmon was as ubiquitous as cans of tuna are in our supermarkets today. But overfishing by gill nets, fish traps and fish wheels nearly destroyed the salmon runs. Fish wheels were finally outlawed by the 1930s, as the canning industry on the Columbia continued its decline. The last salmon cannery on the river closed in the 1970s.

1890s Harpers Weekly illustration of a Columbia River fish wheel

1890s Harpers Weekly illustration of a Columbia River fish wheel

Warren’s packing business made him a millionaire, and he and his wife Anna celebrated their 40th anniversary in style with a 3-month European tour in 1912. For their return trip, the Warrens reserved a first-class stateroom on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic.

Anna Warren’s riveting account of the Titanic disaster in April 1912 was featured in the Morning Oregonian twelve days after the incident, creating a local sensation. Her tragic story recounted how her husband Frank helped her onto a lifeboat, with Anna assuming he had followed her in. Instead, when she looked back, she saw Frank helping other women into the boats.

At the time Anna Warren’s account was published, Frank Warren’s fate was still unknown, but he was later identified as among the more than 1,500 who perished that night. Anna Warren was one of just 710 survivors of the disaster.

Myron Kelly's pulp mill at McCord Creek in the 1890s

Myron Kelly’s pulp mill at McCord Creek in the 1890s

At about the same time that Frank Warren was operating his Warrendale cannery in the late 1800s, another settler by the name of Myron Kelly was operating a small pulp mill near McCord Creek. Kelly’s mill used a pair of 400-foot long, riveted steel penstocks to power the pulp manufacturing. Though the mill is long gone, portions of the penstocks still survive. They are clearly visible in the 1890s view of the mill, above.

The penstocks were fed with water from McCord Creek, diverted from above the waterfalls, and routed to the penstocks along the cliff-top ledge we now use as a hiking trail. Kelly used a natural break between basalt layers to blast out the ledge, and hardware from the pipe system is still found throughout the cliff area today. Black cottonwood trees — the same we see lining the river today — provided the raw material for making pulp.

This 1890s photo shows water spouting from the long penstock that drove Myron Kelly's pulp mill

This 1890s photo shows water spouting from the long penstock that drove Myron Kelly’s pulp mill

Surviving portions of the two penstocks are prominently crossed by the trail to Upper McCord Creek Falls, along with other relics sprinkled through the forest. The large wood water cistern located near McCord Creek trailhead is not from the Kelly pulp mill era, surprisingly, and was added later to supply water to area homes.

The early industrial settlements in the Gorge relied on railroads and ships for transport, as there was no road until the early 1900s. That changed in 1916, when the new Columbia River Highway was dedicated with much fanfare. The highway is still famous, cherished by millions of visitors over the past century for its careful attention to the landscape and surrounding Gorge scenery. Perhaps most iconic are its string of graceful bridges.

Columbia River Highway bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 1915 (Wauneka Point towers above)

Columbia River Highway bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 1915 (Wauneka Point towers above)

The original highway bridge at McCord Creek was completed in 1915, and while it wasn’t as graceful as some of the more famous arched bridges, it was nonetheless a spectacular structure. Early travelers not only had a front-row view of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek, but also a sweeping vista across the Columbia to Beacon Rock and the mountains that rise along the Washington side of the Gorge.

The original McCord Creek Bridge was among the longest along the old highway at 365 feet. The old structure was durable enough to be incorporated into the first “modern” highway in the Gorge in the 1950s, when much of the original Columbia River Highway was bypassed. The original McCord Creek Bridge was simply expanded to carry the wider road, and later a twin structure was built to accommodate the development of today’s freeway. The original bridge structure was finally replaced in 1987 with a new bridge, after 70 years of service.

Completed McCord Creek bridge in 1915, with the Kelly pulp mill conduits visible in the cliffs high above, and Elowah Falls behind the bridge

Completed McCord Creek bridge in 1915, with the Kelly pulp mill conduits visible in the cliffs high above, and Elowah Falls behind the bridge

The new McCord Creek Bridge in the 1920s as it appeared from the cliffs above Elowah Falls

The new McCord Creek Bridge in the 1920s as it appeared from the cliffs above Elowah Falls

By the 1930s, the New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s national recovery effort brought the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to the Gorge. Many of the trails we enjoy today were built — or rebuilt — by the CCC, including the McCord Creek trail.

The CCC crews were expert trail builders, and made quick work of the steep Gorge slopes with carefully graded switchbacks constructed with miles of hand-built, rustic stone retaining walls. The original trail at McCord Creek began at the east end of the old highway bridge, traversed to dramatic viewpoints of Elowah Falls, then crossed McCord Creek to climb the east shoulder of the canyon to the upper falls.

Civilian Conservation Corps crew building the catwalk section of the McCord Creek Trail in 1936 (highway bridge visible in lower left corner of photo)

Civilian Conservation Corps crew building the catwalk section of the McCord Creek Trail in 1936 (highway bridge visible in lower left corner of photo)

It was here that the CCC trail builders seized upon the route of Myron Kelly’s penstock conduit around the towering cliffs above Elowah Falls. The photo above shows crews clearing the ledge in 1936 to repurpose the route as a bold new hiking trail.

The galvanized steel handrails that now give some assurance to hikers along this airy catwalk are not mentioned in a fairly detailed 1936 Daily Oregonian story describing the new trail. These were probably added in the 1950s, when similar railings were installed in other parks around the Gorge — and it’s easy to see why this retrofit was needed as you walk along the 300-foot brink!

Beacon Rock and the McCord Creek Bridge as they appeared from the original CCC trail to Elowah Falls

Beacon Rock and the McCord Creek Bridge as they appeared from the original CCC trail to Elowah Falls

The 1936 Daily Oregonian article also mentions one of the more famous features of the area during the early days of the Columbia River Highway. The McCord Creek Bridge construction in 1915 had unearthed a large petrified tree near the east end of the bridge, embedded in the road cut. The tree became a popular feature along the old road, and also marked the start of the McCord Creek trail.

The whereabouts of the petrified tree are unknown today, as it must have been moved (or destroyed) when the modern highway was constructed in the 1950s. Curious Gorge author Scott Cook speculates that it may have found its way to Cascade Locks, where a petrified log now sits on display at the Marine Park. Petrified logs are not uncommon in this part of the Gorge, however, so the fate of this most famous log may never be known for certain.

Update: Scott Cook has located the petrified tree! It was apparently shipped to the University of Oregon Natural History Museum when the modern freeway was built, and placed next to a replica of the Willamette Meteorite. Scott tells me that ODOT historic highway staff approached museum officials a couple of years ago about moving the tree back to its original home (of a few million years), but it’s unclear if that idea gained any traction. The beautiful new McCord Creek bridge sure seems like an appropriate home for the old tree! Stay tuned – I’ll report any news on the subject as it comes.

This petrified log was located at the east end of the McCord Creek bridge, near the original trailhead

This petrified log was located at the east end of the McCord Creek bridge, near the original trailhead

The human history of the McCord Creek area has taken another dramatic turn in recent years with the construction of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail. The new bike and pedestrian route is an ambitious, decades-long effort by the State of Oregon to restore lost sections of the original highway, eventually re-connecting the entire original route from Troutdale to The Dalles.

In 2012, construction of the HCRH State Trail section from John B. Yeon State Park to Tanner Creek was in full swing, and featured a handsome new bridge over McCord Creek that rivals the original highway bridges in its design and attention to detail.

The new Historic Columbia River Highway state trail bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 2012

The new Historic Columbia River Highway state trail bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 2012

The completion of this new segment of the HCRH State Trail has opened loop high opportunities in the McCord Creek area, as well as the opportunity to bike and hike — as described below in this article.

Exploring the Trail Secrets of McCord Creek

A young family enjoying the McCord Creek Trail in late autumn

A young family enjoying the McCord Creek Trail in late autumn

Now that you know some of the history of McCord Creek, it’s time to explore the trail! This is a half-day hike for most, so makes for a great option during the short days of winter, when most higher elevation trails are snowed in. It’s also a great family hike, with lots to look at and modest grades throughout, thanks to careful design by its CCC builders.

Like most Gorge trails, the hike has cliffs, poison oak and ticks, so keep an eye on small kids, leash your dog, learn to identify and avoid poison oak and do a tick check when you get home. One of the added advantages of doing this hike during the winter months is that poison oak leaves have dropped, greatly reducing the possibility of bringing home an itchy rash from your hike! Ticks are also much less active in winter — and not particularly prevalent in this particular area — though you should always do a tick check after hiking in the Gorge.

McCord Creek Trail map

McCord Creek Trail map

[click here for a larger, printable map]

The hike starts at the John B. Yeon trailhead (driving instructions at the end of this article), and after passing the old wooden cistern mentioned above, you immediately reach the first poorly-signed junction. The trail to the right heads off to Nesmith Point, so continue straight (left) instead, past an empty signpost and traverse above the trailhead parking area.

Soon, the trail begins a very gradual climb on what is actually an old roadbed, now just a very wide and rustic path. This section of trail was opened sometime after the modern freeway was constructed in the 1950s, and the original trailhead for the McCord Creek trail relocated from its old location on the east side of the creek.

The first of several confusing signs along the trail…

The first of several confusing signs along the trail…

At about one-half mile from the trailhead, the old roadbed ends at a “T” junction with the original CCC trail and another confusing signpost. From this point in the hike, the trip has two forks, with up-and-back spurs to follow, one to each of the two waterfalls. The best way to enjoy the hike is to go right at this junction, and continue climbing toward Upper McCord Creek Falls as your first destination.

As you climb the 1.2 miles to the upper falls, watch for the beautifully constructed stone retaining walls that line much of the trail. They are now cloaked in moss and licorice fern, but have held up amazingly well since the stones were first placed almost 80 years ago by CCC workers.

Legacy of the CCC - rustic stone retaining walls like these are found throughout the hike

Legacy of the CCC – rustic stone retaining walls like these are found throughout the hike

After several switchbacks through steep forest, you will encounter the remains of the old pulp mill penstock pipes. One is located at the end of a switchback, the other crosses the main trail.

Look closely at the second pipe, and you can see the doomed efforts of some early trail crew to actually cut through the surprisingly solid pipe! Up close, you can also see the thousands of rivets used to assemble pipes of this kind in the late 1800s in a way that could withstand the intense water pressure.

Myron Kelly's sturdy penstock pipes still survive along the upper trail

Myron Kelly’s sturdy penstock pipes still survive along the upper trail

The trail passes through a couple more switchbacks beyond the penstock pipes before reaching the spectacular and exhilarating catwalk section, some 300 dizzying feet above McCord Creek. The handrail makes this section very safe, so take the time to look for traces of the old mill conduit that once carried water from McCord Creek around this ledge — there are old bolts and bits of pipe if you watch closely.

The catwalk section has reassuring railing atop the 300-foot cliffs

The catwalk section has reassuring railing atop the 300-foot cliffs

Traces of the old waterworks are still visible on the upper trail

Traces of the old waterworks are still visible on the upper trail

The views from the cliffs are also impressive. On most days, Aldrich and Table Mountains on the Washington side of the Columbia River dominate the horizon, but on clear days, the very top of Mount Adams can also be seen. Further on, the catwalk section of trail also allows a birds-eye view of Elowah Falls dropping into its huge amphitheater, far below.

Sweeping cliff-top views stretch across the Columbia to Aldrich and Table Mountains -- and the very top of Mount Adams, in the distance

Sweeping cliff-top views stretch across the Columbia to Aldrich and Table Mountains — and the very top of Mount Adams, in the distance

If you happen to be hiking the trail during the busier months of May or early June, you’ll have an extra treat on the catwalk section, as the rocks are lined with tiny, hanging wildflowers that cling to the cliffs. Conversely, if you hike the trail in very cold winter weather, you’ll find a spectacular array of icicles along this section (making the handrail that much more appreciated!)

The catwalk portion of the hike ends abruptly when the trail disappears into the lush upper canyon of McCord Creek. Just a few steps into this beautiful rainforest, the view suddenly opens to the twin cascades of Upper McCord Creek Falls. This is an idyllic spot to stop for lunch and photographs. The trail continues a few hundred yards to the edge of McCord Creek, just above the falls, where the intake for Myron Kelly’s pulp plant was apparently located.

Lovely Upper McCord Creek Falls

Lovely Upper McCord Creek Falls

To complete the second leg of the hike, retrace your route down to the “T” junction and continue straight (right) in a traverse across a mossy talus field. Soon, the trail abruptly drops into the lower McCord Creek canyon with another series of switchbacks. In this section, you’ll see old cable railings at an overgrown viewpoint that dates to the 1940s or 50s. You will also have a view down to the new McCord Creek Bridge on the HCRH State Trail, far below.

The lower trail soon traverses above noisy McCord Creek before arriving at the spectacular base of 213-foot Elowah Falls. The trail crosses the stream on a wooden footbridge here, and during the rainy season, expect to get wet — the spray is impressive!

This pretty section of the original CCC trail is now bypassed, but fun to explore

This pretty section of the original CCC trail is now bypassed, but fun to explore

You can do the fragile canyon ecosystem at Elowah Falls a favor in this area by not scrambling up the various boot paths that have formed here. Most are dead-ends left by hiking newbies that go nowhere, but are beginning to have an impact on the landscape.

Instead, there’s a better way to visit a lesser-visited viewpoint of the falls. Simply continue beyond the footbridge and begin traversing downstream along the canyon for about one-quarter mile. As the trail begins to curve away from the stream, watch for an obvious path on the right and above the main trail. This is a bypassed section of the original trail, and it’s in excellent shape for exploring.

You can follow the old tread past a couple of switchbacks, then to a fork, where a short spur leads left to a spectacular, boulder-top view of the Elowah Falls, framed by bigleaf maples. The main portion of the old tread continues a bit further, then dead-ends at another great view of the falls, where you can also see the modern trail and footbridge, below.

Elowah Falls from a viewpoint along the old trail section

Elowah Falls from a viewpoint along the old trail section

If you do explore this abandoned section of trail, please stay on the tread — it’s obvious and easy to follow, with much of it still lined with CCC stone retaining walls. In recent years, boot paths to the viewpoints on the old trail have formed from the modern trail, below, so be sure not to reinforce these and simply retrace your steps along the old route to return to the main trail.

If you’re looking for a longer hike and more variety, you can also continue east from Elowah Falls for about a mile to the newly completed HCRH State Trail, where you’ll find a signpost marking the junction. Turn left on the wide, paved trail and follow it 1.2 miles back to the Yeon Trailhead, passing the impressive new McCord Creek Bridge along the way — another nice stop along the hike. This section of the new HCRH State Trail is noisy, as it follows the freeway closely, but it’s an interesting and new way to appreciate the Gorge from a different perspective.

How to Get There

From Portland, take I-84 to Ainsworth (Exit 35), a few miles east of Multnomah Falls and the eastern access to the drivable western section of the Historic Columbia River Highway. Turn left at the first intersection, then almost immediately turn right onto a frontage road where signs points to Warrendale. From here, continue east on the frontage road to the Yeon State Park trailhead, where the frontage road terminates at an eastbound freeway ramp. To return to Portland, follow the frontage road west to the Ainsworth interchange, and follow signs to Portland.

No trailhead permits are required here, and no restrooms or water are provided (note: water and restrooms are available just west of the Ainsworth interchange, at Ainsworth State Park). Dogs must be leashed in this state park! At least two dogs have had to be rescued by search and rescue teams in the Gorge after falling from cliffs this year because of careless owners who took exception to posted rules. Please set an example and respect this rule… and enjoy your trip!
______________

Special thanks to Scott Cook for his help on this article! Be sure to pick up a copy of Scott’s new guide to Portland: PDXccentric: the odyssey of Portland oddities! You can learn more on the PDXccentric Facebook page.


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