Mount Hood rises over the Western Juniper forests on the east side of the Cascades
One of the most startling features of the Cascade Range comes from the rain shadow effect the mountains have on approaching Pacific storms. Through a process known as “orographic lifting”, weather systems rolling in from the ocean are forced up and over the wall of mountains when they reach the Cascades. This lifting has the effect of wringing out moisture from the clouds, resulting in rainforests on the west side and deserts on the east side of the mountains.
The rain shadow effect it especially prominent in WyEast country, where the Cascade range is at its narrowest, just 50 miles wide, compared to more than 100 miles or more across in much of the range. In less than an hour traveling through the Columbia Gorge from Troutdale to Hood River, the landscape changes from deep rainforests where up to 140 inches of rain fall annually to the Ponderosa pine and Oregon White Oak forests of the east slope, where annual rainfall dips below 20 inches.
Western Juniper finally give way to desert grasslands and sage in the rain shadow of Mount Hood, where annual rainfall drops below 10 inches
In the extreme rain shadow of the Cascades, where rainfall dips below 10 inches annually, the big conifers that define our forests finally give way to a sagebrush, grasslands and a rugged desert tree, the Western Juniper. Long overlooked as “non-commercial” (meaning it is not easily harvested as saw logs), these scrappy trees have been flourishing over the past century on the desert plains and buttes east of the mountains.
Mount Hood has its own juniper forests, though they are less widespread here than elsewhere in Oregon’s high desert country. The reason for this is agriculture. Much of the rolling desert terrain east of the mountain has been cultivated for well more than a century, originally for intensive grazing, and today for highly productive wheat farming.
Western Juniper still thrives at Juniper Flat, taking hold wherever the ground isn’t actively plowed
Yet, there are still Western juniper stands sprinkled through even the most heavily cultivated areas, and as you move away from the farms and the lowlands of the Columbia River Basin — Western Juniper mostly grow above 2,000 feet elevation — there remain many thriving Western Juniper forests.
The most extensive of these is (appropriately) at Juniper Flats, located 25 miles to the southeast of the mountain, on a rocky tableland adjacent to the White River Canyon. This is typical Western Juniper country — cold, sometimes snowy winters and hot, very dry summers. The soils here are thin, resting on a bedrock of basalt. The few areas that can be farmed have been cultivated, but the rest of Juniper Flat is grazing country where Western Juniper flourish.
When Juniper Flat got its modern name from white settlers arriving on the Oregon Trail, it’s very likely the juniper forests here looked much different than what we see today. That’s because our juniper forests are on the move and expanding.
Botanists generalize juniper forests into three community types:
• Mixed forests – these are where Western Juniper are mixed with Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir and other big conifers on the margins of the mountain forest zone.
Large Ponderosa Pine anchor this mixed forest, surrounded by lighter green Western Juniper that take on a tall, slender form in mixed forests
•Juniper forests – these occur where Western Juniper dominates and the trees grow relatively close together, with a canopy that typical covers 10-20% of the landscape
Juniper forest on the march at Juniper Flat where these trees are recolonizing a fallow farm field
•Juniper savanna — where Western Juniper are widely scattered in desert grasslands and their canopy covers less than 10% of the landscape
Juniper are widely scattered across this savanna in the shadow of Mount Hood, along the west edge of Juniper Flat
Scientists have documented an exponential increase in Western Juniper growing in Oregon since the late 1800s, in many cases transforming former juniper savannah to become juniper forests. This was likely the case at Juniper Flat, and today it mostly qualifies as a juniper forest.
In a landmark report published in the late 1990s, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) found that over half of Oregon’s juniper forests we established between 1850 and 1900. Still more startling is the spread of Western Juniper since the 1930s, when the first comprehensive assessment was made. At the time the BLM study was released in 1999, an estimated a five-fold increase in juniper forest coverage had occurred over the previous 60 years.
That number of Western Juniper in Oregon continues to increase today, though there is an upper limit for these trees. Their sweet spot is desert lands above 2,000 feet elevation and between 10” and 20″ of annual rainfall. They do not seem to spread much beyond these areas, and in Oregon they are now present across most areas that meet these criteria.
Western Juniper berries are a critical winter food source for coyotes, foxes, rabbits and many desert bird species. These are also the berries the Dutch famously learned to distill in the 17th Century to make gin (a word derived from the Dutch word “jenever” for juniper), and a craft distillery industry using these berries has emerged in Oregon
Western Juniper foliage is evergreen and made up of tiny, overlapping scale-like leaves that help these trees conserve moisture in their harsh desert habitat
Western Juniper bark is tough, shaggy and fire-resistant, allowing larger trees to survive moderate intensity range fires
Given their recent spread in Oregon, Western Juniper forests are also remarkably age-diverse when compared to the even-aged stands we often see with young conifer forests. A typical juniper forest contains a diverse range of trees, from young to old. These trees are tough survivors, with fully one quarter of Oregon’s juniper forests more than a century old, and over a third of these forests have century-old trees in their mix.
Why are Western Juniper forests spreading? One answer is lack of wildfire in the ecosystem over the past century due to human fire suppression. Another could be effects of climate changes that scientists are only beginning to understand. Still another is the parceling and residential development of our desert lands, and a shift away from farming and ranching, where juniper forests were routinely cleared or burned.
Most think of Nevada as the heart of Western Juniper country, but more than three quarters of Oregon falls within its range, and a good share of California, Washington is also prime habitat for these rugged trees
As desert survivors, Western Juniper have adapted in ways that help them out-compete with other desert plants. They have enormous root systems that can extend several times beyond the size of their crown, spreading up to two and half times the height of the tree in all directions, compared to most trees with root systems roughly proportional to the width of their crown. This helps explain the wide spacing of Western Juniper. Where our big mountain conifers often grown just a few feet from one another, juniper forests might have as few as ten trees per acre, thanks to their huge root systems.
Western Juniper crowns are also part of their competitive strategy. Their dense foliage is estimated to capture more than half the precipitation that falls upon them. Some of this is absorbed, some evaporates, but the net effect is less moisture making it to understory plants or the soil.
The small Western Juniper on the left will have to work hard to complete with its larger neighbor for water and soil nutrients. Juniper are highly efficient in their ability to gather and store moisture, out-competing other species and even their own seedlings to survive
Juniper root systems also out-compete the desert understory species that are most associated with juniper forests. These include several sagebrush species, Bitterbrush, Rabbitbrush and a few other hardy desert shrubs, along with desert grasses and wildflowers. This has emerged as a chief concern for the BLM, since this translates into impacts on the cattle industry that leases federal grazing allotments. Beyond the economics of cattle grazing (and more importantly), the loss of understory also has impacts that ripple through wildlife populations, as well.
Another concern with the spread of our juniper forests is the potential risk to private property and human life from wildfire. Western Juniper is adapted to fire, and large trees are likely to survive low-intensity fires, but they can also burn hot when conditions are right. If juniper forests have spread rapidly in Oregon’s deserts over the past century, human development in juniper country has spread still faster, placing tens of thousands of rural homes at risk to wildfire.
This BLM fuels reduction work removed about one third of the trees in this juniper forest – mostly larger trees. The cut wood and limbs are simply stacked and left to decompose. The goal is to mimic the effect of fire in maintaining and open forest and understory that might otherwise be pushed out by juniper
These concerns have led the BLM to carry out “fuels reduction” projects in juniper forests on federal lands in Oregon as early as the late 1980s. One approach is controlled burns, a practice used in other conifer forests to reintroduce wildfire to the ecosystem after a century of aggressive fire suppression. This method ideally leaves the largest junipers standing and thins out younger trees, and it has been used successfully throughout juniper country. However, fires sent intentionally continue to be a controversial practice, as evidenced by the massive New Mexico wildfires currently burning that were ignited by controlled burns. In the era of climate change, land managers will need to revisit “safe” seasons for using this tool or risk public backlash that threatens to ban the practice completely.
Another approach to “fuels reduction” is simply cutting down trees and leaving them behind as debris piles, as pictured above. This approach works where there isn’t enough understory to support a controlled burn, or where proximity to private property makes a controlled burn too dangerous. However, it’s also labor intensive compared to controlled burns and still leaves cut debris behind as potential fuel.
In areas where these approaches were employed in the 1980s and 90s, subsequent monitoring by the BLM slowed that young juniper were already colonizing burned or cleared areas within just five years. Therefore, so long as natural wildfires are suppressed in juniper country, techniques like these will be needed in perpetuity to maintain some semblance of a natural ecosystem and to protect human life and property.
This craggy old fire survivor is surrounded by young Western Juniper quickly colonizing a former burn
This points to the larger problem of rural over-development throughout the West that continues to encroach on our forests. We’ve created a perfect storm with fire suppression and sprawling that climate change is only escalating, with whole communities now facing the risk of being swept up in catastrophic fires.
In Oregon, strict land use planning has blunted rural sprawl since the 1970s, yet some of the impetus for statewide planning was the “sagebrush subdivisions” that were already underway when legendary Governor Tom McCall railed against them in 1973. Loopholes in county zoning codes have since allowed thousands more homes to be built in the deserts of Central Oregon, in particular. For these spread-out communities that already exist in juniper country, fire prevention campaigns are encouraging those living there to “harden” their homes against fire. Yet, if you spend much time in juniper country, you know that the vast majority of homes continue to be built with wood siding and most of the older homes have highly flammable composition roofing.
Many of these areas should never have been developed as home sites, of course. And as fires continue to consume whole communities in the West, there’s a good chance that cost of fire insurance or the inability to secure home loans might prevent simply rebuilding when fires in high-risk areas do occur. We’ve seen this play out in chronically flooded areas in other parts of the country, after all. The West is still coming to grips with the permanent reality of wildfire, however, and it’s unclear if we have the collective will to say no to development in fire-prone areas like our juniper forests.
Before farming, much of the juniper country near Mount Hood looked like this – open desert grasslands and scattered groves of Western Juniper. This remnant landscape at the edge of Juniper Flat, looking north to Tygh Ridge
Meanwhile, the juniper forests continue to spread and flourish in Oregon. The situation in Wy’East country is more complex, though: much of the historic juniper habitat east of Mount Hood was converted to agriculture long ago. Yet, today, some of that ground is going fallow, whether by economic realities in a global agriculture market, or because large farm parcels are being picked up by non-farmers, reverting to native plant cover. Some fallow land is being purchased for conservation purposes, either by public agencies or conservation non-profits. If these trends continue, we may see the juniper forests spreading in Mount Hood’s shadow, too.
There aren’t great trails or developed recreation sites in Mount Hood’s juniper forests (someday, hopefully!), as much of the area is in private hands. But if you like exploring rustic backroads, Juniper Flat and nearby Smock Prairie are scenic and rich with history. Dozens of abandoned homesteads and barns, a couple old schoolhouses and some fascinating pioneer cemeteries are sprinkled along the gravel roads that crisscross the hay fields and juniper groves. Juniper Flat is located immediately west of the community of Maupin and about 125 miles from Portland, along US 197.
Forests of Noble fir forests spread out to the horizon along the crest of Waucoma Ridge, just north of Mount Hood (Mount Adams in the distance)
We’re coming into another holiday season when millions of Americans will set up a Christmas tree cut in Oregon. There’s a good chance it will be a Noble fir, long prized as the most beautiful and durable of Christmas trees, representing about a third of the cut tree industry here.
There was a time when Noble fir grown as holiday trees were left in their natural state, which features elegant tiers of symmetrical branches and soft, deep green, upwardly curving needles. In recent years, Nobles grown for mass-market consumption have increasingly been sheared to produce a densely branched, unnatural thicket (acknowledging my bias, here!) in the same way that Douglas fir have long been cultivated in the Christmas tree trade. Still, the un-sheared Nobles remain the gold standard, and they sell for gold-standard prices at tree lots, too.
New grown emerging on Noble fir boughs
Noble fir cones
In Oregon, families also have the option of cutting their own Christmas trees at U-cut tree farms, a popular benefit of living in a region that produces millions of holiday trees for the nation. It’s also possible to cut your own tree on National Forest land, a tradition that dates back a century or more. Though more regulated today by the U.S. Forest Service, families looking for a more adventurous option than local tree lot can head up to designated areas on the mountain (typically powerline corridors or recovering clear cuts) and bring home their own cut tree.
The author at age 11 (second from left) with family and friends on a 1973 trip to Lolo Pass to cut Christmas trees. Noble fir were always the goal, but in those days of heavier mountain snows, simply reaching the Noble fir zone in December was an adventure!
Christmas trees are pretty much the extent of public knowledge of the noblest of our true firs. As the common name might suggest, noble fir is the largest of all true firs. Their name was given in the fall of 1825 by botanist David Douglas when he ventured into the high country above the Columbia River River Gorge, in the vicinity of today’s Cascade Locks. Though he wasn’t specific about the peak he climbed on the north side of the river, it is believed to be today’s Table Mountain. A few days later, he climbed to a high point on the Oregon side, most likely today’s Benson Plateau.
On this pair of climbs, he came upon magnificent, old-growth stands of Noble fir, and gave them their well-deserved name. While they are undeniably beautiful as young trees, old-growth Noble fir are a sight to behold. Like many of our Pacific Northwest conifers, these trees grow to be giants, with the largest on record reaching nearly 300 feet in height and nearly 10 feet in diameter.
Old-growth Noble fir forests near Mount Hood’s Bennett Pass
An ancient Noble fir giant towers above the surrounding forest canopy near Bennett Pass
Noble fir are also unique to the Pacific Northwest, with a range that extends from just above of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington south to the Siskiyou Mountains in Southern Oregon and the Trinity Alps region along the northern edge of California. In their southern extent, they are known to hybridize with California’s Shasta fir, a variety of the Red fir that grows in the Sierras and extends into the southern fringe of the Noble fir range.
Despite their willingness to grow in planted rows as farmed Christmas tree seedlings in the hot, dry summers of the Willamette Valley floor, Noble fir are a subalpine species. They typically grow at elevations of 3,500 feet to 5,500 feet, where they are long-lived and acclimated to the harsh winters of our mountains. Not surprisingly, they grow more slowly under these conditions, but they are tremendously adaptable, and often grow on very steep mountain slopes and exposed, rocky ridgetops.
Centuries-old Noble fir giant near Bennett Pass
Noble fir is a sun-loving pioneer species in our forests, quickly colonizing in burn areas to form pure, long-lived stands. Hike through one of the towering old-growth stands found in the high country of the Columbia Gorge or on the peaks surrounding Mount Hood, and you’re likely walking through an old burn, with the age of the trees as a good indicator of when fire last roared through, long ago. That’s because they are not only post-fire colonizers, but also highly susceptible to fire as mature trees, as they lack the protective bark of fire-adapted conifers like Ponderosa pine and Western larch.
This cycle of burn-and-rebirth in our Noble fir forests is on full display today on the north slopes of Mount Hood, where the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire burned through sprawling stands of subalpine Noble fir. These forests were almost entirely killed where the fires swept through, yet today, the forest recovery is already well underway, with young Noble fir seedlings leading the way among other post-fire pioneer species.
Ghost forest of Noble fir skeletons where the Dollar Lake Fire swept through a decade ago
Ancient Noble fir killed by the Dollar Lake Fire will provide wildlife habitat for many decades to come as a new forest grows here
Noble fir seedling emerging from the charred ashes of the Dollar Lake Fire
Meanwhile, across the Clear Branch canyon on the north of the mountain, the forests along the crest of Blue Ridge and at Owl Point (along today’s Old Vista Ridge Trail) are made up almost entirely of Noble fir that had colonized an earlier burn there, one that occurred sometime in the early 1900s. This pair of photos (below) from Owl Point shows how the foreground was burned and just beginning to recover in 1952, while 70 years later the scene is reversed: the forests along Blue Ridge and Owl Point have largely recovered, while the north slope of the mountain is just beginning its recovery from the 2011 Dollar lake Fire.
When our Noble fir forests are spared of fire and logging, individual trees can easily live up to 400 years. The oldest known Noble fir have reached 600 to 700 years, though trees of this age are exceedingly rare after more than a century of commercial logging in the Pacific Northwest.
In the early days of extensive logging, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, true firs were considered a lesser wood, so the timber industry marketed the massive, old-growth Noble firs as “Larch”. This explains two Larch Mountains in the Columbia River Gorge, one on each side of the river, and each the site of extensive turn-of-the-century logging in the early 1900s. The better-known Larch Mountain is on the Oregon side, and its broad, high elevation slopes provided a perfect habitat for Noble fir.
Loggers felling a massive Noble fir on Larch Mountain in 1905
By the early 1900s, the Bridal Veil Mill on the Columbia River had established an upstream sister mill in the heart of these Noble fir forests, where the trees were hundreds of years old, having been spared by fire for many centuries. The upstream mill was known as the Palmer Mill (and later, New Palmer Mill, after the first mill burned), and a road on Larch Mountain still carries its name.
Loggers carried giant Noble fir cut on the slopes of Larch Mountain to the New Palmer Mill on logging railroads. This scene is from 1905
Old-growth Noble fir logs were milled at the original Palmer Mill site on the north slope of Larch Mountain. This scene is from 1896, when logging of the virgin Noble fir forests there was in its heyday
Palmer Mill was attached to the main mill by a long flume that followed Bridal Veil Creek, and it was the hub for a massive logging enterprise on Larch Mountain that felled most of the virgin Noble fir forests. Huge logs were first sent to Palmer Mill on a branched system of logging railroad spurs, then milled into rough lumber that was floated down the flume system to the Bridal Veil Mill for finishing into construction grade lumber.
Today, all but a few traces of the Palmer Mill are gone, and many of the Noble fir forests on Larch Mountain are approaching 100 years in age. The area somehow dodged the 2017 Gorge Fire that swept through vast areas of the Gorge, burning through thousands of acres of Noble fir forests in the Gorge high country.
Noble fir in the age of Climate Change
Today, Noble fir country in the western Oregon Cascades is a checkerboard of clear cuts that mark the advent of National Forest logging that began on a commercial scale in the late 1940s. When these trees were cut, the catch phrase used to justify logging ancient forests was “sustained yield”, though sustained yield forestry never envisioned restoring ancient forests to their natural state. Instead, the management philosophy was to provide a continual supply of 60-100 year-old trees from plantations that could be repeatedly logged via a vast network of logging roads built in our forests from the late 1940s through the early 1990s.
When 7.5 minute USGS maps were created in the 1950s and early 60s, there were already thousands of clear cuts on Forest Service lands that showed up on the new maps as a checkboard in heavily logged areas like Mount Hood’s Blue Ridge (shown here). Many more clear cuts followed, and sixty years later, these clear cuts are often overcrowded plantations of conifers that the Forest Service is now thinning through new timber sales
Despite the early bias against true firs, the wood produced by Noble fir eventually came to be valued for being light and strong, and was used during World War II in aircraft, as well as more common construction uses in windows, doors and paper production. This led to aggressive logging in the later years of the commercial timber boom of the 1950s-90s, when lower elevation forests had already been logged over, and high-elevation Noble fir forests were increasingly targeted.
The Pacific Crest Trail follows the crest of this ridge near Lolo Pass, where heavily logged, high-elevation Noble fir forests have been slow to recover. These clear cuts are now 40-50 years old, and yet the stunted, crowded young plantation trees are still dwarfed by the groves of big, old-growth trees that were spared the chainsaw
Clearcutting on the steep, mountainous terrain where Noble fir grow was never sustainable, at least as measured in human lifetimes. The big, high elevation Noble fir forests sold off by the Forest Service were often hundreds of years old, with even the smaller-diameter trees well over a century old. There was never a chance to produce a rotating “crop” of trees at these elevations large enough to justify logging for generations to come, but that didn’t slow the rush to log these forests.
Instead, the logging boom finally peaked with the listing of the Spotted Owl and subsequent “timber wars” in the early 1990s, and it has never fully recovered, though some logging on our national forests continues today.
This Noble fir fell across the Timberline Trail recently, and was sawed out by trail crews. While it is only about 15” in diameter, a count of the annual growth rings revealed this tree to be over 160 years old, demonstrating how elevation and mountain conditions slow the growth of these trees
It’s easily to lose perspective on just how old the trees in our mountain forests really are. The above is a timeline of human events that unfolded since this tree took root as a Noble fir seedling on Mount Hood until a windstorm knocked it down in 2020. This tree is approximately 14 inches in diameter and 160 years old.
These stumps near Bennet Pass mark some of the oldest and largest Noble fir ever logged near Mount Hood, with some of these trees approaching 300 years old when they were cut. These stumps look like they might be a couple years old, with bark still intact. In fact, these trees were logged about 30 years ago, yet the Noble fir seedlings growing in this recovering clear cut are barely six feet tall
This is the same stump that appears in the foreground in the previous photo, with approximate dates according to tree rings. When it was cut, it has lived through more than a quarter of the first millennium.
The Bennett Pass clear cut (shown above) might look recent, given the intact condition of the stumps and the young Noble fir trees just getting established. Yet, this forest was cut nearly 30 years ago, as shown in the aerial photo pair (below). Thanks to its high elevation at over 4,000 feet, and resulting slow forest recovery, this logged area is still just beginning to reforest.
After nearly 30 years, this clear cut in an old-growth Noble fir forest near Bennett Pass is only beginning to recover
These examples are typical of logged Noble fir forests throughout the Mount Hood National Forest. They simply haven’t recovered at the pace the Forest Service assumed when logging was still king. Noble fir seedlings in these cut-over areas have often grown very slowly, reaching just 6 or 8 feet in height after 30 or 40 years of post-logging recovery. The slow recovery has also compounded the fragmentation effect on wildlife that depend on uninterrupted old-growth forest habitat.
Today, the Forest Service is grappling with the perfect storm of an aging, overbuilt system of spur roads from the heyday of commercial logging coupled with increasingly catastrophic forest fires resulting from climate change and a century of fire suppression. This is especially true in high-elevation Noble fir country, where clear cut plantations are especially vulnerable to summer drought and fire, and logging roads are impacted by severe winter conditions.
To meet these challenges, along with Congressional quotas for timber production that have always been unsustainable, the Forest Service has pivoted to forest thinning the thickets of young plantation trees in previously logged areas. It’s arguable that this strategy will help restore forests to a healthy state, but sadly, the Forest Service mission isn’t to restore a mature, healthy forest. Their goal is to bring more marketable logs to maturity, the primary management objective for much of Mount Hood National Forest.
Forest thinning operation on Butcher Knife Ridge, north of Mount Hood, where roughly one third of the trees have been removed from a clear cut plantation to encourage a more diverse forest structure
Forest thinning typically produces massive piles of woody debris, as seen here on Blue Ridge, just outside the Mount Hood Wilderness. Logging debris was historically burned as “slash”, though new uses are under development to make better use of this material as we enter the age of widespread forest thinning
The jury is out as to whether forest thinning improves the health of crowded plantations better than simply doing nothing, given the impact of heavy equipment on tree root systems and the forest understory. The science does suggest that thinning can help as a preventative means for reducing forest fire severity, since it removes potential fuel from the forest. The benefit of thinning Noble fir plantations is less clear, however, since the species is already more vulnerable to fire than other conifers, and seldom survives fire.
Noble fir also tolerate crowded conditions better than other conifers, presumably because these trees are so effective at colonizing burns and often form nearly pure stands in the process. Young Noble fir forests often have little understory beyond a carpet of beargrass because the trees are so closely spaced. But these pure stands have also evolved to self-thin over time, maturing to a more open canopy that allows huckleberry, rhododendron and other mountain understory species to thrive among more widely spaced, mature trees. In these forests, young Noble fir are also part of the understory, as the forest canopy continues to regenerate.
The following images show self-thinning in a young (about 80 years old) Noble fir forest on Bald Mountain, along the Timberline Trail. A recent windstorm selectively toppled the weakest among these trees, a timeless process that Noble fir don’t need our help with.
Recent downfall in a young stand of Noble fir on Bald Mountain are part of an ongoing, self-thinning process these trees have evolved for
Recent self-thinning event in a pure Noble fir stand on Bald Mountain. If it doesn’t burn, this protected forest inside the Mount Hood Wilderness will continue to self-thin, becoming an old-growth Noble fir forest in time
With logged high-elevation forests recovering very slowly, and high-elevation spur roads failing especially badly, and the mounting negative impacts of clear cutting, continued logging of our Noble fir forests simply isn’t a sustainable practice. A new management philosophy that centers on forest restoration and climate adaptation over timber extraction is long overdue.
Instead of waiting a century or more to produce marketable Noble fir saw logs, these recovering forests could be sold for credits on the carbon market, using their gradual recovery as carbon offsets for polluting industries. Over the long term, Noble fir have immense capacity for carbon capture and storage. Scientists studying the ancient Noble fir forests at the Goat March Research Natural Area, near Mount St. Helens, have determined this forest to have a biomass second only to the coastal Redwood forests of Northern California.
A mature, thriving Noble fir forest at the 4,000 elevation on Mount Hood, with a diverse mix of mature and younger trees, and a few wildlife snags
Such a shift in Forest Service philosophy would not only help the global response to climate change, it would also yield a host of other benefits that high elevation forests in our region provide – a list that include critical wildlife habitat, cooler and more stable stream runoff for endangered salmon and steelhead and crucial water supplies for nearby communities that depend on mountain snowpack that forests help retain.
Mature Noble fir forest on Mount Hood, with towering old-growth trees mixed with younger trees and a dense understory
Such a shift in focus would also allow for the Forest Service to retire many of its deteriorating logging spur roads, and revenue from the sale of carbon credits could provide needed funding to do the work. Beyond the escalating cost to maintain them, these roads are notorious for triggering landslides and dumping sediments into streams when cut-and-fill roadbeds fail from plugged culverts or landslides. They also represent an increasing hazard in the form of human-caused forest fires and illegal dumping, as some of the worst lawless activity occurs on these remote roads where law enforcement simply cannot have a meaningful presence.
This road decommissioning work has already begun in the Mount Hood National Forest, though only in fits and starts, as it has thus far been driven by declining agency budgets more than an eye toward forest recovery and restoration. A focus on the broader outcomes of climate, water quality and fish habitat could speed up this important work with a new sense of urgency.
Where to see Noble fir
Want to see some of these trees close-up? One of the best and most accessible places is the short trail to Sherrard Point, which is the rocky summit pinnacle of Larch Mountain. The road to the summit picnic area and Sherrard Point trail is gated in the winter, but usually opens by early June. An easy, paved trail and series of stairsteps leads to the viewpoint.
Noble fir giants at sunset in WyEast country
If you’d like a longer hike, the short, steep climb to the summit of Bald Mountain, near Lolo Pass, leads through some of the best old growth Noble fir in the Mount Hood area:
Perhaps the best Noble fir forests in the Cascades are at Goat Marsh, near Mt. St. Helens. A short trail takes you into this fascinating research area and some of the largest known Noble fir trees in the world:
When it comes to bucolic alpine scenes on Mount Hood, it’s hard to beat Elk Cove. From the spectacular wildflower gardens that line ice-cold Cove Creek to the sweeping views of Mount Hood and the mighty Coe Glacier, the cove serves up one postcard scene after another.
But behind the mountain scenery are some very wild winters. The same steep walls that give Elk Cove its alpine beauty are also a setup for powerful avalanches. These mostly originate on the lower slopes of Barrett Spur and sweep across the cove with surprising regularity.
Mount Hood in 1931 from the same spot as the previous photo, when trees were more sparse at Elk Cove
Early photos of Elk Cove suggest that avalanches were once even more devastating than what we experience today, and probably more frequent, judging by the advancing stands of Mountain Hemlock that have since spread across the cove. The change is most likely a reflection of our warming climate and declining snowpack in recent decades, but winter continues to take its toll. Major avalanches still roar into the cove with regularity, leveling trees and leaving piles of debris in their wake.
The shell of the old CCC stone shelter at Elk Cove as it appeared in the early 1960s, after being hit by numerous avalanches over the prior 30 years
When the Timberline Trail was built through Elk Cove in the early 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed one of their many iconic stone shelters here, one of six that were built along the trail. They couldn’t have known the site they picked was perhaps the most exposed to avalanches of any spot within the cove, and by the early 1960s, the shelter had already been badly damaged. Today, only a few rocks mark the shelter’s former location.
The 2021 Elk Cove Avalanche
Sometime last winter, yet another avalanche swept off the lower slopes of Barrett Spur, once again landing very near where the old stone CCC shelter had once stood. The debris field left behind by the avalanche was easily spotted by hikers ascending Barrett Spur over the summer, and it is also visible from the Timberline Trail where it enters the Elk Cove.
The following schematic shows Elk Cove and the path of the 2021 avalanche in relation to Mount Hood:
This schematic gives a more detailed view of Elk Cove and the approximate path of the 2021 avalanche, including the steep wall along Barrett Spur that is so prone to avalanches (the Timberline Trail is shown in dashed yellow):
[click here for a larger version of this schematic]
From the ground, the debris field left where the avalanche came to rest is striking. This series of views looking down from 99 Ridge (which forms the west wall of Elk Cove) show where the avalanche stopped, and the debris it left behind:
Mount Hood and the 2021 Elk Cove avalanche site
Closer view of Elk Cove and the avalanche debris field
More detailed view of the avalanche debris field
This detailed view from above gives a sense of scale to the hundreds of trees that were caught up in the avalanche and swept into Elk Cove
The debris comes into view where the Timberline Trail curves into the west meadow of Elk Cove, along beautiful Cove Creek. Most hikers were likely too busy looking at the wildflowers along the trail this summer to notice the pile of logs just around the bend, but for regular visitors, the avalanche debris was startling!
Elk Cove avalanche and Cove Creek from the Timberline Trail
The origin of the avalanche can be read from the orientation of the many trees caught up in the wave of snow and ice, as they generally point in the direction of the flow. The schematic below shows the path the avalanche took into Elk Cove before the snow and debris finally came to a stop last winter:
[click here for a larger version of this schematic]
Up close, the awesome power of the avalanche becomes apparent. Whole trees were snapped off and stacked like cordwood in a debris pile as much as 20-foot deep.
The avalanche swept down from the slopes of Barrett Spur (to the right in this view), as indicated by the felled trees pointing to the left, in the direction of the flow
In a typical winter, Elk Cove might have 15-20 feet of snow on the ground, and this snowpack is why small trees on steep mountain slopes are often spared from avalanches, since they are buried under heavy snow in winter. In the view below, the winter snowpack also protected the lush wildflower gardens that line the upper reaches of Cove Creek (seen in the distance), with the avalanche sweeping across these gentle slopes before finally settling on the floor of the cove.
The beautiful wildflower meadows in the upper reaches of Cove Creek were spared from the debris thanks to being on gently sloped terrain and under a blanket of winter snow when the avalanche swept through
Large trees aren’t so fortunate. If they’ve managed to escape avalanches along the base of Barrett Spur long enough to grow taller than the winter snowpack, it’s only luck. In time, most of the taller trees in Elk Cove will be swept away by future avalanches.
This panoramic view of the 2021 avalanche gives a sense of the scale of the event, with the sprawling pile of debris covering roughly 2-3 acres:
By early August, when these photos were taken, it would be easy to think the avalanche was just a pile of trees roaring down the mountain, but in fact, this debris is what’s left now that most of the snow and ice has melted away. Look closely, and you can see that a layer of snow and ice has yet to melt away from under the pile when this photo was taken:
6-10 feet of snow still remains under the debris pile as of early August
The 2021 avalanche dumped part of its debris on top of Cove Creek, but the stream made quick work of the pile over the winter. By summer, it had already melted an extensive tunnel under the mountain of snow, ice and debris (below).
Cove Creek carved this snow cave under the debris pile following the avalanche
The huge pile of snow left in Elk Cove by the avalanche brought another surprise: some of the earliest blooming wildflowers were still just emerging in early August, thanks to the extra snow depth left behind by the avalanche. Among these was Western Pasque Flower, a species of Anemone that blooms within a couple weeks of snowmelt, and therefore rarely see by hikers. In fact, most know this beautiful wildflower by its whimsical seed heads, and by the name “Old Man of the Mountain”. The opening image in this article shows a field of Western Pasque Flower gone to seed.
Normally an early bloomer, this Western Pasque Flower was in bloom in early August, thanks to the late-melting margins of the avalanche debris field
How often to avalanches like this occur at Elk Cove? Probably every winter, though events large enough to topple trees seem to occur every 10 years or so, depending on snowpack and weather conditions. Avalanches are most common in mid-winter, when weak snow layers and heavy snowfalls can cause snow to begin to slide on steep mountain slopes. Once they begin, avalanches can travel nearly 60 miles per hour, giving them the destructive force to level forests and buildings in their path.
Ghosts Hiding in Plain Sight
While the 2021 avalanche at Elk Cove is impressive, it is by no means unusual. A look at aerial photos between 2010 and 2021 shows that another avalanche swept through the same area in about 2015. Based on the orientation of downed trees from his earlier event, it originated on some of the same slopes on Barrett Spur that produced the last winter’s avalanche.
In the air photo comparison, below, the location of the new, 2021 avalanche debris pile is marked in yellow. When the 2010 air photo was taken, the forests at the center of the image were intact, but by the summer of 2016, an avalanche had clearly swept through the area. Based on the lack of reddish/orange debris in the 2016 image – the color of recently killed trees – suggests that this avalanche occurred at least a year earlier. So, for the purpose of this article, I’ve described it as the “2015 Avalanche”, and marked its extend in green.
Air photos show the signs of a roughly 2015 avalanche that swept through the same part of Elk Cove as the 2021 event
In both the 2016 and 2018 views, the path of this earlier avalanche is clearly marked by downed trees that point in the direction (right to left) of the moving snow and ice. Though it impacted a larger area in the cove than the 2021 avalanche, the 2015 event brought less woody debris into the cove, suggesting that it originated on a less forested part of the west wall of Elk Cove. In fact, some of the trees in its path on the floor of the cove survived the avalanche, suggesting that the lack of woody debris in the 2015 event made it somewhat less destructive where it finally came to a stop.
While both of these avalanches are awesome reminders of the power of the elements in alpine country, Elk Cove has a few ghosts from the past that suggest much more fearsome events. Tucked into one of the mature, forested “tree islands” at Elk Cove is a ghost tree that give mute testimony to just how powerful an avalanche on Mount Hood can be. The stump of this ghost tree (below) is nearly four feet in diameter and was toppled many decades ago.
This giant ghost tree at Elk Cove was toppled long ago by a very large avalanche
This old ghost was once a very large Mountain Hemlock before it was toppled. Today, its broken remains could easily be 100 years old, marking an avalanche that might have preceded the arrival of the Timberline Trail and those 1930s CCC crews on Mount Hood.
How do we know this old tree was destroyed by an avalanche? The telltale sign is where the tree was snapped off, marking the level of the winter snowpack when the avalanche swept through, and its top is pointed downslope, in the direction the avalanche was moving. Thanks to long, cold winters and dry summers, the shattered remains of this old tree (and several others like it in the cove) have survived to tell the story.
Since that big avalanche, several good-sized trees have grown up around the old ghost tree, helping put an approximate date of 70-100 years since any avalanche of this scale has swept through the heart of Elk Cove. And though it has been many decades since that event, the days of these younger trees are surely numbered, too, as another epic avalanche in Elk Cove is inevitable.
How to Visit
If you’re an able-bodied hiker, you can visit Elk Cove most easily from the Vista Ridge trailhead. It’s a 9-mile hike round trip, but with well-graded trails and no glacial streams to navigate. If you visit the avalanche debris field, please tread lightly, as the rustic path that once led to the upper reaches of Cove Creek was partly buried with debris, and the surrounding area is covered with a fragile meadow of Western Pasque Flower.
You can find a trail description here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide. Why, you might even know the author of this field guide entry..!
The lost forest on Cedar Island in the Deschutes River canyon
Head north from the tiny town of Maupin into the arid desert canyon of the Deschutes River and you will eventually reach a wide gooseneck in the river, where a low ridge that forms the bend is known as the “Beavertail”. As the gravel access road crests the Beavertail, a river island dotted with trees suddenly comes into view. The scene is startling in an environment where even Western juniper struggle to survive, and the few trees that exist are mostly thickets of Red alder hugging the river’s edge.
At first glance, these seem to be Ponderosa pine, a reasonable guess, given that Ponderosa are the most drought tolerant of the big confers in Oregon. But as you approach a few of these trees that have jumped the island and flank the access road, it becomes clear that these aren’t pines at all.
In fact, this is a lost stand of about sixty Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) trees forming a completely isolated colony in the middle of the desert. They have found a way to thrive more than 20 miles east of the nearest stand, in the Cascade Mountain, where these trees grow along the forested southeast slopes of Mount Hood. Here, they survive with just 10-15” of rain per year, compared to the 40-50” their mountain cousins receive.
Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) foliage – a close cousin to our familiar Western red cedar
The thick, distinctively reddish bark on Incense Cedar gives the tree some insulation from range fires
A closer look at the bright green foliage of these trees shows Incense cedar to be a cousin to Oregon’s Western red cedar, Alaska cedar and Port Orford cedar. None of these are true cedars, but all are related members in the cypress family, and all but the Port Orford cedar grow on the slopes of Mount Hood.
Of these, the Incense cedar is the most drought-tolerant and thrives on the dry side of the Cascades, among other big conifers like Douglas fir and Ponderosa Pine. Incense Cedar tend to grow interspersed among these other trees, and seldom form pure stands. That’s part of what makes the lost grove on Cedar Island unique, though that’s also a reflection of the extreme environment they have pioneered here – one that other big conifers are not able to survive.
Young Incense cedar have a beautiful conical form that makes them popular trees in urban landscapes
Young Incense cedar are prized as cultivated trees for their brilliant foliage and symmetrical, conical shape (above). As they age, Incense cedar begin to look more like a distant cousin to Giant sequoia, with deeply furrowed red bark and tortured, often multiple-trunked forms.
Incense cedar can live for centuries and reach as much as 150 feet in height at maturity. The champion in Oregon grows in the Siskiyou Mountains, and is 150 feet tall with a circumference of nearly 40 feet. Another dual-trunked Incense cedar in Southern Oregon is known as the Tanner Lake Giant (below), measured at 137 feet tall and more than 40 feet in circumference.
The mighty, two-trunked Tanner Lake Giant in Southern Oregon is more 40 feet in diameter (Wikipedia)
Mount Hood’s Incense cedar stands mark the very northern extreme of the range of these trees, which extends as far south as a few isolated stands in Baja. In California, they grow throughout the Sierras, with big Incense Cedar sprinkled among the Giant sequoia in Yosemite Valley. The trees also grow in isolated groves throughout California’s coastal mountains. In Oregon, scattered stands grow in the Ochoco Mountains and along some of the western ridges of the Great Basin.
Incense Cedar grow from Mount Hood south to the Baja Peninsula, following the east flank of the Cascades to the Siskiyous and along the Sierras
Most of the isolated stands of Incense cedar in dry places like the California coast ranges or Oregon Ochoco Mountains mark places where mountains rise up enough to produce an island of rainfall in an otherwise dry region. The trees of Cedar Island are just the opposite. Their habitat is at the bottom of a rocky desert canyon makes their ability to thrive here all the more remarkable.
The Cedar Island lost forest of Incense cedar is truly remote. The following perspective view (below) shows just how far Cedar Island is from the green forests of the Cascades, nearly 20 miles to the west. Why did this grove of just 60 trees make its home here?
Part of the answer is the island, itself. While Incense cedar are most often found on dry sites in their typical mountain habitat, the Cedar Island grove lives on a gravel bar in the middle of the Deschutes River, where trees can touch the water table year-round with their roots. While the winters are plenty cold along the Deschutes – similar to the mountain habitat these trees prefer – the summers are intensely hot and arid. The basalt walls of the Deschutes Canyon also act to contain summer heat, creating a true oven during summer heat waves. The ability of the Cedar Island grove to maintain constant access to groundwater undoubtedly helps counter the lack of rainfall and summer heat they endure.
The Incense Cedars of Cedar Island rise above thickets of Red alder beneath the protective west wall of the Deschutes River canyon
Still, there are plenty of other gravel bars along the Deschutes, and only Cedar Island supports a grove of big conifers. What makes this gravel bar different?
Part of the puzzle is shape of the canyon walls that surround Cedar Island. At the Beavertail Bend, the Deschutes River swings sharply west, then reverses to head directly east, in each case carving near-vertical, 2,000 foot walls of basalt over the millennia. The aspect of these walls helps shade Cedar island by shortening exposure to hot summer sun by several hours per day compared to less protected parts of the canyon.
Cedar Island is protected from mid-day summer sun by towering, 2,000-foot canyon walls to the south and east
The west (upstream) end of Cedar Island seems to confirm the role of the canyon walls in allowing the Incense Cedar groves to survive. This part of the island (below) extends beyond the protective shade of the steep south wall of the canyon, and into the wide section of canyon where it is more exposed to the intense morning and midday sun during the hot summer months.
The west end of Cedar Island seems to be too exposed to summer sun for the Incense Cedars to survive there
Another piece of the puzzle is the gravel that makes up island, itself. While it allows the Cedar Island colony to reach the shallow water table with their root systems, it’s also very well-drained above the water table – something that Incense cedars prefer. At 10-12 feet above the average river level, the gravel bar is also tall enough to avoid being inundated or eroded by all but the worst flood events.
When did the Cedar Island colony become established? That’s unknown, but an image (below) taken from the east canyon rim in 1905 shows the island to be virtually cleared. There are a couple of explanations. First, the photo shows both rail lines that were under construction at the time, a race between two railroad barons that became known as “The Deschutes Railroad War”. It’s quite possible that Incense Cedar on the island were cut by the railroad crews for construction material or simply firewood. It’s also possible that the trees were actually introduced here at the time when the canyon was being intensely developed by the railroads. But the fact that the island was named for its cedars suggests the colony was here when railroad surveyors arrived.
1905 view of Cedar Island from the east canyon rim shows few trees compared to today… why?
Another explanation for the relatively bare island in 1905 could be flooding. Though the Deschutes is not prone to catastrophic floods like rivers west of the Cascades, the upstream dams didn’t exist when the first Incense Cedars pioneered the island. therefore, it’s likely that periodic floods swept across this flat sandbar – which was, itself, created by floods. The colony must have found a way to rebound from these events, assuming the Incense cedar grove has been here for centuries.
The following images (below) from 1911 were taken from the west side of the canyon and confirm that the Incense cedar grove on the island was much smaller at the turn of the century. These later images marked the end of construction of the railroad on the east side of the river. Today, a smaller colony of Incense cedar grows along the old railroad grade (now the access road) in the shade of the eastern canyon wall.
1911 view of Beavertail Bend from the west canyon rim, looking toward Cedar Island
Closer look at Cedar Island in the 1911 view showing just a few Incense cedars growing along the south margin of the island
Yet another explanation for the smaller grove in the early 1900s might be range fires. The sagebrush country of Oregon’s east side burns periodically, and fire is a natural, essential part of the ecosystem. For their part, Incense cedar have fire resistant bark that allows the trees to survive low-intensity fires (similar to Ponderosa pine and Sequoia), but when their crowns burn in more intensive fires, they have evolved to reseed and re-establish themselves quickly on burned ground. It could even be the case that railroad construction triggered a fire that cleared Cedar Island sometime before this photo was taken.
In 2018 a trio of range fires (below) swept through Wasco County, burning much of the lower Deschutes River canyon. The fires destroyed dozens of farm dwellings and outbuildings, too, a painful reminder that fires will always be part of the desert ecosystem here, even with much of the landscape converted to wheatfields. The Longhollow Fire was the middle of the three fires, and burned to the northwest bank of the Deschutes, but apparently did not jump the river to Cedar Island.
Had the fire reached the island, it could easily have crowned some of the Incense cedar trees. The open, park-like forest here has allowed the trees to keep their limbs almost to the ground, where trees in mixed forests typically lose their lower limbs.
A high crown helps protect a mature tree from low-to moderate intensity fires at its base climbing lower limbs like a ladder and potentially engulfing its crown. But unlike the forest fires that occur in the typical Incense Cedar range, range fires in open sagebrush country are generally low-intensity, fast-moving burns due to the lack of available fuels compared to forest fires, so even trees with low limbs can often survive range fires.
A closer look at the island suggests the fire did not cross the river in 2018, nor have fires burned the island in some time. First, none of the trees on Cedar Island shows burn marks on their lower trunks, a telltale sign of range fires that lasts for decades on trees that survive. Second, the presence of downed wood and a few Incense Cedar seedlings (below) confirms that no recent fires have swept the island, as young trees would almost certainly have been killed and dead forest debris completely burned.
The trunks of the Cedar Island grove don’t show burn marks, suggesting that range fires haven’t swept the island in decades
The downed alder logs in this view would almost certainly have burned in 2018, had the Longhollow Fire jumped the river. The small Incense cedar seedling toward the top of this photo would almost certainly have been killed by fire, as well.
Whatever the cause of Cedar Island being cleared at the turn of the 1900s, the grove of Incense cedars is well-established today, with large trees that could have started life soon after these early photos were taken. Yet, the lack of young trees on the island today is also noticeable, with just a few younger trees sprinkled among the mature stand. This could be due to competition, with the spacing of the trees defined by their root systems, and little moisture left for young trees to get established.
Most of the Incense Cedars on the island are mature, with few small seedlings present
Some of the younger trees that do exist are crowded along the river’s edge, suggesting that other young trees farther from the edge of the island simply couldn’t compete with the larger trees for available groundwater with their smaller, shallow root systems.
In their normal habitat, it would be rare for Incense cedars to hug a stream, but on Cedar Island it may be the only way young trees can become established
One of the secrets of the survival of the Cedar Island grove could be the small group of younger trees growing at the shaded foot of the southeast canyon wall. These are the only Incense cedars from the colony that extend beyond the island, and a number of very young trees are getting established here now. It could be that this part of the grove has helped reseed the island after flood events over the centuries.
It’s hard to see if this group of trees existed in the 1905 and 1911 photos, and it’s likely that railroad construction would have erased any trees in this area, anyway. But without any better evidence, it’s also possible that this branch of the colony is relatively new, seeded here by mature trees on the island after the railroad construction ended. If so, why did the colony move there, to steep rocky slopes far above the river and readily available water table?
This view shows a branch of the Cedar Island colony growing along the base of the eastern canyon wall. These trees are younger and seem to be expanding their presence, despite growing on rocky slopes far above the water table created by the river
The best explanation for this branch colony is probably the sun protection provided by the canyon walls, as these trees are growing in an “elbow” where the north and west facing walls meet, creating a relatively cool setting for much of the day during the hot summer season. But another part of the story is likely groundwater seeping through a steep ravine that cuts through the layers of basalt where the branch colony is centered.
The branch colony of the Cedar Island lost forest is thriving on the south wall of the Deschutes River canyon, with many young trees becoming established in this unexpected habitat
Whatever their origin, the younger grove along the canyon wall is a helpful insurance policy for the survival of the Cedar Island colony over the long haul. These are young trees, yet clearly well-established, so in the event the island trees are destroyed by fire or flood, these trees could be a source for re-seeding the island. Likewise, the island might well survive range fires that could destroy the canyon wall grove and help reseed that part of the colony.
This young Incense cedar in the branch colony may someday play a part in reseeding Cedar Island and helping the lost forest here continue to survive
The mystery of the lost forest on Cedar Island brings more questions than answers, and it deserves more study to better understand the phenomenon and help preserve the colony. I’m hoping this article might inspire a local researcher or graduate student (with a passion for rafting or kayaking!) to step up to the challenge. The island is on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and seems reasonably protected from development, though it doesn’t seem to have any sort of special protection for its unique ecological value.
The lost Incense cedar forest on Cedar Island in the Deschutes River canyon
In the meantime, the island makes for an interesting stop on a tour of the lower Deschutes River canyon, whether by car, bicycle or on the river. The island is located immediately downstream from the Beavertail campground. There are pullouts along the access road with good views of the island, and if you’re up for a walk, you can simply park at a pullout and walk the exceptionally scenic road for a stretch.
Along the way, you’ll pass another coniferous anomaly — the “Big Pine” located just north of the twin railroad bridges at Horseshoe Bend. This old Ponderosa pine grows on a gravel fan at the base of seep that gives it enough year-round water to become quite established here. The BLM has placed a picnic table under the tree and there is a toilet nearby, too.
The “Big Pine” just north of the twin railroad bridges along the Deschutes River access road
From the beginning of the well-marked access road near Sherars Bridge, it’s 17 miles to the end of the well-graded gravel road, so this makes a good adventure if you’re looking for something off the beaten path. Map 6 on the following BLM webpage covers the route from Sherars bridge to Cedar Island and Map 7 covers the remainder of the access road to Macks Canyon:
For a deeper dive into the Deschutes Railroad War, you can find out-of-print copies of Leon Speroff’s excellent book on the subject, with dozens of historic photos presented in large, coffee-table format.
Leon Speroff’s excellent book covers the surprising railroad history of the Deschutes in detail — plus some of the natural history of the canyon
The Deschutes River access road can be reached by following the Sherars Bridge Highway (OR 216) from where it joins Highway 197 in Tygh Valley. Follow signs to Grass Valley, then turn onto the well-marked access road about a mile after crossing Sherars Bridge. You’ll pass White River Falls State Park along the way, another worthy stop if you’re in the area.
One of the best times to visit the lower Deschutes is in winter and early spring, when campers and rafters are scarce and you will have the place pretty much to yourself. As with all trips to the dry east side of the mountains, ticks, poison oak and even the occasional rattlesnake are residents here, so watch your step and do a tick check when you get home.
“The Barlow Cutoff” by William Henry Jackson (1930)
One of the loneliest landmarks in WyEast Country is approaching the century mark, and while the years have not been kind, it’s a spot that deserves to be preserved. The place is the Pioneer Woman’s Grave, located along a long-bypassed section of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway.
Roadbuilders discovered the grave in 1924 while building the original loop road. The grave was marked by an old wagon tongue and the remains of a woman were buried in a makeshift box built from wagon sideboards. Based on oral histories from Barlow Road tollgate operators, some historians believe this woman was survived by her husband and two young children, who continued on to the Willamette Valley after burying her here in the mid-1840s.
The Pioneer Woman’s Grave is just off OR 35 where a surviving section of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway heads off into the forest
The grave is located just east of the busy US 26/OR 35 interchange, where a small, brown sign along modern OR 35 points to the historic site along a scenic and surprisingly well-preserved section of the original highway route. Today, the site is underwhelming, to say the least. The grave is marked by a haphazard pile of stones on the shoulder of the old road, and “graced” with all manner of ephemera left by visitors.
Pioneer Woman’s Grave in 2020
Several years ago, the Forest Service installed a new interpretive sign broadly describing the origins of the grave, but without much cultural context or detail. The sign is mounted in a heavy timber frame that gives a nod to a much larger, carved version built here in the 1930s.
Relatively new Forest Service interpretive sign at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave
A brass plaque near the grave was placed here by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a non-profit organization that maintains historic markers around Oregon (and the country). The original plaque was installed on the grave, itself. The current plaque was moved to a boulder a few feet from the grave in 1982.
D.A.R. plaque at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave
D.A.R. plaque at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave
Beyond the signs and plaques, the Pioneer Woman’s Grave historic site can only be described as rundown and shabby. The set of timber steps that climb a low berm that fronts the site is rotting away. Foot traffic has largely bypassed the crude steps and trampled whatever vegetation was once growing along the berm.
Crumbling wood steps at the grave memorial
The wood cross on the Pioneer Woman’s Grave is long gone, and the remaining pile of rocks doesn’t exactly inspire reverence and respect. The few who might notice the nearby dedication plaque and interpretive sign learn that this is a grave site, but the overall scene is haphazard and kind of sad.
Remembrances… or Disrespect?
In recent years, “offerings” left by visitors have escalated at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave. They range from flowers and sentimental toys to a few religious tokens left in earnest. But mostly, the memorial has become cacophony of random tchotchkes that have little to do with the site or respect for the human remains that lie beneath the stones. To give a sense of the scene, here’s recent sampling of these offerings from a few weeks ago:
Flowers, fir cones and a plastic robot…
…superhero metal CDs…
…bubble gum and taco sauce…
…Minions, ammunition and COVID masks…
…and a severed jumper cable clamp.
If the original intent of this roadside monument was to honor nameless migrants who perished along Oregon Trail, then today’s version has lost its way. The Pioneer Woman’s Grave deserves better, and even some modest improvements would bring needed dignity to the site. More about that in a moment, but first, there is inspiration to be gained from other historic burial sites along the Oregon Trail.
Remembering the dead along the Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail was a dangerous, often deadly trip for white migrants crossing into the West, with an estimated 1 in 10 dying along the way. Most were buried where they died, and their surviving families simply continued their push westward. Many of these graves are now preserved and celebrated as part of our traditional view of white settlement of the West.
In the early 1970s, one of these graves along a branch of the Oregon Trail, just east of Casper, Wyoming, was uncovered while a rancher was building a new road. Anthropology students from Casper College exhumed the remains and discovered this to be the burial place of 1852 pioneer Quintina Snodderly.
For many years, the Quintina Snodderly story was a mystery until owners of the ranch tracked down a descendent living in Scio, Oregon. We know from her skeletal remains that she was likely crushed under a wagon wheel, perhaps stumbling or falling while walking aside a wagon. Most who arrived on the Oregon Trail walked much of the way to reduce the burden for ox teams pulling heavy wagons.
Quintina’s surviving husband Jacob and their eight children made it to Scio, in the mid-Willamette Valley of the Oregon Territory, by the fall of 1852. Jacob died in 1889 at the age of 78, thirty years after Oregon became a state in 1859, and is buried in Scio.
Newly restored Quintina Snodderly grave as it appeared in 1987 (findagrave.com)
The Oregon-California Trail Association took the lead in reburying Quintina Snodderly’s remains in 1987, covering the grave with cobbles that replicated typical burials along the trail in the mid-1800s and surrounding the grave site with a wooden corral fence (above) to help preserve it. An interpretive marker (below) describes Quintina Snodderly’s journey and story.
Quintina Snodderly plaque placed by the Oregon-California Trails Association (findagrave.com)
Not far from the Snodderly grave in the North Platte valley of Wyoming are the twin graves of Martin Ringo and J.P. Parker, who also died along the Oregon Trail. Parker was from Iowa and died in 1860, though nothing else is known about him. Martin Ringo died tragically from a self-inflicted shotgun injury that was graphically described in newspaper accounts of the day:
“Just after daylight on the morning of July 30, 1864 Mr. Ringo stepped out… of the wagon, as I suppose, for the purpose of looking around to see if Indians were in sight and his shotgun went off accidentally in his own hands, the load entering at his right eye and coming out at the top of his head. At the report of his gun I saw his hat blown up 20 feet in the air and his brains were scattered in all directions. I never saw a more heartrending sight, and to see the distress and agony of his wife and children was painful in the extreme. Mr. Ringo’s death cast a gloom over the whole company… He was buried near the place he was shot in as decent a manner as was possible with the facilities on the plains” (Liberty Missouri Tribune, 1864)
Martin Ringo’s legacy played out after his death when his grieving widow Mary pushed forward, eventually raising their children in California’s Central Valley. Their oldest son John, who was 14 years old when his father was killed, brought infamy to the respected family name. He emerged as an outlaw and gunfighter in Arizona, the man known as Johnny Ringo who was killed near Tombstone, Arizona. His murder is unsolved, but speculation has included a revenge killing by either Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp, notoriety that Martin Ringo couldn’t have imagined for his son!
The J.P. Parker and Martin Ringo graves near Casper, Wyoming (WyomingHistory.org)
Like the Snodderly grave, the Ringo-Parker graves are located on private ranch land, but have been preserved with a simple metal rail fence and marked with an interpretive marker placed by the Oregon-California Trails Association.
The Pioneer Woman’s grave was discovered during construction of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway in 1924, and were later placed under a cobble grave by road workers, much as Oregon Trail migrants buried their dead along the trail. A small cross was added to the grave (below). This soon became a popular stop for motorists along the new loop highway.
First restoration of the Pioneer Woman’s Grave along the (then unpaved) Mount Hood Loop Highway in the early 1930s
According to the Forest Service, the restored Pioneer Woman’s Grave was formally dedicated in 1931 by Forest Supervisor Thomas Sherrard and members of the Portland Progressive Club. Based on the photo of the ceremony (below), the site wasn’t improved for visitors at the time, simply marked as a gravesite.
Dedication of the restored Pioneer Woman’s Grave in 1931 (USFS)
In 1936, the DAR added a plaque to the grave, and shortly thereafter, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) craftsmen working with the Forest Service placed a large interpretive sign there that would stand for many years.
1930s view of the Pioneer Woman’s Grave with the large, carved Forest Service sign added to the site. Note the original DAR plaque installed on the grave, itself.
1930s postcard with the sign text replaced and reversed for easier reading!
The DAR has marked another “unknown” Oregon pioneer grave to the west, the Pioneer Child Grave in Multnomah County. This historic grave also survived highway builders, albeit on an epic scale compared to the Pioneer Woman’s Grave. In 1849 a family traveling the Columbia Gorge route of the Oregon Trail camped at a spring near today’s Wilkes School on their final push to Oregon City. That night, their 11-year-old daughter died, apparently after a long illness. She was buried there in the next day in a makeshift coffin and her parents moved on to Oregon City, never returning.
The current location of the Pioneer Child’s grave memorial is at the corner of NE 169th and Wilkes Avenue in Gresham.
The story of the Pioneer Child later caught the imagination of students at the original Wilkes School, located near the grave, and they took it upon themselves to build a picket fence around the site and tend to the grave. In 1949, the construction of the original Banfield Freeway threatened the grave, and a former student of Wilkes School began a campaign to mark the grave with a memorial to protect it from future freeway widening. Finally, in 1955 a large boulder brought in by the Union Pacific Railroad was placed at the grave and a bronze plaque describing the site history was installed and dedicated.
In 1989 a freeway widening project once again threatened the grave and memorial. The DAR worked with highway engineers to relocated the Pioneer Child memorial to the south side of the widened Banfield Freeway, at what is now the corner of 149th and Wilkes Road. The original grave site is also marked by a plaque set in concrete along the Union Pacific Railroad, on the opposite side of the freeway from the memorial and inaccessible to the public.
The Daughters of the American Revolution placed this plaque on the Pioneer Child grave when the first Banfield Freeway was constructed in the early 1950s
Over the years volunteers have periodically tended to the grave, though the location in front of the freeway maintenance gate and adjacent, massive freeway sound wall still seems precarious. The monument is directly across from the modern Wilkes School, and perhaps someday the school grounds might make for a more respectful and protected location.
Telling the whole story
Romanticized scenes showing Indians and white migrants in peaceful interaction continue the myth that white settlement of Indian lands was a “manifest destiny”.
In recent years, our traditional view of the Oregon Trail has continued to evolve as white Americans have begun to acknowledge the role of white settlement in the West as a major contributor to the broader genocide of Native Americans who had lived here for millennia. For their part, Indians living along the migration route were largely friendly and helpful to white settlers. This, despite the threat the steady stream of migrants posed to their way of life and how white mythology portrayed “hostile Indians” in our history and arts. In fact, more Indians than whites were killed in trail conflicts between the migrants and the native peoples whose lands the Oregon Trail invaded.
This larger story deserves more attention as we continue to curate the history of the Oregon Trail along its route, not just the story of the white migrants who traveled it. Some newer interpretive signs have begun to acknowledge that white American myths celebrating the western migration completely ignore the devastating toll and continued trauma that genocide has wrought upon Native Americans. We still have a long way to go in our society reckoning. A simple start would be to include an Indian perspective at every site where more than a simple grave marker exists.
What could the future hold for the Pioneer Woman?
1940s visitor and the massive Pioneer Woman’s Grave sign that was installed in the 1930s
Despite the somewhat new interpretive sign, the Pioneer Woman’s Grave on Mount Hood has become a sad and disrespectful eyesore. So, what could be done to improve it and pay more appropriate respect to the history of the site? The other Oregon Trail graves described in this article provide some working examples of how the site might be restored.
But the Pioneer Woman’s Grave is different, since it lies along the final stretch of the migration route to Oregon. That these pioneers came close to their dream of reaching the Willamette Valley, only to fall short by a few days is especially poignant. Does a pile of rocks convey that cruel fate? Not really. But what about a more formal marker?
Pioneer cemeteries on both side of the Cascades include many white migrants who traveled the trail, and drawing from the period style of these cemeteries could be an appropriate way to bring more dignity to the Pioneer Woman’s Grave that a heap of stones. Fine examples exist in a pair of cemeteries located in the lonely Kingsley district, just off the original Barlow Road route, on the east side of Mount Hood (and featured in this recent article on Desert Mounds). These historic cemeteries are filled with pioneer graves, most in the Victorian-style of the mid-1800s. Many include wrought-iron fences to mark family plots, as seen in this example from the upper cemetery in Kingsley (below).
The Upper Kingsley Cemetery in the desert country east of Mount Hood lies along the Barlow Road and has many graves dating to the mid-to-late 1800s. This cemetery provides inspiration for period-specific grave fencing and monuments that could be appropriate for the Pioneer Woman’s grave.
Creating a fenced, mini-cemetery could be a historically accurate way to protect the Pioneer Woman’s Grave from foot traffic and bring a sense of dignity to the site. For example, the decapitated obelisk monument (perhaps it once had a cross on top?) shown below is also in the upper Kingsley Cemetery, and dates to the late 1800s. A monument like this could also provide a non-religious model for more formally marking the Pioneer Woman’s Grave in a period-specific manner.
This century-old monument in the Upper Kingsley Cemetery lost its top, but could still be a model for a new marker at a rededicated Pioneer Woman’s Grave.
While these treatments would depart from the crude graves that were built along the Oregon Trail, they do represent what pioneers would have placed upon these graves if they’d had the means — and how they marked graves of the era in the pioneer settlements they created along the trail and in the Willamette Valley.
Other details at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave need attention, too. The crude timber steps placed in the road embankment don’t do justice to the site, nor do they help visitors. Most simply walk up the dirt slope. A low stone retaining wall with more substantial steps and a ramp would be a welcome addition in a site makeover.
A real missed opportunity at the current site is the proximity to one of the best-preserved sections of the original Barlow Road, located just a few yards from the Pioneer Woman’s Grave, where the trail fords a fork of the Salmon River. This could make for an excellent interpretive trail, perhaps built to be accessible so that visitors with limited mobility or using mobility devices could experience traveling in the path of pioneer wagons.
Deep ruts left by pioneer wagons are plainly visible just a few yards from the Pioneer Woman’s Grave and could be incorporated into the interpretive experience (Photo by John Sparks and OregonHikers.org)
Perhaps most importantly, the site needs context about the native people whose trails the Barlow Road borrowed as it was blazed over the shoulder of Mount Hood by Sam Barlow. Today’s tribes continue to fish and gather berries and other foods and plant materials from the forest, as they have for millennia. This is just one story from an Indian perspective that could be told as part of providing cultural context and acknowledging the ultimate cost of white migration to native peoples at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave.
How to Visit?
Though our forests are currently closed by fires, you can walk a section of the original wagon route from Barlow Road to the Pioneer Woman’s Grave describe in this Oregon Hikers Field Guide entry. And you can always simply stop by the grave by following the old highway segment west from the Barlow Pass trailhead or following signs on OR 35 just past the US 26 junction.
A strange phenomenon plays out in the shadow of Mount Hood, across the broad desert ridges and plateaus of the Columbia Basin. Tens of thousands of dome-shaped soil mounds that range from a dozen feet to more than 60 feet in diameter rise atop the rocky bedrock, often in swarms that number in the hundreds.
These mounds were given the unfortunate name of “biscuit scablands” by white emigrants arriving in the Northwest in the mid-1800s. They understandably loathed them as yet another miserable obstacle for wagon travel, no doubt having to weave among them on the rocky ground that typically surrounds these mounds.
Later, they discovered that farming the “scablands” was equally difficult, and even today the sweeping wheat fields of the Columbia basin are still plowed around many of these odd formations where the ground has never been tamed.
Their pioneer name refers to “biscuits” of mounded soil on the scoured, rocky basalt substrate, or “scabland”, that typically surrounds the mounds. These mysterious humps in the desert are usually round, but depending on slight variations in slope, they also appear in oval and oblong shapes.
A maze of desert mounds once covered a much larger part of the Columbia Basin, but more than a century of farming has erased many of the “biscuit” fields from the landscape. Still, even after 150 years of farming, they can still be found in the thousands, and their origin is still debated by geoscientists.
What are they?
Many theories on the formation of these mounds have been put forth since white settlement in the Pacific Northwest began. Among the early theories were Indian burial mounds, giant anthills, gopher mounds, wind-blown dunes, bison wallows and (of course!) extraterrestrials. While creative, none of these explanations are supported by field observation.
Similar mounds are found around the world, and often called “mima mounds” after the famous Mima Mounds near Olympia Washington. Recently, the early theory that they were created by pocket gophers has found favor again.
While it sounds far-fetched, the gopher theory was boosted in the 1980s when a scientist used metal tracing to show that pocket gophers living in soil mounds in California actually pushed soil toward the top, and not outward, as was expected. This gave new life to the idea that gophers could create massive mounds over time.
Scientists hoping to build on this discovery have since created a computer model to show that, over millennia, generations of pocket gophers could create large mounds on this scale.
While the renewed gopher theory might hold true for soil mounds found elsewhere in the world, the desert mounds found east of Mound Hood are different. The mounds of the Columbia Plateau are highly organized in their shape and distribution in a way that can’t be explained by the gopher model. These mounds clearly formed in direct relationship to the slopes they have formed upon, something that scientists have yet to explain with gopher models.
There’s also the fact that computer simulations of gopher activity are only as valid as the model inputs used by the scientists, especially when the simulations involve thousands of iterations, as the gopher model does. The gold standard in science is still direct field observation, and only the magnetic tracing research from the 1980s supports the gopher theory with this rigor.
So, for this article I’ve turned to original field research completed in the 1970s by a pair of Oregon graduate students. Their work continues to make the most compelling case for how our desert mounds formed. Clark Nelson of Oregon State University and John Baine Pyrch of Portland State University completed their research separately, but they came to the same conclusions on the general origin of the mounds. Both found that desert mounds are geomorphic relics from the last ice age, and were created by soil heave and sorting from repeated freezing and thawing, not gophers.
In 1973, John Pyrch completed his thesis on the origin of rock stripes, a related phenomenon to desert mounds in the Columbia Basin. Clark Nelson built on this research with his 1977 thesis focusing on soil mounds and their surrounding rock rings, the main focus of this article. Perhaps most importantly, both Pyrch and Nelson based their research on conditions specific to the Columbia Basin, as it’s likely that other origins for soil mounds exist, depending on where they originate in the world.
For his field research, Clark Nelson camped out near the semi-ghost town of Shaniko, Oregon, where huge swarms of mounds fan out across the high plains. Nelson literally dissected a soil mound and its accompanying ring of stony “scabland” to understand how these features came to be.
Clark’s field work showed the soil mounds and their stone rings to be interrelated features, formed by the same freeze-thaw cycles during the past ice age, more than 11,000 years ago, when the Columbia Plateau was much colder and much wetter than today. Because these ice age conditions have long passed, Clark also found that the mounds themselves are no longer evolving, and instead are simply geologic relics frozen in time.
The ancient setup
According to Clark’s research, three ingredients set the stage for the formation of today’s desert mounds. First are the sprawling Columbia River flood basalts that cover much of eastern Oregon and Washington. It’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of these lava flows, as they originated near today’s Idaho border 16 million years ago and flowed all the way to the Oregon Coast of today. More than 300 of these massive flows spread for hundreds of miles over the millennia, burying the landscape in layers of basalt.
Today, we see these flood basalts prominently in the Columbia River Gorge, where the river has carved through them, revealing layer upon layer of basalt that forms rocky features like Crown Point and the cliffs behind Multnomah Falls. Clark found these expanses of solid bedrock to be an essential foundation for the soil mounds and rock rings.
The second ingredient came much more recently, at least in geologic time. As the last ice age began to wind down, continental glaciers that once extended as far south as Olympia (and scooped out the Puget Sound) began to retreat northward. The continental glaciers produced an immense amount of glacial silt that was spread far beyond the glacial extent over the millennia. We know today that wind played a major role in redistributing this glacial silt southward into Oregon, piling it in layers on top of the ancient Columbia flood basalts to depths of several feet.
Finally, the third ingredient is the ongoing building of the Cascade Range, which has laid down countless layers of volcanic ash across the Columbia Basin over time. When Clark Nelson dissected his desert mound near Shaniko, he found both the wind-blown glacial silts and volcanic ash interspersed in the soil layers that make up the mounds.
Nelson’s research also showed these layers of glacial and volcanic soil to be relatively undisturbed, and that the same sequence of layers could be found across groups of mounds in a given area. This observation casts further doubt on the gopher theory, since burrowing gophers would have mixed these soil layers up over time, had they been the builders of the mounds.
How the mounds formed
Clark Nelson believed the desert mounds and their rock rings formed through a process of natural sorting, where fine soil material is pushed up into mounds and rocks pushed out to the edges to form rings through countless cycles of freezing and thawing.
Nelson made his case with well-established research on the sorting effects of freeze-thaw cycles, and he argued that sorting on such a profound scale could only have happened during the end of the last ice age, when conditions were much colder and wetter than today’s arid desert climate. The schematic (below) is from Nelson’s thesis, and describes this process.
Nelson’s research also revealed that soil mounds tend to form where the soil depth is shallow atop the relatively impermeable basalt bedrock layer. As the schematic (below) from his thesis shows, the shallowness of the soil layer played an important role in forcing the sorting of rocks from fine soils through continuous movement from freezing and thawing.
Nelson believed that this freeze-thaw process, played out over millennia, created the soil mounds and rock rings in flat or gently sloping areas where the mounds were more protected from surface erosion. He observed that mounds only formed on gently sloping terrain, with less than 10 percent slope, and that they became oblong as the slope increased.
He also observed that mounds formed in rows, aligned in the direction of the slope. This phenomenon shows the effects of gravity on the mounds as they formed, with their shapes stretching downhill when slopes increase. As shown in the first schematic in this article, Nelson described the interconnected rock rings that surround these round and oblong mounds as “nets”.
Finally, Nelson argued that only during the end of the Pleistocene epoch (the geologic term for the last ice age) would there have been enough moisture and cold to produce the thousands of freeze-thaw cycles needed to create today’s desert mounds. He believed that the climate that has since emerged in the Columbia Basin is not only too warm and dry to continue this sorting process, but that the desert climate has also protected the static mounds from erosion and being disturbed by forest cover.
According to Clark Nelson, this is the sequence of events left us with the thousands of desert mounds we see today. He makes a compelling case based on field research in our region that stands up well against other, more generic theories on the origin of soil mounds.
For his part, John Pyrch studied the origins of rock stripes that mark many of the steeper slopes in areas where soil mounds otherwise occur. Like Clark Nelson’s work, Pyrch’s research found these stripes to be relics of the last ice age.
First, Pyrch showed the strips to be distinct from common talus slopes, where an obvious source of rock at the head of the talus flow exists. Rock stripes lack such a source or falling rock. He also found that the desert rock stripes in the Columbia Basin aren’t moving like talus slopes, where rock is actively being added to the talus flow. Instead, rock stripes are gradually weathering but have become mostly static since their formation during the ice age.
Pyrch also observed that rocks within these stripes are sorted, unlike talus slopes, suggesting the same ice age freeze-thaw origins as soil mounds and rock rings. Pyrch and Nelson both believed the rock stripes were simply extensions of the rock circles that surround soil mounds on flatter ground, the rock “nets” that Nelson described. As the earlier schematic from Clark Nelson’s research shows, these “nets” of interconnected rock rings eventually become so elongated as slopes steepen that they become rock stripes.
Tygh Ridge Quarry
Clark Nelson’s dissected soil mound near Shaniko has likely disappeared under sagebrush after 40 years, but a small quarry near Tygh Ridge provides a fresh cross-sections of soil mounds that illustrate their origins, as explained by Clark Nelson and John Pyrch. About six feet of the underlying basalt bedrock has been quarried here, with several soil mounds and rocks rings bisected in the process, as shown below.
A closer look (below) at one of these quarried mounds shows the distinct soil layer perched on top of the bedrock, as well as a profile of the rock ring surrounding the mound.
A closer (below) look at the floor of the quarry reveals truncated columns of basalt from the ancient lava flows that make up the bedrock under the desert mounds.
The importance of basalt in the development of the mounds comes from its impermeability. Nelson believed the poor drainage typical of basalt flows ensured regular ponding of surface water, and therefore ensured a ready supply of moisture to drive the freeze-thaw cycle when the Columbia Basin was much colder and wetter.
Seeing Desert Mounds on the Ground
Desert mounds can be tough to spot on the ground, precisely because they formed on flat or gently sloping ground. But the advent of modern mapping tools has brought these features to life in a way that John Pyrch and Clark Nelson could not have imagined in the 1970s. The following image sets combine Google Earth aerial imagery with on-the-ground photos of the same areas to give a sense of what the mounds look like at eye level.
The first schematic (below) shows a flat-topped ridge in the Deschutes Canyon, just south of Tygh Ridge, with a well-developed swarm of desert mounds plainly visible. The underlying basalt layers can also be seen at the margins of the ridge, and flow lines on the ridge top can be seen where rows of mounds are aligned in the descending direction of the slope.
Mounds in this schematic are round where the ground is flat, then become oblong in the direction of the slope where the ridge falls toward the canyon. The mounds finally disappear where slopes exceed 10 percent. This mound group does not include rock stripes, but in many similar examples, the stripes would continue down the canyon slopes below the lower limit of the soil mounds.
The following image shows what this terrain looks like on the ground in mid-spring, when the soil mounds are still holding moisture and supporting green vegtation, but the flat, shallow rock rings surrounding the mounds have already browned for the summer. This view is across a nearby ridge top in the Deschutes Canyon to the one shown in the previous schematic.
The small farming community of Dufur is surrounded mostly by wheat and alfalfa fields, but a sizeable swarm of desert mounds survives due east of the community. It’s unclear why some mounds have been flattened and plowed while others were passed over by farmers, but one possible explanation could be the original depth of the soil in the mounds, and whether enough soil existed in the mounds to support farming when plowed flat.
On the ground, desert soil mounds near Dufur (below) are also most prominent in late spring, when the mounds are still green with new growth but the surrounding rock rings have browned for the summer. This view shows three separate swarms of mounds, one in front of the closest row of trees, a second swarm between the rows of trees and a third on the distant slope.
One of the most accessible places to see desert mounds is on the Rowena Plateau, in the Columbia River Gorge. These mounds formed at the western margin of where mounds occur in the Columbia Basin, but share all of the typical features of soil mounds.
This aerial schematic (above) shows a couple of ice-age features whose origins have been long-debated by geologists. First, the soil mounds show up prominently, and seem to fit the explanation given by Clark Nelson for their origin. But the plateau also includes at least two kettle (or “pothole”) lakes that are typically formed by ice age glaciers leaving blocks of ice behind that are initially buried in sediments, then melt to leave a depression, or “kettle” behind.
But the “kettles” at Rowena are formed in solid basalt flows, so geologists believe they were carved into the basalt by the series of massive ice age floods known as the Missoula Floods. They believe floodwaters eroded these depressions much like the potholes commonly found in rivers, except on a massive scale.
Timing is key to the story at Rowena, as the ancient floods also swept away all but the basalt bedrock on the plateau, and any soil mounds that had formed before the floods wouldn’t have survived. The Missoula Floods occurred more than 13,000 years ago, so with the ice age winding down by about 11,700 years ago, that leaves a window of less than 2,000 years for windblown glacial and volcanic sediments to accumulate here, and for freeze-thaw action to sort the sediments into the mounds we see today. Was that enough time for these mounds to have formed according to Clark Nelson’s theories? This uniquely narrow geologic window could make Rowena Plateau the place where the mystery of the desert mounds can finally be unlocked by researchers.
On the ground at Rowena Plateau, the rock rings are prominent between the soil mounds (below). Consistent with Clark Nelson’s theory of a standing water table atop the bedrock, they often form vernal pools in winter and spring.
Hikers on the plateau may not recognize the mounds as geologic features, but they cover most of the plateau and are surprisingly easy to spot, along with their network of rock rings (below).
In this view (below), a hiking trail weaves among the mounds as it makes its way across the plateau, much as pioneer wagons must have dodged the desert mounds in the mid-1800s.
Clark Nelson chose the Shaniko plateau for his field research in the 1970s, and it’s easy to see why from modern aerial photos, as shown in the following schematic (below). The terrain here slopes gently toward the surrounding canyons, creating the perfect geologic setup for soil mounds.
The expansive extent of the desert mounds at Shaniko also shows how closely their formation follows slopes, with mounds radiating from a barely discernable high point in the plateau toward the canyons beyond the town.
This second view (below) of the Shaniko swarm of desert mounds provides some context, with a pickup truck and semi-truck captured in the aerial imagery for scale.
In the tiny farm community of Kingsley, located a few miles south of Dufur and west of Tygh Ridge, there are more headstones than residents these days, with two pioneer cemeteries providing close-up views desert mounds. In this aerial view (below) a swarm of desert mounds has survived the plows next to the Kingsley Cemetery. Many other isolated mound swarms are located throughout the Kingsley area.
On the ground, the Kingsley mounds are prominent, especially in mid-spring when wildflowers and native grasses flourish on the mounds. The rock rings surrounding these mounds (below) are also well-developed and easy to see.
As summer sets in and the desert green fades to brown, desert mounds are harder to spot. This view (below) shows the same group of mounds near the Kingsley Cemetery in June, as the last spring wildflowers on top of the mounds are fading to brown for the year.
Tygh Ridge is a broad, uplifted fault that forms the north wall of Tygh Valley and the lower White River canyon. The south side of the fault is steep, dropping abruptly into Tygh Valley and Deschutes River canyon, while the north slope is broad and gentle, extending nearly 10 miles toward Dufur. Because of its geology and gentle slope, the north side of Tygh Ridge provided the perfect conditions for thousands of ice age desert mounds to form. Though many have disappeared under plowed fields, thousands remain.
The aerial view in the following schematic (below) shows the swarms of mounds that seem to flow down the slopes of Tygh Ridge, and also how the mounds stretch into oblong shapes as slopes steepen into the ravines that radiate from the ridge.
A closer look at Tygh Ridge from the air (below) shows the relationship of mound shapes and orientation to the sloping terrain of the ridge. The mounds do seem to be “flowing” downhill. In a way they are, but only to the degree that the freeze-thaw sorting process that created these features was also shaped by gravity.
A closer aerial view (below) of this area on Tygh Ridge shows the order of the mounds strikingly, with longer mounds marking slopes and round mounds formed were the terrain is flatter. These patterns and the predictable order of the mounds on Tygh Ridge clearly defies the “gopher theory” that has found new life among scientists.
The desert mounds here are plainly too ordered and predictable to be the work of gophers. Did gophers build soil mounds elsewhere in the world? Possibly. But the patterns we see in the Columbia Basin seem best explained by on-the-ground, freeze-thaw research by John Pyrch and Clark Nelson.
The desert mounds on Tygh Ridge are everywhere, though much less obvious on the ground than in aerial photos. This scene (below) shows why. The crest of Tygh Ridge, which forms the backdrop in this view, is almost entirely covered in desert mounds, and yet their low profile and the gentle slopes nearly hide them when viewed from ground level.
However, the closer you get to desert mounds on the ground, they more they begin to emerge in profile. These mounds on Tygh Ridge are typical, with wildflowers and bunch grasses established in the deep soil of the mound, and sparse growth in the rock rings that surround the mounds.
Large areas along the north slope of Tygh Ridge remain unplowed, providing one of the best field laboratories for further understanding the phenomenon of desert mounds. Because the area is uplifted, it’s also some of the highest terrain (ranging from 2,500 to over 3,000 feet) in the Columbia Basin to show the desert mound phenomenon, which also might be of value for future research.
Tygh Ridge not only has impressive displays of desert mounds, it’s also home to some of the best rock stripe examples in the area. Once group is located on a prominent shoulder of Tygh Ridge in Butler Canyon, where OR 197 crosses the ridge.
Though this shoulder of Tygh Ridge (below) looks like an isolated bluff, it’s really just the end of a long ridge, with hundreds of desert mounds spread across the gentle crest of the ridge, out of view. It’s on the steep shoulders of the ridge that John Pyrch’s theory of rock stripes plays out. There is clearly no source of rock to feed these strips, and they are not migrating downhill like a talus slope might. Pyrch showed these to be are barely moving at all, in the absence of the ice age moisture and heavy freeze-thaw cycles that sorted them into stripes.
A closer look (below) at rock strips on another shoulder of Tygh Ridge shows how the stripes correlate to the slope and to one other, marking the direction of the slope.
While not as clearly formed as their desert mound and rock ring cousins, there is order here, with the stripes alternating with long islands of soil that Pyrch and Nelson believe are simply soil mounds becoming increasingly elongated by gravity as they slopes they formed upon became steeper.
(Author’s note: do you know John Pyrch or Clark Nelson? I tried to located them for this article with no luck, but would love to hear from them!)
The Desert Mound Tour!
If you’re up for a road trip, there’s a lonely and scenic loop through the Tygh Ridge area that provides close-up looks at desert mounds, along with sweeping views of the Cascades (on a clear day). In May and June, the route is lined with wildflowers, but the trip is fascinating to explore through summer and fall, as well. A pair of nearly forgotten pioneer cemetaries along the way make for interesting stops, too, and both are filled with wildflowers in spring.
Though this makes for an easy day-trip in a car, it could also work as a bicycle tour for cyclists open to some well-maintained gravel roads mixed in with the paved sections. With the exception of a couple of OR 197 sections along the loop, there is little or no traffic to contend with — and even the highway is lightly traveled. This is lonely country!
Here’s a map of the loop, along with a link to a larger version to print for your trip:
The highlights of this 37-mile tour are keyed to the purple dots on the map and mileage for segments between the small orange dots is shown in the orange ovals. Here’s a segment-by-segment description of the tour:
1. From The Dalles, drive south on OR 197 for 8.7 miles to the Boyd Junction and turn left onto the Boyd Loop road. The tour begins here. Continue on this road toward Boyd.
Soon you will make a dogleg turn to the right through the tiny community of Boyd, then reach the beautiful Adkisson Bridge(A on the map) over Fifteenmile Creek. This historic 1925 structure was designed by Conde McCullough, the famed Oregon bridge engineer who designed most of the stunning bridges along the Oregon Coast Highway and several of the graceful bridge along the old scenic highway in the Columbia River Gorge. The nearby, historic Adkisson Mill completes the picturesque scene here. There’s a small pullout on the south side of the bridge.
2. Reach a signed intersection with Dry Hollow Road 2.5 miles from Boyd Junction. Stay straight here and continue 6.2 miles up Long Hollow Road.
As travel through Long Hollow, you’ll notice the steep slopes of the hollow have kept the farmer’s plows mostly at bay, providing a glimpse of what the entire area once looked like, with sagebrush and wildflowers covering the desert landscape. In spring, blue Lupine and yellow Buckwheat are the predominate wildflowers here and throughout the tour. You might see deer and even antelope along this part of the tour, too, and the first desert mounds will come into view (shown on map).
3. At a 3-way junction with Center Ridge Road and Tygh Ridge Road, turn right and begin following Tygh Ridge Road for the next 10.8 miles. This road is intially paved, but then turns to well-maintained gravel.
Immeidately after turning onto Tygh Ridge Road, watch for a wide shoulder pullout on a curve at the picturesque remains of the Nansene Community Hall (B on the map), located on the west (right) side of the road. This fading structure has its origins in the early 1900s when the area was still a center for sheep ranching. Now, it stands as the sole reminder of the community of Nansene, and its main residents are the hundreds of barn swallows that swoop in and out of the building and serenade visitors.
In spring, the meadows opposite the community hall (on the east side of the road) are filled with blue lupine and a view down Oak Creek Canyon toward the Deschutes River. There are great views of the meadow from along the fenceline, so please respect private property here. The view from Nansene also includes four Cascade volcanoes on a clear day: Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood, the top of Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams!
Continuing south on Tygh Ridge Road, several desert mounds appear along both sides of the road. Watch for the quarry described earlier in this article if you’d like to inspect soil mounds that have been dissected. The soil mound quarry(C on the map) is on the east side of the road. This is private land and may be gated, though the quarried mounds are visible from the main road.
Where Tygh Ridge Road turns to gravel, look to your left for a picturesque, abandoned farmhouse (D on the map) that dates back to the days of sheep ranching, but please observe private property here. There’s a pullout on the right side, opposite the farmstead.
Continue on Tygh Ridge Road as it gradually turn to the west, and begins to parallel the crest of Tygh Ridge (the long, gentle ridgeline to the south with communication towers marking its summit). Tygh Ridge and nearby Tygh Valley were named for the native peoples who lived in the area before white settlement in the mid-1800s.
In 1845, Tygh Ridge also saw the ill-fated Stephen Meek party pass through in a harrowing effort to reach The Dalles after losing their way on the Meek’s Cutoff. The “cutoff” was a supposed shortcut along the Oreogn Trail, but it turned into a dead end for the 200 wagons and 1,000 white emigrants in Stephen Meek’s party when they reached the chasm of the Deschutes Canyon. At this point, the party had come to realize that Meek had never traveled the route and they were now lost.
Starving and desperate, the Meek party crossed the Deschutes River at Sherar’s Falls, using ropes to haul their dissembled wagons across in an effor that took two weeks. From there, they somehow scaled Tygh Ridge with the help of a rescue party and eventually reached The Dalles.
Dozens died along the disatrous Meek’s Cutoff trek, and many more died of exhaustion after reaching the The Dalles in October 1845. As you travel across the sweeping north slopes of Tygh Ridge, it’s easy to imagine these weary emigrants to Oregon making their way across this terrain in creaky wagons. Their story was made into the acclaimed film “Meek’s Cutoff” in 2010.
In the westward section of Tygh Ridge Road, the continuous view sweeps from Mount Hood to Mount Adams on a clear day. Watch for a rustic, century-old barn on the left (E on the map) and several wildflower meadows and swarms of soil mounds and their accompanying rock rings on the right (F on the map) in this section of the tour.
4. Continue following Tygh Ridge Road until you reach OR 197. Turn left here in the direction of Tygh Valley, following the highway for 1.6 miles south to Dufur Gap Road, just beyond the Tygh Summit marker. Turn right to continue the tour on Dufur Gap Road.
You will now enter the Kingsley portion of the tour, which has some of the most accesible and interesting desert mounds in the area. There are several mounds in a swarm located along the east (right) side of Dufur Gap Road. This quiet road was the original highway through the area until it bypassed in the 1960s by the modern OR 197.
5. After traveling 1.2 miles on paved Dufur Gap Road come to the junction with Kingsley Road. Turn left (west) and follow gravel Kingsley Road for the next 2.6 miles.
As you continue through the Kingsley district, you’ll pass more swarms of desert mounds that have survived the plows. I’ve dubbed one group of these mounds (G on the map) as the “Garden Mounds”, as they are topped with a beautiful display of wildflowers in spring and frame a nice view of Mount Hood (see photo, below).
You probably won’t realize that Kingsley Road has became Hix Road at a bend by a farmhouse, but soon the route reaches a short paved section along this part of the tour, where Friend Road briefly joins Hix Road. There’s is an excellent group of desert mounds and rock rings at this intersection (H on the map), with views south to Mount Jefferson and Postage Stamp Butte. The latter is the broad western extent of Tygh Ridge and once had a fire lookout on the summit. The mounds here have especially well-developed rock rings and vernal pools in winter and spring.
6. From the junction with Friend Road, continue north along a brief paved section, then keep straight where paved Friend Road veers left and gravel Hix Road heads north. Continue on Hix Road for the next 4.0 miles.
Heading north on Hix Road you’ll pass another farmhouse on the right before reaching a sharp right turn, where a rough, dirt road heads off to the left toward a stand of Ponderosa pine on a low crest. If you love pioneer cemeteries but fear deep ruts, I recommend parking on the shoulder here and making short walk up this road to the pioneer Kingsley Cemetery (I on the map). Thanks to the rough access road, this is one of the loneliest places around, and in spring, yellow Balsamroot fill the cemetery. Mount Hood is big on the horizon and there are also some nice soil mounds bordering west and south sides of the cemetery.
Just beyond the dirt road spur to the Kingsley Cemetery, watch for the Kingsley Catholic Cemetery on the north side of the road (J on the map). Park on the north shoulder for a short walk to tour this beautiful pioneer cemetery, where the views on a clear day include Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. Soil mounds border this cemetery, as well, and are covered with blue Lupine and yellow Buckwheat in late spring.
The family plots in Kingsley Catholic Cemetery include a surprising number of grave markers for children, a poignant reminder that at the turn of the 20th Century the child mortatilty rate was nearly 1 in 5 in our country, thanks to deadly childhood diseases that have since been nearly eliminated by modern vaccines.
As you resume the tour heading northeast on Hix Road, you’ll pass still more swarms of soil mounds on the right and a couple more ranches as the road makes a gradual descent to Mays Canyon. On the far horizon, you can pick out the wrinkled Columbia Hills that mark the north wall of the Columbia River Gorge and some of the hundreds of modern, white windmills that now rise along the ridges of the Columbia Basin.
7. Reach a junction with paved Dufur Gap Road 4.0 miles from where Hix Road left paved Friend Road. Head left on Dufur Gap Road and travel 1.7 miles to a junction with OR 197.
This section of Dufur Gap Road travels through Mays Canyon, where you will pass several farm homes and likely see deer and possibly antelope along the way, as well as the distinctive magpies that are common in Oregon’s desert country.
You may also have noticed burned trees scattered throughout the Kingsley and Mays Canyon segments of the tour. These were victims of the massive Substation Fire that burned nearly 80,000 acres in July 2018. Though the ground was blackened across much of the area, wheat fields and wildflower meadows have since covered most traces of the fire in just two years, with only the scattered tree snags to remind us of the event.
8. At the junction with OR 197, turn left onto the highway and continue north 2.5 miles to Dufur, forking left onto Dufur Valley Road where a sign points to Dufur, and staying straight when the town of Dufur comes into view.
Be sure to make a stop at the Historic Balch Hotel(K on the map), which offers vintage lodging and fine meals. It’s the large brick structure on the right as you pull into this small town. Dufur has lots to offer, and makes a nice lunch stop for the tour, including a city park for picnicking.
If you make the tour during the second week of August, you’ll miss the spring wildflowers but be just in time for Vintage Dufur Days — known to old-timers as the Dufur Threshing Bee. And remember, when John F. Kennedy visited Dufur during his 1960 presidential campaign, he famously challenged the locals with “Ask not what Dufur can do ‘fer you, but rather, what you can do ‘fer Dufur!”
9. Continue through Dufur and rejoin OR 197 on the north end of town. Turn left toward The Dalles and head 3.9 miles to the Boyd Junction, which concludes the tour loop. Continue north on OR 197 to return to The Dalles.
The last secion of the tour follows OR 197 through more ranch country, but if you’re still up for another pioneer cemetery stop, don’t miss the well-maintained Dufur Community Cemetery (L on the map), located on the west (left) side of the highway, just north of Dufur. Watch or a grove of locust trees, the somewhat hard to spot cemetery driveway is just beyond. Graves here date back to the 1860s and trace some of the earliest white settlement in Oregon, when Dufur was along the Barlow Road route used by white settlers to reach the Willamette Valley. Mount Hood fills the western horizon on a clear day.
Still feeling hungry before the drive home? No trip to The Dalles is complete without a stop at Big Jim’s Drive-in, located just west of OR 197 on Highway 30, near the I-84 interchange. It has been a comfort-food institution in The Dalles since the 1960s.
You can go fancy at Big Jim’s with salmon and chips (or even grilled wild salmon!), but I recommend starting with the Jim Dandy burger basket. The house fries are excellent, and if you’re an onion ring fan, be sure to request the upgrade for $1 (or order both! You won’t regret it… though your cardiologist might). In our pandemic era, Big Jim’s has patio seating, a drive-thru and you can even call an order in from a marked space in their parking lot and have it delivered to your car window.
High on Mount Hood’s broad east face is the Newton Clark Glacier, third largest of the twelve named glaciers on the mountain. Many assume a hyphen must be missing in what appears to be two surnames, especially since the two major glacial outflows from this glacier are separately known as Newton Creek and Clark Creek. Who is this Newton character… and what about Clark?
Instead, it turns out that Newton Clark was just one man who made his place in local history as one of the early surveyors mapping the Mount Hood area. And in a rarity among place names in Oregon, his full name made it to our maps, where our modern naming rules limit honorary place names to surnames. It also turns out that nearby Surveyor’s Ridge, with its popular mountain biking trail, is also named for Newton Clark, albeit anonymously.
The sprawling glacier named for Newton Clark is unique among Mount Hood’s glaciers: it’s wider than it is long! While glaciers like the Eliot, White, Coe and Reid flow down the mountain in rivers of ice, the Newton Clark Glacier is draped like a big ice blanket on the east face of the mountain high atop a steep bench formed by the Newton Clark Prow, a massive lava outcrop that prevents the glacier from flowing any further down the mountain.
The Newton Clark Prow splits the glacier into its twin canyons, Clark Canyon to the south and Newton Canyon on the north. At nearly 8,000 feet in elevation, this jagged rock outcrop once divided a much larger ice age glacier into two rivers of ice that left today’s massive Newton Clark Moraine behind, a medial moraine that once had rivers of ice as high as the moraine flowing on both sides (you can read more on that topic in this blog article). Today, the Newton Clark Prow forms the rugged head of Newton Canyon, with summer meltwater from the glacier tumbling over its cliffs in dozens of waterfalls.
The broad Newton Clark Glacier is bordered on the north by Cooper Spur, a long, gentle ridge that extends from Cloud Cap to the summit of Mount Hood. At 8,514 feet, the summit of Cooper Spur is among the highest points in Oregon that can be reached by trail, and one of the more popular hikes on the mountain. The view from the top of Cooper Spur provides a close-up look the rugged, crevassed surface of the Newton Clark Glacier.
From below, the Newton Clark Glacier actually looks stranded (below), sitting unusually high on the mountain, with its crevasse fields spreading out in multiple directions as the glacier sprawls above the cliffs of the Newton Clark Prow.
Downstream, the Newton and Clark canyons eventually merge at the southern foot of the Newton Clark Moraine, where the flat, mile-wide floor of the East Fork Hood River valley begins. Here, the arms of the ice age ancestor of the Newton Clark Glacier continued for miles down the mountain toward Hood River, creating the broad, U-shaped valley we travel today on the OR 35 portion of the Mount Hood Loop Highway.
Surprisingly, the two glacial outflows don’t merge on the valley floor. Instead, they each flow into the East Fork Hood River separately, about a mile apart. Both Newton and Clark creeks are notoriously volatile glacial streams, each changing course on the floor of the East Fork valley during recurring flood events.
Of the two outflows, Newton Creek is the largest and most volatile stream, repeatedly sending massive debris flows down the East Fork Hood River valley over the years and washing out OR 35 in the process (more on that later). Clark Creek is less violent, but still a powerful glacial stream that challenges Timberline Trail hikers attempting to ford it during the summer glacial melt.
Now that we’ve met the Newton Clark Glacier and its sibling streams, what about the man behind the name?
Who was Newton Clark?
Newton Clark was born in Illinois in 1838 and soon moved as a child with his family to Wisconsin as pioneer settlers. Clark spent his youth there, becoming an exceptional student and later studying surveying at the Point Bluff Institute.
In October 1860, Newton Clark married Scottish immigrant Mary A. Hill, and the two resided in North Freedom, Wisconsin. Just one year later, in September 1861, 23-year old Newton enlisted in the 14th Volunteer Infantry, Company K Wisconsin volunteers of the Union Army. His company served in 14 battles under General Ulysses. S. Grant in Civil War battles across the south.
Like so many in their Civil War generation, young Newton and Mary’s married life was put on hold during his four years of service. Mary remained in Wisconsin with their young daughter during Newton’s infantry service, undoubtedly anxious for her young husband’s return from our nation’s deadliest war.
When he left for battle, Newton said “If I never come back remember that you have our little Minnie to live for, work for her and she will be a comfort to you.” Newton later returned from battle, but their little Minnie died during his time away at war.
Newton Clark served as Quartermaster during his Civil War enlistment, and he furnished the flag that was raised above the Vicksburg, Mississippi courthouse when the war was ended on May 9, 1865. After the war, Newton was an active veteran with the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) fraternal organization. The above portrait above was taken late in is life, and proudly shows his G.A.R. insignia.
The G.A.R. was much more than what we think of with today’s fraternal organizations. Following the Civil War, the G.A.R. emerged as among the first and largest advocacy group on the nation’s political scene, dedicated to both political causes and the benevolent interests of their veteran members.
The G.A.R. was an important arm of the Republican Party (at the time, the progressive party in American politics), and in this capacity the organization was deeply involved in the reconstruction that followed the war. Among their efforts, the G.A.R. actively promoted voting rights for black Civil War veterans. They also became a racially integrated organization at a time when the emerging Jim Crow era was about to stall civil rights in this country with another century of racial segregation and persecution of black Americans. At its political peak in the late 1800s, the G.A.R. had nearly half a million members.
The G.A.R. also focused on advancing Republican candidates to public office and promoted patriotism and veteran’s rights across the country. This included providing pensions for veterans, creating hundreds of war memorials so that the Civil War might never be forgotten and establishment of Memorial Day as a national holiday, a legacy many of us celebrate without knowing of its origins.
In his later years, Newton Clark served as an officer in the Ancient Order of United Workmen (A.O.U.W.) for decades, a fraternal benefit society formed to provide mutual social and financial support for its membership after the Civil War. By the late 1800s, it was the largest fraternal organization in the country, and one that Newton continued to serve until his death.
Newton and Mary’s Life in the West
Soon after Newton’s return from his service in the Civil War, he and Mary moved west to the new Dakota Territory that had been created in 1861, just as the Civil War erupted. There, the Clarks farmed as pioneers in what is now the state of South Dakota.
The old Dakota Territory was massive, encompassing today’s North and South Dakota, most of Montana and the north half of Wyoming until statehood came to Wyoming and the Dakotas in 1888-89, long after the Clarks had moved again, this time to Oregon.
During their time in the Dakota Territory, Newton and Mary continued to have children, in the wake of losing their baby daughter Minnie, eventually adding two daughters and a son to their young family. The Clarks built the first frame house in Minnehaha County, where they farmed on a homestead located two miles from today’s town of Sioux Falls. Newton also worked as a surveyor of public lands for eight years, where he laid out the sections and townships in much of the Dakota Territory.
Newton Clark entered politics while in the Dakota Territory, too. He served as school superintendent, and was chairman of the board of county commissioners in Minnehaha county for several years before serving as a state legislator in the Dakota Territorial Legislator in the early 1870s. Newton Clark’s public service in the Dakota Territory put his name on the map of today’s South Dakota, with Clark County and the county seat of Clark, South Dakota named for him.
The grasshopper plagues that swept the high plains in mid-1870s eventually drove Clark from the Dakota Territory, and he continued his family’s migration west to Oregon in 1877. That year, he left Mary behind to care for the children in the Dakota Territory while he joined up his parents, Thomas and Delilah Clark, who had been living in Colorado.
Together, Newton and his parents traveled three months overland in the summer of 1877, arriving in the Hood River area on September 1. Mary Clark and their three children, William, Jeanette and Grace, eventually joined Newton and his parents in 1878, settling into their new home in Oregon.
Newton later said “I tried farming on my homestead in Dakota, but after two years of successful crops of grasshoppers, I became a disgusted with that form of agriculture and struck for Oregon, driving a team overland.”
Newton and Mary Clark arrived in Oregon with almost no money to their name, and set about creating a new life in Hood River. They were among the first pioneers to settle there, and Newton initially found work cutting cordwood and splitting shingles for other valley settlers. By 1878, he was able to purchase 160 acres on the west side of the Hood River Valley, where they built their family home. Newton’s parents built their home on an adjoining parcel.
Newton Clark said later of their new home “We found the Hood River Valley as nature had designed it and habited by a handful of the pioneers… the salubrity of the climate, its freedom from storms of wind and lightning of summer and its frigid blizzards of winter as compared with the Dakotas, all delighted us.”
Newton soon began taking contracts with the federal government to survey public lands in the rugged western and southern parts of Hood River County, establishing the section lines in the Upper Hood River Valley and surrounding mountain country that are still the basis of our maps today. Most of these areas would become part of today’s Mount Hood National Forest. Loggers in the early 1900s were still reporting survey marks on trees left by Newton Clark’s crews more than 30 years later.
Like today’s immigrants to Oregon, Newton Clark was drawn to explore the unmatched scenery that we sometimes take for granted. He was among the first to summit Mount Hood and he was also a member of the first party of white men to set eyes on iconic Lost Lake.
Surveying and exploring in Mount Hood country the 1880s was difficult and dangerous. Trips into the mountains took days, with Clark’s crews carrying heavy supplies on their backs and packhorses. There were few trails, so much of the travel was cross-country, through dense, virgin forests.
Like other pioneer explorers of Mount Hood, Clark eventually had a feature on the mountain named for him. For unknown reasons, his full name was used in naming the Newton Clark Glacier. Perhaps this was to prevent confusion with the many features in the West named for William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition? It remains among the few places in Oregon to feature the full name of its namesake.
The Clarks left Hood River in 1888 when Newton was elected Grand Recorder of the A.O.U.W., his beloved fraternal older, though he retained some of his property in the Hood River Valley until his death. He served in this capacity with the A.O.U.W. for the next 20 years, with the family living in downtown Portland in a house at “400 Broadway”. Under Portland’s historic address system, this would have been at the corner of Broadway and Stark, where the Hotel Lucia now stands today — in theory, as least.
This illustrated map from 1890 shows a home located at the southeast corner of Broadway and Start, a few blocks from the once iconic Portland Hotel that stood where today’s Pioneer Courthouse Square is located.
While the 1890 map seems to provide a plausible case for where the Clarks lived in Portland, the fact that today’s historic Hotel Lucia (once called the Imperial) was built in 1909 at this corner clouds that history. The Clarks moved back to Hood River that year, which might make a plausible case for a new hotel going up where home had been, but newspaper accounts show them living at the same home in Portland a few years later, with their daughter. So, more research is needed to know just where the Clarks lived in Portland.
The family returned to Hood River in 1909 when Newton retired from his A.O.U.W. office and built a new home on a hill above town that became their retirement residence.
During these later years in Hood River, the Clarks spent summers at a cabin Newton built at Lake Lyttle on the Oregon Coast, in today’s town of Rockaway Beach. Unlike today’s travelers, they didn’t follow roads to Rockaway Beach. Instead, they took the new Oregon Pacific Railway that had recently opened a route through the Coast Range from Hillsboro to Tillamook.
It’s unknown if Newton’s parents joined him when the Clarks moved to Portland in 1888, but his father died in 1892 and historic accounts show his mother living with the Clark family in Portland when she died in 1905, at the age of 98. So, one possibility would be that Delilah Clark joined her son’s family when Thomas Clark passed away in 1892, though there are no history accounts to confirm this.
What is clear is that Newton was close enough to his parents to bring them west to Hood River with his family in 1877, and later, to bring his elderly mother into his home in Portland. Somewhere out there, a portrait of the extended Clark family exists, and I’m hopeful a reader of this article might be able to help with that.
Newton Clark’s Family
True to the era, less is known about Newton Clark’s wife, Mary, beyond her husband’s description of their life together. She was a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, and according to the historical accounts available, she shared Newton’s passion and determination in their adventurous life as pioneers.
Two of Newton and Mary’s children died while the parents were still living, baby Minnie in the early 1860s, while Newton was serving in the Civil War and later, their adult daughter Grace (Clark) Dwinell, in 1910.
Grace finished school in Portland after the family had relocated there in 1888, and became a West Side (now Lincoln) High School graduate. What history is recorded about Grace describes her as outgoing and with a beautiful singing voice that she would often entertain with at family gatherings.
Grace Clark met young Frank Dwinnell while on a trip to visit family in Wisconsin, and he followed her back to Portland, where the two married. They moved back to Wisconsin for a time and started a family, but sometime in the late 1890s, Grace contracted tuberculosis — then called “consumption” and the leading cause of death at the turn of the century.
At the time, Grace attributed her illness to the harsh climate in Wisconsin, and the family relocated back to Oregon. After initially recovering from the disease, her tuberculosis eventually returned and Grace died in 1910 at the age of 37. Her funeral was held at Newton and Mary’s new home overlooking Hood River. Frank Dwinnell later moved back to Wisconsin with their young son and daughter to be near his family.
Two of Newton and Mary Clark’s children survived them, including their son William Lewis Clark and daughter Jeanette (Clark) Brazelton. Jeanette’s life is the least documented of the three Clark children who survived childhood, except that she became Mrs. W.B. Brazelton and appeared to living with her parents in their Portland home at the time of their deaths in 1918. I was unable to discover more about her life or even where she was buried for this article, so hopefully a reader will have more of Jeanette’s history to share.
William Lewis Clark followed his father’s footsteps and became a prominent civil engineer in Oregon. William was eleven when the family moved west to Oregon, and after finishing school in Hood River, he worked on his father’s survey crews. At age 19, William went to work for the Northern Pacific Railroad and later the Southern Pacific, overseeing various construction projects across the West.
William married Mary Ann Mabee in 1880 (later records show her as Estella Mabee), and the two would later have a son in 1899, Newton Mabee Clark, who would become a third-generation engineer in the Clark Family. Newton Mabee Clark attended Stanford University, graduating in 1916. He was enlisted in Stanford’s elite Student Army Training Corps, a unit of the U.S. Marines, and served in World War I. Newton M. Clark died in Seattle in 1975 and had no children.
In 1900, the year after his only son was born, William Lewis Clark left the railroads and became the City of Portland’s district engineer for next seven years. William returned with his family to Hood River in 1907, shortly before his parents made their own return to Hood River from Portland.
For the next ten years he worked in the flour and grain business for C.H Stranahan in Hood River before returning to public service in 1917 for the Oregon Highway Department, at a time when the Historic Columbia River Highway construction was in full swing.
William finished his career with the City of Hood River, serving as city engineer from 1922 to (apparently) his death in April 1930, at the age of 62. Mary Ann (also listed as Estella) Clark moved to Seattle sometime after William’s death, apparently to be near their own son. She died in 1950 at the age of 75.
Back to Portland to serve his beloved A.O.U.W
Historical accounts show that Newton and Mary had moved back to Portland in about 1914. He had been called back from retirement to once again serve Grand Recorder of his beloved A.O.U.W. in the wake of so many members of the organization being called to serve active duty in World War I. If this timeline is correct, the Clarks spent just five years in Hood River after their 1909 return, and the photos in this article of the Clarks taking part in community life in Hood River marked their final days living there.
Newton and Mary Clark both died in 1918, and remarkably, both were exactly 80 years and 24 days old at the time of their deaths. Newton died on June 21 of that year at his daughter Jeanette Brazelton’s home in Portland, which seems to be the home where Newton and Mary lived in during their previous 20 years in Portland. Despite a global influenza pandemic that year, Newton died of a “paralytic stroke”, according to historical new accounts.
Newton’s death was widely covered by newspapers in Portland and Hood River, and his funeral at Riverside Congregational Church in Hood River drew a large turnout from the community, including many of the surviving pioneers who had known the Clarks since the mid-1800s. However, Mary Clark was in failing health when her husband died, and she was unable to travel to Hood River to attend his service.
The Hood River Glacier published this tribute to Newton:
“A soldier, and a fighting one, for four years of his early manhood, and then a frontiersman, he experienced life as men of the following generations could not. It was a privilege to hear him recount tales of the days of the past. As everlasting as the hills and mountain crags he loved were the principles and rugged honesty of Newton Clark. He was loyal to the things he believed in and fought untiringly for their accomplishment.
“But few men knew that Mr. Clark had passed the age of 80 years. He walked with erectness and his step was firm. News of his death brought a shock of grief to all here last Friday. His comrades, men who knew him best, and loved him, and the families of pioneers, heard the sad news with pains of deepest regrets.
“Another of our pioneers has gone on the long trail, and we will miss him.”
The Hood River Glacier, June 27, 1918
After the shock of Newton’s death, Mary seemed to be recovering and traveled to Hood River with Jeanette to visit their old home, returning in “better health and good spirits” according to news accounts. But on the morning of July 20, Jeanette found that her mother had died in the night at her home in Portland, just a month after Newton has passed away.
This tribute was published in the Hood River Glacier as the community mourned the loss of two of its most prominent pioneers:
Newton and Mary Clark
“Married at North Freedom, Wisconsin on October 17, 1860, Mr. and Mrs. Newton Clark, of this city, have trodden the pathway of life’s long journey together longer than the most couples of Oregon. Yet few men or women who have not yet reached the three-score-and-ten mark are more active or vigorous than this sturdy couple, a typical product of the frontier and pioneer life.
“With all faculties alert and hale and hearty both are enjoying their old age. Both are possessed of an optimism and enthusiasm that youth might envy.”
The Hood River Glacier, April 6, 1916
Though Newton and Mary Clark spent most of their years in Oregon living in Portland, their hearts were clearly in Hood River, where they had first carved out a life as Oregon pioneers. Not only did they choose to retire to Hood River (however briefly before Newton was called back to service), they also chose to be buried there, just a few steps from where they had buried their daughter Grace eight years before, and where their son William would be buried just twelve years after they died.
As I researched this article, I grew increasingly dumfounded that Newton Clark isn’t more celebrated in our local history. True, he does have a spectacular glacier named for him, which sure beats a street or local park, but his commitment to service puts him in rare company among the early pioneers in Oregon. Fortunately, his contemporaries recognized this and there are excellent historical accounts of his life, if only we take the time to discover them.
For the direct quotes from Newton Clark used in this article, I turned to a front-page interview and profile published on April 6, 1916 by the Hood River Glacier, just two years before his death. I’ve created a PDF of the entire article that [link=]you can read here.[/link]
For additional history, I turned to other news accounts from the era, as well as an excellent oral history largely written by Newton Clark, himself, in the History of Early Pioneer Families of Hood River, Oregon, compiled in 1913 by Mrs. D.M. Coon. Had these two efforts to record his life in his own words not been made, much of Newton Clark’s extraordinary contribution to our history would have ben lost to time.
And now, some unfinished business…
A Modest Proposal…
Call it a burr under my saddle, but when I learned decades ago that Newton Clark was one man, not a hyphenation, it bothered me that the two outflow streams were each given one half of his name. It struck me as a combination of historical ignorance and a degree of disrespect behind that decision, wherever it came from. So, where did it come from?
My guess is that these were lighthearted names attached by an early forest ranger, long ago, when most of the features in our national forests were casually named with little thought that these names would stick for centuries to come. Perhaps even Barney Cooper, the first district ranger for the Hood River area, named these streams in the early 1900s? And if Barney came up with the names, then surely he knew Newton Clark personally? After all, Hood River was a very small community in those early days. Perhaps it was Newton Clark, himself, who came up with these names while out on a survey?
History doesn’t provide an answer, but a look at some of the earliest topographic maps (below) confirms that both Newton and Clark creeks were named by the 1920s, when the Mount Hood Loop Highway had been completed and visitors began pouring into the area.
Whatever the reason behind the names for this pair of streams, the fact is that place names are one of the best and most durable ways to preserve our history for future generations. That’s why the confusion these names might cause remains a problem, at least in my mind.
Thus, I have a modest proposal, and it’s quite simple: add one word to the name of each stream and you not only solve the potential confusion, you also give Mary Clark her due. After all, would Newton have managed his remarkable life without a remarkable partner like Mary? Of course not.
• Newton Creek should become Newton Clark Creek
• Clark Creek should become Mary Clark Creek
See how easy that is? And there’s some logic behind it, too, since Newton Creek carries the majority of the outflow from the Newton Clark Glacier.
Here’s how this would look on the topographic maps — easy fix!
Of course, when it comes to geographic names, nothing is easy! The Oregon Geographic Names Board (OGBN) is a volunteer panel administered by the Oregon Historical Society that serves as the overseer of geographic names in our state. New names or changes to existing names must be approved by this panel, and among their various criteria are support for public agencies (in this case the Forest Service) and the following:
“If the proposed name commemorates an individual, the person must be deceased for at least five years; a person’s surname is preferred; and the person must have some historic connection or have made a significant contribution to the local area.”
The Clarks have certainly passed the 5-year requirement, 102 years after their deaths. The second part of this requirement could be more of a challenge, but the fact that the Newton Clark Glacier already contains the full name of a historic figure would be my argument for making another exception, here. The last part is easy, as the contribution the Clarks made to the area is undeniable and well documented. Most importantly, the proposed change would also clear up potential confusion, something the OGBN also factors into their decisions.
So, I’ve added this to my list of OGBN proposals that I’ll someday submit when I have a moment, and when I do, I will reach out to the Hood River History Museum and U.S. Forest Service for their endorsements of the proposal, as well.
Exploring Newton Clark Country
Now that we’ve met Newton Clark and his family, the following is a short tour of the places named for him in Mount Hood country.
For Portlanders, the Newton Clark Glacier is on the dark side of the moon — it’s on the east face of the mountain, hidden from view from the rainy, evening side of the Cascade Range. But from the morning side of the mountain it’s prominent, and dominates the east face of Mount Hood.
Most who see the Newton Clark Glacier up-close view it from the crest of popular Cooper Spur, from nearby Elk Meadows or from Lookout Mountain, due east by five miles, across the East Fork valley. But some of the best views are from Gnarl Ridge, on the Timberline Trail. Here, the impressive scale of the Newton Creek canyon and the full width of the glacier are in full view. In summer, a series of tall waterfalls cascade from the glacier over the Newton Clark Prow and into Newton Canyon.
True to its name, Gnarl Ridge is home to hundreds of ancient, gnarled Whitebark pine that have survived the harsh conditions here for centuries. There’s no easy way to Gnarl Ridge. Both approaches, either from Cloud Cap or Hood River Meadows, involve a lot of climbing, though the scenery is some of the finest in Oregon. One advantage of the Cloud Cap approach is that no glacial stream crossings are required. However, several permanent, and potentially treacherous snowfields must be crossed on this highest section of the Timberline Trail.
The trail to Elk Meadows is among the most popular on the mountain, and deservedly so, and it provides a photogenic view of Mount Hood’s east face. This is a good family hike for a summer day, but it does require crossing Newton Creek without the aid of a footbridge — which can be an exciting experience. By mid-summer, Timberline Trail hikers have usually stitched together a seasonal crossing with available logs and stones, but expect wet feet when the water is high!
For a more remote experience, following the Newton Creek Trail to either Newton Creek or Clark Creek (or both) has dramatic views and a lot of rugged mountain terrain to explore. The route to the Newton Clark Trail crosses Clark Creek on a log bridge that has somehow survived this rowdy stream, then turns north and travels along Newton Creek before making a gradual climb along the northeast shoulder of the Newton Clark Moraine.
At the junction of the Newton Creek Trail with the Timberline Trail you can go right for a visit to Newton Creek or left to head over to Clark Creek. Or both, which is how I enjoy doing this hike.
Where Newton Creek canyon is vast and awesome, Clark Creek canyon has a few surprises, including lovely, verdant Heather Canyon, a side canyon with a string of splashing waterfalls.
The Clark Canyon headwall is also unique. The receding Newton Clark Glacier has left a wide, scoured rock amphitheater behind that has dozens of tiny streams running across its face in summer. To skiers, this is known as the “Super Bowl”, and it’s impressive to see close-up.
Downstream from the bowl, Clark Creek drops over a major waterfall (visible from the Timberline Trail) before reaching the debris-covered floor of the valley. This is where the Timberline Trail crosses Clark Creek, so if you like to avoid glacial stream crossings, it’s a nice turnaround spot for lunch. But if you don’t mind the crossing, a pretty waterfall on Heather Creek lies just a quarter mile beyond the Clark Creek crossing and makes for an especially lovely stop.
Heading the other direction on the Timberline Trail from the Newton Creek Trail junction quickly takes you to Newton Creek, proper. In most years, an impromptu rope helps hikers navigate a washed-out bank as you approach the chaotic canyon floor, and this is a preview of what can be one of the more difficult glacial crossings on the Timberline Trail.
Like Clark Creek, you can skip the crossing this glacial stream and simply enjoy a lunch atop one of the many table-sized boulders that fill Newton Canyon, with a fine view of the mountain. The Newton Clark Glacier is more prominent here, and the steep cliffs of Gnarl Ridge and Lamberson Spur rise along the far canyon wall.
Newton and Clark creeks are both thick with glacial till in summer, and don’t make good water sources, but Heather Creek runs clear and there’s a tiny creek flowing into Newton Canyon where the Timberline Trail approaches the canyon floor that provides both drinking water and a couple of shady campsites.
Exploring Surveyors Ridge
Though an anonymous tribute, Surveyors Ridge is also named for Newton Clark, and it’s well worth exploring. If you’re a mountain biker, I need say no more. You’ve been there and taken in the sweeping vistas!
But if you’re a hiker, I recommend making a trip to Bald Butte, which forms the northern end of Surveyor’s Ridge. It’s known to a few as “the other Dog Mountain” for its beautiful yellow balsamroot and blue lupine meadows in May and early June each year that echo the much more popular counterpart in the Gorge. Plus, the view of Mount Hood and the upper Hood River Valley from Bald Butte are stunning.
There are a couple of ways to get to Bald Butte. If you’re up for a stiff climb, you can take the Oak Ridge Trail (the trailhead is just south of the Hood River Ranger Station, off OR 35). This steep but scenic trail switchbacks up an open slope of Oregon white oak and spring wildflowers before entering forest and joining the Surveyors Ridge Trail. Turn left and hike a couple more miles and you’re on top of Bald Butte.
If you don’t mind driving a bit and are looking for a shorter climb, you can also take Pinemont Drive from where it intersects OR 35 (at the obvious crest between the middle and upper Hood River valleys) and follow this road for several miles to the east shoulder of Bald Butte. Watch for a gravel spur road on the right, shortly after you pass under a swath of transmission towers, and follow the spur to a trailhead under the powerlines.
The view from the trailhead is spectacular enough, but following the trail from here (which is really the old, primitive lookout road) to the summit of Bald Butte is even more sublime, passing several wildflower meadows that bloom in May and early June.
When you make the final ascent of Bald Butte, it’s hard to ignore the impact that off-road vehicles are having on the butte. Hopefully, the Forest Service decision to close most areas in the forest to these destructive vehicles will eventually be enforced. In the meantime, there’s a bit more on the subject in this earlier blog article on the fate of Bald Butte.
For a completely different slice of the Surveyor’s Ridge Trail, you can simply ramble the section north of Shellrock Mountain, where there are several big views of the mountain, plus a look into the weird terrain of Badlands Basin, where an ancient layer of volcanic ash and debris that has been carved into fantastic shapes. You can hike to this area from the Gibson Prairie Horse Camp.
The trail spur is located across the road, and if you turn left on the Surveyors Ridge Trail you’ll be heading toward views of Shellrock Mountain and Badlands Basin. Several handy boulders in the steep meadow pictured above make for a good destination for this short, easy hike. Turn right on Surveyors Ridge Trail, and you can take a shorter hike to Rimrock, where the views are somewhat overgrown, but still nice.
The 2006 Floods
Visiting the twin canyons of the Newton Clark Glacier is a great way to appreciate the raw power of the floods it has generated over the years. While Clark Creek can certainly hold its own, Newton Creek is the most fearsome stream on Mount Hood’s east side. Views along the lower section of the Newton Creek Trail (below) tell the story, with truck-sized boulders and stacks of 80-foot logs tossed about in a quarter-mile wide flood channel.
Much of the more recent devastation you see here occurred in the fall of 2006, when heavy rains fell on a blanket of early snow, and combined to send a wall of rock and mud down the canyon.
The debris flow roared down to Highway 35, blocking culverts, covering the road with boulders and washing out large sections of road bed. A similar event was occurring on the White River at the same time, temporarily cutting off access to the Mount Hood Meadows resort from both east and west. As sudden and violent as this event seemed, in reality it was part of an ongoing erosional process as old as the mountain, itself.
We can see this ancient story playing out in new LIDAR imagery, a form of aerial radar used to map the earth’s surface in stunning detail, revealing landforms that could never be captured with conventional surveying. Over the past decade, the Oregon LIDAR Consortium has been working to bring this new mapping technology to a larger audience, including for the Mount Hood area. LIDAR has allowed geoscientists to map the history of faults, floodplains and landslides as never before.
The map below is from the Oregon LIDAR project, and shows how Newton and Clark creeks emerge from their narrow, twin mountain canyons to spread out on the floor of the broad East Fork Hood River valley. The valley floor is made up of loose debris deposited from these floods over the millennia, and both Newton and Clark creeks have changed course in this soft material with regularity.
(Click here for a larger view of the Newton Clark Flood Zone map)
You can see this history in the maze of braided channels that show up on LIDAR. Whereas topographic maps simply show a relatively flat, featureless valley floor here, LIDAR reveals hundreds of interwoven flood channels across what we now know as the Newton Clark flood zone.
Many of these channels were formed centuries ago, and some in our lifetimes. Some may have flowed for decades without much change, while others may have formed in a single event, then went dry. Both Newton and Clark creeks are continually on the move, and so long as the main steam of the East Fork is on the opposite, and downhill side the Mount Hood Loop Highway (OR 35), both streams will continue to wreak havoc on the highway.
In 2012 the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and ODOT replaced the bridge at White River and built massive new culverts for Clark and Newton Creeks on the east side of the mountain (below).
The following are a few photos taken after the water subsided in the fall of 2006, and ODOT crews were assessing the damage to OR 35. The damage shown here occurred over a 24-hour span.
So far, the new flood structures at Newton Creek have not been tested by a major flood event. But when you consider the mosaic of old stream channels in the LIDAR imagery that have been created over the centuries by hundreds of flood events, these new structures are temporary, at best. It’s only a matter of time.
I’ve mentioned several hikes in this part of the article, and they can also be found in much more detail in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide at the links below. Enjoy!
Special thanks to the Hood River History Museum for permission to include photos from their outstanding collection of historic images in this article. Like all museums, they are closed to the public until further notice because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has an immediate impact on funding their operations, so please consider supporting the museum during this crisis with a donation. You can make one-time or ongoing monthly donations via PayPal, just go to the “donate” link on their website to support their valuable work.
And another special thanks to Oregon Hikers off-trail legend Chip Down for permission to use his photo of the Newton Clark Prow, one of the least-explored places on Mount Hood. You can read his trip report and see more of his outstanding photos of the Newton Clark backcountry over here.
Postscript:this article was two years in the making (!), as the story of Newton Clark is told in bits and pieces in century-old sources. Despite the miracle of the internet and the astonishing information we have at our fingertips in our time, uncovering local history is still like peeling back the layers of an onion. With each new discovery, more mysteries are uncovered… and blog articles get a bit longer and a bit later!
In this spirit, please help me improve this short history of Newton and Mary Clark and their family where I’ve made errors or omissions.
Thanks for stopping by and reading this especially long entry!
The coming year marks the 16th annual scenic calendar that I’ve assembled for the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, with each calendar drawing from photos from the previous year of Mount Hood country. In the beginning, the proceeds helped defray the costs of the campaign website and (beginning in 2008) the WyEast Blog. But for the past several years, all proceeds have gone to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), our premier trail stewards and advocates in Oregon (more on that toward the end of this article).
Looking back, the early calendars were more than a bit rough, especially given the clunky on-demand printing options in those early days of the internet and the emerging state of digital cameras, too! This is the “homey” inaugural cover that featured Elk Cove as it appeared way back in 2004:
Over the years, the calendar has evolved, and on-demand printing quality has become downright exceptional. Each year I set aside my favorite photos over the course of the year, typically a few dozen by the time calendar season rolls around. Then the hard part begins: picking just 13 images to tell the story of Mount Hood and the Gorge. And as in years passed, this blog article tells a bit of the backstory behind images in the new calendar and includes a few photos that didn’t make the calendar.
For 2020, the cover image is from a favorite spot on Middle Mountain, the rambling series of forested buttes that separate the upper and lower portions of the Hood River Valley. The sylvan view of Mount Hood from here is hard to match:
But the story of Middle Mountain is a bit less idyllic. Though most of the mountain is owned by Hood River County, the agency still hasn’t gotten the memo on modern, sustainable forestry and continues to aggressively log these public lands with old-school clearcuts.
This makes for low (or at least lower) taxes for Hood River County residents, but at the expense of future sustainability of the forest — which means future generations in Hood River are really paying the tab. This rather large clearcut (below) appeared this year, just east of the spot where the cover image for the calendar was captured, on a climate-vulnerable south-facing slope.
Will the forest recover here once again, as it always has before? Probably. But Pacific Northwest forest scientists are warning Oregonians not to take our low-elevation Douglas fir forests for granted, as they may not return, especially on hot south and west-facing slopes. Consider that just uphill from this spot some slopes on Middle Mountain are already too dry to support conifers, and are home to a few scattered Oregon white oak trees. Now would be a good time for Hood River County to adopt a longer view of its forests, and begin planning for more selective, sustainable harvests that don’t put the survival of their forests at risk.
For the January calendar image, I chose a close-up of the Sandy Headwall, which forms Mount Hood’s towering west face. This is a favorite spot for me after the first big snowfall of the year, when the mountain is suddenly transformed into a glowing white pyramid:
I have a little secret to share about this view, too. It turns out I’m not much of an “alpenglow” fan, which is downright sacrilegious for a photographer to admit! So, you’re unlikely to see one in the annual calendar. I just prefer the long shadows and shades of blue and ivory that light up in the hour beforesunset that are featured in the January image.
If you’re not familiar, alpenglow is that rosy cast that often appears at or just after sunset, and pictured on waytoo many postcards and calendars — at least for my taste! But my other little secret is that I still capture plenty of alpenglow photos, too. Who knows, maybe my tastes will change someday?
The following image didn’t make the calendar, but it shows the transformation from the above view that unfolded over the course of 30 minutes or as sun dropped over the horizon that cold, October evening:
February also features another snow scene, this time along the White River, when the stream nearly disappeared under ten feet of snow last winter:
But the White River photo came courtesy of an aborted snowshoe trip that day at nearby Pocket Creek. My plan was to hike up to a view of Mount Hood and Elk Mountain from the north slopes of Gunsight Ridge. I had made the trip about ten years ago and liked the sense of depth that having Elk Mountain in front of Mount Hood created from this angle. Instead, here’s what I found when I reached the viewpoint:
This isn’t the first viewpoint that has disappeared behind growing forests in my years of exploring Mount Hood, nor am I sad that the view went away. After all, this one came courtesy of a 1980s Forest Service clearcut, and while the view was nice, a recovered forest is even better. And besides, I still have this photo from 2009 to remind me of view that once existed here:
So, I returned to the trailhead that day and headed over to the White River for a short snowshoe trip in the evening light. While I picked a photo of the river and mountain for the calendar, there were some very pretty views unfolding behind me, too. These images capture the last rays of winter sun lighting up the crests of Bonney Butte and Barlow Butte. They may not be calendar-worthy, but are lovely scenes, nonetheless:
For the March calendar image, I picked a scene from Rowena Plateau, a spot famous for its spectacular displays of yellow Balsamroot and blue Lupine. The calendar view looks north across the Columbia River to the Washington community of Lyle, a town that nests seamlessly into the Gorge landscape, thanks in large part to the protections of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area:
But the view behind me that day was pretty nice, too, though it didn’t make it into the calendar. This image (below) looks south toward McCall Point from the same vantage point, with still more drifts of wildflowers spreading across the terraced slopes:
For April, I chose a popular scene along the Old Salmon River Trail on Mount Hood’s southwest side just as the bright greens of spring were exploding in this rainforest. Here, a grove of 600-year old Western red cedar and Douglas fir somehow avoided several cycles of logging in the 1800s and 1900s to survive as the closest ancient forest to Portland:
How big is that Western red cedar on left? I’ve been asked that question a few times, and short of actually measuring it, I stepped in front of the camera to serve as a human yardstick (well, two yards, as I’m exactly six feet tall). Subtract a few inches for my hat, and I’d estimate the trunk to be about 15 feet across at the base and about 10 feet thick a bit further up.
What do you think?
One thing is for sure, we’re so fortunate that these old sentinels have survived to give us a glimpse into what many of our rainforest valleys used to look like.
Further down the trail, I also captured this scene (below) of a pair of leaning giants that mark the spot of an ancient nurse log, long since rotted away and revealing the roots that once anchored these trees to the nurse log when they were youngsters. Someday, they will fall and become nurse logs, too, repeating the rainforest cycle.
This unique pair of trees is easy to find if you’re exploring the Old Salmon River Trail. They’re located right along the river (below), at a scenic spot just off the trail where there are plenty of boulders for picnics and even a tiny beach in summer. It’s just beyond one of the rustic footbridges along the trail, and downstream from the ancient tree grove.
For May, I chose another photo from the Rowena Plateau, partly because it was such a good bloom this year, but also for the gnarled Oregon white oak that grows on this little knoll (below).
After exploring Rowena that day, I crossed the river and spent the evening over at Columbia Hills State Park, in Washington. While this sprawling preserve is certainly no secret these days, you can still count on it being pretty lonely once you hike into the vast meadows along the park’s trails.
This is the scene looking back toward The Dalles and Mount Hood as the sun dropped over the horizon on that lovely spring day:
For June, I selected an old standby, the understated but elegant Upper Butte Creek Falls (below), located in the Santiam State Forest. I visit Butte Creek at least twice each year, just because the area is so delightful, and also because it’s a showcase of what Oregon’s state forests could be.
The Oregon Department of Forestry has gradually expanded recreation opportunities throughout the state forest system over the past couple of decades, in recognition of growing demand for trails in our state. It’s an uphill battle, as state forests have generally been viewed by our state and local governments as a cash register, thanks to 1930s era laws that have traditionally been interpreted as promoting logging above all else.
Today, a group of Oregon counties are actually suing the state for “retroactive” payments based on this interpretation, though it’s an absurd and misguided case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. If successful, the “state” (that’s you and me) could pay over $1 billion to a handful of counties (possibly you, possibly me) to right this purported wrong. This power play further underscores the need to radically rethink how we manage our state forests in an era of climate change and changing values among the public.
While the area along the Butte Creek trail remains a verdant rainforest, it’s really just an island, with much of the surrounding public forest logged in the past, and planned for more logging. Adjacent private timberlands are faring even worse, with companies like Weyerhaeuser liquidating their holdings with massive clear cuts in the lower Butte Creek canyon.
The changing climate is starting to take its toll here, too. This view of Butte Creek Falls was taken on the same visit as the June calendar image, but as the photo shows, the creek is running at perhaps a third of its “normal” June flow after dry spring this year, with much of the falls already running dry. We’re learning that “normal” is no longer as drought years continue to become the new normal.
The warning signs of the changing climate are already showing up on the rocky viewpoint above Butte Creek Falls, where several Douglas fir (below) finally succumbed to the stress of summer droughts this year on the thin, exposed soils of this outcropping.
This is how climate change is beginning to make its mark throughout our forests, with trees growing in poor or thin soils lacking the groundwater moisture to make it through summer droughts. These trees are often further weakened and eventually killed by insects and diseases that attack drought-stressed forests.
The good news is that a new generation of forest scientists is sounding the alarm and as we’ve seen, a new generation of young people are made climate change their rallying cry. So, while we’re very late in taking action, I’m optimistic that Oregon will emerge as a leader in tackling climate change, starting with our magnificent forests.
For July, I chose another waterfall scene, this time in the sagebrush deserts east of Mount Hood, where the White River crashes over a string of three waterfalls on its way into the Deschutes River canyon (below).
Most people hike the paved trail into the rugged canyon, which begins an impressive, but partly obscured view of the dramatic upper falls. But few follow the fenced canyon rim upstream to this nice profile (below), just a short distance off the paved route. From here, the basalt buttes and mesas of Tygh Valley fill the horizon and remnants from the early 1900s power plant that once hummed here are visible on a side channel, below.
In 2011, I posted this article with a proposal for expanding tiny White River Falls State Park to save it from the kind of development it had just dodged at the time. Hopefully, we’ll eventually see White River Falls better protected and some of its history restored and preserved!
The August image in the new calendar is from my beloved Owl Point, a spot on the north side of Mount Hood that I visit several times each year as a volunteer for Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO). In this view (below), evening shadows were starting to reach across the talus slopes below Owl Point, where low mats of purple Davidson’s penstemon painted the summer scene.
I was alone that day, scouting the trail for an upcoming TKO volunteer work party, so I had the luxury of spending a lot of time just watching the evening unfold through my camera. For photographers, clouds are always the unpredictable frosting that can make (or break) a photo, and the lovely wisps in the calendar image floated in from nowhere to frame the mountain while I sat soaking in the view.
I joined a TKO trail crew the next weekend for our second year of “officially” caring for the Old Vista Ridge Trail to Owl Point since TKO formally adopted the trail from the Forest Service in 2018. We had a great turnout, with crews clearing several logs with crosscut saws and doing some major rock work (below) where TKO will be realigning a confusing switchback along the trail.
For September, something a little different for the calendar: Sawmill Falls on the Little North Fork of the Santiam River (below). This is a well-known spot on the Opal Creek trail, but the surprise is that I’d somehow never hiked this trail, despite growing up in Portland and having spent a lot of time exploring nearby Henline Creek over the past several years. But my explanation is fairly simple: this has been among the most notoriously crowded trails in Oregon for many years, and I’ve always just shied away.
Then my friend Jeff e-mailed to remind me that we were way overdue for a hike, and so we picked Opal Creek as one that neither of us had checked the box on before. It turned out to be a lovely day on a very pretty trail, and because we had picked a weekday, it was surprisingly quiet, too.
The photo of Sawmill Falls gives a better sense of the weather that day — lots of sun, and so this image is among a very few long-exposure waterfall scenes I’ve attempted in full sun. It’s also a blended image from three separate exposures, which is a lot of work to capture an scene! One benefit of shooting in the sun was the opportunity to include some puffy clouds and blue sky as a backdrop, making this a very “summery” image.
The conditions were more forgiving that day when we reached the bridge above Opal Pool, as a nice bank of clouds floated over and provided the kind of overcast that I’m normally looking for with long-exposure waterfall photos. Here’s a view (below) of Opal Creek taken from the footbridge that didn’t make the calendar:
The October image in the new calendar is from a roadside pullout that nobody seems to stop at, and yet it provides a very nice view of Mount Hood and the East Fork Hood River (below). This spot is on a rise along Highway 35, just south of the Highway Department maintenance yard.
If you stop here in mid-October, you’ll enjoy quite a show, with brilliant Cottonwood lighting up the valley floor in shades of bright yellow and gold and Oregon white oak in the foreground providing orange and red accents. And if you pick a clear day after the first snowfall, Mount Hood will light up the horizon with a bright new jacket of white.
How bright are the fall colors? Here’s the exact scene a few months earlier, for comparison:
Like the earlier scene near Bennett Pass, this viewpoint is gradually becoming obscured, too. You can see the difference in the two Ponderosa pines on the left side of the photo. The larger, more distant tree (at the edge of the photo) hasn’t changed as visibly, but the younger Ponderosa (second from left) is quickly blocking the view of the river.
For comparison, here’s a photo from 2008 showing just how much the younger pine has grown, along with the Oregon white oak in the right foreground:
In this case, however, the East Fork Hood River is on the side of tourists and photographers. The river is famously volatile, thanks to its glacial origins on Mount Hood, and periodically undercuts the steep banks here, taking whole trees in the process. This is a scene of almost constant change, and I won’t be surprised if the younger Ponderosa nearest the river eventually becomes driftwood on its way downriver!
The October image is also from the Hood River Valley, and also a roadside view. This well-known scene is located on Laurance Lake Drive, just off Clear Creek Road, near Parkdale. Thanks in no small part to Oregon’s statewide planning laws, this remains an operating farm more than a 170 years after the area was first cleared by white settlers.
The patch of Cottonwoods at the center of the field that provide the fall color show have been growing there for some time, too — or at least they are descendants from an earlier grove. This view (below) from the 1940s shows how the area appeared when most of the roads were still gravel and twenty years before the reservoir we know as Laurance Lake was even constructed. This image is from the Oregon State Archives, and staged for tourism ads, as you might guess!
Here’s a tip if you’re exploring the Hood River Valley in October and the Cottonwoods have turned. At about the same time the Western larch along the upper stretches of the East Fork and east slopes of Mount Hood area also turning to their fall shades of yellow and gold.
In fact, the November calendar photo was just a stop on the way for me as I headed up to the mountain to take in the Western larch colors. These photos feature the east side of Mount Hood and its many groves of Larch as viewed from the slopes of Lookout Mountain, and are among those that didn’t make the calendar this year.
For December, I chose another scene along the East Fork Hood River, albeit lesser known. This spot (below) is near the confluence of the East Fork with Polallie Creek, and was captured after a couple days of freezing fog in the upper Hood River Valley:
This is one of my favorite times to be in the forest, though it can be a bit treacherous! The unmatched scenery makes the slippery trip worth it, as the frosted forests combine with the fog to create a truly magical scene.
Here are a couple more images from that day in the freezing fog that didn’t make the calendar:
Since switching to Zazzle to produce the annual calendars, I’ve had a back page to work with, and I have used this space to feature a few wildflower photos from the past year (below).
Each wildflower image has a story behind it, and among the most memorable is the Buckwheat in the lower right corner. This little plant was growing at the summit of Lookout Mountain (below), in the Badger Creek Wilderness, east of Mount Hood.
Buckwheat is a tough, low-growing, drought tolerant wildflower that thrives in the rocky soils there, but what made the spot memorable were the thousands (millions?) of Ladybugs swarming on the summit that day. Entomologists tell us that several inspect species migrate to ridges and mountains from adjacent valleys to mate, keeping their gene pool stable and healthy in the process, but I’m thinking they might just enjoy the mountain views, too?
The Wild rose in the top row is also in foreground of this image of Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge (below). I considered this image for the calendar, but skipped it until I can capture a more prolific flower display in the foreground… maybe next year!
Finally, the white Mockorange in the center of the bottom row was captured at this somewhat obscure spot along Butcher Knife Ridge (below), in the West Fork Hood Valley. This was another also-ran as a calendar image, but watch for some exciting news in a future blog story about this corner of Mount Hood country!
If you’d like a calendar, they’re easy to order online for $25 from Zazzle. Just follow this link:
They’re beautifully printed by Zazzle, ship quickly and make nice gifts! And I’ll also be donating all proceeds to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).
If you’ve followed the WyEast blog for a while, you probably noticed that things look a bit different around here, as of this month. It’s true, a mere eleven years after I made this first post…
…I’ve changed the WordPress theme for the blog. But I do admit that I didn’t have much choice. My most recent posts were having serious formatting problems, as in my last post (below) where the column text and photos were out of alignment. Other less obvious problems were popping up when publishing new posts, making what for a very cumbersome process.
In digging through pages of tedious WordPress documentation to figure out what was up, I finally came across this unwelcome message:
What? My theme is retired? Since when..? And who says!
Ah, the pace of progress. So, recognizing that things would only get worse, I’ve spent the past couple weeks customizing a “modern” theme called “Hemingway” to retain as much of the look and readability of the blog as I can. I’ll probably need to continue tweaking the settings, so thanks in advance for your patience!
If you’re wondering about the new banner, the backstory is that I originally created banner below. However, it didn’t work well with the new theme, which resizes the banner for whatever device the user is viewing, and decapitated Mount Hood in the process! Aargh!
So, I opted to continue the “misty forest” look from the original banner, which was from a scene captured in 2008 near Horsetail Creek in the Gorge. The new banner draws from image captured of Horsetail Creek, Katanai Rock, located in Ainsworth State Park.
The original Katanai Rock image was taken several years ago, on a spring day as storm clouds were just clearing from the walls of the Gorge, creating a mystical scene that Tolkien might have dreamed up:
To create the banner, I converted the original image to sepia and did some toning to soften the shadows a bit:
Look closely at the large view and there’s a wispy waterfall floating down the west side of Katanai Rock and lots of massive old trees wrapped in mist… it’s Rivendell!
Finally, the new banner incorporates just the top of Katanai Rock in a crop that allows it to adjust to anything from an iPhone to a 27″ monitor like the one I’m working on, right now:
So, that’s how the new look came about! And as with each of the previous 11 years on the blog, I’m looking forward to another year of articles. I’ve got lots of topics in the hopper, and hopefully some that you will enjoy and find worth reading.
Thank you for stopping by over the past year, and thank you for being a friend of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge!
First snow of autumn 2018 on Mount Hood as seen from Dufur Mill Road
Last November marked 10 years since I started the WyEast Blog, way back in 2008. It was a pretty hopeful year, as you may recall, followed by some very progressive reforms for how our public lands are managed. And my, how things can change — elections do have consequences! So, as always, the work continues as we weather another round of political attacks on our hard-fought protections for public lands.
Much has changed in WyEast country over the past 10 years, too, but certainly not my commitment to a better future for Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. I’m frequently asked “do you reallythink Mount Hood will become a national park?” and my response is always the same, “a little more every day!”Why? Because despite the currently bleak situation in Washington D.C., we’re (finally) witnessing the start to a changing of the guard in generational leadership at all levels of our society. The Millennials are here!
Author on my last visit to Eagle Creek, about a year before the September 2017 fire
What will history say about the Baby Boomers as they (reluctantly) hand over the reins to a younger generation? For all they have given us in their epic contributions to art and culture, they have also been surprisingly awful when it comes to conservation, woefully lacking in both courage and imagination. It’s true the Millennials are overdue in taking the reins, but since twice delivering the first African American to the U.S. presidency (a man who the Boomers voted overwhelmingly against, history shall note), they have steadily expanded their presence on the local, state and national political scenes. The 2016 elections represented the beginning of what will become a tidal wave in coming years, too.
By wide margins, Millennials are genuinely committed to conservation and sustainability, more balanced in their personal lives in how they manage ambition and status, and much less materialistic and consumptive than their elders. The numbers prove this. And thus my confidence that the Millennials’ turn at governance can (and will) return us to the bold conservation legacy of past eras and previous generations of leadership. The pendulum will swing, once again, and I believe that expanding our national park system will be part of that renaissance.
In the beginning…
Ten years ago, I started this blog with a rather obscure look at a couple of dead treesat a favorite roadside viewpoint of mine, along Dufur Mill Road. Here’s what that spot used to look like:
The two snags featured in the very first article on this blog… but what about the big fir on the right?
Sometime that year, both snags on the left side of the photo were felled, possibly for firewood, a common activity in that area. At the time I was dismayed at the senseless loss of a couple of valauble and (to me) beautiful snags. Mount Hood’s old ghost trees are essential for wildlife and forest health, after all! And thus, my first article began what would become many looks at the lesser-known and under-appreciated corners of WyEast country, all in celebration of our magical mountain and gorge!
Today, the view from this spot on Dufur Mill Road is still much the same, minus the old snags. Here’s what it looked like a couple of weeks ago (below), where you can pick out individual trees in the background that appear much the same. The large Douglas fir on the right side of the original photo still stands, too, but what about the apparent change in height of this tree between the above and below photos?
Today the two snags are long gone, but the big Douglas fir is still standing
Yes, the old fir did grow, but not by that much. It turns out that in the 10 years since the original photo was taken, a young Douglas fir has grown from just a few feet tall to nearly 20 feet — blocking the original view! Here’s what today’s scene looks like as viewed from the exact spot as the 2008 photo:
The only true constant in the forest… is change!
The changes in this favorite spot of mine are a good metaphor for so many places on Mount Hood and in the Gorge over the past ten years, where the only constant is change. This article explores some of the changes, plus a rundown of the most read and least read articles on the blog. Hope you enjoy the look back!
Including this retrospective, I’ve posted 184 articles on the blog since November 2008, ranging from the incredibly obscure (my favorite!) to the surprisingly popular.
In the first five years, visitors grew gradually to a couple thousand annually, then abruptly jumped to 30,000 in 2013 and 60,000 in 2014! Since then, visitors have hovered between 70,000 and 90,000 annually. A decent share also click through to the Mount Hood National Park Campaign website, and who knows? One of those visitors might be the future congresswoman or senator who introduces a bill to make Mount Hood and the Gorge a national park! That’s the goal of an “idea campaign”, after all — and why I started the blog.
But blog metrics don’t really tell the full story, as a select few posts have been the major drivers in visits over the years. These posts continue to pop up each week in the blog stats, years after they were first published.
At the top of that list is an article debunking the many persistent myths about ticks that continue to circulate among the hiking community. I published “Ticks! Ticks! (10 Common Myths”in April 2013, and it’s the main reason for the big jump in traffic that year that has since continued. The article now has 173,000 views and counting — and that’s great news, as ticks present a growing health risk in the Gorge now that Lyme disease has spread to our region.
Nobody likes ticks… but people do like this article!
Right behind ticks in our apparent collective anxiety is poison oak, and a companion piece called “10 Common Poison Oak Myths”is thus the second most read article on the blog. A lot of bad information circulates online among hikers on both the risks and treatment for poison oak exposure. This article was posted in 2012, before the tick article, but caught fire after the piece on ticks began to drive search engines toward the blog. Today, the poison oak article has had 78,000 visitors and shows up every week in blog stats.
I’d been itching to write the sequel to this one…
The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire kicked off a series of articles covering the aftermath of the fire. The first article featured some of the earliest viewsinto the burn as seen from the Washington side of the Gorge, just after the smoke had cleared. This article was widely shared in social media, with 23,000 views and counting.
The first look into the smoky aftermath…
Later articles spotlighting the burn were based on State of Oregon aerial reconnaissance photos that provided exceptional detail of the devastation at iconic places in the Gorge and the nearly immediate signs of recovery that was already underway. One of these revealed a massive cliff collapse at Punch Bowl Falls in early 2018, just a few months after the fire.
Perhaps more shocking than the Eagle Creek Fire, itself, were the dual cliff collapses at Metlako Falls and Punchbowl Falls on Eagle Creek.
We will never know if the cliff collapse resulted from the effects of the fire, but when the State of Oregon aerial surveys revealed the collapse, it came as a shock to anyone who knew this spot. More than 25,000 readers have viewed the article and it continues to be visited regularly.
While it’s great to see a big response to an article, truth be told, my favorite posts are among the least read. This describes mostof the posts on the blog, of course!
One of these lesser-read pieces was in 2010, when I posted a proposal to restore Warren Falls, a virtually unknown spot near Starvation Creek that had been brutally altered by Highway Department engineers in the 1930s. I had long been saddened to see how this beautiful spot had been manhandled by the same Highway Department that had gracefully navigated other waterfalls in the Gorge with beautiful bridges, viaducts and overlooks, and hoped that ODOT might incorporate restoration of the falls into a major effort to reconnect the original Historic Columbia River Highway.
This became a bit of a crusade for a few years, including a featured spot on OPB’s Oregon Field Guide, but in the end, ODOT wasn’t interested in owning up to their crime against nature (and as I pointed out in one of the follow-up articles, the diversion was a clear violation of state statute, too!). Score another one for the highway builders, but I remain hopeful that someday we will undo this travesty.
Warren Falls comes (briefly) alive in 2014!
In the meantime, a vestige of the original falls appears a few times each winter when ODOT’s diversion dam and bypass tunnel are overwhelmed by high runoff, bringing Warren Falls back to life, if only briefly.
And while ODOT once again turned its back on Warren Creek, Mother Nature may bring her wrath upon the diversion structures in the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire. Ironically, the original project was in response to Warren Creek carrying heavy rock and wood debris onto the old highway following an early 1900s burn in the upper canyon Eighty years later, the upper canyon has burned again, and another cycle of heavy debris flows is likely in coming years. She does bat last, after all…
In happier ODOT news, an August 2012 article proposing a “Boot Loop” transit servicearound the mountain and through the gorge seemed far-fetched at the time, but ODOT has since operated transit in the west end of the Gorge and helped fund transit to Timberline Lodge. Currently, a “round the mountain” transit study is underway to explore the potential for completing the loop. That’s great news!
Not such a goofy idea after all..?
The Gorge Express and Mount Hood Express bus lines are general purpose, too, whereas the “Boot Loop” idea was more narrowly aimed at recreation. The broader transit service we’re now seeing on the ground is far better, providing essential service to places where basic transit connections were long overdue. Kudos to ODOT for moving beyond their highway roots and bringing much-needed transportation alternatives to the mountain and gorge!
10 years of Big Changes
Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge have seen some epic changes over the past 10 years, perhaps most notably the Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood’s north slope in 2012 and the Eagle Creek Fire that burned much of the Oregon side of the Gorge in 2017. But there were many other significant changes, too, albeit somewhat overshadowed by the big fire events. The following are a few “then and now” highlights of these notable changes in WyEast country over the past ten years.
Global warming? Absolutely. Despite the frustrating, science-defying (and completely cynical) state of denial coming from the White House and Republican Party, bright red warning flags are showing up all around us, including on Mount Hood. As the photo pair below shows, the Eliot Glacier continues to recede at an alarming rate, as do the rest of Mount Hood’s twelve glaciers. I’ve marked a couple of prominent rock outcrops adjacent to the lower Eliot Galcier icefall to show how the “firn” line has retreated. The firn line is the point in a moving glacier that marks equilibrium, with the glacier is accumulating ice above the line and losing ice (melting) where it flows below the firn line.
Blue ice still spilled over the lower Eliot Glacier icefall in 2008
As the photos show, the lower icefall (just above and left of the outcrop marked “A”) is notably smaller and darker, with debris carried within the glacier now exposed by melting at this level due to the rising firn line. Both photos were taken in late summer, when summer melting was at its peak.
Global warming is rapidly changing the once-mighty Eliot Glacier
The once-permanent snowfields on the margins of the glacier are also noticeably smaller and seem doomed in the near future. Permanent snowfields are the most vulnerable ice features on the mountain and a good visual indicator of the speed in which global warming is melting our glaciers.
While future generations may forgive us for failing to actually slow or stop global warming, they surely will never forgive us for willful denial of its existence as a human-caused crisis of our own making. Let’s hope we can make up some lost ground in the near future, with the Millennial generation finally taking charge.
The changes to the Eliot Glacier are also being felt downstream, no more so than in the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch canyon, where a more volatile glacial outflow is rapidly carving into the once glacier-covered valley floor, constantly changing the landscape. In 2006, the stream flooded once again, greatly deepening the canyon and making it unsafe to cross for hikers on the Timberline Trail. This situation languished for nine years, with many hikers choosing to scale the crumbling canyon wall (shown below) with the aid of a worn rope anchored to a boulder!
The ever-deepening canyon on the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch
This blog played a small part in helping the Forest Service move forward with a new crossing of the Eliot Branch when a ranger from the Hood River District read this 2014 article and reached out to discuss options for a new, downstream crossing. Along the way, I updated the map from the blog article to align with Forest Service and Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) plans for the restored crossing, and it even made the cover of a local newspaper in Hood River! (…okay, so it’s an advertising tabloid…!)
Not exactly the New York Times, but I’ll take it!
The newly reconnected trail drops steadily from Cloud Cap Inn to a section of the raging Eliot Branch that has (somewhat) stabilized, and can be reasonably crossed in the summer months. Though there are no immediate plans for a trail bridge here, the Forest Service moved large boulders in the stream to serve as stepping stones, hopefully making the crossing a bit safer for hikers. The restored trail opened in 2017.
The newly constructed Timberline Trail just above the Eliot Crossing (photo: USFS)
Moving down to the Hood River Valley, the iconic view of Mount Hood from this field along Laurance Lake Road (below) looks much the same today as it did in 2008, albeit with some logging on private land in the distance. What you can’t see in the 2008 view is that it was captured just a year after voters approved Measure 49, which reversed 2004’s deceptive Measure 37. This earlier measure would have almost certainly brought resort development and luxury McMansions to the Hood River Valley.
The timeless view of Mount Hood from Laurance Lake Road
…still pretty much the same ten years later!
Even better, this farm has since come under the ownership of a member of the Parkdale Valley Land Trust, and is now even more likely to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. Which, in turn, means that a spot that hasn’t change since the 1950s (below) might look much the same in the 2050s. That’s a great legacy being carried forward to future generations.
Maybe past really can be prologue..? (photo: State Archives)
Here’s another view of the Parkdale area in the Upper Hood River Valley from Middle Mountain, a mostly county-owned forested ridge that separates the upper and lower valleys. From this spot, the most notable change is a silver band of ghost trees marking the 2012 Dollar Lake burn, clearly visible along the northern shoulders of the mountain.
The upper Hood River Valley ten years ago…
…and earlier last year…
The Dollar Lake Fire was the third in rapid succession (following the Bluegrass Fire in 2006 and Gnarl Ridge Fire in 2008) to burn the slopes of Mount Hood. As jarring as the changes may be, these new burns provide a front-row seat to the rapidly recovering forest, a timeless and essential cycle that has been disrupted by the Forest Service policy of aggressive fire suppression over the past century. State and federal land agencies have only just begun to rethink their approach to fire moving forward, a change in culture that will take many years to fully achieve, especially in the era of climate change.
Huckleberries sprouting from the base of a burned snag in the Dollar Lake Burn
One unexpected benefit of the fires on Mount Hood was preparing those (like me) who love the mountain and gorge for the devastating Eagle Creek Fire that raged through the western Columbia River Gorge in September 2017. The Mount Hood fires helped many who understood the abstract benefit of forest fires come to grips with the emotional reality of seeing a favorite place changed, and begin to appreciate the stark beauty in the burned landscape and witness the unfolding forest rebirth.
For the past year, thousands of volunteers with organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) have been working with the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks to begin digging out miles of burned trails in the gorge. Last November, the Forest Service officially opened the first of these cleared trails, including the iconic Larch Mountain Trail that follows Multnomah Creek, giving hikers their first look at the changed landscape, and a chance to expand their own understanding and acceptance of fire in our forests.
Earlier last year, I joined TKO crews to work on the trail and capture photos of familiar scenes as they now appear, after the fire. This set shows Weisendanger Falls from the same spot before and after the fire:
Weisendanger Falls on Multnomah Creek ten years ago…
…and in spring 2018, after the Eagle Creek Fire swept through
While the area below Weisendanger Falls shows signs of the fire — notably , more logs in the creek — this photo pair shows the extent of the burn above the falls, where the forest was more substantially impacted:
Weisendanger Falls before…
…and after the fire, in spring 2018
Similar scenes can be found throughout the Eagle Creek Burn, where the fire generally left a beneficial “mosaic” pattern, with heavily burned areas mixed with largely intact forest. These areas are expected to recover quickly, with healthy patches of surviving forest helping adjacent burned areas recover by reseeding, providing cover for wildlife and creating shade. But there are exceptions, especially Oneonta canyon, where the burn was especially catastrophic. The recovery in these places will span decades.
* * * * *
Thus far in this 10-year retrospective article, the focus has been on big changes brought by nature (albeit with an assist from man), but there have been plenty of changes brought by humans over the past ten years, too — both good and bad.
Let’s start with the bad (and ugly). Tragically, corporate timber behemoth Weyerhaeuser became the major private land owner in the West Fork Hood River valley over the past decade, taking ownership of private forests that had long been held by Longview Fibre (and then briefly by a Canadian equity trader). Though Longview Fibre had greatly accelerated logging in the 2000s, Weyerhauser has ramped up the destruction and embarked on a complete liquidation of the forests along a West Fork. Their purported “sustainability” mission is laughable in the modern area of chasing stock prices with massive, unsustainable clear cutting.
This scene is along the spectacular West Fork canyon, just above the Lake Branch confluence. It’s a crime against nature that any private entity should own land of this scenic and ecologic value, and Weyerhauser’s recent “stewardship” is proof:
Weyerhauser didn’t own it yet, but the assault had begun…
…but Weyerhauser greatly accelerated the deforestation of the West Fork
Not seen in these photos are the miles of shoddy logging roads cut into steep slopes in order to haul out the logs and the millions of gallons of liquid herbicide sprayed on the slopes of the West Fork canyon to kill whatever vegetation managed to survive the logging show. Modern corporate logging is about exterminating native forests and replacing them with hybridized tree farms, make no mistake about it.
Some of the more appalling Weyerhaeuser logging practices are on display along the canyon section of the West Fork, where the river cascades beneath towering basalt cliffs where the scenery would merit park status anywhere else in the country. In this spot, a healthy forest directly adjacent to the canyon wall was cut in 2016 and sprayed with herbicides in 2017, with no regard to the river corridor, directly below:
A forested bluff above the West Fork canyon ten years ago…
…and in 2018 after Weyerhaeuser had “sustainably managed” it…
While it’s tough to see healthy forests cut on such a reckless scale, it’s also possible that Weyerhaeuser’s new lust for quick profits over sustainability could tempt the company to sell their cut over lands to the public in the interest of protecting the West Fork valley over the long term. After all, it will take decades for these forests to recover, and Weyerhaeuser seems to have lost patience with timelines on that scale. The sooner we can reclaim these precious lands for the public, the better.Watch for a future blog proposal on that subject!
On to more positive developments! 2018 also marked the grand re-opening of the Old Vista Ridge Trail, a wonderful “lost” trail that winds north from the Vista Ridge Trailhead to a dramatic view of Mount Hood’s north side from a rocky spur known as Owl Point. The trail was unofficially reopened in 2007 by volunteers from the Oregon Hiker’s forum and maintained ever since, a project that led to the formation of Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).
User-made trail signs ten years ago…
Over that time, it became clear that the trail needed to be officially recognized by the Forest Service in order to be properly maintained over the long haul. After much discussion, the agency signed an agreement with TKO in 2017 to adopt the trail, caring for it in perpetuity.
The grand re-opening was originally planned for the fall of 2017, but the Eagle Creek Fire intervened, with much of the north side of Mount Hood closed to the public for fear of the fire moving south into the West Fork valley and toward the mountain.
…replaced with official Forest Service signs last summer!
In July of last year, the rescheduled re-opening finally happened, with an official “cutting of the survey tape” with loppers and a log saw by TKO’s executive director Steve Kruger and Hood River District Ranger Janeen Tervo. A celebratory stewardship day followed on the trail, and so began a new era for this wonderful trail. TKO and the Forest Service are planning other new trails in the area, so hopefully Old Vista Ridge marks the beginning of a trail renaissance on Mount Hood.
Making it official!
TKO volunteers celebrate at Owl Point on dedication day
The Old Vista Ridge Trail is snowed in for the winter, now, but you can visit most years from mid-June through October to admire the view and the new, official trail signs! Read more about the trail in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.
Not far from Old Vista Ridge, another “lost” spot was saved in 2015 when the Western Rivers Conservancy rescued it from Weyerhauser through a direct land purchase. Western Rivers later sold the land to Hood River County at a deep discount, thanks to a Oregon Parks and Recreation Grant, which in turn was submitted on behalf of the county by another non-profit, Thrive Hood River(then called the Hood River Valley Residents Committee). Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) was in the mix, too, offering to build a trail system in the new county park as part of matching contribution toward the state grant.
This sign marks a new era for Punchbowl Falls
Sound complicated? It was! But the good news today is that most of the trails envisioned in the original park concept are now complete, and can be explored today. There are still a few finishing touches (notably, trail signs, which are currently in progress thanks to a Hood River scout troop — this is very much a DIY park!), but the main pieces to this new nature park are in place for all to enjoy.
The main focus of the new park is dramatic Punchbowl Falls, a powerful waterfall on the West Fork of the Hood River that has carved an enormous amphitheater from solid basalt. The area just below the falls is also reserved for tribal fishing, a native tradition here that spans millennia and continues to plays a central cultural and economic role for local tribes.
The massive basalt amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls
When the new trail network at Punchbowl Falls Park was first scouted in 2016, great care was taken to respect fishing paths used by the tribes to access the falls, while also providing a way for park visitors to enjoy the many views in this beautiful canyon. Another goal was to consolidate the confusing maze of user trails in the area. All of the work was completed by volunteers from 2016 through last fall.
Volunteers scouting the proposed trail network
Building the Dogwood Trail in 2017
Building the lower Yew Trail last year
The newest trail was completed last November, and follows the West Fork to the confluence of the East and West Forks of the Hood River, another popular feature in the park. Though the trails won’t be signed until early next year, they’re easy to follow and explore, and the park is especially peaceful in winter if you’re looking for a quiet walk in the forest. You can read about the hike here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.
The completed Yew Trail along the West Fork this fall
The new Punchbowl Falls Park spans roughly two miles of river, forever protecting land that had been left to the mercy of private timber corporations for more than a century. As if to underscore this point, Weyerhauser promptly logged off an entire hillside that rises directly above the new park before the site had even been transferred to county ownership. Thankfully, they spared the Punchbowl property from a similar fate before selling it to Western Rivers.
Thanks for the new view from Punchbowl Bridge, Weyerhauser…
Another big change over the past decade came to perhaps the most popular trail on Mount Hood, the venerable Mirror Lake trail, located near Government Camp. For nearly a century, this beloved trail to a small mountain lake was a “first hike” to thousands visiting the mountain for the first time, including me!
One last snowshoe trip to Mirror Lake before ODOT closed winter access
A series of early articles in this blog focused on an ill-conceived ODOT project to widen Highway 26 in the Laurel Hill section, just west of Government Camp. The original Mirror Lake trailhead was part of the collateral damage of this now-completed road widening project. Even before the widening project, ODOT began closing the old trailhead during the winter months, cutting off access to legions of snowshoers and skiers who had used it for years. Later, the widening project finished the job permanently, and the old trailhead is now closed – including removal of the old footbridge over Camp Creek.
Dogged snowshoers were not easily deterred by the winter closure in 2010
While ODOT focused on highway widening, a little known federal highway agency known as the Federal Lands Division worked with the Forest Service to design and build a new Mirror Lake trailhead at the west end of the Mount Hood Ski Bowl parking lot. This arm of the Federal Highway Administration also oversaw the recent replacement of the White River Bridge and restoration of the Historic Sahalie Falls Bridge, near Hood River Meadows. The new Mirror Lake Trailhead opened just a few weeks ago, and was immediately filled to overflowing with visitors.
The new Mirror Lake Trailhead
The new trailhead features toilets and handsome stone work
I’ll post a proper review of the new trailhead and trail once the snow melts this year, but perhaps the best outcome is restored winter access to the Mirror Lake area. Another important element of the project is a barrier-free design from the trailhead to a new footbridge over Camp Creek, a much-needed addition to the very limited number of accessible trails in the Mount Hood area.
Paved, barrier-free section of the new Mirror Lake Trail
One of the more profound changes of the past ten years came when President Obama signed a major wilderness bill into law in 2009 that greatly expanded wilderness protection in the Gorge and around Mount Hood. That law protected several small areas on the margins of existing wilderness that had been left out of earlier legislation. One such area is along the western margins of the lightly visited Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, which ironically is the closest designated wilderness to the Portland metropolitan area. The expanded boundary incorporates forested slopes of Wildcat Mountain and McIntyre Ridge that had long been tempting targets for Forest Service timber sales.
At about that time in the late 2000s, the Bureau of Land Management abruptly closed a northern access point to the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, where an old logging spur provided access to the McIntyre Ridge Trail. Hikers soon discovered a new way to access McIntyre Ridge from another logging spur located on Forest Service land, which in turn led to an ancient roadbed from a long-ago era when a forest lookout tower stood on Wildcat Mountain.
This section of the McIntyre Ridge Trail follows a former lookout access road
The Forest Service still has not embraced the “New McIntyre Trailhead”, as it is known to hikers, but this unofficial trailhead has restored public access to this newly protected corner of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness. More importantly, this is an area where “eyes on the forest” are especially important, as the Wildcat Mountain area has a long history of lawlessness and abuse from shooters, dumpers and 4-wheelers.
Blaze along the McIntyre Ridge Trail
Shooters can’t seem to resist destroying public property… and anything else they can shoot
The good news is that hikers have continued to use the McIntyre Ridge trail over the ensuing years, though there are still too many reports of illegal activity. Just last summer, a local hiker came across a pair of pickups that had driven at least a mile into the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness along McIntyre Ridge and set up a camp in the middle of the trail! Worse, off-roaders have cut completely new roads into the wilderness on the margins of the Salmon Huckleberry, especially in this area. These are federal crimes, of course, though Forest Service resources for enforcing the law are minimal.
Rogue off-roaders well inside the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness earlier this year (photo: Walrus)
Fortunately, public land law-breakers are well aware of their illegal behavior and tend to shy away from busy recreation areas. Therefore, my hope is that the Forest Service will eventually recognize and champion the New McIntyre trailhead as for protecting the wilderness through “eyes on the forest”. More to come in future articles on this little corner of Mount Hood country..
And the next 10 years..?
Looking at the many profound changes in the Gorge and around Mount Hood over the past ten years, it’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed and discouraged by the pace and scale of change. The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire was especially traumatic for so many who love the Gorge. But the changes are also a reminder of the ongoing need for vigilance in protecting these special places and the role we all have to continue moving Mount Hood and the Gorge toward a new vision of restoration and renewal and away from our exploitive, often destructive past.
I’m optimistic that we’ll continue making progress in coming years, just as we have over the past decade that I’ve documented with this blog. I plan to continue posting articles here to track the changes and make regular deep dives into the lesser known corners of the Gorge and Mount Hood. And I’ll also dream a bit about how we might better care for these places that we all love while making our public lands more accessible to everyone.
Hiking with Mom on Park Ridge in my formative years!
Over the course of the past ten years, I’ve tried to post at least once per month, but you might have noticed that I haven’t quite kept that pace over the past year or two. That’s largely due to the fact that my elderly folks have suddenly needed more help as they both struggled with failing health. In September, my mom passed away after a long and cruel struggle with memory disease, so we’ve now shifted to supporting my 89-year old dad as he adjusts to suddenly living alone after 68 years of marriage.
While sorting through family memories of Mom, I came across a photo (above) from a family backpack through the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, way back in 1974 when I was 12 years old. I was already an experienced hiker and backpacker at that point in my life, thanks to the love of the outdoors my Iowan parents shared in their beloved, adopted Pacific Northwest.
Me (standing on the rock, of course!) with my mom and sister on a Timberline Trail backpack in 1976
That’s a precious gift my folks gave to me and I’m thankful every day for my good fortune to have been raised with boots on my feet and a pack on my back! Too many in our spectacular corner of the world take our public lands for granted, and barely make the time or effort to explore them, often because they don’t really know how to. That’s another motivation for the blog and the Mount Hood National Park “idea campaign”. Our public lands are a gift for all of us, and I’ll also continue to post articles that celebrate this legacy and provide tips for how to explore the lesser-known corners of WyEast country.
Older, grayer but ready for another 10 years of celebrating WyEast!
Well, that’s probably more than enough for this retrospective article. But if you’re read this far, thank you for taking the time to visit the blog and especially those who’ve reached out with a comment or e-mail over the years. Much appreciated! I’ve got a bunch of articles and a few surprises in the works heading into 2019, and I’m looking forward to another 10 years!
I hope to see you here along the way — and on the trail, too!
Charred trail sign inside the Eagle Creek Burn restricted zone (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
September marked the one-year anniversary of the Eagle Creek Fire, the now-infamous, human-caused burn that charred 50,000 acres on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. Today, much of the burn is still closed to public access, though Forest Service and Oregon State Parks crews have been working with volunteers within the restricted zone to steadily reopen the miles of trails that were affected by the fire.
I met Nate Zaremskiy on one of those volunteer efforts last spring, where we worked with a Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) crew to restore the Larch Mountain Trail above Multnomah Falls. Nate is an avid hiker, outdoor photographer and Gorge advocate. At just 20 years old, he is one of the heroes in the Gorge recovery effort and the inspiring face of a new generation of Oregonians dedicated to conservation and stewardship.
The author and Nate working on the Larch Mountain Trail earlier this year
In September, Nate served on an overnight PCTA crew focused on restoring the upper section of the Eagle Creek Trail, in the heart of the burn. On this trip, he was part of a small scouting party that was the first to visit the section of trail from High Bridge to Twister Falls. His photos from the scouting trip both jarring and encouraging, as they show not only the impact of the burn but also how the Gorge ecosystem has already begun to recover in this first year after the fire.
The following is a recent interview with Nate that features startling photos from his amazing scouting visit to the Eagle Creek Trail.
Tom: Nate, thanks for taking the time to share your experience from the one-year anniversary trip to Eagle Creek and for all your recovery work in the Gorge this year! Tell us about this particular trip to Eagle Creek — it was an overnight PCTA project, is that right?
Nate: My pleasure, Tom! Thanks for having me on your blog! Yes it was, the crew set out on the morning of September 1 from Wahtum Lake, which happened to be the eve of the fire’s anniversary. The goal for this trip was just like any other I’ve been on, except I wouldn’t be enjoying a nice big burger in Cascade Locks for a couple nights. Instead the crew would be enjoying our stay together at campsite in a small island of surviving trees, sharing stories and just having a good time.
Our goal for the next couple days on the project was to clear brush, do some tread reconstruction and create a passable trail on some of the rougher stuff trail sections near Tunnel falls.
Entering the restricted zone from the Wahtum Lake trailhead (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: Your photos from the trip capture the descent from the green forests around Wahtum Lake to the total burn in the upper reaches of the Eagle Creek canyon. What was it like to drop into the burn in this way, knowing that you were among the first to be there after the fire?
Nate: It was a very interesting and a unique hike. It is definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, simply because of the sheer scale of the Gorge Trails Recovery Team efforts in the burned area this year.
Descending into the burn along the upper Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Hiking past the crystal clear blue waters of Wahtum Lake and the thick greens along the upper trail, only to eventually come to a place where almost nothing is alive, really hits you. I’m not really sure what word I’m looking for to describe the feeling. It felt awesome that we were among the first back to the canyon, which felt really special, very special.
I’m not sure if everyone felt the same way, but I felt like this was more than my day crew experiences elsewhere in the Gorge. This was something more sacred, I guess you could say, at least to me.
Heavily burned section of the upper Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: When we met on the Larch Mountain Trail last spring, one of the really notable changes at that relatively low elevation was the amount of regrowth from understory plants whose roots has survived the fire. Lots of sword fern and vine maple had survived, and many of the bigleaf maple and red alder also had new growth bursting from the base of burned trunks. Did you see a similar recovery occurring at higher elevations along the upper sections of Eagle Creek?
Nate: I did, in many places! Especially down in the canyon. I saw lots, and I mean LOTS, of new growth taking over the burnt remains. Even in the most burned parts of the trail, I saw at least some green on the ground trying to recover, a lot of ferns, mainly.
Completely burned forest along upper Eagle Creek (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: We also saw a “mosaic” burn pattern along the Larch Mountain Trail, where the intensity of the fire varied greatly from place to place, allowing the forest over story to survive in many areas. Was that true along the upper section of Eagle Creek, as well?
Nate: From where we first entered the burn zone to just a mile and a half above 7½ Mile Camp, the forest was just completely blackened. However, as we got closer to the creek, we saw more and more live trees, especially near streams. I can’t remember exactly, but it looked like the ridge across Eagle Creek from 7½ Mile Camp might have burned more in the mosaic pattern, but I can’t really be sure. I did notice that a lot of trees beside Eagle Creek survived.
Sevenmile Falls after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: One of your photos shows Sevenmile Falls, which is the uppermost in the string of waterfalls along Eagle Creek, and located just above Twister Falls. It looks like much of the forest canopy survived there — can you describe it in more detail?
Nate: Sevenmile Falls was one of the more promising spots along the trip, the trees around it survived very well. The trail was pretty torn up, and lots of slides and small trees made for a bit of a treacherouspassage, but a lot of vegetation and large trees have survived pretty well in that area, especially on the south side of the falls where the sun didn’t dry the cliff out as much.
Tom: You also have several shots of Twister Falls, and it looks like more of a mosaic burn pattern here. What did you see on this part of the trail? Did the steepness of the canyon here affect the burn?
Nate: Amazingly, the base of the falls and a few hundred feet downstream looked untouched, pretty much pure Gorge jungle. Looking above the falls, I saw a lot of burned trees, though, so I’m not really sure if the canyon had much to do with it.
Eagle Creek Trail and the brink of Twister Falls after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: The Eagle Creek trail is famous for being built right into the cliffs, and the section just below Twister Falls is known as the “Vertigo Mile” for the dizzying turn it makes high above the falls. Your photos show a pretty significant fire impact on the forest in this area. But the actual trail, including those VERY helpful hand cables, looks like it survived, is that right?
Nate: You’re right, the cables did look like they survived the fire, enough for us to hold onto them at least! I’m not sure if they are one hundred percent trustworthy, though, simply because of their age and going through a fire. You never know what has fallen on them, and if the heat from the fire affected the metal at all.
The trail was in really good condition from Twister Falls to just before the turn toward Tunnel Falls. The overhanging cliff probably acted as a barrier and sent rockslides out just enough to avoid impacting the majority of Vertigo Mile section of trail.
“Vertigo Mile” section of the Eagle Creek Trail after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
“Vertigo Mile” after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Eagle Creek Trail post-fire damage just below the”Vertigo Mile” (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: Perhaps the most iconic spot along the Eagle Creek Trail after Punch Bowl Falls is Tunnel Falls, at about the six-mile mark on the trail. In an earlier WyEast Blog article on the fire, I posted aerial photos that showed this part of the canyon to be pretty heavily burned. Can you describe how the area fared, especially the trail and tunnel behind the falls?
Nate: So, the tunnel is in perfect condition, if not better, because of the ferns growing down from it created such a neat little curtain around the edges when hiking out of it. Without hiker traffic over the past year, the plants growing out of the cliff wall near tunnel are actually overtaking the cables, so much that it was difficult to even find the cable! The plants have grown so much along the cliff that they’re in your face if you do hold onto the cable.
The area around Tunnel Falls did not fare too well. There were a few trees near the falls that had a green crown or had completely survived, but the rest of the forest here burned. A few of the burned trees had a bit of green remaining, just we will have to wait and see if some of these recover.
The south (upstream) side of the falls had a few landslides and a wash out, but the north (downstream) side of the falls is just terrible, with lots of work needed to get the trail restored. Some parts in this section are completely washed out, some are buried under slides and the rest will need a little reconstruction, so we’ll see what the future holds here.
Tunnel Falls one year after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Downstream view of Tunnel Falls one year after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: Your photos show a real surprise just below Tunnel Falls, where the trail passes a cliff section high above Grand Union Falls. You came across a cliff collapse here that covered the trail with debris! Was the trail, itself, intact under the debris? And how did you manage to get through that section..? It looks pretty sketchy!
Nate: Oh, that was a surprise. It was just so unbelievable. The scouting trip almost ended right there and it wasn’t even close to noon. I’m not sure if the trail is perfectly intact, it’s really difficult to make that call considering there was up to five feet of microwave-size rock on top of it. But whatever is holding the debris is most likely the trail shelf, so maybe the trail is intact under all that rockfall.
If I may add, the cliff collapsed right onto the “pothole” section of the trail [where blasting the original trail left concave bowls in the columnar basalt], so it’ll be interesting to see if any of those formations happened to survive.
We spent a good 20 minutes deciding if we would be able to continue past the rockfall and searching for a safe route across. I’ve opted to crawl my way over the rocks and hug the wall as slowly as I could, since it seemed stable enough to hold my weight so long as I watched my step. My scouting partner opted to go below this cliff section, scrambling below the trail, traversingthe rockfall, and climbing back up to the trail beyond the collapse.
Our crew leader and another volunteer also scrambled across the slide later to meet us when we were coming back up the trail, so three people were cross the collapse in both directions, but it definitely was not safe enough for regular work crews. Based on our experience, the collapse was declared impassible for safety reasons, as it is just too risky to send people across.
Cliff collapse along the trail above Grand Union Falls (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Cliff collapse above Grand Union Falls (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: When I first saw the photos of the cliff collapse, my immediate reaction was how much fun —but also dangerous— it will be to roll those boulders off the trail, since it’s a good 50 to 70 foot drop-off! Does the PCTA have plans for volunteers to do this work, or will it be left to Forest Service crews?
Nate: Both of us thought the same thing! How fun would it be to watch and listen to those rocks tossed over the edge! The project I worked on along lower Eagle Creek had many of those and it always brought a “Woooo!” moment to everyone. I’m not really sure who is going to tackle this rock fall. There was a PCTA crew planned shortly after our trip but winter weather has forced the project to be postponed until next spring. So, we’ll see.
Cliff collapse along the trail with Grand Union Falls in the distance (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: One of the photos you took in the trail section near Wy’east Camp and Blue Grouse Camp shows Western hazel sprouting from its charred base. Can you describe the recovery in this part of the canyon? Did the tree canopy survive here, too? How did the trail, itself, fare in this section?
Nate: Those sprouts were everywhere! In every direction you’d see sticks poking out of the ground and at the base of them is a little or big patch of green, so these guys are wasting no time in recovering. Amazingly, Wy’east Camp was left completely untouched. My scouting partner described it as “a little oasis”. Most of the canopy has survived around Wy’east camp as well, and looked promising for the future. It still amazes me how Wy’east Camp was spared that way, and it might be one of the few places along a Gorge trail that survived that well.
Western hazel sprouting new growth from roots that survived the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: It would good to see the intact 4½ Mile Bridge in your photos! The photo below shows several big conifers just below the bridge that survived the fire, too, plus a large downfall. Can you describe what you saw in this section of trail?
Nate: Just above 4½ Mile Bridge there was a section of trail that was kind of in a little valley of it’s own, and most of it was buried under a foot or two of rock for a good hundred or so feet. The cliff section downstream from the bridge was buried in a few feet of soil and rock, so had to dig in some steps to get through because of how steep the slide had settled. The canopy in the cliff section also survived pretty well, but immediately downstream from the bridge the forest mostly burned up with only a few survivors to tell the tale to new growth.
The big tree across the trail will definitely need a patient crew to tackle it because of its size. There were many downed trees on the trail, with lots of branches that forced us to either crawl over, through or under the trees. I even had to to take my pack off in one place just to get through.
4½Mile Bridge on Eagle Creek (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: The photo of 4½ Mile Bridge also slows a lot of plants growing right across the trail! That’s surprising to see, after just one year of this trail not having heavy foot traffic. Was this common along the trail?
Nate: For most of the trail there was just a whole lot of rock, downed trees, and a lot of stuff trying to grow back. So yes, it was pretty common to see a bush or some ferns branching out over the trail, or grass creeping in on it. It really is incredible to see everything grow back so quickly! Just like the trip on the Larch Mountain Trail, where the big ferns have already grown over the trail and needed a lot of trimming. I felt bad for hacking at all those huge ferns, but it needed to be done. I can only imagine how much grow will happen next spring at lower elevations.
Downed Western red cedar near High Bridge (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: One of the surprises from your scouting photos was the view of Skoonichuk Falls from the trail! While this is one of the major waterfalls along Eage Creek, it was also one of the most difficult to see from the trail. It looks like the fire not only opened up the view, but also burned pretty intensely here. Can you describe the scene in more detail?
Nate: It was really cool to see! New views thanks to the fire, really. Skoonichuk had been a waterfall I’d always miss because it was so protected from view. And you’re right, the fire did burn more intensely here, with the majority of the canopy gone. There were a few lucky survivors here and there that are just barely holding on. I’m guessing it’s probably because the trail was a little higher in that area and had more sun exposure to dry out over the summer before the fire, which just let the fire roar through. The trail was in pretty decent shape in this section, considering it was a high intensity burn in there. Just some branches and rocks on the trail, but otherwise pretty good shape.
Skoonichuk Falls on Eagle Creek one year after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: Another surprise in this section of trail is the pinnacle along a section of cliffs that had been hidden in the forest before the fire. What is this, exactly?
Nate: This was a cool find, I’ve never noticed the pinnacle before the fire, and seeing the burned trees with its branches still attached provided a clear explanation why the pinnacles were not visible before the fire. And like you’ve said, the fire definitely opened up the view, which is very common throughout the trail and the Gorge. I noticed many more new views from the trail because of the fire, the pinnacles being one of them, which is pretty neat. Seeing dozens of new views and a few amazing ones, it makes me wonder what other secrets are hiding out there.
Pinnacle near High Bridge revealed by the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: Your scouting photos end at the upstream end of High Bridge, another iconic spot along the Eagle Creek Trail. It looks like some of the forest survived, here, but I can see why you didn’t go farther downstream — the wood deck burned away on the bridge! The thought of crossing a 90-foot deep gorge there without the benefit of bridge decking is more than a little scary. Can you tell us more about how this area was affected by the fire?
Nate: So, some of the trees around the bridge survived completely, and most of the trees around the bridge survived, though a little scorched. Most of Tenas Camp had burned completely away, canopy and all, leaving nothing but rock, roots and snags behind where tent spots used to be, which was a fantastic example of just how much material had burned away with the fire.
If the thought of crossing High Bridge in its current condition is scary, imagine standing at the edge of it! We’d already crawled over the cliff collapse above a major drop, but just standing beside the burned bridge made me nervous. You won’t find me crossing this bridge any time soon without a reliable safety harness. Heck, even when it had decking the bridge still wasn’t a comfortable place to lean over!
Even though we had only ¾ of a mile to Fern Creek Bridge, which was our goal, the obvious decision was to end the scouting trip at High Bridge. That leaves that little ¾ mile section below the bridge as “the land of the unknown”, as I call it, since crews scouting the lower trail have only made it to Fern Creek Bridge. To this day it’s bugging me that we were so close, and yet it’s still a mystery.
The deep gorge at High Bridge after the fire (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Deck-less High Bridge after the fire…yikes! (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: That’s right, so earlier this year, you were also part of volunteer crews working the lower section of the Eagle Creek Trail. How close did you get to High Bridge from the other side? Can you tell us how that section of trail fared?
Nate: What I’ve heard is that later crews made it as far up as Fern Creek Bridge, which was burned out like High Bridge and declared impassible, splitting the upper and lower Eagle Creek trail sections in two for now.
The furthest I’ve made it up the lower section was to Tish Creek Bridge, which I was so happy to see intact! I’d been on the volunteer crews back in February 2017 that cleared a snow path for the installation of that bridge, and when we were back there after the fire, I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a bridge before!
Lower Eagle Creek Trail has taken a very heavy beating from the fire. Slide after slide after slide, some taking multiple trail volunteers and multiple crew trips to clear. Much of the trail was just littered with baseball-sized rock, with a big slide in a gully along the trail. Yet, lower Eagle Creek canyon had many more trees survive the fire.
PCTA crews restoring the upper Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: The main purpose of the PCTA overnight crew in September was to work on the upper section of the Eagle Creek Trail, and you took several photos of the volunteers working on trail restoration. Can you describe what we’re seeing in this sequence?
Nate: Much of what we were doing in places like that is bringing the tread back up to standard and removing logs from the trail. A couple volunteers were working ahead doing some brushing in places that that were a bit overgrown, followed by crews doing tread reconstruction and clearing small logs and branches.
In the above photo, the volunteer in distance is brushing the trail corridor and the two volunteers in the middle are following behind, cutting the trail back into its original location. This system worked pretty well and we managed to restore a pretty good chunk of trail in just a few hours.
PCTA volunteers hiking on a freshly restored section of the Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Freshly restored section of the Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Tom: Nate, thanks for all the time and energy you’ve put into helping with the Gorge recovery. Would you like to share any other thoughts on the experience and what it has meant for you?
Nate: Thanks again, Tom! It’s been an incredible and truly life changing summer. The whole experience really is once in a lifetime. This is a fire that will go down the ages because of how many people were affected by it, and really, because the Gorge is like a national park to people. If Yosemite Valley burned the way the Gorge did, it would never be forgotten.
I believe the fire has been the best thing to happen to the Gorge since being designated as a national scenic area, because it brought people from as far as D.C to work together on the recovery. Without the fire, the Gorge Trails Recovery Team would never have been created, and the way the fire brought thousands of people together to get out on the trails and help in the recovery is truly historic. It had been almost impossible to get a spot on a volunteer crew earlier this year because of how fast they filled up!
PCTA volunteer taking a break along the upper Eagle Creek Trail (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
We’ve always had the Gorge right there and available, so when it suddenly shut down overnight, I feel like everyone suddenly realized how fragile it is. Most of the best trails were closed and the places we knew and loved were so close but so out of reach. Hopefully this will inspire more people take better care of our environment.
This trip and the past summer has meant the world to me. It has changed the way I look at fires, how the Gorge recovers from them, and how much work goes into maintaining a trail. I’ve met a lot of great people on the trails, and that is probably the best part about it. It’s been a rough summer for me, both mentally and financially, and being out there fixing a trail that millions enjoy brought me a lot of peace and really made me a much better person. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything!
Trail hero Nate Zaremskiy scouting the upper Eagle Creek Trail one year after the fire, in September 2018
Tom: Thanks for taking the time to share this experience, Nate! I look forward to seeing you on the trail, again!
Nate: You’re welcome! And thanks again for having me on here. I’m sure we will cross paths again one of these days.
Tom: No doubt about that, Nate!
You can learn more about Nate Zaremskiy and see his beautiful landscape photography on his website:
Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) and the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) are leading trail recovery projects in the Gorge, year-round. Here’s where you can learn more about upcoming volunteer projects or make donations to help support these organizations:
‘Tis the season for top ten lists and year-end retrospectives, so in that spirit my annual Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar is pretty good snapshot of 12 favorite spots of mine across WyEast country this year. Since 2004, I’ve created an annual calendar dedicated to the campaign, each with a fresh set of photos. If you’d like a 2019 calendar, there’s info at the bottom of the article and ALL proceeds will once again go to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).
The annual campaign calendar has been a great motivator for exploring new terrain and improving my photography skills over the years. Each year the calendar project also renews my conviction that Mount Hood and the Gorge are uniquely special places, and deserve better care.
This article is a short tour of the 12 spots that made it into the 2019 calendar, with a few stories behind the photos and reflection on these increasingly fragile landscapes.
Starting with the cover image (at the top of the article), the calendar begins at lovely Whale Creek, a tributary of the Clackamas River that is also featured in the March image, so more about that spot in a moment.
Next up, the January image (below) captures the awesome west face of Mount Hood, where the Sandy Headwall towers 3,000 feet above the Sandy Glacier. This snowy view was captured from near Lolo Pass last winter.
Not included in the close-up view are the bare slopes of Barrett Spur (below) and other alpine ramparts of Mount Hood that still didn’t have their winter snowpack in early February, when these photos were taken. While it’s not uncommon to have a late snowpack in the Cascades, these events are becoming more common as global warming unfolds in our own backyard.
Low snow on Barrett Spur in February tells the story of our changing climate
For February, I chose a close-up perspective of the ice “pillows” that form at the base of Tamanawas Falls (below) in winter. This has become a very popular winter destination in recent years, thanks in large part to social media! (…ahem…)
Tamanawas is Chinook jargon for “guiding spirit”, and is one version among a couple variations in spelling. More challenging is the pronunciation, and with the advent of social media, all manner of spoken variations are being used. For some reason, an especially popular spoken version that doesn’t even correlate to the actual spelling is “tah-ma-WAHN-us”.
It turns out the most accepted pronunciation is “ta-MAH-na-wahs”. I’ve been saying a slight variation of “ta-MAN-a-wahs” for most of my life, so I’ll need to work on that!
Cold Spring Creek and Tamanawas Falls in winter
As mentioned earlier, the March calendar image is from Whale Creek (below), located in the heart of the Clackamas River canyon. The creek is hidden in plain sight, flowing through the Indian Henry Campground and next to the east trailhead of the Clackamas River Trail. This area features some of the finest rainforest in WyEast country.
March features a rainforest scene along Whale Creek
Whale Creek was just one of many places in the Clackamas and Molalla River watersheds that I found myself exploring this year while much of the Oregon portion of the Columbia River Gorge was closed by the Eagle Creek fire. I visited the lower reaches of Whale Creek after seeing stunning photos of a string of waterfalls on the upper reaches of the creek, and quickly fell in love with this pretty stream. Watch for a future article on a trail concept I’ve been working on for Whale Creek with TKO and some area waterfall explorers.
Whale Creek in the Clackamas River canyon
Sadly, the Clackamas River corridor has a bad reputation, thanks to a history of lawless behavior (the recent Pit Fire was started by illegal target shooting, for example) and a long history of Forest Service management that viewed the area more like a tree farm than a forest — and the two go hand in hand, by the way.
Yet, hidden in the now-recovering rainforests of the Clackamas are dozens of spectacular waterfalls, towering basalt walls and rugged vistas that rival the Columbia River Gorge in beauty. There are also a lot of big trees that somehow dodged the logging heyday of past decades.
Whale Creek in winter
The Clackamas River corridor holds great promise for future recreation alternative to places like the Gorge, and the proven cure for lawless behavior is lawful recreation. I’m optimistic that we’ll make that transition here, and begin valuing places like Whale Creek for the intrinsic value of its forests, not just the saw logs it can produce.
For the April calendar image, I selected a photo of White River Falls, both for the contrast in WyEast country ecosystems it displays and because this little state park could use some love and expanded boundaries. I posted an article with just such a proposal a few years ago, you can find it over here.
White River Falls with unprotected desert country beyond
The May calendar image features a sweeping view of the Upper Hood River Valley (below) from little known, seldom-noticed Middle Mountain. Its name tells the story, as forested Middle Mountain divides the upper and lower portions of the Hood River Valley. I learned of this spot about ten years ago from a local photographer and have gone back pretty much every year since.
May features the Upper Hood River Valley as viewed from Middle Mountain
Zooming in a bit to this idyllic landscape reveals a seemingly timeless farm scene that is easy to take for granted. And yet, these farms were at great peril just a few years ago, when voters passed the deceptive Measure 37 in 2004. The law was pitched as a way for landowners to “seek compensation” for land use regulation, but in truth was just another end-run around Oregon’s protections for farm and forestlands.
Voters later passed Measure 49, in 2007, blunting the impact of the earlier measure, but only after hundreds of urban-scale developments were approved in rural areas across Oregon (including a pair of giant, illuminated billboards along the Mount Hood Highway that still remain today). It was a reminder that while our farms may look timeless, we can never take them for granted. They will always need our support and protection if we want places like this to exist for future generations.
Timeless farm scene below Middle Mountain
Much of Middle Mountain is owned by the public, where county-owned forest lands continue to be (mis)managed as a cash register by Hood River County (the county likes to refer to these land as their “tree farm”). Local residents no doubt enjoy their modest tax rates, as a result, but I’m hoping the rapidly changing demographics in Hood River will bring a different mindset to how the thousands of acres of county forests that ring the Hood River Valley are managed.
Logging is still king on Middle Mountain…
One immediate concern on Middle Mountain is the manner of logging. Large clear cuts, like those scarring the slopes of Middle Mountain, are an unsustainable practice, with proven harmful impacts to forest health, water quality and salmon and steelhead populations. Clear cuts are also the cheapest, easiest way to bring haul logs out of the forest. That bottom line might be unavoidable for private forests, but as a public agency, Hood River County should at least adopt a selective harvest policy that leaves standing trees in logged areas.
…keeping Hood River County coffers full…
The county should also reject the reckless use of herbicides sprayed on logged over lands. This is a practice the private industry uses to shortcut the natural forest recovery and speed up the next harvest. The idea is to destroy the recovering forest understory in a logged area so that plantation seedlings might grow a little faster.
The forest on the left is next to go…
I’m not certain the county uses this practice on public lands, but it seems to be the case. Consider this notice posted a few days ago on their website:
“Recreation trails are sometimes temporarily closed during additional forest management operations. Operations such as the burning of slash, herbicide application, and the planting of seedlings, will necessitate trail closures. Trails are re-opened once operations are complete.”
This certainly sounds like the private industry practice…
…might as well add “for now” to the last line on this boundary marker, unfortunately.
Of course, the county could show real leadership and simply ban this practice on private lands in Hood River County, as well. That is, if water quality, wildlife, salmon and steelhead habitat, long-term forest health and tourism are a county priority over the fastest route to clear cutting more logs. My sense is that voters in Hood River County are increasingly focused on these broader concerns, even if the county leadership isn’t there yet.
June features Shotgun Falls in the Molalla River canyon
For the June calendar image, I selected another lesser-known spot, graceful Shotgun Falls (above) in the Molalla River canyon. This pretty, off-trail waterfall has been on my list for some time, and the Gorge closure inspired me to finally make this trip last spring for a much-needed waterfall fix.
Shotgun Falls is a classic “Oregon” waterfall, cascading over a tall, mossy basalt cliff. The falls is a short creek walk from the Molalla River Road, but protected by a 20-foot barrier falls just downstream that requires a slippery scramble to navigate. It’s an increasingly popular off-trail trip, and the streambed is starting to show the wear and tear, making this a great candidate for a proper trail that families with young kids and hikers looking for an easy waterfall trip could enjoy. More to come on this idea..!
Time for a real trail, here…
Sometimes a random moment burns a place and time in the forest into your memory. One such moment occurred on my trip to Shotgun Falls when my pack suddenly tipped while shooting photos from high above the falls. To my horror, it went bounding into the canyon, finally stopping just short of Shotgun Creek, about 60 feet below. Thankfully, my camera gear was safely zipped inside and I didn’t even end up with a soggy pack — the difference between a fond memory and forgettable one!
Takes a licking, keeps on zipping!
The July calendar image features a picture-perfect wildflower scene along Cove Creek (below), located at the base of Barrett Spur in Elk Cove. This idyllic spot is kept open by a deep, lingering snowpack in spring and regular winter avalanches that shear off trees, allowing the alpine meadows to thrive.
Looking downstream along Cove Creek (below), 99 Ridge can be seen in the distance, covered with ghost trees killed by the 2012 Dollar Lake Fire. The fire reached the margins of Elk Cove, but passed over most of the forests here.
The Dollar Lake Burn swept over 99 Ridge, in the background in this view of Cove Creek
On this trip to Elk Cove, I met a pair of hikers carrying their exhausted pup down the trail. When I chatted briefly with them, I was reminded that hikers are really nice people: they didn’t even know each other. The man carrying the dog had run into the woman as she struggled to carry her dog back to the trailhead. He offered to carry the poor pup the rest of the way!
Hikers are nice people! (…see text…)
For the August calendar image, I selected a familiar view of Mount Hood from high on the shoulder of Cooper Spur (below). The Eliot Glacier dominates the view here, even as it recedes from global warming. As the glacier recedes, the exposed canyon floor once covered by ice has rapidly eroded, which in turn has begun to destabilize the moraines that flank the canyon.
I experienced the hazards of the destabilized moraines firsthand when I stopped along the South Eliot Moraine that day and set my pack on a 4-foot long boulder that seemed to be the perfect trailside bench. Before I could park myself on the “bench”, it suddenly gave way, careening end-over-end into the Eliot Branch canyon, kicking off dozens of other rocks and an impressive dust storm along the way!
The south Eliot Moraine continues to crumble…
Thankfully, there were no hikers below — and I was also relieved that I’d snapped up my pack before the boulder disappeared over the edge! Clearly, my pack has nine lives… though I’m not sure how many remain…
Seeing the boulder finally land among the jumbled rocks 300 feet below was powerful reminder of the scale of this place, as the 4-foot “bench” rock was dwarfed by dozens of larger boulders scattered below the moraine.
A 4-foot boulder becomes a pebble among the debris rolling into the Eliot Branch canyon
The September calendar image captures fall colors along Still Creek, on Mount Hood’s southwest side. This photo was taken on a visit to a recent Forest Service project designed to restore salmon and steelhead habitat on Still Creek.
September features a grove of Red Alder along Still Creek wrapped in brilliant Vine Maple foliage
The project site was a badly overused “dispersed” campsite that had become an eyesore over the years. To rehabilitate the site, the Forest Service excavated a large trench to block vehicle access to the streamside campsite, reinforced the barrier with a row of boulders. So far, these barriers seems to be working, as there were no signs of continued camping or off-road vehicle use in the area.
Forest Service stream restoration work on Still Creek
At the heart of the restoration project, several very large logs with root wads attached (below) were hauled into the stream to create the natural “woody debris” habitat that our native salmon and steelhead rely upon. The logs and roots create deep pools and places for small fish to hide from predation as they mature to adulthood.
Bringing back logs and root wads that create prime fish habitat
There’s something primeval about uprooted trees lying across the creek. This is what most of our streams looked like before the settlement era, when forests were logged, streams were tamed and few big trees were left to become “woody debris”. The panorama below shows the full extend of this Forest Service restoration project.
On a select few days each fall, the first high elevation snow of the season is followed by a few days of bright, clear weather — and with any luck, all of this coincides with fall colors. Such was the case in the calendar image I selected for October (below), with Mount Hood framed by flaming Vine Maple, as viewed from the Lolo Pass area.
October features an early snow on Mount Hood, framed by Vine Maples
Whenever I shoot this scene, an image of a scalloped-edge vintage postcard is in my mind. Thanks to many postcards from the 1940s, 50s and 60s that captured this side of the mountain in autumn, the scene is iconic. This card (below) from the 1950s is typical of the era, and was captured just around the corner from where I shot the 2019 calendar image.
Timeless inspiration, with fancy scalloped edges!
For the November calendar image, I selected a rainforest scene from along the Molalla River (below), where bare winter trees reveal the contorted, mossy limbs of Bigleaf and Vine Maple.
November features a pristine rainforest scene along the Molalla River
While the above certainly scene looks pristine, it’s really not. One of my favorite photographic themes is to capture “pristine” scenery in places that are not — but could be, if managed with an eye toward restoration. Such was the case with the previous photo from Lolo Pass, where transmission towers were literally buzzing overhead, and with the Molalla River, where a road culvert dumped the little stream in the photo from a 4-foot galvanized pipe.
…which turns out to not be all that pristine..!
Beauty can be found everywhere, and the path to restoration in even the most impacted areas in WyEast country begins when we see places not just for what they once were, but for what they could be, again.
The December calendar image is a freezing fog scene from the east slopes of Mount Defiance (below). This stunning phenomenon occurs a few times each winter when temperature inversions blanket the eastern Columbia River Gorge with dense fog and frigid temperatures. The effect is magical, though traveling the roads in these conditions can be treacherous!
December features a crystal wonderland from freezing fog on the slopes of Mount Defiance
The frosting of ice coating the forest in these scenes is called “soft rime”, and is made up of feathery, fragile crystals that can be brushed off like a fine powder. Soft rime forms when super-cooled vapor in fog accumulates directly on tree surfaces in delicate, elaborate crystals. Hard rime is defined as ice forming from freezing fog that first condenses to water droplets, then freezes on surfaces, creating a clear, hardened ice layer.
Freezing fog on Mount Defiance
Soft rime accumulations can be quite impressive in the Gorge, depending on how long the fog event lasts. These scenes were captured after five days of freezing fog and represent about the maximum amount of ice that can accumulate before crystals break off under their own weight.
Freezing fog on Mount Defiance
This photo (below) is a close-up of soft rime accumulations on a Golden Chinkapin growing on the slopes of Mount Defiance. These crystals as much as three inches long.
Soft rime ice crystals
The scene below shows an odd transition from bare road (and car) to frosted forest that looks like a photoshop creation. In this spot the rime had coated the trees and understory, but not the gravel road in the foreground, creating the strange two-tone scene. This photo is also a bit of a farewell, as my venerable trail car of the past many years years is featured. This old friend was retired to quiet a life in the city just a few months after this photo was taken, at the ripe old age of 13 years and 212,000 miles!
Farewell to an old friend…
The back page of the 2019 calendar features nine wildflower images from the past year. If you’ve followed articles on the blog, you’ll recognize a several photos featured in stories on Horkelia Meadow and Punchbowl Falls.
From top left and reading across, these flowers are Hackelia micrantha (Horkelia Meadow), Chocolate Lily (Punchbowl Falls Park), Oregon Iris (Shellburg Falls), Buckwheat (Horkelia Meadow), Calypso Orchid (Punchbowl Falls Park), Oregon Grape (Molalla River), Horkelia fusca (Horkelia Meadow), Collomia grandiflora (Clackamas River) and Skyrocket Gilia (Horkelia Meadow).
So, that’s it for the 2019 campaign calendar! I’ve already started colleting images for next year’s calendar and I’m looking forward to yet another year of exploring all corners of America’s next national park. Maybe I’ll even see you out on the trail!
Old goat that wandered up a creek…
In the meantime, you can order the 2019 calendar over at Zazzle. They’re beautifully printed, oversized designs with functional writing space — they’re working calendars and make great gifts! The calendars sell for $29.95, but Zazzle regularly offers deep discounts, so it’s worth watching for sales. This year, all proceeds from calendars will go to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).
Western larch light up Mount Hood’s eastern slopes each fall
The title of this post might take you back to “No. 1… THE LARCH” (followed by “No. 3… THE LARCH!” and “…now for something completely different…”).
This might have been the most obscure of Monty Python’s many recurring non-sequiturs, and it is indelibly imprinted in the minds of among those of us of a certain age… but the Pythons had it right: the larch isa remarkable tree, and it really can be “recognized from quite a long way away”.
At about this time each fall, Oregon’s only deciduous conifer explodes into shades of bright yellow, gold and orange before dropping its needles for the winter. Western larch (Larix occidentals) spends most of the spring and summer growing season blending in with other conifers in the forest, and are thus easily missed. But for the next few weeks, they will be flamboyantly on display, and are worth a visit to the east side forests they call home.
Larch grove along the East Fork Hood River
Western larch is one of about a dozen larch found around the world, but it is the only larch found in Oregon. Its range extends north to British Columbia and east to Idaho, Montana and Alberta. It’s also among the largest of the larch species, capable of growing nearly 200 feet tall on massive trunks up to five feet across. Our Western larch is often called “tamarack” by locals, but that name actually belongs to a different, smaller species that grows in the eastern part of the continent.
Western larch has a distinctive shape compared to other forest conifers. Its crown is narrow and tapered, like a candle, and it often grows in groves were its shape allows closely spaced trees to thrive. Larch trees can survive extreme cold and thrive in subalpine forests with winters are frigid and summers are hot and dry — exactly the climate found on the east slopes of Mount Hood. Here, Western larch often dominates the forests and form the westernmost reach of the species.
Larch seedling on Lookout Mountain
Western larch is also prolific in producing offspring, with thickets of young larch growing among the big trees, especially after fire or logging. Young trees are fast-growing, often adding a foot or more of new growth each year.
The branches of Western larch are unique and easy to spot, even during its “green” phase in spring and summer. New growth emerges bright yellow-green in spring from rows of knobs along its limbs, with clusters of needles held in tufts that emerge from each knob. This gives the foliage a delicate, lacy appearance during the growing season, when its foliage gradually deepens to dark green.
Western larch are easy to spot by their tufted foliage
Their bare limbs have distinctive, gnarled, picturesque shape in winter, when the needles have dropped. The cones of Western larch are small, and also arranged among the small knobs that dot its limbs.
Western larch foliage
Mount Hood’s east side forests are also “fire forests”, ecosystems where frequent fires are essential to forest health. Like the neighboring Ponderosa pine that it typically associates with, Western larch has thick bark designed to protect mature trees from repeated fires. For added fire protection, larch drop their lower limbs at the tree mature, keeping the growing tree canopy high and out of reach of fires sweeping through the understory.
The bark on Western Larch is thick and fire-resistant, similar to its Ponderosa pine neighbors
But in the recent catastrophic fires that have swept through the east and north slopes of Mount Hood, the flames were intense enough to reach larch canopies, killing thousands of these normally fire resistant trees. Despite this, young larch seedlings are among the most prominent trees leading the forest recovery in the aftermath of the Bluegrass Fire (2006), Gnarl Fire (2008) and Dollar Lake Fire (2011) that burned most of Mount Hood’s eastern and northern flanks.
Western Larch shed their lower limbs, keeping their growing crowns out of reach of low-intensity fire that would likely burn the other, low-branched conifers in this forest near Hood River Meadows.
Western larch can live to be at least 1,000 years old — that’s the age of “Gus”, the largest and oldest larch of any species in the world. Gus is a Western larch growing in a grove of ancient larch survivors in Montana, and is at the heart of a magnificent larch grove that should be on every big tree hunter’s “bucket list”.
Mount Hood’s most venerable Western larch might be the stunted patriarch growing from a high rock outcrop along Surveyors Ridge (below) at a spot I call Tamarack Rock (an explanation for that improper name is found in this 2009 blog article), where it enjoys a magnificent view of Mount Hood, but also endures the brunt of Pacific storms sweeping across the Cascades in winter and intense heat and drought over the summer months. This old tree is likely centuries old, and has survived fires, logging and undoubtedly a few lightning strikes is this exposed location.
Ancient larch on Tamarack Rock
Like most of our native species, the Western larch was used by Native Americans for food and materials. The resin under its bark was used for medicinal purposes and larch wood was used for poles and as firewood. Today, it is still prized as exceptional firewood.
Which brings us to perhaps the most unfortunate threat to Western larch in our increasingly busy forests: being cut down as “dead” during its dormant, leafless winter phase. Too many perfectly healthy larch trees meet this completely avoidable fate in our forests and cities each year.
These oddly shaped larch near Brooks Meadow have been attacked by the Larch casebearer, an introduced European moth that can defoliate and even kill Western larch.
A more worrisome threat is the Larch casebearer, a European insect that can defoliate Western larch. The parasites that keep the casebearer in check in Europe has not been effective as an introduced counter measure in the Western larch range, and the long-term impact of this introduced bug on our larch stands is still unknown.
Larch stand in mid-summer with browned foliage from a heavy attack by Larch casebearer
The photo above looks like it might be a larch grove in fall, but the photo was taken along the Lookout Mountain Road in mid-summer, showing the crowns of several Western larch under heavy attack by the Larch casebearer. The State of Oregon has published this fact sheet with more information on the casebearer.
Where to see Western Larch
From now through early November, Western larch will be putting on a show along the eastern leg of the Mount Hood Loop Highway, where OR 35 follows the East Fork of the Hood River to Bennett Pass. Bennett Pass roughly marks the dividing line for its range, with big stands of larch suddenly appearing east of the pass.
Larch trees fading to orange and gold in November along the Gumjuwac Trail
If you have more time, the Dufur Mill Road (Forest Road 44) has still more Western larch on display, including along the unimproved road to High Prairie on Lookout Mountain. And if you simply travel Highway 26 across the Cascades, you’ll see Western larch from Blue Box Pass east to the edge of the forest.
If you’re looking for a trail to hike or ride a bike through larch stands, the Dog River Trail (No. 675) and Zigzag Trail (No. 678) are good choices. Both are quiet, though you’ll share the Dog River Trail with mountain bikers. Other trails along the East Fork also offer nice larch stands.
On the east side of Mount Hood lies a pretty mountain meadow that is visited by thousands each year, but known to very few. Right about now, this little meadow is in its peak summer bloom, thanks to a low snowpack this year. The place is Horkelia Meadow, a modest, subalpine gem in the Fire Forest country of the eastern Cascades.
If you’ve ever traveled Lookout Mountain Road to the High Prairie trailhead, you’ve passed right through Horkelia Meadow, though you can be forgiven for not being familiar with the name. Years ago, a Forest Service sign marked the spot, but only a discarded signpost remains today.
Horkelia Meadow straddles popular Lookout Mountain Road
Horkelia Meadow marks an area where a layer of underlying volcanic rock forces the water table to the surface at the top of the steep western scarp of Lookout Mountain. The geology creates a number of springs in the vicinity, and at rolling Horkelia Meadow, the soils are just moist enough to keep the surrounding conifer forests at bay.
The resulting meadow is the perfect habitat for an array of wildflowers and wildlife. You’re likely to see elk and deer sign here, as well as raptors in the big trees that edge the meadow, preying on mice, voles and even the snowshoe hare that live here.
Horkelia Meadow is located in the subalpine forests on the north slopes of Lookout Mountain
Among the earliest blooms of summer at Horkelia Meadow come from a wildflower commonly known as Jessica Sticktight, Blue Stickseedof simply Stickseed. These are showy flowers that line the borders of Horkelia meadow, along the forest margins.
Blue Stickseed flower detail
The common name “Stickseed” is self-explanatory when you look at the seed pods that form after the bloom, with each fruit covered in sticky spikes (below). When they dry out in late summer, they’re well designed to hitch a ride on passing wildlife — or your hiking socks!
But what caught my eye after a recent visit to the meadow was the botanical name for Blue Stickseed: Hackelia micrantha.Surely, there must be a connection to the naming of Horkelia Meadow?
Seed pod on Blue Stickseed (photo: California Native Plant Society)
After searching through a stack of wildflower guides and web resources, I learned that Horkelia fusca or Tawny Horkelia does, indeed, grow in the area. It has been spotted at nearby Bottle Prairie and Brooks Meadow, both located to the north of Horkelia Meadow and about 1,000 feet lower in elevation.
So, a return trip was in order to see if Horkelia fuscaactually grows at Horkelia Meadow. Sure enough, it’s scattered throughout the lower sections of the meadow, far from Lookoout Mountain Road. Where Blue Stickseed is abundant throughout the meadow, Tawny Horkelia is scattered about, sometimes in open forest along the meadow edges, sometimes in dry spots near the center of the lower meadow.
Tawny Horkelia at its namesake meadow
Compared to the showy Blue Stickseed, Tawny Horkelia is a humble bystander in the meadow. These are modest little plants, happy to fill a niche in the ecosystem, but mostly noticeable to wildflower fans.
Therefore, my hunch is that a case of mistaken identity made its way onto Forest Service maps, as Hackelia micrantha— the Blue Stickseed — is lush and very prominent in the meadow during its bloom, and worthy of being its namesake. It’s also dominates along the heavily traveled upper meadow, where Lookout Mountain Road passes through, and where Tawny Horkelia doesn’t seem to grow.
Meanwhile, it also seems that Horkelia Meadow was named fairly recently. The original primitive road was built through the meadow in the 1930s as part of the Bennett Pass Road (see this article on the blog), but Forest Service maps suggest that the Horkelia Meadow was named sometime in the early 1970s.
This is when industrial logging and associated road building went into high gear in the Lookout Mountain area (see below), and the old dirt road to Lookout Mountain was rebuilt and graveled to handle log trucks. During this period, named landmarks were helpful for logging crews navigating the tangle of new roads. I think Horkelia Meadow was (mis)named for that very purpose.
Horkelia Meadow has a bouquet of wildflower species and is a fine spot for a casual ramble to explore its secrets — hidden in plain sight! In early summer the Blue Stickseed are joined by Larkspur sprinkled throughout the meadow. Later, Scarlet Gilia, yellow Buckwheat and blue Lupine take over in a second wave of flowers.
Larkspur in early June at Horkelia Meadow
Lupine just beginning to bloom in early June at Horkelia Meadow
Scarlet Gilia in late June at Horkelia Meadow
In addition to the wildflowers, low thickets of Sticky Currant also grow on the meadow margins and along fallen trees that have dropped into the meadow (below). The summer berries on this species of currant are (as the name suggests) sticky and not edible, but the flowers put on an attractive show in early summer.
Sticky currant at Horkelia Meadow
The summer wildflower show also extends into the shade of the forests that surround Horkelia Meadow, with lush carpets of Vanilla Leaf (below), white Anemone and other wildflowers more commonly found in the wet forests along the Cascade crest.
Vanilla Leaf at Horkelia Meadow
Fire suppression in the 20th century combined with aggressive clear cutting by the Forest Service over the past four decades has disrupted much of the Fire Forest ecosystem on the east side of Mount Hood. In many areas, the result is a crowded thicket of true firs, replacing the fire-dependent species of Ponderosa pine, Western larch, Lodgepole pine and Douglas fir that used to dominate. This, in turn, has triggered a cycle of beetle infestations among the crowded, weakened fir forests across the mountains of Eastern Oregon, often followed by catastrophic fires that kill even the fire-dependent tree species.
The good news is that the Forest Service has begun thinning some of these unnatural forests in an effort to restore the Fire Forest structure, including the use of controlled burns in some areas (see “Fire Forests of the Cascades”) Over time, this could help restore the natural forest ecosystem.
A walk around Horkelia Meadow shows remnants of the old Fire Forest cycle that once dominated the area, creating open, park-like forests under towering trees. If you look closely, you can even find a few traces (above) of the last forest fire to sweep through the area, decades ago, when the forests were much different than today.
A trio of fire-dependent Western Larch along the east margins of Horkelia Meadow
Whether fire returns to the areas as a planned burn or natural event, the Fire Forest species are still here and ready to resume their role as the dominant trees of this ecosystem… if we will allow it.
The old Fire Forest remnants scattered around Horkelia Meadow, some living and some standing as skeleton trees, provide easy landmarks for a tour. The starting point for exploring the meadow is the high point at the east end of the meadow, just off the Lookout Mountain road (from the recommended parking spot described at the end of the article, follow the road uphill for 100 yards).
At this upper end of Horkelia Meadow stands a gnarled, burly skeleton of what I call the “Big Bear Tree” (below), as it looks like it might be lumbering off into the woods, having lost his top. The low, dense branching on this ancient skeleton suggests this was an enormous Englemann spruce, a species that thrives in forests along the Cascade crest, especially along meadow margins. A living Englemann spurce can be found at the lower edge of of the main meadow, below.
The “Big Bear” skeleton tree at the upper end of Horkelia Meadow
In early summer, the meadows around the “Big Bear Tree” are also filled with Blue Stickseed and Larkspur.
Heading downhill and across the road, pass a larch grove and head toward the bones of a very large, double-trunked Ponderosa pine (below). I call this old tree the “Patriarch” because it clearly ruled over Horkelia Meadow until fairly recently. Air photos show this giant still standing and alive in 2005, but toppled by 2010. The amount of bark left on the trunk is a good indicator of how recently this tree died.
“Patriarch Tree” at the center of the meadow, a huge, double-trunked Ponderosa pine that has toppled within the last decade or so
Newly toppled Patriarch Tree at Horkelia Meadow
Next, head downhill into the main meadow, located to the west and tucked away from the road, out of sight to passing travelers. Here, a large, multi-trunked Ponderosa Pine I call “The Flyswatter” towers over the scene at the north end of the meadow. This big snag is a favorite of raptors, especially owls, and is actually two snags, with the tall, single-trunked skeleton of what was likely a Grand fir wrapped in the bleached limbs of the old Ponderosa.
As you walk toward “The Flyswatter”, look for a couple of handsome Lodgepole pine growing along the east margin of the main meadow, another important species in Fire Forests.
“The Flyswatter” skeleton tree and the lower part of Horkelia Meadow
“The Flyswatter” tree skeleton
Just beyond “The Flyswatter” (and over a large, collapsed trunk you’ll need to navigate) is the mostly hidden northwest meadow. This pretty spot used to be guarded by another large Ponderosa pine that has long since become a skeleton, and now lies across the meadow. Based on air photos, it looks to have fallen sometime in the 1970s (below). I call this one the “Dragon Tail” tree (below).
The “Dragon Tail” tree in the hidden northwest meadow
Returning to the main meadow, a pair of big Ponderosa pine come into view (below) at the top of the slope. I call these the “Odd Couple”, as one is a nearly perfect Ponderosa specimen, while its twin is anything but, with a twisted, leaning top and huge, gnarled branches. Both were once in the shadow of the massive “Patriarch Tree”, whose skeleton lies just a few yards away.
The heart of Horkelia Meadow, with the “Odd Couple” to the left of center
The “Odd Couple” at the center of Horkelia Meadow
The grassy, shaded landing between this pair of Ponderosa makes a nice spot to relax and enjoy the surrounding meadow. From here, you can appreciate the tortured life of the southernmost tree of the pair. The deep scar running down the west side of its trunk and deep wound at the base of the trunk suggest a lightning strike — a common cause of demise for big trees that grow in exposed places like Horkelia Meadow (below).
Scarred trunk of the southernmost “Odd Couple” pair
Lightning may have taken out the nearby Patriarch Tree, too — seen here from the Odd Couple:
The “Patriarch Tree” skeleton lies just beyond the “Odd Couple”
Look up into the tortured twin and you can see (below) that the main trunk is really a surviving limb that took over to replace the main trunk after the original top was destroyed — whether by lighting or simply a windstorm.
The curvy, leaning top of the southern “Odd Couple” twin
The base of this old tree (below) shows another familiar trademark of big Ponderosa pine, a broad dome of “puzzle pieces” that have accumulated around the tree over the decades. These platforms of accumulated bark chips and pine needles give these handsome trees their park-like appearance, as if the meadow has been carefully trimmed around the tree.
Ponderosa bark piled up to form an apron around this giant at Horkelia Meadow
Ponderosa don’t choose to be multi-trunked, but they can adapt this way when topped by weather or lightening. The extra load of lateral limbs adapting to become a replacement trunk results in some very impressive trees, with upturned limbs 18″ or more across emerging from the trunk of the twisting “Odd Couple” twin (below). Over time, though, these trees are still more prone to collapse than single-trunked trees from heavy snow accumulation or wind on their bulky branch structure.
Heavy-duty limbs on the more gnarled of the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pair
The bark on Ponderosa pine is both fascinating and beautiful. The puzzle-like flakes (below) continually shed as the bark on the tree grows. The dark furrows in the bark form as the tree expands under its thick bark jacket, pulling it apart
Bark detail on the more gnarled of the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pine
Ponderosa pine bark on a mature tree can be several inches thick, and this is the main defense against fire, a needed and necessary part of the Fire Forest ecosystem. The combination of protective bark and high crown allows the biggest trees to survive multiple fires and thrive to produce offspring after each successive burn. In this way, the recently fallen “Patriarch Tree” could easily be the parent of the “Odd Couple” and other big Ponderosa pine around Horkelia Meadow.
Recent cones from the more gnarled twin of the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pine at Horkelia Meadow
The gnarled sibling in the “Odd Couple” has had a harder life that its twin, for sure, but it continues to generate cones and seeds (above). In the end, that’s all a Ponderosa Pine lives to do, no matter how funky its shape. Over time, the toughest, most resilient trees decide the future of the forest with their offspring.
Old fire rings between the “Odd Couple” Ponderosa pine trees
If you do find yourself having a snack or picnic under the “Odd Couple”, you won’t be the first. Nearly lost in a thick carpet of Ponderosa needles is a pair of old fire rings (above). How long since these were uses? Decades, perhaps? They could even date back to a time when herders brought sheep up from the Dufur Valley to graze the slopes of Lookout Mountain in the early 1900s, and have since been forgotten in this little meadow (and just in case, please leave them be as remnants from an earlier time).
So, where’s the mountain?
Mount Hood from the lower south meadow
The upper and main meadows offer occasional peeks at the top of Mount Hood, but the best views are from the south meadows, located downslope from Lookout Mountain Road, beyond a curtain of trees. Here, the western scarp of Lookout Mountain begins to fall away quickly, with the south meadows perched above steep forested slopes, below.
To reach the hidden south meadows, head across the main meadow through a gap in the trees that is directly in line with the Odd Couple. Here, you’ll arrive at the top of the upper south meadow, and you can then meander downhill through another gap to the larger, lower south meadow. Mount Hood Views abound here, and the lower meadow is also a fine spot for a picnic.
Bluegrass Ridge from the lower south meadow
The view from the lower south meadow also includes Blue Grass Ridge, which forms the eastern edge of the Mount Hood Wilderness. From here, you can see the traces of the 2006 Bluegrass Fire that burned most of the crest of Bluegrass Ridge, and the 2008 Gnarl Fire that burned the eastern slopes of Mount Hood all the way to Cloud Cap Inn, on the northwest horizon.
These recent burns are recovering quickly, with a bright green understory of Western larch, Lodgepole pine and White pine emerging under a ghost forest of bleached snags. While these were the first fires to burn the east slope of the mountain in more than a century, the landscape they left behind is what the area looked like before fire suppression in the 20th Century — a diverse mosaic of mature and recovering Fire Forests.