The Ancient Rowena Oak

The Rowena Oak

The Rowena Oak

Somewhere under the heading of “hidden in plain sight” is a remarkable Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) growing just a few yards from the Historic Columbia River Highway, near Rowena Crest. I stumbled across this old sentinel a few weeks ago while exploring the sprawling fields of arrowleaf balsamroot that Rowena is known for.

The venerable Rowena oak is not a particularly graceful tree: you won’t find it in coffee table books or on postcards. Though the gnarled trunks of these slow-growing trees are often living works of art, the Rowena oak is as much a battered monument to simple survival as it is a living sculpture. But it’s well worth a visit for anyone who loves ancient trees, and makes for a unique stop for those exploring the old highway.

Dry Canyon Bridge and McCall Point from Rowena Plateau

Dry Canyon Bridge and McCall Point from Rowena Plateau

The tree is located in a most unlikely spot, near the brink of craggy Dry Canyon, a Missoula Flood feature that is part of the Rowena Dell canyon complex.

The sheer canyon walls are a reminder that the oaks surviving the harsh Rowena climate are anchored in a very thin layer of soil, atop hundreds of feet of layered basalt. This semi-desert ecosystem has an average of just 14 inches of rain per year, with hot, dry summers and freezing winters, and our infamous Gorge winds ready to strike up at any time, year-round.

The fact that Oregon white oaks can live to be hundreds of years old in this environment is truly remarkable. Part of their secret lies in a large taproot that not only anchors the trees in this windy, hostile environment, but also provides trees access to deep groundwater stored in the layers of basalt bedrock. The main taproot in these trees is complemented by a strong lateral root system, giving our native oaks an especially impressive root structure compared to most other tree species.

Dry Canyon and Rowena Dell from the highway bridge

Dry Canyon and Rowena Dell from the highway bridge

Despite these challenges, the oak trees of the dry savannah found at Rowena are thriving, and even the ancient sentinels in these groves are blooming and producing acorns with each spring.

The Rowena Oak grows just a few yards from the historic Dry Canyon bridge, and was clearly here to witness the construction Samuel Lancaster’s Historic Columbia River Highway and Conde McCullough’s iconic highway bridge over the rocky gorge in 1921. The old tree probably stood witness to first railroads being built in the late 1800s, as well — and the rise and fall of the salmon canning industry that swept through the Gorge toward the end of the 1800s.

The Rowena Oak with the Dry Canyon Bridge in the background

The Rowena Oak with the Dry Canyon Bridge in the background

In fact, at roughly two feet in diameter, the Rowena Oak could easily pre-date the arrival of Europeans in this part of North America. An Oregon State University (OSU) study of similar Oregon white oak habitat in Southern Oregon found that trees greater than 15″ in diameter were consistently 200 years or more years in age. The oldest oak in the OSU study was a whopping 429 years old, truly a testament to survival.

The huge, cascading Rowena Oak hangs into the protected niche of Dry Canyon

The huge, cascading Rowena Oak hangs into the protected niche of Dry Canyon

The arid climate at Rowena may be tough on trees, but it also helps preserve the life history of the old giants as they gradually succumb to the elements. Their broken tops and limbs are often preserved exactly where they fell decades ago, as mute testimony to the years of hardship these ancient trees have endured.

The Rowena oak is a great example, as it is surrounded by its own debris from decades of the ice storms, relentless winds and even the occasional lightning strike that are part of survival in the Gorge. The density of Oregon White oak wood helps in the preservation, as well — the same hardness that preserves its wood in the wild is also why these trees have historically been used to make furniture, flooring and barrels.

The Rowena Oak with Sevenmile Hill in the distance

The Rowena Oak with Sevenmile Hill in the distance

The Rowena oak has huge, twin trunks, the top of each toppled long ago by the elements. Lacking a top, the tree relies on four massive, sprawling limbs to survive, highlighting another survival secret of this species: Oregon White Oak sprouts prolifically from dormant buds on stumps and along trunks when tops are cut or broken off. This ability to adapt helped the Rowena oak survive what could have been catastrophic damage for most tree species.

The eastern of the two trunks points two massive, arching limbs toward the rim of Dry Canyon, and a closer look reveals yet another survival secret of this ancient tree: a tangle of branches cascade over the cliff like a leafy waterfall, with a lush canopy protected from the worst of the Gorge weather that sweeps across the top of the plateau.

A closer look at the sprawling Rowena Oak

A closer look at the sprawling Rowena Oak

A third major limb, nearly a foot thick, snakes a surprising 50 feet from the eastern trunk, along the exposed cliff edge of the canyon. This huge limb hovers just 2-3 feet above the ground — yet doesn’t touch — thanks to the tremendous strength of its wood.

The huge, contorted limbs of the Rowena Oak have "eyes" that seem to be watching curious visitors!

The huge, contorted limbs of the Rowena Oak have “eyes” that seem to be watching curious visitors!

The western of the two main trunks has just one surviving major limb, a crooked, cracked affair that touches ground at several points, surrounded by the bleached bones of its own branches, broken off over the decades. Each of the fracture points in this broken old limb is marked with a thicket of new sprouts, showing how this old tree continues to regenerate, extending its long life.

One of the many bleached "bones" that help tell the survival story of the Rowena Oak

One of the many bleached “bones” that help tell the survival story of the Rowena Oak

While the Rowena Oak may look haggard, its growing limbs are healthy, putting out annual bursts of new leaves each spring, along with surprisingly abundant flower clusters. These will soon yield acorns, completing a reproductive cycle this tree has likely repeated since the time when Lewis and Clark passed by, if not longer.

Spring brings another flush of new leaves on the venerable Rowena Oak

Spring brings another flush of new leaves on the venerable Rowena Oak

Spring blossoms on the Rowena Oak

Spring blossoms on the Rowena Oak

Though most have been stripped by the elements or wildlife, several acorns from last year’s crop are still attached to the Rowena Oak, waiting to be dispersed. A mature Oregon white oak can produce anywhere from 20 to 50 lbs of acorns in a season, depending on growing conditions.

Acorns may look tough, but they are designed to sprout new tree seedlings as soon as moisture and warmth allow, as the seeds only remain viable for a year or so. Only a very few will sprout, and only a tiny fraction of seedlings will survive to become trees.

A few acorns from last season are still attached to the Rowena Oak

A few acorns from last season are still attached to the Rowena Oak

The thickets of younger Oregon white oak trees we see in some parts of the Gorge today may be the result of fire suppression over the past century. Studies of Oregon white oak groves in the Willamette Valley by Oregon State University suggest that pre-settlement fires regularly thinned out seedlings, allowing established oak trees to thrive without the competition of young oaks. Fire also kept other, competing tree species at bay that otherwise would have crowded out the native white oaks.

Visiting the Rowena Oak

Though the spectacular fields of yellow balsamroot and blue lupine have mostly faded, Rowena is always fascinating to explore. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages a sizeable conservation preserve covering much of the area.

Visiting the Rowena Oak

Visiting the Rowena Oak

(click here for a larger map in a new window)

A lower trail leads across the Rowena Plateau to a cliff-edge view of the Columbia River, and an upper trail climbs to McCall Point to a sweeping view of Mount Hood and the Gorge. Less adventurous hikers can still enjoy terrific views of the Gorge by simply hiking the first quarter mile or so of these trails, so there are hiking options for every ability.

The Rowena Oak is located just a few steps off the Historic Columbia River Highway, immediately west of the Dry Canyon Bridge. Roadside parking is available as you approach the bridge from Mosier. Simply walk uphill along the west edge of the canyon, and you will immediately spot the old oak from a low rise adjacent to the highway. This is an easy, rewarding stop for families with young kids, as the tree tells a fascinating story of survival.

Spectacular river views reward hikers on the Rowena Plateau trail

Spectacular river views reward hikers on the Rowena Plateau trail

The longer hikes to the Rowena Plateau and McCall Point are quite busy during April and May during the wildflower bloom, but you’ll have them to yourself later in summer and fall, when the flowers are gone but the landscape is just as impressive. While the upper trail leads to broad views of the Columbia River and Mount Hood, the lower trail has a unique pair of “kolk” lakes formed during the Missoula Floods, and equally impressive views of the river and Rowena Dell.

Springtime balsamroot atop McCall Point on the upper trail

Springtime balsamroot atop McCall Point on the upper trail

As with all eastern Gorge hikes, use caution hiking in the heat of summer, as there is little tree canopy to shade these trails. The Nature Conservancy also asks that you stay on the trails, and be aware of the triple hazard of rattlesnakes, poison oak and ticks that are standard for the eastern Gorge. The first two in this list are easy to avoid, but you should prepare for ticks, and follow more rigorous precautions (see this recent article on ticks for a few tips). Note that the trails at Rowena are closed in the winter, when they can be slick and potentially hazardous.

2013 Mount Hood National Park Calendar

Each year at about this time I assemble the Mount Hood National Park Scenic Calendar. The proceeds are modest, but do help support the Mount Hood National Park Campaign website, WyEast Blog and related project expenses. But the main purpose is to simply promote the national park concept, and make the case for the campaign with pictures.

What the calendar looks like – oversized 11×17” pages you can actually use!

I’ve published the calendars since 2004, so this year’s calendar marks the ninth edition. All of the photos in the calendar are from trips and trails I’ve explored over the past year. I get a surprising number of questions about the photos, so in addition to simply announcing the 2013 calendar, this article tells a bit of the story behind the new images — and some are surprising!

The 2013 Scenes

The cover image for the 2013 calendar is Upper McCord Creek Falls, located just west of Cascade Locks. This is a popular destination for Columbia Gorge lovers, though often overshadowed by its more famous downstream sibling, Elowah Falls.

Cover Scene: Upper McCord Creek Falls

Upper McCord Falls is unique in that it flows as a twin cascade. A little known fact is that a third segment used to flow during the rainy season as recently as the 1970s, just to the left of the two segments shown in the photo (above). The third segment has since been blocked by stream debris, however, so for now, Upper McCord is best known as a twin cascade.

The falls is popular with photographers, but in 2010 was briefly obstructed by a large treetop that had split from atop a nearby maple, landing perfectly on its head, directly in front of the falls. While the local photography community simply grumped and groaned about this unfortunate development, Gorge waterfall explorer and photographer Zach Forsyth did something about it: he scrambled down the slope, and neatly tipped the 40-foot up-ended tree on its side. Thus, Zach made this year’s calendar cover possible – thanks, Zach!

Upper McCord Creek Falls with “the stump” in 2010

Upper McCord Creek Falls is tucked away in the hidden upper canyon of McCord Creek, just a few hundred yards from the brink of Elowah Falls. The trail to the upper falls is especially spectacular, following a ledge chiseled into sheer cliffs in the early 1900s to pipe water to the former Warrendale Cannery, below (portions of the pipe system can be seen along the trail). The falls is hidden from view until you abruptly arrive at the dramatic overlook, directly in front of the falls – one of the finest and most unexpected scenes in the Gorge.

The January calendar scene is a wintery view of the rugged west face of Mount Hood, just emerging from the clouds after a fresh snowfall. This view was captured just a few weeks ago near Lolo Pass, as the evening light was briefly catching the summit.

January Scene: West face after an early winter storm

Like most “mountain in the mist” images, this one was a reward for patience: I waited for two chilly hours for the clouds to clear! It worth the wait, though I’ve also had my share of disappointments when that glorious glimpse of the mountain didn’t materialize.

For the month of February, I picked an image from a trip last winter along the Little Zigzag River. I had planned to snowshoe to Little Zigzag Falls from the Kiwanis Camp, but there were only about 18 inches of snow on the ground, much of it fluffy and new. So, I simply trudged through leaving some very deep boot prints in my wake — and happily, the only footprints on the trail that afternoon.

February Scene: Little Zigzag River in winter

The weather was extremely cold on this visit, revealing one of the surprising effects of running water in winter: it turns out the sheer volume of relatively “warm” water (that is, above freezing) flowing down the Little Zigzag river actually heats the narrow canyon, much like an old steam radiator heats a room.

Following this radiator analogy, the temperate gradient is most noticeable when air temperatures are really cold. It was about 12º F that day, yet the air right next to the stream, and especially in front of Little Zigzag Falls measured in at a “balmy” 30º F. I found myself peeling off layers while shooting the stream and falls, only to hurriedly put them back on as I ventured back down the trail and into the real cold!

For the month of March I chose another waterfall scene, this time the lush, verdant base of popular Latourell Falls in the Columbia Gorge.

March Scene: Latourell Falls in spring

On this visit to the falls, Oregon State Parks construction crews were starting work on several major upgrades to viewpoints along this busy trail. As a result, the most popular trailhead at the Latourell Wayside was closed. Instead, I took a back route to the falls and had the place to myself for the better part of an hour — nearly unheard of on what should have been a busy spring weekend at Latourell Falls.

The April calendar scene is from Rowena Plateau at the McCall Preserve, in the dry, eastern Columbia Gorge. The iconic yellow balsamroot and blue lupine were in peak bloom on this sunny afternoon in mid-spring, and the glassy surface of the Columbia River in the background reveals a rare day of calm in the normally windy Gorge. The very tip of Mount Adams peeks over the hills on the horizon, on the Washington side of the river:

April Scene: Balsamroom and lupine on Rowena Plateau

The trip to Rowena was especially memorable for me, as I was hiking with an old college friend who was visiting Oregon for a few days. Rowena was a great place to catch up on news and old memories.

My friend also happens to be an eminent geologist working for the federal government, so we had a great conversation about the mystery of “desert mounds” (also known as “biscuit scablands”), which found on Rowena Plateau and in other areas in the Columbia Basin (watch for a future WyEast Blog article on this subject…).

Hikers passing one of the mysterious desert mounds on Rowena Plateau

Continuing the balsamroot-and-lupine theme, the May scene in the new calendar comes from Hood River Mountain, a tract of private land that is (for now) open to the public, but at risk of closure, due to heavy use by hikers.

This is one piece of land that will hopefully come into public ownership someday, before a less responsible private owner places trophy homes on these beautiful slopes. I wrote about this unfortunate oversight in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Act in this article from a few years ago.

May Scene: Hood River Mountain in May

On Memorial Day last spring, I made a trip to Dry Creek Falls, a beautiful waterfall saddled with one of the most unfortunate and uninspiring place names in the Gorge! The June calendar image is from that trip, and captures Dry Creek rambling through the forest a few hundred yards below the falls.

June Scene: (not so) Dry Creek in spring

This area has a unique history: an old, derelict diversion dam and waterworks survives at the base of the falls, where the City of Cascade Locks once tapped the stream for municipal water in decades past. Perhaps this is the origin of “Dry Creek” name — did the stream below the diversion actually go dry when the dam was installed? Perhaps, but today it flows year-round, and makes for a beautiful streamside hike in spring.

Dry Creek Falls and the remains of the old diversion dam and waterworks

The July scene in the 2013 calendar is from a trip to Elk Cove last August. This is one of my annual pilgrimages, and I have photographed this particular spot just east of Cove Creek too many times to count — yet I’m always excited to get there, and recapture the stunning scene.

July Scene: Summer wildflowers at Elk Cove

The wildflower bloom on Mount Hood was delayed by several weeks this year, so even though I was a bit late in visiting Elk Cove, there was still a bumper-crop of purple aster mixing with the blue lupine and mop-heads of western anemone, or Old Man of the Mountain.

Not visible in the calendar view of Elk Cove are the blackened forests directly behind me: the Dollar Fire of 2011 swept across a 5-mile swath along the northern foot of Mount Hood, charring the northern fringes of Elk Cove, including several large stands of mountain hemlock that frame the view from 99 Ridge.

The Dollar Fire burned a 5-mile swath across the north slope Mount Hood

Though it’s initially shocking to see healthy forests killed by fire, it is also part of the natural cycle of forest renewal. Thus, we’ll now have a front-row seat to the fire recovery process that will unfold over the coming years along the popular north side trails. I wrote this blog article on the Dollar Fire earlier this year.

For the August calendar image, I picked a less familiar scene from an otherwise popular hike: the soaring trail to the 8,514’ summit of Cooper Spur. To beat the crowds, I set my alarm for 3 AM and raced to the trailhead at Cloud Cap. I was the first to arrive at the string of dramatic viewpoints along the trail, and caught the first rays of sun lighting up the northeast face of the mountain.

August Scene: Eliot Glacier from Cooper Spur

This view is from the north shoulder of Cooper Spur, just below the summit, and looking into the impressive jumble of crevasses and icefalls along the Eliot Glacier. Though the sky was crystal clear (you can see the moon setting to the left of the mountain), the winds from the south were strong and blustery. So, getting this shot from the lee side of the spur also meant enjoying some respite from the intense wind and blowing volcanic grit.

For the September image, I selected a lesser-known view of the mountain: the remote and rugged Newton Canyon, on the southeast side, where Mount Hood has a broad, massive profile.

September Scene: Rugged Newton Creek Canyon on the east side of Mount Hood

Glacial Newton Creek is best known for the havoc it brings far below, where the stream has repeatedly washed out Highway 35 with violent debris flows that toss Toyota-size boulders and whole trees across the road in their wake. Construction crews were busy this summer completing yet another repair, this time for damage that occurred in the 2006 floods. As always, the new road is bigger and higher than the old. We’ll see if Newton Creek is persuaded to flow through the new series of larger flood culverts this time…

The October scene is from Wahclella Falls on Tanner Creek, a popular family hike that also provides terrific viewing of spawning salmon and steelhead in early autumn.

October Scene: Wahclella Falls in autumn

Fall colors were somewhat muted in 2012, thanks to an unusually long, dry summer that extended well into October. As a result, the broadleaf trees in many areas had already dropped a lot of leaves due to the stress of the drought, before they would even have a change to change with the seasons.

While fall colors at Tanner Creek were less affected by the summer drought, the autumn scene in this year’s calendar has to make due without without the help of the particular tree, the Wahclella Maple I wrote about earlier this year. You can see the hole it left by comparing this year’s image (above) and a 2010 image (below).

Wahclella Falls in 2010 with the Wahclella Maple still standing above the footbridge

Since 2007, I’ve made annual trips with friends and volunteers to tend to the Old Vista Ridge Trail on the north side of Mount Hood. This historic gem from the early 1900s was an overgrown, forgotten victim of the Forest Service clear-cutting juggernaut for some 40 years, but somehow managed to escape their chainsaws.

Volunteers re-opened the Old Vista Ridge Trail in 2007, spurred in part by a Forest Service scheme to turn the area into a playground for dirt bikes and ATVs — an appalling plan that was eventually abandoned, in part because the rediscovered trail had revealed the beauty of the area to so many.

In 2010, the trail became the official northern boundary of the expanded Mount Hood Wilderness, when President Obama signed a new wilderness bill into law. This change should close the door on future Forest Service threats to the area, and today the hike into one of the best on the mountain.

November Scene: Mount Hood from Owl Point

The November calendar scene is from a viewpoint along the Old Vista Ridge Trail known as Owl Point, the rocky outcrop with stunning views of the mountain. Bright red huckleberries light up the foreground in this scene, and the first dusting of snow highlights the mountain. In the distance, you can also pick out the browned forests on the slopes of Mount Hood, where the Dollar Fire swept across the base of the mountain in 2011.

The final image in the new calendar is another taken from Lolo Pass, perhaps one of the most spectacular views of Mount Hood. This image was taken just before sundown after a fresh snowfall had blanketed the mountain.

December Scene: Winter arrives at Lolo Pass

I paid the price for taking in the sunset that night at Lolo Pass, as my car was broken into at the trailhead – something I’d somehow managed to avoid in all my years of hiking! As frustrating as it was to deal with the repairs and lost belongings… I’d do it all over again just to spend those magical hours watching the mountain that night — it was truly breathtaking! Here, take a closer look, and see for yourself:

Mount Hood from Lolo Pass | 2012
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The thirteen images I chose for the 2013 calendar are from a few thousand images I’ve taken this year on something just shy of 40 outings to Mount Hood and the Gorge — a bit less time on the trail than a typical year would allow, but no complaints! As always, these adventures took me to new places and discoveries, as well as fond visits to my favorite old haunts.

And as always, the magnificent scenery further confirmed my conviction that Mount Hood should (and will!) be set aside as our next National Park! Hopefully, the calendar makes the case, as well.

How can you get one, you ask?

The new calendars are available online:

2013 Mount Hood National Park Calendar at CafePress

They are large and functional, measuring 17” across by 22” tall when hung, with plenty of room for writing notes and scheduling activities. CafePress packages them carefully, with each calendar sealed against a corrugated cardboard backing for support.

The calendars sell for $29.99 + shipping, with about 25% of the proceeds going to support the Mount Hood National Park Campaign. They make terrific stocking stuffers (…although you’ll need an 11×17” stocking…), and CafePress now makes it even easier by offering PayPal as an option.

And as always, thanks for your support!
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Addendum: Gorge uber-Guru Scott Cook set me straight on a couple of comments in the above article:

Hey Tom, so of course I read your blog like a good Gorge denizen. A couple of points…I’m not trying to sound like a know-it-all…but I know that you do like to get at the bottom of things and eschew conjecture:

The pipes visible on the Upper McCord trail are from Myron Kelly’s pulp mill, not Warren’s cannery. There are some pix on my blog of Kelly’s mill and iterations of his pipes. I have another old pic too showing the pipe running along the cliff cleft, illustrating to me that the cleft was a pipeway instead of a WPA/CCC construction.

2013MHNPCalendar16
(author’s note: here’s a photo I shared with Scott that shows CCC crews clearing out the old waterline shelf to make way for the trail to Upper McCord Falls — note the Historic Columbia River Highway, far below, and the CCC crew bosses in full uniform)

…and, about Dry Creek falls, the Creek was called Dry Creek before the water works were installed. The reason is that just downstream of the PCT trail bridge, just down the access road 200yards, the creek dries up in the summer to nothing, just a dry creek bed as the creek goes subterranean until re-emerging downstream of the powerline corridor.

If you walk down the access road in the summer, the stream is of course flowing under the bridge, but when you walk downstream the sound goes away and you just figure the stream curved away from the road, but nope, if you bushwhack over just 100 feet you’ll see the dry stream…as you will if you continue down the access road also.

Down the (Dry Creek) access road is a bunker-looking building that was built in the 30’s to store the water from the stream’s waterworks for the city’s first municipal supply. The water shed is still in use today, but the water is pumped upwards into it from wells in the town below.

Next edition of Curious I’ll have Dry Creek Falls as a loop using the powerline access road…so people can learn the history and see the Dried-up Creek as well (cuz everyone loves a loop). Look for my pix on Google Earth of all this stuff and the dried-up creek. -Scott

Thanks, Scott!

Warren Falls story airs October 25th on Oregon Field Guide!

The Magnificent Seven ready to head to Warren Falls on May 12

If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, you may remember this article from last spring. This earlier article documents the field shoot at Warren Falls for a story on OPB’s Oregon Field Guide.

The segment finally airs this week at the following times on Oregon Public Broadcasting:

• Thursday, Oct. 25 at 8:30pm

• Sunday, Oct 28 at 6:30pm (repeat)

After the story airs, it will be viewable on the Oregon Field Guide website:

OFG Warren Falls Episode

Vince and Michael at work along Warren Creek

Thanks go out to Vince Patton and Michael Bendixen, the brave OFG crew who made a couple of trips to Warren Falls to capture the story. Along the way they braved an ice storm, waded through knee-deep poison oak, dodged cliffs and dangled beneath the huge “trash rack” that covers the top of the Warren Falls diversion. They are true adventurers to the core!

The crew spent two separate days on site, and captured what should be some very intriguing views of the Warren Falls diversion structure — including that glimpse under the weir, looking into the tunnel. The video from our earlier, icy winter trip should be interesting, with some surprises, I suspect.

OFG shooting at the base of Warren Falls last May (Photo: Adam Sawyer)

ODOT continues to move forward toward construction of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail segment from Starvation Creek to Warren Falls, so stay tuned! I’ll continue to post information on the effort to restore the falls on the blog, as well as on the Restore Warren Falls Facebook page:

Restore Warren Falls on Facebook

An Oregon Classic

The granddaddy of Oregon field guides was published in 1969

Today, you can walk into a Portland bookstore and find dozens of hiking guides, most with a narrow geographic focus or hiking speciality — hiking Mount Hood, hiking with dogs, hiking with kids, day hikes, backpacking trips — that cater to every stripe of hiker.

But in the beginning, there was only one guide: 100 Oregon Hiking Trails by Don and Roberta Lowe. The book was published by the Touchstone Press in 1969, and was the first of many guides that established the Lowes as the undisputed experts on hiking in Oregon.

Family heirloom: frontpiece of our original copy, signed by Don Lowe

100 Oregon Hiking Trails set the bar for what every hiking guide is still judged by. The Lowes hiked every trail in the book to ground-truth and map actual trail locations, covering 1,400 miles in their efforts. Each hike includes Roberta Lowe’s detailed narrative describing the trip and a summary of basic trail data, including elevation gain and loss, mileage, hiking season and driving instructions.

Don Lowe is an accomplished photographer, and captured photos for each hike. Don also created custom trail maps using USGS topo sheets as his base — and often correcting the actual trail location, adding trail highlights and mapping forest road updates.

The result was a pioneering guide that many hikers carried in their packs (after all, this was the era when photocopiers were still rare!) and relied upon as their “eleventh essential”.

Typical map from 100 Oregon Hiking Trails – this one is for the Serene Lake hike

Exactly half the trips in 100 Oregon Hiking Trails are day trips from Portland, and another thirty are in the Central Oregon Cascades. The twenty remaining trips are spread across southern and eastern Oregon. Most of these hikes are still classics, covered many times over in field guides published over four the decades since the Lowes first described them.

But while the destinations are the same, many trails have changed significantly since 100 Oregon Hiking Trails was published: most of the trails we know today on Dog Mountain and Silver Star Mountain today simply didn’t exist in 1969, for example. In a few cases, the destination itself has changed: former lookouts are gone (Silver Star Mountain, Saddle Mountain, Bald Butte), viewpoints partly grown over (Lost Lake Butte, Fish Creek Mountain) or trails simply lost (the Perdition Trail).

Don and Roberta are pictured building a fire at Serene Lake in “100 Oregon Hiking Trails

Perhaps most importantly, 100 Oregon Hiking Trails was a hedge against the sharp decline in forest trails that accompanied the escalating timber harvests on federal lands in the 1950s and 60s. Though clear cuts and logging roads claimed many more trails during the logging heyday that continued through the 1980s, the Lowes inspired countless Oregonians to rediscover their forests. These new hikers, in turn, brought a new awareness of the heavy toll that industrial forestry was having on our public lands.

Growing up with 100 Oregon Hiking Trails: My First Backpack

Like most outdoor-oriented Portlanders in the late 1960s and 70s, my family had a copy of 100 Oregon Hiking Trails out on the coffee table (right next to Ray Atkeson’s Oregon, Jack Grauer’s Mount Hood: A Complete History, Maynard Drawson’s Treasures of the Oregon Country, Ralph Friedman’s Oregon for the Curious… and a few recent issues of LIFE magazine).

Ready for adventure: Mom, sister Carol and older brothers Kurt and Mark with yours truly getting ready to load up the station wagon. Dad is behind the camera, and oldest brother Pete off to college.

My earliest family day hikes in the Gorge and around Mount Hood were at the age of five or six. But after reaching the ripe old age of eight in 1970, my folks deemed me old enough to carry my own backpack. It was July, and the destination was Hike No. 43 in 100 Oregon Hiking Trails: Serene Lake. This trip still stands as my earliest hiking memory, and made me a hiker for life.

The trip started from the Frazier Turnaround, reached by a primitive road that was just as rough in 1970 as it is today. Back then, my dad was navigating an aircraft carrier-like 1967 Plymouth Fury II station wagon over that road – a thought that seems terrifying today. I recall a lot of lurching and grinding through the boulders and dust-filled potholes that pass as “road” along this route… and some choice expletives from dad, of course!

Once at the trailhead, we saddled up in packs ranging from cutting edge (my folks and older brothers had spiffy orange Kelty backpacks) to retro — my sister and I had military surplus canvas packs from Wigwam, a 60s-era army surplus store in Portland. Thankfully, our canvas packs had “modern” aluminum frames – an improvement over oak! The same held for our tents: my folks slept in dad’s orange, nylon climbing tent, while my older brothers carried two army surplus canvas pup tents for the kids. Dad reviewed the route in our copy of 100 Oregon Hiking Trails, then stowed the guide in the top pocket of his pack.

Rest stop at the two-mile mark on the switchbacks below Serene Lake – that’s me running around annoying everyone, no doubt…

The hike was uneventful, and soon we arrived at the north shore of Serene Lake, right where the Lowes are pictured in the guide. We had plenty of day left for exploring, a very quick (and cold) swim, wading in search of crayfish and a picnic on the talus slope above the lake.

Finally, it was time to set up camp. We stayed on the west shore of the lake, where I’m fairly certain at least one rustic picnic table existed. The canvas pup tents came with heavy metal stakes, but no poles – we used sticks for that. They also had simple cotton ties for closures, a detail that would prove fateful as evening approached.

Mom set up an impromptu picnic lunch on a talus slope above Serene Lake.

As sundown approached, the infamous mosquitoes of the Rock Lakes Basin descended upon us with a vengeance. Dad sprayed the kids down with a can of OFF! bug spray, and built a campfire to make our dinner. The fire did a good job of keeping the bugs away, so we stayed up late, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows in the warm, bug free circle.

Bedtime brought on a sequence of memorable events that are now family lore. I was paired with Kurt, my oldest brother on the trip, and our first unpleasant discovery was just how impossible it would be to keep mosquitoes out of that pup tent. More drama followed: at some point during the night, I woke my brother up to tell him I was about to throw up.

Our recollections vary on what happened next, but I distinctly remember being ejected from the tent like a human missile, and spending the next 20 minutes (or was it hours?) hunched in a patch of huckleberries paying the price for all those hot dogs and marshmallows. At some point, I was allowed back in the tent, but only after losing another pint of blood to the mosquitos… and my dinner.

A mummified mosquito is proof that dad opened up the guidebook at least once during our buggy stay at Serene Lake!

Despite the long night at Serene Lake on that first backpack trip, I was hooked. After the hike, I pored over our beat-up copy of 100 Oregon Hiking Trails, memorizing it. Our family went on to hike many of the trails described in the book, and in later Lowe guides (that I also memorized). The die was cast, and I was addicted to hiking for life.

These early experiences are why I LOVE to see parents with young kids out on the trail — they’re setting them on a very healthy, satisfying path… literally! An added bonus is that hikers are among the best forest stewards and conservationists, simply because they come to know the land on a very personal level.

The Lowe Legacy Continues

100 Oregon Hiking Trails was only the beginning for Don and Roberta Lowe. Within a year of its publication in 1969, their second book, 100 Northern California Hiking Trails, was published in 1970. Many books followed over the next three decades. Each of the subsequent books is more focused in scope, including regional hiking guides for Oregon, Southwest Washington, Northern California and Colorado. The Lowes also wrote one of the first mountain biking guides for Oregon, in 1991.

The back cover of 100 Oregon Hiking Trails features the dynamic Lowe team at work.

All of these books are worth collecting if you’re a hiker interested in trail history, or exploring those “lost trails” that have dropped off Forest Service maps and maintenance schedules, but can still be followed.

A favorite among the later Lowe books is 50 Hiking Trails: Portland and Northwest Oregon, published in 1986. This classic is still sought after for its description of some of the most threatened, least traveled trails in our region, and has helped these trails survive by introducing new generations of hikers to them.

Don and Roberta Lowe’s epic tribute to Mount Hood (1975)

Perhaps the finest Lowe collectible is their beautiful large-format book Mount Hood: Portrait of a Magnificent Mountain, published in 1975. Though Don Lowe’s photographic talent is evident in the small, black and white images that fill the many Lowe guidebooks, the beautiful collection of Don’s fine color photography in this book is simply stunning. Likewise, Roberta Lowe has the space in this book to expand her prose to a compelling story of Mount Hood’s natural and cultural history. This is a must-have for Mount Hood lovers, and can still be found at local bookstores.

———————–
Postscript: this is the 100th article posted on the WyEast Blog since starting it nearly four years ago, so celebrating 100 Oregon Hiking Trails seemed like the perfect topic! The books of Don and Roberta Lowe had a big impact on my life, and I’m sure many others were influenced by their celebration of Oregon’s wild beauty.

In the early 1980s, I approached Don and Roberta Lowe for help with a college project: creating a trail map of the (then) embattled Salmon-Huckleberry backcountry as part of the campaign to preserve the area as wilderness (which eventually happened in 1984).

The Lowes invited me to their home to discuss the project, and patiently endured my endless questions. Don even gave me a tour of his basement darkroom, where all those maps and images I had memorized had been created. Roberta kept up a correspondence on my student project for over a year, and I still keep those old letters as a reminder of their generosity in helping a young student with their time and knowledge.

I ran into the Lowes again about a year ago, and in catching up with them, was reminded once again what a gift they were to Oregon. They were an important part of that special Oregon spirit of the 60s and 70s that still defines what it means to live here today.

Thanks, Don and Roberta!

The Wahclella Maple

Autumn sunburst lights up the Wahclella maple in late 2011

Sometime last winter a picturesque bigleaf maple framing Wahclella Falls tumbled into Tanner Creek, likely under the stress of heavy snow or ice. In any other spot, this event might have gone unnoticed, but the Wahclella maple had the distinction of a front row seat at one of the most visited and photographed waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge.

“Change is the only constant. Hanging on is the only sin.”
-Denise McCluggage

Tanner Creek gorge is no stranger to change. In the spring of 1973, a massive collapse of the west wall, just below Wahclella Falls, sent a huge landslide into the creek, temporarily forming a 30-foot deep lake behind the jumble of house-size boulders. Today, the popular Wahclella Falls trail crosses the landslide, providing a close-up view of the natural forces that have created this magnificent place.

By contrast, the demise of the Wahclella maple is a very small change, indeed. But a closer look provides a glimpse into some of the more subtle changes that are part of the perpetually unfolding evolution this beautiful landscape. The following are nearly identical photos captured six years apart, in 2006 and 2012, and the changes over that short span are surprising:

[Click here for a larger view]

Comparing these images, one obvious change is in the stream, itself where (1) an enormous log has been pushed downstream by the force of Tanner Creek, testament to the power of high water. In the center of the scene (2) a young bigleaf maple has doubled in height, obscuring the huge boulder that once sheltered the tree, and on course to obscure the footbridge, as well. New growth is also filling in (3) along the new section of raised trail built on gabions in the 1990s (gabions are wire mesh baskets filled with rock, and were used to build up the trail along the edge of Tanner Creek)

The main change to this scene is the Wahclella maple (4), itself. Because the tree fell into a brushy riparian thicket, the fallen trunk and limbs have already been largely overtaken by lush spring growth of the understory. In a few short years, the fallen tree will disappear under a thick layer of moss and ferns, completing the forest cycle.

[Click here for a larger view]

But the story of the fallen Wahclella maple doesn’t end there, thanks to the unique adaptive abilities of bigleaf maple. Unlike most of our large tree species, bigleaf maple is prolific in sprouting new stems from stumps or upturned root balls. The massive, multi-trunked giants that appear in our forests are the result of this form of regeneration.

The Wahclella maple is already re-growing from its shattered trunk

[Click here for a larger view]

In this way, the Wahclella maple already seems to be making a comeback. With its former trunk still lying nearby, the shattered base of the tree has sprouted several new shoots this spring. In time, there’s a good chance that some of these shoots will grow to form a new, multi-trunked tree, perhaps one that is even more magnificent for future generations of photographers.

In the meantime, the old maple tree is a reminder that the beauty of the area is forever a work in progress, and how fortunate we are to watch the each stroke of nature unfold.

“The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.”
-Dean Acheson

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How to visit Wahclella Falls

Though hardly a secret anymore , the hike to Wahclella Falls remains a less traveled alternative to other short waterfall hikes in the Gorge. The trail is generally open year-round, though the best times for photography are in May/June, when spring greenery is at its peak, and in late October, when the bigleaf maples light up the forest with bright yellow and orange hues.

[Click here for a larger, printable version of this map]

This is a terrific family trail, thanks to several dramatic footbridges, two waterfalls, a staircase, caves (!) and several streamside spots safe for wading or skipping stones. Young kids should be kept close, however, since there are also some steep drop offs along sections of the trail. For kids, midweek in midsummer is a perfect time to visit.

Another fascinating time to visit with kids is during the fall spawning season, when the stream below the hatchery diversion dam is filled with returning salmon and steelhead within easy view of the trail.

Wahclella Falls is a family favorite

The trailhead for Wahclella Falls is easy to find. Follow I-84 east from Portland to Bonneville Dam (Exit 40), turning right at the first stop sign then immediately right into the trailhead parking area along Tanner Creek, where a Northwest Forest Pass is required. Portable toilets are provided at the trailhead from spring through early fall.

The trail begins at a gate at the south end of the parking area, and initially follows a rustic gavel road to a small diversion dam that provides water for the Bonneville Fish Hatchery. From here, the route crosses a footbridge in front of Munra Falls, and becomes a proper hiking path. Head right (downhill) at a fork in the trail 0.7 miles from the trailhead to begin the loop through the towering amphitheater surrounding Wahclella Falls, then retrace your steps 0.7 miles to the trailhead after completing the 0.6 mile loop portion of the trail. Enjoy!

Starvation Creek Loop Hike

Cabin Creek Falls

This blog has featured a series of articles on restoration of the former (and future!) Warren Falls, located in the Starvation Creek area. But there is a lot more to see in this interesting and less-traveled corner of the Columbia River Gorge, and this loop hike explores an amazing variety of scenery on a short, but demanding circuit.

Along this way, you’ll see four waterfalls, one “dormant” waterfall, ford two creeks, visit hanging meadows, peer over the brink of some truly breathtaking cliffs and enjoy expansive views of the Columbia River Gorge. You’ll want to print the large version of the trail map, below, as the trail network in the area is dense, and trail signage unreliable.

[click here for a larger, printable trail map]

The hike is best done from late April through early November, as the conditions can be somewhat treacherous in icy winter conditions, and the stream fords difficult in winter and early spring. But for adventurous hikers, this loop is generally open year-round, and provides a nice hiking option when snow covers the high country.

Hiker’s grim warning on a temporary sign at the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail..!

Note that the loop described here follows a specific direction, tackling the very steep Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail first, in the uphill direction. This might seem counter-intuitive, but the steepness of this path is much harder on your knees going down than on your lungs and legs going up — and it can feel a bit slick and sketchy to descend, due to the steepness and exposure.

The Hike

The trail begins at the Starvation Creek Trailhead (directions at the end of this article). Head west from the parking area, walking parallel to the freeway exit, then drop into the trees following a section of the old Columbia River Highway. ODOT will soon be restoring this section of highway as part of a state recreation trail, so watch for construction to begin soon.

The welcome signpost marking the top of the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail

A short distance from the trailhead, you’ll see a signboard on the left marking the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail No. 414B (if you reach Cabin Creek Falls, you’ve gone too far). Take a deep breath, and begin the stiff climb up this trail, as it threads its way in a series of switchbacks through the towering cliffs that frame the Starvation Creek area.

Soon, the trail curves into the upper canyon of Cabin Creek, leaving the sounds of the freeway behind, and continuing steeply above the creek into dense forest until you reach the signpost marking the upper junction with the Starvation Ridge Trial No. 414.

The dizzying view of the trailhead from the top of the Cutoff Trail

The main loop heads to the right (west), and crosses Cabin Creek. But before you continue in that direction, make a brief detour to the left (east), following the Starvation Ridge Trail uphill for about 200 yards to a spectacular cliff-top viewpoint, a few feet off the trail. From here, you can peer a dizzying 500 vertical feet down to the trailhead and the tiny cars, trucks and freight trains moving below.

Looking west toward Shellrock Mountain and Wind Mountain from the Cabin Creek viewpoint

After resting your legs (and lungs) from the Starvation Cutoff trail, and enjoying the sweeping view from the overlook, retrace your steps back to the junction, and continue west on Trail 414, fording Cabin Creek. From here, the route climbs from the Cabin Creek canyon in a series of short, well-graded switchbacks, and passes another towering cliff-top viewpoint on the right.

The trail soon crests a divide marked by a 1930s-vintage transmission tower, and descends into Warren Creek canyon in a series of switchbacks traversing an enormous hanging meadow. In late April and May, the meadow features beautiful displays of shooting star and other wildflowers, but offers stunning views any time of year.

Shooting Star in the hanging meadow above Warren Creek

Great Hounds Tongue near Cabin Creek

Soon, the trail re-enters forest, then reaches Warren Creek, a potentially difficult ford in winter and early spring. There’s no bridge here, so cross carefully. Warren Creek is the stream that once flowed over Warren Falls, just downstream from the ford. Since 1939 it has been diverted through an odd bypass tunnel that now forms manmade “Hole-in-the-Wall Falls”. You’ll pass both later on the hike.

From Warren Creek, the trail makes a gentle traverse along the forested canyon wall, then turns and crests another ridge below a second transmission tower, before descending across another open area with terrific views of the Columbia River Gorge.

The trail passes this mossy, cliff-top rock garden near Warren Creek

The view west from the Warren Creek viewpoint

The trail now descends to a 3-way junction of the Starvation Ridge (No. 414) and Mount Defiance (No. 413) trails, poorly marked with a very old signpost. From here, the loop hike continues to the right, turning steeply downhill. But first, go straight 200 yards to beautiful Lancaster Falls on Wonder Creek. This magnificent waterfall is named for Samuel Lancaster, the visionary engineer who designed the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Lower, trailside tier of Lancaster Falls

The best trailside view of Lancaster Falls is from the west bank, so be sure to rock-hop your way across. From there, you can also see part of the tall, lacy main tier of this beautiful waterfall (if you’re feeling really adventurous, it’s possible to scramble to a close-up view of the upper tier by heading uphill from the trail, just east of Wonder Creek).

After cooling off at Lancaster Falls, backtrack to the 3-way junction, and rejoin on the Starvation Ridge Trail No. 414, heading left as it descends steeply across an open slope, soon reaching a sturdy, new footbridge over Warren Creek.

Part of the magnificent main tier of Lancaster Trails, located off-trail

You’ll have views of man-made Hole-in-the-Wall Falls from the bridge, but waterfall lovers should take a few minutes to follow the obvious boot path that parallels the dry streambed to the left of the falls.

This streambed leads to the original, natural location of Warren Creek Falls — the topic of several articles on this blog. The hauntingly quiet amphitheater of the original falls is eerie, and it’s easy to imagine the sound and spectacle that once existed when Warren Creek poured over this cascade. During the periods of heavy winter runoff, Warren Creek occasionally overtops the diversion tunnel, and briefly flows down its natural falls. If you look closely, you’ll see evidence of winter storm events that have briefly brought the original falls and streambed back to life.

Warren Falls flowing in one of its rare winter appearances in March 2012

After taking in the scene at the former Warren Falls, retrace your steps on the boot path to the footbridge and turn right, continuing along the main trail for your return to the trailhead (note: the restored Historic Columbia River Highway and trail will soon be constructed in this area, with a new trailhead for the Starvation Ridge Trail relocated to this spot).

The route briefly passes an open area, and then re-enters forest. Watch for old, stone foundations covered in ivy in this area — you’re passing turn-of-the-century homesteads lost to time. Sharp-eyed hikers will also spot a pair of enormous anthills, each measuring six feet in height. A bit further, and you’ll also pass dome-shaped stone bake ovens, possibly built in the early 1900s by highway workers (see the map below for help in finding these traces of human history in the Warren Falls area).

[click here for a larger, printable map]

Finally, the trail rejoins the abandoned section of the old highway, following it to lovely Cabin Creek Falls. Photographers should take a moment to walk the short boot path to the base of the falls to capture the exceptionally beautiful scene. Crane your neck upward, and you will see the huge cliffs to the left of the falls that you skirted above on the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail!

To complete your journey, continue along the old highway grade back to the trailhead. A great way to end this hike is with a final stop at magnificent Starvation Creek Falls, the star attraction in this part of the Gorge. To reach the falls, head past the restrooms, and take the spur trail on the right. A string of streamside picnic tables make this an idyllic spot to relax after your hike, and enjoy a picnic lunch.

Misty base of Starvation Creek Falls

Hike Logistics

The usual Columbia River Gorge precautions apply on this hike: you’ll find poison oak, ticks and sheer cliffs, so it’s not a great choice for kids. If you’re bringing small kids on this hike, consider just hiking the lower portion to Lancaster Falls, where they will have plenty to enjoy without steep trails or dangerous exposure.

The steepness of the hike makes it a good candidate for cool weather, too. Hiking poles are especially helpful, and dogs should be leashed on this trail.

Getting there

The trailhead is at the Starvation Creek rest area, located at Exit 55 on I-84, about an hour east of Portland. The trailhead has water and restrooms, and no trailhead permit is required. The Starvation Creek exit is eastbound-only, so to return to Portland, you’ll need to drive another mile east to the Viento State Park exit, then follow the signs west to Portland.

For information on the Historic Columbia River Highway restoration project, check out the ODOT website, and click on “ongoing projects” for construction updates:

Historic Columbia River Highway Project

Visit Restore Warren Falls! on Facebook for more information on the project.

Exploring Mitchell Point

Looking west into the Gorge from Mitchell Point.

If you find yourself overwhelmed by the crowds at Angels Rest, Mitchell Point in the east end of the Gorge is terrific alternative that offers equally stunning views, without the circus atmosphere.

Though the hike is just 2.6 miles round-trip, the elevation gain is around 1,000 vertical feet, thanks to an often steep path. But the unfolding scenery will distract you from the huffing and puffing required to reach the summit. Be sure to pick a sunny day for this hike, and if you make the trip from late April through early June, you’ll also be rewarded with a variety of wildflowers along the way.

An East Gorge Icon

Mitchell Point is unmistakable to travelers rushing by on I-84, rising dramatically from the forested Gorge slopes, just west of Hood River.

The main summit is a dizzying rocky spine towering 1,000 feet above the Columbia River and I-84. Below the main summit is Mitchell Spur, a tilted, ramp-shaped peak with a sheer cliff that rises nearly 400 feet above the highway. The Native American names for these prominent outcrops were Storm King (Mitchell Point) and Little Storm King (Mitchell Spur). The current name reportedly comes from an early trapper who lived in the area.

Mitchell Point from the west.

Like most of the rocky outcrops that frame the Columbia Gorge, Mitchell Point is composed of flood basalts — layers of dense lava spread over the region in the very distant geologic past. In this part of the Gorge, earth movements have tilted these ancient flows to the south at 30-degree angle. This tilt is most evident in Mitchell Spur, where exposed cliffs reveal the many layers of basalt that shape the terrain.

But it took the ice age Missoula Floods to shape Mitchell Point as we now know it. These monumental floods repeatedly swept through the Gorge 13,000 years ago at depths of up to 600 feet deep and speeds up to 80 mph.

The ancient floods stripped away loose material from the walls of the Columbia Gorge, exposing the familiar rocky crags we now know as Crown Point, Rooster Rock, Beacon Rock and Mitchell Point. The tilt of the underlying basalt at Mitchell Point has allowed the steep north face of the rock to maintain its near-vertical pitch, millennia after the floods subsided.

Mitchell Point from the Washington Side in the 1920s, showing the river-level railroad grade, old highway viaduct and famous Mitchell Point Tunnel.

[click here for a larger view]

When the railroads were built through the Gorge in the late 1800s, they hugged the cliffs in places like Mitchell Point, where rocky bluffs jutted into the river. This meant that Samuel Lancaster, the visionary engineer of the historic Columbia River Highway, was left with little space for his iconic road when construction began in 1914.

In these spots, Lancaster applied daring creativity by engineering his road onto the steep walls of the gorge, high above the river. At Mitchell Point, his remarkable design traced the side of Mitchell Spur, carved into the basalt face 100 feet above the railroad in 1915. Near the east end, he famously designed a 385-foot tunnel with windows carved into solid rock.

The five windows of Mitchell Point Tunnel from the east approach.

There were a total of five arched windows carved into the Mitchell Point Tunnel, each forming a roadside alcove. Each alcove was fitted with the standard arched masonry rail found throughout the gorge, constructed of basalt with a concrete cap.

These stone walls had the practical function of keeping early visitors (and their automobiles) from slipping through the open windows, and onto the railroad tracks far below, but also added an aesthetic finishing detail that is typical of Samuel Lancaster’s designs.

Equally amazing was the approach to the Mitchell Point Tunnel — a viaduct (pictured below) anchored to the vertical walls of Mitchell Spur led directly into the west portal of the tunnel. For early visitors in touring cars, it was truly a thrilling ride, and a dramatic gateway to the famous tunnel.

The tunnel was destroyed in 1966 when modern-day I-84 was built, though much of the ledge that once held the old highway can still be seen today. New plans call for re-creating at least a portion of the tunnel as part of completing the Historic Columbia River Highway trail.

West end of Mitchell Point Tunnel in 1916.

As you explore the Mitchell Point area, be sure to stop by the Anna and Vinzenz Lausmann memorial near the trailhead. There, you can thank the Lausmann family for their generous donation of the surrounding land to the State of Oregon for “park purposes [to] further the recreational and scenic aspects of the Columbia River Gorge” on December 28, 1954.

The area to the west of the trailhead falls within Wygant State Park, and was also a gift to the public, donated by Simeon and Olivia Reed in 1933. Seneca Fouts donated the land to the east in 1944, encompassing the top of Mitchell Point, and the area now carries his name as Seneca Fouts State Natural Area. The Lausmann donation completed the puzzle in 1954, preserving the entirety of Mitchell Point forever.

Hiking Mitchell Point

The trail to Mitchell Point is unmarked and a bit obscure, at first. Simply head toward the state park signboard at the south end of the parking area and follow a paved trail a short distance before veering left and uphill onto an obvious unpaved path.

[click here for a larger view]

The rustic route meanders through open forest for a few hundred yards, then begins climbing an occasionally steep series of switchbacks. Look closely, and you’ll note the trail briefly follows the original 1870s wagon road through the Gorge, a primitive road that traversed between Mitchell Point and Mitchell Spur.

The trailhead, with Mitchell Point rising above.

After climbing a few switchbacks through young forest, you’ll notice a trail heading off to the north at the final switchback, at about 0.4 miles. If you have the time and are looking for a little adventure, this path heads off to Mitchell Spur. The first section is an obvious trail to the saddle between Mitchell Spur and Mitchell Point, and from there it’s a cross country through a steep meadow to the obvious summit.

Looking up at Mitchell Point from the lower trail.

The main route continues past the spur trail and soon enters a broad talus field, traversing steeply across the loose rock. You’ll have your first views of the Columbia River from here — a tantalizing preview of the views ahead, and just enough to make up for the steep climb.

The trail briefly enters forest, then heads back across the talus slope to a switchback before traversing back and re-entering dense forest. You’ll have a good view of the summit ridge through the trees, and can admire the hundreds of tiny calypso orchids that bloom along this shady section of trail in late April and early May.

The rocky spine of Mitchell Point from the upper trail.

Soon the trail passes through a final stand of large douglas fir before emerging in an open powerline corridor. Though not the most aesthetic setting for a trail, the corridor does offer a profusion of wildflowers in spring, including impressive clumps of a striking blue flower called great hounds tongue.

Great hounds tongue blooms in late April and early May near the crest of Mitchell Point.

The trail makes another quick switchback in the powerline corridor, then reaches an open saddle directly below Mitchell Point, at 1.1 miles.

From here, the summit is framed in gnarled Oregon white oak. Even the transmission towers are interesting, as they offer a glimpse into the 1930s construction heyday when so much of Oregon’s infrastructure was built through New Deal programs that eased the Great Depression.

Built to last: Depression-era transmission towers were installed when Bonneville Dam was constructed in the 1930s.

From the saddle, the final 0.2 mile stretch to the summit of Mitchell Point heads off to the north. The trail is steep and slick in spots, but you won’t mind, because the unfolding scenery is breathtaking. The west face of Mitchell Point drops off in a harrowing series of cliffs, while the east face is a steep hanging meadow. The summit path follows the narrow ridgeline between these slopes.

The trail ends just short of the true summit, but don’t attempt to go further — the exposure is extreme, and the view isn’t any better. Instead, pick one of any number of perches along the summit ridge to relax and enjoy the view.

The final pitch to the summit of Mitchell Point.

The vista to the west extends to Stevenson Washington, and the Table Mountain-Greenleaf Peak complex, beyond. To the east, the view reaches toward the grassy highlands of Burdoin Mountain, above White Salmon, Washington. The summit of Mount Defiance rises high above the forests to the southwest.

Far below, you can watch tiny trucks and cars inching along on I-84, and an occasional freight train passing along both shores of the Columbia, looking like model train sets. Barges loaded with Eastern Oregon grain also look like toys from this lofty perspective.

Tiny trucks, trains and barges move through the Gorge in this view from the summit of Mitchell Point.

Depending on the season and weather, you might get buzzed by dive-bombing cliff swallows while taking in the summit view. Though vertigo-inducing, it’s fascinating to peer over the edge of the sheer summit and watch these aerial acrobats streak through air to their nests in the cliffs below.

For all its scenery, Mitchell Point is a steep climb with plenty of exposure in the final stretch, so best to leave small kids at home, and keep dogs on a leash. As with any eastern Gorge hike, learn to identify (and avoid) poison oak, and check for ticks after your hike.

How to Get There

To visit Mitchell Point, print the large version of the trail map (above) as a pocket reference, then head east from Portland on I-84 to Exit 58, which takes you to Lausmann State Park and the Mitchell Point trailhead.

The finest accommodations can be found at Lausmann State Park.

No pass is required at this trailhead. Carry water, as no reliable sources are available. A toilet is provided at the trailhead.

To return to Portland, you’ll have to head further east on I-84 to the next interchange, at Hood River to reach westbound I-84).

Addendum

Chris Elbert points out the following on the Oregon State Parks website: “April 19, 2012 Note: The park will be closed May 1-Oct. 15 for parking lot and overlook improvements.”

Though this message was posted on the Seneca Fouts State Natural Area page and not on the Vincenz Lausmann State Park page, it’s safe to assume the reference is to the same parking area. If you should find the gate closed and don’t want to wait until October, there is plenty of space for parking off the entrance road, and near I-84, and it’s a short walk from there to the trailhead.

Thanks for the heads-up, Chris!

Yocum Ridge Waterfalls

Scores of little-known waterfalls hide in Mount Hood’s backcountry. Some are towering glacial torrents, while others are quiet forest cascades, framed in moss and maple leaves. But when conditions are right, few rival the towering trio of waterfalls that mark peak snowmelt on the upper ramparts of Yocum Ridge.

These waterfalls are unnamed and unmapped, but familiar to hikers crossing the Muddy Fork on the Timberline Trail or visiting McNeil Point, across the canyon. They completely disappear by autumn in dry years, but in early summer, they are Mount Hood’s roaring counterparts to the famous seasonal giants of Yosemite.

(Click here for a larger view)

These waterfalls originate from an unnamed glacial cirque, or bowl, high on the northern shoulder of Yocum Ridge, the massive spine that divides the Muddy Fork from the Sandy River, and extends to the summit of Mount Hood. Though they flow from a relatively small basin, the snowfields that accumulate in the cirque each winter generate a surprisingly powerful runoff.

In recent decades, the year-round snowfields in the basin have almost disappeared, compared to 1960s-vintage USGS maps (below). This seems to have opened a more direct snowmelt channel to the waterfalls, as they seem more prominent in recent years, while the perennial stream to the west, as shown on the USGS maps, has become much less prominent.

(Click here for a larger view)

The cirque is well below the tree line, so the lack of forests in this amphitheater is also a good indicator of both heavy snow accumulations and frequent winter avalanches.

The view (below) from across the canyon shows the waterfalls in relation to Yocum Ridge and the cirque. The low ridge to the right of the falls forms a lower cusp of the cirque, and this ridge serves as a dike that channels most of the spring runoff toward the waterfalls. The Yocum Ridge Trail (shown on the map, above) terminates at the rim of the cirque, in the extreme upper right corner of this view:

A closer look at the waterfalls, as viewed from below at the Muddy Fork crossing (below), shows the rugged upper crags of Yocum Ridge in the background, with the waterfalls tumbling from the cirque into the Muddy Fork canyon. The cirque is located to the right, just outside this frame.

Surprisingly, a sizeable forest is perched on the slopes to the left of the waterfalls, apparently spared by the most frequent avalanches that have cleared most of the slopes within the cirque.

(Click here for a larger view)

It’s somewhat unknown how the streams that feed these waterfalls originate, since they are not mapped, and perhaps not even explored. However, from Google Earth imagery, the trio of waterfalls seem to flow from three distinct sources, with the western falls draining the main portion of the cirque, and the middle and east segments draining directly off the upper slopes of Yocum Ridge.

A closer view (below) shows the trio of waterfalls in detail. The westernmost of the three (on the right) is by far the largest, dropping at least 700 feet in the main cascade, and arguably nearly 800 overall. This drop is on a scale with Multnomah Falls, which drops a total of 635 feet, by comparison.

The eastern segment (on the left) is next in size, and though dwarfed by its larger sister to the west, is quite large and drops at least 500 feet. The middle segment is a tall, thin slide that is nearly as tall as the western segment, albeit much less dramatic.

The towering western falls (left) starts out as a 100-foot slide, and quickly fans out for 150 feet before leaping over a wide, 400-foot plunge.

The falls collects in a steep amphitheater at the base of the main plunge before making a final 70-foot plunge into a roiling, narrow gorge.

A closer look at the main plunge of the western falls (below) reveals the raw power at work during peak snowmelt, with its roaring curtains of falling water.

Somehow, thickets of red alder cling to the cliffs around the falls, framing the scene. This spectacle persists for several weeks in early summer, yet nearly disappears in autumn and through the winter.

The following video captures this dramatic scene, as viewed from the Muddy Fork crossing on the Timberline Trail in July 2010:

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How to visit the Waterfalls

Viewing the Yocum Ridge Waterfalls up close makes for a terrific day hike, and the waterfalls are at their prime as soon as the trails open — usually late June or July. The recommended 5.4 mile (round-trip) hike shown on the map below starts at the usually crowded Top Spur Trailhead, near Lolo Pass. But most of the hikers are heading for McNeil Point, so you will see very few people beyond the series of junctions at Bald Mountain.

(Click here for a larger, printable map)

Starting at Top Spur, the trail climbs somewhat steeply for 0.4 to a signed junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Turn right onto the PCT, and immediately reach a confusing 4-way junction with the Timberline Trail. Turn right onto the famed Timberline Trail, heading uphill and to the right, past a sign pointing to the Muddy Fork

The Timberline Trail climbs gently through noble fir forest, soon passing the unmarked junction with the Bald Mountain trail. A short distance beyond, the trail traverses across the steep meadows on the south face of Bald Mountain, with stunning views of Mount Hood and the Muddy Fork canyon.

Mount Hood and the Muddy Fork canyon from Bald Mountain

After re-entering the forest, the trail passes yet another junction, this time with the unsigned Bald Mountain Cutoff. Head straight, going through a log gate before making a very gradual descent to the Muddy Fork.

Once at the Muddy Fork, the trail enters the scene of a violent debris flow that crashed through the area in 2002, snapping thousands of mature trees like match sticks and pouring 20 feet of debris across the valley floor.

The Muddy Fork has made short work of the debris in the subsequent 10 years, cutting all the way down to its former stream level. This makes crossing difficult for Timberline Trail hikers, but that’s okay: the best view of the Yocum Ridge waterfalls is from one of the scores of boulders resting atop the debris flow, where you can relax and take in Mount Hood, the waterfalls and the roaring Muddy Fork, below.

Be sure to bring binoculars and a camera — and enjoy!

White River Buried Forest

The summer of 2011 will be remembered as the year of the Dollar Lake Fire in the Mount Hood area, as much of the north side is still smoldering from a lightning-caused wildfire that ignited on August 26. Though a calamity to those who loved the verdant forests on Mount Hood’s northern slopes, the fire is a blip on the screen when compared to the many explosive events that have rearranged the mountain’s forests and topography over the millennia.

Among the most recent and fascinating of these events are the Old Maid eruptions. These explosions knocked over entire forests on the mountain’s south side like matchsticks, burying them under a deep layer of ash and volcanic debris. This article describes the Old Maid events, and how to see traces of their aftermath today.

The Old Maid Eruptions

While most tourists at Timberline Lodge on a given day are blissfully unaware that Mount Hood is living volcano, the occasional, heady odor of sulfur fumes blowing down from the crater are a reminder the “quiet” spell we are enjoying is only temporary.

[click here for a larger version]

In geologic terms, the Old Maid eruptions are incredibly recent, finally winding down in our recorded history of the early 1800s. The events are named for Old Maid Flats, the debris plain created by the eruptions in the Sandy River canyon, though the impact on the mountain was much broader.

Scientists have determined the Old Maid eruptive period to have occurred within from about 1760 to 1810 A.D. In fact, when Lewis & Clark described the shallow “quicksand” delta of the Sandy River in 1804-05, they were looking at volcanic sediments that had only recently flooded down the river from the active slopes Mount Hood.

The former floor of the White River canyon is visible as a thin layer of oxidized soil, dotted with mummified trees.

The scientific accuracy of these dates is made possible by thousands of mummified trees swept over by the Old Maid debris flows, and later exposed by streams cutting into the sediments. The White River buried forest is one of the more prominent locations where these flattened forests and the former valley floor can plainly be seen.

The Old Maid eruptions originated in the modern crater of Mount Hood, where sulfur fumes still rise from the vents known as the Devils Kitchen. The massive, 800-foot volcanic dome of Crater Rock, itself, is just 200 years old and formed during these eruptions. The heat of rising magma in the crater eventually sent pyroclastic flows down the Sandy and White River canyons — rolling clouds of super-heated ash and debris that buried the entire landscape.

A closer look at the buried valley floor reveals mummified trees.

The Old Maid eruptions deposited about one hundred feet of debris throughout the upper White River canyon, filling the formerly U-shaped glacial valley with a flat fan of volcanic boulders, cobbles and fine ash. The outflow from the White River Glacier has since carved deeply into the debris flow, revealing the old valley floor and some of the thousands of mummified trees knocked over by the Old Maid event.

A flat-topped ridge in the middle of the White River canyon known as Mesa Terrace (see earlier schematic) is a remnant of the debris flow that shows the original depth of the debris above the valley floor.

Close-up of an entire tree, tipped over and buried where it fell on the former valley floor.

Two types of debris flow swept down the southern slopes of Mount Hood during the Old Maid eruptions. The most destructive were the pyroclastic flows, which many of us are familiar with from the colossal Mount St. Helens eruption of May 18, 1980.

In addition to the hot pyroclastic flows, cooler mudflows from flash-melted glaciers and snowfields also swept down Mount Hood’s south slopes during the Old Maid events. We know the buried forests at the bottom of White River Canyon fell victim to these mudflows, as pyroclastic flows would have instantly incinerated the standing timber. Instead, the cooler debris flows simply knocked the forests over, and buried them under layers of mud and debris.

Scientists believe these trees were partially buried, then broken off by subsequent flows.

Scientists believe the old valley floor now being revealed by erosion was of glacial origin, dating back to the last major glacial advance of the White River Glacier some 10,000 years ago. Thus, forests grew undisturbed along the former valley floor of the White River for a very long time.

Hiking to the Overlook

Hiking to the White River buried forest overlook is easy and scenic, as well as historic and iconic: it follows Mount Hood’s famous Timberline Trail for 0.7 miles to the impressive rim of the White River canyon. This section of trail also serves as the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,000-mile epic trek from Mexico to Canada.

To find the trailhead, park in the lower, overflow lot located to the east of Timberline Lodge. Park near a gated dirt on the west side of the parking area. Follow this old road steeply uphill for about 200 yards to an obvious junction with the Timberline Trail, and turn right (or, if you’re coming from the lodge, follow any of the trails beyond the lodge uphill to the Timberline Trail and turn right). The Timberline Trail quickly traverses into a side-canyon, crossing the headwaters of the Salmon River.

Next, the Timberline Trail rambles across pumice-covered slopes and soon reaches a sign marking the Richard L. Kohnstamm Wilderness, created in 2009 as an addition to the wilderness complex that encircles Mount Hood. Kohnstamm was the resort operator responsible for resurrecting a struggling Timberline Lodge in the 1950s, and setting the resort on the successful path that it continues to enjoy today.

[click here for a larger, printable map]

Beyond the wilderness boundary, the trail descends across another pumice slope, then drops more steeply on a surface of loose glacial till as it traces the west moraine of the White River canyon. Soon, you will reach the overlook where the Timberline Trail follows the moraine crest, and arrives at a stand of trees. This is a good spot to stop and take in the scenery, and especially to pick out the signs of the buried forest, at the bottom of the canyon, below.

The south-facing slopes and open terrain can make this a hot, dusty hike in late summer, so be sure to carry water. You will also want a pair of binoculars to view the buried forest details more closely. If you have the time and energy after visiting the buried forest overlook, you can retrace your step to the dirt access road, then turn right and follow it to Silcox Hut, about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. The hut was the original upper terminal for the first Magic Mile ski lift in the late 1930s, and today is maintained as an historic structure.

Clackamas River Trail

Pup Creek Falls on the Clackamas River Trail

Though no longer a well-kept secret, the relatively new Clackamas River Trail from Fish Creek to Indian Henry Campground provides a scenic, all-season alternative to the often crowded low-elevation trails in the Columbia Gorge. An added bonus is the impressive falls on Pup Creek — the main attraction for many who make this trip. But the trail also provides a unique, close-up look at a rapidly recovering forest ecosystem that burned less than a decade ago, and plenty of river scenery along the way.

The Fire Zone

In September 2002, the Bowl Fire swept through 339 acres of tall timber along the first mile or so of the Clackamas River Trail, just east of Fish Creek. Today, nine seasons of forest recovery have brought a rejuvenated understory with sun-loving wildflowers crowding the trail. While many trees were killed, a surprising number of the old giants survived, providing a living laboratory on the role of fire in our forest ecosystems.

White Clackamas iris (Iris tenuis S. Watson)

Along this section of trail, the fire has been especially beneficial to the rare Iris tenuis S. Watson, or Clackamas iris. This elegant wildflower occurs in both blue and white in its very narrow range. It is found along the Clackamas and Molalla Rivers, and nowhere else. These iris form beautiful drifts of white blossoms along the burned section of trail in late May and early June.

White Clackamas iris (Iris tenuis S. Watson)

Ancient Forests

Beyond the fire zone, the trail dips into an impressive stand of ancient forest, tucked into a shady grotto between 200-foot cliffs and the Clackamas River, at the confluence with the Roaring River. These centuries-old western red cedar and Douglas fir thrive in the boggy river bottom, well protected from the elements.

In spring, the air in this pocket of ancient forest is filled with the pungent (and unmistakable) aroma of skunk cabbage growing in the bog, while the sound of falling water reveals a string of delicate waterfalls cascading over the cliffs, and into the green grotto.

Looking down at ancient forest from a cliff-top viewpoint

After passing through this magical spot, the Clackamas River Trail climbs a steep, rocky bluff above this hidden forest, providing a unique opportunity to observe the big trees from different levels, as if riding an elevator.

Hiking The Trail

Guidebook descriptions vary, but by my estimate, the hike from Fish Creek to beautiful Pup Creek Falls is about 8 miles round-trip, with the rollercoaster trail gaining about 900 feet in elevation along the way as it climbs around several cliffs. Because the high point at Pup Creek is only 1,300 feet in elevation, the trail is usually open year-round.

[Click here for a larger map]

The trail starts at the Fish Creek trailhead, located about 15 miles southeast of Estacada on Highway 224. The turnoff to Fish Creek is well marked, and is just past the Carter Bridge, Lockaby and Armstrong campgrounds.

Turn right onto Fish Creek road, pass the Fish Creek campground, cross the Clackamas on yet another bridge, then watch for the trailhead parking on the right, at the confluence of Fish Creek and the Clackamas. The trail begins at the far (south) end of the parking area, on the opposite side of the road, and is marked with a signpost.

The Fish Creek Trailhead

The path starts out wide and gentle, following a rustic dirt road to a small stream ford and dropping to the banks of the Clackamas. From here, the trail briefly rambles at river grade before entering the fire zone. Soon, the first uphill section begins as the trail climbs through the burn and over the first set of cliffs. On the bluff above the cliffs, white Clackamas iris line the trail in spring, along with many other wildflowers.

After the first crest, the trail descends to the river again, reaching a short pair of switchbacks just over a mile from the trailhead. Caution: watch for poison oak on both sides of the trail after the second switchback for a hundred yards or so — this is the only notable poison oak patch along the trail, but worth watching for (see map, above).

Section of the Clackamas River Trail

The trail follows the river bank only briefly, as the roller coaster trip through the burn section continues for another half-mile or so. Soon, the trail leaves the burn, and crosses the first in a series of small streams as it descends toward the ancient forest section, at about the 2-mile mark. There is a large riverside campsite among the giant cedars, here, and this makes a good spot to turn around if you are looking for a shorter hike.

Continuing through the ancient forest, the trail passes the skunk cabbage bog before crossing the largest of several streams dropping into the ancient forest grotto — and take a look upstream, too: a nearly hidden waterfall leaps off the cliffs beyond the big trees.

Next, the trail climbs a rocky bluff in a couple of switchbacks, providing that “elevator” view of the ancient forest, then a glimpse of the Roaring River confluence with the Clackamas, across the canyon. From here, the trail levels off, following the top of a bank of mossy cliffs for the next half-mile or so.

Steppingstone Creek

Soon, the trail crosses yet another lively creek, this one called “Steppingstone Creek” on the map for the helpful (and picturesque) series of stones that carry hikers across. From here, the final half-mile to the junction with the Pup Creek climbs very gently, with many river views.

The junction with the short spur to Pup Creek Falls is marked with a post, though no sign attached as of this spring. But you’ll know when you’re there: the junction is in a clearing under a transmission pylon. If you miss it, you’ll arrive at Pup Creek after 200 feet or so — by far the largest side stream on the hike, so you’ll know if you need to backtrack.

Upper Tier of Pup Creek Falls

The spur trail to the falls makes one quick switchback, but otherwise follows Pup Creek upstream to the dramatic amphitheater holding the 237-foot falls. In winter and early spring, the falls are particularly impressive, jetting a lot of spray to the small viewpoint at the end of the spur trail, so early season photographers should be prepared to battle the mist!

Because the falls are framed by a group of magnificent bigleaf maples, this is an ideal destination for late October or early November, when fall colors are peaking, and yellow maple leaves complement the bright yellow lichens on the walls of the amphitheater.

Traveler Tips

Highway Noise: on summer weekends, traffic on Highway 224 is more noticeable, so it’s a good idea to save this hike for mid-week, or the off-season for summer camping — or even winter, when you’ll have the place to yourself. That said, the highway proximity is rarely a distraction from the beautiful scenery on this trip.

“Leaves of three, let it be!”

Poison Oak: note the map, above — one enthusiastic patch of poison oak flanks both sides of the trail at the 1.2 mile mark, where the route descends through a short pair of switchbacks. The itchy stuff begins at the second switchback and continues for a couple hundred yards, but is easy to avoid if you know to watch for it.

Ticks: though rare, ticks have also been reported in the lower Clackamas canyon, so be sure to do a tick check after your trip — a good idea after any hike.

Camping: one of the handy aspects of this trail is the amazing selection of campgrounds in the vicinity — more than a dozen line the lower Clackamas. Two offer walking access to the trail: Fish Creek, near the trailhead described in this article, and Indian Henry, located about four miles beyond Pup Creek.

Forest Pass: the Fish Creek trailhead requires a Northwest Forest Pass, though this trailhead also has the option of a $5/day onsite payment for a day pass.

Brooks Meadow: Discovering a Hidden Gem

Brooks Meadow from the west

Brooks Meadow is one in a string of sunny meadows located on the gentle northern slopes of Lookout Mountain, just east of Mount Hood. At 35 acres, Brooks Meadow is among the largest, and has a long human history thanks to the water and forage it offers. It was likely visited for centuries by Native Americans, and in the late 1800s, was grazed with sheep following white settlement of the region.

(Click here for larger view of Brooks Meadow)

Early settlement trails in the area connected the dots between meadows and water sources, with several converging at the Brooks Meadow by the early 1900s. A guard station was constructed at the upper end at that time, near the junction of three trails at the north edge of the meadow. Later, the trails became primitive forest roads.

Brooks Meadow was surrounded by clearcuts by the 1980s

By the 1950s, sheep and cattle grazing in the Lookout Mountain area was on the decline, giving way to a boom in commercial logging. Timber harvests focused on the big ponderosa and larch stands unique to the east slopes, and mills in the area thrived. The timber boom hit its peak in the 1980s, when miles of logging roads and hundreds of clearcuts transformed the slopes of Lookout Mountain.

When the sawdust settled in the early 1990s, Brooks Meadow was somehow spared, a lush island in a forest that had been almost completely logged in all directions. By sheer luck, when the commercial logging boom swept the area, the old primitive road and trail system was mostly bypassed or destroyed by the modern, paved roads that carries logs to the mills.

A thin veil of trees were spared along the periphery of Brooks Meadow

At Brooks Meadow, a new paved route was built around the north side of the meadow (shown above), bypassing the historic dirt track through the center of the meadow. The Dufur Mill Road was also paved, and routed just south of the meadow, proper.

Thankfully, the relocated roads kept the steady stream of log trucks out of the meadow, and allowed the fragile ecosystem to survive the logging era relatively intact. In fact, the curtain of trees that was spared along the margins largely hides the meadow from today’s travelers, allowing Brooks Meadow to remain surprisingly unknown.

Old topographic maps still show the abandoned dirt roads and former Guard Station at Brooks Meadow

When the paved roads were built, the primitive roads through the meadow were simply abandoned, and never properly decommissioned. In the intervening years, these abandoned roads have begun to reforest, thanks to the drainage that keeps the old roadbed drier than the surrounding meadow, and survivable for trees.

A closer view (below) of Brooks Meadow shows the abandoned road, and the dotted line of young trees that have begun to grow along the old roadbed. The location of the former guard station that once stood here is also shown.

The old road through Brooks Meadow is revealed by the young trees growing along it

Many of the meadows in the Mount Hood area are shrinking, thanks in part to a century of fire suppression and climate changes that allow for gradually encroaching forests. For Brooks Meadow, the threat comes from within, as well, with the strip of forest along the old road threatening to divide-and-conquer the meadow with reforestation.

This doesn’t have to happen, of course. The purpose of this article is to prod the U.S. Forest Service to consider a brushing project to remove the young trees along the old roadbed, and perhaps consider changes to the road’s drainage features that would help the old roadbed blend into the meadow, once again.

The brushing project is straightforward: there are about 60 young trees scattered along the old road, and they are small enough to removed by volunteers armed with bow saws and loppers. The drainage project would likely require more work, but could still be done by volunteers, assuming it is akin to trail maintenance work using hand tools.

Here is my offer to the U.S. Forest Service: I will assemble work crews of 10-12 volunteers for the brushing and drainage work needed to save Brooks Meadow. I believe the brushing could be done in a single day, and the drainage work in 2-3 volunteer days. Let’s get it done – we just need the green light from you!

Visiting Brooks Meadow

The best time to visit Brooks Meadow is in June and early July, when the wildflowers are at their best. In many spots, the flowers are waist-deep, and you will be surrounded by the sound of buzzing bees, singing birds and perhaps even spot elk or deer. There is no formal trail, but the going is easy if you follow the tree line along the edges of the meadow.

Elk grazing in the upper section of Brooks Meadow in 2009

(Click here for a larger view)

The route begins at the pullout “trailhead” at the west end of the meadow (see driving instructions, below). The best way to tour the meadow is clockwise from the pullout, following just inside the treeline. This will keep your feet fairly dry, and protect the most pristine inner portions of the meadow from human traffic.

In the clockwise loop around the meadow, you will be rewarded with mountain views from the upper end, and huge drifts of wildflowers in early summer. Autumn is also a beautiful time to visit the meadow, though you should wear hunters colors whenever hiking on the east side in fall. In morning and evening, there are often elk and deer browsing in the meadow. Be forewarned not to approach elk herds — simply enjoy them from a distance.

(Click here for a larger map)

One uncommon plant to look for in the meadow is Agoseris elata, or tall agoseris. This plant is in the sunflower family, and looks a bit like a dandelion blossom on steroids. Agoseris elata grows in just two places in the entire Mount Hood National Forest — Brooks Meadow and nearby Bottle Prairie.

How to Get There

Brooks Meadow is located just off Forest Road 44, east of Mount Hood. Follow Oregon 35 from either Hood River or US 26 to the Forest Road 44 junction. Turn east, and follow Road 44 uphilll for several miles to the obvious intersection with Forest Road 17, where Forest Road 44 abruptly turns right. Continue straight at this intersection, onto Road 17, and immediately watch for a pullout just 100 yards from the intersection.

(There are no restrooms or water sources at this informal trailhead. The nearest facilities are at the Sherwood campground, located along Highway 35, north of the Road 44 junction)

Postscript

After publishing this article, I noticed that the Forest Service and City of The Dalles have been busy posting the boundaries of The Dalles Water Watershed, again, including the informal trailhead at Brooks Meadow.

At least the shooters appreciate the new targets posted at Brooks Meadow

It’s a bit hard to take the closure seriously (most don’t, actually), given how the agencies have carved up this once pristine area with miles of logging roads and hundreds of clearcuts. More absurd is the fact that the “protected” stream flowing from the meadow is soon piped under paved Brooks Meadow Road in an open culvert — apparently, an area where protection isn’t required. Beer cans tossed in the culvert from passing pickup trucks complete this ironic picture.

So, use your judgment in visiting Brooks Meadow. While it’s hard to believe that hikers visiting the meadow to appreciate its beauty would actually be prosecuted (and spend the advertised six months in jail and a $500 fine, no less!) the posted closure is for real, unfortunately.

Discovering Bald Mountain

The country is filled with “Bald Mountains”, but for sheer scenic spectacle, few can compare to the Bald Mountain that rises just four miles away from the towering west face of Mount Hood. At one time, a fire lookout stood atop this Bald Mountain, and the view from the tower must have been the envy of fire lookouts around the Northwest.

Today, Bald Mountain isn’t entirely bald, having grown a dense forest of noble fir along the crest and northern slopes over the past half-century. Yet, it was in the 1970s, when the Timberline Trail was rerouted to lead hikers across the steep, open meadows on the south slope of the mountain, that hikers became familiar with Bald Mountain. Today, this spectacular traverse continues to provide one of the most popular, exhilarating sections along the classic loop hike.

Though most visitors to Bald Mountain keep to the Timberline Trail, you can still follow the historic old path that leads to the former lookout site, with its magnificent, close-up views of Mount Hood. Thanks to the quiet efforts of a few anonymous volunteers over the decades, the trail remains open and lightly maintained, with only an occasional log to step over along the way.

As the old path climbs toward the summit, hikers find themselves in a dense, young forest, and have to use their imagination to picture the open slopes of beargrass — with no forests — that existed when the first lookout was built on “Bald” Mountain more than a century ago.

Along the old trail, hikers will also spot blazes on the few trees that stood at the time of the former lookout tower. These blazes mark most historic trails (see this recent article on blazes) in the Mount Hood area, and confirm that the present alignment of the summit path to Bald Mountain dates back to at least the World War II era, and likely before.

A look at the 1911 USGS map of Mount Hood (below) shows that a “lookout” stood on Bald Mountain long before roads crossed Lolo Pass, and decades before the Timberline Trail was built. The early lookout structure was likely no more than a wood platform, later replaced with a conventional lookout tower. Interestingly, the Beaver Lakes shown on the map have since faded away, too, filled in with forest:

The 1946 USGS map of the Mount Hood area (below) is the last to show a lookout on Bald Mountain (and the Beaver Lakes), but in the intervening years from the 1911 map, the Timberline Trail and Skyline Trail had been completed, with both routes passing just below the lookout.

In fact, it’s likely that the section of Skyline Trail from Lolo Pass to Bald Mountain was originally built for lookout access, since the trail over Lolo Pass was among the earliest built in the area, and in fact, followed an ancient Indian route connecting the Sandy and Hood River valleys.

The alternating ticks shown along the dashed trail segments on the 1946 map indicate a telephone line along the route. Today, these routes often have ceramic insulators still attached to trees, and on this route further suggest that this section of trail was originally built with the lookout in mind. The route is now part of the Pacific Crest Trail, which replaced the old Skyline Trail, and remains one of the best approaches for hiking to Bald Mountain.

What did the old tower look like?

Fire lookouts in the Pacific Northwest followed a few standard designs beginning in the 1930s, after much improvisation in the early lookout designs that were built through the 1920s. The Bald Mountain lookout probably followed this evolution, with some sort of simple platform beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, and later, a more substantial structure built to Forest Service standards.

We have a much more exact picture after June 1944, when archived Forest Service documents show a new lookout was designed, apparently to replace an existing structure on Bald Mountain. The following are samples from the 1944 architectural plans for Bald Mountain. There are no clear records of when this lookout was removed, but it was likely in the late 1950s or 1960s, when hundreds of lookouts were viewed as outmoded by the Forest Service and destroyed.

The cab — or cabin — in the 1944 designs for Bald Mountain is a 14×14 foot structure (above) that would closely resemble the surviving cab on the Devils Peak lookout, just to the southwest of Mount Hood in the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness. This simple design featured five windows per side and a low, pitched roof.

Inside the cab (below), the living space was organized around a Osborne fire finder, located in the center of the floor, surrounded by a wood stove, table, kitchen, storage cabinets, shelves and bunk. A catwalk wrapped around the outside of the cab, allowing lookouts to maintain the windows, raise and lower shutters and haul firewood and supplies up from below with pulleys.

The 14×14 foot cab rested atop a 43-foot wood-frame tower (below), complete with a spiraling stairway that ascended within the tower uprights. Though the tower was anchored directly to the ground, the main stabilization came from guy wires anchoring the tower to concrete footings in four directions.

The most remarkable aspect of this tower (and many others) is the fact that most of the materials were carried to the site over trails using livestock. That included the cut lumber, concrete, construction hardware, fixtures and windows — an amazing feat when you consider this was repeated dozens of times at lookout sites around the region.

The lookout plans for Bald Mountain also contain one “standard” element that wasn’t so standard, at least compared to other lookouts in the vicinity: a garage and storage shed built around the base of the tower. In this view, the stairway to the tower can be seen on the right, with the dashed lines above the garage marking the location of the tower uprights:

As this design detail from the 1944 plans suggests, there were a number of concrete footings used in the construction of the Bald Mountain lookout tower. Today, these seem to be the only remaining traces of the structure. Three footings are loose, and have been moved around and used by campers over the years. Other footings remain in the ground, mostly reclaimed by the undergrowth. This footing is located along the spur trail leading to the east viewpoint from the lookout site:

Visiting Bald Mountain

There is some irony in the historic Bald Mountain trail being “lost”, as the mountain is now almost completely circled by the Timberline Trail, and thousands of hikers make their way along this route every year. Almost all of these visitors walk right past the unmarked summit path leading to Bald Mountain.

But for those seeking the route less traveled, the hike to the summit is easy, provided you successfully navigate the maze of popular trails in the area. The key is knowing how to spot the unmarked junction with the Timberline Trail. Take a close look at this photo to help you recognize the spot if you choose to visit the old trail — this view is how the trail appears from either of the approaches described below:

From Lolo Pass: The Classic Approach

The classic hike begins at Lolo Pass, and follows the Pacific Crest Trail through handsome forests for three miles to the base of the Bald Mountain summit path. The total mileage on this option is 6.6 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of 1,400 feet. The following is a map of the Lolo Pass approach that accompanies the hike description I wrote for the Portland Hikers Field Guide:

Click here for a larger map

For a detailed description of the Lolo Pass approach, visit the Portland Hikers Field Guide page:

Lolo Pass to Bald Mountain Hike

The Field Guide description also includes driving instructions to the trailhead. This is a dry hike, so carry water — and in early summer, plan on the usual bugs that plaque hikers just after snow melt. My favorite time to hike this trail is on a clear day after the first autumn snow dusts the mountain in late September or October. This is when the area is free of bugs AND crowds.

From Top Spur: The Family Route

For a shorter hike that works well for families with kids (or for adults looking for a short afternoon or evening activity) you can also approach Bald Mountain from the Top Spur trailhead. Be forewarned that this is one of the most popular trailheads in the Mount Hood region, and mobbed on summer weekends.

But even on busy weekends, you can smile to yourself as you leave the crowds behind, and head up the quiet, old lookout path for some solitude — hidden in plain sight! From the summit viewpoint, you can literally look down on hikers passing hundreds of feet below on the Timberline Trail, oblivious to your presence.

Click here for a larger map

The Top Spur option is just two miles long, round-trip, with an elevation gain of 550 feet. Though short, portions of both the Top Spur and Bald Mountain trails are steep, so you will notice the elevation gain! The tradeoff for kids is the feeling of climbing a real mountain. Bring a pair of binoculars for kids to explore the details of Mount Hood or watch hawks float across the Muddy Fork Valley, below.

For a detailed description of the Top Spur approach, including travel instructions, visit the Portland Hikers Field Guide page:

Top Spur to Bald Mountain Hike

One of the most magical times to visit Bald Mountain is evening, when you can watch the awesome west face of Mount Hood light up at sunset, but still have enough light to hike back to the Top Spur trailhead.

Both hikes are usually open from mid-June through mid-November, and both require a Northwest Forest Pass to park. Both trailheads usually have portable toilets, but no water — be sure to carry your own.

New Maps of Mount Hood and the Gorge

Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge were in fine company earlier this year when the National Geographic Society released a pair of new maps in their Trails Illustrated series covering both areas. This map series is generally limited to national parks, so the few outstanding areas outside the National Park System (NPS) included in the set read like a who’s who of places that should be made into national parks or recreation areas.

NatGeo01

For locals already familiar with these areas, the new maps feature surprisingly accurate, up-to-date information on trails, campgrounds, forest roads and — most impressively — the many new and expanded wilderness areas that were legislated this year with the new Mount Hood wilderness bill. This information, alone, makes them a worthy addition to your map collection.

As with any National Geographic map, the cartography is lush, and containes a wealth of details. One example are Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Oregon State Forest (OSF) lands that are helpfully mapped where they abut national forest boundaries. But most importantly, the new maps show numbered forest trails on a backdrop of contour lines an relief shading, making for an excellent trip planning tool or handy map for the field.

The Mount Hood map (No. 820) extends from Lost Lake south to the edge of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, and from Table Rock on the west to the Warm Springs reservation on the east. New, expanded boundaries for the Mount Hood, Badger Creek, Bull of the Woods and Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness Areas are shown, and are interesting to study for those who have only seen the new wilderness legislation on cryptic web maps.

NatGeo02

This detail of the Cloud Cap area includes a note about the washed-out Eliot Branch crossing on the Timberline Trail

The Mount Hood map also includes the newly created Clackamas and Roaring River wilderness areas, the new “Mount Hood National Recreation Area” (a new designation adjacent to Badger Creek Wilderness) and the various new additions to the Wild and Scenic River system. Map blurbs provide travel information, area history and surprisingly detailed specifics on each of the wilderness areas that will be valuable to visitors exploring the area.

The Columbia Gorge map (No. 821) extends from Troutdale east all the way to the Deschutes River, encompassing the entire Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The map also extends from Lost Lake on the south well into the Gifford Pinchot country north of the river, incorporating a good portion of the Indian Heaven Wilderness and all of the Silver Star Mountain backcountry.

Like the Mount Hood map, the Gorge map includes trail and travel information, map blurbs with travel information, area history, details on popular destinations within the Gorge and depicts the new wilderness boundaries resulting from the recent Mount Hood wilderness legislation.

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This except from the new Roaring River Wilderness shows the new boundaries in green, and the new Wild and Scenic River designation for the South Fork Roaring River

Both maps are printed on waterproof paper for use in the field, and measure approximately 4.25″ x 9.25″ folded, fitting neatly into a coat pocket or backpack. Both are at a scale of 1:75,000, which is a bit small for some hikers, but has the advantage of being a great travel planning map – or just a nice way to explore those new wilderness areas from the comfort of your traveling armchair. Each map retails for about $12 directly from National Geographic or from online book sellers.

Indian Salmon Harvest

1930s painting of Indians fishing at Celilo Falls, as they had for thousands of years prior to white settlement of the Oregon Country.

1930s painting of Indians fishing at Celilo Falls, as they had for thousands of years prior to white settlement of the Oregon Country.

In recent years, conservationists have lined up against a proposed Indian Casino in the Columbia Gorge, and with good reason. While the project would certainly benefit the people of the Warm Springs tribe, it would also have unacceptable environmental effects on the Gorge (A better solution is to simply locate the casino in Portland, which is the obvious force driving the Cascade Locks location – separate article to follow).

But if you are a like-minded conservationist, you have an alternative for supporting the Native American economy that doesn’t involve slot machines. Simply pack a large cooler on your next visit to the Gorge, and stop by one of several roadside salmon markets, where Indians from the Gorge tribes sell fresh, “over the bank” chinook, coho, steelhead, sockeye, walleye and shad.

1930s rendering of Indian fisherman working the narrows below Celilo Falls

1930s rendering of Indian fisherman working the narrows below Celilo Falls

A surprisingly small number of urbanites who visit the Gorge support these fishermen, possibly because they don’t understand the fishery. But if you have never had fresh salmon, you will be pleasantly surprised at the difference in flavor between the tribal fisheries and the fish-farm salmon that your local supermarket is likely selling as “fresh” (dyed pink to disguise its origin, since fish farms produce a gray meat in salmon).

The tribes also sell the finest smoked salmon available, anywhere — after all, they have had thousands of years to perfect the smoking process, and smoked salmon can be eaten plain, as a snack or with hors d’oeuvres, or used in salads, pasta, casseroles or other cooked dishes. Fresh and smoked salmon freezes well, so buying during the fall harvest, in particular, can provide for a full winter of salmon in your diet. This is an excellent option when fish isn’t available at the roadside markets, and helps the tribes sustain their economy over the winter months, as well.

The Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes have had permanent rights to harvest salmon from the Columbia River under a series of 1854-55 treaties with the United States Government. While these treaties have been subject to much litigation — and questionable “compensation” agreements allowed for destruction of Celilo Falls in the 1950s — the tribes manage the fisheries today in cooperation with the state governments of Oregon and Washington through the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fisheries Commission. The focus of the Fisheries Commission is on habitat recovery and sustainable fishing practices, and ensuring that this ancient tradition isn’t lost.

Indians fishing Celilo Falls with dip nets in the early 1900s, prior to construction of dams at Bonneville and The Dalles.

Indians fishing Celilo Falls with dip nets in the early 1900s, prior to construction of dams at Bonneville and The Dalles.

On a recent stop at the Cascade Locks market, beneath Bridge of the Gods, a young Indian in his teens asked me “if I knew any stories about Lewis & Clark”. I looked down at my faded t-shirt, commemorating the Lewis & Clark expedition, realizing why he had asked the question.

I responded with a few anecdotes from the expedition — how the Indians at Celilo had introduced the explorers to salmon, and in doing so, probably saved their lives. I also mentioned that the early white explorers unknowingly brought diseases with them that erased much of the native population, even before the huge waves of white settlers followed in the 1840s. To his apparent surprise, I also talked about the Corps of Discovery being the first true democracy in the United States, with an Indian woman (Sacajawea) and a black man (York) given equal voice at major turning points in the mission.

Upon that, he reached out, shook my hand, and said “thanks, man. I love to hear those stories.” But we both knew he was really testing my knowledge — and my respect for his native culture — to see if I was just another ignorant tourist in a Lewis & Clark t-shirt. I walked away with a bag of smoked salmon fillets and thinking what a complicated world it still is for young Native Americans.

You can learn more about the Indian Fishing Harvest at this official website, including the history of Indian fishing in the Columbia, where to find roadside stands, and how to buy fish from roadside vendors. Often, there are several vendors at a site, so if you plan to buy a few packages of fish, make your way from stand to stand, so that you support each of the vendors.

Tamanawas Falls

Autumn colors on a foggy day in the huge amphitheater that surrounds Tamanawas Falls

Autumn in the huge amphitheater that holds Tamanawas Falls

For many years, the rustic path along Cold Spring Creek to Tamanawas Falls was a well-kept secret, but today the short trail to this 150-foot falls has become a popular hiking destination. Floods and a massive rock slide rearranged the trail at times in recent years, but the route has since been repaired, and is no less scenic for ravages of Mother Nature. The easy hike to the falls is described in the Portland Hikers Field Guide.

Cold Spring Creek is unique in that it drains a rather large portion of Mount Hood’s eastern slope, yet runs clear year-round because it carries no glacial outflow. The headwaters are formed by the sprawling Elk Meadows and the high, tundra-like slopes of Cooper Spur. A classic overnight backpacking trip (or long day hike) is the 15-mile loop along the Cold Spring Creek trail to Elk Meadows and return via Bluegrass Ridge.

Brilliant cottonwoods light up the trail to Tamanawas Falls in late October

Brilliant cottonwoods light up the trail to Tamanawas Falls in late October

One of the subtle attractions of the trail is the mix of eastside and westside flora — you’ll find eastside species like Western larch, Ponderosa pine, Douglas maple and quaking aspen flanked by more western species like Western redcedar, white pine and Douglas fir. There are also a surprising number of wildflowers in display in early summer, and in autumn the trail is lined with brilliant cottonwoods and vine maple.

A close-up view reveals the huge cavern behind Tamanawas Falls

A close-up view reveals the huge cavern behind Tamanawas Falls

But the main attraction on this hike is Tamanawas Falls, a thundering spectacle during early summer snow melt, and more graceful curtain later in the season. “Tamanawas” is the Chinook jargon word for “friendly or guardian spirit”, and the current spelling was corrected by the Oregon Board of Geographic Names in 1971. With its broad, symmetrical shape, the falls is more in the form of a Gorge waterfall, since it flows in a perfect curtain over what appears to a layer of basalt. But the rock here is andesite, a more recent material that has erupted from the vents that formed Mount Hood and many of the smaller peaks in the area.

The massive rock fall just downstream from the falls provides a unique glimpse into the formation of the canyon, and how actively the creek continues to change the landscape. In this section, the re-routed trail climbs through truck-sized boulders that dropped from the cliffs rimming the canyon just a few years ago. A destroyed footbridge from the old trail can be seen in the creek, far below.

Adventurous hikers will not want to stop where the spur trail to the falls abruptly ends at a viewpoint. With a bit of careful scrambling, even better views of the falls can be had from the stream, just beyond the trail, and with a bit more scrambling, hikers can even make their way into the huge cavern behind the falls. The view from behind the water is especially awesome, though too rough to reach for younger children and less experienced hikers.