Posted tagged ‘Angels Rest’

First Look at the Gorge Fire

September 12, 2017
GorgeFire01

Eagle Creek Fire during the initial, explosive phase (US Forest Service)

Officially the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge is still fully involved, now at 35,000 acres and just 10 percent contained by firefighters. Rain in the forecast for the coming week suggests that the fire will continue to slow as October approaches, and our attention will turn toward the changes that fire has once again brought to the Gorge.

The Gorge is a second home for many of us, and in some ways the fire was akin to watching our “home” burn. But that’s a human perspective that we should resist over the long term if we care about the ecological health of the Gorge. Fire is as natural and necessary as the rain in this amazing place, though that’s a truth that we have been conditioned to resist. I’ll post more on that subject in a subsequent article.

GorgeFire02

Surreal Gorge landscape under smoky skies from the Eagle Creek Fire (US Forest Service)

For now, we’re just beginning to learn about the impact of the fire, even as it continues to burn. Thankfully, no lives have been lost, no serious injuries reported and very few structures have been lost. That’s a testament to our brave emergency responders (many of them volunteers) and the willingness of most Gorge residents to abide by evacuation orders. It has surely been a frightening and stressful time for those who call the Gorge home.

The impact on public lands is still largely unknown, but the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge has one of the most concentrated, most heavily used trail systems in the world, and the damage to trails is likely to be significant. The Forest Service is likely to close affected trails for months or even years in order to assess the damage and determine how best to restore them.

GorgeFire03

1930s hiker at a viewpoint along the Perdition Trail (with Multnomah Falls beyond)

If you’ve lived here for awhile, you’ll also recall that we lost the Perdition Trail, an iconic, prized connection between Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls, to the 1991 Multnomah Falls Fire. The reasons were complex, and it will tempting for the Forest Service to let some trails go, given their shrinking trail crews. We should not allow this to happen again.

Every trail should be restored or re-routed, and new trails are also needed to spread out the intense recreation in the Gorge. Trails advocates will need to work together to ensure this. Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) has set up a mailing list dedicated to Gorge trail restoration, if you’re interested in working on future volunteer projects. You can sign up for periodic updates and events here.

______________________

On September 10, I drove SR 14 on the Washington side of the Gorge for my first look at the fire, starting in Hood River. Below each of the following annotated photos, I’ve linked to much larger versions that I encourage you to view if you’re reading this on a large monitor, as they provide a better sense of the fire’s impact.

As hoped, much of the burn is in a patchy “mosaic” pattern, a healthy and desirable outcome for the ecosystem. This is how fires used to occur in our forests, before a century of suppression began in the early 1900s. Mosaic burns allow for mixed forest stands and exceptional wildlife habitat to evolve, even as we might mourn the loss of familiar green forests.

The wind pattern on Sunday had shifted from westerly to a northwesterly direction, producing a bizarre effect: smoke from the fire hugged the vertical wall that is the Oregon side of the Gorge, while the Washington side was cleared of smoke and under a bright blue sky. The view, below, shows this split-screen effect from near Wind Mountain.

GorgeFire04

(Click here for a large view)

Moving west, the combination of ongoing wildfire and back-burning by firefighters was producing a continuous plume along the base of the Oregon cliffs, from Herman Creek east to Shellrock Mountain, as seen below. The Pacific Crest Trail traverses this section, and is undoubtedly affected by the fire.

GorgeFire05

(Click here for a large view)

From the Bridge of the Gods wayside, opposite Cascade Locks, the impact of the fire on the canyons that fan out from Benson Plateau is visible. Some areas (below) show a healthy mosaic burn, while some of the upper slopes show wider swaths of forest impacted. The alarming proximity of the fire to the town of Cascade Locks is also evident in the scorched trees visible just above the bridge in this view. This was a close call for those who live here.

GorgeFire06

(Click here for a large view)

Turning further to the east from the Bridge of the Gods wayside (below), the ongoing wildfire and back-burning shown in the previous photos can be seen in the distance, beyond the town of Cascade Locks.

GorgeFire07

(Click here for a large view)

The scene at the Bridge of the Gods bridgehead (below) is an ongoing reminder that we’re a long way from life returning to normal for Cascade Locks residents. For now, I-84 remains closed and this is the only route into town, and only open to those with proof of residency.

GorgeFire08

(Click here for a large view)

Moving further west, the 2000-foot wall of cliffs in the St. Peters Dome area that stretches from McCord Creek to Horsetail Creek (below) come into view.

Here, the fire has also burned in mosaic pattern, with many patches of green forest surviving. But the frightening effects of the firestorm that occurred in the first days of the fire is also evident, with isolated trees on cliffs hundreds of feet above the valley floor ignited by the rolling waves of burning debris that were carried airborne in the strong winds that initially swept the fire through the Gorge.

GorgeFire09

(Click here for a large view)

A second view (below) of the St. Peters Dome area shows the burn extending toward Nesmith Point, nearly 4,000 vertical feet above the Gorge floor.

GorgeFire10

(Click here for a large view)

Moving west along SR 14 to the viewpoint at Cape Horn, the impact of the fire on areas west of Horsetail Falls comes into view (below), along with a better sense of the mosaic pattern of the burn. This view shows the Horsetail Creek trail to be affected by the first, as well as the slopes on both sides of Oneonta Gorge.

In this earlier piece on Oneonta Gorge, I described the dangerous combination of completely unmanaged visitor access and an increasingly dangerous logjam at the mouth of the Gorge. The fire will almost certainly trigger a steady stream of new logs rolling into Oneonta Gorge and adding to the massive logjam in coming years.

GorgeFire11

(Click here for a large view)

Moving further west, the area surrounding iconic Multnomah Falls and Wahkeena Falls comes into view (below). As with other areas, the fire burned in vertical swaths along the Gorge face, leaving more mosaic patterns in the burned forest. From this view, trees along the popular 1-mile trail from Multnomah Falls Lodge to the top of the falls looks to be affected by the fire, as are forests above Wahkeena Falls.

GorgeFire12

(Click here for a large view)

This wide view looking east from above Cape Horn (below) shows most of the western extent of the fire, with the north-facing slopes of Angels Rest heavily burned, while the west and south-facing slopes were less affected.

GorgeFire13

(Click here for a large view)

A closer look at Angels Rest shows that the burned area in the current fire closely matches the area that burned in the 1991 (below), along with slopes on the opposite side of Coopey Falls. The Angels Rest Trail was heavily impacted by the 1991 fire, and will clearly need to be restored after this fire, as well.

GorgeFire14

(Click here for a large view)

I’ve marked an approximation of the 1991 fire extent at Angels Rest in this closer look (below) at the summit of Angels Rest, based on tree size. Tall conifers burned in today’s Eagle Creek fire survived the 1991 fire, and mark the general margins of that earlier fire.

Areas within the 1991 burn were still recovering and consisted largely of broadleaf trees, like Bigleaf and Vine maple. Depending on the heat of the fire and whether their roots survived, these broadleaf trees may be quick to recover, sprouting from the base of their killed tops as early as next spring.

The recurring fires at Angels Rest offer an excellent case study for researchers working to understand how natural wildfires behave in successive waves over time. This, in turn, could help Gorge land managers and those living in the Gorge better plan for future fires.

GorgeFire15

(Click here for a large view)

Finally, a look (below) at the western extent of the fire shows a few scorched areas in Bridal Veil State Park, including the forest around the Pillars of Hercules. Bridal Veil Canyon appears to have escaped the burn, though some trees near Bridal Veil Falls may have burned.

GorgeFire16

(Click here for a large view)

I’ve titled this article as my “first look” because the story of the Eagle Creek fire is still being written. Only after the fall rains arrive in earnest will we have a full sense of the scale of the fire.

As new chapters in the Eagle Creek saga unfold, I’ll continue to post updates and share perspectives on this fire and our broader relationship with fire as part of the natural systems that govern our public lands. With each new fire in close proximity to Portland, we have the opportunity to expand and evolve how we think about fire, and hopefully how we manage our public lands in the future.

More to come…

Angels Rest Loop: One Way Trip to Heaven?

August 31, 2013
Looking across the Columbia River in winter to the Silver Star Range from Angels Rest

Looking across the Columbia River in winter to the Silver Star Range from Angels Rest

The popular hike to Angel’s Rest in the Columbia River Gorge is a rite of passage for long-time Oregonians and newcomers alike, because for many of us, this beautiful trail was our first hiking experience. I first hiked the trail sometime in the 1970s, and have returned many times over the years — most memorably, on the inaugural Trailkeepers of Oregon stewardship project in April 2008.

The (formerly skinny and shaggy) author on top of Angels Rest in 1981 and an older, wiser and (and much balder) version in 2013!

The (formerly skinny and shaggy) author on top of Angels Rest in 1981 and an older, wiser and (and much balder) version in 2013!

The trail has a lot to offer, with sweeping views of the Columbia River Gorge and a brief streamside section along Coopey Creek (which cascades over a pair of waterfalls below the trail). Since the Multnomah Falls Fire of 1991, the hike has offered a close-up look at a recovering forest along the upper reaches of the trail. The 1,600 elevation gain over 2.4 miles to the top of Angels Rest is within reach for most hikers, yet challenging enough to give any hiker a thrill when reaching the rocky, often blustery summit.

The Angels Rest trail also has the distinction of being among the most accessible to Portland, with a trailhead located at a freeway interchange 30 minutes from downtown, and with enough parking to supply a small army. Add the emergence of year-round hiking on our low-elevation trails in recent years, and the unfortunate result is one of the most rapidly deteriorating trails in our region.

The Angels Rest trailhead was expanded and improved in 2000 to include stone walls and trailhead signage in the style found elsewhere along the Historic Columbia River Highway

The Angels Rest trailhead was expanded and improved in 2000 to include stone walls and trailhead signage in the style found elsewhere along the Historic Columbia River Highway

The gradual deterioration of this old trail takes many forms. Along the lower section, the once-narrow traverse across moss and fern-covered talus slopes has broken down, with the path now straddling trees (the original trail is the upper third of the tread):

AngelsRestLoop04

Over time, this could damage the roots of the tree in the above photo to a point where it cannot survive. This threatens not only the tree but also the trail, as tree roots are critical in holding steep, loose Gorge slopes together in a climate where annual rainfall exceeds 100 inches per year.

This badly eroded spot is the overlook above Coopey Falls, along the lower trail:

AngelsRestLoop05

The damage here is fairly obvious: the original trail hugged the vegetation line along the right, but the crush of hikers attempting to view the falls has stripped away both vegetation and soil on the left. Over time, this has left roots of trees clinging to edge of the cliffs below exposed and unlikely to survive, making the trees themselves less likely to survive.

Beyond the Coopey Falls viewpoint, the trail reaches the first of many sections showing the impact of year-round hiking on the trail. Here, winter hikers have worn the new path to the left of the main trail tread in an effort to avoid standing water and mud in the main trail, which has become trenched from overuse:

AngelsRestLoop06

Further up the trail, the path has become so wide that the edges are almost hard to determine:

AngelsRestLoop07

The hikers in the distance in the view above offer a clue as to how this happens: as trails widen from overuse, hikers start waking side-by-side. It’s a natural instinct, but one that the trails were never designed to accommodate.

The scene below shows another example of winter hikers wearing down the edges of the formal trail in an effort to stay out of the mud:

AngelsRestLoop08

While walking adjacent to the trail might work for the first few hikers along one of these sections, in the end, it just creates more mud during the wet season — and an even wider trail as hikers continue to push the edges of the trail outward.

Until a few years ago, the effects of hiking were on display to epic proportions along an upper section of trail, where an enormous mud pit formed as hikers continued to walk ever higher on the shoulders of the widening trail:

AngelsRestLoop09

The section shown above devolved so badly that in 2008, the [url]Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO)[/url] worked with the U.S. Forest Service to simply bypass that segment with a new trail alignment. The following photo shows TKO volunteers constructing this new section in April 2008:

AngelsRestLoop10

While the new trail was built to a conventional width, the continued heavy, year-round crush of hikers has since “widened” this section to nearly double its original width in just five years:

AngelsRestLoop11

The upper trail includes several switchbacks, and these are traditionally the Achilles heel of any Gorge trail. Newbie hikers and kids can’t seem to resist cutting switchbacks.

Normally, this is manageable by simply blocking shortcuts to discourage the relatively small number of rogue hikers. But with the heavy foot traffic on the Angels Rest Trail, the sheer volume of switchback cutting overwhelms the trail, turning well-designed turns into a muddy, sloping mess:

AngelsRestLoop12

The above switchback was also built with the trail relocation project in 2008, and has barely survived five years of heavy travel from Angels Rest hikers.

The long-term answer to overuse at Angels Rest is to provide new, badly needed hiking alternatives in the Columbia Gorge, such as the Bridal Veil Canyon Trail proposed on this blog.

But Angel’s Rest needs help, too. One way to help this old trail survive for future generations to enjoy is to simply cut the traffic in half — not through restrictions or trail fees, but by creating a one-way hiking loop. The rest of this article outlines a proposal for making this happen.

Creating an Angels Rest Loop Trail

Winter view into the Gorge from Angels Rest

Winter view into the Gorge from Angels Rest

The concept of a one-way Angels Rest loop is simple: construct a separate, new route to Angels Rest that would form the return leg of the loop. The result would instantly cut the number of boots on the Angels Rest Trail by half, allowing the existing sections to be rehabilitated so that this old trail can last indefinitely.

AngelsRestLoop14

[click here for a large map]

The proposed loop trail would split from the existing route about 0.2 miles from the trailhead, just before the current route heads across the lower talus slopes (see map, above). The existing trail would continue to be 2-way for the first 0.2 miles, where the gentle terrain allows for a wider trail.

The new route would function as the downhill portion of the loop so that it could be designed with downhill travel in mind. This would include a gentle incline and minimizing the number of switchbacks compared to the current route. This could have tremendous benefits for the existing route, as a disproportionate share of trail damage to the existing route is from hikers speeding downhill.

Upper Coopey Falls would be a highlight of a connector between the new and existing trails

Upper Coopey Falls would be a highlight of a connector between the new and existing trails

The new return trail would also be designed to have a mid-point connection to the existing trail via a new bridge across Coopey Creek at Upper Coopey Falls (pictured above). The purpose of this connection is to bring hikers to the upper falls on a formal trail where several muddy boot paths have already been worn into the canyon walls by hikers seeking a view.

The mid-point connection would also allow less hardy hikers or families with small children to simply complete a lower loop of just over a mile in length, while still respecting the one-way trail system. The mid-way connector would also lead lower-loop hikers past beautiful Coopey Falls, one of the highlights of the proposed return trail.

The new trail would take hikers past the base of beautiful Coopey Falls, located on public land, but currently only reachable by crossing private property

The new trail would take hikers past the base of beautiful Coopey Falls, located on public land, but currently only reachable by crossing private property

From the summit of Angels Rest, the proposed return route would descend through the hanging valley immediately east of summit. This new route would skirt little-known Foxglove Falls, a wispy 120-foot seasonal cascade hidden in the forest, then switchback down to a basalt bench that wraps around the base of Angel’s Rest. Here, the trail passes through the fire zone, and would have broad views of the Gorge before descending in a gentle curve to the new junction at the Upper Coopey Falls connector trail.

The proposed loop trail would traverse below these cliffs on the north side of Angels Rest

The proposed loop trail would traverse below these cliffs on the north side of Angels Rest

From the Upper Coopey Falls connector, the new route would continue to descend, passing the base of Coopey Falls on a new footbridge, then traversing west, where it would reconnect with the main trail near the trailhead, completing the loop.

The new trail would have views like this of the Columbia River Gorge

The new trail would have views like this of the Columbia River Gorge

The new return trail would travel 1.7 miles in its descent, exactly the same length as the climb along the existing trail. Thus, the hike to Angel’s Rest along the new loop would retain the same mileage and elevation gain as it does today.

The Gorge viewpoints along the proposed new trail, along with stops at Foxglove Falls, Upper Coopey Falls and Coopey Falls, would be significant enhancements to the hike, making a classic trail even better. So, what would it take to realize this proposal?

An Idea within Reach…

This 1911 map shows an upper trail to Angels Rest from the long-vanished mill town of Palmer, long before the Depression-era trail we know today was constructed

This 1911 map shows an upper trail to Angels Rest from the long-vanished mill town of Palmer, long before the Depression-era trail we know today was constructed

The proposed loop trail would be built entirely on public lands, and much of the work could be done by volunteers working in partnership with the Forest Service. Beyond the actual trail, here are some of the other elements of the project, and more opportunities to involve volunteers in the work:

Footbridges: the proposed new loop trail would require two new footbridges: at Coopey Falls and Upper Coopey Falls. These could be excellent volunteer opportunities, as volunteers have helped construct other trail bridges in the Gorge in recent years

Invasive Species: like many spots in the western Gorge, the slopes of Angel’s Rest host invasive species – in particular, English ivy, Himalayan blackberry and Shiny Geranium. The new loop trail segment would actually improve the ability to control these species by providing new access to affected areas. Native plant advocates could become partners in the project in order to remove invasive plants as part of trail construction.

Even on the grayest of winter weekends, cars spill far beyond the overflow parking area at Angels Rest, lining the shoulders of the Historic Highway

Even on the grayest of winter weekends, cars spill far beyond the overflow parking area at Angels Rest, lining the shoulders of the Historic Highway

Trailhead Facilities: the existing parking area, including the large overflow area and shoulder parking along the Historic Columbia River Highway, is more than adequate to serve the proposed loop. In fact, the loop is in response to a trail that is inadequate for the parking! But the trail does not have restroom facilities, a serious deficiency with unpleasant repercussions for a site that can have as many as 100 cars on a busy weekend. The Forest Service and Oregon State Parks and Recreation could partner to address this need as part of creating the loop trail.

Ongoing Stewardship: ongoing maintenance of the trail is also well suited for volunteers, and could be a blueprint for a new, more intensive effort to keep trails in top condition, addressing trail damage before it spirals. The trailhead is close to Portland and easy to find, and the proposed loop route would be short enough for most volunteers to navigate with equipment, or when carrying out debris. The low elevation of the trail means more opportunities for volunteer work, and the beauty and close proximity to Portland would make it an attractive volunteer option.

What can you do?

Angels Rest was one of the scenic highlights along this 1938 Auto Club guide to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Angels Rest was one of the scenic highlights along this 1938 Auto Club guide to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

If you like this proposal, there area couple of opportunities to weigh in right now and make your voice heard:

1. Send off an e-mail to the staff at the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area: here’s the link (you can use the feedback form at the bottom of their web page). This is the federal agency responsible for most of the trails in the gorge, and would be the lead agency in making this loop happen.

2. Weigh in with Oregon Parks & Recreation Division (OPRD), the state agency that operates the series of state parks along the Historic Columbia River Highway. While much of the proposed Angels Rest loop trail travels on U.S. Forest Service lands, the loop also crossed state parks lands. Over the next year the state is conducting a long-range planning effort to scope future recreation needs in the Gorge. You can weigh in over here, using their blog comment format to make your voice heard.

The State Parks and Forest Service national scenic area staff work together to plan and maintain trails in the Columbia River Gorge, so weighing in with the state planning effort is an opportunity to make any of your ideas on recreation needs known to both agencies. So far, the State Parks have had fairly light participation in their public outreach, so it’s important to make your views known!

Don’t be shy about including links to the Bridal Veil Canyon and Angels Rest Loop proposals in this blog, either — here are the quick links to paste into your message:

https://wyeastblog.org/2012/01/15/proposal-bridal-veil-canyon-trail/

https://wyeastblog.org/2013/08/31/angels-rest-loop-one-way-trip-to-heaven/

Finally, consider supporting Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), a local non-profit, grass-roots organization that offers meet-up trail stewardship projects in the Gorge and around the region (full disclosure: the author is a founding and current board member of TKO and number one fan of the organization!)