Proposal: Bridal Veil Canyon Trail

Upper Bridal Veil Falls

It is an unfortunate reality that in the face of Oregon’s population doubling over the past half-century, our trail system has declined. The resulting crowding and overuse is evident on many of the trails that remain, especially on those fringing the rapidly growing Portland region.

This trend is at odds with oft-stated public goals of better public access to nature, re-introducing children to the outdoors, providing more active, quiet recreation near our urban centers, shifting toward a more sustainable forest economy and creating affordable recreation in the interest of social equity.

So, what to do? Build more trails. Soon. And take better care of what we already have.

This article lays out a specific vision for one such trail, an all-season, family-friendly loop in the Columbia Gorge. This would not only be an important step toward meeting those public goals, but also could also become a flagship project for a renewed campaign to expand our trails to meet overwhelming demand.

The place is spectacular Bridal Veil Creek, known for its namesake falls, but less known is the string of waterfalls in its shady upper canyon, or the rich history that colors the area.

The Legacy of Bridal Veil

The town of Bridal Veil in 1900

Though deceivingly green and pristine today, the Bridal Veil watershed was once the center of what was arguably the most intensive logging operation in the region.

From 1886-1936, the company town of Bridal Veil thrived at the base of Bridal Veil Falls, on the banks of the Columbia River. The mill town at Bridal Veil was connected to a hillside sister mill community known as Palmer, located on the slopes of Larch Mountain. Today’s Palmer Mill Road survives as the connecting route between the two former mills.

Loggers near New Palmer in 1912

In the turn-of-the-century heyday of these mills, logs were rough-milled at the Palmer site, and sent down a mile-long flume to the Bridal Veil mill for finishing as commercial lumber. The terminus of the flume can be seen in the lower right of the first photo (above), with a huge pile of rough cut lumber piled at its base.

Timber was hauled to the holding ponds at the Palmer site along a series of rail spurs, traces of which can still be found today in the deep forests of Larch Mountain.

Jumbo steam engine hauling logs to New Palmer in 1905

The original Palmer site operated until a fire destroyed the mill in 1902, and the New Palmer mill was constructed nearby. New Palmer operated until the Bridal Veil Falls Lumbering Company shut down in 1936, a victim of the Great Depression and the largely logged-out Bridal Veil area.

Kraft Foods bought the mill and surrounding town in 1937, and formed the Bridal Veil Lumber and Box Company. Kraft manufactured its iconic wooden cheese boxes at the mill from 1937-1960, when Bridal Veil was finally shut down for good.

Old Palmer mill pond in 1896

The town site of Bridal Veil had already begun to fade when Kraft bought the community and mill in 1937, and today only the post office and cemetery survive. The tiny post office remains a popular attraction for mailing wedding announcements and invitations (with a “Bridal Veil, OR” postmark), and is now the sole reason for its existence. The cemetery saw its last burial in 1934, and local volunteers now maintain the grounds.

In 1990, the Trust for Public Lands purchased the Bridal Veil site, with the intention of clearing the remaining structures and transferring the land to the U.S. Forest Service for restoration. A decade-long legal battle ensued between local historic preservation interests and the Trust before the buildings were finally cleared, beginning in 2001. The last structure (a church) was demolished in 2011, leaving only the post office.

Log flume near Middle Bridal Veil Falls in 1896

Though the structures are mostly gone, remnants and artifacts from the Bridal Veil logging era are everywhere in the canyon: moss-covered railroad ties can still be seen on the old logging grades, concrete foundations line the old streets of the town, and chunks of suspension cable and rusted hardware follow the old flume corridor.

Sadly, there is also modern debris in the mix: illegal dumping has plagued Palmer Mill Road for decades, including automobiles that have been rolled over the canyon rim, tumbling into Bridal Veil Creek. At least three recently dumped autos are still lodged above the upper falls today, and several have already been pulled from the creek over the years.

Kraft cheese box

The combination of historic and nuisance debris lining this beautiful canyon present a couple of opportunities for the public. Clearly, the historic traces give a unique glimpse into the past, and an opportunity to interpret the logging history for present-day visitors.

But the nuisance debris also provides an opportunity to engage the public in a major cleanup of the canyon, and ongoing stewardship, in tandem with construction of a new trail.

The Proposal

This proposal for Bridal Veil canyon has two components:

1. Building a 2.5 mile hiking trail to spectacular views of the middle and upper waterfalls along Bridal Veil Creek

2. Converting Palmer Mill Road to become a bicycle trail

The focus of the proposal is on the hiking loop — a new, all-season trail that will offer a premier hike to families and casual hikers, while taking some pressure off crowded routes in the vicinity (such as Angels Rest, Latourell Falls and the Wahkeena-Multnomah trails).

The Palmer Road conversion is a secondary piece that responds to growing demand for new bike trails, as well as the failing state of the road for vehicular traffic (more about that, below).

The following trail map shows these proposals in detail:

(click here for a larger version of the map)

One of the unique advantages of building in the Bridal Veil watershed is the already impacted nature of the landscape. Adding a trail here is a modest change compared to a century of road building and logging. The proposal also provides an opportunity to restore some of the environmental damage from past activities in the process, such as illegal dumping and invasive species that have been introduced to the canyon.

Another unique advantage is the opportunity to extend the new trail from the existing trailhead and picnic facilities that exist at Bridal Veil State Park. The park already has a paved parking area, picnic tables, year-round restroom and a couple of short hiking trails. The new trail proposal would build on these amenities, making for a full-service for casual hikers or families with young kids.

Upper Bridal Veil Creek

The trailhead is also adjacent to rustic Bridal Veil Lodge, and would certainly complement the long-term operating of this historic roadhouse by greatly expanding recreation opportunities in the area.

The new trail would begin a few feet beyond the trailhead sign on the existing Bridal Veil Falls trail, turning upstream from the current path. The new route would duck under the Historic Columbia River Highway, and follow the west side of Bridal Veil Creek closely for 0.6 miles to a new footbridge at beautiful Middle Bridal Veil Falls. Here, a few moss-covered remains of the old log flume survive among the ferns and boulders.

Middle Bridal Veil Falls

The proposed loop forks here, with the stream-level route continuing along the west side of the creek, and the eastern bluff route returning across the proposed bridge (see map, above).

The stream-level route would now climb a switchback to an overlook of Middle Bridal Veil Falls, and continue to traverse the stream for a half-mile, passing two more mid-sized waterfalls. Soon, the trail would arrive at a second bridge, just below magnificent Upper Bridal Veil Falls.

The upper falls is the main attraction of the proposed loop trail — a powerful 100-foot wall of water in a steep amphitheater. Hikers will want to enjoy this spot for a while, perhaps from the proposed footbridge, or possibly from a viewing platform similar to the deck at Bridal Veil Falls.

Upper Bridal Veil Falls

After taking in the view of the upper falls, hikers would begin the traverse of the east side of the canyon, along the return portion of the proposed loop trail. This section would gently climb the steep canyon walls to a series of open bluffs that frame the gorge. Along the way, a spur trail would connect the loop trail to the proposed bike route along Palmer Mill Road.

The return route would end with a long switchback descent to the proposed footbridge at Middle Bridal Veil Falls, and hikers would retrace their steps for the final 0.6 miles to the trailhead. The new loop would be a total 2.5 miles, round-trip.

Bridal Veil Falls

The final piece of the puzzle in the trail proposal would be a short return loop on the existing Bridal Veil Falls trail. This route would climb from the existing viewing platform above Bridal Veil Falls, traversing below the scenic highway to a new stream crossing at the highway bridge. Though this route involves extra cost and engineering challenges, it would also create a longer loop that incorporates the existing Bridal Veil Falls trail, for a total of 3.5 miles.

Converting Palmer Mill Road

While the main focus of this proposal is on new hiking trails, the deteriorating state of Palmer Mill Road — and the serious problems it creates in terms of illegal dumping and vandalism — calls the question of whether to allow traffic on this road in the long term?

2011 slide on Palmer Mill Road (Multnomah Co.)

In 2011, the road was closed for several months to allow for repairs where a sizeable section had failed. Though unintentional, the statement on Multnomah County’s website makes the case for closing the road permanently:

“The isolated road is one of the county’s few remaining gravel roads. The narrow road climbs a steep hillside above Bridal Veil Falls along Bridal Veil Creek.

No homes or businesses are located along Palmer Mill Road. The road was built to serve logging mills in the 1880s that are now long gone. Few cars use the road, so not many people noticed when a landslide closed the route in March 2011, during one of the wettest winters in recent memory.”

At a time when county transportation funds are rapidly dwindling, converting the road to become a bicycle trail would not only help the health of Bridal Veil canyon, it could also remove some of the maintenance burden for the county. It also seems to fit the county’s own direction for the corridor, as the upper segment of Palmer Mill Road has been gated to vehicles for years, and is a favorite route among cyclists and hikers.

Palmer Mill Road in autumn

Like the proposed Bridal Veil loop trail, a bike trail along Palmer Mill Road already has a developed trailhead. In this case, the paved overflow lot for the Angels Rest trail provides ready-made parking. Therefore, no new accommodations for bike trail users would be needed (though the Angels Rest trailhead is not equipped with an all-season restroom or water).

(a caveat to this proposal: the steepness of Palmer Mill Road might limit its suitability for bikes, especially downhill, and therefore might need to be managed accordingly (like the Zigzag Trail near Surveyors Ridge, for example, which requires cyclists to walk bikes in the downhill direction).

What will it take?

This proposal will require a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service (administers the upper portion of the canyon), Oregon State Parks (administers the lower section) and trail advocacy groups. While the proposed loop represents a substantial amount of trail design, engineering and construction, it is well within reach if a public-private partnership can be realized.

The scope of the proposal is about the same as the Wahclella Falls trail, which was rebuilt in the 1990s to include two sizeable footbridges and sections of new tread on steep slopes. However, there would be little or no costs associated with the trailhead at Bridal Veil Canyon, unlike the Wahclella Falls project.

(click here for a larger view of this map)

(click here for a PDF version of this map)

Sound interesting? The best way to advocate for this trail is to simply pass the idea along. I will be advocating the project with Oregon State Parks, eventually, so word-of-mouth support among hikers could be helpful.

To share this concept, download the illustrated PDF version (above) of the map and send it to friends, fellow hikers or even to Oregon State Parks or Forest Service officials, with your own suggestions for how to proceed. That’s how grassroots projects get started, after all!

Acknowledgements: this article has been underway for a couple of years, and reflects help from several local Gorge experts. My thanks go to Bryan Swan for his research on the history (and mystery) of Upper Bridal Veil Falls, and to Greg Lief and Don Nelsen for making bushwhack trips with me to Upper and Middle Bridal Veil Falls, respectively. Special thanks go to Zach Forsyth for his intrepid explorations along the less-traveled sections of the canyon, and advice on possible trail alignments.

Gorge Aspen Colony

Quaking Aspen grove near Bridal Veil

Just east of Bridal Veil on the Historic Columbia River Highway, a colony of white-barked Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) suddenly appear along the road, seemingly transported from somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Though these are North America’s most widespread tree species, they are uncommon in Western Oregon.

Many who spot these unlikely trees might reasonably assume they were intentionally planted here, given the nearby residential district. That’s possible, but it’s more likely that this is a native stand, one of only a few sprinkled on the western fringes of the aspen range, where it extends south from Canada along the eastern crest of the Cascades.

Quaking Aspen appear suddenly along the Scenic Highway near Bridal Veil (Google Streetview)

The stand is easy to find: drive one-third mile beyond the Angels Rest trailhead in the Bridal Veil area and watch for the trees on the south side of the road. There’s room to pull off, but use caution before wading in — this might be the only Aspen grove in Oregon with knee-deep poison oak! The stand is also fringed with lupine, coltsfoot and many other wildflowers in mid-spring, making for a dramatic scene.

Why Here?

Topographic maps give a hint as to why Aspen would grow here: marshy, river bottom soils, cool mountain air flowing off Larch Mountain and down Coopey Canyon and the generally brisk Gorge winters mimic prime aspen habitat. The grove also appears to be on public land, within Shepperds Dell State Park (see map, below).

The Quaking Aspen grove is near Coopey Creek, below Angels Rest

It’s hard to know the future of Oregon’s aspen trees, given the expected effects of climate change on most northern species. The following map shows just how fragile the aspens along the Cascade Range are compared to the broad habitat found in the Rockies, Great Lakes region and Canada:

North American extent of Quaking Aspen (Wikimedia)

Even more isolated and fragile are the groves that dot the basin and range country of Southeast Oregon. These are the aspens growing on alpine islands in the desert, including Steens Mountain, Hart Mountain and a few other tall peaks in the high desert country.

Ecology of the Aspen

The name “Quaking Aspen” comes from the unique trembling that the slightest breeze creates among the leaves of Aspen trees. This is also where the botanical name of “tremuloides” is derived.

The “quaking” comes from flattened petiole, or stem, that connects the leaves to tree branches, and vibrates in the wind. The soft rustling is unmistakable to anyone who has spent time in Aspen country. Though Aspen are famous for their brilliant yellow fall color, the Gorge grove tends to be a paler yellow, possibly reflecting the milder fall temperatures at the site, compared to typical Aspen habitat.

Quaking Aspen leaves

Quaking Aspen reproduce mostly through root sprouts, with the young trees called “clones”, since they are genetically identical, and usually still connected to the parent tree. Whole groves of Aspen often consist of clones from a single originating tree, and share a single root system, and are thus called clone colonies.

This shared root system help explain why these colonies leaf out in spring and abruptly turn color in the fall as a complete unit, but often out of sync with nearby colonies running on their own clock.

Moss on Aspen trees: a uniquely Oregon thing?

The survival advantage of a clone colony can be seen in the Pando colony in Southern Utah, located high on the Colorado Plateau. Scientists estimate the 100-acre colony to have nearly 50,000 individual “stems” (trees) in the grove, all sharing a common root system. Amazingly, the root system is estimated to be at least 80,000 years old, with some scientists estimating the colony to be over million years old. This makes the Quaking Aspen both the oldest and largest organism on the planet, as defined by a continuously living DNA marker.

One disadvantage of clone colonies is that Aspen trees come in male and female varieties, and thus the clones in a colony are usually the same sex, making seed production more difficult.

Young Aspen clones emerging at the edge of the grove

Even when Aspen seeds are produced, they lack sufficient food and coating to make them durable enough to survive for long in harsh environments. This could be why Aspen rarely grow from seed, but also underscores the vulnerability of the species, since seed reproduction allows a species to migrate much more quickly in period of rapid climate change.

Aspen Die-Off

Older Aspens dying off in Southern Colorado (USFS)

In the mid-1990s, scientists began to notice a mass die-off in Quaking Aspen trees across the Western US. Often, the older trees in a grove were afflicted, but increasingly, entire clone colonies have died. There are a variety of theories about the decline, though most attribute it to a combination of changing climate and a century of fire suppression.

Like most western trees, Aspen are well adapted to fire, and quickly spring back after a burn, since the common root system of a colony is generally left unscathed, even if fire kills most of the trees growing from the root system. Under this theory, the die-off is a response to older Aspen groves simply outliving their viability, and abruptly falling victim to disease.

Entire Aspen groves dying in New Mexico (USFS)

Another theory focuses on the drought conditions that have plagued the west during the past two decades. Some scientists believe this has simply left Aspen too stressed to cope with insects and diseases that normally not be life-threatening to the trees. One study showed that more than 80% of the die-off has occurred in areas predicted to lose Aspen trees as a result of climate change — usually south-facing and lower-elevation habitats. This evidence also reinforces the risks that climate change will eventually bring for the Aspen forests.

Yet another theory is that over-grazing is causing the decline, with young tree sprouts being grazed before they can reach maturity, and replace older trees within a grove. In a unique study of wolves at Yellowstone, a variation on this research showed the same relationship where deer and elk populations were not checked by predators, causing a similar decline in Aspen colonies.

The phenomenon is now known collectively as “Sudden Aspen Decline”, and is the focus of much concern among researchers.

Though the die-off seems to be slowing in recent years, thanks to record rainfall in several previously drought-stricken areas, the damage has been extensive: Colorado has lost nearly 500,000 acres of aspen since the die-off began, or nearly 20 percent of its standing aspen. Other Rocky Mountain stands show similar damage, with scientists estimating that Aspen groves surviving today accounting for just 40% of what stood in the mid-1800s.

The Future of the Gorge Aspen?

Aspen can’t compete for long with Bigleaf Maple (seen in background) and other large species

The recent ecology of Aspen in the west is alarming, but researchers are busy looking for answers. In Oregon, studies are underway on the resiliency of Quaking Aspen in the Warner and Trout Creek mountains, and Oregon State University is providing ongoing research with The Aspen Project.

And what is the future of the Aspen grove near Bridal Veil? The good news is the trees seem to be on public land, and thus easier to protect and manage. New clones can also be seen growing at the edge of the stand, though the trees still face heavy competition from a thicket of underbrush, and a growing canopy of big conifers and Bigleaf Maple. In the long term, these Aspen won’t survive the competition unless the colony is actively managed to help them survive.

The western-most Quaking Aspen grove?

Other small Aspen stands dot the Gorge and the western foothills of Mount Hood, including one emerging stand along US 26, just east of Gresham, that might just be the western-most in the state. Much larger stands flank the east slope of the Cascades in places like the Hood River Valley, Metolius River and Klamath Lake.

While these isolated stands are small and remote from the prime Aspen habitat of the Rockies and Canada, that could be a very good reason to help them survive: it’s possible that these intrepid Oregon Aspen will be better situated to survive climate change, and may represent a genetic insurance policy for the species.

Scientists are learning much about Aspen and how to perpetuate the species in the face of the die-off. Hopefully, Oregon’s public land managers will also apply these lessons to the tiny, isolated healthy stands in places like the Gorge, as one more safeguard for an increasingly vulnerable species.