When it comes to bucolic alpine scenes on Mount Hood, it’s hard to beat Elk Cove. From the spectacular wildflower gardens that line ice-cold Cove Creek to the sweeping views of Mount Hood and the mighty Coe Glacier, the cove serves up one postcard scene after another.
But behind the mountain scenery are some very wild winters. The same steep walls that give Elk Cove its alpine beauty are also a setup for powerful avalanches. These mostly originate on the lower slopes of Barrett Spur and sweep across the cove with surprising regularity.
Mount Hood in 1931 from the same spot as the previous photo, when trees were more sparse at Elk Cove
Early photos of Elk Cove suggest that avalanches were once even more devastating than what we experience today, and probably more frequent, judging by the advancing stands of Mountain Hemlock that have since spread across the cove. The change is most likely a reflection of our warming climate and declining snowpack in recent decades, but winter continues to take its toll. Major avalanches still roar into the cove with regularity, leveling trees and leaving piles of debris in their wake.
The shell of the old CCC stone shelter at Elk Cove as it appeared in the early 1960s, after being hit by numerous avalanches over the prior 30 years
When the Timberline Trail was built through Elk Cove in the early 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed one of their many iconic stone shelters here, one of six that were built along the trail. They couldn’t have known the site they picked was perhaps the most exposed to avalanches of any spot within the cove, and by the early 1960s, the shelter had already been badly damaged. Today, only a few rocks mark the shelter’s former location.
The 2021 Elk Cove Avalanche
Sometime last winter, yet another avalanche swept off the lower slopes of Barrett Spur, once again landing very near where the old stone CCC shelter had once stood. The debris field left behind by the avalanche was easily spotted by hikers ascending Barrett Spur over the summer, and it is also visible from the Timberline Trail where it enters the Elk Cove.
The following schematic shows Elk Cove and the path of the 2021 avalanche in relation to Mount Hood:
This schematic gives a more detailed view of Elk Cove and the approximate path of the 2021 avalanche, including the steep wall along Barrett Spur that is so prone to avalanches (the Timberline Trail is shown in dashed yellow):
[click here for a larger version of this schematic]
From the ground, the debris field left where the avalanche came to rest is striking. This series of views looking down from 99 Ridge (which forms the west wall of Elk Cove) show where the avalanche stopped, and the debris it left behind:
Mount Hood and the 2021 Elk Cove avalanche site
Closer view of Elk Cove and the avalanche debris field
More detailed view of the avalanche debris field
This detailed view from above gives a sense of scale to the hundreds of trees that were caught up in the avalanche and swept into Elk Cove
The debris comes into view where the Timberline Trail curves into the west meadow of Elk Cove, along beautiful Cove Creek. Most hikers were likely too busy looking at the wildflowers along the trail this summer to notice the pile of logs just around the bend, but for regular visitors, the avalanche debris was startling!
Elk Cove avalanche and Cove Creek from the Timberline Trail
The origin of the avalanche can be read from the orientation of the many trees caught up in the wave of snow and ice, as they generally point in the direction of the flow. The schematic below shows the path the avalanche took into Elk Cove before the snow and debris finally came to a stop last winter:
[click here for a larger version of this schematic]
Up close, the awesome power of the avalanche becomes apparent. Whole trees were snapped off and stacked like cordwood in a debris pile as much as 20-foot deep.
The avalanche swept down from the slopes of Barrett Spur (to the right in this view), as indicated by the felled trees pointing to the left, in the direction of the flow
In a typical winter, Elk Cove might have 15-20 feet of snow on the ground, and this snowpack is why small trees on steep mountain slopes are often spared from avalanches, since they are buried under heavy snow in winter. In the view below, the winter snowpack also protected the lush wildflower gardens that line the upper reaches of Cove Creek (seen in the distance), with the avalanche sweeping across these gentle slopes before finally settling on the floor of the cove.
The beautiful wildflower meadows in the upper reaches of Cove Creek were spared from the debris thanks to being on gently sloped terrain and under a blanket of winter snow when the avalanche swept through
Large trees aren’t so fortunate. If they’ve managed to escape avalanches along the base of Barrett Spur long enough to grow taller than the winter snowpack, it’s only luck. In time, most of the taller trees in Elk Cove will be swept away by future avalanches.
This panoramic view of the 2021 avalanche gives a sense of the scale of the event, with the sprawling pile of debris covering roughly 2-3 acres:
By early August, when these photos were taken, it would be easy to think the avalanche was just a pile of trees roaring down the mountain, but in fact, this debris is what’s left now that most of the snow and ice has melted away. Look closely, and you can see that a layer of snow and ice has yet to melt away from under the pile when this photo was taken:
6-10 feet of snow still remains under the debris pile as of early August
The 2021 avalanche dumped part of its debris on top of Cove Creek, but the stream made quick work of the pile over the winter. By summer, it had already melted an extensive tunnel under the mountain of snow, ice and debris (below).
Cove Creek carved this snow cave under the debris pile following the avalanche
The huge pile of snow left in Elk Cove by the avalanche brought another surprise: some of the earliest blooming wildflowers were still just emerging in early August, thanks to the extra snow depth left behind by the avalanche. Among these was Western Pasque Flower, a species of Anemone that blooms within a couple weeks of snowmelt, and therefore rarely see by hikers. In fact, most know this beautiful wildflower by its whimsical seed heads, and by the name “Old Man of the Mountain”. The opening image in this article shows a field of Western Pasque Flower gone to seed.
Normally an early bloomer, this Western Pasque Flower was in bloom in early August, thanks to the late-melting margins of the avalanche debris field
How often to avalanches like this occur at Elk Cove? Probably every winter, though events large enough to topple trees seem to occur every 10 years or so, depending on snowpack and weather conditions. Avalanches are most common in mid-winter, when weak snow layers and heavy snowfalls can cause snow to begin to slide on steep mountain slopes. Once they begin, avalanches can travel nearly 60 miles per hour, giving them the destructive force to level forests and buildings in their path.
Ghosts Hiding in Plain Sight
While the 2021 avalanche at Elk Cove is impressive, it is by no means unusual. A look at aerial photos between 2010 and 2021 shows that another avalanche swept through the same area in about 2015. Based on the orientation of downed trees from his earlier event, it originated on some of the same slopes on Barrett Spur that produced the last winter’s avalanche.
In the air photo comparison, below, the location of the new, 2021 avalanche debris pile is marked in yellow. When the 2010 air photo was taken, the forests at the center of the image were intact, but by the summer of 2016, an avalanche had clearly swept through the area. Based on the lack of reddish/orange debris in the 2016 image – the color of recently killed trees – suggests that this avalanche occurred at least a year earlier. So, for the purpose of this article, I’ve described it as the “2015 Avalanche”, and marked its extend in green.
Air photos show the signs of a roughly 2015 avalanche that swept through the same part of Elk Cove as the 2021 event
In both the 2016 and 2018 views, the path of this earlier avalanche is clearly marked by downed trees that point in the direction (right to left) of the moving snow and ice. Though it impacted a larger area in the cove than the 2021 avalanche, the 2015 event brought less woody debris into the cove, suggesting that it originated on a less forested part of the west wall of Elk Cove. In fact, some of the trees in its path on the floor of the cove survived the avalanche, suggesting that the lack of woody debris in the 2015 event made it somewhat less destructive where it finally came to a stop.
While both of these avalanches are awesome reminders of the power of the elements in alpine country, Elk Cove has a few ghosts from the past that suggest much more fearsome events. Tucked into one of the mature, forested “tree islands” at Elk Cove is a ghost tree that give mute testimony to just how powerful an avalanche on Mount Hood can be. The stump of this ghost tree (below) is nearly four feet in diameter and was toppled many decades ago.
This giant ghost tree at Elk Cove was toppled long ago by a very large avalanche
This old ghost was once a very large Mountain Hemlock before it was toppled. Today, its broken remains could easily be 100 years old, marking an avalanche that might have preceded the arrival of the Timberline Trail and those 1930s CCC crews on Mount Hood.
How do we know this old tree was destroyed by an avalanche? The telltale sign is where the tree was snapped off, marking the level of the winter snowpack when the avalanche swept through, and its top is pointed downslope, in the direction the avalanche was moving. Thanks to long, cold winters and dry summers, the shattered remains of this old tree (and several others like it in the cove) have survived to tell the story.
Since that big avalanche, several good-sized trees have grown up around the old ghost tree, helping put an approximate date of 70-100 years since any avalanche of this scale has swept through the heart of Elk Cove. And though it has been many decades since that event, the days of these younger trees are surely numbered, too, as another epic avalanche in Elk Cove is inevitable.
How to Visit
If you’re an able-bodied hiker, you can visit Elk Cove most easily from the Vista Ridge trailhead. It’s a 9-mile hike round trip, but with well-graded trails and no glacial streams to navigate. If you visit the avalanche debris field, please tread lightly, as the rustic path that once led to the upper reaches of Cove Creek was partly buried with debris, and the surrounding area is covered with a fragile meadow of Western Pasque Flower.
You can find a trail description here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide. Why, you might even know the author of this field guide entry..!
The Columbia River Gorge is so rich with natural beauty that it’s pretty hard to pick favorites. Yet, when it comes to graceful waterfalls cascading through verdant, rainforest canyons, Oneonta Creek is near the top of my list. A previous article on this blog presented a new vision for managing access to stunning Oneonta Gorge and restoring the historic Oneonta Tunnel. This article examines Oneonta Canyon above the Oneonta Gorge, where more waterfalls and rugged beauty brought thousands to the trails here before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.
The fire has since changed the Gorge landscape for most of our lifetimes, and the forest is just beginning a post-fire recovery cycle that has unfolded here countless times over the millennia. But while the starkness of the burned landscape is something that we are still adjusting to, the fire gives us a once-in-century opportunity to rethink and rebalance how we recreate in the Gorge.
Oneonta Creek experienced some of the most intense burning during the fire, and almost none of the dense forest canopy survived, and still the forest has already begun to restore itself. What can we do to restore our human presence at Oneonta in a way that will be sustainable for the next century, leaving a legacy for future generations like the one that we inherited?
Before the 2017 Fire: Signs of Stress
The spectacular scenery along the Oneonta Creek was already drawing huge, unsustainable crowds of hikers well before the Eagle Creek Fire roared through Oneonta Canyon, and the visible impacts were everywhere. Some of the impact was on the human environment, including the very trails and bridges that brought hikers into Oneonta Canyon. And some of the impact was on the land, itself, with hikers straying from developed trails to create destructive social paths and shortcuts in many spots. These informal trails had become badly eroded, often undermining the main trails, themselves.
One place where these impacts escalated alarmingly in the years before the fire was the lower footbridge on Oneonta Creek, located just above Oneonta Falls and just below Oneonta Bridge Falls. As shown in the photo above, crowds of hikers had carved a new path to a pool in the creek at the west abutment of the bridge, stripping away fragile vegetation and filling the pool with eroded debris.
The photo below shows how this social path has not only destroyed the thin layer of soil and forest understory on the slopes of Oneonta Creek, but was also undermining the main trail, itself, which was gradually sliding down the slope.
Even the lower Oneonta footbridge was in trouble before the fire. The Forest Service began posting a warning on the bridge a few years before the fire limiting it to one hiker at a time, yet another reminder of the serious disinvestment we have been making in our Gorge trails for the past thirty years. The rapid growth in visitors during this same period only increased the impact on structures like this, which were long overdue for repair or replacement.
Meanwhile, at the east end of the lower Oneonta Bridge, curious crowds had pushed a new social path upstream, past Oneonta Bridge Falls (below). Social paths form when hikers head off-trail in search of a new viewpoint or water feature. When more hikers the steps of the first, the increasing foot traffic gradually formalizes social until they become hard to distinguish from legitimate trails — except that they are rarely “built” in a way that is sustainable, and often bring serious harm to the landscape.
Meanwhile, things were getting worse on the east side of the lower Oneonta Bridge, too, where hikers had cut the short switchback just above the bridge (below) to the point that it began collapsing before the fire closed the area to the public. Why do people do this? Mostly, it’s ignorance, inexperience and overcrowding, and often by children who are not getting needed guidance from parents on why this is not okay.
Heading beyond the lower Oneonta bridge, another major social path had formed on the west side of the creek (below), where hikers had created a long shortcut directly down the canyon slope where a long switchback exists on the main trail. The damage here was obvious and quite recent when this photo was taken about 18 months before the fire. When social paths become this prominent, the damage begins to spiral, with new or inexperienced hikers mistaking them for a legitimate route, and further compounding the problem with still more foot traffic. The overcrowding on the Oneonta Trail only added to the spiraling effect.
While hikers were causing the bulk of the impact before the fire, Mother Nature was busy in Oneonta Canyon, too. The photo below was taken after the 2017 fire, and reveals a major landslide that began moving years before the fire. The slide extends from Oneonta Creek (where it has left a pile of trees and debris visible in this photo) to the cliffs well above Oneonta Trail. A fifty-yard section of the trail was erased by the slide, with several efforts in the years just before the fire to stabilize a new route above the old trail.
Here’s a view (below) of the landslide looking downhill toward Oneonta Creek from where the original Oneonta Creek Trail was once located. The big trees still standing in the path of the landslide in this view were burned in the fire, which will further destabilize this slope and allow the slide to accelerate in coming years.
When the original section of the Oneonta Trail was swept away by the landslide, the Forest Service built this set of stairs (below) to a new crossing of the slide, about 30 yards uphill from where the old trail had been.
This photo (below) shows the new, temporary crossing of the slide as it existed before the fire, but volunteer trail crews visiting the Oneonta Trail earlier this year report that this temporary route has also become eroded since the fire. The continued instability of the landslide raises real questions about whether a safe route can be maintained here in the near-term.
Landslides like this are an ongoing part of the Gorge geology, but in this case, it also marks a spot where an increasingly busy social path dropped down to Middle Oneonta Falls. The growing traffic to this off-trail falls was already taking its toll on the terrain before the slide. So, was the landslide triggered by erosion along the social path? There’s no way to know, but it’s certainly possible that the social path contributed to the sudden instability of the slope.
On my last visit to the upper Oneonta Canyon before the 2017 fire, I ran into bit of trail legend named Bruce, who was a longtime trail worker in the Gorge dating back to the 1980s. He was rebuilding the approach to the slide, and we talked about how Forest Service crews were struggling to simply keep pace with the impact of growing crowds and shrinking agency staff for basic trail maintenance. Major repairs, like those required the slide, were completely overwhelming his crews.
Bruce was wistful about the situation, as he was planning to retire soon, and the trails he had worked so hard on were not faring well as he prepared to turn them over to a new generation of trail workers.
Beyond the problematic landslide, the Oneonta Trail arrives at Triple Falls, an iconic destination that most hikers are coming here for. In the years before the fire, the overlook at Triple Falls was literally crumbling under the pressure from overuse. The photo below shows the view from the main trail, where a tangle of social paths cutting directly downslope to the badly eroded viewpoint can plainly be seen.
A well-graded spur trail provides access to the viewpoint, but few used it. Instead, most follow the steps of this hiker (below) and simply cut directly up the slope to rejoin the trail. Over the past decade, the damage from erosion here had increased alarmingly.
Earlier this year, the volunteer trail crews assessing the Oneonta Trail captured these views of the Triple Falls overlook, showing how the burned over landscape also offers a unique opportunity to rethink and rebuild this overlook trail before hikers are allowed to return.
Just beyond Triple Falls, the Oneonta Trail crossed the creek on this upper footbridge (below), installed by volunteers and Forest Service crews about ten years ago.
This year’s volunteer crews found that the 2017 fire hadn’t spared the upper bridge, as the photo below shows. This represents yet another opportunity to think about how the area will reopened. While the bridge provides critical link to the rest of the Oneonta Creek trail system, it also led to a growing network of eroding social paths on the east side of Triple Falls.
Today, we have a unique opportunity for a reboot, with the canyon just beginning its post-fire recover and still closed to the public. As traumatic as the Eagle Creek Fire was for those who love the Gorge, having the forest burned away was like lifting a window shade on the terrain beneath the forest. Where the fire destroyed a dense forest, it also laid bare the underlying terrain and geology, providing a rare opportunity to plan for our Gorge trail system as it enters its second century.
For trail builders, it’s a perfect opportunity to take a good look at the land for opportunities to refine existing trails and to build trails for future generations of hikers. This includes adjusting existing trail alignments to more stable terrain and replacing social paths with sustainable trails that can help curious hikers explore the beauty of the area without harming it. The fire also cleared the forest understory, making trail building a lot easier.
A New Vision for Oneonta
With this unique opportunity in mind, this proposal focuses on a new loop trail along the middle section of Oneonta Canyon, where little known Middle Oneonta Falls has been hidden in plain sight over the century since the first trail was built here. Middle Oneonta Falls is among of the most graceful in the Columbia Gorge, and waterfall enthusiasts have long followed the steep, brushy social path that led to the falls. I made my first trip there in the late 1970s, when I was 16 years old, and returned many times over the years.
It’s hard to know why the original trail builders passed by Middle Oneonta Falls, and chose to route the main trail high above the falls. The falls can plainly be heard thundering in the forest below, and from one spot on the trail, the brink of the falls can be seen. But for most hikers, Middle Oneonta Falls remained unknown.
This proposal would change that, with a new loop that would not only lead hikers to Middle Oneonta Falls on a well-designed trail, but also take them behindthe falls! More on that, in a moment. Here’s the general location of the proposed loop (shown in yellow) as it relates to the existing Oneonta and Horsetail Creek trails (shown in green):
Why build a new loop trail at Middle Oneonta Falls? One reason is pragmatic: the word is out, and this beautiful waterfall is no longer a secret, as well-worn social paths prove. And, with the forest now burned away, the falls will be plainly visible from the main Oneonta trail, making it impossible to prevent new social paths from forming as curious hikers look for a way to reach the falls.
Given these realities, this concept also focuses on how to make a new loop trail to Middle Oneonta Falls one that provides a new and much-needed destination for casual hikers and families with young kids looking for something less strenuous than what a lot of Gorge hikes require. Loops are the most popular trail option for hikers, too, since they provide a continuous stream of new scenery and adventure.
In the long-term, loops also offer a management tool that is seldom used today, but has great merit in heavily traveled places like the Gorge: one-way trails. On crowded trails in steep terrain, one of the biggest impacts comes from people simply passing other hikers coming from the option direction, gradually breaking down the shoulders of trails over time. One-way trails eliminate this problem, and the provide a better hiking experience with less sense of crowding, too.
With these trail themes in mind, what follows is a tour of the proposed Oneonta Loop Trail, using an exceptional series of aerial photos captured by the State of Oregon in the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire.
The first view (below) captures the existing Oneonta Canyon trail system from Oneonta Falls to Triple Falls, with the proposed new loop trail shown in yellow. The new loop trail would follow the more stable east side of Oneonta Canyon, avoiding the landslide on the west side (which is also shown on the map).
As the above map shows, another benefit of the proposed loop is that it could also serve as a reroute for the existing Oneonta Creek Trail if it becomes impossible to maintain a trail across the landslide, as the new loop would connect to the main trail upstream from the slide.
The next series of maps walk through the proposed loop trail in more detail, starting at the bottom, where the new trail would begin where a social path already extends into the canyon from the lower Oneonta Bridge (below).
From there, the route to Middle Oneonta Falls is surprisingly straightforward (below), and quite short — less than one-half mile. This would make the falls an easy destination for young families and hikers who don’t want to tackle the longer and more strenuous climb to Triple Falls.
Once at Middle Oneonta Falls (below), the new trail would take advantage of the huge cavern behind the falls to avoid building and maintaining another trail bridge, and simply pass behind the falls, instead.
For hikers coming from the Horsetail Falls trailhead, this would also be the second behind-the-falls experience, having already passed behind Ponytail Falls along the way. This would make the hike to Middle Oneonta Falls a magnet for families with kids, as nothing quite compares with being in a cave behind a waterfall for young hikers!
After passing behind Middle Oneonta Falls, the new loop trail (below) would climb the west slope of Oneonta Canyon just upstream from the slide in a series of four switchbacks, and rejoin the main trail. From there, hikers could continue on to Triple Falls or turn back to the trailhead to complete the new loop.
The next few schematics show how the trail would pass behind beautiful Middle Oneonta Falls. The first view (below) is from slightly downstream, and shows the forested bench opposite the falls where the new trail would descend toward the cave.
The next view (below) is from the base of the cliffs at the west side of the falls. The big boulder shown in the previous schematic should help you orient this view, as it is marked in both schematics. This view provides a better look into the cave, which is made up of loose river cobbles and well above the stream level in all but the heaviest runoff. Note my fellow waterfall explorer behind the 90-foot falls (!) for scale.
A third schematic of the falls (below) is from further downstream. This view gives a better sense of the large bench in front of the falls where the approach trail would be located, and how the exit from the cave would navigate a narrow spot between the creek (by the “Big Boulder”) and cliffs on the west side of the falls.
As the photos in these schematics show, this is an exceptionally beautiful spot, and though it is now recovering from the fire, it would still make for an easy and popular new destination in the Gorge. Would more visitors make it less pristine? Perhaps, but on my last trips to Middle Oneonta Falls I had to clean up campfire rings built directly adjacent to the creek and carry out beer cans and trash, so it’s also true that legitimizing the trail here would bring “eyes on the forest that would help discourage this sort of thoughtless damage.
Further upstream, there’s also work to do at Triple Falls. This map (below) shows how the main trail could be relocated to follow the existing (and seldom used) spur to the viewpoint and be extended to simply bypass the section of existing trail that drives creation of social trails.
This would provide a long-term solution to the maze of social paths that have formed between the existing trail and the Triple Falls viewpoint. This is a very simple fix, and should be done immediately, while the area is still closed to hikers and the burned over ground and exposed rock make trail construction much easier.
What would it take?
The entirety of Oneonta Canyon is within the Mount Hood National Forest, but administered by the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) unit of the Forest Service. Despite the creation of the scenic area in 1986 as a celebration of the beauty of the Gorge, there have been no new trails on Forest Service lands in the western Gorge for more than three decades. In fact, the agency has periodically proposed abandoning some of the lightly used backcountry trails in the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness that have fallen behind in maintenance.
The Forest Service is reacting to a long period of strained recreation budgets dating back to the 1990s, but our recent history of disinvestment should not prevent us from looking ahead to the needs of this century. The lack of a future vision is part of what prevents new trails from being designed and built, as there are already plenty of ideas for new trails that could be sustainably built in the western Gorge to help take pressure off the existing system.
The last new trail built in this part of the Columbia River Gorge is the Wahclella Falls loop, completed in 1988. Today, this wonderful loop trail is iconic and among the most beloved in the Gorge. But until the 1980s, a brushy, sketchy user path is how hikers reached Wahclella Falls. Recognizing the need to formalize an official trail, the Forest Service worked with volunteers who completely rebuilt the old trail and added a new leg on the west side of the canyon, creating the well-designed, exceptional loop we know today.
Tiny Maidenhair spleenwort (for scale, the larger fronds at the top of Licorice fern!) are as uncommon as they are beautiful, and are found along the Oneonta Creek Trail near Triple Falls
This proposal for an Oneonta Loop trail would be a great candidate for a similar effort, with Forest Service and volunteer workers creating a new trail that would not only provide a much-needed trail option in the western Gorge, but that would also remedy the social trails that have developed and potentially serve as a new, main route if the landslide on the current trail cannot be stabilized.
In the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire, now is a perfect time to reboot trail building in the Gorge and Oneonta would be the perfect spot to get started. The area is still closed to the public, and trail volunteers have already begin scouting the trail to assess fire damage and make plans for repairs. This scouting work could be expanded to site the new loop trail, and there’s no better way to bring volunteers to trail projects than to build new trails.
And finally, consider this: almost all of the trails in the Columbia Gorge (and the rest of Mount Hood National Forest) were built over the course of just two decades, in the 1920s and 30s. Amazingly, the system we have today is less than half of what was existed before the industrial logging era began after World War II. And in that period of decline, few new trails were added.
While forest trails were initially built as basic transportation for forest rangers, the Great Depression brought a new focus on recreation and enhancing our public lands through the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA). Our best trails were built during this golden age of trail construction, when trails were designed to thrill hikers with amazing views and adventures. These federal workforce program were put in place under Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the national recovery plan, when unemployment during the Great Depression exceeded 20 percent, with no end in sight.
Sound familiar? Our normally gridlocked U.S. Congress has just allocated nearly $4 trillion in emergency funding to shore up the country as an unprecedented Coronavirus pandemic takes hold. And congressional leaders are already proposing more stimulus funding in the form of public infrastructure to continue pumping money into the economy and creating work for the jobless. Are we on the brink of another trail-building renaissance in our national forests? Quite possibly — but only if we begin planning for that possibility now.
And one more thing…
There is a LOT of confusion about place names on Oneonta Creek. USGS topographic maps show only Oneonta Falls and Triple Falls, but Oneonta Falls is shown where Middle Oneonta Falls is located. This is clearly a map error, though one that has endured (and confused) for a very long time. In fact, Oneonta Falls is the tall, narrow falls at the head of Oneonta Gorge and is identified as such in early photos of the Gorge taken long before anyone knew much about the upper canyon.
Meanwhile, there’s a small waterfall right in front of the lower Oneonta footbridge that is often called “Middle Oneonta Falls”, only because it’s in plain sight and so few know that there’s a much larger “Middle Oneonta Falls” just a half-mile upstream. Fortunately, the USGS got Triple Falls right!
So, for the purpose of this article (and in general), I refer to the small falls by the lower footbridge as “Oneonta Bridge Falls”, just to clear things up a bit. Creative, right? Well, neither is “Triple Falls”! Or “Middle Oneonta Falls”, for that matter! But at least we know which waterfalls we’re talking about. Remember, there’s no detail too small for THIS blog!
The buzz in hiking circles over the past few weeks has been the massive cliff collapse at iconic Metlako Falls on Eagle Creek. While the falls, itself (and the gorgeous surrounding amphitheater that also includes 100-foot Sorenson Creek Falls) was not affected by the collapse, the cliff-edge viewpoint that countless hikers have visited over the decades is now only a memory.
It started with a crack in the ground…
In late November, local hiker Karl Peterson posted a report with images of a deep, ominous crack in the forest floor above the Metlako viewpoint at his Portland Hikers Facebook group. Karl correctly predicted that some sort of collapse or landslide was imminent, though few expected something of this scale.
The foreboding crack that formed in November (photo: Karl E. Peterson)
Another view of the crack in late November (photo: Karl E. Peterson)
While major landslides and cliff collapses are regular events that continue to shape the Gorge as we know it, Karl’s discovery of the crack appears to be the first time an imminent collapse was observed and predicted in this way. Karl also reported trees leaning toward the 200-foot abyss, a more common predictor of landslides.
Roughly a month after Karl’s discovery, a massive 300-400 foot long section of the east wall of the gorge below Metlako Falls dropped 200 feet into Eagle Creek. The collapse occurred sometime between December 17 (currently, the date of the last known photo taken from the overlook) and 26 (when the first known photos of the collapse were taken), but was apparently not witnessed by anyone – and thankfully, nobody was injured or killed by the event.
Metlako Falls from above the old viewpoint – for reference, the arching maple in front of the falls is the same as the one to the left of the falls in the opening photo in this article (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
Given the year-round crowds on the Eagle Creek trail, the lack of eyewitnesses suggests the collapse occurred at night, or perhaps on a day when travel was especially light due to winter weather in the Gorge that week.
The sheer volume of debris in the creek was enough to temporarily block the stream, and a deep pool is still backed up behind the jumble of automobile-sized boulders and smaller material, as shown in these amazing photos by Karl, and fellow photographers Don Nelsen and Nathan Zaremskiy:
A view of the sheer escarpment where the cliff split off and the large pool created by the debris in the creek below (photo: Don Nelsen)
A wider view of the new escarpment and debris at the base of the cliff, with Metlako Falls in the distance (photo: Don Nelsen)
This dizzying view looks straight down from the brink at Eagle Creek, pushed against the west cliff wall by the debris pile (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
The escarpment left by the collapse is sheer and still unstable, with trees and remnants of forest floor still dangling on the edge, as shown in these photos taken after the event:
This view looks downstream toward the old viewpoint location and the full extent of the collapse (photo: Don Nelsen)
Another view looking downstream from just below the old viewpoint, and toward the bend in Eagle Creek at the north end of the Metlako gorge (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)
A portion of the short spur trail to the old Metlako viewpoint still exists… until it ends at this scary abyss:
The old spur trail ends abruptly at the edge of the new escarpment… yikes! (photo: Karl E. Peterson)
Nathan Zaremskiy also created this stunning YouTube video of the scene after the collapse:
Just the Gorge doing its thing?
It turns out that the collapse at Metlako is as routine to the evolution of the Gorge landscape as rain, waterfalls and basalt cliffs, albeit measured over decades and centuries.
Several collapses have occurred over the past few decades, and are fairly well documented. One of the most dramatic occurred on September 6, 1995 when a massive, bus-sized slab of basalt dislodged from the vertical cliff behind Multnomah Falls.
Even in the era before ubiquitous cell phone cameras, one visitor managed to capture this startling image of the of the rockfall exploding into the splash pool at the base of the falls, completely inundating Benson Bridge (you can see it if you look closely) with water and debris:
The astonishing photo capturing the rockfall at Multnomah Falls in 1995 (USFS)
One person on the bridge was slightly injured with flying rock debris, but amazingly, no deaths or other injuries were reported.
In 1973, a massive cliff collapse along Tanner Creek below Wahclella Falls was so large that it temporarily stopped the flow of the creek, cutting off the water supply downstream to the Bonneville Hatchery. The landslide created a lake on Tanner Creek that persisted until the late 1970s, long enough to show up on USGS topo maps:
The lake formed by the Tanner Creek cliff collapse in 1973 lasted just long enough to appear on USGS maps.
Today, this slide is still recovering, and remains one of the most visible and fascinating places to witness the power of nature at work. The trail to Wahclella Falls was rebuilt as a loop in the late 1980s, with the western leg traveling over the toe of the landslide, among the giant boulders left in its wake.
The view downstream toward the Tanner Creek landslide debris field (and west leg of the loop trail).
The giant boulders in this downstream view are at the toe of the Tanner Creek landslide, and initially dammed the creek here to form a small lake.
The east leg of the loop trail climbs high above the creek, providing a birds-eye view of the scene, and true sense of scale of the event:
This view across Tanner Creek canyon shows hikers along the trail section that crosses the debris field below one of several house-sized boulders scattered in the rubble.
Though we don’t know exactly how or when the jumble of house-sized boulders scattered below Wahclella Falls arrived there, they each bring their own story of a catastrophic wall collapse that is part of a continuum as the Gorge streams continue to etch their canyons into the underlying basalt.
Each of the giant boulders scattered below Wahcella Falls has its own story of a major cliff collapse.
A less-traveled canyon just over the ridge from Tanner Creek also experienced a major wall collapse sometime in the recent past. Moffett Creek cascades over its own spectacular series of wateralls, but no trails lead into this remote canyon. Instead, explorers follow the stream, where massive boulders are scattered along the way. In one section, they form a beautiful moss-covered garden, with glacier lilies blooming on top of the boulders in early spring:
Giant boulders scattered along Moffett Creek
At Moffett Falls, the first waterfall on the stream, a major rockfall dropped the garage-sized boulders in front of the cascade sometime in the late 1980s or 1990s:
The huge boulders below Moffett Creek Falls are relatively new arrivals to the scene.
This event also obliterated an alder forest that extended along the canyon floor below the falls, perhaps as the debris dam abruptly collapsed under the pressure of Moffett Creek backing up behind it.
What’s next for Metlako?
Eagle Creek is perhaps the most visited trail in the Gorge, with hikers crowding the area since the trail first opened nearly a century ago, but the history of the old spur trail and viewpoint at Metlako Falls is unclear.
Because of the early popularity of the trail, it’s odd that old photos of the falls don’t seem to exist, compared to the many photos and postcards from the 1920s and 1930s of other waterfalls and overlooks along the trail. This suggests that the viewpoint at Metlako Falls was developed later.
Overflowing parking at Eagle Creek is not new..!
Early photos of Punchbowl Falls and other sights along the Eagle Creek trail are common… so why not Metlako Falls?
The galvanized steel posts and cable railings at the old viewpoint were newer than the original hand cables that famously line several of the exposed cliff sections along the trail, so it seems likely they were added later – perhaps with the spur trail, itself.
One possibility could be that Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers built the spur and overlook in the 1930s, when other trails were being added throughout the Gorge. The railing design also matches that of other trails built in the 1930s and 1940s in the Gorge.
Panoramic view of the old viewpoint at Metlako, now lost to the ages.
The steel railings at Metlako seemed newer than the original trail (and the tagging still newer)
For now, the Forest Service has roped off the short spur trail that once led to Metlako Falls, warning hikers to stay away from the still-unstable area. But the agency is also reported to be exploring the possibility of a new viewpoint of the falls.
Such a viewpoint seems unlikely, based on early reports by hikers. The collapse took away an enormous amount of cliff, yet left a section near the falls that now blocks the view from the new cliff wall downstream. If so, Metlako may live on mostly as a memory for most, though photographers with drones will no doubt attempt to recreate the iconic view that once was!
Like losing an old friend…
…and on a personal note, the news of the Metlako viewpoint collapse came hard, as I had been doing periodic maintenance of the overlook several years ago as a volunteer for Trailkeepers of Oregon to preserve the view.
Improving the view at Metlako Falls
The work consisted of carrying an 18-foot pole pruner to the site and trimming the thicket of bigleaf maple shoots, ocean spray and snowberry that blocked the view and encouraged visitors to climb over the railing (!) for a look at the falls.
It was fun and rewarding work, albeit unnerving to watch the trimmings float over the vertical brink of the 200-foot cliff and into the creek, below. I worked with the sure safety of a the cable fence, but always thought about the rugged early trail builders who worked along these cliffs to create the original Eagle Creek trail – brave souls!
So, to close out this article, I’ll post one of the last photos I took from the old viewpoint in June 2016…
Metlako Falls as it will live on in photographs and memories.
…and along with so many other hikers and waterfall lovers, say goodbye to this wonderful spot…
Beautiful McCord Creek boasts a pair of impressive waterfalls that are among the most photogenic in the Columbia River Gorge. The falls are tucked into John B. Yeon State Park, a lesser-known park located about halfway between Multnomah Falls and Cascade Locks.
The rustic CCC-era trails to McCord Creek’s waterfalls have been “discovered” in recent years from spring through fall by crowds of weekend hikers. Yet, the area is surprisingly un-crowded during the wet winter months, from late fall through early spring, and the muted winter tones are just as beautiful.
The area also has a long and fascinating human history that is on display throughout the hike, if you know where to look. This article provides a guide to both the trail and the history of the McCord Creek area.
Frank Warren’s salmon cannery (site of today’s Warrendale) in 1902
The human history in this part of the Gorge stretches back thousands of years, as the river was home to a thriving culture of Native American peoples.
The Upper Chinookan people of the Columbia River Gorge fished the legendary autumn salmon runs and picked huckleberries and other wild fruits and forage before moving away from the river during the often harsh winters that we know so well today. An especially elaborate example of the mysterious stone pits thought to be built by native people for ceremonial purposes can still be found high above McCord Creek, on Wauneka Point.
White settlement came to the Gorge in the 1800s, and ushered in an era of profound tragedy for the native people, with epidemics of measles and other European diseases decimating native populations, and white settlement displacing native peoples from places they had inhabited for millennia. It’s an uncomfortable reality to confront today, but also important to never forget as we try to understand our history.
White settlers were equally destructive for the land and natural resources, as well. In a matter of a few decades, the Gorge slopes were almost completely logged of ancient forests and giant fish wheels built along the river were part of the commercial overfishing that nearly collapsed the salmon runs that had sustained Native Americans here for thousands of years.
Frank and Anna Warren in the early 1900s
Frank Warren was among the prominent industrialists operating fish wheels to supply a cannery he built at Warrendale. Today, only a residential district by that name remains to mark the site, just downstream from McCord Creek.
In the heyday of the Columbia River canneries at the turn of the 20th Century, canned salmon from the Warren packing company was exported around the world, and Columbia River canned salmon was as ubiquitous as cans of tuna are in our supermarkets today. But overfishing by gill nets, fish traps and fish wheels nearly destroyed the salmon runs. Fish wheels were finally outlawed by the 1930s, as the canning industry on the Columbia continued its decline. The last salmon cannery on the river closed in the 1970s.
1890s Harpers Weekly illustration of a Columbia River fish wheel
Warren’s packing business made him a millionaire, and he and his wife Anna celebrated their 40th anniversary in style with a 3-month European tour in 1912. For their return trip, the Warrens reserved a first-class stateroom on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic.
Anna Warren’s riveting account of the Titanic disaster in April 1912 was featured in the Morning Oregonian twelve days after the incident, creating a local sensation. Her tragic story recounted how her husband Frank helped her onto a lifeboat, with Anna assuming he had followed her in. Instead, when she looked back, she saw Frank helping other women into the boats.
At the time Anna Warren’s account was published, Frank Warren’s fate was still unknown, but he was later identified as among the more than 1,500 who perished that night. Anna Warren was one of just 710 survivors of the disaster.
Myron Kelly’s pulp mill at McCord Creek in the 1890s
At about the same time that Frank Warren was operating his Warrendale cannery in the late 1800s, another settler by the name of Myron Kelly was operating a small pulp mill near McCord Creek. Kelly’s mill used a pair of 400-foot long, riveted steel penstocks to power the pulp manufacturing. Though the mill is long gone, portions of the penstocks still survive. They are clearly visible in the 1890s view of the mill, above.
The penstocks were fed with water from McCord Creek, diverted from above the waterfalls, and routed to the penstocks along the cliff-top ledge we now use as a hiking trail. Kelly used a natural break between basalt layers to blast out the ledge, and hardware from the pipe system is still found throughout the cliff area today. Black cottonwood trees — the same we see lining the river today — provided the raw material for making pulp.
This 1890s photo shows water spouting from the long penstock that drove Myron Kelly’s pulp mill
Surviving portions of the two penstocks are prominently crossed by the trail to Upper McCord Creek Falls, along with other relics sprinkled through the forest. The large wood water cistern located near McCord Creek trailhead is not from the Kelly pulp mill era, surprisingly, and was added later to supply water to area homes.
The early industrial settlements in the Gorge relied on railroads and ships for transport, as there was no road until the early 1900s. That changed in 1916, when the new Columbia River Highway was dedicated with much fanfare. The highway is still famous, cherished by millions of visitors over the past century for its careful attention to the landscape and surrounding Gorge scenery. Perhaps most iconic are its string of graceful bridges.
Columbia River Highway bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 1915 (Wauneka Point towers above)
The original highway bridge at McCord Creek was completed in 1915, and while it wasn’t as graceful as some of the more famous arched bridges, it was nonetheless a spectacular structure. Early travelers not only had a front-row view of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek, but also a sweeping vista across the Columbia to Beacon Rock and the mountains that rise along the Washington side of the Gorge.
The original McCord Creek Bridge was among the longest along the old highway at 365 feet. The old structure was durable enough to be incorporated into the first “modern” highway in the Gorge in the 1950s, when much of the original Columbia River Highway was bypassed. The original McCord Creek Bridge was simply expanded to carry the wider road, and later a twin structure was built to accommodate the development of today’s freeway. The original bridge structure was finally replaced in 1987 with a new bridge, after 70 years of service.
Completed McCord Creek bridge in 1915, with the Kelly pulp mill conduits visible in the cliffs high above, and Elowah Falls behind the bridge
The new McCord Creek Bridge in the 1920s as it appeared from the cliffs above Elowah Falls
By the 1930s, the New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s national recovery effort brought the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to the Gorge. Many of the trails we enjoy today were built — or rebuilt — by the CCC, including the McCord Creek trail.
The CCC crews were expert trail builders, and made quick work of the steep Gorge slopes with carefully graded switchbacks constructed with miles of hand-built, rustic stone retaining walls. The original trail at McCord Creek began at the east end of the old highway bridge, traversed to dramatic viewpoints of Elowah Falls, then crossed McCord Creek to climb the east shoulder of the canyon to the upper falls.
Civilian Conservation Corps crew building the catwalk section of the McCord Creek Trail in 1936 (highway bridge visible in lower left corner of photo)
It was here that the CCC trail builders seized upon the route of Myron Kelly’s penstock conduit around the towering cliffs above Elowah Falls. The photo above shows crews clearing the ledge in 1936 to repurpose the route as a bold new hiking trail.
The galvanized steel handrails that now give some assurance to hikers along this airy catwalk are not mentioned in a fairly detailed 1936 Daily Oregonian story describing the new trail. These were probably added in the 1950s, when similar railings were installed in other parks around the Gorge — and it’s easy to see why this retrofit was needed as you walk along the 300-foot brink!
Beacon Rock and the McCord Creek Bridge as they appeared from the original CCC trail to Elowah Falls
The 1936 Daily Oregonian article also mentions one of the more famous features of the area during the early days of the Columbia River Highway. The McCord Creek Bridge construction in 1915 had unearthed a large petrified tree near the east end of the bridge, embedded in the road cut. The tree became a popular feature along the old road, and also marked the start of the McCord Creek trail.
The whereabouts of the petrified tree are unknown today, as it must have been moved (or destroyed) when the modern highway was constructed in the 1950s. Curious Gorge author Scott Cook speculates that it may have found its way to Cascade Locks, where a petrified log now sits on display at the Marine Park. Petrified logs are not uncommon in this part of the Gorge, however, so the fate of this most famous log may never be known for certain.
Update: Scott Cook has located the petrified tree! It was apparently shipped to the University of Oregon Natural History Museum when the modern freeway was built, and placed next to a replica of the Willamette Meteorite. Scott tells me that ODOT historic highway staff approached museum officials a couple of years ago about moving the tree back to its original home (of a few million years), but it’s unclear if that idea gained any traction. The beautiful new McCord Creek bridge sure seems like an appropriate home for the old tree! Stay tuned – I’ll report any news on the subject as it comes.
This petrified log was located at the east end of the McCord Creek bridge, near the original trailhead
The human history of the McCord Creek area has taken another dramatic turn in recent years with the construction of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail. The new bike and pedestrian route is an ambitious, decades-long effort by the State of Oregon to restore lost sections of the original highway, eventually re-connecting the entire original route from Troutdale to The Dalles.
In 2012, construction of the HCRH State Trail section from John B. Yeon State Park to Tanner Creek was in full swing, and featured a handsome new bridge over McCord Creek that rivals the original highway bridges in its design and attention to detail.
The new Historic Columbia River Highway state trail bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 2012
The completion of this new segment of the HCRH State Trail has opened loop high opportunities in the McCord Creek area, as well as the opportunity to bike and hike — as described below in this article.
Exploring the Trail Secrets of McCord Creek
A young family enjoying the McCord Creek Trail in late autumn
Now that you know some of the history of McCord Creek, it’s time to explore the trail! This is a half-day hike for most, so makes for a great option during the short days of winter, when most higher elevation trails are snowed in. It’s also a great family hike, with lots to look at and modest grades throughout, thanks to careful design by its CCC builders.
Like most Gorge trails, the hike has cliffs, poison oak and ticks, so keep an eye on small kids, leash your dog, learn to identify and avoid poison oak and do a tick check when you get home. One of the added advantages of doing this hike during the winter months is that poison oak leaves have dropped, greatly reducing the possibility of bringing home an itchy rash from your hike! Ticks are also much less active in winter — and not particularly prevalent in this particular area — though you should always do a tick check after hiking in the Gorge.
The hike starts at the John B. Yeon trailhead (driving instructions at the end of this article), and after passing the old wooden cistern mentioned above, you immediately reach the first poorly-signed junction. The trail to the right heads off to Nesmith Point, so continue straight (left) instead, past an empty signpost and traverse above the trailhead parking area.
Soon, the trail begins a very gradual climb on what is actually an old roadbed, now just a very wide and rustic path. This section of trail was opened sometime after the modern freeway was constructed in the 1950s, and the original trailhead for the McCord Creek trail relocated from its old location on the east side of the creek.
The first of several confusing signs along the trail…
At about one-half mile from the trailhead, the old roadbed ends at a “T” junction with the original CCC trail and another confusing signpost. From this point in the hike, the trip has two forks, with up-and-back spurs to follow, one to each of the two waterfalls. The best way to enjoy the hike is to go right at this junction, and continue climbing toward Upper McCord Creek Falls as your first destination.
As you climb the 1.2 miles to the upper falls, watch for the beautifully constructed stone retaining walls that line much of the trail. They are now cloaked in moss and licorice fern, but have held up amazingly well since the stones were first placed almost 80 years ago by CCC workers.
Legacy of the CCC – rustic stone retaining walls like these are found throughout the hike
After several switchbacks through steep forest, you will encounter the remains of the old pulp mill penstock pipes. One is located at the end of a switchback, the other crosses the main trail.
Look closely at the second pipe, and you can see the doomed efforts of some early trail crew to actually cut through the surprisingly solid pipe! Up close, you can also see the thousands of rivets used to assemble pipes of this kind in the late 1800s in a way that could withstand the intense water pressure.
Myron Kelly’s sturdy penstock pipes still survive along the upper trail
The trail passes through a couple more switchbacks beyond the penstock pipes before reaching the spectacular and exhilarating catwalk section, some 300 dizzying feet above McCord Creek. The handrail makes this section very safe, so take the time to look for traces of the old mill conduit that once carried water from McCord Creek around this ledge — there are old bolts and bits of pipe if you watch closely.
The catwalk section has reassuring railing atop the 300-foot cliffs
Traces of the old waterworks are still visible on the upper trail
The views from the cliffs are also impressive. On most days, Aldrich and Table Mountains on the Washington side of the Columbia River dominate the horizon, but on clear days, the very top of Mount Adams can also be seen. Further on, the catwalk section of trail also allows a birds-eye view of Elowah Falls dropping into its huge amphitheater, far below.
Sweeping cliff-top views stretch across the Columbia to Aldrich and Table Mountains — and the very top of Mount Adams, in the distance
If you happen to be hiking the trail during the busier months of May or early June, you’ll have an extra treat on the catwalk section, as the rocks are lined with tiny, hanging wildflowers that cling to the cliffs. Conversely, if you hike the trail in very cold winter weather, you’ll find a spectacular array of icicles along this section (making the handrail that much more appreciated!)
The catwalk portion of the hike ends abruptly when the trail disappears into the lush upper canyon of McCord Creek. Just a few steps into this beautiful rainforest, the view suddenly opens to the twin cascades of Upper McCord Creek Falls. This is an idyllic spot to stop for lunch and photographs. The trail continues a few hundred yards to the edge of McCord Creek, just above the falls, where the intake for Myron Kelly’s pulp plant was apparently located.
Lovely Upper McCord Creek Falls
To complete the second leg of the hike, retrace your route down to the “T” junction and continue straight (right) in a traverse across a mossy talus field. Soon, the trail abruptly drops into the lower McCord Creek canyon with another series of switchbacks. In this section, you’ll see old cable railings at an overgrown viewpoint that dates to the 1940s or 50s. You will also have a view down to the new McCord Creek Bridge on the HCRH State Trail, far below.
The lower trail soon traverses above noisy McCord Creek before arriving at the spectacular base of 213-foot Elowah Falls. The trail crosses the stream on a wooden footbridge here, and during the rainy season, expect to get wet — the spray is impressive!
This pretty section of the original CCC trail is now bypassed, but fun to explore
You can do the fragile canyon ecosystem at Elowah Falls a favor in this area by not scrambling up the various boot paths that have formed here. Most are dead-ends left by hiking newbies that go nowhere, but are beginning to have an impact on the landscape.
Instead, there’s a better way to visit a lesser-visited viewpoint of the falls. Simply continue beyond the footbridge and begin traversing downstream along the canyon for about one-quarter mile. As the trail begins to curve away from the stream, watch for an obvious path on the right and above the main trail. This is a bypassed section of the original trail, and it’s in excellent shape for exploring.
You can follow the old tread past a couple of switchbacks, then to a fork, where a short spur leads left to a spectacular, boulder-top view of the Elowah Falls, framed by bigleaf maples. The main portion of the old tread continues a bit further, then dead-ends at another great view of the falls, where you can also see the modern trail and footbridge, below.
Elowah Falls from a viewpoint along the old trail section
If you do explore this abandoned section of trail, please stay on the tread — it’s obvious and easy to follow, with much of it still lined with CCC stone retaining walls. In recent years, boot paths to the viewpoints on the old trail have formed from the modern trail, below, so be sure not to reinforce these and simply retrace your steps along the old route to return to the main trail.
If you’re looking for a longer hike and more variety, you can also continue east from Elowah Falls for about a mile to the newly completed HCRH State Trail, where you’ll find a signpost marking the junction. Turn left on the wide, paved trail and follow it 1.2 miles back to the Yeon Trailhead, passing the impressive new McCord Creek Bridge along the way — another nice stop along the hike. This section of the new HCRH State Trail is noisy, as it follows the freeway closely, but it’s an interesting and new way to appreciate the Gorge from a different perspective.
How to Get There
From Portland, take I-84 to Ainsworth (Exit 35), a few miles east of Multnomah Falls and the eastern access to the drivable western section of the Historic Columbia River Highway. Turn left at the first intersection, then almost immediately turn right onto a frontage road where signs points to Warrendale. From here, continue east on the frontage road to the Yeon State Park trailhead, where the frontage road terminates at an eastbound freeway ramp. To return to Portland, follow the frontage road west to the Ainsworth interchange, and follow signs to Portland.
No trailhead permits are required here, and no restrooms or water are provided (note: water and restrooms are available just west of the Ainsworth interchange, at Ainsworth State Park). Dogs must be leashed in this state park! At least two dogs have had to be rescued by search and rescue teams in the Gorge after falling from cliffs this year because of careless owners who took exception to posted rules. Please set an example and respect this rule… and enjoy your trip!
Special thanks to Scott Cook for his help on this article! Be sure to pick up a copy of Scott’s new guide to Portland: PDXccentric: the odyssey of Portland oddities! You can learn more on the PDXccentric Facebook page.
Trail blazing is the ancient practice of marking paths with a system of symbols to help travelers navigate, and since the rise of recreational hiking in the 1800s, has been adapted to foot trails. Blazes are generally placed at eye-level, and spaced frequently enough to reassure hikers of the route.
In other parts of the country, where trails often cross private lands and many are maintained by hiking clubs, blazes can take the form of painted dots and symbols or small signs or medallions attached to trees, with hundreds of localized variations. These symbols are easy for volunteers to maintain, and often lend their design to the trail name (e.g., the “White Cross”, “Red Dot” and “White Cross” trails in New Hampshire’s White Mountains)
In the Pacific Northwest, where most of our hiking is on public lands, we are used to the standard Forest Service tree blazes that still mark most of our trails (like the one pictured at the top of this article). Though the practice of chopping blazes into trees has long been discontinued out of consideration for trees and trail aesthetics, many of the original blazes still remain, decades later.
Where trails leave the forest canopy, many Northwest trails are marked with stone cairns, such as along Gunsight Ridge (above) near Mount Hood. Along Mount Hood’s famous Timberline trail, cairns along the high eastern section are further accented by 6x6x8 cedar posts (below) that have been gracefully carved by the elements over the years.
Today, the legacy of Pacific Northwest trail blazing is fading quickly, as most blazes were made at least 50 years ago, and some as much as a century ago. The example below, on Mount Hood, is from a standing snag that tells a familiar story: the tree survived the initial blaze marks for many years — long enough to heal — before finally dying and losing its bark, revealing the layers of blaze-scarred wood, beneath.
Most northwest trees large enough to withstand a blaze are very large, long-lived species, so there are also countless examples of blazes that have simply been swallowed up by successive seasons of growth. With a sharp eye, you can often spot examples like the one below, where only the healed-over scar of the blaze remains. This tree has nearly erased the blaze scars that were likely made in the 1930s or 40s, but could easily thrive and grow for another century or more.
The Forest Service Standard
By the 1930s, the Forest Service had established a simple standard for blazes that is responsible for the thousands of blaze remnants that we see today. The Forest Service blaze consisted of an 8” rectangle topped by a 2” rectangle, forming the familiar upside-down exclamation mark that we still find on our trails. The width of the rectangles was determined by the width of an axe blade, roughly 4” across.
The following instructional diagram is from a Forest Service trail manual dating to the 1930s, and provided the basics for the thousands of young Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers who flooded the nation’s forests and parks during the Depression, building trails, campgrounds and roads.
As the diagram (above) shows, the Forest Service blaze was designed for speed, with trail crews quickly working their way along paths, blazing as they went. The crews of the 1930s covered thousands of miles of trails, as the trail network of the day was more than twice what survives today.
The following is another schematic from the same manual, providing more tips for the CCC crews on how to cut blazes:
Though most of our trail blazes in the Pacific Northwest follow this standard (or use cairns in open areas), one notable exception exists that is closer to the Eastern system of customized trail icons: the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
Throughout its length, the trail is marked with the familiar triangular shield (below), though the old-style metal PCT signs still survive in many sections of the trail.
The PCT sign is an accepted Forest Service standard, and it makes sense that an iconic sign is warranted, as most of the PCT is stitched together from the cobweb of forest trails that existed prior to the PCT, making for many potentially confusing junctions along the way.
There are also a few local trails in our region that carry an iconic, themed logo that follows the Eastern style, thanks to the work of a few volunteers in the 1970s and 80s. Most notable among them was Basil W. Clark, who not only helped build new trails, but also created illustrated signs for them, such as the “Chetwoot Loop” sign, below:
Clark’s whimsical icon signs also appeared at Devils Rest and Trapper Creek, as well as other spots in the Gorge, and a few still remain today, providing a charming, rustic feel that is unique to these spots. Click here for an early 1980s Oregonian tribute to Clark.
A Future for Themed Blazes?
Chopping blazes into living trees is now a relic of the past, but is there a future for more contemporary blazes along our forest trails? After all, we have only a few decades left before all traces of this earlier era are erased, and trails will be completely reliant on other forms of signage and markings.
One route that could benefit from an iconic, tailored blaze sign is the Timberline Trail. The system of cairns built in the most alpine sections are a good start, but along the rest of the route, there are many spots where the web of intersecting approach routes make it confusing to know if you are still on the loop trail. The Timberline Trail has a couple of easy options for a blaze theme — the Timberline Lodge logo (below, left) or perhaps a CCC-based logo (below, right), given the unique history of the trail.
Other candidates could be the simple loop paths that circle Lost Lake and Trillium Lake, two of Mount Hood’s most visited destinations. Both have thousands of newbie hikers visiting them in the course of a year, many hiking for the very first time. Both trails also have a maze of unofficial, unmarked fisherman and campground paths that can make staying on the loop trail confusing, so a system of blaze signs would provide a useful function.
How might this come about?
As Basil Clark proved, themed blazes are a perfect project for volunteers, from designing and creating the signs, to providing the ongoing installation and maintenance inherent to trail signage. Perhaps trail organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon, the Mazamas or the Trails Club of Oregon would jump at the opportunity to provide this service?
As always, one way you can help is to propose this idea (or any others you might have) to the Forest Service through their online suggestion box.