Posted tagged ‘Clackamas River Trail’

How will the summer of 2015 affect our fall colors?

September 30, 2015
Shepperd's Dell dressed in autumn golds

Shepperd’s Dell dressed in autumn golds

Oregon may not have the neon rainbow of New England’s fall colors, but we put on a pretty good show if you know where and when to look. However, 2015 will be different, as the extended drought and scorching summer heat has already affected our fall colors this year, even before the leaves began to turn.

To understand why, you have to start with the basics of how leaf colors change with the seasons, and how weather and other factors influence the autumn show each year.

Leaf Biology 101!

Most of our northwest deciduous trees and shrubs leaf out in spring, grow green leaves through the summer, then turn to various shades of yellow and gold in fall, with a few red leaves in the mix. Vine maple, huckleberry and mountain ash provide our most brilliant reds, and most of the larger deciduous trees in our forests turn to some shade of gold, orange or yellow.

Vine maple colors range from pale yellow (in shade) to bright crimson (in full sun)

Vine maple colors range from pale yellow (in shade) to bright crimson (in full sun)

The green color in summer and spring foliage comes from chlorophyll, the amazing molecule that absorbs sunlight and allows for photosynthesis — the process by which plants convert sunlight into carbohydrates (sugars) essential to their growth.

During the spring and summer growing seasons, chlorophyll is produced continually, keeping deciduous leaves green. But as the days shorten with the approach of winter, the decrease in sunlight triggers a change in how cells in the stem of each leaf divide, gradually blocking the flow of both nutrients and chlorophyll to leaves. The cells that form this barrier within the leaf stem are known as the “abscission layer”.

Like vine maple, mountain ash fall colors range from light yellow to brilliant red, based on sun exposure

Like vine maple, mountain ash fall colors range from light yellow to brilliant red, based on sun exposure

Ready for more leaf biology? Well, the yellows, reds and golds of autumn are colors that already reside in leaves, but are revealed as the change to the flow of chlorophyll is blocked by the development of the abscission layer in early fall.

Yellows and golds in fall leaves come from “xanthophylls”, a pigment thought to regulate light in the photosynthesis process. Reds and purples come from “anthocyanins”, a molecule that is believed to complement the green of cholorophyll in the photosynthesis process — but is more commonly is found in flowers, where it functions to attract pollinators.

Dark, cool and wet…

Okay, enough leaf biology! If deciduous leaves are certain to turn color in autumn by their very chemistry, how do environmental factors fit into the leaf cycle? Here are the key forces that shape the timing and brilliance (or lack thereof) in our autumn color show:

Bright sun and cool temperatures: a crisp, abrupt fall pattern speeds up and pronounces the abscission process by which chlorophyll is blocked from leaves. This helps to promote sudden and dramatic color shows. Likewise, a mild, extended Indian Summer tends to slow the process, with a more gradual color change and leaves changing and falling over a longer period.

Cool mountain nights and bright, sunny days set these vine maple ablaze on Mount Hood's Vista Ridge

Cool mountain nights and bright, sunny days set these vine maple ablaze on Mount Hood’s Vista Ridge

Bright days and cool nights also enhance reds and purples in plants with abundant anthocyanins in their leaves. These include vine maple, huckleberry and mountain ash, our most vibrant fall foliage. That’s also why these colors are more prominent at higher elevations where bright days cool nights are guaranteed, even as the valleys are under a blanket of fog.

Early frosts: contrary to popular belief, early frosts hurt fall colors more than they help, as the production of anthocyanin-based colors of red and purple are abruptly interrupted by a premature formation of the abscission layer. If you’ve hiked in the mountains in late August after an early cold snap, you’ve undoubtedly seen a carpet of dropped leaves under huckleberries and other deciduous shrubs.

Drought: like early frosts, drought can trigger a premature formation of the abscission layer, leading to early color change and leaf drop. If you’ve been hiking in the Gorge or on Mount Hood this summer, you likely saw this effect of the drought we are experiencing. While some leaves survive later into autumn, the broader effect is a muted show, as many leaves have already dropped long before the typical fall color season. This is has already been the effect of the drought this year in both the Gorge and on Mount Hood.

Early autumn storms: the arrival of a Pineapple Express storm pattern during Labor Day week of 2013 did a fine job of stripping our maples and other deciduous trees of many of their leaves weeks before they would normally turn and begin to lose their foliage. It’s not common for early storms of this magnitude in our region, so it might be the most notorious culprit in stealing our fall colors!

The colors in this view of Umbrella Falls on Mount Hood are mostly huckleberry -- red when in full sun and yellow in shady stream areas

The colors in this view of Umbrella Falls on Mount Hood are mostly huckleberry — red when in full sun and yellow in shady stream areas

In an ideal year, normal rainfall in spring and summer are followed by a cool, dry Indian summer with warm days and cool nights in the 40s or 50s. This year, we’ve got the Indian summer condtions, but the drought has already triggered leaf drop in a lot of our deciduous forests. Thus, we’re likely to have a so-so color display this Fall.

Where and When to Catch the Colors

A muted fall color display this year shouldn’t keep you from heading out to enjoy it! In a typical year, the high country colors peak in September through early October. Mid-elevation areas and canyons usually peak from mid-October through mid-November, depending on the mix of tree species.

Here are some of the best spots in the Mount Hood area to catch the autumn color:

Elk Cove from Vista Ridge – this 9-mile out-and-back hike is one of the best for exploring Mount Hood’s high country without having to ford glacial streams or suffer huge elevation gains (though you will gain substantial elevation). In September of a typical year, fall colors light up the trail, especially as you descend into Elk Cove, but note that the colors are long gone from this hike in our drought year — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Elk Cove in late September (in a typical year)

Elk Cove in late September (in a typical year)

Clackamas River Trail – another close option for Portlanders, with a moderately long hike to Pup Creek Falls, albeit with moderate elevation gain. This trail is lined with bigleaf maple, but also has impressive vine maple shows in a recovering burn section that bring shades or red and coral to the trail in October. You’ll also see Douglas maple here, a close but less common cousin to vine maple — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Brilliant vine maple along the Clackamas River Trail

Brilliant vine maple along the Clackamas River Trail

Lookout Mountain Loop – Always a spectacular hike on a clear day, in October you will also see the annual spectacle of western larch turning golden yellow across the eastern slopes of the Cascades. Larch are a deciduous conifer — a rarity, and an impressive sight — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Whole mountainsides around Lookout Mountain light up with western larch turning in mid-to-late October

Whole mountainsides around Lookout Mountain light up with western larch turning in mid-to-late October

Latourell Falls Loop – Very close to Portland, this is a popular family hike that visits two waterfalls in a lovely rainforest canyon. In late October, bigleaf maple that dominate the forests here light up in shades of yellow and orange, often covering the trail ankle-deep in their huge leaves — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

The Latourell Falls loop trail still has some color in early November

The Latourell Falls loop trail still has some color in early November

Starvation Creek Loop – like the Latourell loop, Starvation Creek has an abundance of bigleaf maple, but the crisper weather and abundant sun of the eastern Gorge often makes for a brighter show here. Families can simply explore the paved trails around the main falls, but the Lower Starvation hike makes for a fun, if sometimes steep loop past more waterfalls and clifftop viewpoints — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Bigleaf and vine maple put on a reliable show at Starvation Creek Falls in October

Bigleaf and vine maple put on a reliable show at Starvation Creek Falls in October

Butte Creek Trail – an under-appreciated family trail that does require navigating some harshly managed corporate timber holdings. The outrageous, utterly unsustainable clear-cutting only makes the pristine public forests and waterfalls along the trail that much more spectacular in comparison. This is an ideal October hike, with fall colors typically peaking in the last half of the month. This trail really shines in rainy or overcast weather, when the rainforest glows with countless autumn shades of yellow, gold and orange against a backdrop of deep green – see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

The author ankle-deep in maple leaves on the Butte Creek Trail

The author ankle-deep in maple leaves on the Butte Creek Trail

The great thing about taking in fall colors is that the weather really doesn’t matter — a soggy hike through the brilliant yellows of bigleaf and vine maple in a waterfall canyon is just as spectacular as a sunny day hiking through a sea of red and orange in Mount Hood’s huckleberry fields.

Better yet, if you have kids, it’s also a great time to expose them to hiking and exploring the outdoors… though you should also plan on hauling home a hand-picked collection of autumn leaves..!

Enjoy!

Clackamas River Trail

June 12, 2011

Pup Creek Falls on the Clackamas River Trail

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

The Fire Zone

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

White Clackamas iris (Iris tenuis S. Watson)

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

White Clackamas iris (Iris tenuis S. Watson)

Ancient Forests

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

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

Looking down at ancient forest from a cliff-top viewpoint

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

Hiking The Trail

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

[Click here for a larger map]

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

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

The Fish Creek Trailhead

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

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

Section of the Clackamas River Trail

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

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

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

Steppingstone Creek

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

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

Upper Tier of Pup Creek Falls

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

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

Traveler Tips

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

“Leaves of three, let it be!”

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

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

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

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