Posted tagged ‘Columbia Gorge’

The High Cost of Free Parking (part 2 of 2)

April 30, 2016
ParkingCostPartTwo01

Cars now overflow the remote Vista Ridge trailhead routinely

This is the second in a two-part series that takes its name from Donald Shoup’s ground-breaking book “The High Cost of Free Parking”, first published in 2005. Shoup documents the many unintended effects of free parking in cities, and many of his proven principles could apply to trailheads in our public lands, as well.

The second part in this series explores some possible solutions for the parking crisis facing the trailheads of the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, and the value of confronting the true costs of free parking to our most treasured public lands.
__________________

No more free parking!

Does anyone really expect free parking at a Timbers or Blazers game, or drop in for dinner without a reservation at one of Portland’s finest restaurants to find a table waiting? Or be exempted from tolls when crossing the Columbia at Hood River and the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean we don’t reserve the right to complain about it! That’s human nature.

ParkingCostPartTwo02

Bumper-to-bumper at Vista Ridge on a Friday

Such is the dilemma for public land managers face as they attempt to impose limits on access to our trails on Mount Hood and in the Gorge. While we can all probably agree that the impacts we now see from overuse require limits on access, we’d probably like someone else to suffer the inconvenience.

The good news is that our most overused trails are relatively few in number. Any seasoned hiker can rattle them off, as many already avoid these trails on popular weekends and seasons: Angels Rest, McCord Creek, Wahclella Falls and Eagle Creek in the Gorge are now infamous for their crowds, while Ramona Falls, Mirror Lake, Salmon River, Elk Meadows and (most recently) Tamanawas Falls on Mount Hood see overflowing weekend crowds.

ParkingCostPartTwo03

Frustrated hikers pushed out of the Wahclella Falls trailhead have resorted to parking on the I-84 off-ramp

Experienced hikers already know where the lesser-visited trails are and make a point of steering toward these places for a quieter, better outdoor experience. However, as the Portland region continues its rapid growth, even some of these “secret” trails are starting to show some strain: Herman Creek, Starvation Ridge and Gorton Creek in the Gorge and Vista Ridge, Bald Mountain and Cooper Spur have all seen spikes in use over the past decade or so as hikers seek less crowded trails.

We have met the enemy and he is… us!

The first step in adopting a trailhead parking policy to address overcrowding is to recognize the problem: when trailheads routinely overflow, it’s a problem! You can see this on weekends on every one of the overcrowded trails mentioned above. The crowding is now year-round in the Gorge and whenever the ground is snow-free up on Mount Hood.

For some trails, like Mirror Lake and Eagle Creek, the crowds extend beyond the weekends, especially on Fridays and Mondays. But even on these most heavily used trails, weekdays usually mean plenty of parking to spare, with no overflow.

This variation in day-to-day use at the most crowded trailheads is a case study for variable parking fee, with fees set higher on weekends and holidays, and lower (or not at all) on weekdays. As Donald Shoup demonstrates in “The High Cost of Free Parking”, adopting such a strategy can shift weekend and holiday use to less popular trailheads with free parking, or to non-peak days at more popular trailheads.

ParkingCostPartTwo04

The popular Wahclella Falls trailhead still has open spaces on most weekdays

If we adopted a variable pricing policy tomorrow for overused trailheads in the Gorge, we could cut weekend crowding on trails now being harmed by overuse in half, overnight. Sounds easy, right? Well, one complication comes from the public blowback that would almost certainly occur. Remember, we all reserve the right to complain when things aren’t free!

Another complication comes from the fact that several of the most popular trailheads also have heavy tourist use. Places like Horsetail Falls, Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls in “waterfall alley” are good examples where the majority of peak period visitors aren’t hikers, just people touring the Historic Columbia River Highway and walking the paved paths to the most famous roadside views.

Shared tourism and hiking trailheads should be priced, too, as they fit the same definition for overcrowding with parking spilling far beyond established parking areas. Crowding is crowding.

ParkingCostPartTwo05

The impacts of overuse in the Gorge are real and jarring. This boot path cutting a switchback on the Oneonta Creek trail formed in just the past two years.

At Multnomah Falls, a new hazard has emerged from the overflow on weekends, with visitors now parking beyond the narrow historic highway viaducts that flank the falls and lodge. Signs on the viaducts sternly warn against pedestrians walking along them, but whole families are now a common sight in the narrow viaduct vehicle lanes on busy spring and summer weekends at Multnomah Falls.

At Oneonta Gorge, the huge overflow of visitors has created a hazard for hikers attempting to scale the log jam at the mouth of the gorge, and ruined the outdoor experience for those who make it beyond the log pile with a noisy, carnival atmosphere.

ParkingCostPartTwo06

Vandals have almost completely carved up the walls of the restored Oneonta Tunnel since it opened six years ago…

ParkingCostPartTwo07

…a testament to the destructive behavior that allowing large crowds to from on our public lands can foster?

Worse, the overcrowding at Oneonta has led to a shameful degree of vandalism in the recently restored highway tunnel. Would vandals pay to park here? Perhaps, but at least the crowds that lead to that sort of destructive behavior could be prevented with managed parking. Otherwise, this precious gem will likely have to be closed to the public, once again.

At Mount Hood, overcrowding at places like the Salmon River Trail and Ramona Falls has also led to vandalism and car break-ins, in addition to heavy impacts on trails. Managed parking could greatly improve the situation here, while allowing hikers to discover the many lesser-used trails on Mount Hood that could benefit from more boot traffic while providing a far better hiking experience.

ParkingCostPartTwo08

A relatively quiet weekday at the massive (and overflowing on weekends) Ramona Falls trailhead

In many of these examples, a parking pass is already required today, but this has little effect on managing peak use. The key difference is variable pricing for parking that provides an incentive for visitors to avoid peak periods at the busiest trailheads, but gives options of other trails or off-peak days when little or no parking fee is charged. It’s a proven approach whose time as come in our most visited public lands.

…and now transit!

Since proposing a “Boot Loop” transit service on this blog four years ago, we’ve seen significant steps forward in providing transit service to Mount Hood and the Gorge. The Mount Hood Express now provides daily service from the Portland area and on the Washington side of the Gorge, transit service now connects to Stevenson, with a new shuttle to Dog Mountain.

ParkingCostPartTwo09

The new Mount Hood Express bus provides daily service to the mountain.

On the Oregon side of the Gorge, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is partway through a pilot project to bring transit service to the most heavily visited spots in the Gorge. ODOT plans to provide service from a park-and-ride location inside the Portland area to the most popular trailheads in the Gorge.

Transit service provides a needed option to driving, especially for those who do not have access to a private vehicle, but also to those who simply want to avoid the hassle of driving (and parking).

Transit is also a good counterpoint to adopting a parking strategy for the Gorge and Mount Hood, as parking fees provide an incentive to use transit during peak periods, which in turn, helps provide the critical mass to keep the service going. This is a tried and proven relationship between parking policy and transit in cities, and overdue as a strategy in our most heavily used recreation sites.

ParkingCostPartTwo10

Park transit station at Niagara Falls State Park, New York

That said, transit is mostly a way to provide another option for visitors. It simply won’t have the capacity to have much impact on overall visitation during peak periods, when parking areas at our most popular trailheads is already overflowing to two or three times the planned capacity for the trail.

How could this work?

Applying Donald Shoup’s parking management practices to recreation areas is less complicated than in an urban setting for the simple fact that there are so few places to manage, most have a single entrance point and they are all in public ownership.

ParkingCostPartTwo11

The Forest Service recently completed a major remodel of the Wahkeena Falls wayside to better manage crowds, but without managing parking, this new landscaping doesn’t stand a chance of surviving the overload.

The public reaction to actually putting a price on parking at our busiest trailheads, even during peak periods, is the driver for why we aren’t already attempting this – not the complexity of actually making it work. After all, cities around the world are already doing it, and against much more complex obstacles.

So, what are the parking management tools that could be borrowed from cities? Here are some that could work in the Gorge and on Mount Hood:

ParkingCostPartTwo12a

ParkingCostPartTwo12e

ParkingCostPartTwo12d

ParkingCostPartTwo12c

ParkingCostPartTwo12b

These systems are all being used in cities today, and some combination of these practices could be applied to parking on our public lands. One challenge for public lands would be on-site enforcement, however, as this is an essential ingredient for urban parking policies.

On this point, I propose that a portion of the trailhead parking revenue could be steered toward dedicated county law enforcement to patrol parking areas. Not only would this provide an essential incentive for visitors to pay their fee, but it would also bring a much-needed security presence for busy trailheads that are increasingly targeted for car break-ins.

ParkingCostPartTwo13

The Starvation Creek wayside does triple duty as a popular trailhead, wayside for tourists and freeway rest stop. This site is a candidate for a combination of short-term timed parking and long-term fee parking.

So, how much revenue does a parking strategy generate? Well, consider that the City of Portland collects some $35 million annually in parking fees from its downtown meters, which in turn contributes to the city’s transportation budget for street maintenance. The city also collects another $7 million annually in fines for parking violators, more than enough to cover its enforcement costs.

While a parking strategy for the Gorge or Mount Hood would be unlikely to bring that much parking revenue, the Portland model does show that fee parking at the most popular trailheads in the Gorge and on Mount Hood could not only cover operational costs, but also bring new revenue for woefully underfunded trail maintenance and construction. That could be a valuable selling point to regular hikers and visitors.

Those pesky agency permits…

One of the institutional obstacles to adopting a coordinated parking strategy for the Gorge, in particular, is the mix of land management agencies involved: the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) and Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) all have some sort of parking permit that applies to some of their respective recreation sites.

ParkingCostPartTwo14

Welcome to Wahclella Falls! Forest Pass or $5 fee required… here.

The Forest Service and OPRD both have a mix of free and fee sites, with the Forest Service requiring a $30 annual Northwest Forest Pass or $5 day-use fee at places like Eagle Creek or Wahclella Falls, but no charge at its busiest locations like Multnomah Falls, Horsetail Falls and Wahkeena Falls, where tourists outnumber hikers. OPRD charges $5 day-use fees at places like Rooster Rock and Benson Lake, but not at busy trailheads like McCord Creek and Latourell Falls.

Meanwhile, on the Washington side of the Columbia, DNR charges a $30 annual fee or $10 daily fee for its Discover Pass to park at places like Beacon Rock, Hamilton Mountain and all other Washington State recreation areas.

All of these are flat-fee permits, so they do nothing to help discourage overcrowding on busy weekends and arguably encourage more use, since an annual fee provides a flat rate for unlimited visits. In fact, the annual passes do just the opposite, encouraging multiple visits for a flat rate. There’s nothing wrong with hikers spending a lot of time in the Gorge, of course, but we all share the burden when it comes to managing the impacts through trailhead parking fees.

ParkingCostPartTwo15

It’s unclear how much revenue is left for trails once administration costs for the Northwest Forest Pass are covered.

Today, trailhead permits are pitched for their ability to generate funds to build and maintain trails, but hikers are rightly skeptical about how much funding actually goes to trails. In the end, it’s not a problem of the trail passes, but rather, by the low fees relative to the trail impacts the most popular trails are experiencing.

For example, a hiker purchasing an annual permit for $30 and spending a dozen days in the Gorge or on Mount Hood each year pays just $2.50 per visit to cover their trail impacts, or less than many hikers will spend on coffee en route to the trailhead.

ParkingCostPartTwo16

Lots of passes and hassle, not much revenue for trails… and no impact on crowding.

There is little chance the states of Oregon and Washington and the U.S. Forest Service will ever join forces and create a unified trail pass, and besides, their pass systems aren’t effective at managing peak use, anyway. Instead, they should cooperate to adopt a pricing strategy for our most overused trails that is an add-on to (or replacement for) the existing pass system at these locations.

The ethics of putting a price on parking?

At this point, you might be thinking (as I generally do) that we should all enjoy free access to our public lands. Of course we should! We pay for tem every April 15, after all. Thus, adding parking fees at our overused trails will most certainly bring howls from avid hikers who spend a lot of time on the trail, and who dutifully purchase their $30 annual trail passes now.

ParkingCostPartTwo17

Would revenue from a parking policy bring more of this to the Gorge and Mount Hood? Almost certainly, if managed properly.

Yet, when overuse starts to bring the “tragedy of the commons” to our most cherished places, it’s time for all of us to step up and find a solution. Putting a price on parking is a proven and effective way to get there. More importantly, pricing is really only needed on our most heavily traveled trails. Most trails will continue to be “free”… of a parking fee, anyway.

Putting a price on parking arguably discriminates against people with limited incomes or who are unable to visit in off-peak periods when little or no fee is required. Land managers will therefore need to consider ways to ensure that everyone can visit our public lands, no matter their ability to pay. But such programs are already in place in several state and National Parks, and could be easily included in a Gorge or Mount Hood parking strategy.

ParkingCostPartTwo18

That’s no road – it’s what the Angels Rest trail has become in recent years, thanks to massive overuse from a complete lack of parking management at the trailhead.

Today, land managers are already beginning to put restrictions on overflow parking in the Gorge and on Mount Hood. It’s a good first step, but not enough to address peak demand on weekends and holidays, and in the end will mostly frustrate visitors who have arrived expecting place to park.

The next step for our public agencies is to start managing parking, itself. It’s long past time to try it in the Gorge and on Mount Hood, for the sake of our trails and most treasured places.

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!

The Other Mirror Lake

August 19, 2015
"Palisades, Columbia River" This 1880s scene captured by Frank J. Haynes, official photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad. Crown Point (then called "Thor's Heights") and its lacy waterfall are the backdrop for what was known as Echo Bay in the early days of settlement.

“Palisades, Columbia River” This 1880s scene captured by Frank J. Haynes, official photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad. Crown Point (then called “Thor’s Heights”) and its lacy waterfall are the backdrop for what was known as Echo Bay in the early days of settlement.

Though seen by far more travelers than the famous Mirror Lake on Mount Hood, a stunning lake by the same name in the Columbia Gorge is unknown to most. That’s because most of the visitors to the “other” Mirror Lake, in plain sight at the foot of Crown Point, are usually speeding by on I-84. Stealing a glimpse of this lovely lake while dodging the steady stream of Walmart trucks that race through the Gorge is risky business!

This “other” Mirror Lake also has a deeper identity crisis: after all, it has only been around since the modern highway through the Gorge was built in the 1950s, and sliced off what was once an inlet to the Columbia to form the shallow lake we know today.

"Echo Bay, Columbia River" by Frank J. Haynes (1885)

“Echo Bay, Columbia River” by Frank J. Haynes (1885)

When the earliest photographers were visiting the Gorge in the 1880s, the inlet was known as Echo Bay, formed where Young Creek (the stream that flows from nearby Shepperd’s Dell) meandered through extensive wetlands, and finally into the Columbia River.

The idyllic scene of Echo Bay in the late 1800s was framed by stately stands of Black cottonwood and Oregon ash, a rocky basalt island with a gnarled grove of Oregon white oak, flocks of ducks and geese and a wispy waterfall cascading down the massive cliffs of Crown Point, above. All of these scenic ingredients are still found there, today, albeit hemmed in by roads and railroads.

Early 1900s view of Crown Point, Echo Bay, Rooster Rock and the salmon cannery from Chanticleer Point.

Early 1900s view of Crown Point, Echo Bay, Rooster Rock and the salmon cannery from Chanticleer Point.

With an 800-foot buttress on one side and the main steam of the Columbia River on the other, Echo Bay was the path of least resistance when the railroads came to the Gorge in the late 1800s. Today’s Union Pacific tracks generally follow the historic railroad alignment, traversing the base of Crown Point along the south shore of the bay, and passing within a few feet of Crown Point’s waterfall.

This early 1900s topographic map shows Echo Bay as it existed until World War II (under the words Rooster Rock). Crown Point isn't labeled on this early map, but is the marked by the sharp bend in the historic highway directly adjacent to Echo Bay.

This early 1900s topographic map shows Echo Bay as it existed until World War II (under the words Rooster Rock). Crown Point isn’t labeled on this early map, but is the marked by the sharp bend in the historic highway directly adjacent to Echo Bay.

Another early map view, this time from around 1900, showing the steep access road that connected the cannery at Rooster Rock to Chanticleer Point and the historic Columbia River Highway on the rim of the Gorge.

Another early map view, this time from around 1900, showing the steep access road that connected the cannery at Rooster Rock to Chanticleer Point and the historic Columbia River Highway on the rim of the Gorge.

Later in the 1800s, a salmon cannery opened near the mouth of the bay, at another small cove at the western base of Rooster Rock (the cannery was also located near the spot where the Lewis and Clark Expedition had camped on November 2, 1805 on their westward journey). Until the late 1940s, the only land access to the cannery was along a narrow dirt road that descended from the rim of the Gorge at Chanticleer Point (explorers can still follow that old road, and state parks planners are considering reopening it as a trail in the future).

Rooster Rock and salmon cannery in the early 1900s.

Rooster Rock and salmon cannery in the early 1900s.

Few travelers used the old cannery road, so for more than sixty years of the post-settlement era in the Gorge, Echo Bay was most seen from train windows, or glimpsed from the high cliffs along the Historic Columbia River Highway after it was completed in 1916.

  1920s view east from near Chanticleer Point showing Rooster Rock, the salmon cannery, original railroad, Echo Bay and Crown Point.


1920s view east from near Chanticleer Point showing Rooster Rock, the salmon cannery, original railroad, Echo Bay and Crown Point.

1920s view east from Crown Point showing the wetlands and meadows of Young Creek that extended east from Echo Bay (the edge of the bay is in the lower left corner of this photo)

1920s view east from Crown Point showing the wetlands and meadows of Young Creek that extended east from Echo Bay (the edge of the bay is in the lower left corner of this photo)

By the end of World War II, the old highway was deemed too slow and narrow for the 20th Century and Americans were increasingly interested in traveling by automobile, not rail. So, by the 1940s a massive project to build a river-level, modern highway through the Gorge was underway.

The modern highway through the Gorge was built in a nearly straight line on twenty feet of rock fill across the lowlands below Crown Point. The elevated road kept the highway surface above flood levels, but also served as a dike, cutting off Echo Bay from the river and forming the strong of small lakes we know today.

1920s view from Chanticleer Point with the approximate route of the modern highway shown as the dashed orange line, along with other landmarks in the Gorge.

1920s view from Chanticleer Point with the approximate route of the modern highway shown as the dashed orange line, along with other landmarks in the Gorge.

[click here for a larger view]

At some point in the 1950s, the largest of these lakes became known as Mirror Lake, though the origin of the name is unknown. The newly created Mirror Lake joined a very long list of lakes with that name, and notably a very famous cousin that mirrors Mount Hood.

While the changes to the area that came with the 1950s construction of the modern highway through the Gorge were mostly in the negative column for the natural environment, the convenient new road access did allow ODOT (which once operated our state park system) to build a large new state park at Rooster Rock in the mid-1950s.

This 1954 map shows the (then new) modern highway and Mirror Lake of today, though the lake had not yet been named the Rooster Rock interchange and park developments had not been constructed.

This 1954 map shows the (then new) modern highway and Mirror Lake of today, though the lake had not yet been named the Rooster Rock interchange and park developments had not been constructed.

Land acquisition for the new Rooster Rock State Park began in 1937, and continued well beyond the development of the park, with a total area of nearly 900 acres by the mid-1980s.

The new park included its very own interchange on the highway, though it was built at the cost of pushing the eastbound exit ramp over a filled area of the lake. Hundreds of paved parking spots were build along a half-mile stretch of beach that once lined the Columbia River here, and Rooster Rock became one of the most heavily-visited state parks in Oregon.

The brand-new interchange and Rooster Rock State Park as it appeared in the late 1950s, adjacent to Mirror Lake.

The brand-new interchange and Rooster Rock State Park as it appeared in the late 1950s, adjacent to Mirror Lake.

Today, the beach (and the accompanying crowds) at Rooster Rock have mostly eroded away, in part because of changes in dredging of the shipping channel. Yet, one remnant of the former Echo Bay can still be seen here, as a small, unnamed cove at the eastern foot of Rooster Rock that is the truncated mouth of Echo Bay, cut off by the modern highway. The little cove now hosts a boat dock, and is easily seen by eastbound highway travelers.

The boat docks in the remnant of Echo Bay that still survives north of the highway, below Rooster Rock (the cliffs of Crown Point are in the background; photo Oregon State Pqrks).

The boat docks in the remnant of Echo Bay that still survives north of the highway, below Rooster Rock (the cliffs of Crown Point are in the background; photo Oregon State Pqrks).

Young Creek still flows into Mirror Lake, but is now channeled through a culvert under the highway to the small cove by Rooster Rock, where it then flows into the Columbia River.

For more than a century, the lowlands along Young Creek and Echo Bay were farmed by early settlers in the area, but in recent decades the entirety of the original Young Creek wetlands adjacent to Mirror Lake have come into public ownership as part of Rooster Rock State Park.

1950s view of the Young Creek lowlands east of Mirror Lake and the (then) new Highway 30.

1950s view of the Young Creek lowlands east of Mirror Lake and the (then) new Highway 30.

The State of Oregon has since been restoring the Young Creek lowland to its former natural state as a wildlife reserve, with a lush mosaic of tree stands, meadows, marshes and ponds. Mirror Lake, itself, has become a surprising haven for waterfowl, with flocks of geese, ducks and white egrets resting and nesting there — a surprising and welcome twist in an area so heavily impacted by human activity over the past 150 years.

Visiting Mirror Lake

While a lake flanked on one side by a freeway and a railroad on the other might not seem like a promising hiking destination, the views of Mirror Lake are just as spectacular today as they were when the first photographers visited Echo Bay in the 1880s.

You can visit the modern lake by taking the eastbound Rooster Rock State Park exit. The park access road curves left, across the freeway overpass. Instead, park on the gravel shoulder on the right, where a gated service road drops to the lake.

Modern topo maps of the Mirror Lake, Crown Point and the Rooster Rock State Park area.

Modern topo maps of the Mirror Lake, Crown Point and the Rooster Rock State Park area.

(click here for a larger map view)

You can follow the service road and explore along the lakeshore in about the same spot that Frank Haynes captured the iconic view at the top of this article in 1885. All of the land here is public, so feel free to explore and reflect on both the long human history and natural beauty of this remarkable spot!

The Ancient Rowena Oak

May 27, 2013
The Rowena Oak

The Rowena Oak

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

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

Dry Canyon Bridge and McCall Point from Rowena Plateau

Dry Canyon Bridge and McCall Point from Rowena Plateau

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

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

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

Dry Canyon and Rowena Dell from the highway bridge

Dry Canyon and Rowena Dell from the highway bridge

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

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

The Rowena Oak with the Dry Canyon Bridge in the background

The Rowena Oak with the Dry Canyon Bridge in the background

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

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

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

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

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

The Rowena Oak with Sevenmile Hill in the distance

The Rowena Oak with Sevenmile Hill in the distance

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

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

A closer look at the sprawling Rowena Oak

A closer look at the sprawling Rowena Oak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring blossoms on the Rowena Oak

Spring blossoms on the Rowena Oak

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

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

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

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

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

Visiting the Rowena Oak

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

Visiting the Rowena Oak

Visiting the Rowena Oak

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

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

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

Spectacular river views reward hikers on the Rowena Plateau trail

Spectacular river views reward hikers on the Rowena Plateau trail

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

Springtime balsamroot atop McCall Point on the upper trail

Springtime balsamroot atop McCall Point on the upper trail

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

A Trio of Lilies

May 4, 2013
Glacier Lily (Wikimedia)

Glacier Lily (Wikimedia)

Spring and early summer in the Gorge and around Mount Hood brings countless wildflowers. Perhaps the most striking are the varied siblings of the Lily family that are so familiar to us. This list includes the stately Trillium in early spring, the spectacular white trumpets of the Washington (or is it Mount Hood?) Lily, the blazing Columbia Tiger Lily in early summer and sprawling mountain meadows of Beargrass and Cornflower in high summer. All of these iconic species are part of this impressive family of wildflowers.

Within this crowded list of celebrity siblings are a trio of smaller lilies in the Erythronium genus that can be a bit confusing to distinguish from one another. They are surely worth getting to know: the yellow Glacier Lily, white Avalanche Lily and cream-colored Oregon Fawn Lily are among the most charming wildflowers found in our wild places. This article offers a profile of each of these plants, tips for identifying them and places to see them in their native habitat.

Oregon Fawn Lily
Erythronium oregonum

Oregon Fawn Lily

Oregon Fawn Lily

First up from this trio of lilies is the Oregon Fawn Lily, the largest of the Erythronium genus, and perhaps the most elegant. The Fawn Lily grows at low elevations, preferring open forest and meadows in the Coast Range, Cascade and Siskiyou canyons and foothills.

Oregon Fawn Lily can be found in rainforest regions from California to British Columbia (USDA)

Oregon Fawn Lily can be found in rainforest regions from California to British Columbia (USDA)

Oregon Fawn Lily is found in most of Oregon's wet, western counties (USDA)

Oregon Fawn Lily is found in most of Oregon’s wet, western counties (USDA)

Oregon Fawn Lily have beautifully marked 4-9″ leaves, with a mottled pattern of green, light green and rusty brown that gives these plants their other common name of Trout Lily. These distinctive leaves are the easiest way to identify Fawn Lily. Their graceful blossoms form in clusters of 1-3 per stem, and range in color from white to cream, with yellow anthers. Each flower measures 1-3″ across on stems that range in height from 6-16″.

Oregon Fawn Lily blooms from April through early June. Like all of the Erythronium species, Oregon Fawn Lily emerges from a small bulb in spring and dies back in late summer after producing a 3-sided seed pod, going dormant for the winter.

A reliable place to spot Oregon Fawn Lily is along the Salmon River Trail, where they grace mossy slopes and cliff gardens in the lower sections of the canyon. They can also be found closer to home at the Camassia Nature Preserve in West Linn.

Avalanche Lily
Erythronium montanum

Avalanche Lily

Avalanche Lily

As the common name suggests, Avalanche Lily grows in mountain snow zones, preferring alpine and subalpine forests and meadows. These are among the first flowers to bloom after the snow melts, often forming dramatic carpets with their white, nodding flowers.

Avalanche Lily is found along the Cascade crest, from British Columbia south to Oregon (USDA)

Avalanche Lily is found along the Cascade crest, from British Columbia south to Oregon (USDA)

In Oregon, Avalanche Lily has been reported in the northern and central Oregon Cascades, along the high ridges of our basin-and-range country and on a remote outpost on Saddle Mountain, near Astoria (USDA)

In Oregon, Avalanche Lily has been reported in the northern and central Oregon Cascades, along the high ridges of our basin-and-range country and on a remote outpost on Saddle Mountain, near Astoria (USDA)

Avalanche Lily flowers are white with a yellow base, and thus similar in appearance to Oregon Fawn Lily. But Avalanche Lily is much smaller, growing just 6-8″ tall — an adaptation to their harsh mountain habitat. Their leaves are bright green, shiny and strap-shaped, growing 4-8″ long and 1/2″ wide. Notably, they lack the mottled leaf pattern of the Oregon Fawn Lily, the surest way to distinguish between these species.

Typical field of Avalanche Lily (USDA)

Typical field of Avalanche Lily (USDA)

By the time most hikers make it into the high country in mid-summer, Avalanche Lily blooms have often faded, and have been replaced by distinctive 3-sided seedpods that will ripen by late summer. Like the Oregon Fawn Lily, Avalanche Lily dies back in fall after forming a seedpod and goes dormant, with their underground bulb safely insulated from winter weather.

Avalanche Lily was among the few plants to survive the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood

Avalanche Lily was among the few plants to survive the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood

Their bulbs give lilies a distinctive advantage in fire zones, as witnessed after Mount Hood’s Dollar Lake Fire, in 2011. After the winter snows had cleared from the burn in 2012, avalanche lilies emerged from the charred landscape to burst into bloom, once again – their bulbs unaffected by the heat of the fire. Surprisingly, their bulbs are also an important food for bears in areas where Avalanche Lilies grow in abundance.

Avalanche Lily can be found along much of the Timberline Trail and its approaches in early summer. The upper section of the Mazama Trail, in particular, has the reliably prolific display.

Glacier Lily
Erythronium grandiflorum

Glacier Lily

Glacier Lily

The third in the trio of Erythronium lilies is the Glacier Lily, a distinctive little plant with bright yellow flowers. These are generally alpine and subalpine meadow flowers, but in Oregon, they also thrive in the Columbia River Gorge, where they seek out mossy outcrops, hanging meadows and forest margins.

Glacier Lily is so abundant in the Gorge that hikers who haven’t seen them in their more typical mountain setting probably wonder about their common name. But in alpine areas, Glacier Lily is found in the same habitat as Avalanche Lily, where they are among the first flowers to emerge and bloom after snowmelt.

Glacier Lily has the greatest range of the Erythronium lilies and are found throughout the Mountain West (USDA)

Glacier Lily has the greatest range of the Erythronium lilies and are found throughout the Mountain West (USDA)

In Oregon, Glacier Lilies are found in mountain areas across the state (USDA)

In Oregon, Glacier Lilies are found in mountain areas across the state (USDA)

The leaves and growth habit of Glacier Lily looks much like those of their cousin, the Avalanche Lily. Their leaves are bright green, 4-8″ in length and about 1/2″ wide. Their stems are typically 6-12″, though tiny, stunted versions growing just 2-3″ in height can be found in more exposed locations in the Columbia Gorge.

This diminutive Glacier Lily on Mitchell Point in the Columbia Gorge is just 2" tall

This diminutive Glacier Lily on Mitchell Point in the Columbia Gorge is just 2″ tall

Glacier Lily flowers are carried one or two per stem, and are typically lemon yellow, with cream or yellow anthers. Like the Avalanche Lily, these early blooming plants produce a seedpod by late summer, then die back to their bulb and go dormant before re-emerging the following spring.

A favorite habitat for Glacier Lilies in the Columbia Gorge is atop boulders, like this one along Moffett Creek, where they form blooming, yellow "caps" in spring

A favorite habitat for Glacier Lilies in the Columbia Gorge is atop boulders, like this one along Moffett Creek, where they form blooming, yellow “caps” in spring

Their distinctive yellow color makes it easy to differentiate Glacier Lily from the white-flowered Avalanche Lily and Fawn Lily, but there’s a catch: it turns out a surprisingly similar flower from the Fritillaria family known as Yellow Bells does a pretty good job of masquerading as a Glacier Lily at first glance. In the Columbia Gorge, the two flowers commonly grow in close proximity, and bloom at about the same time, making it easy to confuse the two.

Yellow Bells are a member of the Fritillaria family, and often grow in close proximity to Glacier Lily in the Columbia Gorge

Yellow Bells are a member of the Fritillaria family, and often grow in close proximity to Glacier Lily in the Columbia Gorge

But upon closer inspection, the flowers are quite different. Where Glacier Lily matures to form open, flared blossoms, Yellow Bells behave true to their name, with a tight, bell-shaped blossom and straight petals. Once you spot this difference, it’s easy to distinguish between these similar neighbors at a glance.

Glacier Lilies can be found in April and early May on most Gorge trails that traverse open slopes and steep meadows. One reliable place to see them is on the Lower Starvation Loop, where they are sprinkled across the hanging meadows in late April. For hardy hikers, they can also be seen in April on the airy crest of Munra Point.
______________________

Botanical note: sources for this article include the USDA, Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson’s Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest and Russ Jolley’s Wildflowers of the Columbia Gorge.

Exploring Mitchell Point

May 5, 2012

Looking west into the Gorge from Mitchell Point.

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

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

An East Gorge Icon

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

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

Mitchell Point from the west.

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

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

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

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

[click here for a larger view]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West end of Mitchell Point Tunnel in 1916.

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

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

Hiking Mitchell Point

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

[click here for a larger view]

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

The trailhead, with Mitchell Point rising above.

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

Looking up at Mitchell Point from the lower trail.

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

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

The rocky spine of Mitchell Point from the upper trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final pitch to the summit of Mitchell Point.

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

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

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

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

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

How to Get There

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

The finest accommodations can be found at Lausmann State Park.

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

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

Addendum

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

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

Thanks for the heads-up, Chris!

Warren Falls Lives… Again?

March 28, 2012

March 16 was a good day for Warren Falls: in the morning, the Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee (AC) allowed me time on their agenda for a second pitch to restore Warren Falls as part of the larger historic highway trail project. After the meeting, I visited Warren Falls and was able to capture it flowing, thanks to the unusually heavy rain we had experienced in early March. Here are the highlights:

HCRC Advisory Committee

Last summer, I made a pitch to the HCRC Advisory Committee (AC) to restore Warren Falls as part of the highway restoration project, and in my second appearance, was able to provide a much more polished case. The members of the AC were engaged and clearly interested in the idea, asking many questions after the presentation. However, they are also constrained by the tight budget and timeline they are working under to complete the highway restoration by the 2016 centennial of Samuel Lancaster’s “King of Roads.”

The HCRH trail design already includes a short trail and overlook at Warren Falls

The AC chair sent me a follow-up message after the meeting offering support for all of the proposals I had laid out at the meeting — except restoration of Warren Falls itself. While that last part was disappointing, it was helpful to at least have a sense of where the AC stood on the issue, since I can now focus efforts on finding the needed funding and perhaps a project partner for ODOT to pull off the Warren Falls restoration.

The good news is the AC is supportive of several accompanying proposals that I laid out in the presentation, including:

• designing the crossing of the original Warren Creek channel to resemble a “bridge” so that there will be a place for an interpretive panel describing the history of the area

• addition of a side trail to the original Warren Falls with an interpretive panel – albeit, with “volunteer work”

• Enhancing fish habitat downstream of Hole-in-the-Wall Falls as a proposed mitigation action related to construction of the next (unfunded) trail segment west of the Starvation-Lindsey segment currently being designed

• removal of invasive species in the area – mostly, English ivy, Himalayan blackberry and Scots broom.

So, despite the disappointment of not adding the falls restoration to the current ODOT project, the list of related restoration work supported by the AC is a big step forward. In their words, the AC is “supportive of [the] idea to bring water back to the original waterfall, but given our charge, we cannot offer any monetary or construction assistance”. A partial victory, to be sure, but also a challenge to help ODOT find funding for the Warren Falls restoration.

This historic streambed of Warren Creek, now permanently cut off from the stream, could have a “bridge-like” crossing and an interpretive sign describing the area history.

An interesting footnote to the meeting was a conversation I had afterward with a reader of this blog who had watched the presentation, and thought a much simpler solution was possible for restoring Warren Falls: simply pull out the “trash rack” grate, and let Warren Creek do the rest. The stream would surely plug the tunnel with debris and gradually start flowing over its original falls without an elaborate engineering solution for retiring the tunnel.

It’s a temptingly simple idea, and came from a person with a professional background as a hydrologist, no less. So, that scaled-back option will be my starting point as I look for additional funding for bringing back Warren Falls.

Warren Falls Lives!

After the HCRH Advisory Committee presentation, I bolted for the Starvation Creek trailhead, with a strong hunch that Warren Falls would be flowing that day. Despite the bright, blue skies on March 16, the previous week had seen an unusually cold and wet weather pattern, and the gorge waterfalls visible from the highway were roaring.

As hoped, when I arrived at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, part of Warren Creek was flowing down the normally dry channel that leads to Warren Falls. I captured the following video as I walked along the temporary stream, then rounded a corner to find water flowing over Warren Falls, once again. Warren Falls lives!

As with previous visits when Warren Falls was flowing, the experience was magical. Instead of hearing the echoes of trucks on I-84 in the dry amphitheater surrounding the falls, I could hear only the sound of Warren Creek — or the overflowing part of it, at least — cascading over the 120-foot brink of the falls, then splashing down the normally dry streambed to the point where it re-joins the main stream of Warren Creek, at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls.

This clip marks the moment when a large rock came over the falls, in the background… CRACK!

The video still image, above, marks a somewhat jarring moment on this visit, however: if you listen closely at 0:47 you can hear a CRACK! in the background, then an abrupt end to that clip in the video. This is the sound of a soccer ball-sized rock coming over the top of the falls — just as designed — and landing in the debris pile near the base. It was not only startling to hear this, but also a bit ominous, considering that on previous visits I had been standing at the base of the falls shooting video and still photos. If you visit when Warren Falls is flowing, please don’t stand near the base of the falls!

Finally, there was a pleasant surprise on the way out that day. For some reason I had never noticed, but the USFS trailhead sign at Starvation Creek (pictured at the top of this article) actually lists Warren Falls as a destination! Clearly, the Forest Service meant Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, but I choose to look upon the sign as a good omen that the real Warren Falls will be restored!

Friends for Warren Falls

My month of Warren Falls adventures continued on March 25, when I guided a Friends of the Gorge hike on a tour of the Starvation-area waterfalls, including a visit to Warren Falls. At 24 hikers, the group was by far the largest I have led to the falls site!

Friends of the Gorge hike visits the site of Warren Falls

Warren Falls was once again dry on this visit, but the group was fascinated by the odd history of the diversion project, the obvious signs that Warren Falls had recently flowed, and the magnificence of the massive basalt amphitheater that frames the falls.

Restore Warren Falls on Facebook

I’ve had many people ask how they can support the effort to restore Warren Falls. In response, I have finally set up a Facebook page for people to track progress on the project and vote their support for the idea:

Warren Falls on Facebook

You can help out by stopping by the Facebook page, like it, and then forward the web link to like-minded friends. If the project picks up enough “likes”, it will help me make the case to ODOT and elected officials that popular support exists for the project.


Thanks go out to those who have already stopped by the Facebook page, and thanks, especially, to Scott Cook for speaking out in support of Warren Falls at both HCRH Advisory Committee meetings — very much appreciated, Scott!

Please watch the Warren Falls page on Facebook for more updates on the project as the it unfolds over the next several months.