Posted tagged ‘Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area’

Restore the Metlako Viewpoint?

March 25, 2019
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A view of Metlako Falls from days gone by…

The Eagle Creek canyon is the undisputed jewel of the Columbia River Gorge, thanks to a string of dramatic waterfalls and a precarious, cliff-hugging trail built over 100 years ago by visionary Forest Service pioneers. But starting in late 2016, a series of calamities over the course of just a year reshaped Eagle Creek for the foreseeable future.

The first of these events came in late December 2016, when a huge section of cliff at Metlako Falls calved off, damming Eagle Creek with a massive pile of debris and erasing the iconic viewpoint of the falls (where the above photo was taken in 2013) forever.

Round two was the sprawling Eagle Creek Fire the followed in September 2017, burning all but a few strips of streamside forest in the Eagle Creek draining. Then, sometime in early 2018, another massive cliff collapse occurred at Punchbowl Falls, rerouting the entire creek and forever changing still another iconic view.

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The old viewpoint at Metlako Falls

Changes on this scale are nothing new in the Gorge. In fact, they are the very processes that created the scenery we enjoy today. Without fire, we wouldn’t have cliff top meadows, gnarled Oregon white oak groves and huckleberry fields on the highest ridges that rim the Gorge. Without landslides and cliff collapses, we wouldn’t have vertical basalt canyons and the towering waterfalls within them. In this way, the changes at Eagle Creek have given us a rare look at the natural forces behind the beauty, and a chance to better understand and appreciate the ongoing evolution of this very unique place.

Since the 2017 fire, volunteer trail crews have been working with the Forest Service to restore the Eagle Creek Trail. The fire heavily impacted the trail (see Eagle Creek: One Year After the Fire), and volunteers have invested thousands of hours clearing logs and debris and rebuilding much of the trail tread. For its part, the Forest Service is working to replace several large footbridges that were destroyed by the fire.

With the reopening of the trail imminent (perhaps as early as this year) there remain plenty of questions about how Eagle Creek will be better managed in the future to prevent a recovering ecosystem from being impacted by swarms of visitors. This article focuses on anticipating and managing these impacts at Metlako Falls, where hikers will almost certainly create a cobweb of user trails in search of an alternative to the collapsed viewpoint, especially now that the dense understory that once hid the falls from the trail has burned away in the fire.

Opportunity from calamity..?

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The author trimming brush at the old Metlako Viewpoint in 2013 (Photo: Christopher Alley)

The joy of the old Metlako Falls overlook was in the discovery. A pair of modest spur trails dropped through forest to a sudden and spectacular overlook, where a pair of braided cable railings stood between you and the sheer, 200-foot drop into Eagle Creek.

As iconic as the view up the narrow gorge to Metlako Falls was, it was also tedious to maintain. The cliff top just below the railings was dense with understory, which regularly grew to obscure the view of the falls. Trimming the brush required professional crews equipped to descend the cliff with ropes or volunteers willing to pack a pole pruning saw up the trail. It was an ongoing battle, with the understory winning — and hikers inevitably crawling over the railing for a better look. It’s a miracle that nobody (that I know of) slipped over the side at the old overlook!

In this way, the cliff collapse in 2016 and fire in 2017 offer an opportunity to create a new viewpoint at Metlako Falls that is both easier to maintain and provides less incentive for hikers to explore beyond the trail. I believe such a spot exists and that a spur trail to this new viewpoint could easily be developed by the volunteer crews already working to restore the Eagle Creek Trail. I also believe that without creating a new viewpoint, the crush of hikers who use this trail will seek one out, creating a hazard for hikers and harming the recovering landscape in the process.

Cue the helicopter!

Here’s a not-so-secret scoop: for the past decade or so, daredevil kayakers have been sailing over Metlako Falls as part of the “extreme kayaking” phenomenon of waterfall jumping. These stunts at Metlako Falls have been regularly recorded for social media (of course!) and thus a well-worn user path already descended to a viewpoint directly opposite the falls well before the Eagle Creek Fire swept through the area.

The post-fire absence of forest understory will make this user trail all the more obvious, and thus my confidence that it will become a heavily used boot path when the main trail reopens if a planned alternative isn’t provided. The time to act is now, before hordes of hikers are allowed back into Eagle Creek.

So, where is this not-so-secret user path? The following views from one of the State of Oregon helicopter surveys of the Eagle Creek Burn were taken in 2018, and show the unofficial Metlako Falls viewpoint nicely.

This wide view (below) is looking downstream, with Metlako Falls hidden in trees, but the deep pool created by the 2016 cliff collapse showing up prominently. I’ve marked both the site of the original viewpoint and where the proposed new viewpoint would be, roughly located where the kayaker path now leads:

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This closer view (below) shows more detail of the proposed new viewpoint. Notably, it’s located atop a sheer basalt cliff that would provide a clear view, but could also discourage hikers from venturing beyond the viewpoint. Also notable are the many surviving conifers on the bench that forms the viewpoint that will help stabilize this area in coming years as the understory recovers from the fire.

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What does Metlako Falls look like from this new perspective? It’s a straight on view that resembles a verytall Punch Bowl Falls, based on the many kayaker photos out there. This unattributed social media image shows a kayaker jumping the falls from the not-so-secret viewpoint in about 2015:

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Metlako daredevil as viewed from the proposed viewpoint (Source: Unknown)

This State of Oregon aerial view (below) was taken from almost directly above Eagle Creek as is rushes toward the brink of Metlako Falls and provides another good look at the basalt columns that are the foundation for the proposed new viewpoint:

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This aerial view (below) is from above the proposed viewpoint, looking back at Metlako Falls. From this angle, it really does resemble a very tall Punch Bowl Falls, complete with a deep amphitheater behind the falls and rock fins hemming in the splash pool on the downstream side:

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This wide view (below) is the reverse of the opening State of Oregon aerial, looking upstream toward Metlako Falls. This view shows the debris from the 2016 cliff collapse and the dammed section Eagle Creek above the debris pile.

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But there’s also a surprise next to Metlako Falls in this view. The slender cascade dropping into the opposite side of the Metlako amphitheater is Sorenson Falls, a seldom-seen beauty not visible from the old viewpoint. Could the new viewpoint be designed to allow this beautiful falls to be seen, as well? I think so — and in that way, the new viewpoint might be even more spectacular than the old one!

So, how do we do this?

While the Forest Service has been reluctant to even consider new trails in the Gorge in recent years, the Eagle Creek Fire may have created a window of opportunity for rethinking the status quo. However, the need for a formal environmental assessment is often a Forest Service obstacle to building new trails, even if the agency is open to the idea. But there’s a shorter path for the proposed Metlako Falls viewpoint. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) calls out “categorical exclusions” for certain activities that exempts them from having to complete an environmental assessment. The proposed viewpoint easily meets this test.

This is because one of the “exclusions” under NEPA are trails negatively impact by natural events (like a fire or cliff collapse) and the Act gives great latitude to the Forest Service when relocating or realigning trails in response to such events. The Forest Service would still need to rely on agency scientists to complete a site evaluation of a proposed spur route for soil stability and other design considerations, but much of the expensive and effort required for a full environmental assessment can be avoided.

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The new spur trail would be very short — only about 100 yards in length and descending about 50 feet in elevation from the existing Eagle Creek Trail (see schematic, above). This not only helps make the case for a categorical exclusion, it also puts the proposed trail within reach for volunteers to both design and construct in cooperation with the Forest Service.

The viewpoint, itself, would likely require the Forest Service to design of some sort of cable railing, perhaps similar to the old viewpoint and the Punch Bowl Falls overlook, or possibly a deck similar to the structure at Panther Creek Falls. But even this detail is within reach for trail volunteers to constructing, with the Forest Service simply providing the design and materials.

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Misty Metlako Falls in the winter of 2014

If some other alternative isn’t provided, hikers will almost certainly follow the kayaker’s user trail to the unofficial Metlako Falls viewpoint when the Eagle Creek Trail is reopened. With volunteer crews already working to reopen the trail, it makes sense to build this viewpoint spur now. My hope is that we can be proactive and create a stable, sustainable way for hikers to view the falls before thousands of boots on poorly aligned user trails force the Forest Service to react.

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Postscript: I probably should have included this when I posted the article, but you can comment directly to the Forest Service in support of this proposal on their website:

Click here for the Forest Service comments page

Farewell, Forest Service Webcams…?

February 28, 2019
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Moonrise from the Gorge Webcam on September 26, 2014 (USFS)

For the past many years, one of my morning rituals has been to check on the Forest Service air quality cameras located above Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood and in the eastern Columbia River Gorge, near Wishram, Washington. The Hood came was pointed south, toward Mount Jefferson and the Gorge cam was pointed west, toward Mount Hood.

I use past tense to describe these cameras because they were abruptly turned off toward the end of the latest shutdown of the federal government. This article focuses on why these cameras were important, why they might have been shut down and why they should be brought back on line.

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Hazy sunset behind Mount Hood from the Gorge Webcam on November 11, 2014 (USFS)

Wilderness Webcam Program

Like many federal agencies, the Forest Service has maintained an air quality monitoring program for decades in response to the Clean Air Act. Most famously, this includes measuring the acid rain falling on public forests as a result of urban air pollution, a phenomenon that was first documented in eastern forests in the 1970s and 80s. In Oregon, the Forest Service air quality program came to the forefront more recently, when their monitoring of lichens for trace pollutants helped alert state authorities to toxic levels of emissions coming from a glass factory in Portland.

The wilderness webcams help the Forest Service measure air pollution in places like Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge that are in close proximity to major urban areas and vulnerable to growing air toxics and particulate pollution.

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Sunrise from the Gorge Webcam on October 16, 2015 (USFS)

Under this program, not all Forest Service lands are created equal. Areas defined as “Class I” by the agency are of critical concern and the Forest Service has been tasked with establishing targets to help monitor and potentially regulate pollution “loads” for these areas. The targets are based on levels of pollution that measurably impact wilderness ecosystems. The Mount Hood Wilderness and Mount Jefferson Wilderness are among the Class I areas in Oregon, as is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Given the unprecedented hostility toward environmental protections (and science, itself) by the Trump administration, the Forest Service air quality program seems a likely target by the industry-friendly political appointees who now lead our public land agencies. This was certainly my suspicion when the following message popped up in place of the wilderness webcam page in early February:

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The end of the Forest Service Wilderness Webcams..?

The webcams went offline toward the end of the most recent federal government shutdown, when a deal to reopen the government was in sight, which didn’t make sense from a funding or resource argument. This took me back to a more nefarious objective: perhaps the shutdown was a simply a convenient time to kill off the air quality program, when few would notice?

There’s reason for alarm, too. While the webcams are a handy (and often inspiring!) resource for the general public, they also represent a threat to the polluters who are now in league with the Trump administration in their assault on environmental protections. They provide ongoing, measurable documentation on the state of the environment, without which protections can’t really be enacted or enforced.

The webcams are also increasingly important to the Portland region, as we learned during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. While scientists are still debating the potential ecological value of forest fire smoke in late summer (some believe it provides an important cooling effect during the last weeks of our annual drought), the public health effects on humans are decidedly hazardous.

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Mount Jefferson floating above the cloud deck from the Hood Webcam on November 24, 2018 (USFS)

Most forest ecologists believe we have entered a new era of catastrophic fires that will make heavy smoke the norm in Oregon and across the west for decades to come. The webcams not only provide ongoing monitoring of these effects for scientists, they also help the public see (and avoid) the forests when smoke has reached unhealthy levels.

So, why now?

I reached out to the Forest Service with these questions and received a prompt response and a few answers. The agency position is that a tight Forest Service budget is forcing tough decisions, especially for programs involving field equipment that require ongoing operations and maintenance. This explanation aligns with the well-documented reality that a larger and growing share of the USFS budget is channeled into forest fire response each summer, draining other programs of funds.

More concerning in the response is that the decision to shut down the wilderness webcams was apparently made at Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., where a single government contractor had maintained the national network of cameras.

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Late snowstorm captured by the Hood Webcam on June 10, 2018 (USFS)

Putting nefarious influences aside (including the dubious motives of former Georgia Governor Sunny Perdue, who unfortunately serves as Secretary of Agriculture and thus is also overseeing the Forest Service), it’s also true that the entire agency has experienced declining funding for basic programs over the past several years because of ballooning forest fire costs and the ongoing dysfunction of Congress and its inability to actually pass a budget.

On a more encouraging note, the Forest Service response did suggest that local forests may adopt the wilderness webcams and operate them on a regional level, noting that the agency was “well aware of the importance of the cameras.” That’s good news, and hopefully, this will come to pass.

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Sunset from the Gorge Webcam on November 30, 2012 (USFS)

While this blog exists to challenge the historic mission of extraction and exploitation by the USFS, the scientists within the organization have long been the conscience of the agency. They have helped gradually steer the agency toward a more sustainable mission, albeit confounded by ongoing Congressional and White House mandates for more logging and less environmental protection.

Cutbacks to tiny programs like air quality monitoring are just another reminder of the conflicted and unsustainable mission the Forest Service has been tasked with, and where science ranks in the political pecking order.

In the meantime, more Gorge Cam memories… and action?

While we wait to learn the fate of the wilderness webcams, here are some images to enjoy from the Gorge webcam that I downloaded in September 2016. Perhaps my favorite in this series is this remarkably peaceful twilight scene that includes an unusually calm Columbia River reflecting the sky. The linked larger version (below) gives a sense of the quality of images that have been gathered from the wilderness cams over the years — large version of all images have been archived in high definition for scientists to use in research… until now, that is.

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Twilight reflecting on a calm Columbia River from the Gorge Webcam on September 26, 2016 (USFS)

[Click here for a large image]

This September 7, 2016 evening view from the Gorge webcam shows a series of lenticular clouds forming over Mount Hood on a late summer evening, a surprisingly common phenomenon when Pacific storms are approaching that is often masked by clouds (visible low on the horizon) for Portlanders on the west side of the mountain.

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A view of lenticular clouds forming over Mount Hood from the Gorge Webcam on September 7, 2016 (USFS)

The Gorge webcam also captured dozens of stunning sunsets over the years, like this beautiful display from September 29, 2016 that could easily be mistaken for a watercolor painting:

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Watercolor sunset captured by the Gorge Webcam on September 29, 2016 (USFS)

This subtle scene (below) not only captures the late evening mood of the Gorge as high clouds from a new storm are approaching, it also captures distant lights in The Dalles and beyond that help scientists monitor particulate pollution.

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Last rays of daylight captured by the Gorge Webcam on September 16, 2016 (USFS)

Hopefully, we’ll have more scenes like these to follow in the future. But in the meantime, what can we do to bring back the wilderness webcams and defend the Forest Service air quality program? It’s always worth calling our U.S. Senators and congressional delegation, especially if you’re concerned about the broader hostility the Trump administration shown toward public lands and environmental protection. With the U.S. House back in an oversight role this year, the Democrats in the Oregon delegation are once again powerful allies in pushing back on the Trump agenda.

However, the decision might come down to our regional Forest Service administrators, and it’s easy to comment as a supporter of the Wilderness Webcams and the air quality program. You can find a feedback form over here on the Pacific Northwest Region website:

Pacific Northwest Region USFS Comments

Please take a moment to weigh in!

Angels Rest Loop: One Way Trip to Heaven?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating an Angels Rest Loop Trail

Winter view into the Gorge from Angels Rest

Winter view into the Gorge from Angels Rest

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

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[click here for a large map]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Idea within Reach…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latourell Falls Makeover (Part 1)

December 26, 2012
Today’s wayside is located at the east end of the Latourell Bridge, where the Falls Chalet roadhouse once stood in 1914 (shown here)

Today’s wayside is located at the east end of the Latourell Bridge, where the Falls Chalet roadhouse once stood in 1914 (shown here)

Over the past few years, Oregon Parks & Recreation has set the high bar for recreation improvements on the state lands it manages in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area. The latest project is a handsome, thoughtful makeover of the Latourell Falls wayside, located along the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) in Talbot State Park.

The Latourell wayside serves thousands of Gorge tourists each year, and also functions as the trailhead for the very popular Latourell Falls loop trail. The site has a long history, and was once home to a pair of roadhouses during the heyday of Samuel Lancaster’s world-class highway in the early 1900s.

The Falls Villa roadhouse was located across the road from today’s wayside through the 1930s, now marked only by a stand of mature bigleaf maple

The Falls Villa roadhouse was located across the road from today’s wayside through the 1930s, now marked only by a stand of mature bigleaf maple

Modest improvements to the wayside over the years included interpretive historic signs added in the 1990s that tracked the colorful human history of the area, but for the most part, the site was dated and dingy. The restoration work completed last summer is thus a major upgrade that deserves a review here. The work was completed with a special grant secured by the Oregon State Parks department

Makeover Review

Front and center in the rebuilt wayside is the official state park sign, constructed in the standardized style used for both national forest and state park units throughout the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area (CGNSA). The sign is mounted on a newly constructed basalt base, also designed in the uniform CGNSA style.

Welcome (again) to Guy W. Talbot State Park!

Welcome (again) to Guy W. Talbot State Park!

One missed opportunity in repurposing the existing entry sign was the chance to tell the story of Guy Talbot (picture below, in the early 1930s), one of the business titans of early Portland. Talbot donated the land containing Latourell Falls and the gorgeous canyon above the falls, so deserves more than passing mention in the human story of the area (along with other benefactors who donated the lands we now know as the state parks gems dotting the Historic Columbia River Highway).

Guy W. Talbot as he appeared in 1933 on the front page of the Oregonian, announcing his retirement

Guy W. Talbot as he appeared in 1933 on the front page of the Oregonian, announcing his retirement

Two enamel interpretive panels installed at the wayside in the 1990s were salvaged and reinstalled in the new layout. One focuses on the history of the historic highway (the photos of the roadhouses, above, are from this display) and is now mounted in outside a new restroom (below). It’s a well-trafficked location, albeit sorely lacking in aesthetic appeal! The second interpretive sign is located at the main falls overlook, and briefly describes the history of private land donations for parks in the Gorge.

The new restroom is located at the east end of the wayside, tucked away from most of the picnic tables and a good distance from the new falls overlook plaza. While modern budgets probably require the low-maintenance advantage of pit toilets, the more civilized flush toilets that were removed were an aesthetic notch above the smelly nature of a chemical toilet.

The new restroom is (unfortunately) the standard pit-toilet style found elsewhere along the old highway

The new restroom is (unfortunately) the standard pit-toilet style found elsewhere along the old highway

Considering the volume of visitors to this park, plumbed toilets may be essential — we shall find out soon enough! Fortunately, flush toilets at historic highway waysides still survive at Bridal Veil, Multnomah Falls, Ainsworth State Park, Eagle Creek, Bridge of the Gods and Starvation Creek.

But a major improvement that comes with the new restroom is the location on the south side of the old highway, adjacent to the parking area — the old restroom required crossing the highway. The new toilets are also ADA accessible, along with the drinking fountain located outside the restroom and two of the nearby picnic tables.

Accessible drinking fountain located outside the restroom

Accessible drinking fountain located outside the restroom

An unexpected benefit from the relocated restrooms: it turns out the old restrooms blocked a very nice view of the Latourell Bridge (below), framed by mossy bigleaf maple trees. The old restroom site is marked only by a flat spot below the highway. The low-headroom trail under the bridge that once accessed the restroom has also been decommissioned.

The view that used to be behind the restroom..!

The view that used to be behind the restroom..!

Other details of the new wayside design include basalt curbs that edge the repaved parking area (below), and bicycle racks for cyclists touring the old highway to safely stop and admire the upper viewpoint, fill water bottles, picnic or use the restrooms.

Stone curbs show the attention to details paid by the designers

Stone curbs show the attention to details paid by the designers

One thoughtful aspect of the new bicycle racks is the central location: too often, bicycle parking is relegated to an unused corner. This makes for much less secure parking than a more prominent location, where the public eye is more likely to deter sketchy behavior.

Centrally located bike racks front the main parking area

Centrally located bike racks front the main parking area

The west end of the wayside is the primary focus for visitors, with a handsome plaza and several new visitor amenities. A concrete-capped stone wall in the Gorge style wraps around the plaza, with notched insets for visitor information and interpretive sign installations.

An attractive, new visitor information sign (below) is an excellent addition to the wayside. While it contains the standard park information found at most state parks, an excellent trail map describing the Latourell Creek loop hike is also featured. Even better, the map isn’t of the cartoonish variety often found at tourist waysides. Instead, it shows accurate trail information and even includes elevation contours!

The handsome new visitor information sign at the Latourell wayside

The handsome new visitor information sign at the Latourell wayside

The visitor map does a good job of showing the hiking options and trail highlights, as well as helpful tips on the multiple (and somewhat confusing) trailheads that provide access to the loop. A nice cartographic touch is attention to showing private lands that abut the park (though hopefully some future version of this map will show those lands in public ownership, through the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area acquisition program!)

The excellent, new Latourell Falls Loop map

The excellent, new Latourell Falls Loop map

One minor map glitch exists: the labeling of “Upper Falls” and “Lower Falls” may work for most people, but using the proper place name for Latourell Falls (instead of “Lower Falls”) would be more accurate and informative to those visiting the park for the first time (the upper falls is known unofficially as “Upper Latourell Falls”, so not an issue). There’s rarely a good reason to deviate from official geographic names on maps, after all.

A closer look at the excellent detail on the new park map

A closer look at the excellent detail on the new park map

Hopefully, the State Parks folks will also provide a downloadable, online copy of this map at some point — one that non-profits like Portland Hikers could also offer on their user-created Field Guide, for example.

Another nice touch on the visitor information sign is the high-profile shout-out to the Columbia Group of the Sierra Club, the volunteer trail stewards for the Talbot State Park (thanks, Sierra Club!). Not only are the signs a welcome recognition of trail volunteers, but also a subtle tool for raising public awareness to the unfortunate reality that volunteers have become an essential partner to public agencies in keeping our trail system open.

Kudos to the Sierra Club volunteers!

Kudos to the Sierra Club volunteers!

The photo below shows the new visitor information sign from the perspective of the new plaza, with the restrooms visible in the far distance.

The view toward the visitor signboard and steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint from the new plaza (interpretive sign in foreground)

The view toward the visitor signboard and steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint from the new plaza (interpretive sign in foreground)

This view also shows the second notched inset in the curving basalt wall that defines the plaza overlook, where the second refurbished interpretive sign has been installed. This sign briefly describes how Latourell Falls and other nearby parks came into public ownership in the early 1900s, and is the only mention of Guy Talbot in the wayside beyond the entry signs — an oversight that is a missed opportunity in the redesign (more about that coming in Part 2 of this article).

Latourell Falls from the new plaza overlook (with the interpretive sign on the left)

Latourell Falls from the new plaza overlook (with the interpretive sign on the left)

The new plaza corrects many serious problems with the old design, starting with the need for a more spacious falls overlook that respects the historic design of the Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway. The new plaza meets this test with flying colors, including a subtle, but helpful detail of steps replacing ramps at both the upper and lower loop trailheads.

Another view from the plaza showing the interpretive sign (in the distance) and steps leading to the lower end of the Latourell Falls loop

Another view from the plaza showing the interpretive sign (in the distance) and steps leading to the lower end of the Latourell Falls loop

Because the opening segments of the loop in both directions are paved, there has always been a temptation for people with strollers (or worse, wheelchairs) to assume the trail is safe for wheeled vehicles — it is not! Thus, the new steps will help visitors with strollers and mobility devices to avoid the dangerous mistake of venturing onto the loop trail.

The plaza forms a semi-circle in order to incorporate a second view of the spectacular Latourell Bridge in addition to the falls view. This is an unexpected discovery for visitors arriving over the bridge, unaware of its soaring height and graceful arches.

Wayside details: Samuel Lancaster would approve!

Wayside details: Samuel Lancaster would approve!

On this detail, the designers hit a home run, with a series of arches built into the basalt walls that beautifully echo the bridge design, and seamlessly tie the wayside into the highway, itself, as a natural extension of Samuel Lancaster’s masterpiece. Each arch also includes a painted steel grate – a nice detail that will keep kids and pets on the plaza-side of the stone walls.

A newly installed, arch-back bench at the head of the lower loop trailhead gives a similar nod to the historic bridge, while also helping terminate the decommissioned path that once accessed the old restroom, via a narrow, sketchy path that ducked beneath the bridge (the wood post rails in the photo below block the route of the old path).

This stately bench salutes the old highway bridge, a nice touch!

This stately bench salutes the old highway bridge, a nice touch!

In the center of the new plaza, the designers have incorporated a long planter-bench (below) that will be a welcome respite for visitors to sit and enjoy the view. However, the design of the bench planter is problematic: The narrow planting compartment is not irrigated, and thus presents a tough landscape dilemma. The designers planted mahonia nervosa, or longleaf Oregon grape that should be drought-tolerant enough to survive, and compact enough to fit the narrow space. But it will also a prickly companion to share the bench with! Perhaps this was intentional (as a means to keep the plants from being crushed)?

The other dilemma with planters of this type is the frustrating reality that it will become an oversized ashtray over time. In the end, it might have made more sense to simply design a wide bench with a solid top for the plaza (which is certainly an option for retrofitting this bench, as needed).

A large planter bench anchors the new plaza

A large planter bench anchors the new plaza

The revamped wayside also includes improvements to the popular upper viewpoint, located just east of the visitor information sign. The upper viewpoint path is also the trailhead for the upper portion of the Latourell Falls loop.

The stairway to the upper viewpoint path (below) also forms the terminus of the stone wall that defines around the plaza, and is nicely designed to simply lead wandering visitors to the overlook. Like the steps at the opposite end of the plaza that lead to the lower trail, these steps may help deter wheelchairs and strollers from the steep, unsafe climb to the upper viewpoint.

New steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint and loop trail

New steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint and loop trail

Unfortunately, the upper viewpoint path is one of the disappointments in the Latourell makeover. The short, existing section of paved trail to the viewpoint is steep and slick even for able-bodied hikers. Worse, it becomes a terrifying skating rink in winter ice conditions — which happens to be a time when the Gorge is often crowded with visitors admiring the spectacle of waterfalls transformed into ice cathedrals.

While the new handrails help, a home-run design here would have been a series of steps and landings all the way to the viewpoint — picture a scaled down version of the stairs approaching the lower Multnomah Falls viewpoint as an example. Instead, the improved steps at the base of the path taper onto the old path in a fairly awkward transition, an understandable budget constraint, no doubt, but a missed opportunity, nonetheless.

Unfortunately, this ugly, occasionally dangerous path remains a sore thumb…

Unfortunately, this ugly, occasionally dangerous path remains a sore thumb…

After walking the brief section of old paving, visitors suddenly reach a completely reconstructed upper falls viewpoint (below) with nice attention paid to views. The basalt surround at the viewing platform has a subtle cutout where a steel fence allows the falls to be more fully viewed when approaching the overlook. This design replaces an old stone wall that once blocked the view from the trail, so is an especially thoughtful detail.

The revamped upper viewpoint platform is a major upgrade, albeit marred by the ugly approach on a steep, outmoded old trail

The revamped upper viewpoint platform is a major upgrade, albeit marred by the ugly approach on a steep, outmoded old trail

The awkward transition from the ugly remnant section of the old pathway to the new platform detracts from the otherwise beautiful scene, but is also something that can be remedied with future enhancement to the viewpoint.

The disappearing Latourell Falls view: a thorny problem?

The disappearing Latourell Falls view: a thorny problem?

Some unfinished business exists at the upper viewpoint, and it might fit into the State Parks operations budget: any photographer will attest to some much-needed “view management” here. Over the past decade or two, the brushy slope below the viewpoint (below) has swallowed up the bottom third of the falls. It’s something that a bit of pruning would greatly enhance. As recently as the 1990s the splash pool at the base of Latourell Falls was clearly visible from the viewpoint.

A Legacy Achievement

Though there will always more work to do in bringing the Gorge trails and byways closer to the national park standard, the Latourell Falls makeover is a terrific step in that direction. The project achieves a level of quality and permanence that few improvements manage.

Latourell Falls from the new wayside plaza

Latourell Falls from the new wayside plaza

The new space created and constructed by the State Parks team will easily last for decades, joining the rest of the historic Columbia River Highway as a stunning blend of nature and architecture that continue to thrill visitors from around the world. It’s truly a legacy project, and all who were involved in the design and construction deserve our kudos – thank you!
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(Next up in the Part 2 of this article: a look at the Latourell Loop trail and possible improvements that would bring this popular trail to its full potential)
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Read an article on the Latourell wayside makeover

Read an article on the local stone masons uniquely skilled to do the kind of work on display at Latourell Falls

Columbia Gorge: The Fight for Paradise

November 18, 2011

On November 17, OPB’s Oregon Field Guide aired a special 1-hour look at the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Act, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the legislation.

The show provides a comprehensive look at the history of the Gorge Act, its friends and foes and some of the future challenges, including those never anticipated when the legislation was written — such as the recent land rush for wind turbine sites. Several of the most prominent early defenders of the Gorge are included, including Chuck Williams and Nancy Russell.

The program also includes in-depth look at the Native American legacy in the Gorge, and the ironic effect of the Gorge Act bringing a surge of new residents since it was signed into law — all seeking a life amid the scenery, and bringing demand for hundreds of new homes and new industry to a new level in the Gorge.

The program overlooks the massive increase in recreation demand over the past three decades, and the lack of trails to serve the crowds. Not much attention is paid to the future role of federal stewardship in the Gorge, and especially the national park vision that Chuck Williams advocated during the fight for protection.

Tsagaglalal or She Who Watches (USFS)

Likewise, Senator Bob Packwood is given too much credit for passage of the Gorge Act (in his own words, of course, in typical Bob Packwood form), while Senator Mark Hatfield is not given enough. Had Hatfield been alive to comment, he would undoubtedly have given a humble account of his key role in developing the legislation. This political history might make for a future documentary on the evolution of the Gorge Act, itself, perhaps based on Carl Abbot’s book Planning a New West: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Still, the program provides a very good overview of the Gorge Act over the past quarter century, and how much it has already changed the public/private balance of interests in the Gorge. Here is the documentary in full (approximately 55 minutes):