Mount Hood National Recreation Area Legislation: 10 Things to know!

Mount Hood from Lolo Pass

After nearly ten years of informal meetings and town halls, Senator Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer recently released a much-anticipated framework for legislation that will fundamentally change the management direction for Mount Hood and expand protections for the Columbia River Gorge. 

The legislative details are forthcoming, but for now Sen. Wyden and Rep. Blumenauer are asking for public comment on a general legislative concept by January 7 – this Friday! That’s a very short comment period, but if you love WyEast Country (and you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t!) please consider weighing in, even if only to send a sentence or two on what is most important to you as this legislation takes shape.

Here are 10 things to know about this new proposal for Mount Hood and the Gorge:

1. It’s a very big deal for Mount Hood! At this time, it’s still a legislative concept, but it will frame the ultimate details of the legislation, and the scope of the concept is broad. This is the most sweeping legislation proposed for Mount Hood since the Oregon National Forest was created in 1908 (and later renamed the Mount Hood National Forest in 1924). This is a big deal for Mount Hood. More than the original Mount Hood Wilderness area created with the Wilderness Act in 1964, more than the subsequent wilderness additions in 1978, 1984 and 2009. And more than the Northwest Forest Act of 1992. 

Why? Because the legislation would shift the core function of the forest away from commercial logging and toward forest restoration and enhanced recreation. This is a sea change for the Forest Service – and for the mountain. The degree to which this pivot is enforced in law depends solely on what the coming legislation says, and therefore the importance of weighing in early and often (as Rep. Blumenauer likes to say).

2. It’s big deal for the Gorge, too! While the greatest impact of the proposed legislation would be on Mount Hood and the federal lands that surround the mountain, additional protections and recreation enhancements for the Gorge are part of the proposal. They represent the most important step forward since the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area was established in 1986.

Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge

3. Say it with me: Mount Hood National Recreation Area! The central and most powerful feature of the legislative concept is a dramatic expansion of the Mount Hood National Recreation Area (NRA). “Expansion” you might ask? Since when has a Mount Hood NRA even existed? Since 2009, as it turns out – though few know this, and it’s understandable. The awkwardly titled “Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness” bill that President Obama signed into law in 2009 added new wilderness and a number of other protections for Mount Hood, but tucked into the bill were three small areas to the east and southeast of the mountain deemed the “Mount Hood NRA”. 

At the time, the creation of these NRA postage stamps was really just a consolation prize to mountain bikers who stood to lose access to trails falling inside the new wilderness areas. This is a frustrating and contentious issue among should-be conservation allies that was never anticipated when the Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964 (bicycles are interpreted as mechanized, and thus excluded under the law). Though token as the original Mount Hood NRA units were, I wrote in this article several years ago that they also represented an opportunity to someday help Mount Hood achieve full recognition as a national treasure worthy of permanent protection. It was legislative foot in the door that may be about to open much wider.

The power of the NRA is clear in the legislative concept: it would encompass most of the Mount Hood National Forest north the Clackamas River, or roughly half the forest. The Forest Service would be thereby directed to write a new management plan for this vast area that focuses on forest restoration, recreation and watershed and water quality. This is a long-overdue change from the commercial logging mission that has hammered the mountain since the 1950s. As envisioned in the legislative concept, the new mandate would be to restore forest health and promote recreational activities that are in concert with a recovering forest that will be allowed to grow old, once again. 

Rainforest along Whale Creek on the Clackamas River Trail

Did you know the current plan guiding the Forest Service for their management decisions was adopted more than 30 years ago, in 1990? The Portland region, alone, has grown by well over 1 million residents in that time, but aside from expansion of the commercial ski resorts, recreation opportunities on Mount Hood haven’t expanded — with the resulting traffic and trailhead crowding we see as a familiar reminder. The legislative concept speaks directly to this crisis in management, with a clear directive to the Forest Service to change its focus to better reflect the interests and concerns of a changed region. This is a sea change for Mount Hood.

Conservationists remain wary of the NRA, however. Why? Because they rightly point to the fact that every NRA in this country is a bit different, each tailored to the specific area they were created for. In Oregon, this includes the Oregon Dunes and Hells Canyon, for example. While some NRAs are written with conservation in mind, others are relatively toothless and don’t give the Forest Service much direction in how to manage these areas. This is why the details in the legislative language matters. 

4. More Wilderness and Wild & Scenic Rivers. Senator Wyden has been particularly focused on expanding Oregon’s system of Wild & Scenic Rivers in recent years, a protection that mostly prevents rivers from being dammed, but also offers other protections intended to keep river corridors healthy and functioning for wildlife. The proposed legislation would add sections of the West Fork Hood River, Lake Branch, Coe and Eliot Branches, Cold Spring Creek and the Dog River to the Wild & Scenic River system in the Hood River basin, alone. On the west side of the mountain, sections of the Clear Fork of the Sandy River, Zigzag River and Still Creek would be added to the Wild & Scenic River system. The limit to this protection is that it only applies to public lands, and most of these streams flow through private lands, as well. These stretches located outside public ownership are not included in the legislative concept. 

Wilderness expansions are an expected part of any new conservation bill for Mount Hood and the Gorge, even though most of the truly wild areas have already protected through past legislation. Therefore, most of the new areas being proposed are expansions of existing wilderness, including Lost Lake Butte, the middle Coe and Eliot Branch canyons near Cloud Cap, popular Tamanawas Falls, the east side of Bluegrass Ridge, the Red Hill area along the Old Vista Ridge trail and several small expansions along the east end of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness.

Tamanawas Falls on Cold Spring Creek, one of the new wilderness areas in the proposed legislation

5. Moving trail stewardship up the Forest Service priority list? Ask someone who volunteers as a trail steward for one of the non-profits who work in WyEast Country (Trailkeepers of Oregon, Pacific Crest Trail Association, Mazamas, Backcountry Horsemen, Oregon Equestrian Trails, and Oregon Mountain Biking Coalition, to name among the most active) and they will tell you that one of the main obstacles in putting tools in the hands of volunteers on our trails is the Forest Service, itself. Compared to working with local and state land managers, navigating the Forest Service is a real challenge, even when you’re trying to bring needed resources in the form of volunteer labor.

The legislative concept builds on outreach conducted by Rep. Blumenauer’s staff to most of these groups to figure out what’s missing in the current Forest Service structure and what could be done differently to make trail stewardship volunteering easier. As written, the concept is a bit squishy, but the general themes of dedicating more Forest Service staff to serve as a coordination hub, and giving them new tools for coordinating virtually with volunteers is a good start. More thoughts on this topic follow in this article.

6. Talking with the tribes. This legislative concept has been in development for a while, and to the credit of Rep. Blumenauer and Sen. Wyden, it was slowed along the way to ensure meaningful consultation with affected tribes. As drafted, the legislative concept focuses on Forest Service obligations to better consult and coordinate with the tribes and to specifically to deliver on a first foods plan that would be added to the policies that guide forest management. More thoughts on this topic follow, as well.

Looking across the Columbia River to the town of Lyle from Rowena Plateau

7. Gorge Towns to Trails vision. Long advocated by Friends of the Columbia Gorge, this is a bold, long-term vision to create a European-style trekking network encircling the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The legislative concept gives a nod to the vision in all but name, along with a general direction to the Forest Service to develop a comprehensive system plan for all trails the Gorge. 

It’s no secret that in the past the Columbia Gorge Commission staff has viewed new trails in the Gorge quite negatively, and National Scenic Area staff have also been reluctant to consider trail expansion, as well. This, despite the overwhelming growth in demand and resulting overcrowding that is apparent to anyone who spends time in the Gorge. The proposed legislation would guide staff at both agencies with a clearer vision for how and where trails will be expanded in the Gorge, and how existing trails experiencing overuse can be better managed.

8. Improving Mount Hood & Gorge Transportation. Who can argue with this? It can only get better, right? And yet, this is perhaps the squishiest of the elements in the legislative concept, as most of what it calls for is already being provided and the concept simply calls for more – as in more public transit and transportation “options” (read: bikeways?), more rest areas, more law enforcement, more emergency response capacity. What the concept misses is that transportation, itself, is a recreation experience, not just a service. More thoughts on this topic follow below, as well.

The Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood (September 2, 2011)

9. Forest Fire “management”? Well, it’s safe to say that as a society we are beginning to grapple with the reality that a century of aggressive forest fire suppression coupled with a warming climate has set up an impossibly volatile circumstance in our forests. But I would emphasize the word “beginning”, because while the scientists and public agencies (and even a few politicians) understand the situation, there remains intense public pressure to somehow prevent forest fires – especially from people who live in the so-called “urban-rural interface”. This is policy jargon for people who live on private forested acreages abutting our public lands in places like the U.S. 26 corridor, and who are at real risk from catastrophic forest fires.

At best, we might be able to reduce the number of human-caused fires. These are still the majority, including the massive Riverside (2020) and Eagle Creek (2017) fires that scorched a large chunk of Mount Hood National Forest in the past five years. The proposed legislation tries to ease into this with by requiring the Forest Service to create a “mitigation and adaptation” plan for managing both fire risk and response. “Mitigation” would include prescribed burns and thinning crowded plantations on old clear cuts to improve forest health and fire resilience – two of the main ways the Forest Service is responding to the growth in catastrophic fires in the West. 

“Adaptation” is less defined in the proposed legislation, however. The elephant in the room are the thousands of homes and summer cabins (hundreds of them on federal land through 99-year leases) located in that “urban-rural interface”. Can they be protected? The fire that tore through the communities of Talent and Phoenix in Southern Oregon in 2020 didn’t stop at the urban-rural interface, they burned right in developed urban areas. “Adaptation” suggests that we might change how and where we live in relations to forests in the future, so what does that mean for the urban-rural interface, before or after fire? I don’t envy the Forest Service on this task, nor will this legislation solve the larger policy dilemma, but there’s no question it will need to be part of developing a Mount Hood NRA plan.

In a rare moment of justice, these target shooters were caught in a no shooting zone on Wildcat Mountain, and asked to clean up their trash while the deputy watched (2010)

10. Who isn’t for public safety in our forests? This is another topic the proposed legislation didn’t have much choice in acknowledging. Most who visit Mount Hood in the Gorge are keenly aware of the lawless activity that finds refuge in a vast area with little law enforcement presence. The legislative concept calls for more funding, including for local law enforcement, as well as “public education”. More thoughts on this topic follow, as well.

So, I’ve highlighted the main take-aways as a WyEast advocate who has long dreamed of a fundamental shift on management focus like this, but the legislative concept has more.

You can download the concept document here:

Draft Legislative Concept

You can also view and download the surprisingly detailed draft concept map here:

Draft Concept Map

And you can comment directly on the proposed Mount Hood NRA legislation here:

Public Comment Form

This will take you to an online form for sharing your thoughts. The following are what I plan to share during this comment period – and they might be useful to you, as well.

What’s Missing from the Concept?

Though there’s a looming comment deadline of January 7 (this Friday!), this legislative process is just getting started, and there will be more opportunities to weigh in while congressional staff drafts the actual legislation. With any luck (and some will be needed!) and enough support, this just might make it through the most divisive Congress in recent memory.

Here are a few things I’d like to see in the new Mount Hood legislation:

1. Restorative justice for the tribes. This means more than “living up to our statutory obligations”, as currently written in the legislative concept. Most of the statutes governing tribes in this country are rooted in our dark history of displacement and oppression of native populations, and the presumption that what was taken from the tribes must forever be lost. Restorative justice means to reverse the harm, and for Mount Hood and the Gorge might include restoring the ecosystems that provide first foods – as included in the legislative concept. But it might include dedicating or expanding public lands for the sole purpose of restoring exclusive tribal access to sacred places.

Restorative justice should include an inventory of interpretive and directional signage and symbols, too, to become inclusive of pre-white settlement history and customs, and reverse some of the cultural erasure caused by place names and white-centric written history. The most egregious examples are interpretive signs located along the Oregon Trail and Barlow Road. In my view, every one of these should include the perspective of native peoples who were pushed aside by westward expansion. But only the tribes can speak to this history from a perspective of cultural suffering, loss and continuing harm these migratory roads represent. 

Only by meaningfully engaging and listening to the tribes can the Forest Service know what a larger restorative justice commitment would look like, but it should be part of their mandate for the proposed Mount Hood NRA.

Restorative justice for tribes begins with never forgetting — nor accepting — the cultural harm to native peoples caused by white settlement in WyEast country (Celilo Falls in the late 1950s, a few years before it disappeared behind The Dalles Dam)

2. Making public lands truly public. Show up at a popular trailhead in the Gorge or on Mount Hood and you’ll immediately see that our public lands are an overwhelmingly white space. This is especially true for trails and campgrounds, as many recent studies have documented. Why is this? 

Ask a person of color, and researchers will tell you that white people who dominate the trails and campgrounds are a big part of the problem. The hostility ranges from outright and overt racist attacks to simple comments like “it’s so nice to see a person like you out here.” Well meant? Perhaps, but also unwelcome and uninvited when a simple “hello” is how a white person might have been greeted. Official signage at trailheads and campgrounds can be similarly hostile and unwelcoming in ways that are racist. It’s a problem that requires a plan of action to change.

Removing the barriers that make our public lands unwelcoming to people of color is within our reach, and must be at the core of how the proposed Mount Hood NRA is managed

The legislative concept should speak explicitly to this in the provisions required for the Mount Hood NRA management plan. As written, the concept vaguely mentions providing a “variety of recreational experiences to serve diverse users”. It should be more specific: our public lands have a racial diversity problem that implies specific bias that prevents black and brown Americans from sharing these special places equally. That’s unacceptable and should be a filter for everything in the new management plan.

Like the previous topic on restorative justice for tribes, this work must begin with the Forest Service directly engaging – and listening — to communities of color as they develop a plan of action. This conversation also means meeting black and brown communities where they are, not at a remote ranger station located miles from the nearest population center. It’s a long-overdue conversation and the proposed Mount Hood NRA is the perfect vehicle to begin this work.

3. Law enforcement without all the baggage? When I walked into White River Falls State Park last summer with a friend who is a young Black man, he groaned, cringed visibly and shook his head at a giant new sign (below) that the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department had placed at the trailhead. No doubt it was installed to deal with heavy vandalism in recent years to the historic structures in the park, but I’m quite sure the park managers didn’t intend the reaction my friend experienced. They message was intended to protect the very resources he came here to enjoy, but made him feel deeply unwelcome, instead.

This sign at White River Falls betrays a tone-deafness to how images of law enforcement might impact communities of color – in this case, literally the image a faceless authoritarian with a finger pointed at arriving visitors

It’s a painful fact that we live in fraught times with our law enforcement. So, when I read the public safety element of the legislative concept, I had that new sign at White River Falls in mind. What is the law enforcement issue there? Largely, young people tagging historic structures. I doubt the new sign with have much impact (except to become a new target for tagging?), but an occasional human law enforcement presence might help – or perhaps a security camera?

I don’t presume to know the answers, but having my own vehicles broken into a couple of times at trailheads — and having encountered much more troubling lawless behavior away from the more popular areas—I do think the idea of providing federal funding for expanded law enforcement through local counties is a good one. But given the times we live in, I’d also like to see that funding come with strings attached: the officers should be uniformed distinctly and differently from their local agency, as Mount Hood NRA officers. Creating a new, hybrid law enforcement identity would also be an opportunity to build some racial diversity in the generally rural law enforcement jurisdictions that would carry out this work.

I’m also quite open to security cameras at trailheads – as most hikers are (especially younger hikers). There was a time when this might have been controversial (say, ten years ago?) but today these are among the few public places that don’t have some sort of security monitoring, right down to our front doors, complete with doorbell cams. Lawless people know this, and it’s evidenced by the piles of broken glass than can be found throughout most of the major trailheads in the Gorge and on Mount Hood. 

Law enforcement on public lands is a thorny topic, indeed, but one that needs more thought and attention than is reflected in the current legislative concept.

Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) volunteers building new trail at Punchbowl Falls Park

4. Set benchmarks for recreation. You may know that Congress has a long history of setting annual logging quotas for the Forest Service that must be met. So, if the purpose of the Mount Hood NRA is to shift the management emphasis of the forest from commercial logging to forest recovery and recreation for Mount Hood and the Gorge, why not set quotas for recreation? 

This could be in the form of new trails and trailheads constructed, or the number of hikers who show up at trailheads – or both – measured per capita, as defined by the population living within 100 miles of the Mount Hood NRA, for example. Since the late 1960s, the Forest Service has acknowledged an ongoing growth in demand for trails, yet the system hasn’t grown, and what we have has increasingly fallen into disrepair. Why is this?

One of the greatest barriers to expanding trails is simply a mindset within the Forest Service. After decades of inadequate funding from Congress for trail construction and maintenance, the agency culture has been apprehensive to even talking about new trails. This, despite the obvious demand and overcrowding on the existing system. The problem also includes doing the needed planning, engineering and environmental assessments needed to advance new trail projects when funding does come – a critical obstacle that only the Forest Service can remove.

The proposed Mount Hood NRA provides an opportunity to link the new agency focus on recreation to both the growing interest in trails and sheer numbers of people living in proximity to the forest. If specific benchmarks were set up as funding incentive in the legislation, it could speed the transition of the Forest Service culture from logging to forest recovery and recreation, including making the planning work needed to move new trail projects from concept to construction a priority in agency budgets.

The opening segment of the new Mirror Lake Trail, the first accessible trail built on Mount Hood in decades

5. Accessible trails and trailheads are not a luxury. For too long our public land agencies have viewed recreation opportunities for people with disabilities as something outside the norm. The result is a woefully inadequate system of accessible outdoor trails for people who use walkers, wheelchairs or other mobility devices. As our population becomes increasingly older in coming years, and the share with disabilities grows, this unmet need for accessible trails will only accelerate.

There have been some shining successes – the Lost Creek nature trail and Little Crater Lake trail area couple of my favorites. But even these trails fail to get the basic maintenance needed to remain fully accessible. The legislative concept should include a specific provision that a complete system of accessible recreation facilities and sites be incorporated into the Mount Hood NRA plan and constructed as part of the benchmarked targets described above.

Who hasn’t stopped here to admire this roadside view?

6. Transportation IS a recreation experience! There’s a spot near Hood River, along the Mount Hood Loop, that I blogged about years ago. The view of Mount Hood and the upper Hood River Valley that unfolds there is world class. More often than not on a clear day, there’s a car or two pulled over, with someone taking photos with their phone. It’s not surprising, as since the original Mount Hood Loop was completed in the early 1920s, it has been a classic touring route. It just hasn’t been managed that way for many years.

It’s true that the modern Mount Hood Loop carries a lot of traffic, and the proposed legislation concept speaks to the basic transportation needs that exist – the lack of meaningful transit, the complete lack of a safe bikeway along Highway 35 and U.S. 26 and (less explicitly) the lack of what planners call “demand management” to promote incentives for visitors to use travel options like transit and visit outside of peak travel times. Demand management would include managing peak period parking at major trailheads and destinations in the Gorge and on Mount Hood – again, implied, but not specific.

These are all good things needed to make traveling around the mountain and through the Gorge a better experience, and less of a barrier to people who don’t have access (or prefer not to use a car), in particular. But the legislative concept should also call for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and Forest Service to work collaboratively to create a transportation vision – a long-range plan to make the experience of traveling to and around the mountain a destination, in itself. 

Congress can’t directly regulate ODOT, but it can regulate an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation known as the Western Federal Lands Highway Division. This is an agency with a regional office in Vancouver that has led several projects on Mount Hood in recent years, including the White River Bridge replacement, the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge restoration and designing and constructing the new Mirror Lake Trailhead. They have long worked with ODOT, and could be the avenue for the new legislation to be specific about improving the traveling experience on the mountain through a collaborative planning effort with ODOT.

ODOT’s designs for new structures in the Columbia Gorge draw from a carefully developed policy guidance developed by the agency (the new Fifteenmile Bridge on I-84)

Elements of a Mount Hood NRA transportation plan could build on the excellent design policy that ODOT has followed for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area over the past two decades. This policy guides the design and maintenance details of I-84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway from the smallest details (did you know the back of freeway signs in the Gorge are painted “national park brown”?) to bold, as ODOT gradually replaces old slab-style concrete freeway bridges in the Gorge with handsome new structures that are a visual complement to scenic area (shown above).

A Mount Hood NRA transportation plan should also incorporate the re-imagining of several long- abandoned or bypassed sections of the old loop highway into a continuation of the world-class Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail that is nearing completion in the Gorge. ODOT has built the in-house expertise for this work, and will soon have the capacity once their work on the Gorge trail “final five” miles is completes over the new few years. I posted two articles on this concept for Mount Hood early in 2021 (and have also shared these with congressional staff – please feel free to mention them in your comments, too!)

Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail Proposal – Part One

Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail Proposal – Part Two

Another piece of the transportation puzzle that calls for a plan under the new Mount Hood NRA are the off-highway, paved forest routes, like Lolo Pass Road (FR 18/ FR 1810), Dufur Mill Road (FR 44) and White River Road (FR 48) that function as scenic drives, but suffer badly from disrepair and a complete lack of visitor amenities. Each of these routes needs a management plan and vision for making them the positive recreational experience that the public is already seeking when the venture on to these roads.

Which brings me to a final element of a Mount Hood NRA transportation plan – gateways, enhanced directional signage, waysides, pullouts and interpretive displays that tell the story of WyEast country to the traveling public. These are all things you would find in a parkway design in one of our national parks, and the Mount Hood NRA should have parkway designations for Highway 35, U.S. 26 and the off-highway routes mentioned above, too, with design guidelines to ensure a great travel experience as the system is developed over time. There are plenty of great parkway plans to draw from, the proposed legislation just needs to provide the mandate to do the work.

Civilian Conservation Corps crews building trail in the 1930s

7. The CCC? It was a great idea in 1932… And it’s still a great idea: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to get young, idle men off the street and into productive work that would give them job skills, food, housing, clothing and a modest paycheck ($30/month, of which $25 was sent to their families!). It was among the most popular New Deal programs, but sadly, the CCC was disbanded in 1942 as our country went to war.

The proposed Mount Hood NRA provides a unique opportunity to revive the CCC model, but in modernized form. The benefits to the NRA are clear, with youth workers helping to restore, build and maintain trails, trailheads and campgrounds, along with habitat and forest restoration work – all things the original CCC did, and whose work still shapes what we see in our forests today.

A modern CCC would be open to all youth, not just young men, and compensation could include college tuition credits, along with a paycheck, room and board. Mount Hood already has Forest Service facilities that could (again) become CCC camps – Camp Zigzag, Timber Lake in the Clackamas River corridor and the Herman Creek work center in the Gorge, to name some of the more obvious options. 

The legislative concept hints at this possibility, but it should be fully incorporated as a core element of the vision for the Mount Hood NRA in order to drive the needed Congressional funding.

Badger Creek Wilderness and Mount Hood from the White River Wildlife Area

8. Let’s get the boundaries right. The overall scope of the Mount Hood NRA, as expressed on the draft map [link], is terrific. Notably, it includes both Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands along the west edge (along the US 26 corridor), as well as the various pieces of federal land that frame the upper Hood River Valley. It would have been easy to leave these small parcels out, but they provide an important starting point for public land acquisition by the Forest Service to better define the Mount Hood NRA – though a directive to do this work should be included in the legislation. The now-permanent Land and Water Conservation Fund already provides an important funding conduit for these needed land acquisitions.

There are also a few pieces missing from the proposed Mount Hood NRA on the concept map. First, most of the Badger Creek Wilderness is excluded. This is a big oversight if the goal of the proposed Mount Hood NRA is to shift the Forest Service focus to recreation. Why? Because the Badger Creek Wilderness has a deep backlog of trail maintenance needs that are out of reach for urban volunteers doing day trips, as many of the Badger Creek trails are remote and require overnight crews.

Second, the nearby Dog River drainage that falls within The Dalles watershed management area is excluded. The Dog River is proposed to become a Wild and Scenic River in the legislative concept, and the Dog River basin already has a lot of recreation activity, as it is not a fenced watershed. Well-traveled Dufur Mill Road (FR 44) travels extensively through the watershed, and a number of other forest roads, hiking and biking trails are in or near the watershed, including the popular High Prairie trailhead. It makes sense to include Dog River in the Mount Hood NRA in order to more effectively manage these activities — and to ensure that recreation will continue to be allowed here.

Pup Creek Falls is excluded from the proposed Mount Hood NRA, along most of  the Clackamas River National Recreation Trail

A third map oversight is along the south edge of the proposed Mount Hood NRA, where the south half of the Roaring River Wilderness is left outside the proposed recreation area, along with a section of the Clackamas River that is traversed by the Clackamas River National Scenic Trail. Some of this area was burned in the 2020 Riverside fire, and that reality, alone, is reason enough to bring it into the NRA to direct resources toward rebuilding and restoring trails and campgrounds. While I would like to see the entire Clackamas basin brought into the NRA, that will have to wait for future legislation. For now, extending the proposed Mount Hood NRA boundary south to the Collawash River confluence would be a reasonable start.

The Upper Sandy Guard Station in better days. Today, it is on the brink of being unsalvageable, despite being on the National Historic Register

9. Don’t forget our history! Finally, an important missing element in the legislative concept is some sort of recognition that we are rapidly losing historic structures through the Mount Hood National Forest. The 2020 Riverside Fire destroyed several of these priceless buildings, so recognizing and preserving the remaining gems is even more urgent today. The Mount Hood NRA management plan should include an updated historic resources inventory and plan for capital investments needed to stabilize or restore sites and structures – ideally, in partnership with non-profit partners.

What can you do?

That’s a deep dive into the legislative concept, along with ways it might be improved. If you have read this far, kudos for being a friend of Mount Hood and the Gorge! The next step is to weigh in, and you’d be surprised how much your thoughts matter to congressional staff – they really do care! The timeline for commenting on the concept and map is short – they must be submitted by this Friday, January 7. Again, here’s the online form for commenting:

Mount Hood NRA Proposal — Public Comment Form

That said, if you’re not able to weigh in during this round, watch this space – I’ll post updates on the legislation as it (hopefully) moves forward. While there is a lot of major legislation churning through Congress right now, it’s entirely possible that this concept will get turned into a bill that makes it through both chambers… with a little luck and a push for all who love Mount Hood and the Gorge!

Building the Timberline Trail

The McNeil Point Shelter.

For decades, hikers and backpackers have taken Mount Hood’s famous Timberline Trail for granted — and why not? It was one of the earliest alpine hiking trails in the American West, and seems to have evolved with the mountain itself.

But the story of the trail is one of an original vision that has been realized in fits and starts, and the story is still unfolding.

The first recreational trail on Mount Hood followed the South Eliot Moraine from Cloud Cap Inn to Cooper Spur, as shown on this 1911 map.

The first modern trail on Mount Hood was established in 1885, beginning at David Rose Cooper’s tent camp hotel, located near the present-day Cloud Cap Inn. The route followed the south Eliot Moraine to his namesake Cooper Spur. Soon thereafter, the Langille family would lead hikes and climbs on this route from the new Cloud Cap Inn, completed in 1889.

The Langilles also established a route from Cloud Cap to Elk Cove for their visitors, completing another section of what would someday become the Timberline Trail.

Hikers climbing toward Cooper Spur along one of the original sections of the Timberline Trail.

The route remains a popular trail, today, though it has never been formally adopted or maintained by the Forest Service. The first leg of this trail briefly functioned as a segment of the Timberline Trail, thanks to a temporary re-routing in the mid-2000s (more about that, later).

The significance of the original Cooper Spur trail is that it was built entirely for recreational purposes, the first such route on the mountain.

Camp Blossom was built some fifty years before Timberline Lodge was opened in 1938, but established the same network of trails that have since served the lodge.

Other hiking routes soon followed on the south side of the mountain, connecting the former Camp Blossom to nearby Paradise Park and the White River canyon. Camp Blossom was built by a “Judge Blossom” in 1888 to cater to tourists. The camp was at the end of a new wagon road from Government Camp, and located near present-day Timberline Lodge. It was eventually replaced by the Timberline Cabin (1916), and later, Timberline Lodge (1938).

The informal network of alpine trails radiating from Camp Blossom in the late 1800s still forms the framework of trails we use today. This is especially true for the nearly 7 miles of trail from White River to Paradise Park, which largely defined the Timberline Trail alignment in this section.

By the 1920s, the Langille family had developed trails from their Cloud Cap Inn to nearby Elk Cove (1924 USGS map).

By the 1920s, the Mazamas and other local outdoor clubs were pushing for more recreation facilities around the mountain, and public interest in a round-the-mountain trail was growing.

By this time, new Forest Service trails had been built on the north side of the mountain from the Clear Branch valley to Elk Cove and along Vista Ridge to WyEast Basin. These trails were connected at timberline (with a spur to Dollar Lake), creating another segment of what was to become the Timberline Trail. Combined with the route from Cloud Cap to Elk Cove, nearly 8 miles of the future Timberline Trail had been built on the north side of the mountain by the 1920s.

By the 1920s, the Vista Ridge and Elk Cove trails were established, extending the emerging Timberline Trail from Cloud Cap to Eden Park (1924 USGS map).

The Timberline Trail is Born

The concept of a complete loop around the mountain finally came together in the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery program, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), brought the needed manpower and financial resources to the project.

The CCC completed the new 37.6 mile Timberline Trail in 1934, stitching together the existing north side and south side trails, and covering completely new terrain on the remote west and east sides of the mountain.

The venerable Cooper Spur shelter still stands on the slopes above Cloud Cap, maintained by volunteers.

The Corps built a generous tread for the time in anticipation of heavy recreation use. The new trail was built 4 feet wide in forested areas, 2 feet wide in open terrain, and gently graded for easy hiking.

The trail was marked by square cedar posts placed at rectangular intervals over open country and by blazes in forested areas. Many of the distinctive trail posts survive between Cloud Cap and Gnarl Ridge, mounted in huge cairns.

Shelters were built along the trail by the CCC crews as a place for hikers to camp and rest, and as protection against sudden storms. Most are of the same stone design, with a small fireplace and chimney. They were built with steel rafters instead of wood so that the structures, themselves, would not be used as firewood in the treeless high country, and also to withstand heavy winter snows. Of the six original stone structures, only those at McNeil Point, Cairn Basin and Cooper Spur survive (see large version of map, below).

Map of the completed Timberline Trail and CCC era shelters.

(Click here for a large map)

Three wood structures were also built along lower sections of trail, at Ramona Falls, Bald Mountain and Elk Meadows. Of the three, only the rapidly deteriorating structure at Elk Meadows survives.

The completed trail featured a couple of oddities: the McNeil Point shelter had been constructed on a high bluff above the Muddy Fork that was eventually left off the final trail alignment, due to concerns about maintaining the trail at this elevation. Today, thousands of hikers nevertheless use the partially completed trail each year to reach the historic shelter and spectacular viewpoint.

Curiously, the shelter at Elk Meadows was also built off the main loop, perhaps because at the time, the meadows were seen as much a place to graze packhorses as for their scenic value. Like McNeil Point, this “forgotten” shelter continues to be a very popular stop for hikers, today.

This 1921 map shows the Oregon Skyline Trail terminating at Mount Hood, before construction of the Timberline Trail. Note the early Bull Run Reserve encompassing the entire west side of the mountain.

By the late 1930s, much of the new Timberline Trail had also been designated as an extension of the Oregon Skyline Trail — according to maps from the time (above), the Skyline had previously terminated on the slopes of Mount Hood, above Government Camp.

The expanded Skyline Trail arrived at the Timberline Trail from the south, near Timberline Lodge, turned east and traced the new Timberline Trail counter-clockwise around the mountain before descending to Lolo Pass, then headed north to Lost Lake and the Columbia Gorge.

1970s Trail Renaissance

A third major era of trail construction on the mountain came in the 1960s and 1970s, when several major re-routes of the Timberline Trail were built.

By the early 1960s, the Oregon Skyline Trail had been relocated to the west side of the mountain, following the Timberline Trail from Timberline Lodge north to the Bald Mountain Shelter, then on to Lolo Pass.

By the time the Pacific Crest Trail was established in the 1968 National Trails Act, absorbing the old Skyline Trail, a new route across the Muddy Fork canyon was in the works for the Timberline Trail.

The Cairn Basin stone shelter is the best-preserved of the CCC-era structures, thanks to more protection from the elements than most of the original buildings.

By the early 1970s, this new section rounded Yocum Ridge from Ramona Falls, crossed both branches of the Muddy Fork, then ascended to the steep meadows of Bald Mountain, one of the most popular Timberline Trail destinations today.

The new Muddy Fork segment is now part of the Timberline Trail loop, with the Pacific Crest Trail following the old Timberline Trail/Oregon Skyline Trail alignment. Though less scenic, the old route is more direct and reliable for through hikers and horses.

In contrast, the scenic new route for the Timberline Trail has been a challenge for the Forest Service to keep open, with the Muddy Fork regularly changing channels, and avalanche chutes on the valley walls taking out sections of trail, as well.

Going, going… this view from the slowly collapsing Elk Meadows shelter will soon be a memory. This is the only remaining wood shelter of three that were built by the CCC.

In the 1970s, a section of trail descending the east wall of Zigzag Canyon was also relocated, presumably as part of meeting Pacific Crest Trail design standards. While the old route traversed open, loose slopes of sand and boulders, the new trail ducks below the tree line, descending through forest in gentle switchbacks to the Zigzag River crossing of today.

At Paradise Park, a “low route” was built below the main meadow complex, and the headwater cliffs of Rushing Water Creek. Like the Zigzag Canyon reroute, the Paradise Park bypass was presumably built to PCT standards, which among other requirements, are intended to accommodate horses.

The north side of the mountain also saw major changes in the early 1970s. The original Timberline Trail had descended from Cathedral Ridge to Eden Park, before climbing around Vista Ridge and up to WyEast Basin. The new route skips Eden Park, traveling through Cairn Basin, instead, and climbing high over the crest of Vista Ridge before dropping to WyEast Basin.

Beautiful meadow views line the “new” Vista Ridge trail section completed in the early 1970s.

Finally, a section of trail near Dollar Lake was moved upslope, shortening the hike to the lake by a few hundred yards, and creating the sweeping views to the north that hikers now enjoy from open talus slopes east of Dollar Lake. Just beyond Dollar Lake junction, the descent into Elk Cove was also rebuilt, with today’s long, single switchback replacing a total of six on the old trail which descended more sharply into the cove.

In each case, the new trail segments from the early 1970s are notable for their well-graded design and longer, gentler switchbacks. While the main intent of the trail designers was an improved Timberline Trail, the new segments also created a numerous new routes for day hikers who could follow new and old trail segments to form hiking loops. These loops are among the most popular hikes on the mountain today.

The Future?

The retreat of Mount Hood’s glaciers in recent years has destabilized the outwash canyons, and in the past two decades, massive debris flows have buried highways and scoured out streambeds. One of the oldest segments of the Timberline Trail, near Cloud Cap, has been disrupted by washouts for nearly a decade, and is now completely closed, thanks to a huge washout on the Eliot Branch in 2007.

Sign from the first re-route, posted in 2001. Now the trail is completely closed at the Eliot Branch.

The Forest Service has since struggled to find funding to reconnect the trail at the Eliot Branch. The first washout moved the stream crossing uphill, taking advantage of the original Cooper Spur path established in the 1880s, then crossing to a parallel climbers path on the north moraine of the Eliot Glacier.

This temporary crossing lasted a for a few years in the early 2000s before the massive washout in 2007 permanently erased this section of trail. This portion of the loop as since been completely closed, though hundreds of hikers each summer continue to cross this extremely unstable, very dangerous terrain.

Site of the Eliot Branch washout and closure -- and the risky route hikers are taking, anyway.

The growing volatility of the glacial streams will ultimately claim other sections of trail, creating an ongoing challenge for the Forest Service to keep the Timberline Trail open each summer.

If repairing the washouts along the trail were as costly as those along the nearby Mount Hood Loop Highway, then there might be some question of whether it makes sense to keep the trail open. After all, millions of dollars are being spent this year to rebuild the Mount Hood Highway bridge over White River, yet again, in an area that has had repeated washouts.

Hikers crossing the Eliot Branch before the 2007 washout.

By comparison, a wilderness trail is exceptionally cheap to build, and much less constrained by topographical or environmental concerns than a road. It really just comes down to money and priorities, and the Forest Service simply doesn’t have the funding to keep pace with the growing needs of the Timberline Trail. With even a modest increase in funding, the trail can be rebuilt and adapted to periodic washouts, or other natural disturbances.

Speaking Up

One way to have an impact on the funding situation for the Timberline Trail is to weigh in with your Congressman and Senators. While the current political climate says that earmarks are dead, history tells us otherwise: ask for an earmark for the Timberline Trail. After all, the trail is historic and an international draw that brings tourists from around the world to help boost local economies.

If you’re not an earmark fan, then you can argue for an across-the-board funding boost for forest trails as a job-producing priority in the federal budget. A ten-fold increase over current levels would be lost in rounding areas in the context of the massive federal budget.

Yet another angle are the health benefits that trails provide, particularly given the federal government’s newly expanded interest in public health. This is emerging as the best reason to begin investing in trails, once again.

Hikers negotiating the Muddy Fork crossing after the 2002 debris flow swept through the canyon.

Of particular interest is the fact that Oregon Congressmen Earl Blumenauer and Greg Walden actually hiked the loop, just before the 2007 Eliot Branch washout. One is a Democrat, the other Republican, so you can cover your bipartisan bases with an e-mail both! They share the mountain, with the congressional district boundary running right down the middle, so both have an interest in the Timberline Trail.

Finally, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden championed expanded wilderness for the Mount Hood area for years, and President Obama finally signed the bill into law earlier this year. So, another angle is to argue for the needed funding to support trail maintenance in these new wilderness areas, especially since they will require more costly, manual maintenance now.

It really makes a difference to weigh in, plus it feels good to advocate for trails with your Congressional delegation. Here’s a handy resource page for contacting these representatives, and the rest of the Oregon delegation:

Here’s how to send an e-mail to Congress

Thanks in advance for making your voice heard!