Posted tagged ‘Flag Point’

Billy Bob, meet Joe Spandex…!

June 29, 2013

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This article is the second in a series of proposals for new “bikepacking” areas around Mount Hood and in the Gorge — places where cyclists can ride to overnight, off-road campsites. As with the earlier Waucoma Bicycle Backcountry proposal, the concept here is to convert fading logging roads into dual-track bicycle routes, complementing existing single-track trails that already exist in the area.

This proposal focuses on the potential for the Billy Bob Sno-Park to be put to work year-round, using the otherwise vacant facility in the snow-free season as the gateway to a new mountain bike network. The trailhead would become the hub of the newly created Mount Hood National Recreation Area (NRA) unit that covers the Fifteenmile Creek canyon backcountry, and was designed with backcountry bicycling in mind.

The Billy Bob Trailhead

The Billy Bob Winter Shelter

The Billy Bob Winter Shelter

The existing Billy Bob Sno-Park features a winter shelter, complete with wood stove, and is provided for snowmobiles and Nordic skiers. A local snowmobile club is under contract with the Forest Service to groom some forest roads as snowmobile routes, while ski trails are un-groomed and seldom used. Snowshoers also use Billy Bob as a base for reaching the nearby Fivemile Butte and Flag Point lookouts, as both can be rented during the winter.

The winter shelter is at the south end of a very large, paved turnaround suitable for up to 40 vehicles, including trailers carrying snowmobiles. Like the nearby Little John SnoPark, the parking area appears to be an asphalt relic from the logging heyday of the 80s and 90s, originally serving as a loading area for log trucks.

Plenty of parking here..!

Plenty of parking here..!

A pit toilet is also located here, at the northwest corner of the turnaround, opposite the shelter. Presumably, the toilet is kept snow-free in winter, but is also open in summer (though not regularly serviced… ahem!) to the rare visitor in the off-season. There is no water provided at Billy Bob.

The "modern" pit toilet at Billy Bob is relatively new

The “modern” pit toilet at Billy Bob is relatively new

In addition to winter use by snowmobiles and occasional skiers and snowshoers, Billy Bob is sometimes used as a base camp during the fall hunting season, as the surrounding area remains popular for hunting.

Fortunately, the site is far enough from population centers and major highways that it has largely been spared from the dual scourge of illegal dumping and target shooting that plagues similar pullouts and trailheads on the west side of the mountain.

The Proposal

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Click here for a large map

How would the new Fifteenmile Canyon bicycle backcountry work? The first step would be conversion of a number of old logging roads in the area to become dual-track bike trails. In this way, the routes could also continue to function as snowmobile or ski trails in the winter. These proposed routes are shown in yellow on the map.

Next, a few new dual-track trails are proposed (in solid red) where they would better connect the existing network of logging tracks and directly connect the Billy Bob site to nearby drive-up campgrounds at Pebble Ford and the Underhill Site. Abandoned logging spurs make up the bulk of these new routes, so little new construction would be required to complete these dual-track gaps.

Recovering ponderosa forests in the area are a reminder of the clearcutting heyday of the 80s and 90s

Recovering ponderosa forests in the area are a reminder of the clearcutting heyday of the 80s and 90s

The purpose of dual-track trails is to provide less experienced cyclists and families with young kids a less challenging, more relaxed alternative to single track for trail riding. Dual-track routes allow for cyclists to easily pass on the trail, so are a good solution for busy trails where riders with a range of skill levels are expected. The dual-track design would also allow for safer shared use by cyclists, hikers and horses.

In Fifteenmile Canyon, the proposal calls for converting several roads to dual track to create a loop system located along the boundaries of the new Mount Hood NRA. The dual track loop would be gated, with motorized entry limited to service vehicles for maintenance or emergency access.

Stands of large ponderosa and larch are still intact within the canyons of the Eightmile NRA

Stands of large ponderosa and larch are still intact within the canyons of the Eightmile NRA

Within the proposed dual-track loop system, the NRA is centered on the steep maze of gulches, draws and ravines that form thousand-foot deep Fifteenmile Creek canyon. Three existing hiking trails (dashed black on map) extend into the canyon, one following Fifteenmile Creek, and two climbing the north and south slopes of the canyon, connecting to area campgrounds.

The proposal would fill in a few gaps in the existing single-track trail network that explores the Fifteenmile Creek backcountry, including (in dashed red on map) a new route that would extend west from the creek canyon to Bulo Point, a lovely, almost forgotten viewpoint, treated badly during the recent logging bonanza. A new single-track tie would connect the Pebble Ford and Fifteenmile campgrounds and short tie near Fraley Point would complete the single-track system.

Ridgetop meadows and interesting rock outcrops are found throughout the area

Ridgetop meadows and interesting rock outcrops are found throughout the area

The trails at the heart of the Fifteenmile Creek backcountry traverse some of the most ecologically diverse terrain in Oregon, from sun-baked Oregon white oak stands and open balsamroot meadows on sunny slopes and ridgetops to giant ponderosa and western larch parklands along canyon slopes. There are even lush, shady Western red cedar and red alder groves tucked along Fifteenmile Creek.

The proposal calls for three new bicycle camps within this beautiful, quiet backcountry. These campsites would consist of 4-6 groomed tent sites, one or two picnic tables, fire rings and secure bike racks — a comfortable step up from the truly primitive level of wilderness, but still providing a rustic backcountry experience. This, after all, is what the NRA was created for!

The Billy Bob concept calls for 3-way sharing by trail users

The Billy Bob concept calls for 3-way sharing by trail users

A total of ten trailheads are shown on the proposal map. Some already exist, some would be new, but all would need to be upgraded under this proposal to be geared toward backcountry cyclists. This includes a complete trail map with difficulty ratings for trail segments, information on the backcountry camps and “share the trail” information for all users — as these trails would continue to serve hikers and horses, as well as cyclists.

Connections to Points Beyond

Views into the Columbia Basin desert abound from the many high points in the Fifteenmile backcountry

Views into the Columbia Basin desert abound from the many high points in the Fifteenmile backcountry

The main focus of the Billy Bob trailhead proposal is the “bikepacking” potential for the Fifteenmile Canyon backcountry, but a wealth of nearby destinations are close enough to make for fine day trips from the proposed new trailhead.

Nearby Fivemile Butte is already a popular goal for cyclists, with a lookout tower and picnic tables that provide for a rewarding destination. The Flag Point Lookout is also within reach, and still in service during the summer, providing an especially interesting destination, as the lookout staff usually welcome visitors with a tour of the tower.

Cyclists visiting the Fivemile Butte Lookout

Cyclists visiting the Fivemile Butte Lookout

Lookout Mountain is also within reach, although the summit trail falls within the Badger Creek Wilderness, and thus is off-limits to bikes. But cyclists can still ride to High Prairie on a mix of trails and primitive roads and make the short final ascent of the mountain on foot — an equally satisfying option to riding.

The remote Flag Point Lookout is still staffed in summer

The remote Flag Point Lookout is still staffed in summer

The Boy Scouts operate Camp Baldwin just to the north of the proposed bicycle backcountry, with a summer camp program that draws thousands of scouts each year. The camp program includes mountain biking into the surrounding forests, so the proposed Fifteenmile bicycle backcountry would be a natural fit for the Scouts. Even better is the possibility of an ongoing partnership between mountain biking organizations and the Scouts to build and maintain trails in the area over the long term.

Does it Make Sense?

The Surveyors Ridge area to the west of Billy Bob and Fifteenmile Canyon is already a very popular cycling destination, with overflowing trailheads on most summer weekends, so there seems more than enough demand to justify this proposal. More importantly, the Fifteenmile backcountry would provide a unique, overnight “bikepacking” experience for cyclists that doesn’t exist elsewhere on Mount Hood’s east side.

Cyclist on popular Surveyors Ridge (The Oregonian)

Cyclist on popular Surveyors Ridge (The Oregonian)

An emerging bicycle sport that could complement summer riding on the proposed trail nework is “fat biking” or snow biking. Fat bikes use oversized tires to put cyclists on snow-covered trails in winter, and it’s possible that the Billy Bob trailhead and proposed bicycle network could serve this growing form of cycling.

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Likewise, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing are continuing to grow in popularity, and though winter access to the Billy Bob trailhead is a long ride from the Portland area it could provide an important option for Gorge-based visitors looking for something away from the Portland crowds that often overwhelm Mount Hood on winter weekends.

What would it take?

Like the earlier [link=]Waucoma Bicycle Backcountry[/link] proposal on this blog, the viability of this proposal is in its simplicity: less than eight miles of new trail would open a 50-mile network, with dozens of loop options that could be tailored to the ability of individual mountain bikers.

Most of the work required could be done with the help of volunteers, from trail building and campsite development to signage and ongoing maintenance. Some heavy equipment would be required to develop the main trailhead at Billy Bob and to decommission vehicle access on some of the converted roads, and would have to be provided by the Forest Service.

Views from the open ridgetops in Fifteenmile Backcountry extend north to Mount Adams and Mount Rainer in Washington

Views from the open ridgetops in Fifteenmile Backcountry extend north to Mount Adams and Mount Rainer in Washington

The proposal would also require the Forest Service to fully devote the Fifteenmile Canyon to quiet recreation during the snow-free months. A few years ago, that would have been unlikely, but in recent years, the agency has not only adopted plans to phase out hundreds of miles of logging roads, but also adopted a new policy to focus OHV use in a few, very specific areas of the forest.

These recent developments could move this proposal if public support exists for a bicycle backcountry, although the Forest Service will need continued support from quiet recreation advocates to convert old logging roads to trails: recently, the agency has put plans to phase out old roads in the Barlow Ranger District that encompasses the Fifteenmile backcountry on hold, due in part to pressure from OHV groups.

The good news is that mountain bicycling organizations are already working hard to develop trails elsewhere in the Mount Hood region and hopefully would find this proposal worth pursuing, too. If you’re a mountain biker, you can do your part by sharing this article with like-minded enthusiasts, or your favorite mountain biking organization that could serve as a champion!
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Bikepacking Resources:

Bikepacking.net is an online community that focuses on off-road touring, away from cars, with great information on gear, routes and trip planning.

The Adventure Cycling Association posted this helpful article on how to pack for your bikepack trip.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) is the premier organization and advocate for backcountry bicycling.

In the Mount Hood region, the Northwest Trail Alliance is the IMBA Chapter doing the heavy-lifting on bicycle trail advocacy.

The IMBA has a guide to fat biking.

Flag Point Lookout

October 22, 2010

In the early days at the turn of the 20th Century, the U.S. Forest Service was primarily a security force, tasked with guarding our public lands from timber thieves and squatters. This role expanded to include fire suppression in the early 1900s, a move that we see today as ecologically disastrous, but at the time, responded to massive fires destroying living trees that were valued in board feet, not biology.

The most enduring legacy from this era was the construction of thousands of fire lookouts, hundreds of forest guard stations and a sprawling network connecting trails and primitive dirt roads.

Though the lookouts and guard stations are mostly gone, the trail network still survives as the backbone of today’s recreation trail system. A few trails still lead to surviving lookouts scattered across the country. This article describes one such survivor, the Flag Point Lookout, located at 5,636 feet on a rocky, flat-topped bluff two miles east of Lookout Mountain.

The primitive road to Flag Point is surrounded on three sides by the Badger Creek Wilderness

The Flag Point Lookout is unique in that it continues to serve as an active fire lookout during the summer. The view from the lookout surveys a broad sweep of the eastern slopes of Lookout Mountain, far into the Eastern Oregon sagebrush and ranchland, and south into the rugged Badger Creek Wilderness.

The second structure on Flag Point was this L-4 cabin constructed in 1932, and later replaced by the current structure

Since the establishment of the Badger Creek Wilderness in 1984, The Flag Point lookout and the long, rugged 1930s-era dirt road leading to it have been surrounded on three sides by federally protected wilderness (The same 1984 legislation left two other surviving lookouts in the Mount Hood area, the Devils Peak and Bull of the Woods towers, inside new wilderness areas, where they are now maintained by volunteers as hiking destinations).

The first lookout structure at Flag Point was a six-foot square cabin on a 40-foot pole tower, built in 1924. It must have been terrifying in rough conditions, and was soon replaced with the popular L-4 style cabin (pictured above) on a 30-foot pole tower in 1932, a design that was found across Oregon.

Later improvements to the second tower were made in 1955, and a series of outbuildings were added over the years, replacing the original tent camp that accompanied the first structure.

The current lookout tower and outbuildings at Flag Point

In 1973, the third and current lookout structure was built — an R-6 flat top cabin on a 41-foot tower constructed of sturdy, pressure-treated cross-timbers. Like many lookouts, the structure is primarily held in place by stay cables, and simply rests upon its four concrete foundation feet.

Though the current structure is still too young to be listed on the National Historic Register, it has been listed on the National Lookout Register. It will become eligible for the historic register in just 13 years, in 2023.

Amazingly, the tower is anchored by cables, and simply sits upon its four foundation piers

The Flag Point Lookout is also notable for the remarkable forest ecosystem that surrounds it, where stands of fir and mountain hemlock blend with western larch and ponderosa as east meets west. The rain shadow effect of the Cascade Range is plainly visible from Flag Point, where the sweeping view extends far into the sagebrush deserts of Eastern Oregon.

Ironically, these are fire forests, an ecosystem that has specifically evolved around wildfire cycles, and thus have suffered greatly from the well-intended “protection” from fire that the lookouts have provided. Today, natural fires in the Badger Creek Wilderness are likely to be allowed to burn, with the Forest Service intervening only when homes or private property outside the wilderness are threatened.

The plank staircases are beautifully constructed with rabbet and dado joints, and enclosed with galvanized steel mesh

Beneath the forest canopy, the wildflowers of Flag Point are as diverse as the conifers, with mountain and desert species mingling in the sunny, open meadows. The Divide Trail, connecting Flag Point to Lookout Mountain, provides one of the best wildflower hikes in the region in early summer, traversing through miles of meadows and rock gardens along the way.

Flag Point was an important forest destination in its time, and still serves as the hub for several forest trails that are a legacy of the early lookout era. In addition to the Divide Trail, the lookout has trails radiating to Ball Point, Gordon Butte and Badger Creek. Today, most visitors to the lookout arrive via the access road, but hikers and horse packers also regularly visit the lookout from this network of wilderness trails.

The key to the design of the Flag Point tower is a sturdy maze of treated cross-timbers

The cabin atop the Flag Point lookout consists of a 14-by-14 foot interior, surrounded by an airy exterior catwalk. Steel mesh fills the gap between catwalk railings, adding some degree of confidence for vertiginous visitors.

The small cabin is furnished with a bed, a wood stove for heat, gas cook stove, table and chair, and a solar lighting system — a modern amenity that early lookouts couldn’t have imagined.

Looking east, the view extends beyond the Cascades and across the Oregon desert country (USFS Photo)

At the center of the cabin is a map table that echoes the original Osborne fire finders used to pinpoint fire locations. Outside, a rope and pulley system is used to haul supplies and firewood to the catwalk from the base of the tower.

Water for drinking, cooking and washing must be hauled in to the tower by truck, though early lookouts simply carried water from the nearby Sunrise and Sunset springs. Outbuildings include an outhouse, woodshed and an A-frame communications shack has been added to the west of the tower.

The view to the west provides a spectacular look at Mount Hood and nearby Lookout Mountain (USFS Photo)

Visiting the Lookout

Anyone can visit the Flag Point Lookout by simply parking at the locked gate, and hiking about one quarter mile to the lookout complex. The tower is generally staffed from June 1 through October 15, so be courteous and let the lookout know you’re visiting before climbing the tower. If you’re lucky, the lookout will be on site and invite you up for a tour. If the tower is closed, you can still climb to the lower catwalk for a close-up look at the structure, and views of the surrounding terrain.

The Flag Point lookout also makes for an interesting add-on to the Divide Trail hike to Lookout Mountain. You can simply hike to the lookout along the Flag Point Road from the Divide Trail (about 3/4 mile each way), or shuttle your car to the gate, saving about a mile of road hiking, round-trip.

In winter, the Forest Service rents the lookout cabin to skiers looking for a rugged, remote experience. Of the handful of lookouts open as winter rentals, the Flag Point Lookout is one of the most challenging to reach. You can learn more about winter rentals at the lookout here.

Relic from a bygone era, this 1940s DeSoto is slowly fading into the forest near Flag Point, where it was mysteriously parked decades ago

How to Get There

Reaching the lookout is an adventure in its own right. The last few miles of forest roads are generally open from June through October. From Portland, drive east on US 26 through Government Camp, then follow Highway 35 across the White River, and down the East Fork Hood River valley, beyond the Meadows ski resort.

Turn east (right) on Road 44, where signs point to Dufur and Camp Baldwin, and follow this paved road for 8 miles to the poorly marked junction with Road 4420. Turn south (right) and follow this paved forest road as it eventually curves past the Fifteenmile Campground. Just beyond the sharp bend at the campground, watch for dirt road No. 200, heading abruptly uphill and to the right. This is the Flag Point road, and it bumps along for the next 3.5 miles to the lookout gate. Parking is available near the gate.

Note: unfortunately, the Forest Service has recently ditched this road with a series of water bars that make for very slow going, and make the trip a rough ride for passenger vehicles – take it slowly!