Proposal: Historic Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail (Part 2 of 2)

Yellow paint still marks the old centerline of an abandoned section of the historic Mount Hood Loop highway, nearly covered with more than 60 years of moss and ferns.

(Part 1 of this article introduced the idea of restoring the surviving sections of the old Mount Hood Loop Highway to become part of a world-class cycle tour along this historic route. Part 2 focuses on these surviving historic sections of the old road, from Zigzag on the west side of the mountain to the Sherwood Campground on the east side, and how to bring this vision to reality)

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THE CONCEPT

In the near-century since the original Mount Hood Loop was completed in early 1920s, the old route has gradually been replaced with straighter, faster “modern” highways. In areas outside Mount Hood National Forest, the bypassed sections of the old road are mostly still in use, often serving as local roads. But inside the national forest, from Zigzag to Sherwood Campground, long sections of the old road were simply abandoned, left to revert to nature when new, modern roads were built in the 1950s and 60s. Some bypassed sections are still in use, though mostly forgotten.

This is 1930s-era map (below) shows the original alignment of the Mount Hood Loop highway in red and the approximate location of the modern highway alignments of US 26 and OR 35 superimposed in black:

[click here for a large version of this map]

The concept of reconnecting these forgotten sections of historic road is straightforward, building on the example of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) in the Columbia Gorge. As in the Gorge, places where modern highways on Mount Hood simply abandoned or bypassed the old route, the surviving segments of the old road would be the historic building blocks for creating a new “state trail”, which is simply a paved bicycle and pedestrian path closed to automobiles. 

Sections where the historic route was completely destroyed by modern highways would be reconnected with new trail, like we see in the Gorge, or with protected shoulder lanes on quiet sections of the modern highway in a couple areas.

This map shows the overall concept for restoring the route as the Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail:

[click here for the 11×17″ JPG version]

[click here for the 11×17″ PDF version]

Segments shown in blue on the concept map are where bypassed sections of the old highway still survive and segments shown in red are where new trails would connect the surviving historic segments. All of the new trail sections are proposed to follow existing forest roads to minimize costs and impacts on the forest. 

The concept map also shows several trailheads along the route where visitors would not only use to access the trail, but would also have trail information and toilets. These trailheads already exist in most cases, with several functioning as winter SnoParks that could be used year-round as part of the new trail concept.

Six Forest Service campgrounds (Tollgate, Camp Creek, Still Creek, Trillium Lake, Robinhood and Sherwood) already exist along the proposed route and two long-forgotten campgrounds (Twin Bridges and Hood River Meadows) are still intact and could easily be reopened as bikepacking-only destinations.

EXPLORING THE ROUTE

The next part of this article explores the scenic and historic highlights of the historic highway in three sections, from Rhododendron on the west side of the mountain to the Sherwood Campground and East Fork Hood River on the east side.

West Section – Rhododendron to Government Camp

The historic bridge over the Little Zigzag River survives, marking the beginning of a gracefully, winding ascent of Laurel Hill along the old loop highway

Beginning at the tiny mountain community of Zigzag, it’s possible to follow a couple bypassed segments of the old loop highway, notably along Faubion Road, but most of this section would follow a new, protected path on US 26 to Rhododendron, where the off-high trail concept begins. 

Part 1 of this article outlined the economic benefits of cycle touring, and by anchoring the west end of the new trail in Rhododendron, this small community would benefit from tourism in a way that speeding winter ski traffic simply doesn’t offer. The gateway trailhead would be located at the east end of Rhododendron, connecting to the Tollgate Campground, the first camping opportunity along the proposed route

The Barlow Road Tollgate near Rhododendron in the 1880s

From Tollgate, the new route would follow the Pioneer Bridle Trail for the next two miles to the Kiwanis Camp Road junction, on US 26. This is a lightly used section of the Pioneer Bridle Trail, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps from Tollgate to Government Camp in the 1930s. This part of the corridor follows the relatively flat valley floor of the Zigzag River, so there is plenty of room for a new trail to run parallel to the Pioneer Bridle Trail, as another option.

Pioneer Bridle Trail east of Tollgate

Once at the Kiwanis Camp Road junction, the new route would share this quiet forest road for the next next couple miles. Kiwanis Camp Road is actually a renamed, surviving section of the old highway and still provides access to the Paradise Park and Hidden Lake trails into the Mount Hood Wilderness. 

The Zigzag River passing through the old Twin Bridges campground site

Along the way, this section of old highway passes the site of the long-abandoned Twin Bridges campground, where a surviving bridge also forms the trailhead for the Paradise Park Trail. This shady old campground is quite beautiful, with the rushing Zigzag River passing through it. It could easily be reopened as a bikepacking-only camping spot along the tour.

Little Zigzag Falls

This operating section of old highway soon ends at the Little Zigzag River and the short spur trail to pretty Little Zigzag Falls. The enormous turnaround here once served as a rock quarry for the original loop highway, and has plenty of room serve as trailhead for the new state trail

From here, the old road begins an ascent of Laurel Hill, one of the most scenic and fascinating sections of the old highway. Large boulders now block the old highway at the historic bridge that crosses the Little Zigzag River, and from there, an abandoned section of the old road begins the traverse of Laurel Hill.

Abandoned historic highway section near the Little Zigzag crossing

This abandoned section of historic road crosses the upper portion of the Pioneer Bridle Trail where an unusual horse tunnel was constructed under the old highway as part of creating the Bridle Trail. It’s hard to imagine enough highway traffic in the 1930s to warrant this structure, but perhaps the trail builders were concerned about speeding Model As surprising visitors crossing the road on horseback? Whatever the reason, the stone bridge/tunnel structure is one of the many surviving gems hidden along the old highway corridor.

Pioneer Bridle Trail tunnel under an abandoned section of the historic loop highway

From the Pioneer Bridle tunnel overcrossing, the old road soon dead-ends at a tall embankment, where modern US 26 cuts across the historic route. The spot where the modern highway was built was once one of the most photographed waysides along the old highway, appearing in dozens of postcards and travel brochures. It was the first good view of the mountain from the old highway as it ascended from the floor of the Zigzag Valley to Government Camp (below).

While much of the old road has survived, the modern alignment of US 26 cut through this spot on the old loop, creating one of two gaps on Laurel Hill that will require significant structures to reconnect

Although almost all of the old highway survives where it climbs the Laurel Hill grade, this spot marks one of the two major gaps along the way that would require a significant new structure to reconnect the route. A second gap occurs at the crest of Laurel Hill, to the east, where the modern highway cuts deeply through the mountain. This map shows the surviving, abandoned sections of the historic highway along the Laurel Hill grade and upper and lower gaps that must be bridged:

[click here for a large version of this map]

On the ground, the lower Laurel Hill gap looks like this:

The lower Laurel Hill gap is at a well-known spot where a history marker points toward a short trail to one of the Barlow Road “chutes” that white migrants on the Oregon Trail endured in their final push to the Willamette Valley. 

ODOT has made this section of highway much faster and more freeway-like in recent years in the name of “safety”, but in the process made it impossible for hikers to cross the highway from the Pioneer Bridge Trail to visit the Barlow Road chute. A freeway-style median now blocks anyone from simply walking across the highway and cyclone fences have been added to the north side to make sure hikers get the message.

Given this reality, both of the Laurel Hill gaps would be great candidates for major new crossings, along the lines of work ODOT has done in the Gorge to reconnect the HCRH. This viaduct (below) was recently built by ODOT at Summit Creek, on the east side of Shellrock Mountain, where the modern I-84 alignment similarly took a bite out of an inclined section of the old highway, leaving a 40-foot drop-off where the old road once contoured downhill. This sort of solution could work at the lower Laurel Hill gap, too.

This new bicycle and pedestrian viaduct reconnects surviving segments of the original highway near Summit Creek along the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.

Beyond the Laurel Hill history marker on the south side of the modern US 26, a set of 1950s stone steps (below) leads occasional visitors up to the next section of abandoned Mount Hood Loop highway, where the old route continues its steady climb of Laurel Hill.

Stone steps leading from US 26 to the Barlow Road “chute” on Laurel Hill

This section of the abandoned route is in remarkably good shape, despite more than 60 years of no maintenance, whatsoever. It also briefly serves as the trail to a viewpoint of the Barlow Road chute — a footpath to the top of the chute resumes on the opposite side of the old highway, about 100 yards from the stone steps.

Abandoned section of the loop highway near the Barlow Road chute

When the historic highway was built in the 1920s, the Barlow Road was still clearly visible and only a few decades old. Despite the care they used elsewhere to build the scenic new road in concert with the landscape, there was no care given to preserving the old Barlow Road. Thus, the historic highway cut directly across the chute, permanently removing a piece of Oregon history. 

Today, the footpath to the top of the chute still gives a good sense of just how daunting this part of the journey was (below). This short spur trail, and others like it along the surviving sections of the old highway, would be integrated into the restored Mount Hood Loop route, providing side attractions for cyclists and hikers to explore along the way.

Looking down the Barlow Road chute from the interpretive trail

Beyond the Barlow chute, the old highway enters a very lush section of forest, where foot traffic from explorers continues to keep a section of old pavement bare (below). Scratch the surface, and even under this much understory, the old highway continues to be in very good condition and could easily be restored in the same way old sections of highway in the Gorge have been brought back to life as a trail.

Abandoned section of the old loop highway near Yocum Falls

Some of the foot traffic along the abandoned Laurel Hill section of the old loop road is headed toward a little-known user path that drops steeply down to Yocum Falls, on Camp Creek. This is a lovely spot that deserves a proper trail someday, and would make an excellent family destination, much as the Little Zigzag Falls trail is today.

Yocum Falls is mostly forgotten since the construction of the modern highway, but remains as beautiful as when it was featured on postcards in the 1920s

Yocum Falls was once well known, as the full extent of this multi-tiered cascade could be seen from along the old highway. As this old postcard from the 1920s shows (below), Camp Creek also served as a fire break for the Sherar Burn, which encompassed much of the area south of today’s US 26 in the early 1900s. You can see burned forest on the south (right) side in this photo and surviving forest on the north (left) side:

Yocum Falls in a 1920s postcard view from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

The fire also created this temporary view of the falls in the early 1900s, but the forest has since recovered and obscured the view. Today, the short hike down to the falls on the user path is required for a front-row view of Yocum Falls.

Beyond the falls, the abandoned highway makes a pronounced switchback and begins a traverse toward the crest of Laurel Hill. Here, the vegetation becomes more open, and road surface more visible (below).

Abandoned section of the old highway as it approaches the crest of Laurel Hill

Soon this abandoned section of old road makes another turn, this time onto the crest of Laurel Hill. When the historic highway was built, this stretch was still recovering from the Sherar Burn, and the summit was dense with rhododendron and beargrass that put on an annual flower show each June. This was perhaps the most iconic stop along the old route, appearing on countless postcards, calendars and print ads (below).

1940s tourism ad featuring the (then) famous view of Mount Hood from Laurel Hill

Today, most of this section has reforested, but there are still views of the mountain and opportunities for new viewpoints that could match what those Model A drivers experienced in the early days of touring on Mount Hood.

Soon, this abandoned section of old road on Laurel Hill reaches the upper gap, where ODOT has recently made the yawning cut through the crest of the hill even wider. This schematic is a view of the cut looking north (toward the mountain), with the stubs of the historic highway shown: 

If there is any good news here, it is that the modern highway cut is perpendicular to the old loop highway, making it possible to directly connect the surviving sections of the old road with a new bridge. This view (below) is from the eastern stub of the old route, where it suddenly arrives at the modern highway cut. The stub on west side of the cut is plainly visible across US 26:

This panoramic view (below) from the same spot gives a better sense of the gap and the opportunity to bride the upper Laurel Hill gap as part of restoring the old route as a trail. A bonus of bridging the upper gap would be an exceptional view of Mount Hood, which fills the northern skyline from here.

The upper gap is about 250 feet across and 40 feet deep, so are there any local examples of a bridge that could span this? One historic example is the old Moffett Creek Bridge on the HCRH, pictured below while it was being constructed in 1916. This bridge measures about 200 feet in length with a single arch.

Moffett Creek Bridge construction along the Columbia River Highway in 1916

The City of Portland recently broke ground on the new Earl Blumenauer Bridge, a bicycle and pedestrian crossing over Sullivan’s Gulch (and I-84) in Portland. This very modern design (below) might not be the best look for restoring a historic route on Mount Hood, but at 475 feet in length, this $13.7 million structure does give a sense of what it would take to span the upper gap at Laurel Hill. 

The City of Portland recently broke ground for this new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Sullivan’s Gulch, linking the Lloyd District to Portland’s Central Eastside (City of Portland)

That sounds like a big price tag, but consider that ODOT recently spent three times that amountsimply to add a lane and build a concrete median on the Laurel Hill section of US 26. It’s more about priorities and a vision for restoring the old road than available highway funding. More about that in a moment.

Moving east from the upper Laurel Hill gap, the abandoned section of the old highway continues (below) toward Government Camp, eventually reaching the Glacier View trailhead, where the surviving old highway now serves as the access road to this popular, but cramped, SnoPark.

Abandoned section of the loop highway near Government Camp

Sadly, the Forest Service recently destroyed a portion of the abandoned loop highway just west of the Glacier View trailhead, leaving heaps of senselessly plowed-up pavement behind. While destroying this section of historic road was frustrating (and possibly illegal), it can still be restored fairly easily. But this regrettable episode was another reminder of the vulnerability of the old highway without a plan to preserve and restore it.

Piles of paving line a short section of the abandoned loop highway near Government Camp where the Forest Service recently destroyed the road surface with no consideration of its historic value — a senseless reminder of the vulnerability of this precious route

From the Glacier View trailhead, the old road become an operating roadway once again, curving south to another junction with US 26, across from the new Mirror Lake trailhead, where a major new recreation site completed in 2018. This trailhead provides parking, restrooms and interpretive displays for visitors to the popular Mirror Lake trail, and is immediately adjacent to the Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort and lodge.

Plans call for a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over US 26 at the Mirror Lake trailhead, spanning one of the critical gaps necessary to reconnect the old highway route

Crossing the US 26 at this junction is a sketchy, scary experience, especially on foot or a bicycle. Fortunately, the 2014 Mount Hood Multimodal Plan, adopted jointly by the Forest Service and ODOT, calls for a major bicycle and pedestrian bridge here to allow for safe crossing by hikers, cyclists, skiers and snowshoers, so a plan is already in place to resolve this obstacle.

Middle Section – Government Camp to Barlow Pass

Mount Hood mirrored in one of the ponds at Multorpor Fen (State of Oregon)

From the Mirror Lake trailhead, the old highway loops through today’s parking lot at the Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort, then crosses US 26 again to loop through the mountain village of Government Camp. These graceful curves in the old route were bisected when the modern US 26 was built in the 1950s, leaving them intact as local access roads. However, because the Government Camp section of the old road serves as the village main street, the concept for a Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail parallels the south edge of US 26 along a proposed new trail section, and avoids two crossings of the modern highway in the process. 

However, a more interesting (but complicated) option in this area is possible along the south edge of the Multorpor Fen, an intricate network of ponds, bogs and meadows sandwiched between the east and west Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort units. The remarkable view in the photo above shows one of the ponds along this alternate route, far enough from the modern highway to make traffic noise a distant hum. However, this route would also require crossing a section of private land at Ski Bowl East. The mountain views and buffer from the highway make this an option worth considering, nonetheless.

Both options are shown on the concept map at the top of this article, and either route through the Government Camp area leads to the northern foot of Multorpor Mountain, where the concept for the state trail is to repurpose a combination of existing and abandoned forest roads as new trail to historic Summit Meadow and popular Trillium Lake, where the second and third campgrounds along the proposed trail are located.

Historic Summit Meadow, a crucial resting spot for white Oregon Trail migrants in the 1840s along the old Barlow Road
Mount Hood from Trillium Lake

From Trillium Lake, the new trail would follow existing forest roads toward Red Top Meadow, to the east, then follow a new route for about a mile to the continuation of the historic loop highway, just east of the US 26/OR 35 junction. Here, a surviving section of the old road is maintained and remains open to the public, passing the mysterious Pioneer Woman’s Grave site as it climbs toward Barlow Pass. 

Surviving section of the old loop highway near Barlow Pass that is still open for use
This massive, carved history marker once stood at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave along the old loop highway, near Barlow Pass
The badly neglected Pioneer Woman’s Grave site today

When the original highway was completed in the 1920s, a viewpoint along this section of the road was called “Buzzard Point” and inspired postcards and calendar photos in its day. Few call this spot Buzzard Point anymore, but the view survives, along with a rustic roadside fountain built of native stone and still carrying spring water to the passing public. In winter, this section of the old road is also popular with skiers and snowshoers.

This 1920s view from Buzzard Point was well-known in the heyday of the old loop highway
This surviving stone water fountain near Buzzard Point is still flowing nearly a century after it was built!

This section of the old route continues another mile or so to the large SnoPark at Barlow Pass, another important trailhead that serves both the loop highway corridor and the Pacific Crest Trail.

East Section – Barlow Pass to Sherwood Campground

Barlow Road history sign at the Barlow Pass trailhead, where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the historic loop highway

From Barlow Pass, the trail concept calls for a protected bikeway on the shoulder of OR 35, where it crosses the White River and climbs to Bennett Pass. It would be possible for the trail to take a different route along this section, but the traffic volumes and speed on OR 35 are much less intimidating than those on US 26, especially from spring through fall, when ski resort traffic all but disappears. There is also plenty of room to add protected bike lanes along this section of OR 35, including on the new bridge over the White River that was completed just a few years ago.

The Mount Hood Loop trail concept would follow this section of OR 35 as a protected bikeway from Barlow Pass to the White River and Bennett Pass
The White River crossing has always been a popular stop along the Mount Hood Loop Highway. In the early days, motorists could stop here to picnic and pick up souvenirs at “White River Park”
The White River is a notoriously wild glacial stream that has a long history of washing out the loop highway bridges — this was the first bridge to span the river as it appeared in the 1920s
This is a 1930s version of the White River Bridge, one still constructed of logs and planks
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt stopped at the White River crossing in 1937 on their famous tour of the Mount Hood Loop Highway and dedication of Timberline Lodge

Upon reaching Bennett Pass, the proposed route would once again follow an especially scenic section of bypassed historic highway, with views of waterfalls, alpine meadows and the mountain towering above.

Mount Hood from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway at Bennett Pass in the 1930s
1950s view of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Bennett Pass before the modern highway was constructed

Of the many scenes along the old road that were postcard favorites, the view of the Sahalie Falls Bridge, stone fountain and falls in the background was among the most popular. The bridge was the largest structure on the original loop highway, and a scenic highlight (you can read more about the history of the bridge in this 2013 blog article “Restoring the Sahalie Falls Bridge”)

The graceful Sahalie Falls bridge is the architectural highlight of the old loop highway, and was restored in 2013
The Sahalie Falls Bridge under construction in the 1920s
Popular postcard view of the Sahalie Falls Bridge and stone fountain from the 1920s

Today, the bridge is once again in excellent condition, having been restored by the Federal Highway Administration in 2013. For years, the bridge had been closed to automobiles because of its state of disrepair, but today it stands as perhaps the most significant historic highway feature along the old road.

From Sahalie Falls, the historic road curves east through subalpine forests before arriving at Hood River Meadows, among the largest on Mount Hood and another spot that was featured in countless postcards and advertisements during the heyday of the old road. 

1920s view of the old loop highway at Hood River Meadows. This nearly forgotten section of the old highway still operates today.

The long-abandoned Hood River Meadows campground also survives here, along the east side of the meadows, and is still in excellent condition. This site could be reopened as a second bikepacking-only camping spot along the proposed trail. 

1940s tourism ad featuring Mount Hood from the loop highway at Hood River Meadows

Next, the historic road curves toward OR 35 where it also serves as the resort access road for the Hood River Meadows ski complex. From the spot where the old road meets OR 35, there are a couple more abandoned road sections along the north edge of OR 35 that could be reconnected as part of the Loop Highway trail concept, but this is the last of the surviving sections of the old road on this part of the mountain.

From here, the trail concept would connect a series of old forest roads on a gradual descent of the East Fork Hood River valley, toward Sherwood Campground, located along the East Fork, and completing the Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail.

East Fork Hood River near Sherwood Campground in winter

Sherwood Campground is a very old, still operating campground that includes another stone fountain from the old highway, located near the campground entrance. The campground is also a jumping off point for the popular trail to Tamanawas Falls. Nearby Little John SnoPark would serve as the main eastern trailhead for the new trail, with a short connecting route the main trail. 

Historic stone fountain from the original loop Highway at Sherwood Campground
Tamanawas Falls, just off the loop highway near Sherwood Campground

Sherwood Campground would form the eastern terminus of the historic section of the proposed Loop Highway State Trail. From here the larger Mount Hood scenic loop route would follow OR 35 through the narrowing canyon of the East Fork to the wide expanse of the upper Hood River Valley. 

This narrow section of the loop highway is where a safe, protected bikeway will need to thread the needle between cliffs and the East Fork Hood River

The canyon section along the East Fork is a crux segment for the loop route, with the modern highway wedged between the river and a wall of steep cliffs and talus slopes. Engineers designing a safe bikeway through this section of road could take some inspiration from the Shellrock Mountain in the Gorge, where the HCRH State Trail threads a similar corridor between I-84 and the talus slopes of Shellrock Mountain. This crux section along the East Fork is about a mile long.

WHERE TO START?

Touring the upper Hood River Valley in the 1950s

What would it take for this concept to become a reality? A crucial first step would be a feasibility study inspired by the HCRH State Trail, with an emphasis on the potential this example offers for restoring and reconnecting historic sections of the old Mount Hood Loop Highway on Mount Hood. 

Rock crusher along the original loop highway during its construction in the 1920s

An obvious sponsor for this work would be the Oregon Department of Transportation, working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. These agencies have worked together to bring the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail to reality and have both the experience and capacity to repeat this success story on Mount Hood. The following outline could be a starting point for their work:

Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail Feasibility Study 

Purpose Statement

Restore and reconnect surviving sections of the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway from Rhododendron to Sherwood Campground as a paved state trail the combines shared right-of-way and non-motorized trail experiences.

Feasibility Study Objectives

  • Identify new, paved trail segments needed on public land to complete the loop using existing forest road alignments whenever possible.
  • Identify surviving historic resources and new interpretive opportunities along the trail.
  • Identify multimodal trailhead portals at the trail termini and at major destinations along the trail, including Rhododendron and Government Camp.
  • Identify bike-and-hike opportunities that build on soft-trail access from a new, paved state trail.
  • Coordinate and correlate route and design options and opportunities with the 2014 Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Planand the Mount Hood Scenic Byway Interpretive Plan and Design Guidelines.
  • Identify an alternate bicycle route for the Mount Hood Scenic Byway from Sandy to Rhododendron that does not follow the US 26 shoulder.
  • Identify design solutions for designing a protected shoulder bikeway in the crux section of OR 35 in the East Fork canyon.
  • Engage public and private stakeholders and the general public in developing the feasibility study.

But what would it really take..?

Railing and sidewalk repairs underway to the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013

While ODOT has directly managed construction of the HCRH State Trail in the Gorge, a lesser-known federal agency has been taking the lead in recent, similar projects on Mount Hood. A little-known division of the Federal Highway Administration known as Federal Lands Highway is gaining a growing reputation for innovative, sustainable designs in recent projects on our federal public lands. 

On Mount Hood, Federal Lands Highway oversaw the restoration of the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013, a long-overdue project that rescued this priceless structure from the brink of oblivion. Like any highway agency, they excelled at the roadway element of the project, like restoring the bridge and related structure. Other opportunities were missed, however, including improving the adjacent parking areas and providing interpretive amenities for visitors. 

Forms for new railing caps on the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013
Federal Lands Highway rebuilt the footing for the historic water fountain at Sahalie Falls as part of the bridge restoration project
The newly restored Sahalie Falls Bridge and fountain in 2014

Federal Lands Highway also completed a major reconstruction of OR 35 at Newton Creek in 2012. This project was in response to massive flooding of this surprisingly powerful glacial stream in 2006. Their work here shows some of the negatives of a highway agency taking the lead, with a very large footprint on the land and a big visual impact with over-the-top, freeway-style “safety” features that are old-school by today’s design practices.

The mega-culvert project built by Federal Lands Highway at Newton Creek in 2012

In 2012, Federal Lands Highway also completed (yet another!) bridge replacement over the White River, which was also damaged in the 2006 floods. The massive new bridge is similarly over-the-top to their work at Newton Creek, but Federal Lands Highway deserves credit for rustic design features that blend the structure with the surroundings, including native stone facing on the bridge abutments.

Western Federal Lands completed the new White River Bridge in 2012

The most promising recent work on Mount Hood by Federal Lands Highway is the completion of the new Mirror Lake Trailhead in 2018. This project involved a significant planning effort in a complex location with multiple design alternatives. Their work here involved the public, too, something their earlier work at White River, Sahalie Falls and Newton Creek neglected.

The new Mirror Lake Trailhead was completed in a partnership of Federal Lands Highway, the Forest Service and ODOT in 2018

The final result at Mirror Lake is an overall success, despite the controversy of moving the trailhead to begin with. The new trailhead is now a prototype of what other trailheads along a restored Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trailcould (and should) look like, complete with restrooms, interpretive signs, bicycle parking and accessibility for people using mobility devices.

New shoulder swales along US 26 were part of the Mirror Lake trailhead project, helping to protect water quality of Camp Creek from highway runoff
The new Mirror Lake Trailhead plaza includes restrooms, interpretive signage, bike parking and seating for visitors

Beyond the hardscape features at the new trailhead, Federal Lands Highways worked with the Forest Service to replant areas along a new paved section of trail. This work provides another useful template for how the two federal agencies could work together with ODOT in a larger restoration of the old Loop Highway as a new trail.

Though it looks a little rough, this area along the new, paved section of the Mirror Lake Trail was landscaped with native materials as part of the new trailhead project
Landscape restoration at the new trailhead included woody forest debris, native understory starts and hydro-seeding to protect newly planted areas from erosion

One of the compelling reason for Federal Lands Highway to take a leading role in a Loop Highway trail project is the unfortunate fact that ODOT has ceded the right-of-way for several of the abandoned sections of the old road to the Forest Service. This would make it difficult for ODOT to use state funds to restore these sections without a federal transportation partner like Federal Lands Highway helping to navigate these jurisdictional hurdles. 

However, governance hurdles like this existed in the Gorge, too, and state and federal partners simply worked together to resolve them, provided they had a clear mandate to work toward.

Getting behind the idea… and creating a mandate

The original Mount Hood Loop Highway in the Hood River Valley in the 1930s

Bringing this trail concept to reality will take more than a feasibility study, of course — and even that small step will take some political lifting by local officials, cycling advocates, the local tourism community and even our congressional delegation. While the money is clearly there for ODOT to begin this work, it would only happen with enough political support to begin the work.

The good news is that Oregon’s congressional delegation is increasingly interested in outdoor recreation and our tourism economy, especially when where a coalition of advocates and local officials share a common vision. With the HCRH State Trail in the Gorge nearing completion after more than 30 years of dedicated effort by advocates and ODOT, it’s a good time to consider completing the old loop as the next logical step in restoring a part of our legacy.

The idea of loop around Mount Hood began as soon as the Columbia River Highway was completed in 1915. This article in The Oregon described the first documented trip around the mountain using a patchwork of roads that existed before the Mount Hood Loop was constructed in the 1920s (large PDF versions of this article can be viewed at the links, below)

1915 Article – Page 1 (PDF)

1915 Article – Page 2 (PDF)

Rumor has it that new legislation is in the works to ramp up protection and improve recreation opportunities for Mount Hood and the Gorge. Including theMount Hood Loop Highway State Trail concept in new legislation would be an excellent catalyst for moving this idea from dream to reality. 

But could this really happen in today’s fraught political environment in Washington D.C.? Don’t rule it out: President Reagan was notorious for his hostility toward public lands, and yet he infamously “held his nose” and signed the Columbia River Gorge legislation into law in 1986, including the mandate to devise a plan to restore surviving sections of the HCRH as a trail. 

So, could this happen in the era of Trump for Mount Hood? Stay tuned…

13 things to know… before you stand under the Mistletoe!

Douglas fir east of Mount Hood engulfed in Dwarf Mistletoe

“Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright…”

Did you know that we have an unlikely cousin to the holiday mistletoe growing prolifically across Mount Hood country? Unlike the species you’re likely to find hanging over a doorway (known as Leafy mistletoe of the genus Phoradendron) or even from our Willamette Valley white oak stands, this cousin is the lesser known Dwarf mistletoe, of the genus Arceuthobium. And unlike the holiday version, this humble Mistletoe is hard to spot, though signs of its presence in our forests are very obvious. 

Familiar Leafy Mistletoe growing on an Oregon white oak in the Willamette Valley (OSU Extension)

Like their holiday cousins, Dwarf mistletoe are parasitic plants that require a living host to survive, and in our corner of the world their hosts are mostly the big conifers. Dwarf mistletoe grow by extending root-like structures known as “haustoria” into the growing tissue of their host, and producing shoots outside the bark of their host where flowers and fruit form, and where their seeds spread to other hosts. 

Sound a little creepy? Perhaps, given how we humans tend to view parasites. But these plants are also quite fascinating, and historically they have had a bad reputation, thanks to the timber industry and its enduring reluctance to see the forest for more than the saw logs they might produce.

So, here are some things to know (and maybe even love?) about Dwarf mistletoe next time you venture out among these humble parasites:

1. They are commonly called Witches Broom.This is self-explanatory, as an infected tree (especially Douglas fir) tends to grow dense masses of branches in response to an infection that can hang down like brooms. This is the easiest way to spot Dwarf mistletoe in the forest.

“Witches broom” on a Douglas fir
Typical Dwarf Mistletoe infection on a Douglas Fir

2. They are gendered.Mistletoes occur in male and female forms, with the male plants producing pollen and the family plants producing fruits and seed. Both the male and female forms can reside in the same host — and a single host can have multiple active Mistletoe infections.

3. Their berries pack some heat!Ripe Mistletoe berries are designed to explode in late summer, shooting seeds as much as 50 feet in the air (!) to land on nearby, potential host trees. Their seeds are sticky and adhere to whatever they land on, and this feature also means that birds and small animals help disperse the seed when they visit host trees with ripe Mistletoe fruit and carry the seeds to other trees on their fur or feathers. While this firepower allows Mistletoe to spread to nearby hosts and to the understory below, it also allows the plant to move upward in its host tree, as much as one foot per year.

Mistletoe fruit emerging from a true fir (Wikimedia)
Dwarf Mistletoe infections gradually moving up toward the healthy part of a large Douglas fir

4. They like their hosts on the softer side. With seeds shooting in all directions at high velocity, Dwarf mistletoe might seem somewhat indiscriminate in their reproduction. But it turns out they are playing the odds, as sprouting seeds usually invade host tissue that is less than five years old. This is why young trees in the understory beneath a large, infected tree are so vulnerable. However, Mistletoe typically does not infect trees younger than 10 years, for reasons yet unknown.

5. They’re early — and prolific — bloomers.For the first couple of years after a Dwarf mistletoe seedling has attached to a new host, the young plant quietly sends its haustoria into the tree’s living tissues, feeding on water and nutrients from the host as the Mistletoe grows. After a couple years, the site of the infection swells and over the next few years the new Mistletoe begins producing aerial shoots, flowering and eventually producing fruit. Within five years, a new Mistletoe plant has gone from seed to what can be many successive cycles of fruiting from a single infected site on a tree.

This big Douglas fir is marked by dozens of Dwarf mistletoe infections positioned to spread seeds far and wide in the surrounding forest

6. They like the East side.Dwarf mistletoe species grow throughout Oregon, but in Mount Hood country they are most prolific on the dry east side of the mountain. This isn’t because they have an aversion to wet weather, but instead, because…

7. ….they are host-species specific!There are many species of Dwarf mistletoe, and most specific to just one or two host species, Many of these preferred host species also happen to grow on the east slope of the Cascades. Here are the most common Dwarf mistletoes in Mount Hood Country, most named for their hosts:

• Douglas-fir dwarf mistletoe

• Western larch dwarf mistletoe

• Western dwarf mistletoe (host is Ponderosa pine)

• Lodgepole pine dwarf mistletoe

• Western white pine dwarf mistletoe

• True fir dwarf mistletoe (hosts are White fir and Grand fir)

• Western hemlock dwarf mistletoe (also infects some true firs)

• Mountain hemlock dwarf mistletoe

The effects of these Dwarf mistletoe species on their hosts vary widely. Douglas fir is most affected by its species of Dwarf mistletoe, often producing very large brooms. Western larch can also be heavily affected when their brittle limbs give way to the weight of brooms. By comparison, Hemlocks less than 120 years in age are typically not affected by the infestations and other hosts show very little effect from infections. This is why we’re unlikely to even notice many of the Mistletoe-hosting trees in our forests.

Dwarf mistletoe probably infected the declining tree on the left first, then spread to infected tree on the right that still retains much of its foliage

8. They can eventually kill their hosts.Heavily infected trees can eventually lose so much foliage from having their living tissue invaded by multiple Dwarf mistletoe infections that they can no longer survive. This is common among Douglas firs, where its accompanying Mistletoe species significantly disrupts growth and produces very large brooms. But the Mistletoe infestation is often simply the gateway to other invaders that are often more fatal to the host tree. These include bark beetles, rusts and other fungi that invade trees affected by Mistletoe. Heavily affected trees typically die 10-15 years from their first Dwarf mistletoe infection.

This young Douglas fir is slowly dying from its Dwarf mistletoe infection

9. They favor stressed trees.Trees growing in poor soils or affected by drought are more susceptible to infestations. This could be why Douglas fir on the dry east side of the Cascades are more likely to host Dwarf Mistletoe. But this is also an example of the role that this parasite plays in forest succession and, over millennia, the evolution of its host species. By preying on the weakest among their hosts, Mistletoe mimic so many examples in nature where predation on sick or frail helps improve the gene pool of the prey species. 

10. They love fire suppression. We have been learning our lesson from a century of forest fire prevention the hard way in recent years with the string of long-overdue, catastrophic fires that have swept through Mount Hood country. This is especially true on the east side forests, where regular, low intensity fires are an important part of forest healthy. Fire suppression since the 1920s has left us with stressed, unhealthy forests with enormous fuel buildups that will take decades to restore to health. But this is good news if you’re Dwarf mistletoe, as the parasite thrives in these forests, spreading quickly among the stressed hosts.

This recently thinned plantation shows widespread Dwarf mistletoe in the “healthy” trees left standing

11. They love forest plantations. There are so many reasons why mono-culture tree plantations in logged areas of our forests are a bad idea, and susceptibility to Mistletoe infestations is just one more, since these parasites are host-species parasites. This is especially true for Douglas fir plantations, the timber industry favorite, and also a species that is more significantly affected by Mistletoe infections than most other conifers. Dwarf mistletoe can spread especially quickly in these overgrown, same-species plantations.

12. They create valuable habitat! Yes, they are parasites that can kill their host, but Dwarf mistletoe have been part of our forest ecosystem for millennia and are just as natural as the forest itself. The brooms they create high in the crowns of conifers might be unsightly to us, but they provide habitat for birds and small mammals for nesting and feeding, and chipmunks feed on their stems and seeds. Large brooms also provide protected resting sites under infected trees for deer and elk. 

Killed treetops of infected trees also provide perches and nesting sites for raptors and owls. Decayed areas in standing trees resulting from fungi invading Mistletoe-infected sites can serve as essential habitat for cavity-nesting birds and small mammals, too.

Treetops killed by Dwarf mistletoe create roosts for raptors and owls

13. They are good for forests!Really? Yes, because in a healthy, balanced ecosystem, the effect of Dwarf mistletoe in selectively killing trees is beneficial to the forest by creating canopy gaps and standing snags that are known to increase plant and animal diversity. Likewise, healthy, multi-story forests are also less vulnerable to severe Dwarf mistletoe infections, which (of course!) is how this ecological balance has evolved in our forests.

These recently killed Douglas fir will become wildlife trees as snags, and create a healthy opening in this mature forest

That last point underscores that the “solution” to the widespread Mistletoe infections we see in many of today’s east side forests is really to recognize the abundance of Mistletoe as a symptom, not the problem. Restoring today’s stressed, logged-over forests and clear-cut plantations to the mixed conifer stands that once thrived across Mount Hood country is the simplest answer. It’s also the only sustainable answer.

The good news is that the Forest Service is gradually moving in this direction with gradual plantation thinning starting to take hold in the Mount Hood area and even the occasional use of fire as a management tool in other parts of Oregon. Not everyone agrees with plantation thinning, but so far, the results appear to support continuing this practice, at least until the most overgrown plantations have been thinned to a semblance of a natural forest.

Dead witches broom skeleton cascades down a large (and still living) Douglas fir near Mount Hood

Unfortunately, the current Forest Plan guiding these decisions for Mount Hood is nearly 30 years old, and the plantation thinning being done under this plan is not being done with a vision or bringing natural forests back, but rather, to simply prepare the remaining forest for more timber harvests. 

This is yet another reason why a new plan and long-term vision of forest health is desperately needed for Mount Hood, one that centers on sustainable uses like recreation, native fish recovery and clean drinking water for our growing region, not just meeting timber harvest quotas. I’m confident that we’re gradually moving in that direction, if very slowly.

In the meantime, take a second look next time you’re out in the forest to appreciate this lesser-known parasite… when you find yourself standing under the Mistletoe!

Restore the Metlako Viewpoint?

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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.

______________________

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…?

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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!

WyEast Blog at 10 years! (and counting!)

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First snow of autumn 2018 on Mount Hood as seen from Dufur Mill Road

Last November marked 10 years since I started the WyEast Blog, way back in 2008. It was a pretty hopeful year, as you may recall, followed by some very progressive reforms for how our public lands are managed.  And my, how things can change — elections do have consequences! So, as always, the work continues as we weather another round of political attacks on our hard-fought protections for public lands.

Much has changed in WyEast country over the past 10 years, too, but certainly not my commitment to a better future for Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. I’m frequently asked “do you reallythink Mount Hood will become a national park?” and my response is always the same, “a little more every day!”Why? Because despite the currently bleak situation in Washington D.C., we’re (finally) witnessing the start to a changing of the guard in generational leadership at all levels of our society. The Millennials are here!

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Author on my last visit to Eagle Creek, about a year before the September 2017 fire

What will history say about the Baby Boomers as they (reluctantly) hand over the reins to a younger generation? For all they have given us in their epic contributions to art and culture, they have also been surprisingly awful when it comes to conservation, woefully lacking in both courage and imagination. It’s true the Millennials are overdue in taking the reins, but since twice delivering the first African American to the U.S. presidency (a man who the Boomers voted overwhelmingly against, history shall note), they have steadily expanded their presence on the local, state and national political scenes. The 2016 elections represented the beginning of what will become a tidal wave in coming years, too.

By wide margins, Millennials are genuinely committed to conservation and sustainability, more balanced in their personal lives in how they manage ambition and status, and much less materialistic and consumptive than their elders. The numbers prove this. And thus my confidence that the Millennials’ turn at governance can (and will) return us to the bold conservation legacy of past eras and previous generations of leadership. The pendulum will swing, once again, and I believe that expanding our national park system will be part of that renaissance.

In the beginning…

Ten years ago, I started this blog with a rather obscure look at a couple of dead trees at a favorite roadside viewpoint of mine, along Dufur Mill Road. Here’s what that spot used to look like:

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The two snags featured in the very first article on this blog… but what about the big fir on the right?

Sometime that year, both snags on the left side of the photo were felled, possibly for firewood, a common activity in that area. At the time I was dismayed at the senseless loss of a couple of valauble and (to me) beautiful snags. Mount Hood’s old ghost trees are essential for wildlife and forest health, after all! And thus, my first article began what would become many looks at the lesser-known and under-appreciated corners of WyEast country, all in celebration of our magical mountain and gorge!

Today, the view from this spot on Dufur Mill Road is still much the same, minus the old snags. Here’s what it looked like a couple of weeks ago (below), where you can pick out individual trees in the background that appear much the same. The large Douglas fir on the right side of the original photo still stands, too, but what about the apparent change in height of this tree between the above and below photos?

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Today the two snags are long gone, but the big Douglas fir is still standing

Yes, the old fir did grow, but not by that much. It turns out that in the 10 years since the original photo was taken, a young Douglas fir has grown from just a few feet tall to nearly 20 feet — blocking the original view! Here’s what today’s scene looks like as viewed from the exact spot as the 2008 photo:

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The only true constant in the forest… is change!

The changes in this favorite spot of mine are a good metaphor for so many places on Mount Hood and in the Gorge over the past ten years, where the only constant is change. This article explores some of the changes, plus a rundown of the most read and least read articles on the blog. Hope you enjoy the look back!

The Articles

Including this retrospective, I’ve posted 184 articles on the blog since November 2008, ranging from the incredibly obscure (my favorite!) to the surprisingly popular.

In the first five years, visitors grew gradually to a couple thousand annually, then abruptly jumped to 30,000 in 2013 and 60,000 in 2014! Since then, visitors have hovered between 70,000 and 90,000 annually. A decent share also click through to the Mount Hood National Park Campaign website, and who knows? One of those visitors might be the future congresswoman or senator who introduces a bill to make Mount Hood and the Gorge a national park! That’s the goal of an “idea campaign”, after all — and why I started the blog.

But blog metrics don’t really tell the full story, as a select few posts have been the major drivers in visits over the years. These posts continue to pop up each week in the blog stats, years after they were first published.

At the top of that list is an article debunking the many persistent myths about ticks that continue to circulate among the hiking community. I published “Ticks! Ticks! (10 Common Myths” in April 2013, and it’s the main reason for the big jump in traffic that year that has since continued. The article now has 173,000 views and counting — and that’s great news, as ticks present a growing health risk in the Gorge now that Lyme disease has spread to our region.

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Nobody likes ticks… but people do like this article!

Right behind ticks in our apparent collective anxiety is poison oak, and a companion piece called “10 Common Poison Oak Myths” is thus the second most read article on the blog. A lot of bad information circulates online among hikers on both the risks and treatment for poison oak exposure. This article was posted in 2012, before the tick article, but caught fire after the piece on ticks began to drive search engines toward the blog. Today, the poison oak article has had 78,000 visitors and shows up every week in blog stats.

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I’d been itching to write the sequel to this one…

The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire kicked off a series of articles covering the aftermath of the fire. The first article featured some of the earliest views into the burn as seen from the Washington side of the Gorge, just after the smoke had cleared. This article was widely shared in social media, with 23,000 views and counting.

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The first look into the smoky aftermath…

Later articles spotlighting the burn were based on State of Oregon aerial reconnaissance photos that provided exceptional detail of the devastation at iconic places in the Gorge and the nearly immediate signs of recovery that was already underway. One of these revealed a massive cliff collapse at Punch Bowl Falls in early 2018, just a few months after the fire.

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Perhaps more shocking than the Eagle Creek Fire, itself, were the dual cliff collapses at Metlako Falls and Punchbowl Falls on Eagle Creek.

We will never know if the cliff collapse resulted from the effects of the fire, but when the State of Oregon aerial surveys revealed the collapse, it came as a shock to anyone who knew this spot. More than 25,000 readers have viewed the article and it continues to be visited regularly.

While it’s great to see a big response to an article, truth be told, my favorite posts are among the least read. This describes mostof the posts on the blog, of course!

One of these lesser-read pieces was in 2010, when I posted a proposal to restore Warren Falls, a virtually unknown spot near Starvation Creek that had been brutally altered by Highway Department engineers in the 1930s. I had long been saddened to see how this beautiful spot had been manhandled by the same Highway Department that had gracefully navigated other waterfalls in the Gorge with beautiful bridges, viaducts and overlooks, and hoped that ODOT might incorporate restoration of the falls into a major effort to reconnect the original Historic Columbia River Highway.

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This became a bit of a crusade for a few years, including a featured spot on OPB’s Oregon Field Guide, but in the end, ODOT wasn’t interested in owning up to their crime against nature (and as I pointed out in one of the follow-up articles, the diversion was a clear violation of state statute, too!). Score another one for the highway builders, but I remain hopeful that someday we will undo this travesty.

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Warren Falls comes (briefly) alive in 2014!

In the meantime, a vestige of the original falls appears a few times each winter when ODOT’s diversion dam and bypass tunnel are overwhelmed by high runoff, bringing Warren Falls back to life, if only briefly.

And while ODOT once again turned its back on Warren Creek, Mother Nature may bring her wrath upon the diversion structures in the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire. Ironically, the original project was in response to Warren Creek carrying heavy rock and wood debris onto the old highway following an early 1900s burn in the upper canyon Eighty years later, the upper canyon has burned again, and another cycle of heavy debris flows is likely in coming years. She does bat last, after all…

In happier ODOT news, an August 2012 article proposing a “Boot Loop” transit service around the mountain and through the gorge seemed far-fetched at the time, but ODOT has since operated transit in the west end of the Gorge and helped fund transit to Timberline Lodge. Currently, a “round the mountain” transit study is underway to explore the potential for completing the loop. That’s great news!

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Not such a goofy idea after all..?

The Gorge Express and Mount Hood Express bus lines are general purpose, too, whereas the “Boot Loop” idea was more narrowly aimed at recreation. The broader transit service we’re now seeing on the ground is far better, providing essential service to places where basic transit connections were long overdue. Kudos to ODOT for moving beyond their highway roots and bringing much-needed transportation alternatives to the mountain and gorge!

10 years of Big Changes

Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge have seen some epic changes over the past 10 years, perhaps most notably the Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood’s north slope in 2012 and the Eagle Creek Fire that burned much of the Oregon side of the Gorge in 2017. But there were many other significant changes, too, albeit somewhat overshadowed by the big fire events. The following are a few “then and now” highlights of these notable changes in WyEast country over the past ten years.

Global warming? Absolutely. Despite the frustrating, science-defying (and completely cynical) state of denial coming from the White House and Republican Party, bright red warning flags are showing up all around us, including on Mount Hood. As the photo pair below shows, the Eliot Glacier continues to recede at an alarming rate, as do the rest of Mount Hood’s twelve glaciers. I’ve marked a couple of prominent rock outcrops adjacent to the lower Eliot Galcier icefall to show how the “firn” line has retreated. The firn line is the point in a moving glacier that marks equilibrium, with the glacier is accumulating ice above the line and losing ice (melting) where it flows below the firn line.

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Blue ice still spilled over the lower Eliot Glacier icefall in 2008

As the photos show, the lower icefall (just above and left of the outcrop marked “A”) is notably smaller and darker, with debris carried within the glacier now exposed by melting at this level due to the rising firn line. Both photos were taken in late summer, when summer melting was at its peak.

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Global warming is rapidly changing the once-mighty Eliot Glacier

The once-permanent snowfields on the margins of the glacier are also noticeably smaller and seem doomed in the near future. Permanent snowfields are the most vulnerable ice features on the mountain and a good visual indicator of the speed in which global warming is melting our glaciers.

While future generations may forgive us for failing to actually slow or stop global warming, they surely will never forgive us for willful denial of its existence as a human-caused crisis of our own making. Let’s hope we can make up some lost ground in the near future, with the Millennial generation finally taking charge.

The changes to the Eliot Glacier are also being felt downstream, no more so than in the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch canyon, where a more volatile glacial outflow is rapidly carving into the once glacier-covered valley floor, constantly changing the landscape. In 2006, the stream flooded once again, greatly deepening the canyon and making it unsafe to cross for hikers on the Timberline Trail. This situation languished for nine years, with many hikers choosing to scale the crumbling canyon wall (shown below) with the aid of a worn rope anchored to a boulder!

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The ever-deepening canyon on the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch

This blog played a small part in helping the Forest Service move forward with a new crossing of the Eliot Branch when a ranger from the Hood River District read this 2014 article and reached out to discuss options for a new, downstream crossing. Along the way, I updated the map from the blog article to align with Forest Service and Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) plans for the restored crossing, and it even made the cover of a local newspaper in Hood River! (…okay, so it’s an advertising tabloid…!)

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Not exactly the New York Times, but I’ll take it!

The newly reconnected trail drops steadily from Cloud Cap Inn to a section of the raging Eliot Branch that has (somewhat) stabilized, and can be reasonably crossed in the summer months. Though there are no immediate plans for a trail bridge here, the Forest Service moved large boulders in the stream to serve as stepping stones, hopefully making the crossing a bit safer for hikers. The restored trail opened in 2017.

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The newly constructed Timberline Trail just above the Eliot Crossing (photo: USFS)

Moving down to the Hood River Valley, the iconic view of Mount Hood from this field along Laurance Lake Road (below) looks much the same today as it did in 2008, albeit with some logging on private land in the distance. What you can’t see in the 2008 view is that it was captured just a year after voters approved Measure 49, which reversed 2004’s deceptive Measure 37. This earlier measure would have almost certainly brought resort development and luxury McMansions to the Hood River Valley.

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The timeless view of Mount Hood from Laurance Lake Road

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…still pretty much the same ten years later!

Even better, this farm has since come under the ownership of a member of the Parkdale Valley Land Trust, and is now even more likely to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. Which, in turn, means that a spot that hasn’t change since the 1950s (below) might look much the same in the 2050s. That’s a great legacy being carried forward to future generations.

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Maybe past really can be prologue..? (photo: State Archives)

Here’s another view of the Parkdale area in the Upper Hood River Valley from Middle Mountain, a mostly county-owned forested ridge that separates the upper and lower valleys. From this spot, the most notable change is a silver band of ghost trees marking the 2012 Dollar Lake burn, clearly visible along the northern shoulders of the mountain.

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The upper Hood River Valley ten years ago…

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…and earlier last year…

The Dollar Lake Fire was the third in rapid succession (following the Bluegrass Fire in 2006 and Gnarl Ridge Fire in 2008) to burn the slopes of Mount Hood. As jarring as the changes may be, these new burns provide a front-row seat to the rapidly recovering forest, a timeless and essential cycle that has been disrupted by the Forest Service policy of aggressive fire suppression over the past century.  State and federal land agencies have only just begun to rethink their approach to fire moving forward, a change in culture that will take many years to fully achieve, especially in the era of climate change.

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Huckleberries sprouting from the base of a burned snag in the Dollar Lake Burn

One unexpected benefit of the fires on Mount Hood was preparing those (like me) who love the mountain and gorge for the devastating Eagle Creek Fire that raged through the western Columbia River Gorge in September 2017. The Mount Hood fires helped many who understood the abstract benefit of forest fires come to grips with the emotional reality of seeing a favorite place changed, and begin to appreciate the stark beauty in the burned landscape and witness the unfolding forest rebirth.

For the past year, thousands of volunteers with organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) have been working with the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks to begin digging out miles of burned trails in the gorge. Last November, the Forest Service officially opened the first of these cleared trails, including the iconic Larch Mountain Trail that follows Multnomah Creek, giving hikers their first look at the changed landscape, and a chance to expand their own understanding and acceptance of fire in our forests.

Earlier last year, I joined TKO crews to work on the trail and capture photos of familiar scenes as they now appear, after the fire. This set shows Weisendanger Falls from the same spot before and after the fire:

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Weisendanger Falls on Multnomah Creek ten years ago…

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…and in spring 2018, after the Eagle Creek Fire swept through

While the area below Weisendanger Falls shows signs of the fire — notably , more logs in the creek — this photo pair shows the extent of the burn above the falls, where the forest was more substantially impacted:

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Weisendanger Falls before…

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…and after the fire, in spring 2018

Similar scenes can be found throughout the Eagle Creek Burn, where the fire generally left a beneficial “mosaic” pattern, with heavily burned areas mixed with largely intact forest. These areas are expected to recover quickly, with healthy patches of surviving forest helping adjacent burned areas recover by reseeding, providing cover for wildlife and creating shade. But there are exceptions, especially Oneonta canyon, where the burn was especially catastrophic. The recovery in these places will span decades.

* * * * *

Thus far in this 10-year retrospective article, the focus has been on big changes brought by nature (albeit with an assist from man), but there have been plenty of changes brought by humans over the past ten years, too — both good and bad.

Let’s start with the bad (and ugly). Tragically, corporate timber behemoth Weyerhaeuser became the major private land owner in the West Fork Hood River valley over the past decade, taking ownership of private forests that had long been held by Longview Fibre (and then briefly by a Canadian equity trader). Though Longview Fibre had greatly accelerated logging in the 2000s, Weyerhauser has ramped up the destruction and embarked on a complete liquidation of the forests along a West Fork. Their purported “sustainability” mission is laughable in the modern area of chasing stock prices with massive, unsustainable clear cutting.

This scene is along the spectacular West Fork canyon, just above the Lake Branch confluence. It’s a crime against nature that any private entity should own land of this scenic and ecologic value, and Weyerhauser’s recent “stewardship” is proof:

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Weyerhauser didn’t own it yet, but the assault had begun…

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…but Weyerhauser greatly accelerated the deforestation of the West Fork

Not seen in these photos are the miles of shoddy logging roads cut into steep slopes in order to haul out the logs and the millions of gallons of liquid herbicide sprayed on the slopes of the West Fork canyon to kill whatever vegetation managed to survive the logging show. Modern corporate logging is about exterminating native forests and replacing them with hybridized tree farms, make no mistake about it.

Some of the more appalling Weyerhaeuser logging practices are on display along the canyon section of the West Fork, where the river cascades beneath towering basalt cliffs where the scenery would merit park status anywhere else in the country. In this spot, a healthy forest directly adjacent to the canyon wall was cut in 2016 and sprayed with herbicides in 2017, with no regard to the river corridor, directly below:

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A forested bluff above the West Fork canyon ten years ago…

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…and in 2018 after Weyerhaeuser had “sustainably managed” it…

While it’s tough to see healthy forests cut on such a reckless scale, it’s also possible that Weyerhaeuser’s new lust for quick profits over sustainability could tempt the company to sell their cut over lands to the public in the interest of protecting the West Fork valley over the long term. After all, it will take decades for these forests to recover, and Weyerhaeuser seems to have lost patience with timelines on that scale. The sooner we can reclaim these precious lands for the public, the better.Watch for a future blog proposal on that subject!

On to more positive developments!  2018 also marked the grand re-opening of the Old Vista Ridge Trail, a wonderful “lost” trail that winds north from the Vista Ridge Trailhead to a dramatic view of Mount Hood’s north side from a rocky spur known as Owl Point. The trail was unofficially reopened in 2007 by volunteers from the Oregon Hiker’s forum and maintained ever since, a project that led to the formation of Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).

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User-made trail signs ten years ago…

Over that time, it became clear that the trail needed to be officially recognized by the Forest Service in order to be properly maintained over the long haul. After much discussion, the agency signed an agreement with TKO in 2017 to adopt the trail, caring for it in perpetuity.

The grand re-opening was originally planned for the fall of 2017, but the Eagle Creek Fire intervened, with much of the north side of Mount Hood closed to the public for fear of the fire moving south into the West Fork valley and toward the mountain.

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…replaced with official Forest Service signs last summer!

In July of last year, the rescheduled re-opening finally happened, with an official “cutting of the survey tape” with loppers and a log saw by TKO’s executive director Steve Kruger and Hood River District Ranger Janeen Tervo. A celebratory stewardship day followed on the trail, and so began a new era for this wonderful trail. TKO and the Forest Service are planning other new trails in the area, so hopefully Old Vista Ridge marks the beginning of a trail renaissance on Mount Hood.

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Making it official!

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TKO volunteers celebrate at Owl Point on dedication day

The Old Vista Ridge Trail is snowed in for the winter, now, but you can visit most years from mid-June through October to admire the view and the new, official trail signs! Read more about the trail in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.

Not far from Old Vista Ridge, another “lost” spot was saved in 2015 when the Western Rivers Conservancy rescued it from Weyerhauser through a direct land purchase. Western Rivers later sold the land to Hood River County at a deep discount, thanks to a Oregon Parks and Recreation Grant, which in turn was submitted on behalf of the county by another non-profit, Thrive Hood River (then called the Hood River Valley Residents Committee). Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) was in the mix, too, offering to build a trail system in the new county park as part of matching contribution toward the state grant.

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This sign marks a new era for Punchbowl Falls

Sound complicated? It was! But the good news today is that most of the trails envisioned in the original park concept are now complete, and can be explored today. There are still a few finishing touches (notably, trail signs, which are currently in progress thanks to a Hood River scout troop — this is very much a DIY park!), but the main pieces to this new nature park are in place for all to enjoy.

The main focus of the new park is dramatic Punchbowl Falls, a powerful waterfall on the West Fork of the Hood River that has carved an enormous amphitheater from solid basalt. The area just below the falls is also reserved for tribal fishing, a native tradition here that spans millennia and continues to plays a central cultural and economic role for local tribes.

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The massive basalt amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

When the new trail network at Punchbowl Falls Park was first scouted in 2016, great care was taken to respect fishing paths used by the tribes to access the falls, while also providing a way for park visitors to enjoy the many views in this beautiful canyon. Another goal was to consolidate the confusing maze of user trails in the area. All of the work was completed by volunteers from 2016 through last fall.

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Volunteers scouting the proposed trail network

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Building the Dogwood Trail in 2017

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Building the lower Yew Trail last year

The newest trail was completed last November, and follows the West Fork to the confluence of the East and West Forks of the Hood River, another popular feature in the park. Though the trails won’t be signed until early next year, they’re easy to follow and explore, and the park is especially peaceful in winter if you’re looking for a quiet walk in the forest. You can read about the hike here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.

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The completed Yew Trail along the West Fork this fall

The new Punchbowl Falls Park spans roughly two miles of river, forever protecting land that had been left to the mercy of private timber corporations for more than a century. As if to underscore this point, Weyerhauser promptly logged off an entire hillside that rises directly above the new park before the site had even been transferred to county ownership.  Thankfully, they spared the Punchbowl property from a similar fate before selling it to Western Rivers.

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Thanks for the new view from Punchbowl Bridge, Weyerhauser…

Another big change over the past decade came to perhaps the most popular trail on Mount Hood, the venerable Mirror Lake trail, located near Government Camp. For nearly a century, this beloved trail to a small mountain lake was a “first hike” to thousands visiting the mountain for the first time, including me!

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One last snowshoe trip to Mirror Lake before ODOT closed winter access

A series of early articles in this blog focused on an ill-conceived ODOT project to widen Highway 26 in the Laurel Hill section, just west of Government Camp. The original Mirror Lake trailhead was part of the collateral damage of this now-completed road widening project. Even before the widening project, ODOT began closing the old trailhead during the winter months, cutting off access to legions of snowshoers and skiers who had used it for years. Later, the widening project finished the job permanently, and the old trailhead is now closed – including removal of the old footbridge over Camp Creek.

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Dogged snowshoers were not easily deterred by the winter closure in 2010

While ODOT focused on highway widening, a little known federal highway agency known as the Federal Lands Division worked with the Forest Service to design and build a new Mirror Lake trailhead at the west end of the Mount Hood Ski Bowl parking lot. This arm of the Federal Highway Administration also oversaw the recent replacement of the White River Bridge and restoration of the Historic Sahalie Falls Bridge, near Hood River Meadows. The new Mirror Lake Trailhead opened just a few weeks ago, and was immediately filled to overflowing with visitors.

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The new Mirror Lake Trailhead

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The new trailhead features toilets and handsome stone work

I’ll post a proper review of the new trailhead and trail once the snow melts this year, but perhaps the best outcome is restored winter access to the Mirror Lake area. Another important element of the project is a barrier-free design from the trailhead to a new footbridge over Camp Creek, a much-needed addition to the very limited number of accessible trails in the Mount Hood area.

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Paved, barrier-free section of the new Mirror Lake Trail

One of the more profound changes of the past ten years came when President Obama signed a major wilderness bill into law in 2009 that greatly expanded wilderness protection in the Gorge and around Mount Hood. That law protected several small areas on the margins of existing wilderness that had been left out of earlier legislation. One such area is along the western margins of the lightly visited Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, which ironically is the closest designated wilderness to the Portland metropolitan area. The expanded boundary incorporates forested slopes of Wildcat Mountain and McIntyre Ridge that had long been tempting targets for Forest Service timber sales.

At about that time in the late 2000s, the Bureau of Land Management abruptly closed a northern access point to the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, where an old logging spur provided access to the McIntyre Ridge Trail. Hikers soon discovered a new way to access McIntyre Ridge from another logging spur located on Forest Service land, which in turn led to an ancient roadbed from a long-ago era when a forest lookout tower stood on Wildcat Mountain.

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This section of the McIntyre Ridge Trail follows a former lookout access road

The Forest Service still has not embraced the “New McIntyre Trailhead”, as it is known to hikers, but this unofficial trailhead has restored public access to this newly protected corner of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness. More importantly, this is an area where “eyes on the forest” are especially important, as the Wildcat Mountain area has a long history of lawlessness and abuse from shooters, dumpers and 4-wheelers.

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Blaze along the McIntyre Ridge Trail

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Shooters can’t seem to resist destroying public property… and anything else they can shoot

The good news is that hikers have continued to use the McIntyre Ridge trail over the ensuing years, though there are still too many reports of illegal activity. Just last summer, a local hiker came across a pair of pickups that had driven at least a mile into the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness along McIntyre Ridge and set up a camp in the middle of the trail! Worse, off-roaders have cut completely new roads into the wilderness on the margins of the Salmon Huckleberry, especially in this area. These are federal crimes, of course, though Forest Service resources for enforcing the law are minimal.

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Rogue off-roaders well inside the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness earlier this year (photo: Walrus)

Fortunately, public land law-breakers are well aware of their illegal behavior and tend to shy away from busy recreation areas. Therefore, my hope is that the Forest Service will eventually recognize and champion the New McIntyre trailhead as for protecting the wilderness through “eyes on the forest”. More to come in future articles on this little corner of Mount Hood country..

And the next 10 years..?

Looking at the many profound changes in the Gorge and around Mount Hood over the past ten years, it’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed and discouraged by the pace and scale of change. The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire was especially traumatic for so many who love the Gorge. But the changes are also a reminder of the ongoing need for vigilance in protecting these special places and the role we all have to continue moving Mount Hood and the Gorge toward a new vision of restoration and renewal and away from our exploitive, often destructive past.

I’m optimistic that we’ll continue making progress in coming years, just as we have over the past decade that I’ve documented with this blog.  I plan to continue posting articles here to track the changes and make regular deep dives into the lesser known corners of the Gorge and Mount Hood. And I’ll also dream a bit about how we might better care for these places that we all love while making our public lands more accessible to everyone.

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Hiking with Mom on Park Ridge in my formative years!

Over the course of the past ten years, I’ve tried to post at least once per month, but you might have noticed that I haven’t quite kept that pace over the past year or two.  That’s largely due to the fact that my elderly folks have suddenly needed more help as they both struggled with failing health. In September, my mom passed away after a long and cruel struggle with memory disease, so we’ve now shifted to supporting my 89-year old dad as he adjusts to suddenly living alone after 68 years of marriage.

While sorting through family memories of Mom, I came across a photo (above) from a family backpack through the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, way back in 1974 when I was 12 years old. I was already an experienced hiker and backpacker at that point in my life, thanks to the love of the outdoors my Iowan parents shared in their beloved, adopted Pacific Northwest.

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Me (standing on the rock, of course!) with my mom and sister on a Timberline Trail backpack in 1976

That’s a precious gift my folks gave to me and I’m thankful every day for my good fortune to have been raised with boots on my feet and a pack on my back! Too many in our spectacular corner of the world take our public lands for granted, and barely make the time or effort to explore them, often because they don’t really know how to. That’s another motivation for the blog and the Mount Hood National Park “idea campaign”. Our public lands are a gift for all of us, and I’ll also continue to post articles that celebrate this legacy and provide tips for how to explore the lesser-known corners of WyEast country.

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Older, grayer but ready for another 10 years of celebrating WyEast!

Well, that’s probably more than enough for this retrospective article. But if you’re read this far, thank you for taking the time to visit the blog and especially those who’ve reached out with a comment or e-mail over the years. Much appreciated! I’ve got a bunch of articles and a few surprises in the works heading into 2019, and I’m looking forward to another 10 years!

I hope to see you here along the way — and on the trail, too!

_________________

Tom Kloster • January 2019

And now, a word from our Trailkeepers..!

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TKO volunteers scouting the Dogwood Trail at Punchbowl Park in early 2017

Author’s note: many of you know that I’ve been involved with Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) since we formed in 2007 — in fact, I’m the sole remaining founder still serving on the TKO board! For the past few years, I’ve also been serving as the board president, but I’ll be handing the reins for that role over to a new president in January so that I can refocus my efforts with the board on trail stewardship and advocacy projects… and few more articles here, too!

While this blog is normally focused on Mount Hood and the Gorge, I hope you’ll indulge me (again) in wearing my TKO hat on this #GivingTuesday in a pitch for your support of TKO — especially if you spend time on our public trails. You can donate through either of these portals:

Willamette Week Give!Guide

TKO’s Membership Page

You’re also welcome to join our volunteer crews (really!), but anyone can support us by becoming a member. To make this article it a bit more interesting, the following is a bit of history of the organization. If you’d like to learn more about TKO, read on…!

_________________

Way back in 2006, local hikers Jeff Statt and Jeff Black created the Portland Hikers Forum, a private web board for hikers and trail enthusiasts. The community grew quickly, but never became a profitable commercial endeavor — as was the case with most forums in those days.

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Our founding trip to the Old Vista Ridge Trail in September 2007

Instead, the Portland Hikers Forum proved to be a great tool for organizing. With the hiking community increasingly alarmed by the state of trail maintenance in Oregon, several of us organized what would become TKO’s founding trail project in the summer of 2007.

That trail is now known as the Old Vista Ridge Trail, and at the time was a largely forgotten, completely overgrown route on Mount Hood north side. An ancient “Trail Not Maintained” sign was bolted to a tree, an unintended challenge for a group of hikers looking to reverse the trend of trail neglect!

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Our founding president, Jeff Statt at Angels Rest in 2008

After an inspiring (and tiring!) day of brushing out huckleberries and mountain ash, much progress was made in restoring the old route, and the idea of TKO was born. But while the need for volunteer help at Old Vista Ridge was obvious, it was also completely unsanctioned, and it was clear that something more formal (an sanctioned) was needed to launch a bona fide stewardship program.

Shortly after the trip, Jeff Statt organized the first meeting of the as-yet un-named organization dedicated to trail stewardship. The invitees included non-profits with an interest in trails and conservation and land managers from the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Parks and Recreation. The strong consensus at this inaugural meeting was that a need existed for an organization like TKO to take the lead on trail stewardship in Oregon — and so the work began to launch a new non-profit!

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Our first NEW trail — a re-route of the Angels Rest Trail in 2008

Early on, the board consisted of non-profit staff from supporting organizations, including Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, Northwest Forest Conservancy, Trails Club of Oregon, Washington Trails Association (WTA) and BARK.

Friends of the Gorge, in particular, mentored TKO in those early days, and continues to be our strongest partner. The CRAG Law Center was also an essential resource for us in those early days, helping us navigate the legal path toward non-profit status.

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TKO volunteers building the re-route at Angels Rest in 2008

The new organization was initially called the Oregon Trails Conservancy. That name lasted for a few months, then evolved into the Trails Association of Oregon (TAO), mirroring the WTA, our someday model for growing the organization. By mid-2008, the board decided that “TAO” wasn’t quite the right acronym for the group, and Trailkeepers of Oregon — or TKO — was finally born.

Volunteer artist (and founding board member) Jamie Chabot created the iconic logo that we still use today. It’s a modern twist on the old CCC themes of the 1930s, including the fir tree at the center that echoes details found in some of the CCC structures at the Eagle Creek Campground in the Columbia River Gorge.

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By early 2008, TKO had already sponsored several stewardship projects, mostly focused on trail maintenance and restoration in places around the greater Portland region. But in April 2008, we kicked off our first “new” project, a major re-route of the heavily used (over-used, really) Angels Rest Trail in the Columbia Gorge.

The project involved cutting a new trail through a thicket of Bigleaf maple whips that had grown up in the wake of the 1991 Multnomah Falls Fire that swept across Angels Rest. It was tough work, but seeing a completely new trail come to life was a big step forward for TKO, and helped us focus our mission on the need for more new trails to keep pace with growing demand in the region.

We were on our way!

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One of TKO’s enthusiastic volunteers installing a new culvert at Camp Wilkerson Park in 2012

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The finished culvert at Camp Wilkerson in 2012

By 2009, Jeff Statt had transferred ownership of the (then) Portland Hikers Forum and Field Guide to TKO for $1, and TKO adopted its core mission of “stewardship (our trail projects), education (our field guide) and community (our forum)” that still guides the organization today.

Dozens of trail projects followed, often in state and county parks, where land managers were eager for the volunteer labor and TKO enjoyed the surprising lack of red tape that comes with volunteering on our federal lands. These included new trails at places like Stub Stewart State Park, Tryon Creek State Park, Camp Wilkerson County Park and Beaver Falls County Park.

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Happy volunteers at Camp Wilkerson after a good day of trailkeeping!

Another big change came in 2013, when TKO re-named our forum and field guide from the familiar “Portland” to “Oregon”. This change reflected TKO’s statewide mission, and the need to be inclusive beyond the Portland metropolitan area — though our forum and field guide continue to include Southwest Washington as a natural extension of the greater Portland region.

In 2014, TKO’s somewhat clunky website was upgraded by volunteers to allow for online event registration — another big step forward, and one that allowed us to accelerate our stewardship projects and have a bigger impact on the ground. This ushered in a new era of many more trail projects and TKO finally winning some grants to help fund our work.

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Teaming up with the Washington Trails Alliance (WTA) on the new Cape Horn Trail in 2012

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WTA & TKO volunteers at Cape Horn in 2012

The first of these grants came from REI in 2016, and allowed TKO to purchase enough tool sets for two additional crews of up to 12 volunteers, greatly expanding our impact.

More grants followed from REI and Travel Oregon in 2017, allowing us to celebrate TKO’s 10th anniversary by hiring Steve Kruger as first executive director. Bringing Steve onboard has had a huge impact on our ability to manage our ever-growing schedule of trail projects and our Oregon Hikers Forum and Oregon Hikers Field Guide. Steve is also a skilled crew leader, and regularly takes our volunteers into the field for trail projects.

We’ve also started a membership program in 2017, and as mentioned in the introduction to this article, I hope you’ll consider joining TKO! We’re a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and this year were selected to be in Willamette Week’s Give! Guide — and that’s the preferred way to donate, though you can also join at our website. Both links are at the top of the article.

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TKO volunteer heading up the Eagle Creek Trail in 2013 for some viewpoint maintenance

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The author at the Metlako Falls viewpoint after restoring the view in 2013

Here are some highlights of what TKO has been doing for Oregon’s trails over the past few years, by the numbers:

  • Since we started up the membership program a few weeks ago, we already have 170 members and counting!
  • Our work is winning us grants — $45,000 over the past 18 months — to help us continue to take care of Oregon’s trails
  • We kicked off our first micro-donations drive this fall on the Oregon Hikers forum, with 174 donors contributing in our first online campaign
  • On October 27th in we hosted the first annual Oregon Trails Summit in Bend, Oregon. More than 200 trail advocates, nonprofit partners, land managers and other private businesses took part

Bringing Steve Kruger onboard as TKO’s executive director has greatly expanded our stewardship program:

  • In 2016, we ramped up our stewardship program from roughly monthly projects in prior years to a total of 45 project days — tripling our efforts and involving more than 350 volunteers
  • In 2017 (thus far) we’re way ahead of last year’s pace, with 75 project days logged already, and 525 volunteer trailkeepers joining our crews!

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Yes, the boardwalk at Mirror Lake was still there when TKO crews cleared the brush in 2014!

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TKO crews repairing the tread on the Mirror Lake Trail in 2014

Many of you have asked me about the future of trails in the Gorge after the Eagle Creek Fire after an earlier article in the blog about the fire. In early October, the Forest Service called a meeting of Gorge advocates a few weeks ago to begin planning the recovery, and Steve Kruger and I were there on behalf of TKO. While there were dozens of organizations represented, the eyes in the room kept turning toward TKO as the question of restoring our Gorge trails emerged as the most pressing concern.

As the meeting wrapped up, the Forest Service and State Parks staff turned to us, as well. Everyone is looking to TKO to help lead this effort.

So, that’s the good news. But as much as TKO has earned our growing reputation, we’re also a very young organization with a lot of work ahead of us to become the truly statewide force that we’ve always known Oregon needed.

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Planning the West Fork Trail at Punchbowl Park in 2016

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TKO volunteers building the new Deadpoint Falls overlook at Punchbowl Park in 2017

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Building the Dogwood Trail at Punchbowl Park in 2017

What’s next for TKO? Here’s what we’re planning for 2018 — and what our membership program and other fundraising efforts will help deliver:

  • Columbia River Gorge – in response to the Eagle Creek Fire, facilitate Gorge Trails Recovery Team with trail skills workshops, restoration of our legacy trails and a renewed effort to expand trails in the Gorge in areas that were not affected by the fire
  • Mt Hood National Forest – district by district, plan for Treasured Landscapes campaign in partnership with the National Forest Foundation and position TKO to be central to trails stewardship and future planning
  • Oregon Coast Trail – establish presence for supporting OCT initiatives and build a stewardship program on the north Oregon Coast, starting with a new trail link from Manzanita to Neahkahnie Mountain.

Steve Kruger’s work will continue to focus on TKO’s development and expanding our partnerships with public agencies, nonprofits and corporate sponsors to expand our reach and build a sustainable nonprofit statewide

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TKO crews re-routing a section of the Mosier Plateau trail last Friday

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Meadow sod from the new trail was used to decommission the old, eroded route

We’re also planning to supplement our volunteer crew leader program with interns from the Student Conservation Association to bring new crews to the Oregon Coast, Mount Hood and Columbia Gorge. This will allow us to put still more volunteers on the ground where they are needed.

TKO will also sponsor a second-annual Oregon Trails Summit in 2018, and will help facilitate statewide coalition and advocacy efforts through the newly created Oregon Office of Outdoor Recreation

If all of this sounds exciting… well, it is! Thanks for reading this far and considering a donation or membership with TKO, everyone — we’ll make sure your support counts!

See you on the trail in 2018!

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The author on the Butte Falls Trail in October 2017

Tom Kloster, President

Trailkeepers of Oregon

PO Box 14814

Portland, OR 97293

 tom.kloster@trailkeepersoforegon.org

http://www.trailkeepersoforegon.org

 

 

Proposal: Raker Point Trail

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The view from Raker Point in a 1930s postcard

Each year, thousands visit beautiful Lost Lake, one of the most beautiful and iconic places in Mount Hood country. The view of Mount Hood mirrored in the lake has been photographed countless times and has graced hundreds of postcards, calendars and scenic books. Some visitors to the lake climb the old lookout trail to Lost Lake Butte, which provides a sweeping view of the mountain, but only glimpses of the lake as once-burned forests continue to recover there.

Yet, not long ago, another dramatic view was possible: Lost Lake nestled in the forests beneath Mount Hood, framed with blooming Pacific Rhododendrons. This scene was captured from the crest of Raker Point, a rocky spur due north of Lost Lake, and briefly a forest lookout site in the early 1930s.

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The view from Raker Point as captured in a Ray Atkeson postcard in the late 1940s

The view from Raker Point appeared in early postcards, and was later captured by Oregon’s famed photographer Ray Atkeson (above) in images that appeared widely in calendars, postcards and even automobile ads (below) in the 1950s.

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1951 Lincoln ad featuring the view from Raker Point

Ironically, the famous images captured by Atkeson were made possible by the industrial logging that began sweeping our national forests in the decades following World War II. By the late 1940s, a logging spur pushed over the saddle between Sawtooth Ridge and Raker Point, providing easy access to the spectacular view, even as it enabled the destruction of old growth forests that once grew there.

Today, the old logging road to Raker Point has been decommissioned by the Forest Service and the clearcut slopes are slowly recovering. Now, Raker Point has become all but forgotten.

Where is Raker Point?

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Raker Point isn’t the tallest or most impressive among the Cascade peaks that rise up around Lost Lake, but it is the best positioned for a grand view of the lake and Mount Hood. Raker Point can be seen from the Lakeshore Trail, where it rounds the south end of the lake, as shown above.

When the Forest Service first brought a road to Lost Lake and lookout towers to the Lost Lake area in the 1920s and early 1930s, Raker Point was much more prominent, thanks to wildfires in the early 1900s that had cleared both Raker Point and Lost Lake Butte. Their open summits made ideal forest lookout sites.

This early 1930s view shows Raker Point and other nearby peaks from Hiyu Mountain, another lookout site located several miles to the south, and Raker Point’s bald summit clearly stands out:

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[click here for a larger image]

A closer 1933 view from nearby Lost Lake Butte in 1933 shows the scorched summit of Raker Point much more clearly. The impressive old growth forests of the Lost Lake Basin are also on display in this view:

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Scorched Raker Point from Lost Lake Butte in the early 1930s

This rare 1933 perspective of Raker Point and Lost Lake is from Sawtooth Ridge, where a temporary (and misnamed) “Raker Point” lookout was briefly located:

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[click here for a larger panorama]

The origin of Raker Point’s name is unclear, but it’s likely that an early Forest Service ranger or surveyor named the peak — and perhaps was the namesake, too?

Today, forests have returned to all but the rocky summit and surrounding talus slopes on Raker Point. This view (below) from the Lake Branch Road shows the now green slopes, with just a small opening near the top of the butte. Does this mean the classic view of Lost Lake and Mount Hood captured by Ray Atkeson in the 1940s has been lost?

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Raker Point rises above the talus fields along the Lake Branch Road

The answer can be found on the opposite side of Raker Point. This view from Indian Mountain, located a few miles north and across the Lake Branch Valley from Raker Point, shows the still open, rocky crest framed in talus slopes and groves of Noble Fir:

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The rocky crest of Raker Point from the north, as viewed from Indian Mountain

While rhododendrons may not thrive on the summit, the views of Mount Hood and Lost Lake are clearly still intact, though probably framed in Noble fir boughs and drifts of huckleberries.

The Proposal

The Lost Lake area already has a fine network of trails, but a new route to Raker Point would bring needed opportunities to this popular recreation area.

First, the classic view from Raker Point is reason enough to warrant trail access to the summit. But a trail to Raker Point would also serve as a more attainable challenge for families visiting Lost Lake.

Today, hikers can make the 2-mile trek to the summit of Lost Lake Butte. Yet, while the view from there is excellent, it pales in comparison to Raker Point. More importantly, a trail to Raker Point would shave 400 feet of elevation gain in half the distance compared to the Lost Lake Butte hike, making it much more accessible to casual hikers and families with young children.

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[click here for a large map]

The proposed trail is simple: it would begin along a segment of the Old Skyline Trail that traverses the base of the Raker Point, and connects to the nearby campground, resort cabins and lodge at Lost Lake.

Trail building would be straightforward, as well. The area is outside protected wilderness, so would not present limitations on the use of power saws and or other heavy equipment in the construction. The modest 1-mile length of the proposed new trail also puts it within financial reach in this era of cash-strapped federal land agencies.

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[click here for a large panorama]

The new trail would also be accessible from trailheads along the Lake Branch Road, allowing hikers to visit the trail without adding to the crowds and congestion at Lost Lake, proper.

What would it take to make this happen? Interest from Forest Service officials, for sure, but support from the Lost Lake Resort operators, in particular, could put this new trail on a fast track. The resort would clearly benefit from a new family-friendly trail option near the lodge, and would be powerful advocates if they were to bring this argument to the Forest Service.

So, consider mentioning the idea if you happen to visit the resort this summer..!

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Postscript: at about the time I was writing this article, uber-adventurer Paul Turner was exploring Raker Point and nearby Sawtooth Ridge. He posted some excellent photos from his trip over here on the Oregon Hikers forum. Thanks, Paul!

Metlako Landslide!

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Metlako Falls from the viewpoint that is no more…

The buzz in hiking circles over the past few weeks has been the massive cliff collapse at iconic Metlako Falls on Eagle Creek. While the falls, itself (and the gorgeous surrounding amphitheater that also includes 100-foot Sorenson Creek Falls) was not affected by the collapse, the cliff-edge viewpoint that countless hikers have visited over the decades is now only a memory.

It started with a crack in the ground…

In late November, local hiker Karl Peterson posted a report with images of a deep, ominous crack in the forest floor above the Metlako viewpoint at his Portland Hikers Facebook group. Karl correctly predicted that some sort of collapse or landslide was imminent, though few expected something of this scale.

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The foreboding crack that formed in November (photo: Karl E. Peterson)

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Another view of the crack in late November (photo: Karl E. Peterson)

While major landslides and cliff collapses are regular events that continue to shape the Gorge as we know it, Karl’s discovery of the crack appears to be the first time an imminent collapse was observed and predicted in this way. Karl also reported trees leaning toward the 200-foot abyss, a more common predictor of landslides.

Roughly a month after Karl’s discovery, a massive 300-400 foot long section of the east wall of the gorge below Metlako Falls dropped 200 feet into Eagle Creek. The collapse occurred sometime between December 17 (currently, the date of the last known photo taken from the overlook) and 26 (when the first known photos of the collapse were taken), but was apparently not witnessed by anyone – and thankfully, nobody was injured or killed by the event.

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Metlako Falls from above the old viewpoint – for reference, the arching maple in front of the falls is the same as the one to the left of the falls in the opening photo in this article (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

Given the year-round crowds on the Eagle Creek trail, the lack of eyewitnesses suggests the collapse occurred at night, or perhaps on a day when travel was especially light due to winter weather in the Gorge that week.

The sheer volume of debris in the creek was enough to temporarily block the stream, and a deep pool is still backed up behind the jumble of automobile-sized boulders and smaller material, as shown in these amazing photos by Karl, and fellow photographers Don Nelsen and Nathan Zaremskiy:

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A view of the sheer escarpment where the cliff split off and the large pool created by the debris in the creek below (photo: Don Nelsen)

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A wider view of the new escarpment and debris at the base of the cliff, with Metlako Falls in the distance (photo: Don Nelsen)

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This dizzying view looks straight down from the brink at Eagle Creek, pushed against the west cliff wall by the debris pile (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

The escarpment left by the collapse is sheer and still unstable, with trees and remnants of forest floor still dangling on the edge, as shown in these photos taken after the event:

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This view looks downstream toward the old viewpoint location and the full extent of the collapse (photo: Don Nelsen)

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Another view looking downstream from just below the old viewpoint, and toward the bend in Eagle Creek at the north end of the Metlako gorge (photo: Nathan Zaremskiy)

A portion of the short spur trail to the old Metlako viewpoint still exists… until it ends at this scary abyss:

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The old spur trail ends abruptly at the edge of the new escarpment… yikes! (photo: Karl E. Peterson)

Nathan Zaremskiy also created this stunning YouTube video of the scene after the collapse:

Just the Gorge doing its thing?

It turns out that the collapse at Metlako is as routine to the evolution of the Gorge landscape as rain, waterfalls and basalt cliffs, albeit measured over decades and centuries.

Several collapses have occurred over the past few decades, and are fairly well documented. One of the most dramatic occurred on September 6, 1995 when a massive, bus-sized slab of basalt dislodged from the vertical cliff behind Multnomah Falls.

Even in the era before ubiquitous cell phone cameras, one visitor managed to capture this startling image of the of the rockfall exploding into the splash pool at the base of the falls, completely inundating Benson Bridge (you can see it if you look closely) with water and debris:

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The astonishing photo capturing the rockfall at Multnomah Falls in 1995 (USFS)

One person on the bridge was slightly injured with flying rock debris, but amazingly, no deaths or other injuries were reported.

In 1973, a massive cliff collapse along Tanner Creek below Wahclella Falls was so large that it temporarily stopped the flow of the creek, cutting off the water supply downstream to the Bonneville Hatchery. The landslide created a lake on Tanner Creek that persisted until the late 1970s, long enough to show up on USGS topo maps:

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The lake formed by the Tanner Creek cliff collapse in 1973 lasted just long enough to appear on USGS maps.

Today, this slide is still recovering, and remains one of the most visible and fascinating places to witness the power of nature at work. The trail to Wahclella Falls was rebuilt as a loop in the late 1980s, with the western leg traveling over the toe of the landslide, among the giant boulders left in its wake.

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The view downstream toward the Tanner Creek landslide debris field (and west leg of the loop trail).

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The giant boulders in this downstream view are at the toe of the Tanner Creek landslide, and initially dammed the creek here to form a small lake.

The east leg of the loop trail climbs high above the creek, providing a birds-eye view of the scene, and true sense of scale of the event:

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This view across Tanner Creek canyon shows hikers along the trail section that crosses the debris field below one of several house-sized boulders scattered in the rubble.

Though we don’t know exactly how or when the jumble of house-sized boulders scattered below Wahclella Falls arrived there, they each bring their own story of a catastrophic wall collapse that is part of a continuum as the Gorge streams continue to etch their canyons into the underlying basalt.

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Each of the giant boulders scattered below Wahcella Falls has its own story of a major cliff collapse.

A less-traveled canyon just over the ridge from Tanner Creek also experienced a major wall collapse sometime in the recent past. Moffett Creek cascades over its own spectacular series of wateralls, but no trails lead into this remote canyon. Instead, explorers follow the stream, where massive boulders are scattered along the way. In one section, they form a beautiful moss-covered garden, with glacier lilies blooming on top of the boulders in early spring:

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Giant boulders scattered along Moffett Creek

At Moffett Falls, the first waterfall on the stream, a major rockfall dropped the garage-sized boulders in front of the cascade sometime in the late 1980s or 1990s:

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The huge boulders below Moffett Creek Falls are relatively new arrivals to the scene.

This event also obliterated an alder forest that extended along the canyon floor below the falls, perhaps as the debris dam abruptly collapsed under the pressure of Moffett Creek backing up behind it.

What’s next for Metlako?

Eagle Creek is perhaps the most visited trail in the Gorge, with hikers crowding the area since the trail first opened nearly a century ago, but the history of the old spur trail and viewpoint at Metlako Falls is unclear.

Because of the early popularity of the trail, it’s odd that old photos of the falls don’t seem to exist, compared to the many photos and postcards from the 1920s and 1930s of other waterfalls and overlooks along the trail. This suggests that the viewpoint at Metlako Falls was developed later.

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Overflowing parking at Eagle Creek is not new..!

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Early photos of Punchbowl Falls and other sights along the Eagle Creek trail are common… so why not Metlako Falls?

The galvanized steel posts and cable railings at the old viewpoint were newer than the original hand cables that famously line several of the exposed cliff sections along the trail, so it seems likely they were added later – perhaps with the spur trail, itself.

One possibility could be that Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers built the spur and overlook in the 1930s, when other trails were being added throughout the Gorge. The railing design also matches that of other trails built in the 1930s and 1940s in the Gorge.

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Panoramic view of the old viewpoint at Metlako, now lost to the ages.

(click here for a large view of the old Metlako viewpoint)

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The steel railings at Metlako seemed newer than the original trail (and the tagging still newer)

For now, the Forest Service has roped off the short spur trail that once led to Metlako Falls, warning hikers to stay away from the still-unstable area. But the agency is also reported to be exploring the possibility of a new viewpoint of the falls.

Such a viewpoint seems unlikely, based on early reports by hikers. The collapse took away an enormous amount of cliff, yet left a section near the falls that now blocks the view from the new cliff wall downstream. If so, Metlako may live on mostly as a memory for most, though photographers with drones will no doubt attempt to recreate the iconic view that once was!

Like losing an old friend…

…and on a personal note, the news of the Metlako viewpoint collapse came hard, as I had been doing periodic maintenance of the overlook several years ago as a volunteer for Trailkeepers of Oregon to preserve the view.

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Improving the view at Metlako Falls

The work consisted of carrying an 18-foot pole pruner to the site and trimming the thicket of bigleaf maple shoots, ocean spray and snowberry that blocked the view and encouraged visitors to climb over the railing (!) for a look at the falls.

It was fun and rewarding work, albeit unnerving to watch the trimmings float over the vertical brink of the 200-foot cliff and into the creek, below. I worked with the sure safety of a the cable fence, but always thought about the rugged early trail builders who worked along these cliffs to create the original Eagle Creek trail – brave souls!

So, to close out this article, I’ll post one of the last photos I took from the old viewpoint in June 2016…

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Metlako Falls as it will live on in photographs and memories.

…and along with so many other hikers and waterfall lovers, say goodbye to this wonderful spot…

Warren Falls: A Postscript (Part 2 of 2)

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The first part of this article focused on the missed opportunity to restore Warren Falls as part of construction of the most recent phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail. This article takes a look at this newly completed section of trail.

_________________

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Congressman Peter DeFazio at the grand opening of the new HCRH segment in October (ODOT)

In October, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) opened the latest section of the HCRH State Trail, a segment stretching from the trailhead at the Starvation Creek wayside west to Lindsey Creek. A portion of this newest section follows the original highway grade where it passes Cabin Creek Falls, but most of the route is a completely new trail – or more accurately, a paved multi-purpose path open to both hikers and cyclists.

 

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The newly revamped Starvation Creek Trailhead

The new HCRH trail segment begins in a small plaza constructed at the south edge of the Starvation Creek wayside. Early plans called for a complete reconstruction of the parking area, but budget constraints intervened, and most of the work here is along the margins of the existing parking lot. The trailhead plaza features some to-be-installed interpretive signs in the shade of a group of bigleaf maple trees, a pleasant meeting spot for hikers or cyclists.

Missing from the revamped trailhead is the original Forest Service trailhead sign that once pointed to Warren Falls (below). It’s unclear if this sign will be reinstalled, but given that Warren Falls, itself, was not “reinstalled” as part of this project, the chances are probably slim.

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This sign has gone missing!

The sign actually referred to what is now called Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, where Warren Creek emerges from the diversion tunnel built by ODOT in 1939. The unintended reference to the original falls made for an inspiring Forest Service gaffe for advocates of restoring Warren Falls!

The first few yards of the new trail generally follows the existing route along the Starvation Creek wayside freeway exit ramp. It’s still a noisy, harsh walk through this area, but ODOT has dressed up this section with a sturdy cobble wall and new paving.

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Cobble retaining wall near Starvation Creek

The trail concrete barricades along this section that protect the trail from freeway traffic also feature the same decorative steel fencing found elsewhere on the HCRH State Trail, giving a bit more sense of separation from speeding vehicles. The new trail is also slightly elevated here, reducing the noise impacts somewhat from the old trail that was mostly at the ramp grade.

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Decorative steel fencing near Starvation Creek

Soon, the new trail drops to the only original section of Columbia River Highway on this restored section of trail, where the old road passed in front of Cabin Creek Falls. An elegant but confusing signpost has been added at the junction with the Starvation Ridge Cutoff trail, pointing to Gorge Trail 400, which currently does not exist in this section of the Gorge.

I didn’t hear back from ODOT as to whether a trail renumbering is in the works that would extend the Gorge Trail to Starvation Creek, but it may be that the Forest Service is planning to stitch together a extension of the Gorge Trail from pieces of the Starvation Ridge and Defiance Trails. That would be a welcome development!

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Trail 400..? Is a trail re-numbering in the works?

The location of the new sign almost suggests that the infamous Starvation Cutoff trail – one of the steepest in the Gorge – would be renumbered as the Starvation Ridge trail, with the bypassed section of the current Starvation Ridge trail becoming Trail 400.

Confused..? So are many hikers who visit the area with its already confusing trail network. So, keep your fingers crossed that the Forest Service is rethinking trail numbers and signage in conjunction with the new HCRH trail.

For now, the actual Starvation Cutoff Trail has not changed, though HCRH workers added a nice set of steps at the start of this very steep route.

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New steps at the otherwise humble Starvation Cutoff trailhead

The old pavement in this original highway section was resurfaced with new asphalt as part of the project, but otherwise the route here is much as it was when the highway opened in 1916, including a roadside view of Cabin Creek Falls. However, ODOT missed an opportunity to organize the hordes of visitors who now scramble to the falls along a cobweb of boot paths.

Formalizing a single spur with a properly constructed trail (below) would be a great project for a non-profit like [link]Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO)[/link] in conjunction with Oregon Parks and Recreation (OPRD), who now manage the trail and adjacent park lands.

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Cabin Creek could use a formal path to the falls… and a new sign

[click here for a large version]

Cabin Creek Falls is popular with families (where kids can safely play in the basalt-rimmed splash pool) and photographers (who love this delicate, mossy falls). For many casual visitors, this is already the turn-around point on their walk from the trailhead, with Cabin Creek being the highlight of their experience, so a spur trail would be a nice addition to allow visitors to get off the pavement and explore a soft trail.

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Cabin Creek Falls up close

ODOT also cleaned out the large, stone culvert (below) where Cabin Creek flows under the HCRH State Trail. This display of original dry masonry was mostly buried in debris and undergrowth until the trail project was constructed, so the restoration provides a nice look at the craftsmanship of the original highway.

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Original dry masonry culvert survives at Cabin Creek

As the new trail route reaches the west end of the original highway section, ODOT thoughtfully place a small memorial (below) in the paving – a nice historic reference to the original highway.

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HCRH plaque marks the original highway route near Cabin Creek Falls

As the new route leaves the beautiful, forested section of original highway at Cabin Creek, it suddenly follows the freeway for about 200 yards due to steep slopes along the Gorge wall. This jarringly noisy section could use some replanting to at least create a visual buffer from freeway traffic.

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Noisy, barren stretch of the new trail west of Cabin Creek

Soon, the new HCRH route thankfully curves back into the forest on a surprisingly massive structured fill. This structure was required to maintain the modest trail grade as the route climbs from the freeway shoulder to a slight rise near Warren Creek.

This section is bordered with stained wood guardrails, a new design that departs from the vintage-style white guardrails in other sections of the restored highway, but provides a nice aesthetic that will also be easier to maintain.

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This large, structured fill west of Cabin Creek was required to maintain the trail grade for bicycles

This following view shows the same spot in July, at the height of construction, and before the fill was completed:

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Structured fill near Cabin Creek during construction last July

ODOT was careful to document cultural resources along the route when designing the new trail, including a set of stone ovens built by the original highway masons who camped here during highway construction in the early 1900s. The historic ovens are better protected than before by the raised trail design and guardrails (below), though still fully visible for those who know what they’re looking for.

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The historic stone ovens can be seen from the elevated trail section west of Cabin Creek… if you know where to look

One disappointing detail along this section of trail is a long gabion basket wall (below), apparently constructed to catch loose debris from an adjacent slope. The steel cages holding this wall together will hopefully be covered in moss and ferns in time, but for now it’s an eyesore on an otherwise handsome section of the trail.

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Would Sam Lancaster have approved of a wire mesh gabion wall..?

Another sore thumb in this forest section is a rusty mesh fence (below) along the freeway right-of-way that should have at least been painted, if not completely replaced as part of the project. Maybe ODOT still has plans to replace this eyesore?

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Nope, Sam Lancaster wouldn’t go for this…

As the new section of the HCRH State Trail approaches Warren Creek, it enters a significant cut section to maintain its gentle grade. Thankfully, a huge anthill along this section was spared, one of the interesting curiosities along the former soft trail that used to pass through this forest.

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Hydro-seeded cut slope and the big anthill near Warren Creek

This following view is from July, when construction was still underway and the ant colony was no doubt thankful for the protective fence:

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The giant anthill lives!

The view below was taken during the construction looks east at the cut section along the new trail. Because the rustic forest trail that once passed through this area was completely destroyed by the new HCRH trail, the reconfigured landscape will be a shock for hikers who hiked the trail in the past. Though hydro-seeded with grass, this section could benefit from some re-vegetation efforts to further speed up healing.

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The cut grade near Warren Creek under construction in July

Beyond the cut section, the new route crosses the original channel of Warren Creek, and for those with a sharp eye, a pair of cobble foundations for early homesteads that once lined the creek. Here, the trail reaches a half-circle bench where an all-access side trail curves up to the viewpoint of Hole-in-the-Wall Falls (more on that later in this article).

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Half-circle bench serves as the jump-off point to the Hole-in-the-Wall viewpoint

It’s unclear if interpretive signs will be added to this area, but at one time the story of how Warren Creek was diverted in 1939 was planned for the spot where the new trail crosses the old, dry creek bed.

Another new trail sign is also located at the all-access spur trail to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, as this is also the route to the Starvation Ridge and Defiance Trails. This sign also includes a mysterious reference to Gorge Trail 400, further suggesting that a re-numbering of trails in the area is in the works. A large, multi-trunked bigleaf maple was also spared at this junction.

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Bigleaf maple spared… and another mystery reference to Trail 400..?

The following view is looking from the new HCRH State Trail toward the Hole-in-the-Wall spur trail, showing the proximity to Warren Falls. The green hydro-seeded area in the photo is where the construction staging area for the project, underscoring the missed opportunity to restore Warren Falls as part of the project – it was just a few yards beyond the staging area.

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So very close: Warren Falls from the main construction staging area

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Staging area during construction in July – the last time we’ll see heavy equipment this close to Warren Falls for generations?

The humble elderberry (below) in the middle of the staging area was spared by ODOT, a nice consideration in a project that did impact a lot of trees. Hopefully, there are plans to expand native plantings here, as this area was covered with invasive Himalayan blackberries for decades before the trail project and will surely revert to invasive species without a deliberate restoration effort.

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This apparently well-connected elderberry dodged the ODOT bulldozers!

Moving west, the new HCRH State Trail segment passes through another forested section where the trail rises on fill necessary to bring it to grade with a handsome new bridge over Warren Creek (visible in the distance in the view, below). This is an especially attractive section of trail.

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Looking west along the attractive new trail section approaching the Warren Creek Bridge

For some reason, many of the trees that were cut for this new section of trail were left piled along the base of the fill (below). The fill slope has been hydro-seeded, so it seems unlikely that the more work is planned to remove or repurpose the log piles, so apparently the were left in this manner on purpose?

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Piled logs along the elevated grade approaching Warren Creek Bridge

Looking back to the construction period last summer, you can also see the good work ODOT did to cut back English ivy that was rampant in this area. While ivy was left intact on the forest floor, it was cleared from dozens of trees in this section of the trail.

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Invasive English ivy was trimmed from dozens of trees near Warren Creek

The highlight of the new HCRH trail segment is where the route crosses Warren Creek. Here, a handsome new bridge faithfully echoes the design ethic of Samuel Lancaster, but is probably more elaborate than the original bridge constructed at Warren Creek in 1916. Lancaster’s bridge was destroyed when the first version of the modern highway was built in 1950.

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The handsome new Warren Creek Bridge is the jewel of the new trail segment

Though no visual record exists, the original Warren Creek Bridge was modest in length, at just 18 feet, and likely resembled the surviving bridge at Gorton Creek to the west, or possibly the original bridge at Viento Creek to the east (shown below).

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The original Warren Creek Bridge probably followed one of these designs

The design of the original Warren Creek Bridge inadvertently helped lead the Highway Department to bypass Warren Falls, as stream debris was clogging the bridge opening. The 1941 project files also describe the original bridge being “replaced in a different location” as part of the diversion project, so there may have been two version of the original bridge over Warren Creek before the modern highway was constructed in the 1950s.

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Warren Creek Bridge under construction in July

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Pavement texture samplers being tested for the project

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Looking west across the new Warren Creek Bridge

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Railing detail and the view downstream from Warren Creek Bridge

Construction of the new HCRH bridge over Warren Creek was an involved undertaking, with the surprisingly wide span leaving plenty of room for a (someday) restored Warren Falls to move 70+ years of accumulated rock and woody debris down the stream channel.

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Built to last, with plenty of room for Warren Creek to once again move rock and log debris down its channel… someday…

There’s nothing natural about Warren Creek in this area, as it looks (and is) more like a drainage ditch. This is because original streambed is now a dry ravine several hundred yards to the east, and the current streambed is where the Highway Department moved the creek decades ago, when the modern highway was first built in the 1950s.

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Ditch-like, man-made channel of Warren Creek as viewed from the new bridge

As described in the first part of this article, the someday restoration of Warren Falls will once again allow rocks and woody debris to migrate into the lower channel, eventually transforming the “ditch” into a healthy stream (below) that can fully support endangered salmon and steelhead.

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What a healthy Warren Creek might look like from the bridge, someday…

[click here for a larger version]

While ODOT missed the larger opportunity to help this stream restoration along when it declined to restore Warren Falls, the agency also missed the easy opportunity to simply add a few boulders and logs to the section of Warren Creek near the bridge when heavy equipment was in the area. That’s too bad, but perhaps the OPRD will someday enhance this stream section as part of managing the new trail.

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Looking west from near the Warren Creek Bridge to the Lancaster Falls viewpoint

From Warren Creek, the new trail follows another fill section to a mostly obstructed viewpoint of Lancaster Falls on Wonder Creek from a small seating area. This viewpoint (below) could use some light pruning to reveal the falls, and perhaps something that’s still in the works by OPRD.

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Lancaster Falls viewpoint

One oddity about Wonder Creek is that it mostly disappears into ground before reaching the culvert that carries Warren Creek under I-84 and to the Columbia River. This is partly due to the modest flow from spring-fed Wonder Creek, but also because the slopes below the falls are mostly composed of unconsolidated talus covered with a thin layer of soil and vegetation. So, most of the time the stream is simply absorbed into the water table below the falls.

Yet, in high runoff periods, the new state trail will accommodate the flow with extensive drainage features designed to carry Wonder Creek under the fill section and to the Warren Creek freeway culvert.

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Trail construction near the Lancaster Falls viewpoint in July

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Lancaster Falls viewpoint under construction in July

Another oddity of Lancaster Falls is its illusive nature. Though thousands of hikers each year view the modest, 20-foot lower tier of the falls where it spills across the Defiance Trail, few know of it’s full extent – and perhaps wonder why Samuel Lancaster wasn’t honored with a more spectacular landmark.

This is the view (below) of Lancaster Falls that most hikers see today, and this this is also the portion of the falls that can be glimpsed through the trees from the new HCRH trail viewpoint:

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Lancaster Falls as most know it, along the Defiance Trail

But viewed from across the Columbia River, along Washington’s Highway 14, Lancaster Falls takes on a completely different scale. This view shows the lower 20-foot tier that most know as “Lancaster Falls” completely dwarfed by the towering 300-foot extent of the falls:

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The full extent of Lancaster Falls as viewed from the Washington side of the Columbia

While it’s possible to scramble to the base of the main tier of Lancaster Falls, the slopes are unstable and already being impacted by off-trail visitors, so it’s probably best that only a most portion of the falls is (somewhat) visible from the new HCRH route. Hopefully, interpretive signage is in the works for the viewpoint that tells the story of Samuel Lancaster..?

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1920s view of the HCRH from Lindsey Creek looking toward Wind Mountain

From the Lancaster Falls viewpoint, the new trail heads west to a section where it once again follows the shoulder of I-84 to Lindsey Creek and the end of new construction. ODOT is working the next trail segment, which will connect from Lindsey Creek to the Wyeth Campground, crossing the base of famously unstable Shellrock Mountain along the way.

Hole-in-the-Wall Falls Spur Trail

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Original concept for the Hole-in-the-Wall Falls viewpoint

One of the design highlights of the new HCRH trail section is a short all-access spur tail to an overlook of Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, the man-made outflow tunnel that continues to drain Warren Falls of its water. The completed overlook has been scaled back from its original design (shown above), and now features one of the signature circular seating areas, complete with a picnic table (below).

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Hole-in-the-Wall Falls viewpoint

A small plaque at the viewpoint identifies Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, which until now has not been an officially recognized name or has appeared on any official maps. A nice nod to the origin if the “falls” is the byline “Created 1939”. Hopefully, there will be future interpretive displays here, as the story of Warren Falls would be a great addition to this overlook.

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Hole-in-the-Wall Falls viewpoint

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Hole-in-the-Wall Falls plaque

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Hole-in-the-Wall Falls viewpoint under construction in July

The Starvation Ridge Trail picks up from the south side of the Hole-in-the-Wall Falls overlook, heading across a footbridge over Warren Creek.

A closer look near the footbridge (below) reveals a surprising disappointment: the stump of a streamside Douglas fir cut improve the view of the falls. It’s too bad that the tree wasn’t simply limbed to provide a view, as it was one of the few larger trees stabilizing the banks of Warren Creek.

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Hole-in-the-Wall Falls bridge… and stump?

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Unfortunate remains of the offending Douglas fir along Warren Creek

While it’s disappointing to think about the opportunities missed at Warren Falls, the Hole-in-the-Wall Falls overlook and beautiful new Warren Creek Bridge, are still a big a step in the right direction toward someday moving Warren Creek from neglected afterthought to a valued resource that deserves to be restored. ODOT deserves major kudos for their thoughtful work on this section of trail!

“Love what they’ve done with the place…”

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Heavy construction of the new “trail” in July looked more like a road to many hikers

Last summer I encountered another hiker while surveying the progress of the new HCRH trail in the Warren Creek area. He was making his way to the Defiance Trail, and when he saw me taking photos, shouted angrily “Love what they’ve done with the place!”

I’ve heard this reaction to the State Trail from many hikers over the years, as avid hikers are often aghast at what they see as more of a “road” than trail. The scope of construction impacts on the natural landscape of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) and the millions in public funds being spent on the project rankles hikers who don’t see themselves actually using the trail.

Many hikers are also mystified as to how this project can received tens of million in funding while other, heavily overused Gorge trails are falling apart for lack of adequate funding.

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Extensive cut and fill necessary to maintain trail grade meant a wide construction swath

These reactions are understandable, if misguided. The restoration of the surviving HCRH and the future trail segments that will soon complete the original route from Troutdale to The Dalles is an epic effort of ambition and vision in an era when both are rare quantities.

When the route is completed, it will become a world-class cycling attraction, and it is already drawing visitors from around the world. Guided bicycle tours have become a thriving business in the Gorge because of ODOT’s commitment to bringing the HCRH State Trail vision to reality, and businesses in Gorge towns are already seeing the benefits.

Other projects to promote the trail are also in the works. ODOT’s Gorge Hubs project is a new partnership with six cities in the Gorge to provide traveler information for trail users and boost the local economy. The Friends of the Gorge have launched the Gorge Towns to Trails project, a complementary effort to the HCRH State Trail to connect Gorge communities to public lands via trails.

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Tourism in the Gorge is as old as the historic highway, itself. This is the Lindsey Creek Inn that once stood where the newly completed HCRH State Trail approaches Lindsey Creek

Plenty of local visitors will continue to use the HCRH State Trail as the project nears completion over the next few years, but the real benefit for Gorge communities is from visitors coming from outside the region. Unlike local visitors, tourists coming from elsewhere will book hotel rooms, purchase meals and take home locally-made products and art from the Gorge to memorialize their trip. These visitors make a much larger contribution to the Gorge economy than a local visitor who might stop by a brewpub on the way back from a day trip.

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Gorge sunset from near Starvation Creek along the newly completed HCRH State Trail

A 2011 National Park Service study of tourism dollars shows outside visitors spending anywhere from 7 to 12 times the amount that local visitors spend on a visit to a given park, bringing hundreds of millions to local economies at many parks. There’s no reason why the Gorge can’t better manage the our already heavy demand from local visitors to the Gorge to allow for more outside visitors drawn by the HCRH State Trail to spend their dollars here.

The bigger picture is that anyone opposed to seeing casinos or bottled water plants in the Gorge should be part of supporting a tourism economy that builds on the scenery. Yes, tourism impacts must be managed to protect the Gorge for future generations, but the health of the Gorge economy is the essential ingredient to providing these protections over the long term.

The HCRH State Trail is part of that formula, and it deserves enthusiastic support from anyone who loves the Gorge. If you own a bicycle (or pair of walking shoes), give it a try — and then recommend it as an exciting new vacation destination to distant friends and family!

Dollar Lake Fire: Five Years After

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The Dollar Lake Fire from Bald Butte in August 2011

In 2006, the Bluegrass Fire raced along Bluegrass Ridge, torching the subalpine forests above Elk Meadows on Mount Hood’s east flank. In 2008, the Gnarl Fire burned a much larger swath of the east slope, from just above Elk Meadows to the Eliot Branch canyon, nearly destroying century-old Cloud Cap Inn, Snowshoe Lodge and the historic structures at nearby Tilly Jane Campground. Heroic efforts by Forest Service firefighters spared these priceless jewels of Mount Hood’s history, with the fire burning within a few yards of these old structures.

In August 2011, the Dollar Lake Fire was the third in a string of major fires that would ravage the slopes of Mount Hood in a period of just five years, this time burning the north slopes of the mountain. Lightning started the Dollar Fire started on a weekend, just below the popular Elk Cove trail and was immediately reported by hikers in the area.

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The Dollar Lake Fire burning below Elk Cove

The Dollar Fire soon erupted to become one of the most fiercely fought and carefully documented fires in recent memory as it swept to the west, eventually threatening Bonneville Power Administration transmission lines at Lolo Pass and the nearby Bull Run Watershed, source of Portland’s drinking water.

The fire wasn’t fully contained until the end of September of that year, eventually burning more than 6,200 acres of forest (maps and photos of the fire can still be viewed on the InciWeb interagency website).

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Flare-up in the Dollar Lake Fire in August 2011

Firefighting efforts were initially slow to arrive at the Dollar Fire, and some (including the media and members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation) accused the Forest Service of purposely allowing the fire to grow because it was inside the Mount Hood Wilderness where it didn’t threaten areas open to commercial logging. But a subsequent investigation pointed to overstretched firefighting resources, a growing problem as the federal land agencies struggle to fund the spiraling forest fire phenomena across the west.

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Location of the Dollar Lake and Gnarl fires

 [click here for a large map]

By the time fall rains arrived, the fire had burned almost the entire north slope of Mount Hood, a 5-mile swath stretching from the Eliot Branch on the east to Cathedral Ridge on the west. Almost all of the burn was subalpine Noble fir forest, though a few old-growth mountain hemlock stands along the Timberline Trail were burned at Elk Cove and Cairn Basin.

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Timeline and extent of the Dollar Lake fire

[click here for a large map]

The eastern extent of the Dollar Burn contained large stands of Western larch, a fire forest species adapted to frequent, low intensity fires. Most of these trees did not appear to survive the fire, however, due to its extreme heat and intensity.

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Ground zero for the Dollar Lake fire is the foreground in these views from the Elk Cove Trail taken before the burn and five years after the fire

 [click here for a large map]

In fact, very few trees survived the fire except along its margins, where a beneficial mosaic burn pattern left standing trees and some undergrowth to help begin the recovery phase. This is the new reality facing our forests, as a century of fire suppression continues to fuel catastrophic fires that completely destroy forest on a massive scale.

Summer 2012: Immediate Aftermath

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Total destruction along Vista Ridge in 2012

The dense network of trails that cross through the Dollar Burn provide a front-row seat to how (and if) our forests recover from catastrophic fires inside a protected wilderness, without human intervention. In the immediate aftermath of the Dollar Fire, the picture was bleak. In the heart of the burn, the forest kill was nearly complete, as even the duff layer on the forest floor was burned away, exposing a thin layer of volcanic soils vulnerable to erosion.

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Blackened trees in 2012, before scorched bark began to peel away

One of the first lessons of the fire was the importance of tree debris in stabilizing the unprotected soil. The living trees in this forest weren’t burned so much as boiled alive as their living cambium layer was superheated beneath their bark. The surprising result in the first season after the fire was scorched bark peeling away to reveal untouched wood underneath.

The piles of peeled bark provided an immediate layer of mulch over the exposed soil, with smaller twigs and limbs also helping to form the beginnings of a new duff layer on the burnt soil.

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Trees inside the burn shed their scorched bark in the first year, helping stabilize exposed soils

The roots of some understory plants in the worst of the burn zone also survived the fire, including huckleberry, beargrass and avalanche lilies. Two years after the fire, seeds blown into the burn began to establish, and the recovery was underway in surprisingly short order. Read more about the initial recovery in this 2012 WyEast Blog article.

2016: Five Years of Recovery

This year marks the five-year anniversary of the fire, and the recovery within the Dollar Burn is in full swing, though it will take a century or more for the area to fully recover – more on that in a moment.

How does the Dollar Burn of today compare to the first summer after the fire? As the July scenes along the Vista Ridge Trail (below) show, the understory is recovering rapidly.

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Comparison of the recovery along the Vista Ridge Trail in 2012 and 2016

In 2012, avalanche lilies sprung from bulbs spared by the heat of the fire, creating striking stripes of white blossoms and bright green foliage where these plants survived. A few beargrass (a close relative of the lily family) also survived, thanks to deep underground roots that escaped the fire. A few scattered huckleberry and other understory shrubs also sprouted from surviving roots in the first summer after the fire.

In recent years, the beargrass and avalanche lily display in the Dollar Burn has become a spectacular attraction for early season hikers on the Vista Rigde Trail as these fire survivors continue flourish and spread in the bright new conditions. Other shrubby survivors, like huckleberry, have also continued to recover, thriving in the bright new conditions created by the fire.

But the story in the last few years of the recovery has been the arrival of new plants in the burn zone, blown in by seed or deposited by wildlife. These include more understory species, but also the first few conifers to take root.

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This trailside log was a favorite resting spot for hikers on the Vista Ridge Trail before the Dollar Fire. Since the fire, hikers still rest here and have begun to polish away the charred surface along the top of the log – presumably with a charcoal backside as their souvenir!

After five years, most of the scorched bark has fallen from the torched trees, and the trunks underneath have bleached from their initial golden shades of newly exposed wood to weathered silver and gray shades of a “ghost forest”.

The standing ghost trees still retain a surprising number of their limbs, and perhaps more surprising, very few have toppled in the five years since the fire. This is testament to the fact that the core of these trees didn’t burn. Most will stand for decades before insects and decay finally bring them down.

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These felled Noble fir along Vista Ridge Trail reveal a forest that was more than 300 years old before the fire

A few trees in the burn zone were cut by firefighters in an attempt to create fire lines. Today, these cut stumps provide a look at the age of this forest. While the trees in the Dollar Burn aren’t particularly large by Pacific Northwest standards, they were actually quite old. The cut tree shown above was more than 300 years old and stump below is from a tree that had grown on Vista Ridge for 360 years!

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This ancient Noble fir was 360 years old when it succumbed to the catastrophic Dollar Lake fire

The extreme weather conditions and thin soils make for a hard life for subalpine trees, stunting their relative size compared to lower-elevation forests.

The relatively modest size of these trees compared to their impressive age is another reminder of the vulnerability of our subalpine Noble fir forests that are still being logged commercially. While they continue to be “harvested” in unprotected areas under the premise of sustainability, these trees take centuries to reach a size worthy of commercial cutting, making the “harvest” more like mining than tree farming.

The Pioneers

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Fireweed is the rock star of the pioneer plants species in the burn zone

The understory in the Dollar Burn is noticeably greener just five years after the fire, and a closer look reveals a handful of plant species doing the heavy lifting at this stage in the forest recovery. At the top of the list of pioneer species is fireweed, (described here in the previous article in this blog).

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Fireweed crowding the Vista Ridge Trail in 2016

True to its name, fireweed has evolved to be the first in line to resettle burned or disturbed areas. These plants produce massive quantities of winged seeds that can quickly reach very large areas. They are also hardy perennials with large root systems, so also play an important role in stabilizing exposed soil.

In the Dollar Burn, fireweed has already colonized large areas, creating a spectacular flower displays from mid-summer through fall.

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Showy blooms of Fireweed in late summer on Vista Ridge

Look between the drifts of fireweed and you’ll find other pioneers taking root. One surprising species is the diminutive wild dwarf bramble (sometimes called wild strawberry for its resemblance of its runners and leaves to domestic strawberries). These tiny plants are now found throughout the burn, threading through piles of bark and limbs.

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Wild dwarf bramble growing over charred bark along the Vista Ridge Trail

Huckleberries also continue their comeback, mostly from the surviving roots of established plants that grew before the fire but also as seedlings. In a few spots, the understory was not completely destroyed, and in these areas huckleberry is responding strongly to the bright conditions with abundant berry production.

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Huckleberry seedlings emerging on Vista Ridge

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Huckleberry seedlings growing from the base of a burned snag on Vista Ridge

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Huckleberries that survived the fire are producing abundant berry crops in the suddenly sunny environment in the Dollar Burn

Though they were among the few understory survivors, the recovery of beargrass has been more gradual than expected. Most plants seem to be growing from roots that survived the fire, though the first big bloom of these survivors (and the seeds they produced) only arrived over the past two years.

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Beargrass emerging from surviving roots are just beginning to produce blooms within the burn zone

Clumping grasses have also arrived throughout the burn, as well as the occasional rush in moist, protected pockets.

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Rush growing in a moist hollow on Vista Ridge

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Clumping grasses are taking root in some of the driest areas of the Dollar Burn

Elderberry is among the few woody understory pioneers to arrive in this stage of the Dollar Burn recovery. These plants are scattered widely, growing in less burned areas, and may also be growing from surviving roots.

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This young Elderberry shrub is just getting started in the burn zone in 2016

Conifers are just getting started five years after the Dollar Fire. Almost all of the conifer seedlings at this point in the recovery are Mountain hemlock and Noble fir, the dominant evergreens in Mount Hood’s subalpine forests.

By counting branch tiers, a few young trees as old as four years can be found, but most are one or two year-old seedlings. But if you look closely, there are also many seedlings that have not survived the harsh summers in the burn zone, where there is little shade and the sandy mountain soils are extremely dry by the time rain reappears in the fall.

This is the sorting process at work, where only a few seedlings will survive winter cold, summer heat and competition from understory plants to someday become part of the new forest canopy.

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Young Mountain hemlock in the Dollar Burn in 2016

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Three-year old Noble Fir in the Dollar Burn in 2016

Though most of the Dollar Fire was an overheated catastrophe for the forest, killing almost everything, there are a few spots where the fire cooled and burned in a “mosaic” pattern, leaving a few surviving trees and much of the understory.

These areas are lush islands of life just five years after the fire, underscoring their importance in the recovery and why cooler mosaic burns can be beneficial to the long-term health of a forest. Pioneer species are much more abundant in heavily burned areas that are immediately adjacent to these surviving patches than in other parts of the burn, as plants quickly spread from these islands of green.

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Island of green where the Dollar Lake Fire spared a section of forest that now serves as a nursery for regenerating the burn zone

While the Dollar Burn is recovering at nature’s pace, without human intervention, the Forest Service has given the nearby Gnarl Burn section along Cloud Cap Road a recovery boost by planting conifer seedlings. These trees were planting in 2010, about a year before the Dollar Lake Fire and following commercial removal of burned trees along the historic road.

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Planted conifers in the Gnarl Burn along Cloud Cap Road in 2016

Today, these trees are thriving, and the main effect of replanting is the diversity of species, including lodgepole pine, western larch, Western white pine, Englemann Spruce and even whitebark pine at higher elevations. Noble fir and mountain hemlock do not seem to have been part of the replanting, perhaps because these species are the most likely to recover without human intervention.

The Long View?

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Hazard tree warning at the Vista Ridge trailhead

Hikers on the north side of Mount Hood will continue to have a front-row seat to the forest recovery in the Dollar Burn. Already, there are some surprising lessons.

First, the main victims of blowdown since the fire have often been the few trees that survived the fire intact. This is because of the sudden exposure of their canopy to winter winds and snow loads, and is a surprising blow to the forest recovery these trees would otherwise be helping to seed the burn zone.

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Toppled surviving Noble fir in the burn zone in 2016

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A surviving canopy becomes a liability in a burned forest, as surviving trees along Vista Ridge were tipped by winter storms in 2016

The Dollar Burn generally stayed well below timberline (and the Timberline Trail), leaving most of the alpine zone intact. But where the fire did burn into places like Elk Cove, Eden Park and Cairn Basin, we will also have an opportunity to watch how alpine ecosystems react to fire.

Some of Mount Hood’s most ancient forests grow in this zone, and have presumably survived because they are somewhat isolated from lower-elevation forests and often grow in moister conditions where snowpack is greater and summer days are cooler. But the forest could take centuries to recover in these areas, impacting the many species of plants and wildlife that live exclusively at this elevation.

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It could take centuries for this high-elevation forest of Mountain hemlock and Whitebark pine on Vista Ridge to recover from the fire

In human terms, it’s hard to see forest fire cycles in perspective, but in the case of the Dollar Burn, we have the benefit of early photographs from the area. Forest surveys show that the Red Hill area on the north edge of the Mount Hood Wilderness burned in the early 1900s, and were barely recovering by the 1950s (see below).

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The view from Owl Point in 1952 and 2016 shows the cycle of fire on Mount Hood’s north slope over the past century (top photo courtesy Hood River History Museum)

[Click here for a larger version]

Today, the forest in this northern edge of the wilderness has substantially recovered after a century of regrowth, and now the view is reversed: the silvery ghost forests of the Dollar Fire now mark the once-green slopes of Mount Hood as viewed from Owl Point, while green forests and beargrass meadows cover the former Red Hill burn in the foreground.

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Looking down on the Dollar Burn and Owl Point in the distance from the Timberline Trail in 2016

So far, so good, but the larger question in an era of climate change is whether our forests will continue to recover from catastrophic fire – or logging – in the way that we have always assumed they will.

As the recovery unfolds in the Dollar Lake, Gnarl and Blue Ridge burns on Mount Hood we’ll learn how resilient our forests really are, and hopefully make better decisions in protecting them for the benefit of future generations.

A New Vision: Restoring Hiyu Mountain

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Early 1900s view of Mount Hood and Bull Run Lake, with Hiyu Mountain on the far right and Sentinel Peak on the left

Hidden in plain sight at the foot of Mount Hood and the headwaters of Portland’s Bull Run watershed, Hiyu Mountain is a little-known, much abused gem. No one knows why this graceful, crescent-shaped mountain was named with the Chinook jargon word for “much” or “many”, and sadly, only a very few know of Hiyu Mountain today.

This little mountain deserves better. The broader vision of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign is to heal and restore Mount Hood and the Gorge as a place for conservation and sustainable recreation, ending a century of increasing commercial exploitation and profiteering. As part of this vision, Hiyu Mountain could once again become a place of “hiyu” beauty, where snowcapped WyEast fills the horizon and where Bull Run Lake, indigo source of Portland’s drinking water, could finally be seen and celebrated by the public these lands belong to.

Two Worlds

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Dodge Island and Mount Hood from Bull Run Lake; Hiyu Mountain is the tall, crescent-shaped ridge rising behind the island (photo courtesy Guy Meacham)

Hiyu Mountain rises 1,500 feet directly above Bull Run Lake, the uppermost source of Portland’s water supply. Lolo Pass is on the south shoulder of the mountain, connecting the Hood River and Sandy River valleys. The two sides of Hiyu Mountain mountain couldn’t be more different.

The northern slope that forms the shoreline of the Bull Run Lake is almost untouched by man, almost as pristine as it was when the Bull Run Watershed was established in the late 1800s.

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Early 1900s map of Hiyu Mountain and Bull Run Lake

Massive old growth Noble fir forests tower along these northern slopes, where rain and snow from Pacific storm fronts is captured, emerging in the crystal mountain springs that form the headwaters of the Bull Run River.

Almost no one visits this part of Bull Run, save for an occasional Portland Water Bureau worker. This land has been strictly off-limits to the public for nearly 120 years, and remained untouched even as the Bull Run Reserve was developed as a municipal watershed.

Hiyu04ForestMap1915

Early 1900s map showing Hiyu Mountain and the first trails over Lolo Pass

On the south slope of Hiyu Mountain things were surprisingly pristine until the 1950s. This area was also part of the original Bull Run Reserve, but was later ceded – in large part because the south slopes of Hiyu Mountain drain to the Clear Fork of the Sandy River, and away from the Bull Run watershed.

Since the 1950s, a conspiracy of forces has almost completely altered the south face of the mountain and its summit crest. By the mid-1950s, the Forest Service had begun what would become an extensive industrial logging zone here, mining ancient trees in dozens of sprawling, high-elevation clear cuts in the remote Clear Fork valley.

These forests will take centuries to recover, and are today mostly thickets of plantation conifers in woeful need of thinning. The maze of logging roads constructed to cut the forests are now buckling and sliding into disrepair on the steep mountain slopes.

Hiyu05TopoMap1927

1927 map of Hiyu Mountain, Bull Run Lake and the south corner of Lost Lake

By the late 1950s, a logging road had finally pushed over the crest of Lolo Pass. At just 3,330 feet, Lolo is the lowest of mountain passes on Mount Hood and a route long used by Native Americans. But surprisingly, it was the last to see a road in modern times. The road over Lolo Pass coincided with the completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957, some 50 miles east on the Columbia River.

While the dam is most notorious for drowning Cello Falls, a place where native peoples had lived, fished and traded for millennia, it also sent half-mile wide power transmission corridors west to Portland and south to California. Thus, the new road over Lolo Pass enabled the most egregious insult to Hiyu Mountain, with the parade of transmission towers we see today tragically routed over the shoulder of Mount Hood.

The power corridor took advantage of the easy passage over Lolo Pass, an absence of tourists and public awareness (at the time) on this remote side of the mountain, and was built with complete disregard for the natural landscape. It remains as Mount Hood’s worst scar.

Hiyu06TransmissionLines

The Bonneville Power Administration’s quarter-mile wide perpetual clearcut that follows their transmission lines over the shoulder of Hiyu Mountain

 Today, the south side of Hiyu Mountain remains a jarring landscape of ragged clearcuts, failing logging roads and the quarter-mile wide swath of power lines.

With regular clearing and herbicides, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) ensures that nothing much grows under its transmission lines except invasive weeds. It’s a perpetual, linear clearcut that serves primarily as a place for illegal dumping and a shooting range for lawless gun owners who ignore (or shoot) the hundreds of BPA “no trespassing” signs. It is truly an ugly and shameful scene that cries out for a better management vision.

The Lookout Era

Hiyu07Lookout1930

The original lookout tower on Mount Hood in the late 1920s

By 1929, the Forest Service had built a 20-foot wooden lookout tower with an open platform atop Hiyu Mountain (above). It was an ideal location, with sweeping views of both the Bull Run Reserve and the entire northwest slope of Mount Hood. A roof was soon added to the original structure, but in 1933 a more standard L-4 style lookout cabin replaced the original structure (below). The new lookout provided enclosed living quarters for lookout staff, complete with a cot, table and wood stove – and an Osborne fire finder in the center of the one-room lookout.

Hiyu08Lookout1933

The 1933 Hiyu Mountain Lookout in the 1950s

Hiyu09Firefinder

Osborne Fire finder in the 1930s (USDA)

When the new Hiyu Mountain lookout was constructed in 1933, the Forest Service was also completing a comprehensive photographic survey from its hundreds of lookout sites throughout Oregon. These photos are now an invaluable historical record. Forest Service photographers used a special panoramic camera to capture the full sweep of the view from each lookout, creating a trio of connecting panoramas from each location.

The following photographs are taken from a panoramic survey at Hiyu Mountain in 1934, and tell us what the area looked like in those early days.

The first photo (below) looks north, toward Bull Run Lake, but also shows the fresh fire lane cut into the forest along the Bull Run Reserve boundary – visible on the right and along the ridge at the top of the photo.

Hiyu10BullRunLakeView1934

Bull Run Lake from Hiyu Mountain in 1934

(click here for a larger photo)

The fire lane is no longer maintained and has now largely reforested. The northern view also shows a simple wind gauge mounted on a pole below the lookout tower and the perfect cone of Mt. St. Helens on the horizon, as it existed before its catastrophic 1980 eruption.

The view to the northeast (below) shows Mount Adams on the distant horizon, and a completely logged West Fork Hood River valley, below. The Mount Hood Lumber Company milled the old growth trees cut from this valley at the mill town of Dee, on the Hood River. The ruins of their company town (and a few surviving structures) can still be seen along the Lost Lake Highway today. Trees cut in the West Fork valley were transported to Dee by a train, and a portion of today’s Lolo Pass road actually follows the old logging railroad bed.

Hiyu11WestForkView1934

The logged-over West Fork valley from Hiyu Mountain in 1934

(click here for a larger photo)

Unfortunately, much of the West Fork valley continues to be in private ownership today. Longview Fiber owned the valley for decades, but sold their holdings in a corporate takeover in the late 2000s to a Toronto-based Canadian trust. More recently, Weyerhauser took ownership of the valley, and has embarked on a particularly ruthless (and completely unsustainable) logging campaign that rivals the complete destruction seen in these photos from the 1930s (watch for a future WyEast Blog article on this unfortunate topic).

To the southeast (below), Mount Hood fills the horizon in spectacular fashion, but there are some interesting details in the photo, too. In the foreground, the rocky spur that forms the true summit of Hiyu Mountain has been cleared to enhance the lookout views. The continued swath of logging in the West Fork valley can be seen reaching the foot of Mount Hood on the left.

Hiyu12HoodView1934

Mount Hood from Hiyu Mountain in 1934

(click here for a larger photo)

A detailed look (below) at the western panorama in the Hiyu Mountain series shows a lot of cleared forest, a necessity as the summit ridge continues in this direction for than a mile, blocking visibility for the new lookout. In this detailed scene, we can also see stacked logs and lumber that were presumably used to build a garage and other outbuilding that were added to the site in the 1930s.

Hiyu13WestView1934

Recently cleared trees at the Hiyu Lookout site in 1934

 (click here for a larger photo)

When it was constructed, the lookout on Hiyu Mountain was remote and reached only by trail. Materials for the new structured were brought in by packhorse. The nearest forest guard station was at Bull Run Lake, where Portland Water Bureau rangers staffed log cabins while guarding the water supply.

A dense network of trails connected the Hiyu Mountain lookout to Bull Run Lake and other lookouts in the area. As the 1930s era Forest Service map (below) shows, a telephone line (the dash-dot line) also connected Hiyu Mountain to other lookouts on Hiyu Mountain and to the cabins at Bull Run Lake. The phone line north of the lookout followed the fire lane, and is likely still there, lost in the forest regrowth.

Hiyu14TrailsMap

1930s map of Hiyu Mountain showing the extensive trail network of the pre-logging area

The 1930s forest map also shows the original alignment of the (then) new Oregon Skyline Trail, now the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). According to the map, the trail crossed right through the logged-over area of the West Fork valley (between the tributaries of Elk Creek and McGee Creek on the map) in the 1934 panorama photos, so not exactly a scenic alignment. Today’s McGee Creek trail is a remnant of this earlier route from Mount Hood to Lost Lake.

Today’s PCT stays near the ridge tops, roughly following some of the old forest trails from Mount Hood to Lolo Pass, then across the east slope of Hiyu Mountain, toward Sentinel Peak. A 1946 forest map (below) shows the Oregon Skyline Trail to already have been moved to the ridges between Bald Mountain and Lost Lake, though the area was still without roads at the time.

Hiyu15_1946TrailsMap

1946 forest map of the Hiyu Mountain area – oddly, Lolo Pass is not even marked!

By the early 1950s, there were dozens of forest lookouts in the area north of Mount Hood, with structures on nearby Buck Mountain, Indian Mountain, Lost Lake Butte, Bald Mountain, East Zigzag Mountain, West Zigzag Mountain and Hickman Butte. All were within sight of the lookout on Hiyu Mountain, and must have provided welcome — if distant – company to lookout staff.

During the 1950s, roads were finally pushed into the Clear Fork valley and over Lolo Pass as the industrial logging era began on our national forests. During this period, a logging road was constructed between Lolo Pass and Bull Run Lake, including a spur that climbs to the summit of Hiyu Mountain.

Hiyu16BullRunView1953

Bull Run Lake from Hiyu Mountain in the 1950s

Though not widely known today, the logging agenda of the U.S. Forest Service from the 1950s through the 1980s did not spare the Bull Run Reserve. In the 1960s and 70s, alone, some 170 mile of logging roads were cut into the mountain slopes of Bull Run. By the 1990s, 14,500 acres of these “protected” old growth forests of 500-year old trees had been cut, or roughly 20 percent of the entire watershed had been logged. Public protests and legal challenges to stop the logging began as early as 1973, but only in 1996 did legislation finally ban the destruction of Bull Run’s remaining ancient forests.

By the early 1960s, the Forest Service had begun to phase out the forest lookouts, and Hiyu Mountain’s lookout structure was removed by 1967. Since then, the main function of the summit road has been to log the south slope and summit ridge of the mountain and to provide access to radio antennas where the old lookout building once stood. The easy road access to the summit also brought one of Mount Hood’s seismic monitors to Hiyu Mountain in more recent years.

The Ridiculous Red Zone

Hiyu17BullRunLake1960

Hiyu Mountain is the long, dark ridge rising above Bull Run Lake and in front of Mount Hood in this 1960s photo

As recently at the 1980s, it was still legal – and physically possible – to follow the old, unmaintained lookout trail from Lolo Pass to the summit of Hiyu Mountain. Sadly, the Forest Service has since officially closed the trail as part of their stepped-up campaign with the City of Portland Water Bureau to deny any public access to the Bull Run Reserve, even for areas outside the physical watershed.

A few have dared to follow the Hiyu Mountain trail in recent years, and report it to be overgrown, but in excellent shape. The trail climbs through magnificent old Noble fir stands before emerging at the former lookout site. The route doesn’t come remotely close to the actual water supply in Bull Run, which underscores the ridiculousness of the no-entry policy.

Meanwhile, in recent years the City of Portland has been forced to flush entire reservoirs at Mount Tabor and in Washington Park because of suspected contamination from vandals. Yet, these reservoirs continue to be completely accessible and uncovered and in the middle of the city, protected only by fences.

Hiyu18BullRunLakeHiyuPWB

Mount Hood from Bull Run Lake – Hiyu Mountain is the tall ridge immediately in front of Mount Hood in this view (Portland Water Bureau)

Why so little security in the middle of Portland, where the actual water supply is in plain sight and easily vandalized, and so much security where there is little chance of coming anywhere near the water source?

The answer seems to be a mix of dated laws, entrenched bureaucracy and a heavy dose of smokescreen marketing. Portland’s water supply has been under scrutiny by federal regulators in recent years for its vulnerability to tampering – or, perhaps more likely, natural hazards like landslides (Bull Run Lake was created by one, after all), catastrophic forest fires or even a volcanic eruption at nearby Mount Hood. This is because the water coming into city pipes is currently unfiltered.

Hiyu19TourBus

Portland’s Water Bureau provides day tours for a limited number of Portlanders each summer willing to pay $21 for the trip. This is the only way the public can legally visit Bull Run (Wikimedia)

Portland’s elected officials are loathe to fund the price tag for modernizing the system to make it more safe and resilient. In their effort to avoid having to fund and build a filtration system, the City has instead relied heavily on the feel-good mystique of the Bull Run Reserve as a pristine, off-limits place where such measures simply aren’t needed. So far, Portlanders seem content to buy this excuse for preserving the status quo.

That’s too bad, because it’s always shortsighted to exclude the public from access to our public lands, especially if the purpose is as important as ensuring safe drinking water in perpetuity.

A better approach for both the City and the Forest Service would be just the opposite: look for opportunities to involve Portlanders in their Bull Run watershed, including trails like the route to Hiyu Mountain that could give a rare look at the source of our drinking water. Which brings us to…

A New Vision for Hiyu Mountain?

Hiyu20TillamookForestCenterTribune

The popular reproduction lookout tower at the Tillamook Forest Center (Portland Tribune)

We already have a model for honoring Hiyu Mountain’s history at the Tillamook Forest Center, in Oregon’s Coast Range. This relatively new interpretive site is occasionally mocked for its prominent forest lookout tower without a view, but the purpose of the lookout is to educate visitors, not spot fires. Each year, thousands of visitors get a glimpse of how these lookouts came to be, and why they have largely disappeared from the landscape.

A similar project could work at Hiyu Mountain, though a restored lookout tower there could be for the dual purpose of educating visitors on both the history of forest lookouts and the story of the Bull Run Reserve, with birds-eye view of Bull Run Lake from the tower. A restored Hiyu Mountain tower could also provide a more aesthetic alternative for mounting Forest Service communications equipment now installed on top of the mountain.

The concept below would reopen the road to the summit of Hiyu Mountain to the public, with a restored lookout tower as the main attraction. Visitors would have stunning views of Mount Hood and into Bull Run Lake. The old lookout trail from Lolo Pass would also be reopened, providing a way for more active visitors to explore the area and visit the restored lookout tower.

Hiyu21ConceptMapSmall

(Click here for a larger map)

This concept would not put anyone in contact with Bull Run Lake or any of Portland’s Bull Run water, though it would provide a terrific view of the source of our drinking water. It would also pull back the shroud of secrecy around our watershed that allowed hundreds of acres of irreplaceable Bull Run old growth to forest be quietly logged just a few decades ago – the very sort of activity the public should know about when it’s happening on our public lands.

Another feature in this concept is an accessible trail (see map, below) to viewpoints of Bull Run Lake and a pair of scenic ponds that somehow survived the massive Forest Service clearcutting campaign on Hiyu Mountain’s crest.

The idea is to provide much-needed trail experiences for people with limited mobility or who use mobility devices, such as canes, walkers or wheelchairs. Trails with this focus are in short supply and demand for accessible trails is growing rapidly as our region grows. Why build it here? Because everyone should be able to see and learn about their water source, regardless of their mobility.

Hiyu22AllAccessTrailMapSmall

(Click here for a larger map)

These recreational and interpretive features would also allow Hiyu Mountain to begin recovering from a half-century of abuse and shift toward a recreation and interpretive focus in the future. While logged areas are gradually recovering, the area will need attention for decades to ensure that mature stands of Noble fir once again tower along Hiyu Mountain’s slopes.

What would it take..?

What would it take to achieve this vision? The Hiyu Mountain lookout trail is in fairly good shape, and could be restored by volunteers in a single season if the entry ban were lifted. The concept for an accessible loop could be funded with grants that specifically target accessible trails if the Forest Service were to pursue it. And forest lookout organizations already maintain several historic lookouts in Oregon, so they could be a resource for recreating and maintaining a lookout at Hiyu Mountain.

Hiyu23BullRunGate

Welcome to your Bull Run watershed… (Wikimedia)

Most of the infrastructure is already in place, and just waiting for a better management vision for Hiyu Mountain. I’ve described one here, and there are surely others that could provide both public access and restoration.

But only the U.S. Forest Service and City of Portland Water Bureau can move us away from the antiquated entry ban at Bull Run. Hiyu Mountain would be the perfect place to start!

 

 

 

The High Cost of Free Parking (Part 1 of 2)

The notorious Angels Rest Trailhead on a typical winter weekend

The notorious Angels Rest Trailhead on a typical winter weekend

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

The first part of this series examines the parking crisis facing the trailheads of the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, while the second part will explore some possible solutions — none of them easy to realize until the true costs of free parking are confronted.
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Wall-to-wall hikers are the norm on Dog Mountain in spring (The Oregonian)

Wall-to-wall hikers are the norm on Dog Mountain in spring (The Oregonian)

The Forest Service announced plans this month to redesign the huge parking area at the Dog Mountain trailhead, on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, to address safety issues. The Forest Service plans to stripe the currently unmanaged, free-for-all paved shoulder with designed parking spaces for 75 cars. This is a significant reduction from the roughly 200 cars that pack into the trailhead on busy spring weekends.

To compensate for the reduced parking, the Forest Service is teaming up with Skamania County’s Gorge West End Transit (WET) bus to provide a shuttle from Stevenson to Dog Mountain. The shuttle will run Saturdays and Sundays from April 16 to June 12, the peak season for the hike when the wildflower meadows that make the hike famous are at their peak. The shuttles will run 10 times daily from 10:15 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the one-way fare will be a modest $1.00.

A rare quiet day at the huge Dog Mountain trailhead parking area (The Oregonian)

A rare quiet day at the huge Dog Mountain trailhead parking area (The Oregonian)

The predictable headline in The Oregonian story covering of the announcement screamed “Already hate parking at Dog Mountain? It’s about to get worse”, and the reaction from hikers in social media has pretty much echoed that simplistic, knee-jerk reaction.

But will it really be worse? Seventy-five cars at the redesigned trailhead still translates into roughly 150 people on the trail at any given time — hardly a wilderness experience, and a huge improvement over the 400+ hikers you might currently expect along the 7-mile circuit to the summit from trailhead parking capacity, alone. Some hikers will use the shuttles, but more likely, people will simply go elsewhere — a point I’ll cover in the second part in this series.

Hikers are usually people who love nature, so it’s fair to assume that few hikers would want to see their public lands trampled by unmanaged mobs. And yet, much of the reaction to limiting the number of cars that can park at Dog Mountain has been just the opposite — anger and outrage at any sort of limit on parking or access.

So, why this disconnect? We’ll explore that question in the second part of the series, too, as well as the necessary solutions to overwhelming demand for trails in the Gorge and on Mount Hood in the second part of this series.

First, a closer look at the problems that exist in today’s status quo.

A Typical Weekend…

It’s not news to Gorge regulars that weekends along the Historic Columbia River Highway in “Waterfall Alley” have become outlandish traffic jams, with cars parked anywhere they will fit, and trails literally overrun with thousands of hikers. Local photographer T.J. Thorne filmed a clip in the vicinity of Oneonta Gorge that gives a flavor of what our precious Gorge experience has devolved:

This isn’t fun for anyone. It’s a tragedy of the commons in the making, and tarnishes what could (and should) be a wonderful outdoor experience for people looking for some relief from their daily, urban routines.

How did it get this bad? Rapid growth in the Portland metropolitan is part of the answer: while the Gorge trail system is only slightly larger than it was in 1940, the Portland-Vancouver region has exploded from just over 500,000 residents then to more than 2 million today. Compounding the growth is Portland’s emerging lifestyle economy, whereby new industries locating here are increasingly do so because their workers want easy access to our amazing outdoors.

So, one answer is more trails — something I promote regularly in this blog, and something that can be done responsibly and in a way that greatly expands opportunities for people to have a positive outdoor experience. But getting there will take major reforms in how the Forest Service and Columbia Gorge Commission, in particular, think about recreation (both are surprisingly hostile to new trails) as well as restoring funds to gutted federal trail budgets.

Forest Service trail legend Bruce Dungey and his crews are struggling to stem the damage from overuse of Gorge trails

Forest Service trail legend Bruce Dungey and his crews are struggling to stem the damage from overuse of Gorge trails

The federal budget problem is real: consider that Forest Service crews in the Gorge are now about one-fourth the size they were as recently as 1990, and the scope of the trail funding crisis is clear enough. Without volunteers from organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), Washington Trails Association, Friends of the Gorge and the Pacific Crest Trail Association our trails would literally be falling apart and impassable from fallen trees and slides. Mount Hood faces a similar backlog and dependence on volunteers to simply keep the trails open.

Not Playing Well Together?

A good share of the overcrowding and also comes from a failure of public land agencies to work together on common solutions. This is especially true in the Gorge, but also on Mount Hood, where the key players are the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) .

Consider the trailhead parking policy along on the Oregon side of the Gorge: parking at Latourell Falls, Shepperd’s Dell, Wahkeena Falls, Multnomah Falls, Oneonta Gorge, Horsetail Falls, Elowah Falls, Starvation Creek and Mitchell Point is free, no permit required.

The small, free parking area at Elowah Falls is overflowing by dozens of cars, even on rainy winter days

The small, free parking area at Elowah Falls is overflowing by dozens of cars, even on rainy winter days

Meanwhile, parking at Wahclella Falls, Bridge of the Gods, Eagle Creek, Wyeth and Herman Creek requires a Northwest Forest Pass ($30 annual pass or $5 day pass). This can’t be explained simply by state vs. federal management differences, as the Forest Service operates several of the trailheads where free parking is provided, and the state operates both free and fee-based sites, with State Parks at Rooster Rock, Benson Lake and Viento requiring a $5.00 day-use free.

On the Washington side, trailheads provided by the DNR at places like Beacon Rock and Hamilton Mountain require a special DNR permit ($30 annual pass or $10 day pass), while Forest Service trailheads like Dog Mountain require a Northwest Forest Pass.

Confused yet?

It gets worse: on Mount Hood, the Forest Service is well down the troubling path of commercializing both campgrounds and trailheads to “concessionaires”, who in turn, get to set their own fees for day use, which includes parking at trailheads. Several of these trailheads are also posted with a Northwest Forest Pass requirement, so it’s unclear if paying one is the same as paying the other, or even whether being ticketed by a “concessionaire” has any legal standing.

The price to park at Mount Hood’s snow park lots is the same any day of the week, overloading parking areas and the Loop Highway

The price to park at Mount Hood’s snow park lots is the same any day of the week, overloading parking areas and the Loop Highway

Meanwhile, show up at the same trailhead on Mount Hood between November and April, and it might be a Snow Park site, which has its own permit, operated by the Oregon Department of Transportation ($25 annual or $4 day). Just to make things interesting, “agents” who sell Snow Park permits can charge an additional service fee — something you learn when you stop by one of the grocery stores or service stations that offer these permits.

This amazing cocktail of free and permit parking is a major point of annoyance to hikers, both for the inherent confusion and the actual cost of buying multiple passes to use trails in the same area. That’s bad public relations for the land agencies and bad news for the public. But the tangle of policies and permits is especially bad for tourism, with visitors unfamiliar with the area forced to decipher these overlapping regulations.

Dumb Fees vs. Smart Fees

As frustrating as this crazy quilt of fees (or lack of fees) is for the public, the effect is worse when you consider that most of the permitting program do little to actually manage crowding and protect trails from overuse. Why? Because they are all flat fees that don’t recognize that demand for recreation fluctuates wildly by season and day of week on both Mount Hood and in the Gorge.

The Forest Service will soon build this new trailhead for popular Mirror Lake - a chance to try a different parking approach?

The Forest Service will soon build this new trailhead for popular Mirror Lake – a chance to try a different parking approach?

In The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup describes how building enough free parking to meet narrow peaks in demand results in oversized, mostly empty parking lots while promoting even worse crowding during peak periods. And yet, there are fairly straightforward tools for managing parking to avoid these effects on our cities.

Much of what Shoup proposes for cities could be adapted for trails and other activities on our public lands, and that will be the focus of the second part of this series: a set of specific actions that could not only make the outdoor experience for everyone better, but also protect the scenery and trails that we go to the outdoors to experience, and ensure that is will still be here for future generations to enjoy.

To be continued…

A New Vision for Mirror Lake (Part 1 of 3)

Summer evening view of Mount Hood from Mirror Lake

Summer evening view of Mount Hood from Mirror Lake

Big changes are coming to the Mirror Lake Trail on Mount Hood, perhaps the single most visited trail on the mountain. This is the first of three articles on the future of Mirror Lake, and the need for a broader vision to guide recreation in the area.
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As part of the unfortunate widening of the Mount Hood Highway currently underway west of Government Camp (see this article for more on the subject), the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has persuaded the U.S. Forest Service to close the existing, historic trailhead for the Mirror Lake Trail.

ODOT claims safety is the chief concern, a point I will visit later in this series. For now, though, it looks like our highway department will close yet another roadside trailhead in a campaign to gradually morph the Mount Hood Highway into full-fledged freeway.

Going back to the beginning…

Just as Mount Hood generally bears the development pressures of being an hour from Portland, and along transportation corridor that dates to the 1840s, Mirror Lake has long carried the burden of being the closest mountain lake to Portland, and the first easily accessible trailhead along the loop highway.

Because of its proximity, the lake shows up on the earliest maps of the Government Camp area, when the Mount Hood Loop Highway had a very rough, early alignment and was not yet a loop. The original Skyline Trail map (below) from the early 1900s shows Mirror Lake just west of the new trail, and a version of the early loop road before the Laurel Hill switchbacks were built.

1920s-era map of Mount Hood and the Government Camp area

1920s-era map of Mount Hood and the Government Camp area

By the early 1920s, the effort to complete the loop highway was in full swing, including the graceful switchbacks that scaled Laurel Hill (below), the spot where Oregon Trail immigrants had to lower their wagons with ropes because of the steepness of the terrain. Surprisingly, a formal trail to Mirror Lake had not yet been constructed by this time.

1920s map of the first paved alignment of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Government Camp

1920s map of the first paved alignment of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Government Camp

Other maps from the early 1900s (below) tell another story about Mirror Lake: it was within the northern extent of the Sherar Burn, a massive fire that had destroyed forests from the Salmon River to Camp Creek. As recently as the 1980s, bleached snags from the fire were standing throughout the Mirror Lake area.

1920s map showing the Sherar Burn extent in the Mirror Lake area

1920s map showing the Sherar Burn extent in the Mirror Lake area

The Sherar Burn of the mid-1800s created vast tracts of huckleberries across the area, and during the early days of the highway, huckleberry pickers were a common sight, selling coffee cans of fresh berries to mountain visitors (below).

Huckleberry pickers in the 1930s at the Little Zigzag River bridge, below Laurel Hill

Huckleberry pickers in the 1930s at the Little Zigzag River bridge, below Laurel Hill

Mirror Lake, itself, looked quite different in the 1920s, too. Today’s tree-rimmed lake was mostly surrounded by burned snags and fields of beargrass and huckleberry in the 1920s (below).

Mirror Lake in the late 1920s

Mirror Lake in the late 1920s

Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, a new trail was constructed from the new highway to Mirror Lake. The trail began at a sharp turn on the old highway, traversing above the north shoulder of Yocum Falls on Camp Creek, crossing to the south side of the creek at the spot where the modern trailhead is located today (see maps below).

This lower section (from the bend in the old highway to the modern trailhead) of the original Mirror Lake trail was destroyed just 25 years later, when the modern highway grade cut through the area. This portion of the old highway still exists in this area, accessible from the Laurel Hill historic landmark pullout (currently closed because of the highway widening).

1930s map of the original Mirror Lake Trail

1930s map of the original Mirror Lake Trail

1930s map of the Mirror Lake Trail and surrounding area

1930s map of the Mirror Lake Trail and surrounding area

When the original Mirror Lake Trail was built, the trailhead was located just a few yards beyond an impressive roadside viewpoint of Yocum Falls on Camp Creek (below). Today, the forest has recovered so completely in this part of the Sherar Burn that this viewpoint is completely overgrown. It is still possible to visit Yocum Falls from the old highway grade, though, by following rough use trails.

Yocum Falls as it once appeared from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

Yocum Falls as it once appeared from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

The lower section of the original trail seems to have followed the rambling extent of Yocum Falls quite closely before the trail was destroyed by the modern highway. While the current trailhead gives a brief glimpse of the top of the falls, the old route seems to have provided a nice view of the falls since lost (more on this topic in the third part in this series).

Today, the modern Mirror Lake trailhead continues to provide a popular drop-in hike for families and casual hikers, but the convenience comes at a price. The shoulder parking area is large enough to allow up to 100 cars, and on busy weekends, still more hikers park along the highway all the way to Government Camp, walking the highway shoulder to reach the trailhead.

The Mirror Lake Trail was never designed to handle this much traffic, nor is the small lake able to handle so many visitors. These concerns are part of the Forest Service thinking in why a new trailhead should be constructed.

Camp Creek suffers from its close, unprotected proximity to Highway 26 and the Mirror Lake Trail parking.

Camp Creek suffers from its close, unprotected proximity to Highway 26 and the Mirror Lake Trail parking.

Meanwhile, the 1950s-era trailhead pullout in use today was built at a time when little thought was given to environmental impacts. As a result, highway fill was pushed to the edge of Camp Creek, exposing an important salmon and steelhead stream to heavy loads of silt and pollution from parked vehicles. A visit to Yocum Falls, just downstream, reveals a troubling amount of road debris and the sharp odor of pollution in an otherwise healthy stream corridor.

While these growing impacts on Mirror Lake and Camp Creek aren’t the reason ODOT gives for closing the current Mirror Lake Trailhead, they are compelling arguments to consider.
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The next part of this 3-part series will take a closer look at ODOT’s arguments for closing the existing trailhead and the Forest Service proposal for a new trailhead located east of the existing access.

Good News from the Hood River RD!

The Eliot Branch and Mount Hood

The Eliot Branch and Mount Hood

A few weeks ago the Forest Service contacted me about a recent article posted on this blog, It’s Time to Fix the Eliot Crossing!

The article proposed some simple solutions for restoring a washed-out section of the Timberline Trail at the Eliot Branch, which has been offically closed for nearly a decade, and is quite dangerous for those who choose to ignore the closure signs.

The article critiqued Forest Service inaction on the problem, and especially the agency obsession with the “million dollar bridge” solution of somehow installing a supension bridge over the disintegrating canyon of the Eliot Branch. This stream is the unruly outflow from the Mount Hood’s Eliot Glacier, largest of the mountain’s glaciers.

Crossing the Eliot Branch in better days on the old footbridge

Crossing the Eliot Branch in better days on the old footbridge

The proposed susppension bridge would have been prohibitively expensive, and had little chance of ever being funded. Worse, any bridge built here stands a very good chance of being destroyed: the steady retreat of the Eliot Glacier will continue to unravel the canyon below for the foreseeable future as the Eliot Branch carves into new ground once covered by glacial ice.

Because of the critical nature of the article, I expected some grief from the Forest Service. Instead, I learned the Hood River Ranger District has now scrapped its “million dollar bridge” solution and is pursuing a simpler downstream crossing, very similar to what was proposed in the blog article. That’s great news!

The Hood River District staff invited me to meet with them and have a look at their new proposal, so I sat down with one of their Forest Service planners in late December to hear the details. The following are highlights from that conversation.

While they are still in the very early stages of laying out a route, the following map shows the general corridor (in green) the Forest Service has scouted for a “low trail” solution, compared to the new trail concept proposed in the earlier blog article (dashed red):

EliotCrossingRedux03

(Click here for a larger version)

The conceptual Forest Service route would descend the east wall of the Eliot Branch canyon in a series of short switchbacks, just upstream from the ravine where the route was proposed in the blog article.

Once across the Eliot Branch, the Forest Service route would traverse along the ridge that forms the west wall of the canyon, while the route proposed in the blog article followed a tributary stream up a ravine that leads to the Timberline Trail. The Forest Service route is a bit shorter, at 1.2 miles, but follows the same “keep it simple” principles laid out in the blog article.

The Eliot Branch in the vicinity of the proposed crossing (photo © Tim Burke)

The Eliot Branch in the vicinity of the proposed crossing (photo © Tim Burke)

Here’s the best news: the Forest Service hopes to have the new trail under construction in 1-2 years, and have already begun scouting possible alignments. Even better, they hope to involve volunteers in some aspect of the construction, and have reached out to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) to begin that conversation (note: the author is also active in TKO).

This has been a long time coming, and kudos are in order for the Hood River Ranger District for getting this project unstuck — and especially for new staff at the Hood River office who have been instrumental in putting the “million dollar bridge” fiasco behind us. While much more work lies ahead for this project to become a reality, it’s a promising change of direction and a new level of commitment from Forest Service to finally fix this problem.

I’ll post updates on the project here over the next couple of years as the details come into view, of course!

A Mea Culpa is in Order…

When I arrived at the Hood River Ranger District last December for the Timberline Trail meeting, I was surprised to see that the visitor facilities had been dramatically upgraded! This was to my chagrin, as I had lamented the need to do so in this blog article in early 2014. It turns out that the finishing touches to the remodeled Hood River offices were being made at about the time I posted those comments here, so a mea culpa is in order!

Like me, you probably won’t notice the changes to the Hood River Ranger Station when driving by on the Mount Hood Loop Highway, as the public face of the building has been redesigned to face south, not toward the highway to the east. In fact, the building looks much the same from the highway to the casual eye — though an addition to the main building, new signage and an outbuilding have been constructed in what was once a very large parking lot (see below).

Before and after highway views of the ranger station

Before and after highway views of the ranger station

Before and after views of the ranger station

Before and after views of the ranger station

The new orientation makes perfect sense when you stand in front of the building, however. A picturesque view of Mount Hood rising above orchards fills the scene — a view echoed and embraced by the pyramid-shaped wall of windows that define the new visitor center.

Mount Hood fills the southern horizon

Mount Hood fills the southern horizon

The revamped building exterior has ADA-compliant parking and ramps, a small plaza, updated informational sign kiosk, carved welcome sign, bike rack and a new pit toilet. The latter is a much-needed addition that is less elegant than the flush toilets provided at the new Zigzag Ranger Station, but still a nice step forward.

This carved sign welcomes visitors to the new facility

This carved sign welcomes visitors to the new facility

The new visitors center is ADA accessible

The new visitors center is ADA accessible

Once inside the new visitors center, you will find a main desk staffed by a Forest Service ranger, and a nice mix of interpretive displays, ranging from historical artifacts to a collection of mounted wildlife specimens found in the Mount Hood region. The center also has a very good selection of field guides and maps for sale, in addition to many free USFS informational materials.

A nice touch inside the building is a terrestrial telescope mounted on a tripod in front of one of the large picture windows, allowing visitors to take a closer look at the mountain that looms above the ranger station.

Interior panorama of the visitors center (note telescope on the left)

Interior panorama of the visitors center (note telescope on the left)

Rangers staff the new front desk at the visitors center

Rangers staff the new front desk at the visitors center

Watch out… bears lurk behind posts in the new facility!

Watch out… bears lurk behind posts in the new facility!

The wildlife specimens will be fun and informative for families visiting the center, as kids are universally drawn to animal displays. Each mounted display has a detailed info card to help parents become instant experts on the different species represented, or for older kids (and adults) to simply browse and learn from.

Owls on display at the front desk

Owls on display at the front desk

Guard raccoon is on duty 24/7…

Guard raccoon is on duty 24/7…

A particularly menacing bobcat is on display!

A particularly menacing bobcat is on display!

This Pine Marten is in charge of the Bull Trout bumper stickers…

This Pine Marten is in charge of the Bull Trout bumper stickers…

Black bear roaming near the front desk

Black bear roaming near the front desk

The bookstore is located at the west end of the visitor center and creatively designed as a rolling, self-contained portable display. The book offerings are excellent, including many of the most popular regional hiking, climbing, skiing and snowshoeing guides, plus field guides to area flora, fauna and history. Posters and coffee-table books celebrating Mount Hood are also featured.

The rolling bookstore has an excellent cross-section of materials

The rolling bookstore has an excellent cross-section of materials

The map offerings in the rolling bookstore are also excellent, including USFS maps for most National Forests in Oregon and Washington, and official Forest Service maps for wilderness areas in the more immediate Mount Hood region.

The map selection also includes several independently published trail and ski maps, including the exceptional National Geographic Trails Illustrated series for Mount Hood and the Gorge and maps for the Pacific Crest Trail. There are even Green Trails topographic maps for the Mount Hood region (below).

Green Trails topographic maps for sale

Green Trails topographic maps for sale

Historical interpretation is somewhat more limited at the new center, anchored by a fine carved sign (presumably Works Progress Administration or Civilian Conservation Corps?) that once stood at the Cloud Cap junction on the old loop highway. The impressive old sign is flanked with captioned photos of north side history on the mountain.

History displays at the west end of the new facility

History displays at the west end of the new facility

Historic Tilly Jane sign anchoring the history displays

Historic Tilly Jane sign anchoring the history displays

A mounted poster from the Mount Hood Scenic Byway series provides a bit more history of the Cloud Cap Inn and the early climbing history of the north side.

Hopefully, new displays will be added over time to explore more of the rich history of the upper Hood River Valley and north side of Mount Hood: the long Native American history in the area, settlement of the upper Hood River Valley in the 1800s, early Forest Service history on Mount Hood and completion of the Mount Hood Loop Highway in the 1920s are just some of the stories that deserve to be told here.

Mount Hood Scenic Byway history poster

Mount Hood Scenic Byway history poster

There are still some gaps in the visitor experience at the revamped ranger station that could use some attention. First, heavy landscaping hides the Ranger Station from southbound highway traffic (which is how most visitors travel to the mountain), and the signage along the highway is easy to miss. Adding a simple “Visitors Center” sign to the existing entrance marker would be helpful.

Second, the visitor center hours posted at the door differ from what appears on the official Mount Hood Forest website. At least two variations appear on the website, depending where Google takes you: the main website listing shows a M-F schedule, while the dedicated Hood River Ranger District page includes Saturdays in the daily schedule.

The new center elegantly packs a lot into a modest space

The new center elegantly packs a lot into a modest space

The signs at the main entrance to the Ranger Station split the difference, showing M-F hours, but extending to include Saturdays from Memorial Day through Labor Day. In all of these variations, the actual hours are the same: from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM, closed on all federal holidays.

Obviously, Saturday operating hours are at a premium, both for the Forest Service in covering their expense of keeping the building open, but also for visitors, who are more likely to be traveling here on weekends than weekdays.

Hopefully, the agency can someday find a way to keep the visitors center part of the Ranger Station open on Saturdays (and even Sundays?) year-round. Weekends are undeniably the busiest visitor time on the mountain, and Mount Hood is busy year-round.

Closed mornings, evenings and weekends..?

Closed mornings, evenings and weekends..?

Finally, the pit toilets located outside the new visitor center are currently locked when the visitors center is closed — an unwelcome and unfortunate surprise for travelers who stop early or late in the day, or on weekends.

In the long term, a better way to address the mismatch between federal government hours and those when the public is most likely to be recreating (weekends and holidays) would be to expand the outside informational and interpretive displays to better serve visitors when the main building is closed. This could even include locating interpretive displays some near the pit toilets, and leaving them unlocked on weekends and holidays.

Despite these rough edges, the new visitor center really shines for the Hood River Ranger District. The new facility should greatly enhance the visitor experience for those seeing the area for the first time.

But even if you’re a seasoned Mount Hood hiker, the new center deserves a stop on your next trip through the area. Plan for 20-30 minutes to explore the displays and browse the books and maps.

It’s Time to Fix the Eliot Crossing!

Eliot Branch and Mount Hood before the 2006 washout

Eliot Branch and Mount Hood before the 2006 washout

Another hiking season has passed, marking eight long, inexcusable years since an intense November storm washed out the Timberline National Historic Trail near Cloud Cap in 2006.

Since then, countless hikers from around the world have arrived at this world-class destination only to find cryptic temporary notices stapled to trailhead signs announcing that the segment of the trail crossing the Eliot Branch has been closed indefinitely by the U.S. Forest Service.

Hikers on the seasonal bridge over the Eliot Branch that was in place from the mid-1990s until 2006

Hikers on the seasonal bridge over the Eliot Branch that was in place from the mid-1990s until 2006

Most round-the-mountain hikers start at Timberline Lodge and hike clockwise, and therefore often learn of the Eliot Branch closure halfway through their 40-mile trek. Understandably, many of these hikers began working their way across the deeply eroded canyon in the years following the closure. Today hundreds of hikers each hear ignore the Forest Service notices and follow sketchy boot paths across the Eliot Branch to complete the Timberline Trail circuit.

Why the delay in repairing the trail at the Eliot Branch? The Forest Service claims lack of funding, suggesting in 2010 that “studies were underway” for a million dollar suspension bridge at the current crossing location. Such a project would “require an appropriation by Congress” to fund, according to a Forest Service district ranger at the time.

A second, more practical option under consideration was a significant reroute of the Timberline Trail at the Eliot Branch, which according to the Forest Service at the time, would require “constructing 1.5 miles of new trail to a lower crossing of the creek, then 1.5 miles back up to the existing trail”.

Eight years have passed since the 2006 washout, and four since the Forest Service last gave any indication of working toward a solution for the Timberline Trail. Since then, neither option proposed in 2010 for restoring the crossing has materialized. Instead, Oregon’s premier hiking trail remains an embarrassment, and a testament to the frustrating inability of the Forest Service to set agency priorities that match those of the public they serve.

These seasonable bridge footings were bolted to a pair of huge boulders that were swept away in the 2006 washout

These seasonable bridge footings were bolted to a pair of huge boulders that were swept away in the 2006 washout

The 2006 flood event wasn’t the first time the Eliot Crossing had washed out in recent years. In the mid-1990s, a similar washout erased an earlier crossing that had been in place since the Timberline Trail was constructed in the 1930s. The Forest Service responded to the first washout by appropriating sections of a pair of climber’s trails that ascend moraines on both sides of the Eliot Canyon, and constructing a new crossing between the two trails, above the original crossing.

This new crossing (pictured above) lasted only a few years, until the 2006 storm further deepened the Eliot Branch canyon, this time much more substantially. The new crossing featured a pair of bridge anchors bolted to boulders that straddled the Eliot Branch, and a seasonal bridge that could be reassembled and installed on site each year, similar to the Sandy River bridge near Ramona Falls.

The sorry state of the "closed" Eliot Branch crossing today: a sketchy scramble up a crumbling 300 foot slope, aided by a rope left by hikers

The sorry state of the “closed” Eliot Branch crossing today: a sketchy scramble up a crumbling 300 foot slope, aided by a rope left by hikers

Removable, seasonal bridges are an excellent solution to the dilemma of keeping the Timberline Trail open in an era when retreating glaciers and increasingly erratic weather promises to continue deepening all of Mount Hood’s newly exposed glacial valleys.

This point was underscored earlier this year when an unusually strong summer storm washed out the seasonal Sandy River crossing. While one hiker was tragically killed in the incident, dozens were able to cross to safety because of the seasonal bridge.

For this reason, studying elaborate permanent solutions, such as the “million dollar” suspension bridge, are an exercise in futility. Whole sections of the Eliot Branch canyon have collapsed into the stream over the past two decades during heavy flooding, and there is no reason to assume that this pattern won’t continue to rearrange the landscape for decades to come.

This article proposes a more modest and immediate fix that mirrors the re-route option once considered by the Forest Service. This is a project that could have been constructed shortly after the 2006 floods with minimal cost and an excellent ability to adapt to future flood events.

Lessons from Up North

Wonderland Trail bridge across the Nisqually River in Mount Rainier National Park (Wikimedia)

Wonderland Trail bridge across the Nisqually River in Mount Rainier National Park (Wikimedia)

The Eliot Branch crossing is a perfect example of how the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service differ in their budget priorities and working relationships with volunteers. It’s instructive to look at how the Park Service responded to the same 2006 storms and flooding that impacted Mount Rainier National Park.

The damage to the 92-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier was exponentially worse than anything on Mount Hood. This is largely because several of Mount Rainier’s 26 glaciers dwarf even the Eliot Glacier, Mount Hood’s largest, and the Wonderland Trail has three times the glacial stream crossings of the Timberline Trail.

The Wonderland Trail not only crosses many more glacial streams in its circuit around Mount Rainier, it also has bridges across most of them, where most of Mount Hood’s glacial streams have no bridges (requiring hikers to ford most of the glacial streams). So, not only did the Park Service have a trail more than twice as long to restore, but also many times the number of bridges to repair along the Wonderland Trail.

Despite the much greater challenge, the Park Service managed very little disruption for hikers. The Wonderland Trail uses a reservation system, and the Park Service took the precautionary step of not accepting reservations for the 2007 hiking season, in light of the scope of damage to many trail sections and crossings. Yet, the Wonderland Trail was reopened to hikers on August 3, 2007, less than a year after the 2006 floods!

The National Park Service continually maintains dozens of wilderness bridges on the 92-mile long Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, despite much worse washouts and much more difficult crossings than anything found on Mount Hood (Wikimedia)

The National Park Service continually maintains dozens of wilderness bridges on the 92-mile long Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, despite much worse washouts and much more difficult crossings than anything found on Mount Hood (Wikimedia)

The rapid repairs to the Wonderland Trail happened because re-opening the trail was a top priority for the Mount Rainier National Park. To manage this feat, the staff enlisted some 1,700 volunteers in the effort, with tens of thousands of volunteer labor from organizations like the he Washington Conservation Corps and Student Conservation Association.

The proposal described in this article for the Eliot Branch could easily have been completed in 2007, too, had restoring the trail been a priority for the Forest Service, and especially if volunteer labor had been tapped from any number of organizations involved in trail work in Oregon. Instead, the repairs have waited eight years, with no end in sight.

It’s time to finally fix the Timberline Trail to ensure the safety of hikers determined to make the crossing, and to end the embarrassment of visitors to our region from around the world experiencing this national treasure in such a shameful state of disrepair.

A Simple and Affordable Solution!

EliotCrossing07

[click to see a large version]

The simplest solution to finally restoring the Eliot Branch crossing is to go lower and low-tech. Instead of waiting for a dubious “million dollar” suspension bridge to be funded, a better option would be a new crossing downstream with a simple, seasonal plank bridge.

Why go low? Mostly because the durable bedrock layers that form Stranahan Falls (located about a mile downstream from the current crossing) have also checked down-cutting of the canyon in that stretch by the Eliot Branch. Where the upper canyon has been carved some 150 feet deeper since the 1990s, the lower canyon section, just above Stranahan falls, shows much less erosion during this period.

As shown on the proposal map (above), this new section of the Timberline Trail would depart from Cloud Cap Saddle trailhead, initially following a shallow ravine to the rim of the Eliot Branch canyon. The new trail would then switchback down the east wall of the canyon, reaching the new crossing (shown below) about 0.5 miles from the start of the new trail.

EliotCrossing08

[click to see a large version]

The new, lower stream crossing would be similar to most other glacial fords on the Timberline Trail, except that a bridge is proposed here (as they should be at all glacial crossings on Mount Hood – watch for a future article on that topic!).

This is in part because a bridge has traditionally been provided at this crossing, but also because the crossing location is very close to the Cloud Cap Saddle trailhead, and located at the wilderness boundary, so it would present fewer obstacles to build and maintain. Until the Eliot Branch settles down, however (and that could decades from now – or never), it makes sense to install a season bridge similar to that used on the Sandy River.

From the proposed lower crossing of the Eliot Branch, the new trail would traverse along a side stream that enters the main canyon from the west, climbing approximately 0.8 miles to the resumption of the existing Timberline Trail.

EliotCrossing09

[click to see a large version]

The 600-foot elevation loss (and subsequent gain) for this proposed new alignment of the Timberline Trail would be comparable to what was already required for the old, upper crossing, though the overall mileage of the new route would be slightly longer (by about 0.3 miles). However, the length of the proposed new trail would be less than half of what the Forest Service was considering for a lower crossing option in 2010.

The key to the new crossing location is its proximity to Stranahan Falls, and the massive band of andesite bedrock that not only forms the falls, but also prevents further down-cutting in the area above the falls. As shown the illustrations (above and below), this location is the one spot in the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch canyon that has a reasonable chance of stabilizing in the near term.

EliotCrossing10

[click to see a large version]

As an aside, the area near the brink of Stranahan Falls is arguably the most stable in terms of down cutting, with the streambed now scoured to bedrock for some distance above the falls. But a crossing here would not only add to the elevation loss/gain and distance for the new trail, it would also require some challenging trail construction in the very steep and complex terrain that surrounds the top of the falls.

There are also additional waterfalls to negotiate in the area immediately above Stranahan Falls, including a 25-foot waterslide just above the main falls and a 35″ upper falls just upstream from the waterslide. While it would surely be a spectacular location for a trail crossing, it would also very difficult to build and maintain over time.

A crossing at Stranahan Falls would also encourage more off-trail exploring of the falls area than is desirable, both for public safety and environmental concerns. So, based on these considerations, the crossing location proposed in this article seems to be the best spot for ensuring long-term stability and reasonably straightforward design and construction.

What will it Take?

Sadly, this fine bridge over Clark Creek is among the few surviving on Mount Hood, and the only surviving permanent crossing on a glacial stream.

Sadly, this fine bridge over Clark Creek is among the few surviving on Mount Hood, and the only surviving permanent crossing on a glacial stream.

What would it take to actually build this simple solution for reconnecting the Timberline Trail? Not as much as we’ve been led to believe by the Forest Service. Here’s how the proposal described in this article could be built right away, in 2015:

The total length of the proposed new Timberline Trail section is approximately 1.3 miles, with the first (and most rugged) half mile occurring outside the Mount Hood Wilderness boundary. This would allow for mechanized equipment to be used on that section of new trail, while only hand tools could be used to construct the sections west of the Eliot Branch, inside the wilderness.

These young hikers are experiencing a tainted rite of passage with the long and often treacherous detour required to complete the Timberline Trail (Photo courtesy Christopher Alley)

These young hikers are experiencing a tainted rite of passage with the long and often treacherous detour required to complete the Timberline Trail (Photo courtesy Christopher Alley)

One Forest Service source (the USFS Trails Unlimited enterprise program) estimates the cost of building new trails to be between $2,500 to $12,000 per mile. That’s a big range, to be sure. So for the purpose of this article, I used the top of that range to put the cost of actually constructing the proposed trail at just over $15,000, given that the trail would involve both wilderness construction and steep terrain.

Other costs would include environmental analysis (if needed – this proposal may qualify as a categorical exception), design and surveying. But even if these administrative and technical costs were to triple the cost of the overall project, restoring the Timberline Trail along this alignment might still be possible for well under $100,000, using Forest Service cost estimates. That is a relatively manageable amount that could reasonably be funded from an annual Mount Hood National Forest operating budget of more than $20 million.

So, what’s the delay? First, it’s hard to believe the Forest Service hasn’t considered an inexpensive option like the one proposed here. Yet, no such project has been formally proposed by the agency.

It’s also possible that the Forest Service is still fixated on the more dramatic, elaborate fix described by forest officials in 2010. Such projects are known to bring political favor back at the USFS headquarters in Washington D.C. for their “wow factor” over more mundane projects, after all. Unfortunately, such a project does not appear in the Forest Service schedule of proposed actions (SOPA) where a proposal of that scale would almost surely have to be listed.

This is the frustrating map that still greets Timberline Trail hikers on the Mount Hood National Forest website after eight years

This is the frustrating map that still greets Timberline Trail hikers on the Mount Hood National Forest website after eight years

[click here for a large version]

A third possibility is that the Forest Service is holding the trail hostage in protest to budget cuts that have affected most federal agencies over the past several years. While this might seem far-fetched, consider that Oregon Congressmen Earl Blumenauer and Greg Walden made a much-publicized 4-day trek around the Timberline Trail in July 2005 to highlight issues facing the mountain, just one year before the Eliot Crossing washed out.

Whatever the reason, fixing the Timberline Trail doesn’t seem to be a real priority for the Forest Service. Why else would the most important trail in the Mount Hood National Forest have languished for the past eight years? In that time, the agency has spent tens of millions on other forest projects.

The sad saga of the Timberline Trail closer at the Eliot Branch is also another reminder of just how different the situation at Mount Hood might be if it were under National Park management… which is the much better solution in the long term.
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Special thanks to Tim Burke and Melinda Muckenthaler for use of your photos – and for some of the most amazing waterfall exploring anyone has ever done on Mount Hood!