Posted tagged ‘Forest Service’

Blazes!

February 13, 2011

Trail blazing is the ancient practice of marking paths with a system of symbols to help travelers navigate, and since the rise of recreational hiking in the 1800s, has been adapted to foot trails. Blazes are generally placed at eye-level, and spaced frequently enough to reassure hikers of the route.

In other parts of the country, where trails often cross private lands and many are maintained by hiking clubs, blazes can take the form of painted dots and symbols or small signs or medallions attached to trees, with hundreds of localized variations. These symbols are easy for volunteers to maintain, and often lend their design to the trail name (e.g., the “White Cross”, “Red Dot” and “White Cross” trails in New Hampshire’s White Mountains)

In the Pacific Northwest, where most of our hiking is on public lands, we are used to the standard Forest Service tree blazes that still mark most of our trails (like the one pictured at the top of this article). Though the practice of chopping blazes into trees has long been discontinued out of consideration for trees and trail aesthetics, many of the original blazes still remain, decades later.

Where trails leave the forest canopy, many Northwest trails are marked with stone cairns, such as along Gunsight Ridge (above) near Mount Hood. Along Mount Hood’s famous Timberline trail, cairns along the high eastern section are further accented by 6x6x8 cedar posts (below) that have been gracefully carved by the elements over the years.

Today, the legacy of Pacific Northwest trail blazing is fading quickly, as most blazes were made at least 50 years ago, and some as much as a century ago. The example below, on Mount Hood, is from a standing snag that tells a familiar story: the tree survived the initial blaze marks for many years — long enough to heal — before finally dying and losing its bark, revealing the layers of blaze-scarred wood, beneath.

Most northwest trees large enough to withstand a blaze are very large, long-lived species, so there are also countless examples of blazes that have simply been swallowed up by successive seasons of growth. With a sharp eye, you can often spot examples like the one below, where only the healed-over scar of the blaze remains. This tree has nearly erased the blaze scars that were likely made in the 1930s or 40s, but could easily thrive and grow for another century or more.

The Forest Service Standard

By the 1930s, the Forest Service had established a simple standard for blazes that is responsible for the thousands of blaze remnants that we see today. The Forest Service blaze consisted of an 8” rectangle topped by a 2” rectangle, forming the familiar upside-down exclamation mark that we still find on our trails. The width of the rectangles was determined by the width of an axe blade, roughly 4” across.

The following instructional diagram is from a Forest Service trail manual dating to the 1930s, and provided the basics for the thousands of young Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers who flooded the nation’s forests and parks during the Depression, building trails, campgrounds and roads.

As the diagram (above) shows, the Forest Service blaze was designed for speed, with trail crews quickly working their way along paths, blazing as they went. The crews of the 1930s covered thousands of miles of trails, as the trail network of the day was more than twice what survives today.

The following is another schematic from the same manual, providing more tips for the CCC crews on how to cut blazes:

Though most of our trail blazes in the Pacific Northwest follow this standard (or use cairns in open areas), one notable exception exists that is closer to the Eastern system of customized trail icons: the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Throughout its length, the trail is marked with the familiar triangular shield (below), though the old-style metal PCT signs still survive in many sections of the trail.

The PCT sign is an accepted Forest Service standard, and it makes sense that an iconic sign is warranted, as most of the PCT is stitched together from the cobweb of forest trails that existed prior to the PCT, making for many potentially confusing junctions along the way.

There are also a few local trails in our region that carry an iconic, themed logo that follows the Eastern style, thanks to the work of a few volunteers in the 1970s and 80s. Most notable among them was Basil W. Clark, who not only helped build new trails, but also created illustrated signs for them, such as the “Chetwoot Loop” sign, below:

Clark’s whimsical icon signs also appeared at Devils Rest and Trapper Creek, as well as other spots in the Gorge, and a few still remain today, providing a charming, rustic feel that is unique to these spots. Click here for an early 1980s Oregonian tribute to Clark.

A Future for Themed Blazes?

Chopping blazes into living trees is now a relic of the past, but is there a future for more contemporary blazes along our forest trails? After all, we have only a few decades left before all traces of this earlier era are erased, and trails will be completely reliant on other forms of signage and markings.

One route that could benefit from an iconic, tailored blaze sign is the Timberline Trail. The system of cairns built in the most alpine sections are a good start, but along the rest of the route, there are many spots where the web of intersecting approach routes make it confusing to know if you are still on the loop trail. The Timberline Trail has a couple of easy options for a blaze theme — the Timberline Lodge logo (below, left) or perhaps a CCC-based logo (below, right), given the unique history of the trail.

Other candidates could be the simple loop paths that circle Lost Lake and Trillium Lake, two of Mount Hood’s most visited destinations. Both have thousands of newbie hikers visiting them in the course of a year, many hiking for the very first time. Both trails also have a maze of unofficial, unmarked fisherman and campground paths that can make staying on the loop trail confusing, so a system of blaze signs would provide a useful function.

How might this come about?

As Basil Clark proved, themed blazes are a perfect project for volunteers, from designing and creating the signs, to providing the ongoing installation and maintenance inherent to trail signage. Perhaps trail organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon, the Mazamas or the Trails Club of Oregon would jump at the opportunity to provide this service?

As always, one way you can help is to propose this idea (or any others you might have) to the Forest Service through their online suggestion box.

Proposal: Elk Cove to Pinnacle Ridge Connector

January 23, 2011

This proposal calls for a new trail connector linking the historic Elk Cove Trail (No. 631) and little-used Pinnacle Ridge Trail (No. 630) on Mount Hood’s rugged north side. This new connector would create a new 9.3 mile hiking loop that could serve as a strenuous day trip for experienced hikers, or an easy overnighter for casual hikers and families.

The new trail would also allow for eventual decommissioning of at least nine miles of deteriorating logging roads (shown in yellow on the maps that follow), as the new connector would provide access to both trails from the lower Elk Cove trailhead at Pinnacle Creek, on Forest Road 2840. In this way, the proposal not only provides an ecological net benefit in restoring the area from its logging heyday, but also pays for itself in reduced life-cycle costs for forest infrastructure.

About half the nine miles of logging roads already fall within the newly expanded Mount Hood Wilderness, so will probably be abandoned without formal decommissioning by the Forest Service.

However, a substantial portion of the old road system falls outside the wilderness boundary, within the Pinnacle Creek drainage. Without the wilderness restrictions, this portion could be decommissioned using traditional machinery, thus providing a significant ecological benefit for the watershed. This would be important in any watershed, but is especially important here, where Pinnacle Creek forms a critical spawning ground for Clear Branch Bull Trout, a local species whose status the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife described in 2006 as “highly precarious”.

Clear Branch Bull Trout (ODFW)

Part of the old logging network also includes the first mile of “trail” that currently leads to Elk Cove. In the late 1990s, the Forest Service relocated the Elk Cove Trailhead to the current location when Pinnacle Creek washed out the road where it crossed the stream. Since then, a footbridge has replaced the old road over the creek, and the “trail” has been an increasingly brushy, mile-long walk up the truncated road on the opposite side.

This messy section of “trail” is a reminder that road-to-trail conversions may seem an attractive bargain in the short run, but are often substandard for the outdoor experience they provide. Worse, over the long-term they can become brushy thickets of alder and willow, making them more costly to maintain than a traditional trail built under established forest canopy.

Overgrown “trail” to Elk Cove is actually a road

This proposal also responds to a road closure project floated by the Forest Service in early 2010 to “provide public access to the Pinnacle Ridge and Elk Cove trails after Road 2840 is decommissioned near Kinnikinnick campground.” The Forest Service project would close Road 2840, converting much of it to trail, and thus adding another mile of road walking to the Elk Cove Trail in the process. Worse, a full 3.5 miles of road walking would be required to reach the current Pinnacle Ridge Trailhead.

In both cases, this amount of road walking is an unacceptable way to provide a quality wilderness experience on two important gateways into the Mount Hood Wilderness. The proposal in this article was submitted to the Forest Service as an alternative, however, the Forest Service project has since been withdrawn, according to their website. Hopefully, this will provide more time to make the case for a better trail solution, since their own watershed management plans call for eventual closure of most logging roads in the area (more about that, later).

What Would it Look Like?

The proposed new trail would begin at the existing Elk Cove Trailhead, along the banks of Pinnacle Creek (see map, below). Though the trailhead, itself, is not in need of significant improvements, the informal campground at the trailhead would be formalized as a tent camping area under the proposal. This would allow for weekend or overnight visitors from Portland or points beyond to arrive late, spend the night at the trailhead, and begin day or backpack trips early the next day.

(click here for larger map)

Where the existing Elk Cove Trail currently heads east, up the truncated Road 650, the proposed new Pinnacle Creek Trail would instead follow rushing Pinnacle Creek southwest for 0.9 miles to a new junction, where a pair of new connections would climb east to the Elk Cove Trail, and west to Pinnacle Ridge Trail. (shown in red on the map, above). The new Pinnacle Ridge Trail would need to sidestep old clearcuts on both sides of the creek, but would easily fit within the intact forest of the riparian corridor, providing a quality, streamside hike.

The second map (below) shows how the new connector trails would create a 9.3 mile Elk Cove to Pinnacle Ridge loop for day hikes and overnight trips, with campsites at Elk Cove, Dollar Lake and WyEast Basin. The new loop opportunity would not only make better use of the lightly used Elk Cove and Pinnacle Ridge trails, but also provide a north side access alternative to the very heavily used trailheads at Vista Ridge and Cloud Cap.

(click here for larger map)

For accessibility, the Elk Cove trailhead has the added advantage of being reached mostly on paved roads, with only the final mile on an unpaved road. This represents a substantial improvement over the long, rough ride required to reach both Cloud Cap and Vista Ridge.

The new connector trails would also provide an important aesthetic improvement to the logging road trudge along the first mile of the Elk Cove Trail — a disheartening way to begin (and end) what is otherwise a premier alpine hike.

Mount Hood from the dramatic Coe Overlook

These new trails would also provide a higher quality day hike to the little-known Coe Overlook for less experienced hikers, with a 2.3 mile, 1,500 foot climb from the trailhead to the viewpoint. This moderate hike would feature a mile of streamside hiking, virgin subalpine forests and the spectacular view of the north face that the viewpoint offers.

What Would it Take?

This new trail proposal could be largely designed and built by volunteers. Access to the work site is easy, and open from late April through early November, providing an extended season for volunteer workers. The added benefit of linking the trail project to road decommissioning would make this an excellent candidate for groups like Trailkepers of Oregon to consider.

Logistically, the lower Pinnacle Creek valley is located outside the Mount Hood Wilderness, allowing volunteers to use power equipment for trail construction, where needed, with few limitations on trail structures (such as bridges).

Elk Cove Trail at Pinnacle Creek

At this time, it is unclear why the Forest Service has withdrawn their proposal to close and convert Road 2840 to a trail, since the project was driven by a watershed restoration mandate. But if the project is reactivated, we can all have an impact on the reconfigured trail system by weighing in — and simply forwarding this alternative proposal is a way to achieve much better results.

In the meantime, both trails are well worth the extra effort needed to reach the trailheads if you are looking for a different approach to Mount Hood’s north side. Both are described in the Portland Hikers Field Guide:

Elk Cove Hike

Pinnacle Ridge to Elk Cove Hike

Depending on how the snowpack shapes up this year, both trails should be open by mid-July, and provide a great way to visit the mountain! Meanwhile, watch this blog for further Forest Service developments in the Pinnacle Creek area, and opportunities to weigh in.

Building the Timberline Trail

November 24, 2010

The McNeil Point Shelter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Timberline Trail is Born

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map of the completed Timberline Trail and CCC era shelters.

(Click here for a large map)

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

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

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

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

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

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

1970s Trail Renaissance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hikers crossing the Eliot Branch before the 2007 washout.

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

Speaking Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks in advance for making your voice heard!

Flag Point Lookout

October 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The current lookout tower and outbuildings at Flag Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visiting the Lookout

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

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

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

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

How to Get There

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

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

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

Proposal: Cooper Springs Trail

September 19, 2010

Cairns with cedar posts mark the way on the slopes below Cooper Spur.

One of the memorable highlights along the Timberline Trail is the starkly beautiful section between Gnarl Ridge and Cloud Cap, high on the broad east shoulder of the mountain. Here, the trail crests its highest point, at 7,335 feet, as it traverses the tundra slopes of Cooper Spur more than a thousand feet above the tree line.

However, the spectacular elevation of the Cooper Spur section is also its Achilles heel, since hikers attempting the Timberline Trail must cross a series of steep snowfields here. In most years this entire section is snowed in through late July, and some sections of trail appear to be permanently snow-covered.

Looking north along the Timberline Trail along the slopes of Cooper Spur

The trail builders constructed a series of huge cairns to mark the way through this rugged landscape, yet the snowfield crossings continue to present both a risk and route-finding obstacle to most hikers, especially in early summer. The Timberline Trail continues to draw hikers from around the world in ever-growing numbers, so an alternative route seems in order to ensure that the around-the-mountain experience continues to be world class for all visitors.

The Proposal

To provide a more reliable alternative for this segment, a new, parallel trail is proposed as part of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign. The new route would be about a mile to the east, at roughly the 6,200’ level, just below the tree line. For early season hikers, or simply those not up to the rugged combination of elevation, rock and snow on the existing trail, this new route would provide a more manageable alternative.

This new 3.5-mile route would still connect Cloud Cap to Lamberson Butte, but at a lower elevation. As shown on the map below, the proposed Cooper Springs Trail (in red) would depart from the current Timberline Trail (in green) at the current Cooper Spur junction on the north, and rejoin the Timberline Trail just below Lamberson Butte, to the south.

Click here for a large map

This option would add about a half-mile to the around-the-mountain trip, but would also save about 800’ of elevation gain, as measured in the traditional clockwise direction on the Timberline Trail. In fact, the new Cooper Springs Trail would actually drop 200’ in elevation from Cooper Spur Junction to Lamberson Spur.

This new trail wouldn’t be a formal segment of the Timberline Trail, but simply a hiking option, just as other parallel routes to the Timberline Trail already allow at Umbrella Falls, Paradise Park, Muddy Fork and Eden Park.

Today, these complementary routes along other sections of the Timberline Trail not only allow for interesting loops and less crowded conditions for hikers, they also provide detour options when trail closures occur — as happened recently along the Muddy Fork, where hikers were able to use a parallel route to avoid washouts on the main trail.

What Hikers Would See

The northern segment of the new Cooper Springs Trail would make a gradual descent from the existing 4-way junction of the Cooper Spur, Tilly Jane and Timberline trails to the tree line, curving through a series of small headwater canyons that eventually feed into Polallie Canyon. This section would cross the first of several small streams along the new route.

The northern section of the new trail from above the Timberline Trail, as viewed from the slopes of Cooper Spur.

Click here for a large map

Soon the new route would cross a sharp ridge, where under this proposal it would intersect with an extension of the Lamberson Spur Trail. This trail is an odd anomaly: the route is marked and maintained where it leaves the Cold Spring Creek Trail, but mysteriously dies out on a ridge about a mile below the tree line. A few adventurous hikers continue cross-country from this abrupt terminus to the Timberline Trail each year, but under this proposal, the Lamberson Spur Trail would be formally connected to the new Cooper Springs Trail. This new segment is shown in yellow on photo schematic, above.

Extending the Lamberson Spur route to the new Cooper Springs Trail would entail about a mile of new trail, but would be an important piece in linking the new Cooper Springs route to the existing network of trails along Cold Spring Creek and Bluegrass Ridge, to the east. Together, this network of trails could provide an important, less crowded overnight or backpacking experience than is possible on the more heavily visited sides of the mountain.

Beyond the proposed Lamberson Spur junction, the middle section of the new Cooper Springs Trail would pass through an especially interesting landscape. Here, a series of dramatic cliff-edged bluffs and talus slopes frame the view of Mount Hood and Cooper Spur, looming above, while the trail would cross through groves of ancient mountain hemlock.

The middle section of the new trail would traverse a series of little known canyons and cliff-topped bluffs below Cooper Spur.

Click here for a large map

This section of the new trail would also provide a close-up look at the aftermath of the Gnarl Fire, which burned a large swath of forest along the eastern base of the mountain in the summer of 2008.

At one point, the fire made headlines when it threatened to destroy historic structures in the area, narrowly missing the venerable Cloud Cap Inn. Though the trail would traverse above the burn, it would allow hikers to watch the recovery phase of the fire cycle unfold on the slopes, below.

Finally, in the southern section the proposed Cooper Springs Trail would traverse through dozens of rolling lupine meadows, gnarled stands of whitebark pine and mountain hemlock and unique views of the massive east face of Mount Hood and the surrounding wilderness.

The southern section of the new trail would weave through a series of little-known alpine meadows, near Lamberson Butte.

Click here for a large map

In this section, the proposed trail would traverse the slopes of Cooper Spur at the point where a series of tributaries to Cold Spring Creek emerge and flow eastward through a maze of steep canyons. The springs are continuously fed by several permanent ice fields on Cooper Spur, and thus would be a reliable water source for hikers — and are also the namesake for the proposed trail.

The new route would then rejoin the Timberline Trail just below Lamberson Butte.

What it Would Take

The proposed Cooper Springs Trail (and Lamberson Spur extension) would be entirely within the Mount Hood Wilderness, and thus must be built without the add of motorized equipment.

Normally, this presents a major obstacle to trail construction, since a typical trail requires the removal of trees and vegetation down to mineral soil — a formidable task in the rainforests of the western Cascades, even with the aid of chainsaws and power tools. However, the slopes of Cooper Spur consist mostly of soft, sandy soils, loose rock, scattered trees and open meadows, so construction of the 3.5 mile trail would be much less cumbersome with hand tools here than in other parts of the forest.

One of the Northwest Youth Corps crews that worked the Timberline Trail in 2009.

There are a number of organizations that might be interested in helping build the trail, but perhaps the most promising would be the Northwest Youth Corps, an organization that has sent crews of young people to restore wilderness trails around Mount Hood for many years.

Finally, it would take a renewed commitment from the Forest Service to expand the trail network around the mountain, and this is the largest obstacle. The agency has been doing just the opposite for many years, allowing trails to fade into oblivion for lack of basic maintenance.

But this is also where you can help: the Forest Service has the funding to provide more trails, yet needs strong public support to make trails a priority in agency budgets. Buying a forest pass simply isn’t enough, unfortunately.

Make your opinion known, and don’t accept the “lack of funding” explanation. Instead, take a look at this comparison of funding for Mount Hood and a couple of well-known national parks, and simply ask that YOUR forest to be managed with trail recreation at the top of the priority list.

How can you contact them? Just click here to send them an e-mail!

Stop Salting the Palmer Glacier!

May 25, 2010

The plowed surface of the Palmer Glacier shows up on summer evening view of Mount Hood’s south face

A recent article in Willamette Week by Adrienne So goes where The Oregonian and other media have not dared in the nearly 30 years since the controversial Palmer Lift opened the Palmer Glacier to year-round skiing. In her article, So asks the obvious question: is it really such a good idea to pour nearly a million pounds of salt on the glacier each summer to melt the ice for skiers?

But So also asks the more maddening question: how can it be that the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are fine with this practice? The sad answer lies in the cozy relationship the Forest Service maintains with the ski resorts and the ironic fact that the DEQ can only regulate the salting when damage finally shows up downstream. In other words, when it’s too late.

The Palmer Glacier is not the smallest on Mount Hood, but surely the most fragile thanks to its low elevation and southern exposure

What lies downstream from the Palmer Glacier? Initially, a steep maze of alpine canyons carries melt water from the glacier to the tree line. Soon, these mountain streams combine to become the Salmon River. The river flows just a few miles before reaching Red Top Meadows. A short distance beyond, the river enters wilderness and the broad expanse of Salmon River Meadows, by far the largest wetland complex on Mount Hood.

From the meadows, the rapidly growing river turns west, then drops into one of the wildest, deepest canyons in Oregon, thundering over a string of tall waterfalls that are so remote as to have only been discovered in the 1960s. The Salmon River National Recreation Trail follows the canyon section, and is among the most popular hikes in the Pacific Northwest, year-round.

Beyond the steep gorge section, the river slows and broadens, rambling through ancient forests where it is recognized as one of the state’s premier salmon and steelhead habitats. Here, it is strictly managed for its fisheries with special seasons and limits. Trails follow the river in this section, too, leading to shady forest camps and fishing holes. The giant cedar groves along the lower river are the most accessible ancient forest in the region, just 45 minutes from Portland.

For their part, the Timberline operators make a point of never calling the Palmer Glacier by its true name. Instead, they use the term “Palmer Snowfield” in their marketing, apparently to downplay the fact that their summertime skiing is putting one of Mount Hood’s most vulnerable glaciers at risk.

Since the construction of the Palmer Lift, Timberline ski resort operators have plowed the Palmer Glacier like an icy farm field, with the benefit of salt to soften the surface

The motivations of the Timberline resort are easy enough to understand: it’s a commercial venture (albeit on public land and in a public structure), and they are not in the business of protecting the Salmon River ecosystem for the public at large. The salting makes money for the Timberline resort, after all, or they wouldn’t do it.

But to wrap your head around the Forest Service policy of allowing the salting is to believe that dumping just under 500 tons of salt (that’s about 500 pickup loads) on Palmer Glacier each year won’t have an environmental impact. That the impacts could extend from the headwaters of this river complex to the pristine meadows, forests, waterfalls and fisheries that lie below makes the policy that much more appalling.

As destructive and shortsighted as this policy seem, there’s really nothing you and I can do about it – at least not until the salt starts showing up downstream in concentrations that constitute “pollution”. If that seems like a Catch-22, well, that’s because it is.

In the meantime, the only available alternative is awareness. You can start by reading So’s excellent article, over here (PDF):

Salt and a Wound: Summertime and salting is easy on Palmer Glacier

Next, share what you learn with those who love Mount Hood – and especially those who ski at the Timberline resort. It’s likely they don’t even know about this obviously reckless practice, and Timberline hasn’t been particularly up-front about it.

Next, print this bumper (or rear-window) sticker to kick off your own awareness campaign:

Click here for a bumper-sized version to print

There’s a worn adage that when you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. Until more is understood about the impacts of the salting practice on the Palmer Glacier and the sensitive environments that lie downstream, it’s time to stop the salting. Now.

Fire Forests of the Cascades

January 17, 2009

The Gnarl Fire of 2008 shocked Portlanders by racing across the east slopes of Mount Hood, and nearly destroying the historic buildings at Cloud Cap and Tilly Jane. But as an east side fire, the Gnarl burn was relatively small, and part of what has become an annual ritual for rural communities of fighting intense blazes along the east slope of the Cascades.

The 2008 Gnarl Fire, viewed in August from Dufur Mill Road

The 2008 Gnarl Fire, viewed in August from Dufur Mill Road

The cause for the intensity of these fires is well-known and well-documented. We know that a century of fire suppression, promotion of even-aged stands of second growth in logged areas and a changing climate are forces conspiring to burn the east side forests on a scale not seen in recent decades.

But not all of the east side fires are catastrophic, even with the fuel build-up from our history of fire suppression. The 2006 fire at Bluegrass Ridge was a glimpse into what was once a routine occurrence along the east side of the Cascades. The Bluegrass Fire began as a lightning strike in the dry season, and soon spread along the east face of the ridge in a mosaic pattern: some parts of the forest were completely killed, while others were a mix, where pockets of forest survived among the burned trees.

The aftermath of the 2006 Bluegrass Fire ranged from total destruction in areas like this, to mosaic patterns where less crowded forests existed

The aftermath of the 2006 Bluegrass Fire ranged from total destruction in areas like this, to mosaic patterns where less crowded forests existed

Most significantly, the larger, fire-resistant species like western larch and ponderosa pine often survive fires in these mosaic areas, and this was the case in the Bluegrass Fire. We will know in a year or two whether the extensive larch population in the Gnarl Fire area were similarly resistant.

The survival of these big trees is the key to the natural ecosystem that defines east side forests. Forest ecologists are now calling these east side regimes “fire forests”, as a counterpoint to the west side rain forests, where abundant rainfall is the operative element in defining the forests.

The “fire forest” name is apt, since we now know that a number of tree species in this dry forest system depend on fire for natural succession that creates mature forests. In the Mount Hood area, these east side trees are Douglas fir, western larch and ponderosa pine. All three have thick, fire-resistant bark that helps them survive moderate fires, and benefit from periodic clearing of undergrowth that competes for moisture and soil nutrients. Fires, in turn, release nutrients for the big trees, further enhancing the growth of fire-resistant species.

Western larch light up the eastside forests in autumn. Larch are among the fire-resistant species that require periodic burns for their long-term health

Western larch light up the eastside forests in autumn. Larch are among the fire-resistant species that require periodic burns for their long-term health

The question for the east side forest is not whether they will continue to burn — they have evolved with fire, after all — but rather, how we will learn to live with the fires. We now know that we cannot simply extinguish them. A century of fire suppression has created mammoth fires that we simply cannot control.

We also know that we cannot prevent forest fires from starting, since the large majority begin from lighting strikes. And we know that many more catastrophic burns will occur before the east side forests return to a more sustainable condition that mimics the natural ecosystem that once thrived.

Most ominous is the recent discovery — from tree-ring research — that the Western states are coming off an unusually wet century, and that the decades ahead are likely to carry more drought, not less. So it is imperative to help the east side forests stabilize before conditions make that proposition still more difficult.

These mature, healthy forests of western larch, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir along Bluegrass Ridge survived the fire

These mature, healthy forests of western larch, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir along Bluegrass Ridge survived the fire

A first step is continuing to thin tree plantations on logged lands to help prevent still more crowded, bug-infested forests like those that are currently driving the fire epidemic. The second step is more difficult: letting fires burn. This policy will be most difficult in the many areas where rural development has encroached on forest boundaries, but it is a necessary step. Both of these steps will require a new mindset about fire, not the least of which will be a public education shift away from Smokey Bear and fire suppression and toward a modern understanding of fire.

But a third step is most difficult of all: setting fires in prescribed locations to help restore forest balance. While the rash of east side fires in recent years has made this part of restoring forest balance less urgent, it will still be necessary — and controversial. Federal agencies have already begun employing this tool, but in cases where a controlled burn becomes a wildfire, the public is not prepared to understand why that risk is necessary — and perfectly natural. Still more public outreach and education will be needed.

The good news is that the scientists are winning this debate, and even the Forest Service has gradually begun to embrace fire ecology as part of their management philosophy. The Park Service is much further long, having successfully weathered the early criticism of their prescient decision to let the huge Yellowstone fires of the mid-1980s burn.

The remarkable resilience and recovery of Yellowstone in the intervening years has not only been vindication for that bold decision, but also an invaluable lesson to land agencies across the west who are responsible for managing “fire forests”. The time to embrace fires in our forests has arrived.