Posted tagged ‘High Prairie’

Proposal: Bennett Pass Historic Backroad

February 27, 2017
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Mount Hood from Historic Bennett Pass Road

One of the many misconceptions about our national parks is that visiting means contending with the masses along crowded paved roads, with the only chance for solitude limited to trails that are beyond the abilities of many visitors, including the elderly, those with limited mobility or young families.

But the truth is that our national parks also feature some of the most stunning primitive backroads for those looking for a more accessible way to get off the beaten track.

One of the most spectacular is the Titus Canyon Road in Death Valley National Park, and the concept behind Titus Canyon has stuck in my mind since I first visited the park in the early 1980s.

One-Way Concept

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Titus Canyon: Yogi Bear does not drive here!

Titus Canyon Road begins east of Death Valley, at the near-ghost town of Rhyolite, climbs over 5,000 foot Red Pass, then begins a spiraling descent of nearly a vertical mile as it enters the increasingly narrow gorge of Titus Canyon. When the road finally emerges near sea level, from the east wall of Death Valley, the floor of Titus Canyon has shrunk to a point that two cars would not be able to pass.

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One-way trip to heaven… in Death Valley

This is where the genius of Titus Canyon Road comes in. The Park Service has designated this a one-way road, with traffic allowed only in the direction of Death Valley.

The physical constraint at the lower end of Titus Canyon is the determining factor, to be sure, but the broader effect is that one-way traffic provides a remarkably relaxing experience in which visitors can focus on the scenery, not dodging oncoming traffic. The one-way design also negates driving through clouds of dust from oncoming vehicles, a notable benefit on primitive roads.

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Titus Canyon narrows (and my 1980s Honda Civic, back in the day)

So, how does this relate to Mount Hood? Part of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign concept calls for repurposing some of the thousands of miles of failing, obsolete logging roads in the Mount Hood National Forest into scenic backroads or trails for hiking or biking.

Most of these roads were constructed during the industrial logging heyday from the 1950s through the late 1980s, and were solely designed around clear cuts, not a concern for the respecting landscape or taking in the scenery.

But a few of these roads date back to an earlier era, when the first few roads connected major destinations in the new Mount Hood National Forest in the 1920s and early 1930s. These roads were often built without machinery, and subsequently follow the contours of the land in a way that roads from the industrial logging era rarely do.

Historic Bennett Pass Road

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Views into the remote Badger Creek Wilderness abound along historic Bennett Pass Road

One such historic forest road connects High Prairie and Lookout Mountain, located 8 miles due east of Mount Hood, to Bennett Pass, on the southeast shoulder of the mountain. For travelers of the Mount Hood Loop Highway, the old route follows the high ridges that form the wall of the East Fork Hood River valley, as you descend from Bennett Pass toward Hood River.

Today, the historic Bennett Pass Road is a bumpy, often grinding minefield to navigate. It’s hard to imagine that it was the main forest route when it was built, but it still passes some of the finest scenery in the area along the way, and has the potential to be an exceptional scenic backroad.

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1920s map when the future Bennett Pass Road was still just a “mountain trail”

When it was built in the early 1930s, the historic road followed the route of an early forest trail along the ridge that connects Bennett Pass to a Forest Service guard station that once stood at High Prairie (if you know where to look, you can still find the ruins). The road was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the early 1930s by crews based in Camp Friend, located to the east of Lookout Mountain, and just south of the town of Dufur. The Camp Friend crews also built several lookouts in the area and the historic road to Flag Point.

Today, the historic Bennett Pass Road serves as the western boundary for the Badger Creek Wilderness and the northern boundary for the White River Unit of the Mount Hood National Recreation area. This easy proximity to both of these protected areas brings a string of fine trail opportunities along the route for exploring nearby viewpoints, lakes and meadows on foot.

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Boulder Creek Valley and Echo Point in the White River Unit of the Mount Hood National Recreation Area from the historic Bennett Pass Road

The northern section of the historic Bennett Pass Road, from High Prairie to Dufur Mill Road, was bypassed and decommissioned in the late 1980s when the newer, gravel-surfaced road to High Prairie was constructed. For the purpose of the Bennett Pass Historic Backroad concept, this newer section is included in the proposal, with the Dufur Mill Road junction serving as the starting point for the backroad tour and Bennett Pass as the end point.

How would it be different?

How would the Bennett Pass Historic Backroad differ from what is on the ground today? First, it would be one-way from High Prairie to Bennett Pass, the historic section of the original road that still survives. Like Titus Canyon, this portion of Bennett Pass Road has a few spots where passing an oncoming vehicle would by physically impossible – notably below Lookout Mountain and along a notorious stretch etched into a cliff known as the Terrible Traverse.

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Leaving the Terrible Traverse en route to Bennett Pass

But like Titus Canyon, the purpose of the one-way tour is mainly to allow for a greater sense of remoteness and ability to truly appreciate the rugged scenery along the way.

Second, the concept of a scenic backroad also includes ADA-compliant picnic and restroom facilities along the way to ensure that all visitors can enjoy the tour. As our population ages and our society becomes more socially inclusive of those with limited mobility, providing accessible alternatives for exploring our public lands has become a critical, largely unmet need.

Some of these facilities are already in place at existing trailheads and could be made accessible with modest improvements. Other spots along the route would need these basic improvements.

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Enjoying Mt. Jefferson and views into the Badger Creek Wilderness at 10 mph along the historic Bennett Pass Road

Finally, a 10-mph speed limit would ensure that the proposed Bennett Pass Historic Backroad tour remains focused on users looking for a relaxing, scenic way to enjoy the area. This means that OHV users accustomed to traveling at greater speeds would need to find other places to make noise and disturb other forest visitors — and besides, the Forest Service has set aside areas for OHVs elsewhere in the forest.

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The faded (and assassinated) top sign warns passenger vehicles from venturing onto the historic Bennett Pass Road

Today, it’s hard to get much beyond 5-mph in many sections of the Bennett Pass Road due to a profound lack of maintenance, so a light upgrade to the surface and periodic maintenance is part of the concept. In the 1980s, I navigated Titus Canyon Road in a Honda Civic, and there’s no reason why a better maintained Bennett Pass Road couldn’t accommodate passenger cars traveling at 10 mph. That’s part of being inclusive, after all.

Signage is deficient or completely absent along much of the route today, so the backroad concept also calls for improved directional signage and occasional interpretive signage along the tour, as well. Interpretive signage could be as simple as mileposts that link to a downloadable PDF or podcast describing the rich natural and cultural history of the area.

The Bennett Pass Historic Backroad Tour

The full tour covers just over 14 miles, but at 10-mph with a few stops along the way, the Bennett Pass Historic Backroad tour would take the average family two or three hours to complete. Add an hour on each end to reach the tour from Portland, and this would make an exceptional choice for urban visitors looking for a new way to explore Mount Hood country.

Here’s a tiny map of the concept:

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But by all means, please click here for a very large version of the map to see the details that make up this proposal.

Tour Description

0.0 to 2.8 mi. – Dufur Mill Road to Sunrise Rocks – The tour starts at gravel Lookout Mountain Road (Road 4410) where it begins on paved Dufur Mill Road (Highway 44), north of Lookout Mountain. This is the section of the route built in the 1980s to bypass a (now abandoned) portion of the historic road.

After climbing through forest and passing pretty Horkelia Meadow, this segment ends at the mostly unknown Sunrise Rocks, a fine, currently undeveloped picnic spot with a commanding view of Mount Hood, across the East Fork Hood River valley.

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The sprawling Mount Hood view from semi-secret Sunrise Rocks

The Bennett Pass Historic Backroad concept (see map) also calls for a new trail in the area, from the Little John winter recreation area to Sunrise Rocks, providing another way to enjoy this overlook for hikers looking for a challenge and a year-round purpose for the Little John trailhead.

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Sunrise Rocks from the Little John trailhead and parking area… someday a trail from here?

2.8 to 4.9 mi. – Sunrise Rocks to High Prairie – after taking in the view at Sunrise Rocks, the route continues for another 2 miles along the newer road section to High Prairie, a major destination for hikers and equestrians. Families looking for a picnic or short hike can explore the sprawling meadows here, or take the longer 5-mile loop to the airy summit of Lookout Mountain, where the view stretches up and down the Cascades and into the high desert country of Eastern Oregon.

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Acres of subalpine wildflowers and a maze of family-friendly trails await at High Prairie

4.9 to 7.2 mi. – High Prairie to Gunsight Ridge – two-way travel ends at High Prairie in the historic backroad concept, and from this point forward the tour would be one-way toward Bennett Pass along the surviving, original section of the historic Bennett Pass Road. The segment of original road from High Prairie to Gunsight Ridge is the most breathtaking on the tour, with huge views of Mount Hood and exposed sections where drivers will be gripping the wheel — and taking in the views.

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Sweeping Mount Hood views abound where the historic Bennett Pass Road skirts Lookout Mountain

Several scenic pullouts are located along this section, as well as a major trailhead at Gumjuwac Saddle, with trails heading in five directions! Hiking options from the saddle include longer trips to Badger Lake and Lookout Mountain, or the nearby Gumjuwac Overlook, just 0.8 miles from the saddle.

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Mount Hood after an early autumn snow from the Gumjuwac Overlook

The proposed Gunsight Ridge picnic area would be located at a large pullout above pretty Jean Lake, with access to the Gunsight Trail. Jean Lake can be visited via a family-friendly 0.6 mile trail that descends to the lake.

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Pretty Jean Lake is a short forest hike from the historic Bennett Pass Road

7.2 to 9.0 mi. – Gunsight Ridge to Camp Windy – the short drive from Gunsight Ridge to Camp Windy is just below the ridge crest, with frequent views into the Badger Creek Wilderness, and later, into the White River unit of the Mount Hood National Recreation Area.

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Expansive meadows at Camp Windy roll down the slopes of Gunsight Ridge

Modest picnic facilities and a vintage toilet already exist at Camp Windy, a lovely mountainside meadow, but new facilities would be needed as part of the scenic backroad concept. A short spur road here provides access to the Badger Saddle trailhead, and the 3.5-mile round trip hike to Badger Lake.

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Mount Hood from the Gunsight Ridge Trail

9.0 to 10.1 mi. – Camp Windy to Bonney Junction – From Camp Windy, the historic road continues to a 3-way junction with Bonney Meadows Road (Road 4891). The historic backroad concept calls for the Bonney Meadows route to function as a 2-way facility, allowing access to the Bennett Pass Historic Backroad at its midpoint, and for Bennett Pass visitors to make side trips to Bonney Meadows and Bonney Butte, just off the Bennett Pass tour.

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Peaceful Bonney Meadows with Mount Hood peeking over the ridge

Bonney Meadows already has a rustic campground perfect for picnics and exploring the nearby meadows. Families looking for something more challenging can make the 4.5 mile round-trip hike to exceptionally scenic Boulder Lake, or try a shorter hike to Bonney Butte, known for its raptor surveys. Bonney Meadows also has several developed campsites, so families could opt to camp here, midway through the tour.

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Lovely Boulder Lake

10.1 to 12.4 mi. – Bonney Junction to Newton Clark Overlook – from Bonney Junction, the historic Bennett Pass Road turns abruptly north and descends briefly before arriving at a catwalk section of road carved into the crest of the ridge. Here, the tour passes the Terrible Traverse, marked by an extraordinary rock gateway cut by the early road builders. This is the Titus Canyon equivalent for the Bennett Pass Road, as there is no room for passing (or error) along this section!

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The dramatic gates to the Terrible Traverse

Just beyond the traverse, the road drops to a saddle with an excellent view of Mount Hood at the proposed Newton Clark overlook and picnic site.

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The Newton Clark Glacier and its enormous moraine from the proposed Newton Clark overlook

This spot is also one of several backcountry lodge locations proposed in the Mount Hood National Park Campaign to allow for Euro-style chalet-to-chalet trekking. These modest lodges would be rustic and quiet, along the lines of Cloud Cap Inn, and open year-round to also serve Nordic skiers and snowshoers.

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It turns out the Hood River County Sheriff digs the Newton Clark overlook, too (Courtesy Hood River Co.)

12.4 to 14.2 mi. – Newton Clark Overlook to Bennett Pass – from Newton Clark Overlook, the remainder of the route continues along the ridge top through handsome stands of noble fir to the large trailhead and parking area at Bennett Pass, ending the tour.

What would it take?

While some of the proposals featured in this blog are notably ambitions, this one is pretty simple, and could be accomplished in the near-term. The Forest Service would need to do some grading, add some gravel in some sections and step up maintenance of the historic Bennett Pass Road. Picnic and toilet facilities would need to be added in a few spots and new signage to help visitors navigate and appreciate the tour would be needed.

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Wildflowers line the historic Bennett Pass Road in summer

Establishing a one-way route would be a taller order for the Forest Service, but there are already a few limited one-way routes along forest roads, so the idea is not without precedent. One obvious exception to a one-way rule is for emergency access, of course, but other visitors would probably appreciate the peace of mind in knowing they won’t meet another vehicle at the blind curve midway along the Terrible Traverse!

How to visit?

The good news is that you can visit the proposed Bennett Pass Historic Backroad today with a few considerations in mind:

  1. The road is generally only open in summer, from mid-June through early October. The best time to visit is in July, when wildflowers are blooming throughout the tour, and the worst time is after heavy rain, when a few muddy sections might just swallow your vehicle.
  1. Parts of the historic portion of the road are very, very rough. Until a Bennett Pass Historic Backroad brings some surface improvements and periodic maintenance to this old route, plan on a slow, sometimes jarring ride that will test your nerves, tires and suspension. High clearance vehicles with AWD or 4WD, only!
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This collage of scraped rocks on Bennett Pass Road is mute testimony to the folly of taking a passenger vehicle there – don’t try it!

  1. The roads are poorly signed, so you’ll need a forest map. I recommend the National Geographic map for Mount Hood National Forest in their Trails Illustrated series. Never trust a GPS device or smart phone to navigate forest roads!
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The author hanging out on the historic Bennett Pass Road

With these precautions in mind, the old Bennett Pass Road is fun to explore and always un-crowded.

Take it slow and enjoy the ride!

Mount Hood’s Ancient Whitebarks

August 2, 2013
Ancient Whitebark pine on Gnarl Ridge

Ancient Whitebark pine on Gnarl Ridge

If you have spent much time in Mount Hood’s alpine country, you probably already recognize the Whitebark pine. This rugged cousin to our more common Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines thrives where no other trees can, braving subzero winters and hot, dry summers at the upper extreme of timberline.

Ancient Whitebark pine grove on Lookout Mountain

Ancient Whitebark pine grove on Lookout Mountain

Whitebark pine is easy to identify on Mount Hood. True to their name, they have white bark on younger limbs, and their typically gnarled, picturesque forum is iconic in our Cascade Mountain landscape. These slow-growing patriarchs often live to 500 years or more, with some trees known to survive for more than 1,000 years.

In protected stands below the tree line, they can grow 60-70 feet tall (around Cloud Cap Inn), while in open areas, they creep along the ground, forming a “krummholz” — a low mat of branches stunted by the elements (famously, on Gnarl Ridge, which draws its name from the ancient Whitebarks that grow there).

Whitebark pines have limber branches to withstand the elements

Whitebark pines have limber branches to withstand the elements

Up close, Whitebark pine can be identified by its needles, with five per bundle (compared to two for Lodgepole and three for Ponderosa pine). Whitebark cones don’t open when dry, yet are hardly ever found intact. That’s because of the unique, mutual relationship these trees have with a bird called Clark’s nutcracker, named for William Clark, co-captain of the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery expedition.

Clark’s nutcracker subsists almost entirely on the large, nutritious seeds hidden in Whitebark cones. These birds have evolved with an ability to crack the cones and store the seeds in buried caches, for later consumption. The Whitebark pine, in turn, is almost completely dependent on these birds for reproduction, when young seedlings sprout from seeds cached by the nutcracker.

Clark's Nutcracker at Crater Lake (Wikimedia)

Clark’s Nutcracker at Crater Lake (Wikimedia)

In this way, the Whitebark pine is considered by scientists to be a “keystone” species at the center of a broad, highly dependent web of life. In addition to its co-mutual relationship with Clark’s nutcracker, Whitebarks also support other high-elevation species, serving as “islands” of life in otherwise barren alpine zones. These islands shelter mammals, birds and insects migrating through alpine areas and serve as permanent habitat for many mountain plant and animal species.

Whitebark pine seeds serve as a direct food source for several other species in addition to Clark’s nutcracker. The seeds are large and high in fat, and at least 12 species of birds are known to feed on them. The seeds are also a primary good source for ground squirrels living in alpine zones, where they store large quantities of seed in “middens”.

Surprisingly, Whitebark seeds are also an important food source for black bear and the grizzly bear, with both bear species raiding the middens of ground squirrels. For grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area, Whitebark pine seeds are considered so important in the their diet that the long-term viability of the bear population is linked to the survival of the Whitebark.

A Species in Trouble

Sadly, the Whitebark pine is in deep trouble. The triple threat of (1) an exotic fungal disease known as white pine blister rust, (2) mass infestations of mountain pine beetle and (3) the effects of fire suppression have weakened and killed millions of these trees across Mountain West.

Blister rust (boundary shown in red) has affected almost all Whitebark pine range (green) in North America

Blister rust (boundary shown in red) has affected almost all Whitebark pine range (green) in North America

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) estimated in 2007 that 800,000 acres of Whitebarks have been lost across the west, an startling statistic given the small, rare alpine habitat that these trees need to survive.

Global warming may turn out to be the nail in the coffin for this venerable species, as less hardy tree species continue to crowd and compete for space in areas once habitable only by the Whitebark pine.

Massive Whitebark pine die-off in Yellowstone (USFWS)

Massive Whitebark pine die-off in Yellowstone (USFWS)

Several efforts to save the species are underway. In July 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that the Whitebark pine needed federal protection and that without it, the tree would soon be extinct within as few as two to three generations. However, the tree has not been formally listed in the United States as endangered, due to federal agency funding constraints.

In June 2012, the Canadian federal government declared Whitebark pine endangered, making it the first tree species to be declared endangered in Western Canada.

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The Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation is a science-based, non-profit organization that exists to conserve and restore the Whitebark pine, but their efforts are dependent on support from the public in making the survival of this species a priority with our land management agencies.

Conservation efforts for the Whitebark focus on harvesting seeds from trees that seem to have a natural resistance to white pine blister rust and restoring the role of fire in forest management. Both strategies will require the full engagement of our federal land agencies, and thus the need for a non-profit like the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation to press the issue in our utterly dysfunctional national government. Please consider supporting them!

Lookout Mountain Sentinels

One of the best places to view ancient Whitebark pine up close is along the crest of Lookout Mountain, located due east of Mount Hood. Like most Whitebark stands around Mount Hood, the trees on Lookout Mountain are in decline, yet hundreds have (so far) survived the triple threat facing the species.

A large stand of Whitebark pine just below the main summit of Lookout Mountain provides a stark example of the die-off that is affecting the species. As shown in the photos below (1983 and 2008), scores of trees in this stand have died in recent years:

Healthy stands of Whitebark pine thrived on the south slope of Lookout Mountain in 1983

Healthy stands of Whitebark pine thrived on the south slope of Lookout Mountain in 1983

Over the past decade, almost the entire stand of Whitebark pine on the south slope has died

Over the past decade, almost the entire stand of Whitebark pine on the south slope has died

The Lookout Mountain grove is on the hot, dry south slope of the peak, so the trees here are clearly stressed by the environment, even without the blister rust and beetle attacks now affecting the species.

On the more protected east slope of the main summit, a remarkable group of ancient Whitebark pine (pictured below) is soldiering on, though some of the oldest sentinels in this group now seem to be fading fast.

Whitebark patriarch near the summit of Lookout Mountain beginning to show stress in 2002

Whitebark patriarch near the summit of Lookout Mountain beginning to show stress in 2002

By 2013, only one of the ancient tree's five trunks is still alive, though healthy younger trees are growing nearby

By 2013, only one of the ancient tree’s five trunks is still alive, though healthy younger trees are growing nearby

Some of the trees in the eastern group are truly ancient. Several were cut in 1930, when a road was built to the summit and a lookout tower constructed. Amazingly, the bleached stumps of these old trees still survive, more than 80 years later.

One of these stumps measuring about a foot across still shows its growth rings, showing that it was 280 years old when it was cut in 1930! This means the tree started life on Lookout Mountain in 1650, twenty years before the Hudson Bay Company was formed under a charter from King Charles II. This tree was already 174 years by the time Dr. John McLoughlin established his Hudson Bay Company outpost at Fort Vancouver, in 1824, and more than 200 years old before tiny Portland, Oregon was incorporated in 1851.

A particularly ancient patriarch in this grove (shown in the photo pairs above and below) grows due east of the summit, along the Divide Trail. This old survivor appears to be the oldest Whitebark pine on Lookout Mountain. While it’s age is unknown, the diameter of its multiple trunks substantially exceeds that of the nearby cut trees, so this ancient sentinel could be 300-500 years old, or more.

A profile view of the patriarch tree in 2002 shows health growth on the eastern trunk (center)

A profile view of the patriarch tree in 2002 shows health growth on the eastern trunk (center)

This profile view from 2013 shows significant dieback on the eastern trunk over the past decade (center)

This profile view from 2013 shows significant dieback on the eastern trunk over the past decade (center)

Sadly, this old veteran is fading fast, with only one living trunk surviving as of this summer. Even as the old tree succumbs to the elements, it continues to serve as a fascinating, beautiful testament to the struggle that Whitebark pines face in their preferred habitat.

A closer look at the old tree (below) shows five sprawling trunks, each more than a foot in diameter. This old survivor looks a bit like a huge, grey octopus (complete with two weathered eyes, looking back at you!).

At its center, the patriarch Whitebark sprawls like an octopus, with five major trunks, each more than a foot in diameter

At its center, the patriarch Whitebark sprawls like an octopus, with five major trunks, each more than a foot in diameter

Ancient Whitebarks at this elevation are typically a twisted tangle of living and dead trunks, and in the case of the Lookout Mountain patriarch tree, only the north and east of the five main trunks survive.

As the photos that follow illustrate, the north trunk may have seen its last summer this year, as its remaining needles suddenly died back as of early July. The surviving east trunk is in better shape, with several green boughs, but its needles obviously lack the vigor of nearby, younger Whitebarks. Clearly, the old giant is in its final years of living after centuries on this unforgiving mountain slope.

A rusty remnant from the days when a lookout tower stood on the mountain hangs on one of the living limbs of the patriarch Whitebark pine

A rusty remnant from the days when a lookout tower stood on the mountain hangs on one of the living limbs of the patriarch Whitebark pine

The bleached bones where the patriarch tree has died back can survive for decades in the arid alpine climate of Lookout Mountain

The bleached bones where the patriarch tree has died back can survive for decades in the arid alpine climate of Lookout Mountain

Yellowing needles on the remaining (east) living trunk of the patriarch Whitebark spell trouble for this old tree

Yellowing needles on the remaining (east) living trunk of the patriarch Whitebark spell trouble for this old tree

This view shows the north trunk of the Patriarch tree, thriving as recently as 2002, but now reduced to a thicket of dead shoots

This view shows the north trunk of the Patriarch tree, thriving as recently as 2002, but now reduced to a thicket of dead shoots

After centuries of growth, this dying cluster of limbs on the north trunk of the patriarch Whitebark marks the last sign of life on this trunk of the old tree, a startling reminder of how quickly our Whitebark pine forests are fading

After centuries of growth, this dying cluster of limbs on the north trunk of the patriarch Whitebark marks the last sign of life on this trunk of the old tree, a startling reminder of how quickly our Whitebark pine forests are fading

As discouraging as the plight of the Whitebark pine might be, the efforts by our federal land agencies and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation provide at least a shot at saving the species — and the complex alpine ecosystem that it anchors.

The saga of the American bison provides some encouragement. The species numbered 60 million prior to western expansion, but was decimated to an estimated 541 animals before protection and restoration efforts began in earnest. Today, about 500,000 bison are known to exist, with about 15,000 restored as wild herds. Hopefully, a similar success story for the Whitebark pine will be recounted by future generations, thanks to our current efforts to save the tree.

Exploring Lookout Mountain

The loop hike to Lookout Mountain from High Prairie makes a fine summer outing for families. The full loop covers just 3.2 miles and climbs about 550 feet, and the sweeping summit views provide a big payoff for the moderate effort.

Though the trail is usually snow-free from late June through mid-October, the hike is best in late July and early August, long enough after snowmelt to be mostly bug-free, but early enough to enjoy some of the wildflowers that summer brings to the mountain.

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(click here for a large, printable map)

The best way to hike the loop is to start with the west leg. This is a rustic trail that immediately heads to the right from the High Prairie trailhead, gently climbing through beautiful meadows and open forests. Stay straight where boot paths appear from both sides at about 0.8 miles, and soon reach the first dramatic view along the hike: Mount Hood, framed by a brick-red slope of volcanic cinders and spires.

Red cinders frame Mount Hood from the east leg of the Lookout Mountain loop

Red cinders frame Mount Hood from the east leg of the Lookout Mountain loop

At about 1.3 miles, the west leg meets the Gumjuwac Trail on the south slope of Lookout Mountain. Turn left here, and soon reach the west summit of Lookout Mountain, with a commanding view of Mount Hood and the East Fork Hood River valley, more than 3,000 feet below.

The flat rock outcrops here make for a nice destination in their own right, but to see the old Whitebark pines, you’ll want to continue the hike. The trail now turns east, and follows the summit crest of Lookout Mountain, with several dramatic viewpoints and interesting rock outcrops along the way. A number of Whitebark pine also line the trail, though these trees are protected enough to be in an upright form. The views from the crest are into the winding canyons of the Badger Creek valley, to the south.

Mount Hood from the west summit of Lookout Mountain

Mount Hood from the west summit of Lookout Mountain

The summit crest traverse continues for about 0.3 miles before reaching the old lookout road in a saddle below the main summit. To reach the top, go right (uphill) on the old road and pass through one of the decimated Whitebark stands as you near the main summit of Lookout Mountain. You will reach the summit about 0.2 miles from the saddle, where you can see the crumbing foundations of the 1930 lookout structure and nearby garage.

From the summit, views extend far into the high deserts of Eastern Oregon, south to Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters and north to Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams. Mount Hood dominates the western skyline. A bit closer are the meadows of High Prairie, where you started your hike, and the tiny lookout tower atop Flag Point, to the east. Badger Lake can also be seen nestled in the forested wilderness to the south.

The view east from the summit of Lookout Mountain

The view east from the summit of Lookout Mountain

To complete the east leg of the loop, simply follow the old lookout road back to the trailhead, passing through handsome mountain hemlock forests and the upper meadows of High Prairie along the way.

To visit the patriarch Whitebark pine described in this article, watch for the Divide Trail on your left as you descend from the top — just a few hundred feet from the summit. The patriarch tree is on the left, just a few yards down the Divide Trail. Use care around the tree so that future generations can enjoy its beauty — whether still living or as a bleached reminder of what once was.
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Directions to High Prairie

To reach the trailhead at High Prairie, follow Highway 35 from Hood River (or Government Camp) to the Forest Road 44 junction, where signs point to Dufur and Camp Baldwin. Drive 3.8 miles on this paved road and watch for a poorly signed, gravel Road 4410 on the right. Follow this dusty collection of washboards and potholes for 4.5 miles to High Prairie, turning right at a T-intersection in the meadow to drive the final 200 yards to the trailhead.

A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park here. Pit toilets are provided. Carry water, as no reliable sources are found on this hike.