A Second Chance and New Vision for Oneonta?

Oneonta Tunnel traffic jam at the west portal shortly after completion in 1916. The highway had not yet been paved when the tunnel opened.

In the span of just about a decade, the Oneonta Tunnel on the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) has endured a wild ride. The tunnel had been closed since the 1940s when the old highway was rerouted around the cliffs of Oneonta Bluff, and for more than half a century lived only in memories and photographs. 

Then, the tunnel was carefully restored to its original glory in 2006 as part of the ongoing effort to restore and reconnect the HCRH. But within just few years, the beautiful restoration work was badly vandalized by uncontrolled mobs of thoughtless young people unleashed upon Oneonta Gorge by social media (see “Let’s Clear the Logjam at Oneonta Gorge). Then, in September 2017, the restored timber lining was completely burned away during the Eagle Creek Fire.

Today, the tunnel stands empty and fenced-off, waiting to be brought back to life, once again. But does it make sense to restore it as before, only to set this historic gem up for more vandalism? Or could it be restored in a different way, as part of a larger vision for protecting the history and natural beauty of both the tunnel and Oneonta Gorge, while also telling the story of the scenic highway, itself? More on that idea in a moment… 

First, a look at how we got here.

Before the dams and after the railroads…

Looking at Oneonta Tunnel today, it’s hard to understand why the original highway alignment went through Oneonta Bluff to begin with, instead of simply going around it? Why wasn’t it simply built in the current alignment of the historic highway, which curves around the bluff? The answer can be seen in this photo (below) taken before the old highway was built.

Oneonta Bluff before construction of the new highway and tunnel in 1916. The new road was squeezed on the uphill side of the railroad line in many spots in the Gorge, forcing creative solutions from the visionary road designer Samuel Lancaster.

It turns out the original railroad alignment crossed Oneonta Creek on a trestle where the current highway is located today, and was also built snug against the base of Oneonta Bluff. Why was it built this way? Because in the era before Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams were completed in the 1930s (along with the many dams in the Columbia basin that followed), the Columbia River fluctuated wildly during spring runoff. So, the original rail line was built to stand above seasonal flood levels of the time.

When Samuel Lancaster assessed the situation in the 1910s, the only options for his new highway were to move the railroad or tunnel through the bluff. As with other spots in the Gorge where the railroads were an obstacle for the new highway, the second option turned out to be the most expedient, and the Oneonta Tunnel was born. 

This close-up look (below) at previous photo shows a man standing on the railroad trestle crossing Oneonta Creek, pointing to what would soon be the west portal to the new tunnel, and I believe this to be Samuel Lancaster on a survey trip — though that’s just my speculation.

Close-up view of what might be Samuel Lancaster pointing at the future west portal at the Oneonta Tunnel site

When the original alignment of the old highway opened in 1916, the new road paralleled the old railroad grade closely, especially east of the tunnel (below), where a retaining wall and wood guardrail separated the somewhat taller road grade from the railroad.

The east portal of Oneonta Tunnel shortly after completion in 1916

Sometime after the original tunnel was built, possibly in the 1930s, the railroad was moved away from the bluff, perhaps because of falling debris from the Oneonta Bluff landing on the tracks, or maybe just part of modernizing the rail line over time. The flood control provided by dams on the Columbia River beginning in the 1930s (and especially the relatively stable “pool” created behind Bonneville Dam) allowed the railroads to move several sections of their tracks in the Gorge onto extensive rock fill during this period, often well into the river, itself. 

This photo (below) from the 1930s shows the west portal of Oneonta Tunnel after the railroad had been move northward, away from Oneonta Bluff, but before the highway had been realigned to bypass the tunnel.

West approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in the late 1930s after the railroad had been moved away from the bluff, opening the door for the highway, itself, to be routed around the bluff

The tunnel at Oneonta Bluff was one of several along the old highway, though it was easily overshadowed as an attraction by the famous “tunnel with windows” at Mitchell Point, to the east and the spectacular “twin tunnels” near Mosier. What made Oneonta Tunnel famous was the view into impossibly narrow Oneonta Gorge, which suddenly appears as you approach the west portal. 

Oneonta Gorge has been a popular tourist attraction since the old highway opened in 1916. For nearly a century, adventurers have waded up the creek to the graceful 120-foot waterfall that falls into Oneonta Gorge, about a mile from the historic highway bridge. Only in recent years has overcrowding presented a serious threat to both the unique cliff ecosystem and the historic highway features here.

Early visitors to Oneonta Gorge in the 1920s

In the 1930 and 1940s, the Oregon Highway Department began a series of projects in the Gorge aimed at “modernizing” the old highway as the dawn of the 1950s freeway-building loomed. A new river-level route was built to bypass the steep climb the original route takes over Crown Point, with the new route following what is today’s I-84 alignment. 

At Tooth Rock (above Bonneville Dam) a new tunnel was blasted through the cliffs to bypass the intricate viaducts built atop the cliffs by Samuel Lancaster. That tunnel still serves eastbound I-84 today, and has become a historic feature in its own right. And at Oneonta Bluff, a new bridge and tunnel bypass (below) took advantage of the relocated railroad, and was completed in 1948.

The (then) new highway bypass bridge under construction in 1948; the original bridge is to the left, and still remains today

When the new bridge and realigned highway section opened, the original bridge Samuel Lancaster built at Oneonta Creek was left in place, thankfully, and it survives today as a elegant viewpoint into Oneonta Gorge and gateway to the tunnel. The Oneonta Tunnel was also decommissioned at the time, with fill at both entrances (below). The tunnel remained this way for the next half-century, as a curiosity for history buffs but forgotten by most.

The realigned historic highway after 1948, with the tunnel (on the right) decommissioned with rock fill at both ends

The rebirth of Oneonta Tunnel began with a bold vision for restoring and reconnecting the surviving sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway as part of the landmark 1986 Columbia River National Scenic Area act, with this simple language: 

16 U.S.C. 544j Section 12. Old Columbia River Highway: The Oregon Department of Transportation shall, in consultation with the Secretary and the Commission, the State of Oregon and the counties and cities in which the Old Columbia River Highway is located, prepare a program and undertake efforts to preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity of the remaining segments of the Old Columbia River Highway for public use as a Historic Road, including recreation trails to connect intact and usable segments.

And so began what will eventually be a four-decade effort to restore the old highway to its original grandeur, with many beautiful new segments designed as if Samuel Lancaster were still here overseeing the project. Work began elsewhere on the old route in the 1980s, but eventually came to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2006 (below). 

Restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel begins in 2006 (ODOT)

The restoration began with simply excavating the old tunnel, and later rebuilding the stone portals at both ends and installing cedar sheathing to line the interior. A new visitor’s parking area was created outside the east portal and the original white, wooden guardrails were also recreated.

Restored interior wood lining nearly complete in the Oneonta Tunnel in 2006 (ODOT)

For the next few years, the restored tunnel stood as a remarkable tribute to the work of Samuel Lancaster and our commitment to preserving the history of the Gorge. It was a popular stop for visitors and also served as fun part of a hiking loop linking the Horsetail and Oneonta trails.

Vandalism & Oneonta Gorge

Every new technology brings unintended consequences, and the advent of social media over the past two decades has been undeniably hard on our public lands. Where visitors once studied printed field guides and maps to plan their adventures, today’s decisions are more often based on a photo posted in some Facebook group or on Instagram, where hundreds will see it as the place to be right now. 

This has resulted in the “Instagram Effect”, where huge surges in visits follow social media posts, both in the immediate near-term for a given place, and in the long-term interest in hiking and the outdoors. According to a 2017 study by Nielsen Scarborough, hiking in the Pacific Northwest has nearly doubled in popularity the past ten years, with Portland and Seattle ranking second and third (in that order) in the nation for number of hiking enthusiasts — Salt Lake City took the top spot. 

Overall, that’s very good news for our society because hiking and spending time outdoors are good for all of us, and we live in a part of the world where we have some of the most spectacular places to be found anywhere in our own backyard. But the immediate effect of social media can often spell bad news when hordes of ill-equipped and ill-informed people descend upon a place that is trending on their phone.

Social media conga-line waiting to enter Oneonta Gorge in 2016 (Photo: John Speth)
Traffic jam at the Oneonta log jam in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)
Traffic jam at the second Oneonta log jam in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)
Cattle call at Oneonta Gorge in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)

Oneonta Gorge is one of the special places that fell victim to the Instagram Effect, with huge crowds of young people overwhelming the canyon on summer days over the past decade. Sadly, the Forest Service did absolutely nothing to curb the invasion, despite the obvious threat to the rare ecosystem here, and hazardous conditions presented by the infamous log-jam that has blocked the entrance to the canyon since the late 1990s (see “Let’s Clear the Logjam at Oneonta Gorge).

And another unfortunate casualty of this unmanaged overcrowding was the Oneonta Tunnel, itself, when the Oneonta Gorge mobs stopped by to record themselves for posterity in the soft, brand-new cedar walls of the restored tunnel (below). While the vandalism was maddening, the lack of any sort of public response from the Forest Service or ODOT to stem the tide was equally frustrating.

The massive defacing of the restored Oneonta Tunnel interior…
…coincided with the explosive, unmanaged crowds that descended…
…upon Oneonta Gorge in the era of social media…

The vandalism didn’t stop with the destruction of the tunnel walls, however. The unmanaged crowds also tagged spots throughout the area with graffiti, and damaged some of the priceless historic features (below) left for us by Samuel Lancaster.

Damage to historic highway features like this staircase came with the disrespectful mobs of young people coming to Oneonta Gorge over the past decade

As discouraging as the damage at Oneonta was, it was also completely predictable. The idea of limiting access to popular spots in the Gorge is one that the public land managers at the state and federal level have been loath to consider, even when overuse is clearly harming the land and our recreation infrastructure. The problem is made worse by the crazy quilt of intertwined state and federal lands in the Gorge, complicating efforts to manage access, even if the will existed.

Then the fire happened in September 2017, changing everything…

The Fire

When the Eagle Creek Fire was ignited on Labor Day weekend in 2017 by a careless firework tossed from a cliff, few imagined that it would ultimately spread to burn a 25-mile swath of the Oregon side of the Gorge, from Shepperd’s Dell on the west to the slopes of Mount Defiance on the east. In the aftermath, the entire burn zone was closed to the public, and much of it still is. While the fire closure put enormous pressure on the few trails that remained open, it also opened the door to rethinking how we access to trails within the burn zone when they are reopened. How and when that happens remains to be seen.

At Oneonta Bluff, the images of the fire were dramatic and unexpected: the inferno spread to the interior of the restored tunnel and lit up the wood lining, completely burning it away like lit fuse. Local news affiliate KPTV published these views (below) taken by fire crews as the tunnel burned.

East portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel burning in September 2017 (KPTV)
West portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel burning in September 2017 (KPTV)

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) spent the weeks after the fire in 2017 assessing the damage to the historic highway, including these photos of the burned-out tunnel (below).

West portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel after the fire in 2017 (ODOT)
East portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel after the fire in 2017 (ODOT)

Today, the scene at Oneonta Tunnel hasn’t changed that much. ODOT eventually stripped the remaining, charred timbers from the tunnel and fenced off both portals to the public (below), though vandals have since pushed the fencing aside. The area remains closed indefinitely.

Charred reminders of the fire in 2020 at Oneonta Tunnel
East portal approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020
East portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020
Gated east portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020, opened by vandals

Though it might be heresy to admit, my immediate reaction when I saw the images of the burning tunnel in 2017 was relief. There was no end in sight to the social-media driven vandalism, and the interior had pretty much been ruined at that point, so the fire presented an unexpected opportunity for a redo, someday. Quite literally, it’s an opportunity for Oneonta Tunnel to rise from the ashes, but perhaps in a new way this time.

Remembering what we lost

A new vision for restoring Oneonta Tunnel — and protecting Oneonta Gorge — begins with remembering the fine restoration work completed in 2006. What follows is a look back at what that looked like, before social media took its toll.

At the west portal to the tunnel (where the original Oneonta Bridge, with its graceful arched railings, still stands), the restoration included a gateway sign, restored, painted guardrails built in the style of the original highway and an interpretive display near the tunnel entrance (below). The design functioned as a wide, paved trail, with the idea that cyclists touring the historic highway would pull off the main road and ride through the short tunnel section on a path closed to cars.

West portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2008, shortly after the renovation

From the original highway bridge over Oneonta Creek, the view extended into Oneonta Gorge, but also down to this fanciful stairway (below) right out of a Tolkien novel. This feature of the original historic highway continues to take visitors down to the banks of Oneonta Creek (the landing Newell in the bottom center of the photo, at the base of the stairs, is the one broken by vandals in an earlier photo). Just out of view at the top of the stairs is a picturesque bench built into the mossy cliff.

Historic Oneonta Stairwell in 2008

The west portal restoration included new stonework around the timber frame that closely matched the original design (below). 

West portal of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

Inside, the restored tunnel was lined with cedar plank walls and ceiling, supported by arched beams (below).

Wood interior of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

The east portal was similar to the west end of the tunnel, with stone masonry trim supporting the portal timbers (below).

East portal of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

Like the west side, the east entrance approach (below) was designed for cyclists to leave the highway and tour the tunnel and historic bridge before returning to the main road. 

East portal approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

In practice, most of the traffic in the tunnel before the fire came from hikers and curious visitors parking on the east and west sides and walking the path to the viewpoint into Oneonta Gorge. This is partly because bicycle touring in the Gorge focuses on the extensive car-free-sections of the historic highway, though the shared-road portions of the old highway are expected to see continued growth in cycling as the entirety of the old route is fully restored.

A Fresh Start (and Vision)

Oneonta Gorge in about 1900, more than a decade before the first automobiles would travel through the Columbia River Gorge

The 2006 restoration of Oneonta Tunnel and its approaches was based on the idea of it simply serving as a bicycle and pedestrian path as part of the larger historic highway restoration project. But the tragic defacing of the newly restored tunnel is a painful reminder that it’s simply not safe to assume it will be respected if left open to the public, unprotected, as it was before. Even gates are not enough, as vandals have since demonstrated by tearing open the temporary fencing on the burned-out tunnel.

But what if we considered the tunnel and its paved approaches, including the historic highway bridge, as a useful space instead of a path? The tunnel is surprisingly wide, at 20 feet, and 125 feet long. That’s 2,500 feet of interior space! What if the tunnel were restored this time with the idea of using this as interior space? As a history museum, in fact? With the paved approaches as plazas with outdoor seating, tables and bike parking?

Though it’s not a perfect comparison, there is an excellent model to look to in southern Utah, just east of the town of Kanab, where the privately operated Moqui Cave Natural History Museum is built inside a sandstone cave. The cave was once a speakeasy, then a dance hall in the 1930s, before it was finally converted to become a museum in the 1040s.

Moqui Cave Museum near Kanab, Utah (Wikipedia)

While passing through Kanab on a recent road trip, the stonework blending with the standstone cave entrance at Moqui Cave (below) reminded me of the restored stonework at Oneonta tunnel portals, and how the entrances to the tunnel might be enclosed to create a museum space at Oneonta.

Moqui Cave Museum entrance (TripAdvisor)

Like our Oneonta Tunnel, Moqai Cave is mostly linear in shape (below), with displays of ancient Puebloan artifacts and fossil dinosaur tracks displayed along its sandstone walls.

Moqui Cave Museum interior (TripAdvisor)

These section of the Moqui Cave are roughly the same width and height of the Oneonta Tunnel, with plenty of room for both displays and walking space.

Other solutions for enclosing the entrance at Oneonta Tunnel could draw from our own Timberline Lodge, on Mount Hood. While the stone foundation for the lodge is man-made, it’s not unlike the basalt portals at Oneonta. This is the familiar main entrance on the south side of the lodge (below), showing how the massive wood entry doors are built into the arched stone lodge foundation.

Historic Timberline Lodge entrance door (Wikipedia)

About ten years ago, another entrance to Timberline Lodge was handsomely renovated (below) to become barrier-free, yet still the massive, rugged lodge style that was pioneered here. This updated design shows how modern accessibility requirements could be met at an enclosed Oneonta Tunnel.

Restored Timberline Lodge side entry door (Versatile Wood Products)

There are other examples for enclosing Oneonta Tunnel as a museum space, too. While it would be a departure from Samuel Lancaster original purpose and design to enclose the tunnel, I suspect he would approve, given how the Gorge has changed in the century since he built the original highway.

There are logistics questions, of course. Is the Oneonta Tunnel weatherproof? If the dry floors during winter the months after the 2006 renovation are any indication, than yes, having 150 feet of solid basalt above you provides good weather proofing! Does the tunnel have power? Not yet, but a power source is just across the highway along the railroad corridor. These are among the questions that would have to be answered before the tunnel could be used as a museum, but the potential is promising!

Getting a handle on parking…

One of the most vexing problems along the busy westerly section of the Historic Columbia River Highway is how to manage parking as a means for managing overall crowding. Today, parking is largely unmanaged in this part of the Gorge, which might sound great if you believe there is such a thing as “free parking” (there isn’t). But in practice, it has the opposite effect, with epic traffic jams on weekends and holidays, and travelers waiting wearily for their “free” spot at one of the waterfall pullouts.

Weekend traffic jams on the historic highway are the norm today, and result from unmanaged parking (KATU)

At Oneonta, the lack of managed parking is at the heart of the destruction that mobs descending on Oneonta Gorge brought to the area, including the defacing of the tunnel. Some simple, proven parking management steps are essential, no matter what comes next at Oneonta. First, parking spaces must be marked, with a limited number of spots available and enforced. Can’t find a spot? Come back later, or better yet, at a less crowded time. 

Second, the parking should be managed with time limits (30 minutes, 60 minutes and a some 120 minute spots for Oneonta Gorge explorers). Timed parking also allows for eventual parking fees during peak periods, which in turn, could help pay for badly-needed law enforcement in the Gorge. Eventually, it makes sense to meter all parking spots in the Gorge, but that’s going to take some a level of cooperation between ODOT, the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks that we haven’t seen before, so lots of work lies ahead on that front.

So, these are all basic tools of the trade for managing parking in urban areas, and the traffic in the Gorge is well beyond urban levels. It’s time to begin managing it with that reality in mind.

The east parking area (below) at the Oneonta Tunnel was rebuilt as part of the tunnel restoration in 2006, but is poorly designed, with a huge area dedicated to parallel parking. 

Unmarked, poorly designed shoulder parking at the new pullout east of the Oneonta Tunnel comes complete with a sidewalk, and could be easily be restriped and better managed with angled spaces

However, this relatively new parking area includes a (rarely used) sidewalk, and thus it could be striped with angled spaces that would make for more efficient parking and also include space for a tour bus pullout. ODOT would just need to take a deep breath, since this would involve visitors backing into the travel lane when exiting a spot — a bugaboo for old-school highway engineers. But drivers manage this all time in the city. We can handle it.

The west parking area (below) at Oneonta is an unfortunate free-for all, with an unmanaged shoulder that was ground zero for the huge social media crowds that began clogging Oneonta Gorge in the late 2000s. This area needs a limited number of marked, timed parking spots no matter what happens at Oneonta in the future. There’s also plenty of room for a sidewalk or marked path in front of the parking spaces, along the foot of the cliffs, similar to the new sidewalk built east of the tunnel. This would make for much safer circulation of pedestrians here.

The west parking area would also be the best place for accessible parking spaces, since it offers the shortest, easiest access to the tunnel and views of Oneonta Gorge from the historic bridge.

Looking west for inspiration… and operations?

Most who visit the iconic Vista House at Crown Point don’t know that the interpretive museum inside the building is operated as a partnership between the non-profit Friends of Vista House and Oregon State Parks.

Vista House rotunda (TripAdvisor)

The Friends formed in 1982, well before the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area was created in 1986, and have done a remarkable job bringing the Vista House back from a serious backlog of needed repairs. Today, it is among the jewels that draw visitors to the Gorge.

Vista House interpretive displays and gift shop (TripAdvisor)

In their partnership with State Parks, the Friends operate a museum inside Vista House, as well as a gift shop and espresso bar in the lower level. Proceeds from the gift shop are directed to their ongoing efforts to preserve and interpret this structure for future generations.

Vista House interpretive displays (TripAdvisor)

The unique partnership between the Friends of Vista House and Oregon State Parks is a proven, successful model, and it could be a foundation for a museum in the restored Oneonta Tunnel. Could the Friends operate a similar facility at Oneonta as part of an expanded mission? Perhaps. Or perhaps another non-profit could be formed as a steward for the tunnel, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and State Parks? 

Crucially, having a staffed presence at Oneonta would allow for effectively managing access to Oneonta Gorge, itself, using a timed entry permit system. This is a proven approach to protecting vulnerable natural areas from overuse, and the Forest Service already uses timed permits elsewhere. Ideally, this permitting function would be funded by the Forest Service, and would include interpretive services for other visitors discovering the area, as well.

Focus on Sam Lancaster’s Road?

Samuel Lancaster, the dreamer behind the Columbia River Highway

On the cut stone wall of the Vista House, a bronze plaque honoring Samuel Lancaster provides a very brief introduction to the man. Displays inside Vista House, and elsewhere in the Gorge, also tell his story in shorthand. But Lancaster’s original vision and continued legacy in shaping how we experience the Gorge deserves a more prominent place. A converted Oneonta Tunnel Museum would be a perfect place to tell that story.

The walls of the tunnel provide a combined 250 feet of display space, which could allow visitors to have a detailed look at some of the secrets of Sam Lancaster’s amazing road. The State of Oregon has a rich archive of historical photos of the highway during its construction phase, mostly unseen by the public for lack of a venue. 

These include rare photos of spectacular structures now lost to time. Among these (below) is the soaring bridge at McCord Creek, destroyed to make room for the modern freeway, and the beautiful arched bridge at Hood River, replaced with a modern concrete slab in the 1980s.

The soaring, former McCord Creek Bridge under construction in 1915 (ODOT)
The graceful former Hood River Bridge in the 1920s, replaced with a freeway-style concrete slab in the 1980s (ODOT)

A new Oneonta Tunnel Museum could tell the story of Sam Lancaster’s inspiration for the famous windowed tunnel at Mitchell Point (below), another lost treasure along the old highway destroyed by modern freeway construction.

The former Mitchel Point Tunnel of many windows (ODOT)

A new museum at Oneonta could also tell the story of the surviving gems along the old road that are now part of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. These include (below) the spectacular section between Hood River and Mosier, with its iconic twin tunnels, the beautifully crafted stone bridge at Eagle Creek and the graceful arched bridge at Shepperd’s Dell.

1920s scene along the spectacular Mosier Twin Tunnels section of the old highway
Eagle Creek Bridge construction in 1915 (note the group of stonemasons in the viewing alcove on the left)
Shepperd’s Dell Bridge on dedication day in 1916. Samuel Lancaster is riding in backseat of  the first automobile (photo trivia: the big Douglas fir at the far left in this image is still standing and survived the 2017 Eagle Creek fire with some scorching to its massive trunk!)

The story behind the building of the old highway extends beyond the genius of Samual Lancaster and the beauty of the design. The construction, itself, was a monumental undertaking, and the stories of the people who built this road deserve to be told in a lasting way for future generations.

The Lancaster story continues today, as well. Since the 1980s, ODOT, Oregon State Parks and scores of dedicated volunteers have steered the ongoing effort to restore and reconnect the old route, as called for when the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Actwas signed into law in 1986.

Many of the restoration projects are epic achievements in their own right, and deserve to have their story told for future generations to appreciate. All are inspired in some way by Samuel Lancaster’s original vision for a road blended seamlessly into the Gorge landscape in way that allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the scenery. These include handsome new bridges (below) at Warren Creek and McCord Creek, as well as a planned recreation of the Mitchell Pont Tunnel.

The new bridge over Warren Creek on the restored Columbia River Highway State Trail
The new bridge over McCord Creek on the restored Columbia River Highway State Trail

What would it take to create an Oneonta Tunnel Museum dedicated to Samuel Lancaster’s enduring vision? Capital funding, of course, but that will surely come at some point, given the current state of the tunnel after the fire. It would also take a willing non-profit partner and a strong interest from the Forest Service, ODOT and Oregon State Parks to try something different when it comes time to once again restore the tunnel. But the time to start that conversation is now, before the agencies start down the path of simply repeating mistakes from the past decade.

So, for now, this is just an idea. But in the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Samuel Lancaster and his amazing highway, there are two books that should be in every Gorge-lover’s library. And they make for especially good reading in this time in which we’re not able to visit the Gorge! 

The first is Samuel Lancaster’s own book, The Columbia: America’s Great Highway, first published in 1916 by Lancaster, himself. This book is as eccentric and sweeping as Lancaster’s own imagination, and his love for the Gorge comes through in his detailed descriptions of the natural and human history. It’s easy to see how his vision for “designing with nature” grew from his intense interest in the natural landscape of the Gorge.

Lancaster’s original book was reproduced in 2004 by Schiffer as a modern edition, and is still in print. The modern version includes restored, full-color plates from the 1916 edition, as well as additional plates that were added to a 1926 version by Sam Lancaster.

Essential reading for any Gorge lover!

A wonderful bookend to Sam Lancaster’s classic is Building the Columbia River Highway: They Said it Couldn’t Be Done by Oregon author Peg Willis. This exceptional book focuses on the highway, itself, and the collection of characters who came together to make Samuel Lancaster’s bold vision become reality.

Peg’s book also includes a terrific selection of seldom-seen historic photos of the highway during it’s original construction, reproduced with fine quality. In fact, the stories and images in this book would a perfect blueprint for the future Oneonta Tunnel Museum… someday!

_________________

As always, thanks for stopping by and reading through yet another long-form article in our era of tweets and soundbites!

Special thanks to Oregon photographer TJ Thorne, who contributed photos of the Oneonta Gorge summer crowds for this article. Those were just a few snapshots from his iPhone, but please visit TJ’s website to see his amazing fine art nature photography from landscapes across the American West, and please consider supporting his work.

Oregon’s outdoor photographers serve as our eyes on the forest, taking us places we might otherwise never see. They help the rest of us better appreciate and protect our public lands through their dedicated work, but they need our support to continue their work. 

Thanks, TJ!

_________________

Tom Kloster • April 2020

The Waterfalls of “Heaven and Hell”

Mist Falls from Benson State Park

Hidden in plain sight near the west entrance to the Columbia River Gorge are a string of waterfalls that flow from the slopes of Devils Rest and Angels Rest, yet are virtually unknown. At least one of them, Dalton Falls, is named. But nobody seems to agree which waterfall is the real “Dalton”.

A closer look at a 1916 touring map (below) published when the original scenic highway opened in the Gorge shows this area in detail, including a few name changes: “Fort Rock” is now Angels Rest and the domed butte at the top center-right edge is Devils Rest, which forms the headwaters of well-known Wahkeena Falls — then known as “Gordon Falls”.

Multnomah, Mist Falls and Coopey Falls are also shown, and still carry their original names (Mist Falls is one of the few landmarks in the Gorge that still carries a name given by the Lewis and Clark expedition). But tucked between Coopey Falls and Mist Falls on this old map is “Dalton Falls”, shown to be flowing from a prominent canyon on the east flank of Angels Rest (then “Fort Rock”). 

This is where the confusion begins, as the stream in this canyon does have several small cascades, but nothing that could have been easily seen from below, along the old Columbia River Highway, which seems to argue against this falls being the real “Dalton Falls” Meanwhile, one of the lesser-known waterfalls in what I am calling the “Heaven and Hell” section of the Gorge is quite prominent, and to many waterfall admirers is the rightful “Dalton Falls”. 

The photo below is from state aerial surveys taken after the Eagle Creek Fire in 2018, and shows both the familiar Mist Falls and nearby “Dalton Falls”, just to the west. 

Like Mist Falls, Dalton Falls is a two-tiered waterfall with a total height of 350 feet — not as tall as nearby Mist Falls at 520 feet, but quite tall compared to other waterfalls in the Gorge. In most years, Dalton Falls is seasonal, going dry in late summer. This is has been the main argument against this waterfall being the “real” Dalton Falls in the many debates that have unfolded over the years.

A Closer Look at Heaven and Hell

The Eagle Creek Fire and the State of Oregon’s aerial surveys that followed have pulled back the curtain on this area. With much of the once-dense forest canopy burned away, waterfall lovers can finally see just how many waterfalls have been hiding here. The following panorama is stitched together from several of these aerial photos and reveals a labyrinth of deep canyons and cliffs that make up the “Heaven and Hell” Gorge face, between Devils Rest and Angels Rest:

[click here for a very large version of the panorama]

Mist Falls is just beyond the left edge of the panorama and Coopey Falls just beyond the right side of this view. But beginning with Dalton Falls on the east, the composite photo reveals a total of seven unnamed waterfalls that can now be clearly seen in aerial images. For the sake of describing them, I’ve attached informal names to the most notable cascades (which I will explain, for better or worse).

This topographic map shows the same “Heaven and Hell” section of the Gorge face with the location of each of these waterfalls identified. Some are on seasonal streams while some some flow year-round, though even the perennial streams are not mapped in most cases. So, I’ve added them to this map, as well, for clarity:

[click here for a large version of the map]

Given the general location of these waterfalls, here’s a closer look at each one, as  captured in the State of Oregon surveys, starting from the west. The first is Foxglove Falls, located near Angels Rest (below).

“Foxglove Falls” is a working name I attached to this falls several years ago after first hearing it from Angels Rest, then getting a few glimpses of falling water through the trees. The name comes from a trail by the same name, and crossing this stream just upstream from the falls. Waterfall explorers have since scrambled down to Foxglove Falls and found a modest 50-foot cascade among a string of smaller drops as Foxglove Creek bounds down the very steep ravine below Angels Rest. 

The old Gorge touring map suggests that Foxglove Falls might be the illusive “Dalton Falls”, but it’s clearly too small and out of view to have been given this name. 

Moving east along the Gorge face, another very small, unnamed falls forms a seasonal cascade just beyond Foxglove Creek. I’ve simply labeled this as a “falls” on the panorama, as it’s one of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of seasonal falls of this scale that appear throughout the Gorge. 

Moving just a bit further east in the panoramic view, a more impressive falls emerges, with an upper tier of perhaps 80 to 100 feet in height and a lower tier of 150-200 feet. I’ve given this one the working name of “Chalice Falls” (below) for the distinct shape of the bowl carved into the basalt cliffs by the falls, which, combined with the basalt layer below, looks like a chalice to my eye. 

This is a chalice… can you see it in the carved basalt?

The lower tier of “Chalice Falls” is quite prominent, leaping out into space in a cascade that can easily be seen from below. For this reason, this is probably the best alternate candidate as the “real” Dalton Falls. However, this stream appears to be seasonal in most years, and has a smaller drainage than the suspected Dalton Falls to the east, so I’m still convinced that the presumed Dalton Falls is the real thing.

Heading east from Chalice Falls, another small waterfall appears that I’ve simply called “falls” on the panoramic view, before a much more pronounced canyon appears below the northwest slopes of Devils Rest. Most of the forest canopy survived here, so the secrets of this remote canyon aren’t revealed as readily as the rest of the “Heaven and Hell” section, but two large waterfalls are easily seen. I’ve given these the working name of “Lucifer” (with a nod to Devils Rest, upstream), with distinct upper and lower waterfalls (below).

Of the two Lucifers, the upper falls is the most interesting. Though it is partly hidden in the mist in this photo, the main Lucifer Falls (below) has a beautiful, spreading upper tier and horsetail-shaped lower tier that combine for a height of perhaps 150-200 feet.

Lower Lucifer Falls (below) is more of a long cascade, but has a tall upper tier of perhaps 70-100 feet that kicks off as much as 300 feet of continuous cascades. 

The two Lucifer waterfalls are quite hidden from view from below in a deep, forested canyon, so while this appears to be a year-round stream, it doesn’t seem like a likely candidate for as the “real” Dalton Falls, either.

Moving east from Lucifer Falls, the next prominent waterfall in the “Heaven and Hell” section leaps off a very tall basalt cliff in several twisting tiers that could easily combine for a height of 250-300 feet. I’ve given this falls the working name “Cordial Falls” for tall alcove the stream has carved here, resembling a glass cordial to my eye (below). Cordial Falls is quite graceful, fanning out along the basalt layers as it cascades down the Gorge cliffs.

This is a cordial… okay, maybe a bit of a stretch on this one..!

Look closely to the right of Cordial Falls and you can see a sizable landslide, with whole trees scattered in its wake. This event made it all the way down to the Historic Columbia River Highway, temporary blocking the road in the months after the Gorge fire.

Cordial Falls occurs on a stream that might flow year-round, so it’s possible that this stream could be the “real” Dalton Falls. But like the Lucifer waterfalls, it’s also somewhat hidden in its alcove, surrounded by big conifers. It therefore seems like another unlikely candidate for being named in those early days in the Gorge.

Which leaves the next falls to the east as the “real” Dalton Falls (below), and the State of Oregon aerial photos provide terrific detail of this very tall, two-tiered waterfall. The falls can also been seen prominently from below, along the Historic Columbia River Highway and modern I-84.

Just off to the left of the panoramic view is another falls on Dalton Creek. Lower Dalton Falls (below) is easily seen from the Historic Columbia River Highway, dropping from a cliff just west of Mist Creek, near a wide pullout on the highway.

So, there you have it — the “Heaven and Hell” waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge. You might be able to glimpse them during the winter months from I-84 (so long as you’re not doing the driving!), but for the most part these are “hidden” gems… in plain sight!

What’s in a Name?

So, why map obscure waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge? Party, because it’s fun and interesting to make new discoveries in places we think we know so well. But it’s also true that knowing (and naming) these places can help us better care for them and protect our public lands. 

In recent years, a new generation of waterfall enthusiasts has uncovered hundreds of “new” waterfalls in the Gorge and throughout Mount Hood country. Part of this new era of discovery comes from new tools, like detailed satellite images and LIDAR mapping now freely available online. But finding these hidden gems still requires old-fashion exploring on the ground, ensuring that most of these off-trail waterfalls will continue to be known first-hand to just a few.

Off-trail waterfalls like these are being discovered throughout Mount Hood country by a new generation of waterfall explorers, helping us better understand what is at stake for our unprotected public lands

Scores of these “new” waterfalls are in places like the Clackamas River basin, where the forest is still recovering from brutal logging and road construction that swept through Mount Hood country from the 1950s through the early 1990s. Had we known these waterfalls (and so many other magical places) existed when industrial logging was underway on our public lands, would we have tolerated the massive clear cuts and logging roads that marred these beautiful places? Perhaps. 

But it’s also possible that better public understanding of what was at stake might have slowed the bulldozers and chainsaws long enough to spare just a few of these places. These threats still exist for much of Mount Hood country, so long live the modern era of exploration and true appreciation for what is at stake!

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The author practicing responsible social distancing in the Gorge on March 15, before our State and Federal lands were closed to recreation by the COVID-19 pandemic

Postscript on COVID-19 from the author: we’ve all heard the words “unprecedented” and “challenging” too many times over the past few weeks, though both words do aptly describe our lives under a global pandemic. And with our public lands closed and Oregonians ordered to stay at home, you’ll be seeing few more articles on this blog. 

However, I don’t plan to tie blog themes to the global health crisis in any way, as I’m quietly honestly enjoying the opportunity to focus on something other than the crisis. Hopefully that won’t seem disrespectful or insensitive to readers. That is certainly not my intent. Instead, I hope the blog can provide a temporary distraction from the truly “unprecedented and challenging” situation that we’re all struggling through, something I think we can all use.

As always, thanks for taking the time to stop by, and of course, stay safe!

Tom Kloster | March 2020

Proposal: Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail (Part 1 of 2)

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1920s traveler admiring the view from Laurel Hill on the brand new Mount Hood Loop Highway

The year is 2035, and a family of tourists is just arriving at a local bed and breakfast in the village of Brightwood, Oregon, along the old Mount Hood Loop highway. They have just traveled 45 miles from Portland International Airport to Brightwood on the first of a six-day, world-class cycling tour of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.

On the first day of their tour they followed quiet country roads through the beautiful farms and picturesque pastures of the lower Sandy River Valley. Mount Hood floated on the horizon for much of their ride, hinting at the sights to come. After a night in Brightwood, the family will continue on to the village of Rhododendron, where the newly completed Historic Mount Hood Loop (HMHL) State Trail begins a spectacular tour of some of Oregon’s finest scenery.

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Selling huckleberries at the just-opened Little Zigzag Bridge on the loop highway in the 1920s

Inspired by the recently completed Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, this new trail follows once forgotten or abandoned segments of the historic Mount Hood Loop highway, with new connecting segments completing the route through mossy rainforests, alpine meadows and along mountain streams. Most of the new trail is far from the traffic, noise and hazards of the modern highway corridor, taking visitors back in time and pace of what it was like to experience the original loop highway more than a century ago.

A few miles up the new route, at the Little Zigzag River, the family parks their bikes for a short hike to a shady waterfall. Next, they will climb Laurel Hill along restored sections of the original highway, where route passes the nearly 200-year old ruts from covered wagons on the Oregon Trail that can still be seen. Their next stop is in Government Camp for lunch, with a visit to the Mount Hood Cultural Center and Museum.

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Mount Hood Loop Highway construction in the early 1920s at the Little Zigzag Bridge

From Government Camp, their tour descends past Summit Meadows to iconic Trillium Lake, then heads east to the White River and Hood River Meadows. At Sherwood Campground they reach the east end of the new HMHL State Trail, and park their bicycles for the night. Here, they will stay in one of the well-stocked Forest Service yurts that overlook the East Fork Hood River. After a light dinner, the family hikes the easy trail to nearby Tamanawas Falls to cap a specular day on the mountain.

On their third day, the family begins a scenic descent along the Mount Hood Loop into the orchards of the Hood River Valley, stopping in the village of Parkdale for lunch and at roadside fruit stands along the way. They arrive in the town of Hood River by late afternoon, with plenty of time to explore the town’s galleries, shops and restaurants before checking in to the historic Hood River Hotel for the third night of their tour. 

The once (and future!) tunnel with windows at Mitchell Point

From Hood River, the family spends their fourth day on the spectacular, world-famous HCRH State Trail, traveling west through the newly restored Mitchell Point Tunnel and a stop at the short, new viewpoint hike to Viento Bluffs. A bicycle-friendly hotel in Cascade Locks serves as their base for a longer, late afternoon hike along the scenic Pacific Crest Trail.

On the fifth day of their circuit, the family continues their tour on the HCRH State Trail from Cascade Locks to the west trailhead at Ainsworth State Park, where they follow the Historic Columbia River Highway west to Multnomah Falls for lunch and another short hike to the iconic Benson Bridge. Finally, they make the climb past Crown Point and then down to their final night at a Troutdale bed and breakfast, located along the Sandy River. 

From Troutdale, the family will return to PDX and a flight home after their memorable six-day, 155-mile journey along the old Mount Hood Loop — no car required!

________________

In this two-part article, we’ll explore some long-forgotten sections of the old Mount Hood Loop highway, and the potential for bringing them back to life in the same way that abandoned sections of the old Columbia River Highway have been reclaimed. But does restoring the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway as a state trail make sense?

Yes, if you consider that bicycle tourism contributes $83 billion annually to U.S. economy, according to a 2017 study by the Outdoor Industry Association. Or that bicycle tourism in Oregon brings more than $400 million to our state economy, according to a 2012 study by Travel Oregon. And studies also show that touring cyclists tend to be older, wealthier and spend more when they travel, making them a coveted market in tourism.

Bicycle touring on Grand Canyon’s car-free South Rim (NPS)

Most importantly, these tourists don’t speed home after a day on the mountain to spend their money back in Portland. Instead, they invest in the local tourism economy along their multi-day tours, supporting the local lodging, restaurants, guides, museums and galleries that rely on tourist dollars to survive.

This article opened with a story about a future family traveling the 155-mile Mount Hood Loop over six days, but more ambitious riders could easily complete the loop in two or three days. Visitors with more time could easily spend a week or more exploring side trails and the towns along the loop, including a visit to historic Timberline Lodge.

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Bicycle touring options from bold to leisurely would be possible on the restored Mount Hood Loop.

The nearly completed HCRH State Trail has also shown that local cyclists and walkers use the route in day-segments, taking advantage of the many trailheads along the way to explore the trail in sections. Some of these day-use visitors are also looking for bike-and-hike adventures on foot trails that connect to the HCRH State Trail. A new HMHL State Trail could offer the same bike-and-hike opportunities, as well as winter skiing and snowshoeing.

The National Park Service is leading the way among our federal land agencies in both promoting bicycle tourism and in managing new forms of cycling — notably, e-bikes (electric bikes), which are now permitted in several parks where motorized travel is otherwise prohibited. Why permit e-bikes? Partly because of the explosive growth in e-bikes, but also because e-bikes allow more people to experience cycling. They have zero emissions and are nearly as quiet as non-electric bikes, so they are just as compatible in natural settings as conventional bikes. Because e-bikes are opening the sport of cycling to a much wider audience, they have only added to the demand for safe, scenic places to ride, and help make the case to go big in how we plan for trails in Oregon.

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Touring on the Historic Columbia River Highway near Rowena Crest (Travel Oregon)

While Oregon has been at the forefront of promoting bicycle tourism, other states with the kind of scenery that draws national and international tourism are catching on, too. Montana now sees a half-million touring cyclists visit their state each year, and other states like Colorado and Vermont are also seeing the benefits of bicycle tourism to their small towns and rural economies.

Building on our Success in the Gorge

In 1986, a decades-long effort to restore abandoned sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway as a recreation trail began with this simple passage in the legislation that created the Columbia River National Scenic Area:

16 U.S.C. 544j Section 12. Old Columbia River Highway: The Oregon Department of Transportation shall, in consultation with the Secretary and the Commission, the State of Oregon and the counties and cities in which the Old Columbia River Highway is located, prepare a program and undertake efforts to preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity of the remaining segments of the Old Columbia River Highway for public use as a Historic Road, including recreation trails to connect intact and usable segments.

This revolutionary provision recognized both the intrinsic value of preserving and celebrating the historic highway and the exponential growth in demand for recreation opportunities in our growing region. Both principles still apply today as the original vision for creating the HCRH State Trail nears completion. 

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ODOT has gradually rebuilt a new trail in the style of Samuel Lancaster’s original design where modern freeway construction destroyed the historic Columbia River Scenic Highway.

With our proven success in saving and restoring the old highway in the Gorge, it’s the right time to look ahead toward a new vision of completing the larger Mount Hood Loop, as it once existed. Like the Columbia River Highway, the surviving historic highway segments on Mount Hood are at serious risk of being lost forever. Neither ODOT nor the Forest Service have any plans to “preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity” of this remaining piece of the old Mount Hood Loop.

The Vision: Restoring the Mount Hood Loop Experience

Much of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway was abandoned or bypassed in the late 1950s, when the modern, “straightened” route we know today was constructed. 

Over the decades much of the “modern” road was incrementally widened from the original two lanes in the 1960s to four lanes in over the past two decades making it much more of a “freeway” than a “scenic highway”. Most recently, ODOT spent tens of millions to make our “scenic” highway even wider at Laurel Hill, near Government Camp, in order to add lanes and a freeway-style concrete median. 

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No shortage of funding, here… ODOT just spent $37 million blasting away more of Laurel Hill in order to widen Highway 26 and add a freeway-style concrete median.

Today, drivers brave enough to pull off at the few pullouts that remain on US 26 are overwhelmed by the noise of speeding traffic and trucks. Few cyclists even consider making this scary trip, which means fewer touring cyclists to support the mountain economy.

The good news? Half-hidden under 60 years of moss and ferns, a series of historic bridges, stone fountains and other historic features still survive from the original loop highway, with spectacular roadside scenery that can’t be matched by the modern road. These historic features are mostly neglected, if not outright abandoned, and are waiting for a new vision to bring them back to life.

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The old Little Zigzag Bridge survives under a century of moss. The huckleberry pickers pictured in the second photo in this article were standing just to the left of this view.

The template for saving these historic remnants and repurposing them to become part of a new recreation route would have seemed farfetched thirty years ago. Today, our newly restored HCRH State Trail not only serves as a perfect model for how to fund, design and build such a facility, it also reminds us that the Gorge trail is part of the larger vision, with the two trails connecting to trace the entire Mount Hood Loop of the 1920s.

Three Trail Sections

It turns out the entire route of the proposed HMHL State Trail falls along the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway corridor, a special highway designation extending from Troutdale to Hood River.

Description: Macintosh HD:Users:Tom:Desktop:19xxxx Mount Hood Loop Trail:ScenicByways.jpg

This is very good news as a starting point for restoring and reconnecting the old highway as part of the Mount Hood Loop. From a bureaucracy perspective, it means the route is already designated in a way that allows ODOT to spend money in the corridor on projects that make it safer and more scenic for visitors using any mode of travel. But if you read the scenic byway description, it’s pretty clear that bicycles are an afterthought. It doesn’t have to be that way.

For the purpose of this proposal, the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway route is the foundation for the trail concept that would restore and reconnect surviving historic sections of the original highway. Like the Historic Columbia River Highway corridor, the idea is to restore bypassed sections of the original highway to reconnect the other, surviving sections as a continuous route. 

This combination of existing and restored routes is organized into three sections that generally follow the existing Mount Hood National Scenic Byway corridor, beginning in Troutdale. The west and east sections are shared roads that mostly need better signage, while the middle, historic section would be a mix of shared roads and paved trails that follow restored highway segments connected by new trail segments. 

Here’s a description of each of the three segments of the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway, reimagined:

West Section – Troutdale to Rhododendron: The west leg of the route would follow much of the existing scenic byway from Troutdale to Sandy, traveling through the sprawling nurseries and berry fields of East Multnomah County. The current scenic byway route joins heavily traveled US 26 in Sandy, following the highway all the way to Mount Hood. It’s a noisy and dangerous route for anyone, but especially cyclists. Therefore, instead of joining US 26 there, the reimagined route would head in a different direction.

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The terrifying ride along Mount Hood 26 makes this section of the Mount Hood Scenic Byway anything but scenic for cyclists (photo: Married with Bikes blog)

From Sandy, the new Mount Hood National Scenic Byway route would turn east to follow historic Marmot Road and Barlow Trail Road to the mountain community of Zigzag. From there, a short section of old highway along the Faubion Loop and a very short, protected bike path along US 26 would complete the connection to the Rhododendron community. 

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: West Section

This quiet, safer and more scenic alternative route is shown in dashed red on the above map. Along the way, visitors would travel through picturesque farmland with Mount Hood views and the forest communities of Marmot, Brightwood, Zigzag and Rhododendron. Several riverside parks and the Sandy Ridge mountain bike park are also located along this part of the route.

Design elements along this 37-mile segment would build on existing scenic byway guidelines, with improved way-finding and interpretive signs that would help cyclists and drivers more easily follow the loop and locate lodging and other services.

Historic Highway Section – Rhododendron to Sherwood Camp:This section is the main focus of the proposed Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail and extends from Rhododendron to Sherwood Campground.This section includes several miles of bypassed and abandoned highway that have the potential to become a spectacular, world-class cycling experience. Today, many of these historic features are at risk, with no plans by ODOT or the Forest Service to protect them.

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The Forest Service destroyed the original paved surface a half-mile section of the historic loop highway in 2012 for no particular reason. Fortunately, the roadbed was left intact.
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Fans of the surviving sections of the old highway are out there! This sign was posted where the Forest Service destroyed the historic highway surface in the previous photo (Photo: Guy Meacham)

From Rhododendron, the section of the Mount Hood Loop route would follow a series of connecting multi-use trails that would combine with still-operating segments and long-abandoned secxtions of the old highway for the next 28 miles, traversing some of the most scenic places along the Mount Hood loop, all the while avoiding busy US 26.

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: Historic Section

Along the way, the proposed route would pass several historic bridges, campgrounds, historic Government Camp and traces of the original Barlow Road that formed the final stretch of the Oregon Trail. There are many possible side trips along this historic section of the proposed loop, including the historic Timberline Lodge and several trailheads with bike-and-hike opportunities.

East Section – Sherwood Camp to Hood River: From the Sherwood Campground, the remaining 27 miles of the restoredMount Hood Loop would follow OR 35, a much less busy, two-lane highway with room for a shoulder bikeway. This section of the loop route would follow the same alignment as the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway, traversing some of Oregon’s most beautiful landscapes in the orchards and forests of the Hood River Valley.

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: East Section

The east section ends at the town of Hood River, which lies at the mid-point of the HCRH State Trail. The 51-mile return route to Troutdale begins here, and traverses the exceptional scenery of the western Columbia River Gorge, including Multnomah Falls and Crown Point.

Through some miracle, this original fountain that once graced the old highway survives nearly a century later at Sherwood Camp, just a few feet from the modern highway. This is just one of many historic traces of the old route that have survived and call out for a new vision to protect and restore them.

There is no shortage of scenery along the Mount Hood Loop, but many visitors who come today are surprised and disappointed by the lack of pullouts, interpretive signs and heavy highway and winter ski resort traffic that makes it all but impossible to enjoy the modern highway. 

Can we reimagine the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway to provide a better alternative to the rush of the modern highways by restoring the surviving segments of the historic highway? Our experience in the Gorge says yes, and the old Mount Hood Loop could join the Gorge as a world-class touring destination. But what would it take to get there?

________________

Next up in Part 2: how we get there, including a virtual tour the surviving sections of the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway and the opportunities for restoring this exceptionally scenic old road as a state trail.

After the Fire: A Closer Look (Part 1 of 2)

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Burned sign along Gorge Trail 400 in January (Tom Kloster)

 State Park and Forest Service rangers and local trail volunteers have been busy this winter assessing the impact of the Eagle Creek Fire. A few photos have been released from their trips into the still-closed burn zone, showing extensive damage to many of our favorite Gorge trails. The early glimpses are sobering and much work clearly will be needed to begin reopening trails to the public. More importantly, they gave us the first sense of just how long it will take for the Gorge to recover — and it’s going to take awhile.

In early December, a far more comprehensive set of oblique aerial photos was captured by the State of Oregon as part of assessing the risks for landslides and flooding from the bare Gorge slopes. These amazing photos provide the first detailed look at how our most treasured places in the Gorge fared after the fire. This article features some of the most stunning of these startling images.

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Weisendanger Falls and Multnomah Creek in better days (Tom Kloster)

My first reaction while first poring over the photos was shock and sadness. Like many of you, the Gorge was (and is) my second home, and it’s still hard to accept that the magnificent green Eden I grew up exploring has been destroyed. I’ll always long for the Gorge as it existing before the fire, even as I watch and learn from the miracle of forest recovery that will unfold in coming years. This is a paradox that we’ll all need to accept.

But moving forward, we also need to refocus our love for the Gorge of memories on the urgent work that lies ahead, not only to restore what was lost, but also set a new direction for how this amazing place can be sustainably managed in perpetuity. We owe it to future generations who will only know the old Gorge from our photos to never allow a man-made catastrophe like the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 be repeated. The lesson from the fire is not just that it was human-caused, but that the fire and its severity resulted from our own unwillingness to set limits on how we manage and use the Gorge. This is our challenge moving forward.

____________________

This article is the first of a two-part series that features the best of the amazing new aerial photos. You can explore a large version of each photo in great detail by clicking on the “large view” link, which will open a 2000×1300 pixel version in a new window or tab. I’ve also enlarged some of the most fascinating highlights from these photos for the article.

Shepperd’s Dell to Multnomah Creek

The first half of the tour covers the west portion of the Eagle Creek Burn, beginning at Shepperd’s Dell, and moving east to the Ainsworth State Park area.

This photo is a birds-eye view looking down at the tiered waterfalls of Young Creek, in Shepperds Dell, and the iconic Historic Columbia River Highway bridge that spans the dell:

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Aerial view of Shepperd’s Dell (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Like so many areas within the burn, it sometimes seems like the fire sought out our most treasured places. In this case, the fire wrapped around Shepperd’s Dell, proper, killing trees on top of the domed rock formation at the east (left) end known as Bishop’s Cap and on the cliffs directly above Shepperd’s Dell.

In contrast, the area to the west of Young Creek and Shepperd’s Dell experienced a beneficial burn, with the understory cleared but many of the large conifers surviving:

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Shepperd’s Dell, including the upper tier of the falls (State of Oregon)

This view also reveals the top tier of the four-step waterfall that cascades through the Dell. Though part if the second tier can be seen from the wayside, the tall upper tier is completely hidden by walls of basalt from below.

The historic bridge at Shepperd’s Dell was unharmed by the fire, but some of the stone walls along the west approach were damaged by falling trees, as shown in this view:

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Aerial view of Shepperd’s Dell (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The historic footpath that descends to the lower tier of waterfalls in Shepperd’s Dill is not significantly damaged, though it is vulnerable to falling rock and debris from the burned cliffs, above. Rangers have therefore closed this trail for safety reasons, for now.

This close-up view (below) shows the picturesque stand of Oregon white oak growing on a prominent basalt outcrop next to Shepperd’s Dell bridge. These trees were scorched by the fire, but still hold their browned foliage, so it’s unclear if these will survive. We’ll know if they leaf out this spring.

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Historic Shepperd’s Dell bridge (State of Oregon)

Next up, a photo that provides a close look at the popular Angels Rest trail. This view shows the north side, where the switchbacks along the upper section of the trail are clearly visible:

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Aerial view of Angels Rest (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This part of Angels Rest burned in the 1991 Multnomah Falls Fire, and was still recovering last year when the Eagle Creek Fire swept through. A comparison of how these burns overlapped on Angels Rest is included in this earlier article on the fire.

One interesting lesson from the fire is how living trees don’t really “burn” thanks to their water content, even if a tree is killed by the heat. Instead, the wood in killed trees usually survives fully intact, becoming bleached snags as burned park peels off in the year or two following the fire. Because the unburned wood is so sound, snags from fires as far back as the early 1900s are still standing in many places around the Cascades.

Yet, many of the dried-out, bleached snags from the 1991 Gorge fire were burned to nothing but stumps of charcoal. This was true throughout the burn, where dead trees and old snags from previous fires were reduced to ashes in places while nearby living trees often survived the fire with only a blackened trunk.

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Detailed view of the Angels Rest Trail (State of Oregon)

This photo shows Angels Rest from the west, also with the upper switchbacks along the trail leading to the summit:

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Aerial view of Angels Rest (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

While the north side of Angels Rest burned hot enough to char the landscape down to blackened soil, the west side fire seems to have been less intense, with much of the understory appearing to survive, and many of the old snags from the 1991 burned black, but still standing along the lower edge of this close-up view (below).

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Detailed view of Angels Rest Trail (State of Oregon)

Moving east, the next photo shows the fire’s impact on Wahkeena Falls, among the more hallowed spots in the Gorge. While the burn affected slopes on both sides of the falls, much of the forest here survived the flames.

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Aerial view of Wahkeena Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look shows Lemmon’s Point (the overlook east of the falls) to have burned, along with the steep cliffs to the west of the falls. Other photos in the set show the Wahkeena Trail above the falls to be heavily affected by the fire, with a lot of debris and fallen trees covering this iconic trail.

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Detailed view of Wahkeena Falls (State of Oregon)

News coverage has provided many views of Multnomah Falls since the fire began, but the new set of aerial views gives a much better look at the impact of the fire on the area. Like Wahkeena Falls, the fire here raged around the falls but left many of the big trees scorched, but alive.

As shown in this photo, the most heavily impacted area near the falls is along the cliffs east of Multnomah Creek, where the Larch Mountain Trail begins its many switchbacks to the top of the falls, and on the steep slopes directly above the falls:

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Aerial view of Multnomah Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This close-up view shows the low bluff to left of the falls to have been more significantly impacted. The Larch Mountain trail passes through this section of burned forest:

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Close-up view of fire damage below Multnomah Falls (State of Oregon)

This photo shows a bit more of the west side of the falls and a peek into the Multnomah Creek canyon, above Multnomah Falls:

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Aerial view of Multnomah Falls and lodge (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo (below) shows burned trees along Multnomah Creek, just above the falls, and along the ridge to the east of the falls that marks the high point for hikers following the Larch Mountain Trail to the viewpoint at the top of the falls. The Forest Service reports that the viewing platform there was undamaged by the fire, though the spur trail to the viewpoint has been impacted by falling debris.

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Close-up view of the canyon just above Multnomah Falls (State of Oregon)

This photo from just east of Multnomah Falls (below) provides a better look at the slopes where the Larch Mountain Trail scales the Gorge wall. Here, a mosaic burn has left many trees standing, which bodes well for this steep slope holding together as the recovery begins, but will also mean years of falling debris from killed trees and loose slopes for trail crews to clear.

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Aerial view of the east side of Multnomah Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This close-up look at the photo reveals the upper switchbacks of the Larch Mountain Trail as it approaches the ridge crest:

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Close-up view of the Larch Mountain Trail where it climbs to the top of the falls (State of Oregon)

One of the challenges here will be keeping hikers on the trail, as switchback cutting has been a perennial problem in the Gorge, and especially along this very popular route. The fire provides an opportunity to better educate visitors about the damage that cutting trails can cause, but will require close coordination among state and federal land managers, and help from trail advocates.

This photo (below) provides a view down Multnomah Creek canyon from (roughly) above the Wahkeena Trail junction, and gives a good sense of how the forests here fared. Though heavily burned, much of the burn pattern is still a mosaic pattern. If the living trees in this photo survive their first summer of drought stress after the fire, they should recover quickly and help the surrounding forest regenerate.

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Aerial view of Multnomah Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This closer look at the photo (below) gives an excellent sense of how fire affects forests in a mosaic burn. While some trees were killed outright by the heat of the fire, others survived with some or all of their living canopy intact.

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Close-up view of the burn along Multnomah Creek (State of Oregon)

When fires are hot enough to explode into tree canopies, fire fighters call this “crowning”, and it almost always means the tree will die. Less heat means that the cambium layer can survive under thick-barked older trees, and fires that don’t rage into the crowns of trees allow foliage to survive, as well.

If the fire burns low to the ground and with less heat, trees like Douglas fir have evolved to have thick, fire-resistant bark that can survive this stress. Even in a relatively small area, as shown in the above photo, all of these fire behaviors can play out leaving a mosaic of living and killed trees. The mosaic effect, in turn, not only allows for a faster rebound of the burned forest and less erosion, but also provides a more diverse ecosystem that benefits the most plant and animal species. Before our intervention over the past century of fire suppression, mosaics from fire were the normal state of our forests.

This is the crux of why prescribed burning — the practice of purposely setting forest fires in a controlled manner to reduce fuels and rejuvenate the understory — is the most ecologically sound path forward for the Gorge. Prescribed fires are usually set in late fall, when the approaching rainy guarantees a short burn and cooler weather encourages fires that are less hot and burn closer to the ground.

For the next photo (below), you’ll need to adopt the perspective of a dive-bombing bird, as this is a near-vertical view of Weisendanger Falls (the splash pool is at the bottom of the photo) on Multnomah Creek (which flows up in this view). This is the first big waterfall above Multnomah Falls, and though a few trees around the falls were scorched, the forest canopy here mostly survived.

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Aerial view of Weisendanger Falls on Multnomah Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo (below) shows the Larch Mountain Trail switchbacks that climb above the creek at Weisendanger Falls. Like the switchbacks on lower parts of the trail, this area will require some diligence to keep hikers cutting the switchbacks in the absence of an understory that was burned off in the fire.

Education will be key, as there are simply too many burned switchbacks throughout the Eagle Creek Burn to protect with barriers or other physical means, and these fragile slopes will only recover if they’re left undisturbed.

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Close-up view of the trail below Weisendanger Falls (State of Oregon)

To give a sense of what happened here, this is what Weisendanger Falls looked like from the first switchback along this section of trail a few years ago, before the fire. The good news is that many of the tall conifers here survived the fire, though the lush understory in this old view will take many years to recover.

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Stately Weisdanger Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

Here’s another birds-eye photo of Multnomah Creek, just upstream from the previous image. This view shows Ecola Falls at the center, the third and final large waterfall on Multnomah Creek, with the creek flowing to the left in this view:

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Aerial View of Ecola Falls on Multnomah Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at the photo (below) shows the brink of Ecola Falls more clearly (on the left side of the image), as well as the burned-off cliffs at the top of the photo, above the falls. What shows up here as a brown slope is actually a basalt wall that was once covered in green moss and ferns — you can see a surviving sliver of moss clinging to a vertical section of the cliff in the upper left corner of the photo.

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Close-up of the top of Ecola Falls (State of Oregon)

While it won’t happen overnight, the “re-mossing” of burned cliffs and talus slopes in the Gorge will occur in the relative near term of the next decade or so. How do we know this? From recent rock falls and slides in the Gorge, where raw surfaces have been “re-greened” after just a few years of exposure to the cool, wet rainforest environment.

What did Ecola Falls look like before the fire? Most never saw the falls from stream level, as the Larch Mountain Trail passed above the brink of the falls atop a high cliff. But a steep descent into the canyon provided this stunning view for waterfall chasers:

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Beautiful Ecola Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

The understory burned away here, too, though many of the large conifers around Ecola Falls survived. Trees killed by the Eagle Creek fire will eventually drop into Multnomah Creek and in the future, and for many decades to come, we will see log piles accumulate below the major waterfalls.

While this may take some getting used to, log piles were a normal part of stream ecology before fire suppression and logging. This scene along a wild section of Mount Hood’s Salmon River is typical of what our waterfalls once looked like:

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Log-filled Frustration Falls on the Salmon River in the early 1960s (USFS)

Beyond aesthetics, in recent years stream ecologists have learned that logs and woody debris in streams are an essential ingredient to healthy fish habitat. So in this way, we’re simply returning to the way things have always been in the Gorge, and the coming wave of logs is only new to our eyes.

This photo is from below Larch Mountain, looking down Multnomah Creek toward Multnomah Basin, in the distance. Large stands of old-growth forest dodged the fire here:

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Aerial view of upper Multnomah Basin (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo (below) shows the Larch Mountain Trail where it traverses a large talus slope along Multnomah Creek:

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Close-up of the Larch Mountain Trail and Multnomah Basin

In many areas, the fire seems to have skipped over talus slopes like this, hopefully allowing the unique, low elevation population of Pikas that live in these areas of the Columbia Gorge to survive the burn. We’ll know soon enough, as the Gorge Pikas are active year-round, and their distinctive “beep” is unmistakable for passing hikers.

What did upper Multnomah Creek look like before the fire? Here’s a view of the big conifers that lined much of the creek before the burn:

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Upper Multnomah Creek before the fire (Tom Kloster)

In many areas, these trees seem to have survived, though many were lost to the fire. We’ll know the full impact of the fire in the next year or two, after trees that survived the burn have faced their first summer drought and subsequent winter season.

Oneonta Creek to Ainsworth State Park

The following series of images are especially tough to look at. For many, Oneonta Creek is (or was) second only to Eagle Creek for its spectacular waterfalls, famous slot gorge and — until now — magnificent forests. All of this has changed.

As the following photos show in jarring detail, the forests of the lower Oneonta Creek canyon were almost completely destroyed by the fire, with only a few scattered trees surviving. Worse, many of these surviving trees are still fire damaged and likely to die under the added stress of drought next summer.

This photo (below) looks up the canyon from the mouth of Oneonta Gorge, and tells the hard story: a few trees on the west slope of the gorge survived, but the canyon beyond is completely burned. Scorched Oneonta Falls can be seen at the head of mile-long Oneonta Gorge in this view:

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Aerial view of the devastation at Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at Oneonta Gorge (below) shows the devastation more clearly. One of the obvious impacts of the fire is that the infamous logjam at the lower entrance to the gorge is about to get a LOT bigger, as burned logs begin to roll into Oneonta Creek by the hundreds over coming decades.

While the logs will benefit the ecological health of the creek, the logjam in Oneonta Gorge could prove catastrophic to the historic highway bridges downstream, as described in this earlier article on the blog. The fire may finally spur some sort of intervention by ODOT and the Forest Service to remove the logjam.

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Close-up of Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

The aftermath of the fire also provides the Forest Service with an opportunity to finally close Oneonta Gorge to swarms of teenage waders who overwhelm this place each summer. It’s time give this precious place a much needed rest from the crush of people who have “discovered” it in recent years, and in the long-term, severely restrict access with an enforced permit system.

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The summer conga line of kids waiting to cross the logjam at Oneonta Gorge (photo: John Speth)

The fire also burned away the wood lining of the recently restored Historic Highway tunnel at Oneonta Bluff, on the left in the above photo, and shown in the photo below. This is another opportunity for a reboot of this historic feature.

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Oneonta waders had already destroyed the historic tunnel before it burned in last year’s fire (Tom Kloster)

ODOT should absolutely rebuild the historic wood lining, but as thousands of young people proved by thoughtlessly carving their names and messages into the soft cedar surface, the public can’t be trusted with uncontrolled access to this restored treasure.

If it is rebuilt, the tunnel must be securely gated, and only opened on weekends when visitors can be monitored by agency staff or volunteer. This is one of many examples where we have a unique opportunity to set limits on how we use the Gorge, and ensure we pass it along to future generations in better shape than what we inherited.

This photo of Oneonta Bluff, taken above the tunnel and east of Oneonta Gorge, shows a few interesting details on the behavior of the fire:

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Aerial view of Oneonta Bluff (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This close-up view (below) from the left side of the photo shows how the fire burned away a segment of the cliff face, while leaving ferns, moss and a few trees clinging to an untouched section of cliff, just feet away. The understory at the top of the cliff was completely burned, but a stand of Douglas fir survived to help begin the recovery here. The Horsetail Creek trail passes through this stand of trees on Oneonta Bluff.

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Close-up of burn patterns on Oneonta Bluff (State of Oregon)

A closer look at the burned crest of the bluff (below) shows trees cut several feet above the ground. These trees were removed after the fire because of their falling hazard to the highway below, not as part of the fire fighting effort:

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Logged trees above the historic highway on Oneonta Bluff (State of Oregon)

This photo of the entrance to Oneonta Gorge (below) shows the cliff walls inside the gorge green and intact — an encouraging sign that the rare plant and animal species that live here may have survived the burn.

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Aerial view of the logjam in Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo (below) shows the logjam at the entrance to Oenonta Gorge already growing with new logs released by the fire:

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Close-up view of the logjam in Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

This close-up view (below) shows good detail of trees that survived the fire on the cliffs above Oneonta Gorge, despite having their lower trunks burned black in the blaze:

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Trees that survived the flames on the cliffs above Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

Moving upstream, this photo (below) provides startling detail of the Oneonta Trail, much of it heavily impacted by the fire. This photo also shows the lower Oneonta footbridge, located just above Oneonta Falls where it drops into the narrow slot of Oneonta Gorge:

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Aerial view of the devastation above Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

Sadly, the forest was completely killed in this idyllic spot. In this close-up view of the photo (below), Oneonta Bridge Falls, the small cascade above the bridge, can be seen with the first of what will be many more logs filling this stream in decades to come. And while the lower Oneonta footbridge seems to have survived the fire intact, the steep, terraced switchbacks climbing the canyon east of the bridge appear to be heavily impacted by erosion that followed the fire.

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Close-up of the fire damage above Oneonta Gorge (State of Oregon)

What did this spot look like before? This is the verdant scene that existed here until last September, as viewed from the footbridge looking downstream at the brink of Oneonta Falls where drops into the narrow gorge, beyond:

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Looking over the top of Oneonta Falls and into Oneonta Gorge before the fire (Tom Kloster)

How soon will this area recover? The forests will take decades to return to Oneonta canyon, but the understory will bounce back much more quickly. In this close-up view from the aerial photos, ferns and moss on the steepest walls of the canyon near the lower Oneonta Bridge survived the fire, and will help fuel the recovery here:

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Close-up of the lower Oneonta footbridge (State of Oregon)

This close-up view (below) of the terraced switchbacks to the east of the lower Oneonta footbridge shows Licorice ferns surviving along the vertical stone walls, marking the otherwise buried trail:

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Close-up of the steep switchbacks on the east side of the bridge (State of Oregon)

Another surprising lesson from the fire is the important role of the ubiquitous Licorice fern and the moss carpets they inhabit in holding loose rock and talus slopes together in the Gorge. These tiny plants are the living glue that keep the Gorge slopes intact. Fortunately, these will also be among the first plants to return to burned areas.

This photo (below) captures Oneonta canyon from Oneonta Bridge Falls (at the bottom, marked by a log lying across the falls) to little-known Middle Oneonta Falls, in the huge basalt cavern at the top of the photo. The terraced switchbacks above the lower Oneonta footbridge can also be seen in the lower left corner of this view:

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Aerial view of devastated Oneonta Creek canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This closer view (below) gives a good sense of what we can expect to see over the next few years throughout the burn zone: deep erosion where burned trees and an absence of understory vegetation leaves steep slopes exposed. This view shows a small landslide that has already toppled several burned trees into the canyon:

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Close-up view of a landslides triggered by the fire (State of Oregon)

Waterfall explorers have long visited beautiful Middle Oneonta Falls and its deep cave by following a steep, sketchy boot path on the west side of the canyon. In recent years, a major landslide not only took out the Oneonta Trail, proper, but also this little-known boot path, completely blocking the descent to the middle falls.

This photo of Oneonta canyon (below) shows what waterfall lovers have dreamed of for years: a clear route for a future trail along the east bank of the creek to Middle Oneonta Falls. While the fire has impacted the forest here for generations to come, it also brings an opportunity to enhance the trail network as part of the restoration with a once-in-a-century view of the landscape laid bare.

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Aerial view of little-known Middle Oneonta Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

These close-up views (below) from the previous photo show Middle Oneonta Falls in fine detail. The forest and understory here were completely destroyed by the fire:

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Middle Oneonta Falls (State of Oregon)

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Middle Oneonta Falls and its huge cave (State of Oregon)

What did Middle Oneonta Falls look like before the fire? It was among the most idyllic spots in the Gorge, though rarely seen. Here’s a photo from better days, when it was a sylvan paradise:

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Beautiful Middle Oneonta Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

The grove of Douglas fir on the left side of this image were 50-70 years old before the fire destroyed them, so while I won’t live to see this scene restored, many in today’s Millennial generation will. It’s difficult to confront the loss, but these images from before the fire will be important for younger generations as a visual reminder of what coming the Gorge restoration is working toward.

The following is perhaps the most difficult to view of the new aerial photos of Oneonta canyon. This view shows Triple Falls, the best-known scenic highlight of the Oneonta Trail and one of the most photographed, picturesque scenes anywhere. The fire killed the entire forest and completely erased the understory here:

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Aerial view of the devastation at Triple Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

This closer look at the photo (below) shows the braided spur trails leading to the exposed viewpoint opposite the falls. The fire burned hot here, rolling into the crowns of many trees, as indicated by blackened bark extending to the tops of tree trunks:

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Close-up view of Triple Falls and the viewpoint trail (State of Oregon)

What did Triple Falls look like before the fire? It was one of the most visited and iconic scenes in the Gorge. Only today’s younger Millennials will see anything like this again in their lifetimes:

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The iconic scene at Triple Falls before the fire (Tom Kloster)

The upper Oneonta footbridge at Triple Falls was also heavily damaged by the fire, and may be completely compromised. As this close-up view (below) shows, the decking and railings are completely burned away, and the log span may also be burned beyond repair:

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Burned-out upper footbridge above Triple Falls (State of Oregon)

The burned-away understory (below) also reveals lost trail segments at the Triple Falls viewpoint. A close look at this image shows an upper, abandoned trail alignment (complete with stone wall) that likely dates back to the Civilian Conservation Corps, but had been lost in the undergrowth. The modern route is the most prominent trail in the center of this trail maze:

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Network of new and old trails at the viewpoint revealed by the fire (State of Oregon)

The burn gives the Forest Service an opportunity to rethink and redesign the trails at this overlook, where heavy foot traffic was already causing serious erosion and loss of vegetation, even before the fire swept through last fall.

This photo (below) of the upper Oneonta Canyon shows that it fared better than the steep lower canyon in the fire, as revealed in this view from above the confluence of Oneonta and Bell creeks:

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Aerial view of upper Oneonta canyon at Bell Creek (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look at this photo (below) shows a mosaic burn, with large stands of ancient conifers surviving the blaze, while others were less fortunate:

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Close-up of ancient forests in the upper Oneonta canyon (State of Oregon)

Another close look at this photo (below) shows that the fire often killed young, recovering forests (from past fires) while older, nearby stands survived:

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Burn pattern detail in the upper Oneonta Canyon (State of Oregon)

While counter-intuitive at first glance, this is another important lesson from the Eagle Creek fire: part of the natural selection process in our forests is the ability for trees to grow fast, large and tall enough to survive periodic fires, thus surviving to generate the seedlings that will begin the recovery of the surrounding burn.

Moving east from the tragically scorched Oneonta canyon, the scene along nearby Horsetail Creek is somewhat less devastating, as this photo from above Horsetail Falls shows:

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Aerial view of Horsetail Falls and canyon (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at familiar Horsetail Falls shows many of the big conifers around the falls surviving, even though the fire swept down to the edge of the Historic Columbia River Highway. The Horsetail Creek Trail can be seen climbing the slope to the left of the falls in this view, and appears to be somewhat impacted by falling trees and debris.

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Close-up of the fire impact on Horsetail Falls (State of Oregon)

This close-up view of the photo (below) shows the sharp contrast in the severity of the burn in the Oneonta canyon (blackened area to the right) and the Horsetail canyon (mosaic burn to the left). This detail shows how topography and wind patterns work together to determine the path and severity of forest fires:

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Contrasting burn patterns along the divide between Horsetail and Oneonta canyons (State of Oregon)

Fans of the informal Rock of Ages trail will find rough going in the future along this informal route that climbs above Horsetail Falls. In this close-up view (below), the entire ridge appears to be burned over. Because the trail is not officially recognized or maintained, falling debris and erosion will take a toll on this route, even if hikers work to keep the unofficial route open.

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Fire impact on Rock of Ages ridge (State of Oregon)

This vertical photo (below) of Horsetail Falls and Ponytail Falls from directly above shows that much of the forest canopy along the lower section of Horsetail Creek survived the fire:

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Birds-eye aerial view of Horsetail Falls and Ponytail Falls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A closer look (below) at this photo shows a few killed trees near Ponytail Falls, but mostly a green canopy sufficient to carry most of these trees through next summer’s drought and to long lives ahead:

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Close-up of Ponytail Falls showing the scope of the burn (State of Oregon)

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What did Ponytail Falls look like before the fire? It was yet another green grotto in the Gorge, framed by graceful stands of Vine Maple. It’s unknown if these small understory trees survived the fire:

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Graceful Ponytail Falls on Horsetail Creek in better days (Tom Kloster)

Like the upper Oneonta canyon, the upper Horsetail Creek drainage is largely a mosaic burn. This photo (below) shows large sections of surviving trees that will greatly benefit forest recovery here:

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Aerial view of Horsetail canyon, above the waterfalls (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

A close look at this photo (below) shows Archer Mountain on the Washington side of the Gorge. This view gives a good sense of just how massive the Eagle Creek fire really was, as embers from the fire were carried more than a mile across the Columbia River where they ignited a small fire on the slopes of Archer Mountain.

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Closer view of Horsetail Canyon and Archer Mountain, across the Columbia River (State of Oregon)

Firefighters were briefly concerned with the possibility of the fire spreading broadly across the Washington side of the Gorge, but managed to contain the fire to a few acres on Archer Mountain.

The final photo (below) in the first part of this series shows Yeon Mountain and Katanai Rock in the Ainsworth State Park area. The small community of Dodson spreads out at the base of the 3000-foot high Gorge wall in this area:

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Aerial view of Yeon Mountain and Katanai Rock (State of Oregon)

[click here for a large photo]

The fire was surprisingly agile here, burning ancient trees perched on remote ledges across the 3-mile long cliff face here (below). The vertical topography protected many old trees, too, where many isolated giants remained out of reach from the flames. The geology of this area is notoriously unstable, with frequent rock falls and mudflows. The loss of forests to fire here is expected to accelerate erosion for decades to come.

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Close-up view of burn pattern on Katanai Rock (State of Oregon)

One such mudflow spilled down these slopes in the 1990s, burying a farmhouse to the second story and spreading across Interstate-84, closing the freeway for days. This mudflow had since grown a dense stand of Cottonwood and Red Alder trees (below), obscuring the abandoned, buried farmhouse over the past quarter century.

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Detailed view of the 1990s landslide near Dodson, now burned over by the Eagle Creek Fire (State of Oregon)

Surprisingly, the Eagle Creek Fire seemed to seek out this young stand of trees, burning it entirely, and finally destroying what was left of the old farmhouse, which can be seen as a rectangle of white ashes in the close-up view, above. Older conifer forests (on the right) bordering the mudflow survived the flames, as did irrigated fields where fence lines served as firebreaks. Scenes like this help us better understand how fires shape the evolution of our forests over time.

Looking ahead…

These photos are hard to look at. For so many of us, the Gorge is a sacred place where we go to escape the stress of urban life and ground ourselves in the perfection and serenity of nature at its most sublime. Seeing the once lush, green landscape reduced to blackened tree skeletons and ashes is shocking, to say the least.

But moving forward, every year will mark what is expected to be a rapid recovery. It also offers us a chance to be part of the recovery. If the 1991 Multnomah Falls Fire is our guide, we’ll see young trees established within a decade and new forests well on their way to maturity by the time today’s Millennials begin receiving their Social Security checks.

That’s reassuring, as learning to understand our place in the natural landscape begins with accepting that we are just passing through ecosystems that existed long before us, and will thrive long after we are gone. Our role is to ensure that future generations inherit healthy, thriving ecosystems that are enhanced by our actions, not harmed by them.

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Sword fern front sprouting from its roots after being scorched by the fire (Tom Kloster)

In the meantime, you can do something about the Gorge recovery right now! How? Sign up for a Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) trail project. TKO already has several events lined up beginning in February, and there will be many more events to coming for years to come.

This is a great way to give back and be part of restoring our Gorge trails, and no experience is required — just an able body and passion for the Gorge! If you can dig in your garden or rake leaves, you can be a volunteer on a trail crew. You can also support TKO with a donation through their website.

Next up in Part 2 of this article: McCord Creek, Moffett Creek, Tanner Creek, Eagle Creek and Shellrock Mountain.

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Author’s note about the photos: a friend of the blog pointed me to the amazing cache of photos featured in this article, and while you could probably acquire them from the State of Oregon, I would encourage you to let our public agency staff focus their time on the Gorge recovery, not chasing down photo requests.  

With this in mind, I’ve posting the very best of the photos here, and have included very large images for those looking to use or share them. These photos should be credited to “State of Oregon” where noted in this article, not this blog. They are in the public domain.

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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!

An Overdue Warren Falls Update (…and a bombshell!)

Warren Falls lives! Well, occasionally… during the wettest winter storms

Warren Falls lives! Well, occasionally… during the wettest winter storms

Time is running out on the Restore Warren Falls! project. This summer the next phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail project will begin construction of a segment that will pass right in front of the falls.

The new trail construction in the area is not simply an ideal opportunity to finally undo what the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) did to this magnificent waterfall 76 years ago — it’s probably the only opportunity in our lifetimes.

In that spirit, I thought an update on the project and Warren Falls was in order — plus share a bit of a bombshell that was sent to me recently!

Checking in on Warren Falls

First, a quick visit to Warren Creek: in mid-April I made a couple visits to Warren Falls as part of my twice-annual Friends of the Gorge hikes. As has become the norm in recent years, the natural falls clearly flowed again this winter during heavy runoff that overwhelmed the diversion weir at the top of the falls.

The flood path from the briefly reborn falls cleared leaf debris as shown by the arrows in this photo…

The flood path from the briefly reborn falls cleared leaf debris as shown by the arrows in this photo…

…and in this photo, where the overflow stream continued down the ancient creekbed

…and in this photo, where the overflow stream continued down the ancient creekbed

These regular overflows make more sense when you look at the condition of the weir — the following photos from the top of the falls show just how clogged the giant “trash rack” has become, and also how badly the upper lip of the rack has been exposed as the concrete diversion dam continues to erode:

Over its 76-year life the enormous weir has become twisted and clogged with debris, causing more overflows each year

Over its 76-year life the enormous weir has become twisted and clogged with debris, causing more overflows each year

The steel beams that make up the weir are also coming loose from their foundation as the concrete diversion dam deteriorates with time

The steel beams that make up the weir are also coming loose from their foundation as the concrete diversion dam deteriorates with time

The Friends of the Gorge hikers always marvel at the strange, unsettling scene of a dry waterfall. Like most who visit Warren Falls, many are also saddened by the idea that the ODOT could have been so cavalier in altering such a beautiful scene at Warren Creek so grotesquely.

While the original decision to divert the falls can arguably be blamed on the thinking of the era (late 1930s), I would submit that allowing this tragic mistake to continue to exist is equally cavalier and dismissive of the natural landscape at Warren Creek. Thus, my campaign to attach the burden of undoing the mess at Warren Falls to ODOT — and in particular, their looming state trail construction project that will soon begin in the area.

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

While researching Warren Falls over the winter, I finally found a definitive story on the official naming of the creek. The name “Warren” comes from Warren “Barney” Cooper, and early forest ranger in the Mount Hood area (and part of the Cooper family described in this previous article).

This Oregonian article documents (in the last paragraph) when Warren Cooper’s name finally became the official name of the creek in 1948, though it had been in unofficial use for years:

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So, we now learn that Warren Lake and creek were once called “Warm Lake” and “Warm Creek”. Warren Lake is situated on a high, rocky shoulder of Mount Defiance, and shallow enough to be “warm” in late summer, so that could be the simplest explanation for this early name.

The name “Warren” appears on maps and early documents from well before this 1948 decision, so the timing of the article is interesting, especially so long after Warren Cooper’s death in 1920. Was the naming in 1948 simply cartographic housekeeping or an overdue recognition of a pioneering forest ranger by those who followed him?

As always, every answer brings a few new questions!

Friends of Warren Falls… are everywhere!

Since the Oregon Field Guide story on the Restore Warren Falls! project first aired the fall of 2012 (watch the documentary here), several anonymous “friends” of Warren Falls have quietly contacted me with offers to help.

OFG's Vince Patton and Michael Bendixen looking for the illusive Warren Falls in the winter of 2012

OFG’s Vince Patton and Michael Bendixen looking for the illusive Warren Falls in the winter of 2012

Most surprising among the proposals were offers to simply “monkey-wrench” the weir at the top of the falls to speed up its demise! While I’m sympathetic to both the frustration and impatience behind the monkey-wrenchers out there, I’m also concerned that tinkering with the weir might actually be illegal (though it’s hard to see how a decaying structure that no public agency will claim responsibility for could somehow also become the basis for legal action..?)

More importantly, I’m concerned that formally removing the weir and associated debris will become increasingly difficult if the structure is further compromised. I’ve therefore thanked the monkey-wrenchers for their passion, but encouraged them to be patient and allow the slow wheels of government to turn a bit further..!

…and the bombshell…

Another piece of information that trickled in from an anonymous attorney and friend of Warren Falls is found in plain sight: in the Oregon Revised Statutes. Specifically, ORS 538.200, which exists solely to prohibit the diversion of “streams forming waterfalls near the Columbia River Highway” for “any purpose whatsoever”.

While quite clear in its intent, this might seem like a very general reference. But the statute (which was signed into law in the early 1900s, before the Warren Falls diversion) goes on to list each of the streams and waterfalls that fall under this protection — including Warren Creek, in ORS 538.200(26)!

An unusual view of Warren Creek topping its weir and overflowing into its natural falls (visible behind the trees)

An unusual view of Warren Creek topping its weir and overflowing into its natural falls (visible behind the trees)

What does this new information mean? For starters, it means that ODOT — at the time, called the Oregon Highway Division — broke the law in 1939 when it blasted a diversion tunnel and erected a dam and weir to pipe Warren Creek away from its natural falls and streambed. That is quite clear.

What is unknown is whether the ODOT decision to defy the law in the late 1930s was brazen in its intent. As hard as that possibility is to believe, it is also very hard to believe the agency wouldn’t have known about the law, given that it had been enacted just a few years prior the Warren Falls diversion project being concocted in the early 1930s — and was specifically aimed at the state’s premier highway of the era.

What does it mean today? In my view, it means that ODOT now has BOTH a legal and ethical responsibility to undo what it has done to Warren Falls. That couldn’t be more clear.

The End Game?

For the past four years I’ve been beating the drum to connect the restoration of Warren Falls to the massive, multi-million dollar Historic Columbia River Highway state trail project, without much success. So far I have:

• been turned away by both Oregon State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service, both claiming the falls lies on the other agency’s property (though it quite clearly falls on Oregon State Parks land)

• unsuccessfully pitched the cause to three of the premier conservation groups active in the Gorge, including on-site tours, but did not persuade any of the groups to adopt the cause.

• unsuccessfully made the case twice before the Historic Columbia River Highway steering committee, with some sympathetic interest from the committee, but a deep reluctance to seriously consider the idea. It was added as an item “for consideration” — but later dropped due to cost concerns.

• successfully pitched the idea to the producers of Oregon Field Guide story, and while ODOT staff involved in that effort were sympathetic to the state of Warren Falls, the publicity created by the story did not change their recommendations to their steering committee for any further consideration of restoring the falls.

• posted a string of articles on this blog and started a Facebook group two years ago to continue to rally the cause, but these efforts haven’t made a noticeable dent at ODOT, either.

We are now in the end game, and I don’t think the Warren Falls will ever be restored if the work doesn’t happen when ODOT has heavy equipment in the area later this year. After that, it will most likely be up to Mother Nature, and that’s would be such a sad commentary to future generations when they judge the state of the world we choose to leave them.

From the beginning, I have argued that restoring the falls isn’t about money, but rather, about responsibility. ODOT created the mess that now exists at Warren Creek, and for a whole variety of safety, ethical, environmental — and now, legal — reasons that I’ve argued over the years, it’s time for the agency to own up to their responsibility.

No fooling, ODOT has $2 million annually in a “contingency” fund for exactly the kind of work that restoring Warren Falls would entail — and just allocated another half-million dollars to cover additional costs for the state trail project in the Warren Creek area.

It turns out the money has always been there, too. On April 1, ODOT quietly pulled nearly a half-million dollars in “contingency” funds into this latest phase of the state trail as a consent item before the Oregon Transportation Commission. The new money is for a previously unplanned bridge over nearby Gorton Creek, a worthy addition at the east end of the current phase of construction. Warren Falls could be restored for a fraction of that amount – if only the will and sense of agency responsibility at ODOT existed.

My next efforts will focus beyond ODOT, given my fruitless efforts to work with the agency. At the top of my list of arguments is the newly discovered fact that the agency violated state law when they built the project in 1939 — underscoring the notion that ODOT has both ethical and legal obligations to own up to restoring the falls. The agency clearly has funding available for worthy efforts like this one if the desire exists. I will be making that argument, as well.

There's still time to realize this vision… but not much.

There’s still time to realize this vision… but not much.

I’ll post a follow-ups to article with more details soon, and especially how you might be able to help get the restoration of Warren Falls unstuck from our state bureaucracy. Most of all, a big thanks to all who have offered to help — and as always, thank you reading this blog and caring about Mount Hood and the Gorge!

Heirs to George Shepperd’s Legacy

1890s view of George Shepperd's farm on the Columbia, located just east of Shepperd's Dell (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

1890s view of George Shepperd’s farm on the Columbia, located just east of Shepperd’s Dell (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

George Shepperd’s place in our history comes from his generous donation of Shepperd’s Dell to the public in 1915, as the historic Columbia River Highway was nearing completion.

After posting the story of George Shepperd recently in “The Farmer and his Dell” , his great-great granddaughter Rosemary (Shepperd) Guttridge contacted me with a few updates to the article and some wonderful photographs. This follow-up article includes several of her Shepperd family photographs and a brief interview with Rosemary Guttridge — and a proposal for finally honoring George Shepperd at his namesake dell in the Columbia River Gorge.

George and Matilda Shepperd (his first wife) in roughly the 1870s (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

George and Matilda Shepperd (his first wife) in roughly the 1870s (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

The first of the family photos provided by Rosemary Guttridge (above) shows a very young George Shepperd with his first wife, Matilda. This undated photo is likely from the 1870s, when Shepperd was still in his mid-20s and before the couple moved their young family to Iowa. They would farm for a decade on the open prairie before finally heading west to Oregon.

The second image (below) shows the humble farmhouse on the prairie where George and Matilda’s lived through the 1880s, and where their family grew to include four young sons: William, Stuart, George G. and John. A close look at this image shows Matilda standing in the foreground with two of the boys:

George and Matilda Shepperd's farm on the Iowa prairie in the 1880s (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

George and Matilda Shepperd’s farm on the Iowa prairie in the 1880s (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

In 1889, the Shepperds moved west to Oregon, claiming a few parcels of land at the mouth of Young Creek, just west of the sawmill at Bridal Veil. In the 1912-vintage map, below, the approximate location of the Shepperd farmhouse is shown:

Approximate location of the Shepperd Farm on an early 1900s map of the area

Approximate location of the Shepperd Farm on an early 1900s map of the area

This is a rough guess of the location based on images of the farm showing Crown Point in the distance, a flooded Columbia River and the first rail line to be constructed on the Oregon side of the Gorge. The cluster of buildings shown to the east on this map are part of the mill town of Bridal Veil, and located on the site of today’s Bridal Veil State Park.

The following is an enlarged view from the image in the top of the article focusing on the Shepperd farmhouse. Power poles mark the railroad (directly behind and below the house) and there is even a rowboat on the river:

Enlarged view of the Shepperd farm house - note the rowboat in the background and railroad tracks immediately below the house (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

Enlarged view of the Shepperd farm house – note the rowboat in the background and railroad tracks immediately below the house (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

The above image shows the area around the house to be a bit barren, and the Shepperd family history dates this photo to 1898, roughly nine years after George and Matilda Shepperd claimed the land. For a larger view of the farm photo (including Crown Point on the horizon) click here.

The most stunning and fascinating of the images shared by Rosemary Guttridge is the following family portrait, taken in approximately 1895, based on the ages of the family members. The photo tells a story of change in the family, as it was taken in the period after George and Matilda Shepperd had divorced in 1895, but before George had remarried to Mattie Williams in January 1896.

George Shepperd's family in about 1892, shortly after he and Matilda had divorced (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

George Shepperd’s family in about 1892, shortly after he and Matilda had divorced (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

The family portrait provides our first good look at George Shepperd, 46 years old in this photo, and also a man to his right who seems to be his older brother by three years, Matthew Shepperd. Matthew shows up as living at the Shepperd farm in the 1900 census, so one possibility is that he arrived to help George with the farm and raising his children after George and Matilda divorced.

A closer look at George Shepperd from the family photo (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

A closer look at George Shepperd from the family photo (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

This man appears to be George Shepperd's older brother Matthew (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

This man appears to be George Shepperd’s older brother Matthew (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

A highlight of the family photo is little Myra Shepperd (below), just five years old in 1895, and striking a brave pose as the lone daughter in a house full of men and young boys:

Baby Myra Shepperd, youngest of George and Matilda's children and their only daughter (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

Baby Myra Shepperd, youngest of George and Matilda’s children and their only daughter (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

Despite this challenging start, Myra went on to marry Robert Earley when she was 18 (in 1908), and they had two children of their own. Myra lived until 1975, when she died at the age of 85.

The identity of the three older sons in the family photo is somewhat confusing, but Rosemary Guttridge is certain that her grandfather, George G. Shepperd, is standing on the far left (tallest of the three boys). Though he looks older than his years in this photo, he would have been just thirteen.

Annotated George Shepperd family photo, circa 1895

Annotated George Shepperd family photo, circa 1895

[click here for a larger version of the annotated photo]

Rosemary Guttridge shared another portrait of her grandfather, George G. Shepperd, taken in 1902 (below) when he was 20 years old. George G. would marry Emma Fick in 1914, and the couple moved to the Shepperd farm in 1920, after his father had retired to Portland. George and Emma farmed and raised dairy cattle on the farm until 1953 or 1954.

George G. Shepperd, third son of George Shepperd and Rosemary Guttridge's grandfather at the age of 20 in 1902 (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

George G. Shepperd, third son of George Shepperd and Rosemary Guttridge’s grandfather at the age of 20 in 1902 (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

George G. Shepperd’s son (and Rosemary Guttridge’s father) was George Shepperd Jr. (known simply as “Junior” in the Shepperd Family). He spent much of his childhood at the Shepperd farm in the 1920s and 30s, and married Suzanne Curtis in 1940. Their very young children George Scott and Rosemary visited the family farm before their grandparents moved to Portland in the early 1950s.

George Junior died in 1975 but his wife Suzanne has survived him by nearly four decades, and is still living today in the Gresham area at age 97.

George Shepperd's farmhouse some years after the first photo was taken, perhaps in the early 1900s (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

George Shepperd’s farmhouse some years after the first photo was taken, perhaps in the early 1900s (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

Rosemary Guttridge shared another photo (above) of the Shepperd farm that is dated 1898, but seems to be taken much later than the earlier photo (at the top of the article), judging by the size of the established trees in this photo. Assuming the first photo was taken in the 1890s, this photo is likely to be from sometime in the early 1900s.

In early April 2014, I interviewed Rosemary (Shepperd) Guttridge to gain her personal insight into the legacy of George Shepperd and life at Shepperd’s Dell:
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WyEast Blog: Rosemary, thanks for answering a few questions about your family — the Shepperds of beautiful Shepperd’s Dell! George Shepperd was your great-grandfather, but I don’t think he was alive when you were born, is that right?

He died in 1930 when my dad would have been 15 years old.

From the scant records I have, my grandparents, George G. and Emma Shepperd moved out to the family farm at Shepperd’s Dell from Beaverton in 1920. The must have lived with my grandmother’s family there. And I’m not sure if my great-grandfather moved to Portland at that time [editor’s note: the Oregon Journal obituary for George Shepperd suggests that he moved to Portland in about 1912]

WyEast Blog: So, your grandfather is George G. Shepperd, the third son of George Shepperd — and your father is George Shepperd, Jr., is that right? From the family history you shared with me, there are George Shepperds in the family line that date back to England in the 1700s – that’s a lot of George Shepperds to keep straight!

There are certainly many Georges in the family tree and unfortunately they didn’t seem to use middle names often so it is a bit hard to keep them straight.

The first recorded George Shepperd (in our family Bible) was born sometime in the late 1780s and his son was James, who was my great-grandfather’s father. Now we’re back to Georges! Great-grandfather George was born in 1848, his son, my grandfather George G., was born in 1881 and his son, my father George (known as Junior in school), was born in 1915.

Wouldn’t want to stop there!! My brother, George Scott is one more. And I realized my mother’s grandfather is George. Then after my father passed away, my mother married… yep, another George!!

I think the family is done with that name for now!

The Shepperd farm in the 1940s when George G. and Emma Shepperd were raising dairy cattle there (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

The Shepperd farm in the 1940s when George G. and Emma Shepperd were raising dairy cattle there (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

WyEast Blog: Your grandparents lived on the family farm at Shepperd’s Dell until sometime in the 1950s. Do you have memories of them from the farm?

My only memory was when I was probably 3 or 4 years old trying to feed the cows some grass. I reached through the barbed wire fence with handful of grass and caught my arm. The scar is still quite visible.

I don’t remember anything about the inside of the farmhouse, the barns or the views. My brother says he remembers staying overnight at the farm and he had to sleep upstairs with no heat or lights and it was “scary”.

My grandmother mentioned more than once the hobos who would come [to the house] for a meal. She said [the family] had left some kind of mark on the gate, which meant they could stop.

George G. Shepperd and a couple of young helpers on the Shepperd Farm in the 1940s (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

George G. Shepperd and a couple of young helpers on the Shepperd Farm in the 1940s (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

WyEast Blog: You also sent a wonderful photo of the Shepperd land claim, with the Columbia River and Crown Point as the backdrop – what a beautiful place to have a farm! But it must have been a hard life living through the harsh winters the Gorge is known for — is that something that has been passed down in your family history?

My grandfather was a dairy farmer, which must have been so very tough in the winters. Not sure how they even got the milk to town.

My father left the farm after some college and became a banker. Not sure he thought diary farming was much fun!

WyEast Blog: The photo of the Shepperd farm shows at least three buildings – a farmhouse and at least two barns. Is this the same farmhouse that your grandparents later lived in? Does it survive today?

There is nothing left of the old farmhouse or barn. Now, in its place is a rambling one-story house.

I’m not even sure what happened to the place after Grandpa and Grandma moved to Portland in 1953 or 1954. Hopefully some other relatives can read this and help out with what they know.

George G. and Emma Shepperd at the Shepperd farm in 1942 (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

George G. and Emma Shepperd at the Shepperd farm in 1942 (Photo courtesy Rosemary Guttridge)

WyEast Blog: George Shepperd’s second wife, Mattie, died in 1903, just a few years after they were married and was buried at the Bridal Veil Cemetery. George placed a remarkable grave marker there — is there any family history about their short marriage? George was clearly heartbroken by her death, based on the inscriptions on her memorial.

Wish I knew something about this. And again, perhaps some relatives will surface and help!

Small cascades in Shepperd's Dell

Small cascades in Shepperd’s Dell

WyEast Blog: You’ve undoubtedly visited Shepperd’s Dell many times in your life, and that must be an amazing feeling, to know that your great-grandfather made that park possible. Do you still visit Shepperd’s Dell, and what is it like for you to see the sign with your family name on it?

The Dell is very special and beautiful. I have a room in my house that is dedicated to any pictures or painting I can find of the area. I haven’t found anything new for quite some time, but I still look when I come to the west side of Oregon. I had wanted to get married on the platform down the path from the highway but it could not fit very many people so had to make other plans

WyEast Blog: Thanks for your help in piecing together a bit more of George Shepperd’s story, Rosemary – very much appreciated! Any other thoughts you’d like to share for this interview?

Again, I hope some of the relatives will read this and contact you with more information. I think some of them live in the Portland area. Wouldn’t it be great to get more pictures and to clear up so many of the questions!

WyEast Blog: Well, I will certainly let you know if I do hear from other relatives, Rosemary! Thanks, again, for tending to your family history, and especially the legacy of your great-grandfather.
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Special thanks go out to Rosemary (Shepperd) Guttridge for sharing so much of her family history. Rosemary has also given me permission to post a companion Wikipedia article on George Shepperd, including some of the family photos. I’ll post an update on this blog when the Wikipedia page is complete.
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Shepperd's Dell bridge and the modest memorial plaque

Shepperd’s Dell bridge and the modest memorial plaque

Postscript: Telling the Story

The story of George Shepperd is inspiring on so many levels, and yet has been nearly forgotten in our written history of the Columbia River Gorge. His story deserves to be told to all who visit his Dell, and who might wonder about the mysterious name on the bronze plaque at the east end of the Shepperd’s Dell bridge.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to tell George Shepperd’s story is that he was one of us: a man of modest means who faced real hardships and tragedy in his life. He was different from the well-known timber barons and political icons whose names are engraved on monuments throughout the Columbia River Gorge. This distinction is important, as it inspires all of us to rise above our own everyday struggles, and strive for lasting contributions that will define us after we’re gone.

“Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”

– Terry Pratchett

In this spirit, we should seize upon an opportunity in the form of a new Oregon State Parks plan for the Gorge that calls for renovating the Shepperd’s Dell wayside. The time is perfect to do justice to the memory of George Shepperd.

Two memorials are in order: one describing the history of the place, including the Shepperd farm, the donation of Shepperd’s Dell and the construction of the iconic bridge that spans the Dell. This part of the story could be told at the existing wayside, using this familiar interpretive sign format found in other refurbished park sites in the Gorge:

An interpretive sign like this could tell the story of Shepperd's Dell

An interpretive sign like this could tell the story of Shepperd’s Dell

The second memorial should be to George Shepperd, the man. This memorial has already been written: when he died at the age of 82 in July 1930, the Oregon Journal printed a poignant tribute that still serves as a most eloquent salute to George Shepperd.

In remembering him, this tribute should be engraved for the ages (in bronze) and placed at the peaceful waterfall overlook at the end of the Shepperd’s Dell footpath, where visitors could reflect upon his gift to us — as we are “His Heirs”:

18ShepperdMemorial

You can learn more and comment on the Oregon State Parks early plans for Shepperd’s Dell (and other state parks in the Gorge) on their Gorge Parks Plan website. While you’re there, consider putting in a good word for the legacy and memory of George Shepperd – as his fortunate heirs, it’s the least we can do!

The Farmer and his Dell

Hand-colored photo from the 1920s showing the west approach to Shepperd's Dell

Hand-colored photo from the 1920s showing the west approach to Shepperd’s Dell

For nearly a century, countless travelers on the Historic Columbia River Highway have admired the idyllic scene that unfolds at Shepperd’s Dell, one that has also appeared on dozens of postcards and calendars over the decades.

George Shepperd's sole memorial in the Columbia Gorge is this small plaque on the Shepperd's Dell bridge

George Shepperd’s sole memorial in the Columbia Gorge is this small plaque on the Shepperd’s Dell bridge

Yet, beyond the fanciful name and a small bronze plaque at the east end of the highway bridge, few know the story behind the man who gave this land to the public to be enjoyed in perpetuity. Who was George Shepperd? This article is about the modest farmer who gave us his “dell”.

Threading the Needle

George Shepperd’s story is interwoven with the brilliant vision of a true icon in our regional history, Samuel Lancaster, the chief engineer and designer of the Historic Columbia River Highway. Had Sam Lancaster not attempted to frame sweeping views and hidden natural features at every turn with his epic road design, Shepperd’s Dell might have remained a mostly hidden secret.

Lancaster saw his new highway as something to be experienced, not simply the shortest path through the Gorge:

“…as Consulting Engineer in fixing the location and directing the construction of the Columbia River Highway… I studied the landscape with much care and became acquainted with its formation and its geology. I was profoundly impressed by its majestic beauty and marveled at the creative power of God, who made it all… [I] want [visitors] to enjoy the Highway, which men built as a frame to the beautiful picture which God created.”

-Samuel C. Lancaster (1916)

With this grand vision, Lancaster saw a special opportunity to showcase nature at Shepperd’s Dell. When approaching from Crown Point, the old highway rounds a blind corner cut into sheer cliffs, high above the Columbia when the graceful, arched bridge spanning Shepperd’s Dell suddenly comes into view.

Sam Lancaster and other dignitaries are pictured here at Shepperd's Dell on the opening day of the Columbia River Highway in 1916

Sam Lancaster and other dignitaries are pictured here at Shepperd’s Dell on the opening day of the Columbia River Highway in 1916

Tall basalt domes rise above the bridge, and from mid-span, visitors are treated with a view into the shady, fern-draped “dell” holding Young Creek. A graceful, 8-tiered waterfall leaps a total of 220 feet through a twisting gorge, much of it hidden from view in the mossy recesses of the dell.

In his inspired design for Shepperd’s Dell, Sam Lancaster’s threaded the needle by spanning the narrow canyon at the midpoint of the falls. By any other highway engineer of the time, this would have been a travesty, but Lancaster’s gracefully arched bridge and careful attention to detail achieves the opposite: he transformed this little grotto into one of those rare examples where man and nature meld in idyllic harmony. This artful balance is the enduring lure of Shepperd’s Dell to this day, making it a favorite stop along the old highway.

Samuel Lancaster's iconic bridge at Shepperd's Dell as it appears today

Samuel Lancaster’s iconic bridge at Shepperd’s Dell as it appears today

Sam Lancaster said this of his design for Shepperd’s Dell:

“The white arch of concrete bridges a chasm 150 feet in width and 140 feet in depth. The roadway is cut out of solid rock [and] a sparkling waterfall leaps from beetling cliffs and speaks of George Shepperd’s love for the beautiful, and the good that men can do.”

-Samuel Lancaster (1916)

Complementing the highway is a rustic footpath leading from the bridge to a viewpoint at the edge of the falls. The footpath is cut into the vertical walls of the dell and framed with Lancaster’s signature arched walls. From the falls viewpoint, the vista sweeps from a close-up of the cascades on Young Creek to the graceful arch of the highway bridge, soaring above the canyon. This is understandably among the most treasured scenes in the Columbia Gorge.

1920s postcard view of Shepperd's Dell showing the Bishop's Cap in the distance.

1920s postcard view of Shepperd’s Dell showing the Bishop’s Cap in the distance.

Samuel Lancaster created this scene as we experience it today, but only because George Shepperd made it possible by showing Lancaster his secret waterfall, and offering to donate his land to the highway project so that others might enjoy his dell in perpetuity.

Who was George Shepperd?

When Sam Lancaster was building his touring road through the Columbia Gorge, a number of well-to-do land owners with vast holdings in the area generously donated both right-of-way and some of the adjacent lands that hold the string of magnificent waterfalls and scenic overlooks that we enjoy today. Until the highway idea was conceived in the early 1900s, the Gorge was mostly valued for its raw resources, with several salmon canneries and lumber mills along the river and the forests heavily logged. The idea of a parkway was new, and part of the surging interest in creating national parks and expanding outdoor recreation across the country.0

Middle tier of the falls at Shepperd's Dell as viewed from the highway bridge

Middle tier of the falls at Shepperd’s Dell as viewed from the highway bridge

George Shepperd was equally generous with his donation, but he wasn’t a timber baron or salmon cannery tycoon. Instead, Shepperd was a transplanted Canadian farmer who had moved his family here after a short stay Iowa in the 1880s. Samuel Lancaster wrote this of Shepperd:

“The tract of eleven acres at this point, given by George Shepperd for a public park, is unexcelled. God made this beauty spot and gave it to a man with a great heart. Men of wealth and high position have done big things for the Columbia River Highway which will live in history; but George Shepperd, the man of small means, did his part full well.”

-Samuel Lancaster (1916)

George Shepperd, his wife Matilda and their sons William and Stuart moved from Goderich Township, Ontario (roughly halfway between Toronto and Detroit) to a farm in Audobon County, Iowa in 1880, where the couple gave birth to two more sons, George Jr. and John.

George Shepperd's extensive holdings in the early 1900s were mostly hills and ravines (shown in yellow), with the donated Shepperd's Dell parcel shown in green. Much of Shepperd's remaining land has since been brought into public ownership

George Shepperd’s extensive holdings in the early 1900s were mostly hills and ravines (shown in yellow), with the donated Shepperd’s Dell parcel shown in green. Much of Shepperd’s remaining land has since been brought into public ownership

In 1889, the Shepperds moved again, this time to Oregon where they settled in the Columbia River Gorge on a 160-acre land claim along Young Creek, just west of the mill town of Bridal Veil. Their fifth child, a daughter named Myra, was born just a year after they arrived, in November 1890. Upon settling in Oregon, George Shepperd supported his family by farming, dairying and working at the nearby Bridal Veil Lumber Mill.

At this point in history, the George Shepperd story becomes complicated: in May 1895, George and Matilda divorced, and in January 1896, George married Martha “Mattie” Maria Cody Williams, who had also recently divorced. Mattie apparently met George when the Shepperd and Williams families had traveled west to Oregon together in 1889. The “Cody” in Mattie’s lineage was indeed William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, a first cousin.

The view today from Shepperd's Dell toward Crown Point includes some of George Shepperd's former pasture lands, now in public ownership and managed for wildlife.

The view today from Shepperd’s Dell toward Crown Point includes some of George Shepperd’s former pasture lands, now in public ownership and managed for wildlife.

George Shepperd was 47 years old when he married 37 year-old Mattie in 1896, and while the first years of their new marriage seemed to have been blissful, the next 35 years of his life were a rollercoaster of tragedies and triumphs.

The tragedy began in 1901 when his eldest son, William J. Shepperd, boarded a train to Portland to pick up supplies for the business he and his brother George Jr. had in Hood River. William reportedly waved to friends and family from the rear platform as he passed through Bridal Veil and the Shepperd farm, then was never seen again.

Local news accounts speculated that William had been “Shanghied” while in Portland and taken aboard a foreign cargo ship. Ten years later, William’s surviving wife Osie and son Raymond also disappeared after living with the Shepperds and members of Osie’s family in Portland for several years. They were never heard from again by George Shepperd.

The Bridal Veil Historic Cemetery is tucked among the trees near the Angels Rest trailhead

The Bridal Veil Historic Cemetery is tucked among the trees near the Angels Rest trailhead

More tragedy ensued in 1903, when George Shepperd lost his beloved Mattie, just seven years after the two had married. There is no record of why she died, though some accounts describe her as “crippled” in those years. She was only 44 years old.

If the impressive memorial he erected for Mattie at the Bridal Veil cemetery is any indication, George was profoundly heartbroken. He never married again. The melancholy epitaph at the base of her grave marker reads:

“One by one earth’s ties are broken, as we see our love decay, and the hope so fondly cherished brighten but to pass away.”

The infant grave of Elizabeth Dutro is also located within the otherwise empty Shepperd family plot, next to Mattie’s grave and dated October 15, 1903 – seven months after Mattie was buried. Baby Dutro seems to be Mattie’s granddaughter by Bertha Delma Williams Dutro, her daughter from her first marriage. Bertha Dutro lived until 1963, and had two more daughters. She is buried at the Idlewildle Cemetery in Hood River.

Mattie Shepperd's grave marker at the Bridal Veil Cemetery

Mattie Shepperd’s grave marker at the Bridal Veil Cemetery

Mattie Shepperd, "wife of George Shepperd"

Mattie Shepperd, “wife of George Shepperd”

The tiny Bridal Veil Cemetery is still maintained and open to the public, though a bit hard to locate: an obscure gravel driveway drops off the north shoulder of the I-84 access road at Bridal Veil, just below the Historic Columbia River Highway. A number of early settlers from the area are buried in this lonely window into the past.

Baby Dutro was laid to rest a few feet away and nine months after Mattie Shepperd

Baby Dutro was laid to rest a few feet away and nine months after Mattie Shepperd

Over the next few years, George Shepperd must have met Samuel Lancaster as the engineer began his surveys of a possible highway route through the Gorge. Travel in the Gorge at that time was mostly by train, and the Shepperd farm was one of the many stops along the route. No record of their meeting exists, but George was described as an early supporter of the highway, and this is surely the time when he realized that he could be part of Lancaster’s grand vision.

Some accounts suggest that the sudden loss of Mattie was also part of George Shepperd’s motivation to leave a lasting legacy with a land donation, but there is no record of this. Instead, it was simply the beauty of Shepperd’s Dell that seemed to motivate him.

Newspaper accounts also show that Shepperd had many opportunities to sell his property for substantial profit, as the new highway was quickly dotted with roadhouses and gift shops aimed at the new stream of tourists. The Oregonian later reported: “ever since the highway was constructed, Mr. Shepperd has received offers to purchase the tract, but has refused them, having in mind an intention to dedicate the property to the use of the public.”

Early 1930s postcard view of Shepperd's Dell.

Early 1930s postcard view of Shepperd’s Dell.

In March 1914, George Shepperd’s land donation along Young Creek was announced as part of the construction of the Columbia River Highway. But by late 1915, Shepperd was involved in a legal dispute with a neighboring landowner who attempted to take claim to the land he had donated – the land that is now Shepperd’s Dell. By 1916, George Shepperd was counter-suing on grounds of fraud to clear the title – one that stemmed from a loan that one of Shepperd’s sons had taken years earlier. The Oregonian reported the events with the headline “Good Deed Spoiled” as a nod to Shepperd’s noble intentions:

“A few years ago, the elder Mr. Shepperd, owner of an 80-acre piece of land above the Columbia River, deeded 10 acres, including the famous Shepperd’s Dell, to the City of Portland as a public playground. The Columbia River Highway was being built and it was apparent to Mr. Shepperd that this attractive place would be a valuable possession to the city. While he was a comparatively poor man, he determined, instead of selling the property for a small fortune that he could have received for it, give it free of cost to the public.”

(The Oregonian, March 16, 1916)

Thankfully, Shepperd prevailed in the legal dispute. At that point in the dramatic early history of the new highway, the Shepperd’s Dell section of the road had already been constructed, but who knows what might have been built there had the land slipped away from public ownership?

In November 1915, George Shepperd was fighting a second legal battle, joining the City of Portland in a lawsuit against the Bridal Veil Lumber Co., and their plan to divert Young Creek away from Shepperd’s Dell and into a generating facility to provide power for their mill. The City and Shepperd prevailed in this suit, as well.

This is the only known photo of George Shepperd. It appeared in the Oregon Journal in 1915.

This is the only known photo of George Shepperd. It appeared in the Oregon Journal in 1915.

George Shepperd’s personal roller coaster continued on June 8, 1916, when he found himself seated among the most honored guests at the spectacular dedication of the Columbia River Highway at Crown Point. Shepperd was recognized in the formal program along with historical luminaries like Sam Hill, Samuel Lancaster, Julius Meier, Simon Benson and John B. Yeon. The ceremony was kicked off audaciously by President Woodrow Wilson unfurling an American Flag remotely by pressing a telegraph button in the White House, surely a highlight for a modest farmer from Canada.

Though surrounded by millionaires and elite scions of Portland’s old money at the grand opening, Shepperd stood apart from his honored peers that day: John B. Yeon, who had been appointed roadmaster in the campaign for the Columbia River Highway project, summed it up best:

Mr. Shepperd’s donation is worthy of the highest praise, especially in view of the fact that he [is] not a wealthy man. He has made a sacrifice for the public good that ought to make some of our rich men ashamed of themselves.

John B. Yeon, Oregon Journal, April 23, 1915

Close-up view of the vehicle carrying Sam Lancaster as he passed Shepperd's Dell during the grand opening of the Columbia River Highway in June 1916.

Close-up view of the vehicle carrying Sam Lancaster as he passed Shepperd’s Dell during the grand opening of the Columbia River Highway in June 1916.

In an earlier 1915 front-page feature previewing the new highway (still under construction), the Oregonian described Shepperd’s Dell this way:

“One of the wonder spots on the Columbia Highway, in the daintiness and sublimity combined with its scenery is Shepperd’s Dell, which was donated to the highway as a public park by George Shepperd, because he loved the spot and because he wanted it preserved forever for the enjoyment of people who come along the highway.

Mr. Shepperd is not a rich man and his donation is one of the most noteworthy in the history of the highway. At Shepperd’s Dell is one of the finest bridges on the highway and a trail has been built leading down from the highway to the dell and back to the beautiful little waterfall and springs in the gorge. The view back from the trail, looking through the arch made by the concrete span, is one of the most beautiful on the highway.”

(Sunday Oregonian, August 29, 1915)

George Shepperd’s Final Years

This home on NE Stanton Street in Portland is where George Shepperd lived out the final years of his life.

This home on NE Stanton Street in Portland is where George Shepperd lived out the final years of his life.

In 1917, sixteen years after his eldest son William had vanished and six years after William’s wife Osie had disappeared with his grandson Raymond, George Shepperd sought foreclosure on 120 acres of land he had given to the young couple shortly before William disappeared in 1901. The title was cleared by April 1919, and Shepperd promptly donated the land, including a four-room farmhouse, to the local YMCA. The YMCA reported that the house and property would be converted into a model boys camp and lodge:

“A party of boys will visit the place today to clear off sufficient land for a baseball diamond and athletic field and to commence the work of remodeling the lodge. The camp will be used by the boys this summer for short camping trips, covering a period of only a few days, and is especially intended for use of those boys who are unable to devote the time required to make the trip to the regular summer camp at Spirit Lake.”

(The Oregonian, April 4, 1919)

By 1920s, George Shepperd had finally retired from his farm at Shepperd’s Dell, having survived his second wife Mattie and a remarkable series of peaks and valleys in his life. He moved to Portland, and lived there until passing away at his residence on NE Stanton Street in July 1930.

George Shepperd's modest grave marker at Riverview Cemetery.

George Shepperd’s modest grave marker at Riverview Cemetery.

Shepperd left an estate of about $8,000 to his remaining sons and daughter, primarily property in the Shepperd’s Dell area. But he hadn’t forgotten his missing grandson Raymond, and left him a token “five dollars in cash”, (about $70 today) presumably in hopes that the execution of his estate might somehow reconnect Raymond with the Shepperd family.

George Shepperd is interred at Portland’s Riverview Cemetery, along with many other important figures from the early period in Portland’s history. His understated gravesite is surprisingly distant from where his wife Mattie is buried in the Bridal Veil cemetery, and we can only guess as to why his surviving children didn’t bury him there.

George Shepperd Jr. in an early 1940s news account, on the right.

George Shepperd Jr. in an early 1940s news account, on the right.

George’s children produced nineteen grandchildren, and the Shepperd family name lives on throughout the Pacific Northwest.

His second-oldest son Stuart lived until 1952, when the Oregonian reported that an “elderly man” had collapsed on a sidewalk in downtown Portland, apparently from a heart attack. At the time of his death, Stuart Shepperd was residing in Latourell, near the family homestead in the Columbia Gorge. His surviving brother George G. was still living in Bridal Veil at the family homestead at that time.

George G. Shepperd and his wife Emma left the Shepperd farm in 1953 or 1954 and George G. lived until 1961. George G Shepperd’s son George “Junior” went on to become a prominent officer for the Oregon Bank, and died in 1975. The youngest of George Shepperd’s four boys, John, died in 1959. Myra Shepperd, George’s only daughter and the only one of his children born in Oregon, lived until 1975.

The bridge at Shepperd's Dell in the 1940s, complete with a white highway sign from that era.

The bridge at Shepperd’s Dell in the 1940s, complete with a white highway sign from that era.

The original 10-acre Shepperd’s Dell park was transferred from the City of Portland to the Oregon State Park system in September 1940. The state made a series of additional purchases to expand the park over the next several decades, bringing the total size of today’s park to more than 500 acres.

Today, Shepperd’s Dell State Park encompasses Bridal Veil Falls, Coopey Falls and the west slope of Angels Rest, to the east, in addition to its namesake waterfall grotto.

George Shepperd’s legacy… and ours?

Shepperd's Dell lights up with fall colors each autumn.

Shepperd’s Dell lights up with fall colors each autumn.

Imagine the Columbia River Highway without Shepperd’s Dell, and you can truly appreciate the magnitude of George Shepperd’s generosity and vision. There’s an important lesson from his legacy: bringing land into public ownership is complicated, expensive and often messy, and thus requires great determination.

Flash forward to our times, and consider the hundreds of private holdings that still remain in the Columbia River Gorge. Then imagine the “good that men can do” (in Samuel Lancaster’s words) — what if just a few of these parcels were donated to the public in perpetuity in our time?

This unusual hand-colored photo from the 1920s is from the Bishops Cap, looking west toward the bridge at Shepperd's Dell. Though the trees have grown, much of the rest of this scene is preserved today.

This unusual hand-colored photo from the 1920s is from the Bishops Cap, looking west toward the bridge at Shepperd’s Dell. Though the trees have grown, much of the rest of this scene is preserved today.

Hopefully, the spirit of George Shepperd’s humble generosity will live on in the hearts of those fortunate few who still hold private property in the Gorge, but we’re also fortunate to have several non-profit organizations with land trusts to help the transition along:

The Friends of the Columbia River Gorge have become the most active in recent years in securing critical private holdings in the Gorge. Without Friends of the Gorge, we would not have secured lands at Cape Horn, Mosier Plateau of the Lyle Cherry Orchard, for example, among more than a dozen sites acquired by the Friends.

The Trust for Public Land serves as a critical go-between in helping secure private lands for eventual public purchase. Without the Trust, we would not have secured nearly 17,000 acres in the Gorge through more than sixty separate transactions over the past 30 years.

The Nature Conservancy continues to acquire endangered ecosystems, and their extensive holdings at Rowena Plateau and McCall Point also serve as some of the most visited recreation trails in the Gorge.

The Columbia Land Trust is another important player in securing private lands in the Gorge, as well as the rest of the lower Columbia River. Their focus is on riparian sites and securing critical habitat.

Very few of us will ever find ourselves in the position of George Shepperd, with a waterfall or craggy viewpoint to give to the public, but we can be part of that enlightened tradition in a smaller way. Please consider supporting these organizations in their efforts to expand our public lands in the Gorge!
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His Heirs
The Oregon Journal • July 23, 1930

ShepperdsDell22

GEORGE SHEPPERD was a poor man but he gave all that he had. Without intending it he made for him a memorial that will for all time identify his name with unselfish public service.

He owned a few rocky acres in the Gorge of the Columbia. It was land from which a living could be wrested only by dint of much toil. But through it ran a small stream that at last leaped and laughed and spiraled its way down through the great basaltic cliff that was the wall of the gorge. The course of the cataract led to Shepperd’s Dell.

It was for many years George Shepperd’s habit to go on Sunday afternoon with the children and sit beneath a tree and look down upon the exquisitely fashioned spot. The harsh outlines of the rock, cast up aeons ago by volcanic fires, were softened and carved into fantastic and beautiful forms by the streamlet. Maidenhair fern clung precariously to the cliff. Flowers bloomed under the shadow of the tall and somber firs.

When the Columbia River Highway was built George Shepperd gave Shepperd’s Dell to the people as their beauty spot forever. At other points along the highway “No Trespass” signs appeared where property was privately owned. George Shepperd left a welcome.

One wonders if there will be a bright Sunday afternoon when the spirit of this humble man will be allowed to return and brood over Shepperd’s Dell and share in the pleasure of the many who revel there. Having little, he gave all, and it became much.

(Postscript: after his death the Oregon Journal published this tribute to George Shepperd. We are all still “his heirs”. I would someday like to see these words cast in bronze and tucked into a shady corner of his Dell so that a bit of his story might be known the many who visit this spot)
________________

Acknowledgements: as you might have guessed from the length, this was among the more challenging articles to research for this blog, as very little is written about George Shepperd. An especially big big thank-you goes to Scott Daniels, reference librarian at the Oregon Historical Society, who helped me locate the only known biography of George Shepperd.

The obscure Shepperd biography was written in 1997 by Muriel Thompson, a great-great niece of George Shepperd. Thompson traveled to Oregon to conduct some of her in-depth research, including court records from the various legal actions Shepperd was party to and digging into Oregon Journal archives at a time when news searches meant poring over microfiche archives. It’s an invaluable account of George Shepperd’s life and legacy.

The stairs leading into Shepperd's Dell from the bridge as they appeared in the 1940s - the signpost no longer exists, though the rest of the scene is largely unchanged.

The stairs leading into Shepperd’s Dell from the bridge as they appeared in the 1940s – the signpost no longer exists, though the rest of the scene is largely unchanged.

Thompson’s biography did not have the benefit of today’s internet research tools, and through a variety of these sources, I was able to piece together a fuller picture of George Shepperd’s complex life than was possible in 1997, especially details about his two marriages and additional historic news accounts about his land donation and the construction of the Columbia River Highway.

There is still plenty of mystery surrounding this important player in the history of the Columbia Gorge: did any structures from George Shepperd’s farm survive? Why did his children bury him at Riverview Cemetery instead of Bridal Veil, by his beloved Mattie? What became of his grandson Raymond, by his vanished eldest son William? As always, I welcome any new or corrected information, and especially contact with any of his descendents. One of the unexpected joys in writing this blog is the opportunity to connect directly with grandchildren and great-grandchildren of important people in our regional history!

Stone Walls of the Columbia River Highway

Lancaster's familiar arched walls line the approach to the Eagle Creek bridge

Lancaster’s familiar arched walls line the approach to the Eagle Creek bridge

Of all the engineering treasures created by Samuel Lancaster in building the (now Historic) Columbia River Highway, perhaps most iconic are the rustic stone walls that line the old road. Their graceful arches and elegant caps are a beautiful, familiar presence that has become inseparable from the surrounding natural landscape.

The walls are as functional as they are handsome: foremost, they serve as guardrails, designed to keep 1916 Ford Model T drivers on the spectacular new touring road with its perilous cliffs and winding route. But Lancaster also used them to frame the sweeping Gorge views and blend the new roadway into its rugged natural surroundings.

The intricate details sketched in the HAER record for the Historic Columbia River Highway continue to guide restoration of the old road today

The intricate details sketched in the HAER record for the Historic Columbia River Highway continue to guide restoration of the old road today

This article examines Lancaster’s stone walls in more detail. The drawings included in the article are from the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) program, established in 1969 by the National Park Service to document historic sites and structures.

In 1995, the HAER program worked with Robert Hadlow, historian at the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), to produce 27 pages of detailed drawings illustrating Samuel Lancaster’s amazing Columbia River Highway. This historical record continues to guide the restoration of the old highway to this day, as it transforms to become the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. The sketches in this article are the result of this work, and now reside in the Library of Congress.

Three Basic Designs

There are three major guardrail designs found along the old highway: the familiar arched stone walls with concrete cap, a lighter concrete arch found on several viaducts and bridges and the standard Oregon Highway Department wood fences of the era — painted white, and found throughout the old highway, but especially east of Hood River.

The standard arched railing found throughout the Gorge

The standard arched railing found throughout the Gorge

The lighter concrete arch and rail design found on viaducts and bridges

The lighter concrete arch and rail design found on viaducts and bridges

ODOT has been restoring wood guardrails along the old highway throughout the Gorge since the 1990s

ODOT has been restoring wood guardrails along the old highway throughout the Gorge since the 1990s

A fourth design is something less than a railing: along several sections of the road, Lancaster used vertical basalt blocks to form an irregular low wall (or tall curb?). These primarily function to mark the edge of the roadway, as even a Model T could easily jump these barriers. This design (pictured below) is found in several sections of the old road in the western Gorge.

Basalt blocks serve as a tall curb on several sections of highway to mark the edge of the roadway

Basalt blocks serve as a tall curb on several sections of highway to mark the edge of the roadway

Capped arch design on the East Multnomah viaduct (Beacon Rock in the background)

Capped arch design on the East Multnomah viaduct (Beacon Rock in the background)

Standard capped arches under construction at the Eagle Creek Bridge in 1915

Standard capped arches under construction at the Eagle Creek Bridge in 1915

Lancaster took advantage of the terrain to frame pullouts and viewpoints with his iconic stone walls

Lancaster took advantage of the terrain to frame pullouts and viewpoints with his iconic stone walls

The capped arch design was carried into some of the major pullouts and hiking trails along the old highway, including Women’s Forum Park, Crown Point, Sheperd’s Dell, Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls. More recently, capped arch walls have been added to the refurbished waysides at Latourell Falls and Mitchell Point.

New capped arch walls at Wahkeena Falls in 1917

New capped arch walls at Wahkeena Falls in 1917

The original capped arch walls at Wahkeena (shown new in the previous photo) has survived the elements -- and a major rockfall in the late 1960s

The original capped arch walls at Wahkeena (shown new in the previous photo) has survived the elements — and a major rockfall in the late 1960s

This box culvert near Shepperd's Dell was built in the 1990s using the capped arch design

This box culvert near Shepperd’s Dell was built in the 1990s using the capped arch design

New capped arch walls were added to the Latourell Falls wayside in 2013, with a twist: painted iron bars now keep toy poodles and small children from crawling under them!

New capped arch walls were added to the Latourell Falls wayside in 2013, with a twist: painted iron bars now keep toy poodles and small children from crawling under them!

In the 25 years since restoration of the old highway began in earnest, a handful of exceptionally skilled, local stonemasons are responsible for the many new or restored walls that now grace the Historic Columbia River Highway. Their work is as much art as construction, and their old-world skills are rare in this day and age.

The remainder of this article looks at how these beautiful walls are constructed.

Built by Artisans

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The capped arch walls along the old highway are a labor-intensive effort, with individual basalt blocks split and trimmed to fit and mortar on site. Many of the stone workers working on the original highway were Italian immigrants whose skills and masonry secrets were passed down from generations of stonemasons.

Not much is known about these early laborers, though research by ODOT historians suggest that a series of cobble ovens near Warren Creek were built by Italian workers. These ovens may have used them to bake fresh bread by crews camped along the old highway during its construction.

You can find the stone ovens today along the Starvation Ridge Trail, just off modern-day I-84. Plans for extending the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail in this area have been carefully designed to preserve these historic features.

Italian stonemasons likely built the cobble ovens that survive near Warren Creek

Italian stonemasons likely built the cobble ovens that survive near Warren Creek

Building the stone walls began with cutting blocks of basalt to size using drills to create a break line, then a combination of “feathers” and wedges to split the basalt to custom shapes (Figure 1).

GorgeStoneWalls18

The walls are assembled atop a concrete footing that maintains the linear path of the wall. A close look at the capped arch walls shows two runs of cut stone. The first run consists of slightly tapered basalt blocks set over an arched form constructed of wood planks called an “arch buck” (Figures 2 and 3).

GorgeStoneWalls19

Plank forms also frame the outer face of the stone walls – these are shown as “slip form walls” in Figures 2 and 3. These forms are built up as stones are set in the wall, with wood spacers used to ensure the slip form maintains a uniform width for the masonry wall.

GorgeStoneWalls20

A second run of stone facing consists of irregular basalt pieces used to fill the spaces in the wall between the arch stones. After the stone for each section of wall has been set with a mortar grout, the space between the outer stone facing is filled with concrete (Figure 4). Once the concrete fill has set, the wood forms are removed in this initial phase of stone wall construction.

GorgeStoneWalls21

In the second phase of wall construction, the concrete cap is added The cap clearly has a decorative function, but it is also designed to protect the integrity of the wall below by shielding the interior of the stonework from the elements.

Cap construction begins with another wood form built slightly wider than the wall, itself, to provide a protective overhang. Galvanized wire is suspended inside the form, where concrete will be poured around it for reinforcement. Once the form is in place, concrete is poured into the cap form, leaving a flat concrete top (Figure 5).

GorgeStoneWalls22

In the final step, the wood form for the concrete cap is removed, and a slightly arched mortar finished is formed on top of the flat concrete cap. A curved wood “screed” is used to trim the sand mortar to the rounded top that we recognize on the caps today (Figure 6).

As always, Lancaster gave us a pleasing finish with his design, but the rounded top is also functional, discouraging water and debris from collecting on top of the walls.

GorgeStoneWalls23

Creating the iconic stone walls is slow work. But in Lancaster’s day, labor was plentiful and cheap, and he employed dozens of workers to inch their way along the new highway, building the stone walls section by section.

Today’s restored and rebuilt walls are constructed in much the same way as they were a century ago, as described in this recent article on the Sahalie Falls Bridge. While they are painstaking to build, Samuel Lancaster’s walls have survived the elements, with miles of walls in excellent condition after a century of harsh Columbia Gorge weather — a real testament to their quality and design.

More to come..!

Recently completed stonework and traditional wood guardrails at the refurbished Mitchell Point Overlook

Recently completed stonework and traditional wood guardrails at the refurbished Mitchell Point Overlook

For those who love the stonework details of the Historic Columbia River Highway, the past 30 years have been a renaissance. Since the mid-1980s, ODOT and Oregon State Parks and Recreation have partnered to restore or rebuild basalt stonework throughout the Gorge as the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail takes shape.

The good news is that more restoration and reconstruction is on the way. ODOT will soon extend the state trail west of Starvation Creek, including special stonework details at Cabin Creek, Warren Creek and Lindsey Creek.

Stonemasons on the recently completed Eagle Creek Bridge in 1915

Stonemasons on the recently completed Eagle Creek Bridge in 1915

Plans call for completing the state trail in the next few years, linking all of the remaining sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway from Troutdale to The Dalles. While the spectacular Gorge scenery is the main attraction along this emerging, world-class route, the stunning design of the road itself is what makes the journey so memorable.

What would Samuel Lancaster think of the renewed interest in his vision for the Columbia River Highway? Certainly, he would be thrilled to see his dream of scenic parkway being rediscovered. But given his attention to craftsmanship and blending with the Gorge environment, he would be especially pleased with the careful attention today’s designers are paying to the rustic details — including those iconic stone walls!

The Ancient Rowena Oak

The Rowena Oak

The Rowena Oak

Somewhere under the heading of “hidden in plain sight” is a remarkable Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) growing just a few yards from the Historic Columbia River Highway, near Rowena Crest. I stumbled across this old sentinel a few weeks ago while exploring the sprawling fields of arrowleaf balsamroot that Rowena is known for.

The venerable Rowena oak is not a particularly graceful tree: you won’t find it in coffee table books or on postcards. Though the gnarled trunks of these slow-growing trees are often living works of art, the Rowena oak is as much a battered monument to simple survival as it is a living sculpture. But it’s well worth a visit for anyone who loves ancient trees, and makes for a unique stop for those exploring the old highway.

Dry Canyon Bridge and McCall Point from Rowena Plateau

Dry Canyon Bridge and McCall Point from Rowena Plateau

The tree is located in a most unlikely spot, near the brink of craggy Dry Canyon, a Missoula Flood feature that is part of the Rowena Dell canyon complex.

The sheer canyon walls are a reminder that the oaks surviving the harsh Rowena climate are anchored in a very thin layer of soil, atop hundreds of feet of layered basalt. This semi-desert ecosystem has an average of just 14 inches of rain per year, with hot, dry summers and freezing winters, and our infamous Gorge winds ready to strike up at any time, year-round.

The fact that Oregon white oaks can live to be hundreds of years old in this environment is truly remarkable. Part of their secret lies in a large taproot that not only anchors the trees in this windy, hostile environment, but also provides trees access to deep groundwater stored in the layers of basalt bedrock. The main taproot in these trees is complemented by a strong lateral root system, giving our native oaks an especially impressive root structure compared to most other tree species.

Dry Canyon and Rowena Dell from the highway bridge

Dry Canyon and Rowena Dell from the highway bridge

Despite these challenges, the oak trees of the dry savannah found at Rowena are thriving, and even the ancient sentinels in these groves are blooming and producing acorns with each spring.

The Rowena Oak grows just a few yards from the historic Dry Canyon bridge, and was clearly here to witness the construction Samuel Lancaster’s Historic Columbia River Highway and Conde McCullough’s iconic highway bridge over the rocky gorge in 1921. The old tree probably stood witness to first railroads being built in the late 1800s, as well — and the rise and fall of the salmon canning industry that swept through the Gorge toward the end of the 1800s.

The Rowena Oak with the Dry Canyon Bridge in the background

The Rowena Oak with the Dry Canyon Bridge in the background

In fact, at roughly two feet in diameter, the Rowena Oak could easily pre-date the arrival of Europeans in this part of North America. An Oregon State University (OSU) study of similar Oregon white oak habitat in Southern Oregon found that trees greater than 15″ in diameter were consistently 200 years or more years in age. The oldest oak in the OSU study was a whopping 429 years old, truly a testament to survival.

The huge, cascading Rowena Oak hangs into the protected niche of Dry Canyon

The huge, cascading Rowena Oak hangs into the protected niche of Dry Canyon

The arid climate at Rowena may be tough on trees, but it also helps preserve the life history of the old giants as they gradually succumb to the elements. Their broken tops and limbs are often preserved exactly where they fell decades ago, as mute testimony to the years of hardship these ancient trees have endured.

The Rowena oak is a great example, as it is surrounded by its own debris from decades of the ice storms, relentless winds and even the occasional lightning strike that are part of survival in the Gorge. The density of Oregon White oak wood helps in the preservation, as well — the same hardness that preserves its wood in the wild is also why these trees have historically been used to make furniture, flooring and barrels.

The Rowena Oak with Sevenmile Hill in the distance

The Rowena Oak with Sevenmile Hill in the distance

The Rowena oak has huge, twin trunks, the top of each toppled long ago by the elements. Lacking a top, the tree relies on four massive, sprawling limbs to survive, highlighting another survival secret of this species: Oregon White Oak sprouts prolifically from dormant buds on stumps and along trunks when tops are cut or broken off. This ability to adapt helped the Rowena oak survive what could have been catastrophic damage for most tree species.

The eastern of the two trunks points two massive, arching limbs toward the rim of Dry Canyon, and a closer look reveals yet another survival secret of this ancient tree: a tangle of branches cascade over the cliff like a leafy waterfall, with a lush canopy protected from the worst of the Gorge weather that sweeps across the top of the plateau.

A closer look at the sprawling Rowena Oak

A closer look at the sprawling Rowena Oak

A third major limb, nearly a foot thick, snakes a surprising 50 feet from the eastern trunk, along the exposed cliff edge of the canyon. This huge limb hovers just 2-3 feet above the ground — yet doesn’t touch — thanks to the tremendous strength of its wood.

The huge, contorted limbs of the Rowena Oak have "eyes" that seem to be watching curious visitors!

The huge, contorted limbs of the Rowena Oak have “eyes” that seem to be watching curious visitors!

The western of the two main trunks has just one surviving major limb, a crooked, cracked affair that touches ground at several points, surrounded by the bleached bones of its own branches, broken off over the decades. Each of the fracture points in this broken old limb is marked with a thicket of new sprouts, showing how this old tree continues to regenerate, extending its long life.

One of the many bleached "bones" that help tell the survival story of the Rowena Oak

One of the many bleached “bones” that help tell the survival story of the Rowena Oak

While the Rowena Oak may look haggard, its growing limbs are healthy, putting out annual bursts of new leaves each spring, along with surprisingly abundant flower clusters. These will soon yield acorns, completing a reproductive cycle this tree has likely repeated since the time when Lewis and Clark passed by, if not longer.

Spring brings another flush of new leaves on the venerable Rowena Oak

Spring brings another flush of new leaves on the venerable Rowena Oak

Spring blossoms on the Rowena Oak

Spring blossoms on the Rowena Oak

Though most have been stripped by the elements or wildlife, several acorns from last year’s crop are still attached to the Rowena Oak, waiting to be dispersed. A mature Oregon white oak can produce anywhere from 20 to 50 lbs of acorns in a season, depending on growing conditions.

Acorns may look tough, but they are designed to sprout new tree seedlings as soon as moisture and warmth allow, as the seeds only remain viable for a year or so. Only a very few will sprout, and only a tiny fraction of seedlings will survive to become trees.

A few acorns from last season are still attached to the Rowena Oak

A few acorns from last season are still attached to the Rowena Oak

The thickets of younger Oregon white oak trees we see in some parts of the Gorge today may be the result of fire suppression over the past century. Studies of Oregon white oak groves in the Willamette Valley by Oregon State University suggest that pre-settlement fires regularly thinned out seedlings, allowing established oak trees to thrive without the competition of young oaks. Fire also kept other, competing tree species at bay that otherwise would have crowded out the native white oaks.

Visiting the Rowena Oak

Though the spectacular fields of yellow balsamroot and blue lupine have mostly faded, Rowena is always fascinating to explore. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages a sizeable conservation preserve covering much of the area.

Visiting the Rowena Oak

Visiting the Rowena Oak

(click here for a larger map in a new window)

A lower trail leads across the Rowena Plateau to a cliff-edge view of the Columbia River, and an upper trail climbs to McCall Point to a sweeping view of Mount Hood and the Gorge. Less adventurous hikers can still enjoy terrific views of the Gorge by simply hiking the first quarter mile or so of these trails, so there are hiking options for every ability.

The Rowena Oak is located just a few steps off the Historic Columbia River Highway, immediately west of the Dry Canyon Bridge. Roadside parking is available as you approach the bridge from Mosier. Simply walk uphill along the west edge of the canyon, and you will immediately spot the old oak from a low rise adjacent to the highway. This is an easy, rewarding stop for families with young kids, as the tree tells a fascinating story of survival.

Spectacular river views reward hikers on the Rowena Plateau trail

Spectacular river views reward hikers on the Rowena Plateau trail

The longer hikes to the Rowena Plateau and McCall Point are quite busy during April and May during the wildflower bloom, but you’ll have them to yourself later in summer and fall, when the flowers are gone but the landscape is just as impressive. While the upper trail leads to broad views of the Columbia River and Mount Hood, the lower trail has a unique pair of “kolk” lakes formed during the Missoula Floods, and equally impressive views of the river and Rowena Dell.

Springtime balsamroot atop McCall Point on the upper trail

Springtime balsamroot atop McCall Point on the upper trail

As with all eastern Gorge hikes, use caution hiking in the heat of summer, as there is little tree canopy to shade these trails. The Nature Conservancy also asks that you stay on the trails, and be aware of the triple hazard of rattlesnakes, poison oak and ticks that are standard for the eastern Gorge. The first two in this list are easy to avoid, but you should prepare for ticks, and follow more rigorous precautions (see this recent article on ticks for a few tips). Note that the trails at Rowena are closed in the winter, when they can be slick and potentially hazardous.

Latourell Falls Makeover (Part 2)

Latourell Falls

Latourell Falls

In the first part of this article, I focused on recent improvements that have greatly enhanced the Historic Columbia River Highway wayside at Latourell Falls. This article looks at the balance of Guy Talbot State Park, where a number of improvements are needed to keep pace with the ever-growing number of visitors who now hike the Latourell loop trail year-round.

Improving the Loop Trail

Hiking the loop in the traditional clockwise direction from the wayside, the first stop is bench located a few hundred yards up the trail. This memorial bench was donated by the Sierra Club, and though it’s not a great architectural fit for the area (a rustic style would be more appropriate), it’s still a welcome resting spot for casual hikers.

Memorial bench along the Latourell Loop Trail

Memorial bench along the Latourell Loop Trail

Not coincidentally, the bench faces a lovely view of Latourell Falls, but there’s a story behind the view, as someone has made the effort to do some “scene management” for photographers. Take a look at the photo below, and you can appreciate the waterfall scene in its graceful glory, framed by firs and moss-covered maples. But a closer look reveals a sawed-off stump with a fresh cut. Why here? Because a trail steward (authorized or otherwise) trimmed off the broken shards of a maple that split off in an ice storm a few years ago — leaving a sore thumb that marred this classic view. You can see in these after/before comparisons from now and in 2010:

A beautiful scene as viewed in December 2012…

A beautiful scene as viewed in December 2012…

…and the sore thumb that once was…

…and the sore thumb that once was…

…and the telltale stump!

…and the telltale stump!

If this was sanctioned “scene management” pruning, then kudos to the State Parks folks for putting classic views on their maintenance list. If this is a guerilla effort by a frustrated photographer, then perhaps State Parks managers will take note, and keep this view intact..!

Moving up the loop, the trail soon approaches a heavily trampled bluff above Latourell Falls. Here, the first apparent problem is a decades-old shortcut at the first switchback. A sign begs hikers to stay on the trail to protect “sensitive plants”, but so far, the boots are winning, despite logs and debris purposely scattered across the shortcut.

Tossing more logs across this shortcut might help, but borrowing an idea from the beautiful new stonework at the trailhead (or recently built stonework along the Bridal Veil Falls trail), and adding a rustic stone retaining wall here to corral traffic would be a nice option that would have lasting value.

A forlorn sign attempts to reason with trail-cutters

A forlorn sign attempts to reason with trail-cutters

The viewpoint atop the well-worn bluff is really starting to show its age. The 1950s-vintage steel cable fence and mix of concrete and steel pipe posts were never a good aesthetic fit for the Gorge, but more importantly, they’re not doing anything. Visitors have recently pushed a scary boot path past the fence, and down to the brink of Latourell Falls (shown below), so a near-term fix is in order.

The overgrown, beleaguered viewpoint at the to of the falls is in need of some TLC!

The overgrown, beleaguered viewpoint at the to of the falls is in need of some TLC!

The trail at the overlook has already been stomped into a wide “plaza” of sorts, and that would be a good design solution here, with a stone wall replacing the rickety old handrail. A layer of crushed gravel (another design feature of the recent improvements at Bridal Veil Falls) would further help minimize the mud slick that forms in wet months.

The lone (and beleaguered) wood bench at the overlook is well-used, and a redesign should include two or three places to sit and admire the view. For most visitors who venture beyond the lower falls overlook, this bluff above the falls is the turnaround point.

The boot path to the brink of the falls has become a heavily used liability in recent years

The boot path to the brink of the falls has become a heavily used liability in recent years

Adding a stone wall to better define the overlook would help curb foolhardy visitors from following the boot path to the falls brink. However, the overlook also needs some vegetation management in order to simply maintain the view back down to the trailhead — this is what most hikers who push beyond the handrails are looking for, after all.

A pair of reckless visitors in flip-flops spotted in 2010 at the bottom of the dangerous boot path, tempting fate…

A pair of reckless visitors in flip-flops spotted in 2010 at the bottom of the dangerous boot path, tempting fate…

A few steps beyond the bluff overlook, an unmarked trail forks to the right, descending to Latourell Creek. At first, this seems like another informal boot path, but a closer look reveals a well-constructed trail. In fact, this is where a lower loop once crossed the creek, connecting to the main loop where it returns (and is clearly visible) on the far side of the creek. This is an old idea that still makes sense, and should be embraced with a new bridge and refurbished connector trail.

This side trail (to the right) used to be part of a lower loop route

This side trail (to the right) used to be part of a lower loop route

In reality, hikers are already using the lower loop, though a series of slick, dangerous logs a few yards upstream from the brink of Latourell Falls serve as the “bridge”. Reconnecting and restoring these old trail segments would be a good way to provide a shorter loop for less active hikers, and also resolve this hazardous crossing that is clearly too tempting for many hikers to resist.

Bridge needed! This old trail and the sketchy log crossing are an accident waiting to happen -- and also an opportunity to provide an excellent short loop for hikers.

Bridge needed! This old trail and the sketchy log crossing are an accident waiting to happen — and also an opportunity to provide an excellent short loop for hikers.

Moving along the loop to its upper end, the Latourell trail has a few issues at Upper Latourell Falls that deserve attention in the interest of protecting the lush landscape from being loved to death. For many years, this upper section of the trail was only lightly used, but the proximity of Talbot State Park to the Portland Metro region and the family-friendly nature of this trail has clearly made the full loop a very favorite destination.

Upper Latourell Falls

Upper Latourell Falls

The trail approach on the east side of the falls is in good shape, but problems start to emerge on the west side of the footbridge. This is not coincidental, as an adventurous early trail once switch-backed up the slope on the west side, and led to a precarious bridge across the mid-section of the falls (shown below).

The location of this old trail was uncovered only recently. Century-old rockwork and obvious paths heading uphill from the falls have always hinted at an old trail, but a geocache has now been placed along the old path, drawing enough visitors up the slope to add some urgency to addressing the off-trail impacts here.

A century-old trail climbs the west slope at Upper Latourell Falls

A century-old trail climbs the west slope at Upper Latourell Falls

The best solution here is to embrace the lowest segment of the old path by repairing the stonework, or perhaps adding steps where a shortcut has formed, and provide hikers with that close-up view from behind the falls that is responsible for the bulk of the off-trail traffic (the hikers in the photo above are making this irresistible trip).

The upper sections of the old trail are much less traveled, and a simple solution here might be to simply ask the geocache owner to remove the cache. The cache risks not simply re-opening the old trail, but also bringing inexperienced hikers to the potentially dangerous rock shelf where the log footbridge once stood. If the geocache is removed soon, it’s unlikely that visitors would even notice the upper portions of this trail.

This precarious bridge spanned the upper tier of Upper Latourell Falls in the early 1900s (courtesy U of O Archives)

This precarious bridge spanned the upper tier of Upper Latourell Falls in the early 1900s (courtesy U of O Archives)

Turning downstream along the west leg of the Latourell loop, the trail passes a couple of spots where some TLC is needed. First, another potentially dangerous log crossing (shown below) has drawn enough traffic to form its own boot path.

It could be decades before this old log finally collapses into the creek, so a better plan is needed to stem the damage now. Sawing out the log seems possible, and is a job that could be easily in early fall, when water levels are at their lowest, and fire danger has passed. This might even be a job for volunteer trail stewards with crosscut skills.

The other “bridge” on upper Latourell Creek…

The other “bridge” on upper Latourell Creek…

A bit further downstream along the west leg, the loop trail passes the old trail leading to the former footbridge (described previously). Here, the new trail launches uphill along a steep, slick segment built to bypass the bridge.

Reopening the old trail section (and adding a new bridge) would therefore have a spinoff benefit here: not only would a shorter loop be possible (and safe), but the short, badly designed new section of the current trail (shown in yellow on the map, below) could be decommissioned, with the main route using the old section of trail, once again (shown in red). This would be a terrific project for volunteers, including bridge construction.

LatourellLoop16

(click here for a large map)

Another scary feature suddenly appears as the west leg of the loop trail curves above Latourell Falls: an old viewpoint spur trail heads straight down to a very exposed, rocky outcrop rising directly above the falls. The view from this exposed landing is impressive, but completely unsafe, given the thousands of families with young kids that walk this loop each year. There is no railing and no warning of the extreme exposure for parents attempting to keep kids in tow.

The west overlook from the trail… yikes!

The west overlook from the trail… yikes!

The safety hazards of the west overlook are twofold: certain death for someone slipping over the 280 foot sheer cliff to the north and a tempting, sloped scramble to the falls brink for daredevils and the foolhardy.

A simple solution could be a handrail or cable encircling the viewpoint, but a more elegant option would be a more permanent viewing platform in the stonework style of the improvements at the trailhead, serving both as a safety measure and to encourage visitors to comfortably enjoy the airy view.

The west overlook and falls brink from the east side

The west overlook and falls brink from the east side

Next, the loop trail curves away from the creek and out of Latourell canyon, passing an overgrown viewpoint (that probably deserves to be retired), then descending in a long switchback to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Here, the route crosses the road, and resumes on an attractive path that suddenly ends in the Talbot State Park picnic area. Though a bit of searching gets most hikers to the resumption of the loop hike, some signage would be helpful here — both to direct loop hikers back to the main trailhead, but also pointing picnickers to trail to both the upper and main waterfalls.

Heavy traffic has formed a boot-path at the base of Latourell Falls

Heavy traffic has formed a boot-path at the base of Latourell Falls

Beyond the picnic area, the trail re-enters Latourell canyon and quickly descends to the base of Latourell Falls, the final area where loop trail improvements are sorely needed. At this point along the loop, we are within a few hundred yards of the main trailhead and wayside, so the crush of year-round visitors is evident everywhere — and thus the paved trail surface in this portion of the loop.

Most of the human impact is absorbed by the trail, but in recent years a messy boot path has developed along the west side of the creek, starting at the lower footbridge, and branching as it heads toward the base of the falls.

Looking back at the footbridge, and the extent of damage from the boot path

Looking back at the footbridge, and the extent of damage from the boot path

As it nears the falls, the boot path devolves into a web of muddy paths, where delicate ferns and wildflowers have been trampled

As it nears the falls, the boot path devolves into a web of muddy paths, where delicate ferns and wildflowers have been trampled

There isn’t a good way to convert this boot path into a formal spur or viewpoint because of the unstable slopes and visual impact it would create, so the challenge is how to best manage the off-trail activity. The simplest option would be an extension of the bridge hand-rail to block the boot path, making off-trail exploring a bit harder.

This mud patch at the east approach to the lower footbridge would make a perfect mini-plaza for visitors to spend time taking in the view

This mud patch at the east approach to the lower footbridge would make a perfect mini-plaza for visitors to spend time taking in the view

But there is also an opportunity to embrace the first part of the boot path, where a “mud plaza” of sorts has been stomped into the ground. This spot features one of the best angles for photographing the falls, after all, so a stone masonry mini-plaza with seating would be a terrific way to both discourage the off-trail travel, and give waterfall admirers an inviting place to stop and photograph the falls, out of the main flow of foot traffic.

Honoring Guy W. Talbot

One last bit of unfinished business at Talbot State Park is a debt of gratitude to Guy Talbot, himself. At the west end of the historic highway bridge, a large gravel pullout serves as overflow parking for this popular park. The loop trail crosses the highway near the pullout and in recent years, heavy use has turned this into an overflow trailhead, as well.

The wide pullout at the west end of the Latourell Bridge

The wide pullout at the west end of the Latourell Bridge

At first glance, it seems nothing more than a broad, gravel shoulder. But upon closer inspection, it’s home to the only real monument to Guy Webster Talbot — the man whose profound generosity spared Latourell Falls from some other fate, and gave us the park that we know today. After all, the property wasn’t simply an undeveloped tract of forest, but rather, Talbot’s beloved country home. He gave the place he loved most to all Oregonians, in perpetuity.

Few traces of Talbot’s home and the surrounding estate survive, so this would be the perfect spot for a third interpretive sign (the first two are on the east end of the bridge, at the refurbished wayside) focused on Talbot, and why he was such an important historical figure in history of the area.

This plaque is the sole evidence of Guy Talbot’s grand gesture to the public

This plaque is the sole evidence of Guy Talbot’s grand gesture to the public

The pullout, itself, could also be improved to become a more formal secondary trailhead for the loop, as well — perhaps not as substantial as the newly rebuilt main trailhead and wayside at the other end of the bridge, but something better than the pothole-covered pullout that exists today.

The venerable Latourell Creek Bridge is among the most impressive on the old highway

The venerable Latourell Creek Bridge is among the most impressive on the old highway

Finally, there’s one more interpretive opportunity near the Guy Talbot memorial: a tale of two bridges. One is the towering, 300-foot long Latourell Bridge along the old highway, to the east. The unique history of its construction in 1914 is a story that should be told, especially since visitors can walk both sides of the bridge on the beautifully designed, original sidewalks.

The second bridge is a curious phantom of history — a former footbridge that once connected the two halves of the Talbot property in an elaborate, Venetian-style arch. Though long gone, the footings for the bridge can still be seen, and are a reminder of the elegance of days gone by.

The old footbridge over the highway was located just east of Latourell Creek

The old footbridge over the highway was located just east of Latourell Creek

The good news is that both the Oregon State Parks and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) are on a roll when it comes to enhancing the Historic Columbia River Highway trails and waysides. Many recent improvements to the Gorge parks and the old highway, itself, have already been completed in recent years, and more are already under construction.

Hopefully, polishing up the rest of the Latourell Falls loop and Talbot State Park can find its way into the State Parks and ODOT work program, too!

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Addendum: after posting this article, I heard from the owner of the geocache mentioned above Upper Latourell Falls. File this under the “small world” department, but it also happened to be someone I’ve known for many years, and who sets the highest standard for conservation ethics. Had I checked the cache ownership and known this, it would have erased any concerns about potential impacts the cache will have on the area. I now know it is in very good hands!

The cache owner also shared some numbers behind the cache that support that last point: only 50 users have logged it in the 3-plus years since it was placed, so not enough to have a noticeable impact on the terrain. Thus, the impacts that we’ve seen in recent years are likely just more of what we see elsewhere on the loop, where the crush of thousands off feet hitting this trail each year is running the landscape a bit ragged.

At its core, geocaching is a terrific way to introduce people (and especially children) to our public lands, which in turn, helps create advocates for conservation — something very much in line with this blog. Hopefully this article didn’t leave other geocachers thinking otherwise. After all, I own several caches myself, and like most cache owners, do my best to ensure they bring people into the wilds while also having minimal impact on the landscape.

Latourell Falls Makeover (Part 1)

Today’s wayside is located at the east end of the Latourell Bridge, where the Falls Chalet roadhouse once stood in 1914 (shown here)

Today’s wayside is located at the east end of the Latourell Bridge, where the Falls Chalet roadhouse once stood in 1914 (shown here)

Over the past few years, Oregon Parks & Recreation has set the high bar for recreation improvements on the state lands it manages in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area. The latest project is a handsome, thoughtful makeover of the Latourell Falls wayside, located along the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) in Talbot State Park.

The Latourell wayside serves thousands of Gorge tourists each year, and also functions as the trailhead for the very popular Latourell Falls loop trail. The site has a long history, and was once home to a pair of roadhouses during the heyday of Samuel Lancaster’s world-class highway in the early 1900s.

The Falls Villa roadhouse was located across the road from today’s wayside through the 1930s, now marked only by a stand of mature bigleaf maple

The Falls Villa roadhouse was located across the road from today’s wayside through the 1930s, now marked only by a stand of mature bigleaf maple

Modest improvements to the wayside over the years included interpretive historic signs added in the 1990s that tracked the colorful human history of the area, but for the most part, the site was dated and dingy. The restoration work completed last summer is thus a major upgrade that deserves a review here. The work was completed with a special grant secured by the Oregon State Parks department

Makeover Review

Front and center in the rebuilt wayside is the official state park sign, constructed in the standardized style used for both national forest and state park units throughout the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area (CGNSA). The sign is mounted on a newly constructed basalt base, also designed in the uniform CGNSA style.

Welcome (again) to Guy W. Talbot State Park!

Welcome (again) to Guy W. Talbot State Park!

One missed opportunity in repurposing the existing entry sign was the chance to tell the story of Guy Talbot (picture below, in the early 1930s), one of the business titans of early Portland. Talbot donated the land containing Latourell Falls and the gorgeous canyon above the falls, so deserves more than passing mention in the human story of the area (along with other benefactors who donated the lands we now know as the state parks gems dotting the Historic Columbia River Highway).

Guy W. Talbot as he appeared in 1933 on the front page of the Oregonian, announcing his retirement

Guy W. Talbot as he appeared in 1933 on the front page of the Oregonian, announcing his retirement

Two enamel interpretive panels installed at the wayside in the 1990s were salvaged and reinstalled in the new layout. One focuses on the history of the historic highway (the photos of the roadhouses, above, are from this display) and is now mounted in outside a new restroom (below). It’s a well-trafficked location, albeit sorely lacking in aesthetic appeal! The second interpretive sign is located at the main falls overlook, and briefly describes the history of private land donations for parks in the Gorge.

The new restroom is located at the east end of the wayside, tucked away from most of the picnic tables and a good distance from the new falls overlook plaza. While modern budgets probably require the low-maintenance advantage of pit toilets, the more civilized flush toilets that were removed were an aesthetic notch above the smelly nature of a chemical toilet.

The new restroom is (unfortunately) the standard pit-toilet style found elsewhere along the old highway

The new restroom is (unfortunately) the standard pit-toilet style found elsewhere along the old highway

Considering the volume of visitors to this park, plumbed toilets may be essential — we shall find out soon enough! Fortunately, flush toilets at historic highway waysides still survive at Bridal Veil, Multnomah Falls, Ainsworth State Park, Eagle Creek, Bridge of the Gods and Starvation Creek.

But a major improvement that comes with the new restroom is the location on the south side of the old highway, adjacent to the parking area — the old restroom required crossing the highway. The new toilets are also ADA accessible, along with the drinking fountain located outside the restroom and two of the nearby picnic tables.

Accessible drinking fountain located outside the restroom

Accessible drinking fountain located outside the restroom

An unexpected benefit from the relocated restrooms: it turns out the old restrooms blocked a very nice view of the Latourell Bridge (below), framed by mossy bigleaf maple trees. The old restroom site is marked only by a flat spot below the highway. The low-headroom trail under the bridge that once accessed the restroom has also been decommissioned.

The view that used to be behind the restroom..!

The view that used to be behind the restroom..!

Other details of the new wayside design include basalt curbs that edge the repaved parking area (below), and bicycle racks for cyclists touring the old highway to safely stop and admire the upper viewpoint, fill water bottles, picnic or use the restrooms.

Stone curbs show the attention to details paid by the designers

Stone curbs show the attention to details paid by the designers

One thoughtful aspect of the new bicycle racks is the central location: too often, bicycle parking is relegated to an unused corner. This makes for much less secure parking than a more prominent location, where the public eye is more likely to deter sketchy behavior.

Centrally located bike racks front the main parking area

Centrally located bike racks front the main parking area

The west end of the wayside is the primary focus for visitors, with a handsome plaza and several new visitor amenities. A concrete-capped stone wall in the Gorge style wraps around the plaza, with notched insets for visitor information and interpretive sign installations.

An attractive, new visitor information sign (below) is an excellent addition to the wayside. While it contains the standard park information found at most state parks, an excellent trail map describing the Latourell Creek loop hike is also featured. Even better, the map isn’t of the cartoonish variety often found at tourist waysides. Instead, it shows accurate trail information and even includes elevation contours!

The handsome new visitor information sign at the Latourell wayside

The handsome new visitor information sign at the Latourell wayside

The visitor map does a good job of showing the hiking options and trail highlights, as well as helpful tips on the multiple (and somewhat confusing) trailheads that provide access to the loop. A nice cartographic touch is attention to showing private lands that abut the park (though hopefully some future version of this map will show those lands in public ownership, through the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area acquisition program!)

The excellent, new Latourell Falls Loop map

The excellent, new Latourell Falls Loop map

One minor map glitch exists: the labeling of “Upper Falls” and “Lower Falls” may work for most people, but using the proper place name for Latourell Falls (instead of “Lower Falls”) would be more accurate and informative to those visiting the park for the first time (the upper falls is known unofficially as “Upper Latourell Falls”, so not an issue). There’s rarely a good reason to deviate from official geographic names on maps, after all.

A closer look at the excellent detail on the new park map

A closer look at the excellent detail on the new park map

Hopefully, the State Parks folks will also provide a downloadable, online copy of this map at some point — one that non-profits like Portland Hikers could also offer on their user-created Field Guide, for example.

Another nice touch on the visitor information sign is the high-profile shout-out to the Columbia Group of the Sierra Club, the volunteer trail stewards for the Talbot State Park (thanks, Sierra Club!). Not only are the signs a welcome recognition of trail volunteers, but also a subtle tool for raising public awareness to the unfortunate reality that volunteers have become an essential partner to public agencies in keeping our trail system open.

Kudos to the Sierra Club volunteers!

Kudos to the Sierra Club volunteers!

The photo below shows the new visitor information sign from the perspective of the new plaza, with the restrooms visible in the far distance.

The view toward the visitor signboard and steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint from the new plaza (interpretive sign in foreground)

The view toward the visitor signboard and steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint from the new plaza (interpretive sign in foreground)

This view also shows the second notched inset in the curving basalt wall that defines the plaza overlook, where the second refurbished interpretive sign has been installed. This sign briefly describes how Latourell Falls and other nearby parks came into public ownership in the early 1900s, and is the only mention of Guy Talbot in the wayside beyond the entry signs — an oversight that is a missed opportunity in the redesign (more about that coming in Part 2 of this article).

Latourell Falls from the new plaza overlook (with the interpretive sign on the left)

Latourell Falls from the new plaza overlook (with the interpretive sign on the left)

The new plaza corrects many serious problems with the old design, starting with the need for a more spacious falls overlook that respects the historic design of the Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway. The new plaza meets this test with flying colors, including a subtle, but helpful detail of steps replacing ramps at both the upper and lower loop trailheads.

Another view from the plaza showing the interpretive sign (in the distance) and steps leading to the lower end of the Latourell Falls loop

Another view from the plaza showing the interpretive sign (in the distance) and steps leading to the lower end of the Latourell Falls loop

Because the opening segments of the loop in both directions are paved, there has always been a temptation for people with strollers (or worse, wheelchairs) to assume the trail is safe for wheeled vehicles — it is not! Thus, the new steps will help visitors with strollers and mobility devices to avoid the dangerous mistake of venturing onto the loop trail.

The plaza forms a semi-circle in order to incorporate a second view of the spectacular Latourell Bridge in addition to the falls view. This is an unexpected discovery for visitors arriving over the bridge, unaware of its soaring height and graceful arches.

Wayside details: Samuel Lancaster would approve!

Wayside details: Samuel Lancaster would approve!

On this detail, the designers hit a home run, with a series of arches built into the basalt walls that beautifully echo the bridge design, and seamlessly tie the wayside into the highway, itself, as a natural extension of Samuel Lancaster’s masterpiece. Each arch also includes a painted steel grate – a nice detail that will keep kids and pets on the plaza-side of the stone walls.

A newly installed, arch-back bench at the head of the lower loop trailhead gives a similar nod to the historic bridge, while also helping terminate the decommissioned path that once accessed the old restroom, via a narrow, sketchy path that ducked beneath the bridge (the wood post rails in the photo below block the route of the old path).

This stately bench salutes the old highway bridge, a nice touch!

This stately bench salutes the old highway bridge, a nice touch!

In the center of the new plaza, the designers have incorporated a long planter-bench (below) that will be a welcome respite for visitors to sit and enjoy the view. However, the design of the bench planter is problematic: The narrow planting compartment is not irrigated, and thus presents a tough landscape dilemma. The designers planted mahonia nervosa, or longleaf Oregon grape that should be drought-tolerant enough to survive, and compact enough to fit the narrow space. But it will also a prickly companion to share the bench with! Perhaps this was intentional (as a means to keep the plants from being crushed)?

The other dilemma with planters of this type is the frustrating reality that it will become an oversized ashtray over time. In the end, it might have made more sense to simply design a wide bench with a solid top for the plaza (which is certainly an option for retrofitting this bench, as needed).

A large planter bench anchors the new plaza

A large planter bench anchors the new plaza

The revamped wayside also includes improvements to the popular upper viewpoint, located just east of the visitor information sign. The upper viewpoint path is also the trailhead for the upper portion of the Latourell Falls loop.

The stairway to the upper viewpoint path (below) also forms the terminus of the stone wall that defines around the plaza, and is nicely designed to simply lead wandering visitors to the overlook. Like the steps at the opposite end of the plaza that lead to the lower trail, these steps may help deter wheelchairs and strollers from the steep, unsafe climb to the upper viewpoint.

New steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint and loop trail

New steps leading to the upper falls viewpoint and loop trail

Unfortunately, the upper viewpoint path is one of the disappointments in the Latourell makeover. The short, existing section of paved trail to the viewpoint is steep and slick even for able-bodied hikers. Worse, it becomes a terrifying skating rink in winter ice conditions — which happens to be a time when the Gorge is often crowded with visitors admiring the spectacle of waterfalls transformed into ice cathedrals.

While the new handrails help, a home-run design here would have been a series of steps and landings all the way to the viewpoint — picture a scaled down version of the stairs approaching the lower Multnomah Falls viewpoint as an example. Instead, the improved steps at the base of the path taper onto the old path in a fairly awkward transition, an understandable budget constraint, no doubt, but a missed opportunity, nonetheless.

Unfortunately, this ugly, occasionally dangerous path remains a sore thumb…

Unfortunately, this ugly, occasionally dangerous path remains a sore thumb…

After walking the brief section of old paving, visitors suddenly reach a completely reconstructed upper falls viewpoint (below) with nice attention paid to views. The basalt surround at the viewing platform has a subtle cutout where a steel fence allows the falls to be more fully viewed when approaching the overlook. This design replaces an old stone wall that once blocked the view from the trail, so is an especially thoughtful detail.

The revamped upper viewpoint platform is a major upgrade, albeit marred by the ugly approach on a steep, outmoded old trail

The revamped upper viewpoint platform is a major upgrade, albeit marred by the ugly approach on a steep, outmoded old trail

The awkward transition from the ugly remnant section of the old pathway to the new platform detracts from the otherwise beautiful scene, but is also something that can be remedied with future enhancement to the viewpoint.

The disappearing Latourell Falls view: a thorny problem?

The disappearing Latourell Falls view: a thorny problem?

Some unfinished business exists at the upper viewpoint, and it might fit into the State Parks operations budget: any photographer will attest to some much-needed “view management” here. Over the past decade or two, the brushy slope below the viewpoint (below) has swallowed up the bottom third of the falls. It’s something that a bit of pruning would greatly enhance. As recently as the 1990s the splash pool at the base of Latourell Falls was clearly visible from the viewpoint.

A Legacy Achievement

Though there will always more work to do in bringing the Gorge trails and byways closer to the national park standard, the Latourell Falls makeover is a terrific step in that direction. The project achieves a level of quality and permanence that few improvements manage.

Latourell Falls from the new wayside plaza

Latourell Falls from the new wayside plaza

The new space created and constructed by the State Parks team will easily last for decades, joining the rest of the historic Columbia River Highway as a stunning blend of nature and architecture that continue to thrill visitors from around the world. It’s truly a legacy project, and all who were involved in the design and construction deserve our kudos – thank you!
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(Next up in the Part 2 of this article: a look at the Latourell Loop trail and possible improvements that would bring this popular trail to its full potential)
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Read an article on the Latourell wayside makeover

Read an article on the local stone masons uniquely skilled to do the kind of work on display at Latourell Falls

Our Gorge: Their Summer Destination..!

Look! Behind you… it’s Multnomah Falls!

Thanks to being one of the country’s original motoring routes, countless automobile ads have been filmed along the Mount Hood Loop Highway over the years. Usually, our world-class scenery is little more than an un-credited extra in the casting, though always a welcome affirmation of the national park qualities of Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge!

But this summer, two new ads from Infiniti get more personal with the Gorge as “your summer destination”. True, it’s the luxury Infiniti G Sedan (and the affluent buyers they are courting) that the company has in mind, but like few ads before it, these 30-second spots use the Gorge setting as the main selling point. They’re fun to watch for local Gorge enthusiasts, especially some digital slight-of-hand for the sharp-eyed.

Cruising Waterfall Alley

The first ad opens with a stylish 30-something couple in a contemporary art gallery, admiring a metal sculpture. Behind them is a rather nice abstract painting of Multnomah Falls, featuring the Benson Bridge (was it created for the ad?).

After a brief daydream involving a cruise ship and spritely grandpa running by in a red Speedo, the couple turns toward the painting behind them and proclaims: “Let’s go on vacation there!”

Ah, now you see it! Nice painting, too…

Cut to a lovely summer view of Multnomah Falls and Benson Bridge… and a car zipping across the pedestrians-only bridge…? Clearly, a driving maneuver made possible through the miracle of computer generated imagery (CGI), but fun to see for those who know the location!

Look out, pedestrians! Luxury sedan coming through..!

Before your eyes can zero in on the car atop Benson Bridge, the scene cuts to the same car coming across the similarly arched Shepperd’s Dell bridge. For the national audience watching this ad, the two bridges do appear to be the one and the same, adding to the fun for local Gorge aficionados who know better.

Aren’t you going to slow down for the waterfall..?

From Shepperd’s Dell, the sleek new Infiniti now passes in front of Horsetail Falls as the fine print appears: “Professional driver. Closed course. Do not attempt.” Good advice… especially if you still owe on your $37,000 luxury sedan!

Nope, not stopping at this falls, either…

Next, the ad cuts to a section of historic highway that appears to be just east of Shepperd’s Dell, with a verdant green forest canopy reflecting off the hood of the well-polished Inifiti. A squiggly “sharp turns” sign completes the scene and message: sure, it looks like a sedan, but it drives like a sports car!

That squiggly arrow means “go faster”, right..?

Then, another abrupt U-turn, and we complete the high-speed tour of Waterfall Alley with a spin around Crown Point. The colors and river level in the background show this scene to have been filmed in the peak of spring in May or early June, under overcast skies, as were the previous clips in the sequence.

Hey, you’re speeding past a world-class viewpoint..!

The exception is the opening Multnomah Falls shot — the only clip without an actual vehicle operating in it. This clip appears to have been filmed later, possibly mid-summer, and clearly under sunny conditions, too. Could this be a stock video clip with the CGI added?

Here’s the complete video of “your summer destination” in Waterfall Alley – enjoy the ride!


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Cruising Rowena Crest

One of these ads would be fun enough for local Gorge junkies to study, but a twin ad filmed in the eastern Gorge is equally intriguing. This commercial begins with a somewhat younger 30-something couple (the Infiniti G is apparently an “entry level” luxury model… hmm…) this time admiring a mysterious coffee table book in an upscale bookstore (is this a film set, or real location..?)

Definitely not Powell’s, but the book looks interesting…

Like the first couple, this pair daydreams of a tropical vacation (on Bora Bora), then comes to their senses when a coconut thumps the hood of their hyper-polished Infiniti sedan. Startled from their daydream, they take a look at the two-page spread in the huge art book before them and proclaim: “Let’s go here!”

…now the book looks REALLY interesting!

The colossal book looks like it must be a custom-made prop, but does have a caption running down the left side that describes driving this scenic route in Oregon — perhaps this is a real book?

If so, the camera crews went to extraordinary efforts to match the location for the first shot in first video sequence — or is it the other way around? If the book was created as a prop for the ad, the stills of this scene for the book were clearly shot later in the summer than the filming of the driving sequences, as evidenced by the summer colors along the freeway and Sevenmile Hill, in the background.

A couple of quick cuts in the opening sequence along the historic highway show off a lovely section of Samuel Lancaster’s beautiful old road, featuring the artful stonework and remarkable effort to blend with the landscape that continues to make the Historic Columbia River Highway a “summer destination” for visitors from around the world.

Ah… you might want to slow down on this curve…

…or not… glad there’s a “professional” at the wheel…

Next, the still spotless Infiniti sedan makes another time-travel maneuver, appearing on the Rowena Loops, just to the east of the opening clip. This is one of the most photographed sections of the old highway for the purpose of selling fast cars, so an expected clip in this ad.

Clearly, he saw another squiggly arrow sign…

The next clip is back in geographic sequence, picking up the sedan as it passes another terrific Lancaster design feature: the graceful roadside viewpoint just below Rowena Crest. Though a bit sketchy for pulling off (especially with professional Infiniti drivers speeding by), this little overlook is one of the lovelier details along the historic highway.

Wait! Another view… point… eh… never mind.

The second ad ends up with another leap to the east, near Rowena, proper, just below the loops. The amazingly bug and dust free Inifiti zooms past a nice section of restored wooden historic highway guardrail before the commercial fades to text.

The shiniest car to ever visit Rowena?

Here’s the complete video for the second ad – another fun 30-second ride!


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Do these ads matter?

Beyond the welcome confirmation by Madison Avenue of the Gorge and Mount Hood as places of national park caliber (and generally assumed as such by most out-of-state visitors), these moments in the national spotlight have real benefits for our region. I tried a few web searches using the catch phrase from the ad, and found many queries and discussions from curious viewers trying to figure out where these ads were filmed.

A Google search for “Infiniti commercial” shows the waterfall spots to be popular

If ads like these translate into out-of-state visitors coming to experience the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood for themselves, it’s a big win for the local economy: visitors from outside our region spend much more than locals when they’re here, especially on lodging and dining.

That’s a good thing for the Gorge and Mount Hood communities, even if we can’t take credit for the free advertising — our breathtaking landscape gets star billing for that!

Starvation Creek Loop Hike

Cabin Creek Falls

This blog has featured a series of articles on restoration of the former (and future!) Warren Falls, located in the Starvation Creek area. But there is a lot more to see in this interesting and less-traveled corner of the Columbia River Gorge, and this loop hike explores an amazing variety of scenery on a short, but demanding circuit.

Along this way, you’ll see four waterfalls, one “dormant” waterfall, ford two creeks, visit hanging meadows, peer over the brink of some truly breathtaking cliffs and enjoy expansive views of the Columbia River Gorge. You’ll want to print the large version of the trail map, below, as the trail network in the area is dense, and trail signage unreliable.

[click here for a larger, printable trail map]

The hike is best done from late April through early November, as the conditions can be somewhat treacherous in icy winter conditions, and the stream fords difficult in winter and early spring. But for adventurous hikers, this loop is generally open year-round, and provides a nice hiking option when snow covers the high country.

Hiker’s grim warning on a temporary sign at the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail..!

Note that the loop described here follows a specific direction, tackling the very steep Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail first, in the uphill direction. This might seem counter-intuitive, but the steepness of this path is much harder on your knees going down than on your lungs and legs going up — and it can feel a bit slick and sketchy to descend, due to the steepness and exposure.

The Hike

The trail begins at the Starvation Creek Trailhead (directions at the end of this article). Head west from the parking area, walking parallel to the freeway exit, then drop into the trees following a section of the old Columbia River Highway. ODOT will soon be restoring this section of highway as part of a state recreation trail, so watch for construction to begin soon.

The welcome signpost marking the top of the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail

A short distance from the trailhead, you’ll see a signboard on the left marking the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail No. 414B (if you reach Cabin Creek Falls, you’ve gone too far). Take a deep breath, and begin the stiff climb up this trail, as it threads its way in a series of switchbacks through the towering cliffs that frame the Starvation Creek area.

Soon, the trail curves into the upper canyon of Cabin Creek, leaving the sounds of the freeway behind, and continuing steeply above the creek into dense forest until you reach the signpost marking the upper junction with the Starvation Ridge Trial No. 414.

The dizzying view of the trailhead from the top of the Cutoff Trail

The main loop heads to the right (west), and crosses Cabin Creek. But before you continue in that direction, make a brief detour to the left (east), following the Starvation Ridge Trail uphill for about 200 yards to a spectacular cliff-top viewpoint, a few feet off the trail. From here, you can peer a dizzying 500 vertical feet down to the trailhead and the tiny cars, trucks and freight trains moving below.

Looking west toward Shellrock Mountain and Wind Mountain from the Cabin Creek viewpoint

After resting your legs (and lungs) from the Starvation Cutoff trail, and enjoying the sweeping view from the overlook, retrace your steps back to the junction, and continue west on Trail 414, fording Cabin Creek. From here, the route climbs from the Cabin Creek canyon in a series of short, well-graded switchbacks, and passes another towering cliff-top viewpoint on the right.

The trail soon crests a divide marked by a 1930s-vintage transmission tower, and descends into Warren Creek canyon in a series of switchbacks traversing an enormous hanging meadow. In late April and May, the meadow features beautiful displays of shooting star and other wildflowers, but offers stunning views any time of year.

Shooting Star in the hanging meadow above Warren Creek

Great Hounds Tongue near Cabin Creek

Soon, the trail re-enters forest, then reaches Warren Creek, a potentially difficult ford in winter and early spring. There’s no bridge here, so cross carefully. Warren Creek is the stream that once flowed over Warren Falls, just downstream from the ford. Since 1939 it has been diverted through an odd bypass tunnel that now forms manmade “Hole-in-the-Wall Falls”. You’ll pass both later on the hike.

From Warren Creek, the trail makes a gentle traverse along the forested canyon wall, then turns and crests another ridge below a second transmission tower, before descending across another open area with terrific views of the Columbia River Gorge.

The trail passes this mossy, cliff-top rock garden near Warren Creek

The view west from the Warren Creek viewpoint

The trail now descends to a 3-way junction of the Starvation Ridge (No. 414) and Mount Defiance (No. 413) trails, poorly marked with a very old signpost. From here, the loop hike continues to the right, turning steeply downhill. But first, go straight 200 yards to beautiful Lancaster Falls on Wonder Creek. This magnificent waterfall is named for Samuel Lancaster, the visionary engineer who designed the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Lower, trailside tier of Lancaster Falls

The best trailside view of Lancaster Falls is from the west bank, so be sure to rock-hop your way across. From there, you can also see part of the tall, lacy main tier of this beautiful waterfall (if you’re feeling really adventurous, it’s possible to scramble to a close-up view of the upper tier by heading uphill from the trail, just east of Wonder Creek).

After cooling off at Lancaster Falls, backtrack to the 3-way junction, and rejoin on the Starvation Ridge Trail No. 414, heading left as it descends steeply across an open slope, soon reaching a sturdy, new footbridge over Warren Creek.

Part of the magnificent main tier of Lancaster Trails, located off-trail

You’ll have views of man-made Hole-in-the-Wall Falls from the bridge, but waterfall lovers should take a few minutes to follow the obvious boot path that parallels the dry streambed to the left of the falls.

This streambed leads to the original, natural location of Warren Creek Falls — the topic of several articles on this blog. The hauntingly quiet amphitheater of the original falls is eerie, and it’s easy to imagine the sound and spectacle that once existed when Warren Creek poured over this cascade. During the periods of heavy winter runoff, Warren Creek occasionally overtops the diversion tunnel, and briefly flows down its natural falls. If you look closely, you’ll see evidence of winter storm events that have briefly brought the original falls and streambed back to life.

Warren Falls flowing in one of its rare winter appearances in March 2012

After taking in the scene at the former Warren Falls, retrace your steps on the boot path to the footbridge and turn right, continuing along the main trail for your return to the trailhead (note: the restored Historic Columbia River Highway and trail will soon be constructed in this area, with a new trailhead for the Starvation Ridge Trail relocated to this spot).

The route briefly passes an open area, and then re-enters forest. Watch for old, stone foundations covered in ivy in this area — you’re passing turn-of-the-century homesteads lost to time. Sharp-eyed hikers will also spot a pair of enormous anthills, each measuring six feet in height. A bit further, and you’ll also pass dome-shaped stone bake ovens, possibly built in the early 1900s by highway workers (see the map below for help in finding these traces of human history in the Warren Falls area).

[click here for a larger, printable map]

Finally, the trail rejoins the abandoned section of the old highway, following it to lovely Cabin Creek Falls. Photographers should take a moment to walk the short boot path to the base of the falls to capture the exceptionally beautiful scene. Crane your neck upward, and you will see the huge cliffs to the left of the falls that you skirted above on the Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail!

To complete your journey, continue along the old highway grade back to the trailhead. A great way to end this hike is with a final stop at magnificent Starvation Creek Falls, the star attraction in this part of the Gorge. To reach the falls, head past the restrooms, and take the spur trail on the right. A string of streamside picnic tables make this an idyllic spot to relax after your hike, and enjoy a picnic lunch.

Misty base of Starvation Creek Falls

Hike Logistics

The usual Columbia River Gorge precautions apply on this hike: you’ll find poison oak, ticks and sheer cliffs, so it’s not a great choice for kids. If you’re bringing small kids on this hike, consider just hiking the lower portion to Lancaster Falls, where they will have plenty to enjoy without steep trails or dangerous exposure.

The steepness of the hike makes it a good candidate for cool weather, too. Hiking poles are especially helpful, and dogs should be leashed on this trail.

Getting there

The trailhead is at the Starvation Creek rest area, located at Exit 55 on I-84, about an hour east of Portland. The trailhead has water and restrooms, and no trailhead permit is required. The Starvation Creek exit is eastbound-only, so to return to Portland, you’ll need to drive another mile east to the Viento State Park exit, then follow the signs west to Portland.

For information on the Historic Columbia River Highway restoration project, check out the ODOT website, and click on “ongoing projects” for construction updates:

Historic Columbia River Highway Project

Visit Restore Warren Falls! on Facebook for more information on the project.

“Warren Falls, we’re ready for your close-up…”

On May 12, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s popular Oregon Field Guide program travelled to the site of Warren Falls to film a story on the unique history of Warren Creek: the odd 1939 highway department project that silenced the falls, and the potential for restoring the falls to its former grandeur.

Michael Bendixen and Vince Patton on the chilly January trip to Warren Falls

This was the second trip to Warren Falls for Oregon Field Guide producer Vince Patton and videographer Michael Bendixen. Both had joined me for a first look at the area on a particularly icy January day last winter when the Gorge was at its worst — freezing rain and sleet over a crusty layer of snow.

Our May 12 trip would prove to be the welcome opposite: unseasonably warm, summerlike conditions, with trails lined with ferns and wildflowers instead of snow. Along for the trip were PortlandHikers.org friends Adam Sawyer and Jamie Chabot, and Kristen Stallman and Andy Johnson, representing the ODOT team that is steering the Historic Columbia River Highway restoration project.

(from left) Adam, me, Andy, Jamie, Kristen, Vince and Michael at the trailhead

We met at the Starvation Creek trailhead at 9 AM, and loaded up our packs with OPB gear before making the short hike to Warren Falls. Along the way, the OPB team shot a few trail scenes, but were interested in getting to Warren Falls and Hole-in-the-Wall Falls while the morning light lasted.

Vince and Michael working at the mighty basalt wall formed by Warren Falls

We soon reached the massive amphitheater created by Warren Falls, where the OPB crew filmed the haunting scene of the silenced waterfall, marked only by the trail of moss that marks where the waterfall once flowed. The group spent some time here discussing the strange project that diverted Warren Creek in 1939, and the mechanics of the diversion tunnel and accompany flume that has long since disappeared.

Warren Creek had overflowed Warren Falls several times over the course of our wet winter, and there were obvious signs that a large amount of water had coursed down the old streambed. But on this day, the stream was dry, with the eerie quiet that now exists here.

Michael filming at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls

We backtracked to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls for another session of shooting. Here, the rest of the group visited while Michael and Vince captured several angles of the odd, accidental waterfall.

Adam, Andy, Jamie & Kristen at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls

For a good look at the bypass tunnel that creates Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, we moved to the knoll above the footbridge. From this spot, it’s easy to imagine the wood flume that once attached to the tunnel exit and carried Warren Creek over the old highway and railroad, all the way to the Columbia River. Only when the old flume disappeared was today’s man-made falls created.

Pointing out the man-made features of the upper portion of Hole-in-the-Wall Falls

A wood flume originally connected to the tunnel opening, carrying Warren Creek over the old highway and to the Columbia

Next, we hiked up the Starvation Ridge Trail, heading for the brink of Warren Falls, and the huge steel weir at the head of the diversion tunnel.

The original plan was to scramble down Warren Creek from the Starvation Ridge Trail ford for the quarter mile of bushwhacking required to reach the brink of the falls. But Kristen had been to the diversion structure a few days earlier with an ODOT engineering crew, and they had found a faint boot path that dropped more directly from the Starvation Ridge Trail.

We voted on the two options at the Starvation Creek ford: wet feet and a rock hop along the stream or pushing through a hillside of poison oak along the boot path? The poison oak option won the day!

Weighing the alternative routes at the upper Warren Creek crossing

We backtracked to the jump-off point for the boot path, descended through a manageable patch of poison oak, and soon found ourselves curving around a steep, grassy bluff hanging directly above the 120-foot cliffs of Warren Falls.

From here, a dramatic view of the massive Warren Creek diversion structure suddenly came into view, and the OPB crew set up to shoot the scene.

Rounding the approach to the brink of Warren Falls

Michael shoots the diversion structure from the cliff top above Warren Falls

The diversion structure is much larger up-close than the historic drawings or a glimpse from below the falls would suggest. The tilted weir is made from sixty 20-foot steel beams laid across a 28-foot wide trench carved into the cliff. Beneath the mesh of steel rails, the trench leads directly to the bypass tunnel.

A close-up view reveals at least half the weir to be filled with loose rubble, to the extent that it is lush with a strange hanging garden of wildflowers, A thicket of willow has even become established in the upper right corner of the weir, suspended 15 feet above the diversion tunnel, below. The forces of nature are taking back Warren Creek Falls, slowly but surely.

Vince takes in the huge steel weir that covers the diversion tunnel opening, rushing directly below him

The up-close view also shows most of the beams to be twisted and buckled with the ravages of time, thanks to rocks and debris getting lodged between the beams, and the effects of freeze-thaw cycles in the harsh Gorge winters.

Still, the overall structure represents an amazing ingenuity of design and construction detail to have lasted 73 years, but is still functioning as intended. While nature is clearly winning this battle, the persistence of the diversion project is silent tribute to the designers and builders who created these structures in 1939.

Jamie exploring the steel weir from below — the top of Warren Falls is few feet beyond

Jamie peers through the weir into the opening of the diversion tunnel, directly below

Vince found an opening in the upper corner of the weir, and set up a compact camera mounted on a short arm to film the scene below

The OBP team used a compact video camera mounted on an arm to shoot under the weir. Vince found an opening at the upper west corner of the weir that gave access to the view from below the steel beams.

From this angle, Vince was shooting just below the upper edge of the weir, where a 15-foot rubble and masonry dam was constructed across the creek to elevate the angle of the weir structure toward Warren Falls. For 73 years, this design has allowed for loose debris to roll off the weir and over the natural falls, while filtering the waters of Warren Creek through the weir into the bypass tunnel that now forms Hole-in-the-Wall Falls.

Vince filming the tunnel below the weir with the compact camera

Next, we moved to the top of the weir, crossing to the upper east corner of the structure. The view from the top of the weir looking over the brink of Warren Falls is impressive, as is the view toward the Columbia River. From here, Dog Mountain fills the horizon across the river.

But the fact that the river can clearly be seen from the brink makes a good case that Warren Falls was one of the “four cascades caused by small streams falling from the mountainsides” in Captain William Clark’s journal entry of October 29, 1805. The other three were presumably the nearby falls on Starvation Creek, Cabin Creek and Lancaster Falls on Wonder Creek.

Looking down Warren Falls from the top of the weir

Dog Mountain dominates the view from the top of the Warren Creek diversion dam

The view from the top of the weir shows more wear and tear on the structure: the mortared lip of the rubble dam is badly weathered, fully exposing the ends of many of the 60 steel beams that connect to it, with only a rusty bolt anchoring them to the masonry wall.

Here, the decay of the diversion system seems to be moving close to structural failure — another argument for an orderly removal of the weir, and restoration of Warren Falls before it becomes impossible to safely do so.

Close-up of the top of the weir shows the wear-and-tear of 70 years

Vince and Michael planning the shoot from the top of the Warren Falls diversion dam

Jamie helps Michael set up at the top of the diversion structure

The group settled in for a lengthy shoot at the top of the falls, where Michael and Vince worked to capture the setting, and the rest of the group enjoyed the sylvan scene along Warren Creek.

Michael shooting from midstream, at the brink…

Michael posing for a certain Oregon Field Guide fan!

It’s a long drop: Michael shooting from the top of the diversion

The OPB crew wrapped up the day’s shooting with a few interviews and reflections of the group on the diversion project, and the future of Warren Falls. We soon packed up the video gear, and started up the canyon slope for the trail.

Adam shooting the OPB crew… shooting Warren Falls…

On the trip back to the trailhead, we ran into several groups of curious hikers, all familiar with Oregon Field Guide and excited to meet the crew.

One young woman asked what we were filming, and I explained the story to her — and asked her to go to Restore Warren Falls! on Facebook. Later, she approached me at the trailhead, and asked “Why are you focusing on this when there are so many global issues facing the world?”

Jamie muggles the geocache at Warren Falls. We signed it “Oregon Field Guide”

At the time I was somewhat startled, and replied that the project to restore the Historic Columbia River Highway provided a unique opportunity for funding the restoration of Warren Falls — a good argument, and one she seemed to accept. But I wish I’d simply said “We have to start somewhere, and right now, this is as good a place as any!”

“I wondered why somebody didn’t do something. Then I realized, I am somebody.”

~Author Unknown

(Special thanks to the Vince, Michael, Jamie, Adam, Andy and especially Kristen for another great day imagining the past and future Warren Falls)

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Previous articles on restoring Warren Falls:

Restoring Warren Falls
Warren Falls Lives! (temporarily, at least)
Warren Falls Mystery… Solved!
Warren Falls Solutions
Warren Falls Lives… Again?

Restore Warren Falls! on Facebook