Posted tagged ‘Historic Columbia River Highway’

Latourell Falls Makeover (Part 2)

January 8, 2013
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)

December 26, 2012
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..!

August 19, 2012

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

June 8, 2012

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…”

May 20, 2012

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

Exploring Mitchell Point

May 5, 2012

Looking west into the Gorge from Mitchell Point.

If you find yourself overwhelmed by the crowds at Angels Rest, Mitchell Point in the east end of the Gorge is terrific alternative that offers equally stunning views, without the circus atmosphere.

Though the hike is just 2.6 miles round-trip, the elevation gain is around 1,000 vertical feet, thanks to an often steep path. But the unfolding scenery will distract you from the huffing and puffing required to reach the summit. Be sure to pick a sunny day for this hike, and if you make the trip from late April through early June, you’ll also be rewarded with a variety of wildflowers along the way.

An East Gorge Icon

Mitchell Point is unmistakable to travelers rushing by on I-84, rising dramatically from the forested Gorge slopes, just west of Hood River.

The main summit is a dizzying rocky spine towering 1,000 feet above the Columbia River and I-84. Below the main summit is Mitchell Spur, a tilted, ramp-shaped peak with a sheer cliff that rises nearly 400 feet above the highway. The Native American names for these prominent outcrops were Storm King (Mitchell Point) and Little Storm King (Mitchell Spur). The current name reportedly comes from an early trapper who lived in the area.

Mitchell Point from the west.

Like most of the rocky outcrops that frame the Columbia Gorge, Mitchell Point is composed of flood basalts — layers of dense lava spread over the region in the very distant geologic past. In this part of the Gorge, earth movements have tilted these ancient flows to the south at 30-degree angle. This tilt is most evident in Mitchell Spur, where exposed cliffs reveal the many layers of basalt that shape the terrain.

But it took the ice age Missoula Floods to shape Mitchell Point as we now know it. These monumental floods repeatedly swept through the Gorge 13,000 years ago at depths of up to 600 feet deep and speeds up to 80 mph.

The ancient floods stripped away loose material from the walls of the Columbia Gorge, exposing the familiar rocky crags we now know as Crown Point, Rooster Rock, Beacon Rock and Mitchell Point. The tilt of the underlying basalt at Mitchell Point has allowed the steep north face of the rock to maintain its near-vertical pitch, millennia after the floods subsided.

Mitchell Point from the Washington Side in the 1920s, showing the river-level railroad grade, old highway viaduct and famous Mitchell Point Tunnel.

[click here for a larger view]

When the railroads were built through the Gorge in the late 1800s, they hugged the cliffs in places like Mitchell Point, where rocky bluffs jutted into the river. This meant that Samuel Lancaster, the visionary engineer of the historic Columbia River Highway, was left with little space for his iconic road when construction began in 1914.

In these spots, Lancaster applied daring creativity by engineering his road onto the steep walls of the gorge, high above the river. At Mitchell Point, his remarkable design traced the side of Mitchell Spur, carved into the basalt face 100 feet above the railroad in 1915. Near the east end, he famously designed a 385-foot tunnel with windows carved into solid rock.

The five windows of Mitchell Point Tunnel from the east approach.

There were a total of five arched windows carved into the Mitchell Point Tunnel, each forming a roadside alcove. Each alcove was fitted with the standard arched masonry rail found throughout the gorge, constructed of basalt with a concrete cap.

These stone walls had the practical function of keeping early visitors (and their automobiles) from slipping through the open windows, and onto the railroad tracks far below, but also added an aesthetic finishing detail that is typical of Samuel Lancaster’s designs.

Equally amazing was the approach to the Mitchell Point Tunnel — a viaduct (pictured below) anchored to the vertical walls of Mitchell Spur led directly into the west portal of the tunnel. For early visitors in touring cars, it was truly a thrilling ride, and a dramatic gateway to the famous tunnel.

The tunnel was destroyed in 1966 when modern-day I-84 was built, though much of the ledge that once held the old highway can still be seen today. New plans call for re-creating at least a portion of the tunnel as part of completing the Historic Columbia River Highway trail.

West end of Mitchell Point Tunnel in 1916.

As you explore the Mitchell Point area, be sure to stop by the Anna and Vinzenz Lausmann memorial near the trailhead. There, you can thank the Lausmann family for their generous donation of the surrounding land to the State of Oregon for “park purposes [to] further the recreational and scenic aspects of the Columbia River Gorge” on December 28, 1954.

The area to the west of the trailhead falls within Wygant State Park, and was also a gift to the public, donated by Simeon and Olivia Reed in 1933. Seneca Fouts donated the land to the east in 1944, encompassing the top of Mitchell Point, and the area now carries his name as Seneca Fouts State Natural Area. The Lausmann donation completed the puzzle in 1954, preserving the entirety of Mitchell Point forever.

Hiking Mitchell Point

The trail to Mitchell Point is unmarked and a bit obscure, at first. Simply head toward the state park signboard at the south end of the parking area and follow a paved trail a short distance before veering left and uphill onto an obvious unpaved path.

[click here for a larger view]

The rustic route meanders through open forest for a few hundred yards, then begins climbing an occasionally steep series of switchbacks. Look closely, and you’ll note the trail briefly follows the original 1870s wagon road through the Gorge, a primitive road that traversed between Mitchell Point and Mitchell Spur.

The trailhead, with Mitchell Point rising above.

After climbing a few switchbacks through young forest, you’ll notice a trail heading off to the north at the final switchback, at about 0.4 miles. If you have the time and are looking for a little adventure, this path heads off to Mitchell Spur. The first section is an obvious trail to the saddle between Mitchell Spur and Mitchell Point, and from there it’s a cross country through a steep meadow to the obvious summit.

Looking up at Mitchell Point from the lower trail.

The main route continues past the spur trail and soon enters a broad talus field, traversing steeply across the loose rock. You’ll have your first views of the Columbia River from here — a tantalizing preview of the views ahead, and just enough to make up for the steep climb.

The trail briefly enters forest, then heads back across the talus slope to a switchback before traversing back and re-entering dense forest. You’ll have a good view of the summit ridge through the trees, and can admire the hundreds of tiny calypso orchids that bloom along this shady section of trail in late April and early May.

The rocky spine of Mitchell Point from the upper trail.

Soon the trail passes through a final stand of large douglas fir before emerging in an open powerline corridor. Though not the most aesthetic setting for a trail, the corridor does offer a profusion of wildflowers in spring, including impressive clumps of a striking blue flower called great hounds tongue.

Great hounds tongue blooms in late April and early May near the crest of Mitchell Point.

The trail makes another quick switchback in the powerline corridor, then reaches an open saddle directly below Mitchell Point, at 1.1 miles.

From here, the summit is framed in gnarled Oregon white oak. Even the transmission towers are interesting, as they offer a glimpse into the 1930s construction heyday when so much of Oregon’s infrastructure was built through New Deal programs that eased the Great Depression.

Built to last: Depression-era transmission towers were installed when Bonneville Dam was constructed in the 1930s.

From the saddle, the final 0.2 mile stretch to the summit of Mitchell Point heads off to the north. The trail is steep and slick in spots, but you won’t mind, because the unfolding scenery is breathtaking. The west face of Mitchell Point drops off in a harrowing series of cliffs, while the east face is a steep hanging meadow. The summit path follows the narrow ridgeline between these slopes.

The trail ends just short of the true summit, but don’t attempt to go further — the exposure is extreme, and the view isn’t any better. Instead, pick one of any number of perches along the summit ridge to relax and enjoy the view.

The final pitch to the summit of Mitchell Point.

The vista to the west extends to Stevenson Washington, and the Table Mountain-Greenleaf Peak complex, beyond. To the east, the view reaches toward the grassy highlands of Burdoin Mountain, above White Salmon, Washington. The summit of Mount Defiance rises high above the forests to the southwest.

Far below, you can watch tiny trucks and cars inching along on I-84, and an occasional freight train passing along both shores of the Columbia, looking like model train sets. Barges loaded with Eastern Oregon grain also look like toys from this lofty perspective.

Tiny trucks, trains and barges move through the Gorge in this view from the summit of Mitchell Point.

Depending on the season and weather, you might get buzzed by dive-bombing cliff swallows while taking in the summit view. Though vertigo-inducing, it’s fascinating to peer over the edge of the sheer summit and watch these aerial acrobats streak through air to their nests in the cliffs below.

For all its scenery, Mitchell Point is a steep climb with plenty of exposure in the final stretch, so best to leave small kids at home, and keep dogs on a leash. As with any eastern Gorge hike, learn to identify (and avoid) poison oak, and check for ticks after your hike.

How to Get There

To visit Mitchell Point, print the large version of the trail map (above) as a pocket reference, then head east from Portland on I-84 to Exit 58, which takes you to Lausmann State Park and the Mitchell Point trailhead.

The finest accommodations can be found at Lausmann State Park.

No pass is required at this trailhead. Carry water, as no reliable sources are available. A toilet is provided at the trailhead.

To return to Portland, you’ll have to head further east on I-84 to the next interchange, at Hood River to reach westbound I-84).

Addendum

Chris Elbert points out the following on the Oregon State Parks website: “April 19, 2012 Note: The park will be closed May 1-Oct. 15 for parking lot and overlook improvements.”

Though this message was posted on the Seneca Fouts State Natural Area page and not on the Vincenz Lausmann State Park page, it’s safe to assume the reference is to the same parking area. If you should find the gate closed and don’t want to wait until October, there is plenty of space for parking off the entrance road, and near I-84, and it’s a short walk from there to the trailhead.

Thanks for the heads-up, Chris!

Warren Falls Solutions

February 27, 2012

The strange history of Warren Falls began shortly after completion of the Historic Columbia River Highway in the 1920s, when unruly Warren Creek repeatedly pushed debris against the modest new highway bridge that spanned the stream.

The first Warren Creek bridge was replaced as part of the waterfall diversion; no photos of the original structure survive

Oregon highway engineers subsequently diverted the creek in 1939 through a bizarre tunnel that survives to this day. The diversion created today’s manmade Hole-in-the-Wall Falls when an accompanying flume was removed sometime in the early 1960s, leaving an eerie, dry cliff where Warren Falls once thundered.

This article proposes a few solutions for restoring Warren Falls to its former glory in tandem with the ongoing ODOT project to restore the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Option A: Let Nature Take Her Course

The simplest solution for restoring Warren Falls is to simply wait for the “trash rack” diversion structure to rust away, eventually collapsing into the tunnel intake under the weight of a heavy winter flood or debris flow. Surprisingly, this hasn’t already happened over the 73-year life of the diversion project, but it is inevitable.

Debris flows periodically clog the brink of Oneonta Falls; a similar event is inevitable at Warren Falls

This is the least desirable option because it leaves the maintenance and safety liability of the diversion tunnel in ODOT’s hands, and the removal of obsolete structures to chance. The dry falls and diversion tunnel are visited regularly by curious hikers, canyoneers and rock climbers, so the unresolved safety liability the tunnel presents for ODOT is quite real.

Option B: A Large Cork

Short of waiting for the “trash rack” diversion structure to collapse on its own, the simplest option for restoring Warren Falls is to cork the tunnel intake. A vault carved like a rocky bathtub into the bedrock brink of the falls forms the tunnel intake, and provides for the “cork” solution.

Though the metal “trash rack” covers an opening of roughly 20×20 feet square, the rock vault is tapered in a v-shape, narrowing to the 5 foot width of the tunnel at the bottom of the vault. The “cork” would be a series of stacked basalt columns filling the vault and blocking the bypass tunnel opening. Approximately twenty 6-foot columns, each about 18 inches in diameter would do the job.

The 1939 construction drawings for the diversion project show the v-shaped vault carved into the lip of Warren Falls, leading to the diversion tunnel (cross-section view)

Mother Nature would provide the assist for this solution once the basalt columns are in place, with the hydraulic force of Warren Creek filling the spaces between columns with fine gravels and sediment over time. Eventually, the voids between the columns would fill completely, plugging the bypass tunnel to all but a small amount of seepage.

The lower end of the corked bypass tunnel would also be covered with a protective grate to prevent curious explorers from entering, just as a number of lava tubes in Oregon have been gated to public access. The bonus? A very large, secured bat cave is created in the process!

A stack of basalt columns like these would form the “cork” that plugs the bypass tunnel forever (Wikipedia)

How would the basalt columns get up there? The best plan would be an air crane, as the rock columns would be comparable in size and weight to the timber loads that are routinely lifted in Oregon’s helicopter logging operations.

ODOT maintains an open maintenance field just a few hundred yards from the falls site, with direct freeway access for delivering the columns to a staging area. On-the-ground workers could access the top of the falls from the Starvation Ridge Trail, but a mechanical lift from the base of the falls would be more practical.

Option C: Colossal Dental Work

The third option is the best plan for fully restoring Warren Falls to near-natural conditions. This design would “fill the cavity” of the entire bypass tunnel, permanently.

Construction detail of the lip of the masonry dam that supports the “trash rack” (cross-section view)

This solution uses the original masonry dam at the head of the bypass tunnel to temporarily pipe Warren Creek over the natural falls during the construction phase, allowing for concrete work to proceed within the bypass tunnel.

The tunnel would be plugged in two steps. First, a reinforced concrete plug would be poured at the lower opening of the bypass tunnel, sealing the tunnel exit. The plug would be disguised on the outside to match the color and texture of the basalt cliff.

Next, the rest of the tunnel would be filled with mixture of concrete and rock cobbles — roughly 100 cubic yards worth. Once the tunnel “cavity” is filled, the vault at the top of the falls would be filled with basalt columns, using the same method described in the “cork” scenario. In this case, they could be mortared in place, since this approach would already have concrete pouring equipment on site.

Wanted: dentist with masonry skills and a helicopter pilot license… (photo: Zach Forsyth)

The “dental work” option has the benefit of stabilizing basalt cliffs that form the western wall of Warren Falls by permanently filling the man-made cavity behind them. This option allows ODOT to walk away from the Warren Tunnel site forever, with almost no trace of the old stream diversion left behind.

How would ODOT move the concrete and rock to the top of the falls? Fortunately, much has changed since the tunnel was originally created, and today there is portable equipment specifically designed for the task.

First up is a truck-mounted concrete pump, normally used for precision pouring in building construction, but increasingly used to minimize environmental impacts at construction sites.

This truck-mounted concrete pump would easily reach the top of Warren Falls (Wikipedia)

Moving rock to the top of the falls would be a bit more cumbersome, but could employ a portable rock conveyor. These are widely used in commercial aggregate operations, and could conceivably be used at the Warren Falls site. A low-budget alternative is to us rock from Warren Creek’s streambed above the falls.

Moving heavy equipment to the site would drive up the cost of restoring Warren Falls, so the “dental work” option for completely decommissioning the old tunnel is probably the least viable alternative, given funding constraints. But it’s also possible that ODOT will already have equipment required to do the job in the area as part of the project to restore the historic highway.

A telescoping rock conveyor could be the solution for loading aggregate into the Warren Tunnel (Wikipedia)

Next Steps?

Why link restoration of Warren Falls to the Historic Columbia River Highway project? The answer lies in the intertwined history of the falls and the highway department: now is the time for ODOT to undo an unfortunate environmental travesty from another era.

The historic Columbia River Highway restoration project provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide the resources needed to restore the falls. It also allows ODOT to demonstrate how much highway planning has evolved since the diversion project was conceived, more than 70 years ago.

I will be making another pitch to restore Warren Falls at the Historic Columbia River Highway advisory committee meeting on March 16 (in Hood River). Hopefully, I’ll be able to capture the imagination of the citizens and ODOT staff charged with returning the old highway to its former glory, and make the case that restoring Warren Falls ought to be part of the larger restoration effort.

More to come…