Posted tagged ‘Lookout Mountain’

How will the summer of 2015 affect our fall colors?

September 30, 2015
Shepperd's Dell dressed in autumn golds

Shepperd’s Dell dressed in autumn golds

Oregon may not have the neon rainbow of New England’s fall colors, but we put on a pretty good show if you know where and when to look. However, 2015 will be different, as the extended drought and scorching summer heat has already affected our fall colors this year, even before the leaves began to turn.

To understand why, you have to start with the basics of how leaf colors change with the seasons, and how weather and other factors influence the autumn show each year.

Leaf Biology 101!

Most of our northwest deciduous trees and shrubs leaf out in spring, grow green leaves through the summer, then turn to various shades of yellow and gold in fall, with a few red leaves in the mix. Vine maple, huckleberry and mountain ash provide our most brilliant reds, and most of the larger deciduous trees in our forests turn to some shade of gold, orange or yellow.

Vine maple colors range from pale yellow (in shade) to bright crimson (in full sun)

Vine maple colors range from pale yellow (in shade) to bright crimson (in full sun)

The green color in summer and spring foliage comes from chlorophyll, the amazing molecule that absorbs sunlight and allows for photosynthesis — the process by which plants convert sunlight into carbohydrates (sugars) essential to their growth.

During the spring and summer growing seasons, chlorophyll is produced continually, keeping deciduous leaves green. But as the days shorten with the approach of winter, the decrease in sunlight triggers a change in how cells in the stem of each leaf divide, gradually blocking the flow of both nutrients and chlorophyll to leaves. The cells that form this barrier within the leaf stem are known as the “abscission layer”.

Like vine maple, mountain ash fall colors range from light yellow to brilliant red, based on sun exposure

Like vine maple, mountain ash fall colors range from light yellow to brilliant red, based on sun exposure

Ready for more leaf biology? Well, the yellows, reds and golds of autumn are colors that already reside in leaves, but are revealed as the change to the flow of chlorophyll is blocked by the development of the abscission layer in early fall.

Yellows and golds in fall leaves come from “xanthophylls”, a pigment thought to regulate light in the photosynthesis process. Reds and purples come from “anthocyanins”, a molecule that is believed to complement the green of cholorophyll in the photosynthesis process — but is more commonly is found in flowers, where it functions to attract pollinators.

Dark, cool and wet…

Okay, enough leaf biology! If deciduous leaves are certain to turn color in autumn by their very chemistry, how do environmental factors fit into the leaf cycle? Here are the key forces that shape the timing and brilliance (or lack thereof) in our autumn color show:

Bright sun and cool temperatures: a crisp, abrupt fall pattern speeds up and pronounces the abscission process by which chlorophyll is blocked from leaves. This helps to promote sudden and dramatic color shows. Likewise, a mild, extended Indian Summer tends to slow the process, with a more gradual color change and leaves changing and falling over a longer period.

Cool mountain nights and bright, sunny days set these vine maple ablaze on Mount Hood's Vista Ridge

Cool mountain nights and bright, sunny days set these vine maple ablaze on Mount Hood’s Vista Ridge

Bright days and cool nights also enhance reds and purples in plants with abundant anthocyanins in their leaves. These include vine maple, huckleberry and mountain ash, our most vibrant fall foliage. That’s also why these colors are more prominent at higher elevations where bright days cool nights are guaranteed, even as the valleys are under a blanket of fog.

Early frosts: contrary to popular belief, early frosts hurt fall colors more than they help, as the production of anthocyanin-based colors of red and purple are abruptly interrupted by a premature formation of the abscission layer. If you’ve hiked in the mountains in late August after an early cold snap, you’ve undoubtedly seen a carpet of dropped leaves under huckleberries and other deciduous shrubs.

Drought: like early frosts, drought can trigger a premature formation of the abscission layer, leading to early color change and leaf drop. If you’ve been hiking in the Gorge or on Mount Hood this summer, you likely saw this effect of the drought we are experiencing. While some leaves survive later into autumn, the broader effect is a muted show, as many leaves have already dropped long before the typical fall color season. This is has already been the effect of the drought this year in both the Gorge and on Mount Hood.

Early autumn storms: the arrival of a Pineapple Express storm pattern during Labor Day week of 2013 did a fine job of stripping our maples and other deciduous trees of many of their leaves weeks before they would normally turn and begin to lose their foliage. It’s not common for early storms of this magnitude in our region, so it might be the most notorious culprit in stealing our fall colors!

The colors in this view of Umbrella Falls on Mount Hood are mostly huckleberry -- red when in full sun and yellow in shady stream areas

The colors in this view of Umbrella Falls on Mount Hood are mostly huckleberry — red when in full sun and yellow in shady stream areas

In an ideal year, normal rainfall in spring and summer are followed by a cool, dry Indian summer with warm days and cool nights in the 40s or 50s. This year, we’ve got the Indian summer condtions, but the drought has already triggered leaf drop in a lot of our deciduous forests. Thus, we’re likely to have a so-so color display this Fall.

Where and When to Catch the Colors

A muted fall color display this year shouldn’t keep you from heading out to enjoy it! In a typical year, the high country colors peak in September through early October. Mid-elevation areas and canyons usually peak from mid-October through mid-November, depending on the mix of tree species.

Here are some of the best spots in the Mount Hood area to catch the autumn color:

Elk Cove from Vista Ridge – this 9-mile out-and-back hike is one of the best for exploring Mount Hood’s high country without having to ford glacial streams or suffer huge elevation gains (though you will gain substantial elevation). In September of a typical year, fall colors light up the trail, especially as you descend into Elk Cove, but note that the colors are long gone from this hike in our drought year — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Elk Cove in late September (in a typical year)

Elk Cove in late September (in a typical year)

Clackamas River Trail – another close option for Portlanders, with a moderately long hike to Pup Creek Falls, albeit with moderate elevation gain. This trail is lined with bigleaf maple, but also has impressive vine maple shows in a recovering burn section that bring shades or red and coral to the trail in October. You’ll also see Douglas maple here, a close but less common cousin to vine maple — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Brilliant vine maple along the Clackamas River Trail

Brilliant vine maple along the Clackamas River Trail

Lookout Mountain Loop – Always a spectacular hike on a clear day, in October you will also see the annual spectacle of western larch turning golden yellow across the eastern slopes of the Cascades. Larch are a deciduous conifer — a rarity, and an impressive sight — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Whole mountainsides around Lookout Mountain light up with western larch turning in mid-to-late October

Whole mountainsides around Lookout Mountain light up with western larch turning in mid-to-late October

Latourell Falls Loop – Very close to Portland, this is a popular family hike that visits two waterfalls in a lovely rainforest canyon. In late October, bigleaf maple that dominate the forests here light up in shades of yellow and orange, often covering the trail ankle-deep in their huge leaves — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

The Latourell Falls loop trail still has some color in early November

The Latourell Falls loop trail still has some color in early November

Starvation Creek Loop – like the Latourell loop, Starvation Creek has an abundance of bigleaf maple, but the crisper weather and abundant sun of the eastern Gorge often makes for a brighter show here. Families can simply explore the paved trails around the main falls, but the Lower Starvation hike makes for a fun, if sometimes steep loop past more waterfalls and clifftop viewpoints — see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

Bigleaf and vine maple put on a reliable show at Starvation Creek Falls in October

Bigleaf and vine maple put on a reliable show at Starvation Creek Falls in October

Butte Creek Trail – an under-appreciated family trail that does require navigating some harshly managed corporate timber holdings. The outrageous, utterly unsustainable clear-cutting only makes the pristine public forests and waterfalls along the trail that much more spectacular in comparison. This is an ideal October hike, with fall colors typically peaking in the last half of the month. This trail really shines in rainy or overcast weather, when the rainforest glows with countless autumn shades of yellow, gold and orange against a backdrop of deep green – see the Oregon Hikers Field Guide description

The author ankle-deep in maple leaves on the Butte Creek Trail

The author ankle-deep in maple leaves on the Butte Creek Trail

The great thing about taking in fall colors is that the weather really doesn’t matter — a soggy hike through the brilliant yellows of bigleaf and vine maple in a waterfall canyon is just as spectacular as a sunny day hiking through a sea of red and orange in Mount Hood’s huckleberry fields.

Better yet, if you have kids, it’s also a great time to expose them to hiking and exploring the outdoors… though you should also plan on hauling home a hand-picked collection of autumn leaves..!

Enjoy!

Mount Hood’s Ancient Whitebarks

August 2, 2013
Ancient Whitebark pine on Gnarl Ridge

Ancient Whitebark pine on Gnarl Ridge

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

Ancient Whitebark pine grove on Lookout Mountain

Ancient Whitebark pine grove on Lookout Mountain

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

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

Whitebark pines have limber branches to withstand the elements

Whitebark pines have limber branches to withstand the elements

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

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

Clark's Nutcracker at Crater Lake (Wikimedia)

Clark’s Nutcracker at Crater Lake (Wikimedia)

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

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

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

A Species in Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

Massive Whitebark pine die-off in Yellowstone (USFWS)

Massive Whitebark pine die-off in Yellowstone (USFWS)

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

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

Whitebark04

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

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

Lookout Mountain Sentinels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring Lookout Mountain

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

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

Whitebark17

(click here for a large, printable map)

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

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

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

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

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

Mount Hood from the west summit of Lookout Mountain

Mount Hood from the west summit of Lookout Mountain

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

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

The view east from the summit of Lookout Mountain

The view east from the summit of Lookout Mountain

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

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

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

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

Brooks Meadow: Discovering a Hidden Gem

May 15, 2011

Brooks Meadow from the west

Brooks Meadow is one in a string of sunny meadows located on the gentle northern slopes of Lookout Mountain, just east of Mount Hood. At 35 acres, Brooks Meadow is among the largest, and has a long human history thanks to the water and forage it offers. It was likely visited for centuries by Native Americans, and in the late 1800s, was grazed with sheep following white settlement of the region.

(Click here for larger view of Brooks Meadow)

Early settlement trails in the area connected the dots between meadows and water sources, with several converging at the Brooks Meadow by the early 1900s. A guard station was constructed at the upper end at that time, near the junction of three trails at the north edge of the meadow. Later, the trails became primitive forest roads.

Brooks Meadow was surrounded by clearcuts by the 1980s

By the 1950s, sheep and cattle grazing in the Lookout Mountain area was on the decline, giving way to a boom in commercial logging. Timber harvests focused on the big ponderosa and larch stands unique to the east slopes, and mills in the area thrived. The timber boom hit its peak in the 1980s, when miles of logging roads and hundreds of clearcuts transformed the slopes of Lookout Mountain.

When the sawdust settled in the early 1990s, Brooks Meadow was somehow spared, a lush island in a forest that had been almost completely logged in all directions. By sheer luck, when the commercial logging boom swept the area, the old primitive road and trail system was mostly bypassed or destroyed by the modern, paved roads that carries logs to the mills.

A thin veil of trees were spared along the periphery of Brooks Meadow

At Brooks Meadow, a new paved route was built around the north side of the meadow (shown above), bypassing the historic dirt track through the center of the meadow. The Dufur Mill Road was also paved, and routed just south of the meadow, proper.

Thankfully, the relocated roads kept the steady stream of log trucks out of the meadow, and allowed the fragile ecosystem to survive the logging era relatively intact. In fact, the curtain of trees that was spared along the margins largely hides the meadow from today’s travelers, allowing Brooks Meadow to remain surprisingly unknown.

Old topographic maps still show the abandoned dirt roads and former Guard Station at Brooks Meadow

When the paved roads were built, the primitive roads through the meadow were simply abandoned, and never properly decommissioned. In the intervening years, these abandoned roads have begun to reforest, thanks to the drainage that keeps the old roadbed drier than the surrounding meadow, and survivable for trees.

A closer view (below) of Brooks Meadow shows the abandoned road, and the dotted line of young trees that have begun to grow along the old roadbed. The location of the former guard station that once stood here is also shown.

The old road through Brooks Meadow is revealed by the young trees growing along it

Many of the meadows in the Mount Hood area are shrinking, thanks in part to a century of fire suppression and climate changes that allow for gradually encroaching forests. For Brooks Meadow, the threat comes from within, as well, with the strip of forest along the old road threatening to divide-and-conquer the meadow with reforestation.

This doesn’t have to happen, of course. The purpose of this article is to prod the U.S. Forest Service to consider a brushing project to remove the young trees along the old roadbed, and perhaps consider changes to the road’s drainage features that would help the old roadbed blend into the meadow, once again.

The brushing project is straightforward: there are about 60 young trees scattered along the old road, and they are small enough to removed by volunteers armed with bow saws and loppers. The drainage project would likely require more work, but could still be done by volunteers, assuming it is akin to trail maintenance work using hand tools.

Here is my offer to the U.S. Forest Service: I will assemble work crews of 10-12 volunteers for the brushing and drainage work needed to save Brooks Meadow. I believe the brushing could be done in a single day, and the drainage work in 2-3 volunteer days. Let’s get it done – we just need the green light from you!

Visiting Brooks Meadow

The best time to visit Brooks Meadow is in June and early July, when the wildflowers are at their best. In many spots, the flowers are waist-deep, and you will be surrounded by the sound of buzzing bees, singing birds and perhaps even spot elk or deer. There is no formal trail, but the going is easy if you follow the tree line along the edges of the meadow.

Elk grazing in the upper section of Brooks Meadow in 2009

(Click here for a larger view)

The route begins at the pullout “trailhead” at the west end of the meadow (see driving instructions, below). The best way to tour the meadow is clockwise from the pullout, following just inside the treeline. This will keep your feet fairly dry, and protect the most pristine inner portions of the meadow from human traffic.

In the clockwise loop around the meadow, you will be rewarded with mountain views from the upper end, and huge drifts of wildflowers in early summer. Autumn is also a beautiful time to visit the meadow, though you should wear hunters colors whenever hiking on the east side in fall. In morning and evening, there are often elk and deer browsing in the meadow. Be forewarned not to approach elk herds — simply enjoy them from a distance.

(Click here for a larger map)

One uncommon plant to look for in the meadow is Agoseris elata, or tall agoseris. This plant is in the sunflower family, and looks a bit like a dandelion blossom on steroids. Agoseris elata grows in just two places in the entire Mount Hood National Forest — Brooks Meadow and nearby Bottle Prairie.

How to Get There

Brooks Meadow is located just off Forest Road 44, east of Mount Hood. Follow Oregon 35 from either Hood River or US 26 to the Forest Road 44 junction. Turn east, and follow Road 44 uphilll for several miles to the obvious intersection with Forest Road 17, where Forest Road 44 abruptly turns right. Continue straight at this intersection, onto Road 17, and immediately watch for a pullout just 100 yards from the intersection.

(There are no restrooms or water sources at this informal trailhead. The nearest facilities are at the Sherwood campground, located along Highway 35, north of the Road 44 junction)

Postscript

After publishing this article, I noticed that the Forest Service and City of The Dalles have been busy posting the boundaries of The Dalles Water Watershed, again, including the informal trailhead at Brooks Meadow.

At least the shooters appreciate the new targets posted at Brooks Meadow

It’s a bit hard to take the closure seriously (most don’t, actually), given how the agencies have carved up this once pristine area with miles of logging roads and hundreds of clearcuts. More absurd is the fact that the “protected” stream flowing from the meadow is soon piped under paved Brooks Meadow Road in an open culvert — apparently, an area where protection isn’t required. Beer cans tossed in the culvert from passing pickup trucks complete this ironic picture.

So, use your judgment in visiting Brooks Meadow. While it’s hard to believe that hikers visiting the meadow to appreciate its beauty would actually be prosecuted (and spend the advertised six months in jail and a $500 fine, no less!) the posted closure is for real, unfortunately.

Flag Point Lookout

October 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The current lookout tower and outbuildings at Flag Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visiting the Lookout

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

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

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

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

How to Get There

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

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

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