Posted tagged ‘Mount Hood’

Meet Brian Chambers!

June 13, 2016

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Editors note: periodically, I feature local artists and writers in this blog. Brian Chambers is a local photographer in Hood River who has been capturing stunning images of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. Here’s a recent conversation with Brian.

Brian has also offered to donate a portion of any sales resulting from this interview to the Friends of the Gorge, Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) and the Columbia Land Trust, so be sure to mention the blog if you purchase Brian’s photos! (more info following the interview)

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WyEast Blog: Great to meet you, Brian! How long have you been shooting landscape photography in the area?

Brian Chambers: I first came to Hood River on vacation in 1996. I immediately fell in love with the place and had moved here within one year. That was back in the old days of film. I had done a ton of photography way back in high school and had my own darkroom but did less and less as I got older. I was doing a little bit of photography when I moved here but it wasn’t until I bought my first DSLR in 2008 that my hobby became a full-blown addiction.

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Mount Hood from the Eastern Gorge

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

WyEast: What are your favorite Gorge locations for shooting – the ones you go back over and again?

Brian: It changes so much from year to year. I tend to find a new location and maybe pre-visualize some images in my mind. I will go back over and over until I am satisfied with the images I can capture with my camera. I will keep trying until I get that special combination of light and composition that really matches what I had seen in my mind.

The thing I like the most about the gorge is the variety. If I had the energy I could shoot a fresh snow fall on a mountain stream at sunrise, at lunch take on moss covered waterfall, at sunset capture the most amazing wildflower scene, and a midnight capture an abandoned house in the middle of a wheat field. I really feel the options are arguably the best in the country.

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Upper Hood River Valley orchards at sunrise

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

Some of my favorites include shooting the orchards of Hood River, Hood River itself with the river in the foreground and the mountain behind it, the view down the gorge anywhere there is exciting light from places like Rowena, Underwood viewpoint, Mitchell point. I have been heading to some of the more off-trail waterfalls and really enjoying the exploring aspect of that. I love Mt Adams in the fall for the color. I could go on all day.

Early in the spring I am really drawn to the east hills. A few years ago it was the Rowena crest, then it was Dalles Mountain, then it was the Memaloose Hills Hike area.

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Sunrise a Rowena Crest

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

WyEast: What makes those locations special?

Brian: One big factor is the flowers. Especially this year, although it was an early bloom, it was off the charts good. I don’t think I have ever seen it that good. I love the openness of the land, being able to see the light interacting with terrain. The different compositional options, with 360 degree views and the amazing mountain and gorge views in the background. Sitting in a field of wildflowers all alone watching the rising sun dancing with Mount Hood and lighting up the flowers. It doesn’t get much better than that.

WyEast: What about your favorite Mount Hood locations?

Brian: Well in the winter I spent a ton of time snowshoeing up the White River. It has such an easy access to an amazing mountain view with the river in the foreground. I am almost embarrassed to say how many times I have gone up there looking for the perfect light. I finally got a couple of images I am pretty happy with this year. Persistence can pay off.

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Sunrise on Mount Hood and the White River

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

In the summer I often am heading up to the WyEast Basin and Cairn Basin area. I like that you can take several different trails to get there and it is this wonderful mix of high alpine, lush wildflowers, refreshing streams and small waterfalls with some of the best close-up views of the mountain. The number of great subjects in such a small area is almost mind-boggling.

WyEast: Some of your most stunning photos are shot during the golden hours of early morning or evening – do you have any tips for shooting in those conditions?

Brian: Getting up earlier and staying out later is usually the simplest thing people can do to greatly improve their photography. It is very difficult to get as compelling a photo in the middle of the day. The rapidly changing light around sunrise and sunset can really add a ton of interest, color and excitement to your images. Watch the sky, satellite images and weather forecasts to see if there is going to be enough clouds to make the sky interesting but not too many so that the sun is blocked.

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Late afternoon wildflowers near Cairn Basin on Mount Hood

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

A tripod is critical for getting clear shots when it is darker. I suggest shooting in RAW not JPEG and bracketing your exposures to capture all of the detail in the brightest and darkest parts of the image.

Be Patient. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been taking pictures and all the other photographers have left and 10 minutes after a boring sunset the sky just lights up.

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Autumn sunset at Mount Adams

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

That being said, I would be lying if I didn’t say I am just like everyone else in that I sometimes can’t pull myself out of bed in the early morning and I sometimes head to the brewpub at sunset rather than out to shoot. My family is pretty tolerant of me heading out to shoot but I try to balance life and responsibility with photography. Find the balance that makes you happy.

WyEast: You also have some amazing photos that feature the night sky. How exactly do you capture those images?

Brian: It is surprisingly easy if you have a fairly new digital camera. Have a solid tripod. I suggest getting to your location before it gets dark. Set up all your gear, compose your image and focus. Cameras are unable to auto-focus in the dark so you need to focus before it gets too dark and then set your camera to manual focus so it will not try to refocus.

Start taking pictures before it is totally dark and see what happens. Learn how to adjust your camera in manual exposure. Set your aperture to wide open (the smallest number possible), your shutter speed to around 20 or 30 seconds. Crank your ISO up to 800 or 1600 or even higher and fire away. The beauty of digital is it doesn’t hurt to mess up. If it is too dark crank up your ISO higher or lengthen your shutter speed. If it is too bright turn your ISO down.  Look at your results and see what works and what doesn’t. Play and have fun.

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Milky Way and Mount Hood from below Cooper Spur

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

WyEast: Those are great tips! Some of your images of Mount Hood and the Gorge also feature lightning, which seems especially challenging to capture. Other than not standing on high ground – which, actually, it looks like you were – what can you tell us about getting a great lightning photo?

Brian: First of all be safe. I think a lot photographers tell stories of risking life and limb to “get the shot”. Probably not worth it and often just an embellishment to make it sound more dramatic. I like to find a place where I can shoot while sitting in the car or at least find shelter immediately.

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Thunderstorm lighting up the East Gorge

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

It helps to have a cable release or some other way of triggering your camera like a remote control. That allows you to be safe in the car while the camera is outside. If it is dark and you can use a long exposure you can just set the camera to shoot continuously. Sort of a “spray and pray” method but there is nothing worse than missing that solitary lightning bolt.

If it is daylight, the “spray and pray” method doesn’t work because most cameras get bogged down and stop shooting after 20 seconds or so. In that case you can just watch and try to push the button with every strike. It sounds impossible but it can work with a little practice. We don’t get much lightning here so I have yet to invest in a lightning trigger but it’s a device that senses the lightning and takes the photo for you. Pretty handy if you do a ton of lightning shots.

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Lightning at Mount Hood and Lost Lake

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

I have a couple of apps that show you live lightning hits so you can see if it’s worth heading out. And be ready if the conditions change. One of my favorite lightning shots at Lost Lake (above) was purely luck. I was there to take a photo of the sunset when a small storm popped up. I kept taking pictures until I got my shot.

WyEast: You’re based in Hood River, Brian. I’m wondering where you see the fine art scene going in the Gorge over the long term? Do you see art becoming a significant part of the Gorge and Mount Hood economy in the future?

Brian: It is definitely growing. I don’t think there were any art galleries in town when I moved here in 1997. Now it seems like there is one on every block. Many restaurants and breweries also display local artists. Hood River has over 20 new outdoor works of art on display around town. There are so many talented artists in the gorge. I think people are drawn to the quality of life and inspired by amazing beauty at our doorstep.

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Stormy Gorge evening

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

Art can play a significant part in the economy. It is just one more great reason for people to visit the gorge and it fits well with the winery and brewery tours, the Fruit Loop orchard tour and outdoor recreational tourism that the gorge is so rightly known for. I think the artwork can be a long-term reminder of the specialness of the area and for both tourists and people who live here. I love when people look at one of my pictures and it reminds them of some special times they have had here.

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Spirit Falls on the Little White Salmon River

(click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

One thing that I am very excited about is helping to organize a temporary art gallery event in downtown Hood River on July 1st -3rd week. Eighteen local artists, including myself, have banded together to showcase and hopefully sell our work. We are having beer and wine and small plates of food, with an opportunity to view work from wide variety of different types of artists.

We will all be on hand all three days to discuss our artwork. The event will be at 301 Oak Street in downtown Hood River. I encourage anyone interested to stop in and say “hello”!

WyEast: That sounds like a great event, Brian! As an artist working in the Gorge, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced in becoming established?

Brian: It has been a slow steady process. Sometimes it seems agonizingly slow.  When I first started taking pictures I didn’t dream that people would want to purchase them. I looked around and saw so many great photographers.

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Abandoned homestead near Dufur, Oregon

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

Early in my progression as a photographer I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Columbia Center for the Arts. At that time it was a critical place of support for me. They encouraged me and treated me as a true artist so that I began to think of myself that way. I started to sell some work and began to grow in confidence. Every year they would have a photo contest and I was fortunate enough to win first place among hundreds of entries, including some really talented photographers.

That was a big step for me. Then I branched out and started displaying my work in local bakeries, restaurants and brewpubs. I started to gain more followers and confidence. In the last year or so, I have started to post more consistently on Facebook (www.facebook.com/BrianChambersPhotography/) and connect with people there.

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Brian teaching photography on a recent Friends of the Gorge outing

I have also begun teaching a little (including the Friends of the Gorge hike where we met). It is something I really enjoy and want to get better at, and something I have considered doing more frequently in the future.

Hood River is full of talented photographers and artists and most of them have been really supportive and welcoming to me.

WyEast: When we met recently on that Friends of the Gorge hike, we talked about the controversy over oil and coal trains traveling through the Gorge. Since then, of course, a worst-case scenario unfolded when an oil train derailed in Mosier on June 3 of this year. What are your thoughts on the oil and coal trains moving through the Columbia River rail corridor?

Brian: That was a real eye opener for me.  I had been out for a road bike ride in the exact location ½ hour before the accident. When I heard about it I actually went to take pictures from across the river. You can see a time lapse I took on my Facebook page. Just watching all the black smoke block out the view of Mt Hood was really a horrible sight.

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Brian captured this video of the June 3rd oil train crash in Mosier, Oregon

 (click here to view a large version of this video in Brian’s gallery)

I got stuck in a traffic jam heading home. It took me 2 hours to get home when it would normally take me 10 or 15 minutes. It really made me think about how the unique geography and infrastructure of the Gorge can really amplify any disaster. There are very limited driving options, and if one or two roads are closed people can become trapped.

I also think the accident was not a worst-case scenario. It was lucky it didn’t happen in the center of Mosier or Hood River, where there is a lot more potential for damage and it was lucky it happened on an unusually light wind day. If it had been windy I can only imagine how bad the fire could have been.

WyEast: You’ve hiked the trails of Mount Hood and the Gorge and have seen the growing crowds. Many are concerned that the area is being loved to death. What are your thoughts?

Brian: Wow, what a question. This is something I think about almost daily. Even in my short time here I have seen a tremendous change in the volume of hikers to areas that were once quiet and relatively unknown, like the Columbia Hills Park and Memaloose Hills. I used to go there in the spring and see almost no one. This year they were just packed with people. Which, on one hand, is wonderful that people are out there learning to love the gorge and discovering new places. It is great for society that people are out exercising and recharging in nature. I feel like people will fight to save places once they see how special they are.

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Columbia Hills State Park in spring

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

On the other hand, overcrowded trails and unsafe parking lots are a real concern and take away from everyone’s enjoyment.  As a photographer, I am always looking for the un-crowded wild places and I am afraid as I share them I might be contributing to them becoming crowded and over used.

There is an area near The Dalles that I am just in love with right now and I went there more than a dozen times the last couple years during the wildflower bloom and saw less than a handful of other hikers, and usually didn’t see anyone. Although part of the reason for that is starting my hike before 5 AM! I am torn between never telling anyone about it and wanting everyone to know how amazing it is. The word is already getting out and I suspect it will be packed in a couple years.

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Mount Hood from an “undisclosed location”…

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

I guess I am an optimist. Nature seems to have the ability to not just heal people, but also itself. Just last week I was walking through the Dollar lake fire on Mt Hood. A few years ago it was a scene of total destruction. Everything dead and blackened. Now it’s hard to see the ground due to the huge number of flowers. If we can just try to get out of the way the land can usually do amazing things to recover from damage.

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Gorge Sunset near Mitchell Point

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

Ultimately, I think the best answer is more trails. That is why I fully support the work you and others like you are doing. Saving the remaining wild places and creating sustainable hiking trails. I hope as the crowds worsen that will become a bigger priority for more and more people.

WyEast: Last question, and one you probably knew was coming: you’re a veterinarian by trade, so I’m wondering if you’d like to weigh in on bringing dogs into the Gorge? And in particular, what are some tips you would offer for keeping dogs (and people) safe, based on your experiences as a care giver?

Brian: Well, one disease that people new to the area may not have heard of is salmon poisoning. Don’t let your dog eat raw salmon or steelhead. It can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea that can be fatal. As I am sure all hikers already know, there are a few ticks in the area! There are plenty of good tick control medications available for your dog.

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East Gorge rainbow

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

There are lots of dangers out on the trails and roads most of which can be avoided by keeping your dog on a leash and using common sense. I just recently saw a dog that was bitten by a rattlesnake on Dog Mountain. I have seen dogs killed by heat stroke, dogs killed by trains, falls from cliffs, cuts caused by skis, dogs lost in the wilderness, attacked by coyotes and other wild animals, falls from the back of pickup trucks, and too many hit by cars to count.

We also have a lot of poison oak in the Gorge. Keeping your dog on a leash is also a good way to make sure he stays out of poison oak, which can also be transferred to you from your dog’s coat.

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Spring sunset in the Gorge from Memaloose Hills

 (click here to view a large version in Brian’s gallery)

Lastly, just like you and I, you should avoid overdoing the activity level for your dog’s fitness level. If you have an out of shape dog that doesn’t exercise, don’t start with a long bike ride on a hot day. As your dog starts to age you need to start to reduce the length of the hikes and bikes to ones that will not cause them pain or distress.

It can be hard to do because the dogs often want to go, even when their body is unable. Talk with your vet if your dog is slowing down or seeming stiff and sore, as there are plenty of options to help with that.

WyEast: That’s great information! Thanks for taking the time to chat, Brian – and for celebrating the Gorge and Mount Hood with your amazing photography. We look forward to seeing more of your work!

Brian: It really was my pleasure.

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You can support Brian Chambers’ photography by following him on Facebook:

Brian Chambers Photography on Facebook

Through July 15th, Brian will be donating 20% of proceeds from photos he sells to people who mention this article to the Friends of the Gorge, Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) and the Columbia Land Trust, so it’s a great time to support him! (please note that this excludes the July 1-3 pop up gallery)

 Check out more of Brian’s images at:

Brian Chambers Gallery on Zenfolio

 And you can contact Brian directly through e-mail by clicking here.

And finally, learn more about the July 1-3 pop up art gallery in Hood River at:

Art in the Gorge on Facebook

 

The High Cost of Free Parking (part 2 of 2)

April 30, 2016
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Cars now overflow the remote Vista Ridge trailhead routinely

This is the second in a two-part series that takes its name from Donald Shoup’s ground-breaking book “The High Cost of Free Parking”, first published in 2005. Shoup documents the many unintended effects of free parking in cities, and many of his proven principles could apply to trailheads in our public lands, as well.

The second part in this series explores some possible solutions for the parking crisis facing the trailheads of the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, and the value of confronting the true costs of free parking to our most treasured public lands.
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No more free parking!

Does anyone really expect free parking at a Timbers or Blazers game, or drop in for dinner without a reservation at one of Portland’s finest restaurants to find a table waiting? Or be exempted from tolls when crossing the Columbia at Hood River and the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean we don’t reserve the right to complain about it! That’s human nature.

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Bumper-to-bumper at Vista Ridge on a Friday

Such is the dilemma for public land managers face as they attempt to impose limits on access to our trails on Mount Hood and in the Gorge. While we can all probably agree that the impacts we now see from overuse require limits on access, we’d probably like someone else to suffer the inconvenience.

The good news is that our most overused trails are relatively few in number. Any seasoned hiker can rattle them off, as many already avoid these trails on popular weekends and seasons: Angels Rest, McCord Creek, Wahclella Falls and Eagle Creek in the Gorge are now infamous for their crowds, while Ramona Falls, Mirror Lake, Salmon River, Elk Meadows and (most recently) Tamanawas Falls on Mount Hood see overflowing weekend crowds.

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Frustrated hikers pushed out of the Wahclella Falls trailhead have resorted to parking on the I-84 off-ramp

Experienced hikers already know where the lesser-visited trails are and make a point of steering toward these places for a quieter, better outdoor experience. However, as the Portland region continues its rapid growth, even some of these “secret” trails are starting to show some strain: Herman Creek, Starvation Ridge and Gorton Creek in the Gorge and Vista Ridge, Bald Mountain and Cooper Spur have all seen spikes in use over the past decade or so as hikers seek less crowded trails.

We have met the enemy and he is… us!

The first step in adopting a trailhead parking policy to address overcrowding is to recognize the problem: when trailheads routinely overflow, it’s a problem! You can see this on weekends on every one of the overcrowded trails mentioned above. The crowding is now year-round in the Gorge and whenever the ground is snow-free up on Mount Hood.

For some trails, like Mirror Lake and Eagle Creek, the crowds extend beyond the weekends, especially on Fridays and Mondays. But even on these most heavily used trails, weekdays usually mean plenty of parking to spare, with no overflow.

This variation in day-to-day use at the most crowded trailheads is a case study for variable parking fee, with fees set higher on weekends and holidays, and lower (or not at all) on weekdays. As Donald Shoup demonstrates in “The High Cost of Free Parking”, adopting such a strategy can shift weekend and holiday use to less popular trailheads with free parking, or to non-peak days at more popular trailheads.

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The popular Wahclella Falls trailhead still has open spaces on most weekdays

If we adopted a variable pricing policy tomorrow for overused trailheads in the Gorge, we could cut weekend crowding on trails now being harmed by overuse in half, overnight. Sounds easy, right? Well, one complication comes from the public blowback that would almost certainly occur. Remember, we all reserve the right to complain when things aren’t free!

Another complication comes from the fact that several of the most popular trailheads also have heavy tourist use. Places like Horsetail Falls, Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls in “waterfall alley” are good examples where the majority of peak period visitors aren’t hikers, just people touring the Historic Columbia River Highway and walking the paved paths to the most famous roadside views.

Shared tourism and hiking trailheads should be priced, too, as they fit the same definition for overcrowding with parking spilling far beyond established parking areas. Crowding is crowding.

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The impacts of overuse in the Gorge are real and jarring. This boot path cutting a switchback on the Oneonta Creek trail formed in just the past two years.

At Multnomah Falls, a new hazard has emerged from the overflow on weekends, with visitors now parking beyond the narrow historic highway viaducts that flank the falls and lodge. Signs on the viaducts sternly warn against pedestrians walking along them, but whole families are now a common sight in the narrow viaduct vehicle lanes on busy spring and summer weekends at Multnomah Falls.

At Oneonta Gorge, the huge overflow of visitors has created a hazard for hikers attempting to scale the log jam at the mouth of the gorge, and ruined the outdoor experience for those who make it beyond the log pile with a noisy, carnival atmosphere.

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Vandals have almost completely carved up the walls of the restored Oneonta Tunnel since it opened six years ago…

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…a testament to the destructive behavior that allowing large crowds to from on our public lands can foster?

Worse, the overcrowding at Oneonta has led to a shameful degree of vandalism in the recently restored highway tunnel. Would vandals pay to park here? Perhaps, but at least the crowds that lead to that sort of destructive behavior could be prevented with managed parking. Otherwise, this precious gem will likely have to be closed to the public, once again.

At Mount Hood, overcrowding at places like the Salmon River Trail and Ramona Falls has also led to vandalism and car break-ins, in addition to heavy impacts on trails. Managed parking could greatly improve the situation here, while allowing hikers to discover the many lesser-used trails on Mount Hood that could benefit from more boot traffic while providing a far better hiking experience.

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A relatively quiet weekday at the massive (and overflowing on weekends) Ramona Falls trailhead

In many of these examples, a parking pass is already required today, but this has little effect on managing peak use. The key difference is variable pricing for parking that provides an incentive for visitors to avoid peak periods at the busiest trailheads, but gives options of other trails or off-peak days when little or no parking fee is charged. It’s a proven approach whose time as come in our most visited public lands.

…and now transit!

Since proposing a “Boot Loop” transit service on this blog four years ago, we’ve seen significant steps forward in providing transit service to Mount Hood and the Gorge. The Mount Hood Express now provides daily service from the Portland area and on the Washington side of the Gorge, transit service now connects to Stevenson, with a new shuttle to Dog Mountain.

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The new Mount Hood Express bus provides daily service to the mountain.

On the Oregon side of the Gorge, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is partway through a pilot project to bring transit service to the most heavily visited spots in the Gorge. ODOT plans to provide service from a park-and-ride location inside the Portland area to the most popular trailheads in the Gorge.

Transit service provides a needed option to driving, especially for those who do not have access to a private vehicle, but also to those who simply want to avoid the hassle of driving (and parking).

Transit is also a good counterpoint to adopting a parking strategy for the Gorge and Mount Hood, as parking fees provide an incentive to use transit during peak periods, which in turn, helps provide the critical mass to keep the service going. This is a tried and proven relationship between parking policy and transit in cities, and overdue as a strategy in our most heavily used recreation sites.

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Park transit station at Niagara Falls State Park, New York

That said, transit is mostly a way to provide another option for visitors. It simply won’t have the capacity to have much impact on overall visitation during peak periods, when parking areas at our most popular trailheads is already overflowing to two or three times the planned capacity for the trail.

How could this work?

Applying Donald Shoup’s parking management practices to recreation areas is less complicated than in an urban setting for the simple fact that there are so few places to manage, most have a single entrance point and they are all in public ownership.

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The Forest Service recently completed a major remodel of the Wahkeena Falls wayside to better manage crowds, but without managing parking, this new landscaping doesn’t stand a chance of surviving the overload.

The public reaction to actually putting a price on parking at our busiest trailheads, even during peak periods, is the driver for why we aren’t already attempting this – not the complexity of actually making it work. After all, cities around the world are already doing it, and against much more complex obstacles.

So, what are the parking management tools that could be borrowed from cities? Here are some that could work in the Gorge and on Mount Hood:

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These systems are all being used in cities today, and some combination of these practices could be applied to parking on our public lands. One challenge for public lands would be on-site enforcement, however, as this is an essential ingredient for urban parking policies.

On this point, I propose that a portion of the trailhead parking revenue could be steered toward dedicated county law enforcement to patrol parking areas. Not only would this provide an essential incentive for visitors to pay their fee, but it would also bring a much-needed security presence for busy trailheads that are increasingly targeted for car break-ins.

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The Starvation Creek wayside does triple duty as a popular trailhead, wayside for tourists and freeway rest stop. This site is a candidate for a combination of short-term timed parking and long-term fee parking.

So, how much revenue does a parking strategy generate? Well, consider that the City of Portland collects some $35 million annually in parking fees from its downtown meters, which in turn contributes to the city’s transportation budget for street maintenance. The city also collects another $7 million annually in fines for parking violators, more than enough to cover its enforcement costs.

While a parking strategy for the Gorge or Mount Hood would be unlikely to bring that much parking revenue, the Portland model does show that fee parking at the most popular trailheads in the Gorge and on Mount Hood could not only cover operational costs, but also bring new revenue for woefully underfunded trail maintenance and construction. That could be a valuable selling point to regular hikers and visitors.

Those pesky agency permits…

One of the institutional obstacles to adopting a coordinated parking strategy for the Gorge, in particular, is the mix of land management agencies involved: the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) and Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) all have some sort of parking permit that applies to some of their respective recreation sites.

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Welcome to Wahclella Falls! Forest Pass or $5 fee required… here.

The Forest Service and OPRD both have a mix of free and fee sites, with the Forest Service requiring a $30 annual Northwest Forest Pass or $5 day-use fee at places like Eagle Creek or Wahclella Falls, but no charge at its busiest locations like Multnomah Falls, Horsetail Falls and Wahkeena Falls, where tourists outnumber hikers. OPRD charges $5 day-use fees at places like Rooster Rock and Benson Lake, but not at busy trailheads like McCord Creek and Latourell Falls.

Meanwhile, on the Washington side of the Columbia, DNR charges a $30 annual fee or $10 daily fee for its Discover Pass to park at places like Beacon Rock, Hamilton Mountain and all other Washington State recreation areas.

All of these are flat-fee permits, so they do nothing to help discourage overcrowding on busy weekends and arguably encourage more use, since an annual fee provides a flat rate for unlimited visits. In fact, the annual passes do just the opposite, encouraging multiple visits for a flat rate. There’s nothing wrong with hikers spending a lot of time in the Gorge, of course, but we all share the burden when it comes to managing the impacts through trailhead parking fees.

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It’s unclear how much revenue is left for trails once administration costs for the Northwest Forest Pass are covered.

Today, trailhead permits are pitched for their ability to generate funds to build and maintain trails, but hikers are rightly skeptical about how much funding actually goes to trails. In the end, it’s not a problem of the trail passes, but rather, by the low fees relative to the trail impacts the most popular trails are experiencing.

For example, a hiker purchasing an annual permit for $30 and spending a dozen days in the Gorge or on Mount Hood each year pays just $2.50 per visit to cover their trail impacts, or less than many hikers will spend on coffee en route to the trailhead.

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Lots of passes and hassle, not much revenue for trails… and no impact on crowding.

There is little chance the states of Oregon and Washington and the U.S. Forest Service will ever join forces and create a unified trail pass, and besides, their pass systems aren’t effective at managing peak use, anyway. Instead, they should cooperate to adopt a pricing strategy for our most overused trails that is an add-on to (or replacement for) the existing pass system at these locations.

The ethics of putting a price on parking?

At this point, you might be thinking (as I generally do) that we should all enjoy free access to our public lands. Of course we should! We pay for tem every April 15, after all. Thus, adding parking fees at our overused trails will most certainly bring howls from avid hikers who spend a lot of time on the trail, and who dutifully purchase their $30 annual trail passes now.

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Would revenue from a parking policy bring more of this to the Gorge and Mount Hood? Almost certainly, if managed properly.

Yet, when overuse starts to bring the “tragedy of the commons” to our most cherished places, it’s time for all of us to step up and find a solution. Putting a price on parking is a proven and effective way to get there. More importantly, pricing is really only needed on our most heavily traveled trails. Most trails will continue to be “free”… of a parking fee, anyway.

Putting a price on parking arguably discriminates against people with limited incomes or who are unable to visit in off-peak periods when little or no fee is required. Land managers will therefore need to consider ways to ensure that everyone can visit our public lands, no matter their ability to pay. But such programs are already in place in several state and National Parks, and could be easily included in a Gorge or Mount Hood parking strategy.

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That’s no road – it’s what the Angels Rest trail has become in recent years, thanks to massive overuse from a complete lack of parking management at the trailhead.

Today, land managers are already beginning to put restrictions on overflow parking in the Gorge and on Mount Hood. It’s a good first step, but not enough to address peak demand on weekends and holidays, and in the end will mostly frustrate visitors who have arrived expecting place to park.

The next step for our public agencies is to start managing parking, itself. It’s long past time to try it in the Gorge and on Mount Hood, for the sake of our trails and most treasured places.

A New Vision for Mirror Lake (Part 3 of 3)

December 27, 2015
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Mirror Lake and Mount Hood from Tom Dick and Harry Mountain

 Big changes are coming to the Mirror Lake Trail on Mount Hood, perhaps the single most visited trail on the mountain. This is the third in a three-part series on the future of Mirror Lake, and the need for a broader vision to guide recreation in the area. This article focuses on a (much!) bolder vision that would provide new backcountry experiences and help take pressure off heavily visited Mirror Lake.

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On March 30, 2009, President Obama signed into law a wilderness bill that brought thousands of acres of land around Mount Hood under permanent protection from logging and other commercial development.

Most of these new areas were expansions of existing wilderness, and such was the case for the backcountry that forms the backdrop for Mirror Lake. This new wilderness area stands as an island, bounded by US 26 on the north and the Still Creek Road on the south. This map shows the new island of wilderness:

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Click here for a larger map

The new wilderness area encompasses most of the remote, seldom visited Wind Creek drainage and much of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain. As you can see from the map, this island wilderness was added to the nearby Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, located to the south. That might be because the new area falls below the 5,000 acre threshold for new wilderness, but it was a missed opportunity to give the area its own wilderness identity.

While Mirror Lake, itself, was left just outside the boundary, the rugged mountain backdrop above the lake is now protected in perpetuity from development, and ski resort expansion, in particular — and whatever else might have been dreamed up by those trying to exploit this beautiful area to make a buck off our public lands.

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The rugged slopes of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain rising above Mirror Lake are now protected forever

The new wilderness protection also offers an opportunity to rethink how Mirror Lake itself will be protected in the long term. While not the closest wilderness area to the Portland region, it is perhaps the most accessible. That means demand for exploring the Mirror Lake area will only grow over time, no matter where the new trailhead is eventually located.

The Mirror Lake trailhead study took a baby step toward a broader vision for the wilderness area with the intriguing (and now discarded) “Site 5”, which would have moved the trailhead to the base of Laurel Hill, along Camp Creek (see below). Forest Service planners considered a new trail along Camp Creek to connect this lower trailhead to the existing trail – and in doing so, briefly floated the idea of a completely new streamside hike, something the Mount Hood area is woefully short on.

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Click here for a larger map

It’s true this site would have been a poor replacement for the existing trailhead, simply because of its distance from Mirror Lake. But the idea should be still explored on its own merits – along with other opportunities to build a true trail network in the new Mirror Lake wilderness.

While the Forest Service is rightly concerned about the impacts of heavy foot traffic on Mirror Lake, making it more difficult to get there doesn’t solve the larger issue: over the next 25 years, a million new residents are expected in the greater Portland region, and new trails are essential to spreading out the already overwhelming demand from hikers.

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Mount Hood from Tom Dick and Harry Mountain

But you might be surprised to know there are no plans to do so. For a variety of frustrating reasons, the Forest Service is doing just the opposite: hundreds of miles of trails are suffering from serious maintenance backlogs, and the agency is actively looking for trails to drop from the maintained network across the Pacific Northwest.

At Mount Hood, the Forest Service is still working from a decades-old forest plan that was written when the Portland region was smaller by about 800,000 residents. In that time, you can count new trails added to the system on one hand – while dozens of legacy trails have been dropped from maintenance. We hear that there’s no just money for trails – and yet, millions are spent each year on the other programs that are clearly a greater Forest Service priority.

To reverse this counter-intuitive downward spiral, the first step is a bold vision to shift the agency toward embracing new trails, and moving recreation to the top of their priorities for Mount Hood. The Mirror Lake area is a perfect place to start.

Taking the Long View

New trail proposals are a regular feature in this blog, but they are usually very specific fixes to a particular trail that should happen in the near term (with a couple of notable exceptions focused on backcountry cycling, found here and here.

The following proposal is different: this is a trail concept that would likely be built over years and decades, but with an eye toward a complete system over the long term. The goal is to absorb some of the inevitable growth in demand for trails while also offering a reasonable wilderness experience.

The proposal comes in two parts. The first focuses on Mirror Lake and the adjacent island of wilderness that encompasses the Wind Creek Basin, while the second part focuses on connections to the main Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, to the south. The trail concepts for the first part are shown on this map:

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Click here for a larger map

The trails shown in red on the map are new trail proposals, and would be built over time to provide alternatives to the overused Mirror Lake trail. Trails in green exist today. The new trails would provide access to new, largely unknown scenic destinations in this pocket wilderness, as well as overnight wilderness camping potential for weekend backpackers.

A key piece in this trail concept is a pair of new routes that would create a Mirror Lake loop from the proposed trailhead at Ski Bowl (see close-up map, below).

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Click here for a larger map

While the other trail concepts proposed in this article are intended as a long-term, alternative vision to the status quo in the Mirror Lake area, the Mirror Lake loop trails could – and should — happen in the near term. The Mirror Lake loop concept builds on existing trails and could be built today, if the Forest Service were to embrace the idea.

The new connecting trail from the proposed Ski Bowl trailhead is already part of the Forest Service proposal for relocating the existing trailhead, and will be constructed as part of moving the trailhead.

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The Tom Dick and Harry traverse concept (the 1.3 mile connector along the north slope of the mountain) could be an important complement to the existing up-and-back trail by offering a loop option. The connector would also provide a real trail alternative to the informal summit ridge trail that eventually ends up following service roads under ski lifts back to the trailhead.

Loop trails not only reduce the impact on individual routes, they also offer more scenery for hikers and less crowding – which helps ensure a better wilderness experience.

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Moving to the north edge of the Mirror Lake trail concept map, the “Site 5” idea of a lower trailhead along Camp Creek is included, connecting from the Site 5 trailhead location to the Mirror Lake Trail.

While this trail concept seems to be too close to the US 26 highway corridor to provide much of a respite from urban noise, the saving grace is Camp Creek, itself. The creek tumbles along several hundred feet below the, and the sounds of this mountain stream would be more than enough to mask highway noise for hikers if the trail were designed to follow the creek.

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Looking down… waay down at Camp Creek from Highway 26

The Camp Creek trail concept has a lot to offer hikers: a rare, streamside trail in the Mount Hood corridor, an easy grade for families and a year-round hiking season, with most of the proposed trail located below the winter snow level.

Best of all, the Camp Creek canyon hides a once-famous series of cascades that make up Yocum Falls. These falls are seldom visited today, but the Camp Creek trail concept would pass in front of the beautiful lower tier of this series of waterfalls before climbing to the Mirror Lake trail. The falls would likely become the main focus of this trail for families or casual hikers looking for a short 3-mile, streamside hike.

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Beautiful Yocum Falls on Camp Creek

Building on the “Site 5” trailhead and Camp Creek trail proposal, this Mirror Lake trails concept includes a new route that would explore Wind Creek. This route would begin at Site 5, following Camp Creek downstream to Wind Creek, then climb into the remote Wind Creek basin. This proposed trail would provide a true wilderness experience, just off the Highway 26 corridor.

Along the way, the proposed Wind Creek trail would include a short spur (see map) to an overlook atop the familiar, towering cliffs that are prominently seen from Highway 26 along the north slope of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain.

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Google Earth view of the familiar cliffs on Tom Dick and Harry Mountain that would provide a short viewpoint destination off the proposed Wind Creek Trail.

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Mount Hood as it would appear from the new viewpoint along the proposed Wind Creek Trail.

But the Wind Creek trail concept would have even more to offer hikers: waterfall explorers Tim Burke and Melinda Muckenthaler recently discovered a series of beautiful, unmapped wateralls along Wind Creek where it tumbles from its hanging valley into Camp Creek.

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Middle Wind Creek Falls (photo courtesy Tim Burke)

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Upper Wind Creek Falls (photo courtesy Tim Burke)

Above the waterfalls, the proposed trail would enter the Wind Creek Basin, eventually connecting with existing trails on Tom Dick and Harry Mountain to create a number of possible loop hikes and backpacking opportunities.

Foremost among the backpack destinations would be Wind Lake, a pretty, surprisingly secluded lake that is currently only accessible by first navigating a tangle of service roads and resort trails at Ski Bowl. The Wind Creek trail concept would allow hikers to visit this wilderness spot without having to walk through the often carnival-like activities that dominate during the summer months at the resort.

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Wind Lake (Photo courtesy Cheryl Hill)

A final piece of the concept for the Mirror Lake-Wind Creek backcountry would be a new trail connecting Wind Lake to the Still Creek Road and Eureka Peak Trail. This new route would pass a couple of small, unnamed lakes south of Wind Lake, then traverse a rugged, unnamed overlook that towers 1,600 above the floor of the Still Creek valley (see concept map, above).

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Looking across the seldom-visited Wind Lakes Basin toward Mount Jefferson

The proposed trail linking Wind Lake to the Eureke Peak trail would also be the first step in better connecting the wilderness island that encompasses the Wind Creek Basin and Mirror Lake to the main Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, to the south. And on that point…

 Thinking even bigger!

In the long-term, the island of wilderness that covers the Wind Creek-Mirror Lake area should be more fully integrated with the main Salmon-Huckleberry wilderness to enhance both recreation and the ecosystem. This second part of the trail concept for the Mirror Lake area is a broader proposal that encompasses the north edge of the main Salmon-Huckleberry wilderness area, and includes few ideas on how to get there (see map, below).

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Click here for a larger map

The centerpiece of this part of the trail proposal is to close Still Creek Road from the Cool Creek trailhead to the Eureka Peak trailhed to motorized vehicles. The concept is to leave this nearly 6-mile section of road (shown in yellow on the map) open to cyclists and horses and for occasional administrative use by Forest Service vehicles.

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Beautiful Still Creek

A corresponding trail concept (shown on the above map) is to build a stream-level hiking trail that parallels the service road, but alternates at each bridge, staying on the opposite side of Still Creek from the road. True, hikers could simply follow the closed road, but the idea is to offer another much-needed, low elevation streamside trail to the area, taking pressure off the few options that currently exist (in particular, the Salmon River).

Closing the trail to motor vehicles would also help control some of the historic problems with dumping, target shooting and vandalism in the area. It would also create a quiet zone for wildlife moving between the main Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness and the wilderness island covering the Mirror Lake-Wind Creek area.

Another concept in this second, broader proposal is a ridge trail along the Salmon River-Still Creek divide, from Devils Peak to Eureka Peak. This little-known arm of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness is dotted with rock outcrops and open ridges that offer sweeping views of Mount Hood and the Still Creek valley. This trail concept would new backpack loops possible from the Highway 26 corridor.

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The Salmon River-Still Creek Divide (with clouds filling the Still Creek valley)

The ridge trail concept proposes two new trails between Veda Butte and Eureka Peak, creating a smaller loop in this area that would traverse open talus slopes and ridge tops with fine views of Mount Hood and Veda Lake.

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Veda Lake and Mount Hood

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Veda Lake and Veda Butte

The west end of the proposed ridge trail would connect to the extensive network of trails that converge on Devils Peak and its historic lookout tower. The Cool Creek, Kinzel, Green Canyon and Hunchback Mountain trails would all connect to the proposed ridge trail, creating many hiking loop and backpack options, as well as trail access from the Salmon River area to the Mirror Lake and Wind Creek backcountry.

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Mount Hood from the Cool Creek Trail

Is this vision for Mirror Lake and the Wind Creek Basin farfetched? Only if we limit our imagination and expectations to the existing forest management mindset.

Consider that nearly all of the trails ever built on Forest Service lands were constructed in just a 20-year span that ended in the mid-1930s, using mostly hand tools, and with budgets a fraction of what is spent today. The real obstacles to a renewed focus on trails and recreation aren’t agency resources, but rather, a lack of vision and will to make it happen.

What can you do?

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Mirror Lake in winter

For now, these trail concepts are just a few ideas of what the future could be. The critical step in the near term is to simply avoid losing ground when the Mirror Lake trailhead is moved. If you haven’t commented already, consider weighing in on the issue – the federal agencies are still accepting our feedback!

Here are three suggested areas to focus on your comments on:

  1. What would you like to see in the preferred alternative? (see Option 4 in the first part of this article series)?

Are you frustrated with the winter closure of the existing Mirror Lake trailhead? Be sure to mention this in your comments on the proposed new trailhead, as it will need to be design to be plowed and subsequently added to the Snow Park system to serve as a year-round trailhead.

Consider commenting on other trailhead amenities, as well, such as restrooms, secure bicycle parking, trash cans, drinking fountain, signage, picnic tables, a safe pedestrian crossing on Highway 26 for hikers coming from Government Camp or any other feature you’d like to see.

  1. How would you like to see Camp Creek protected?

The project vaguely proposes to restore the existing shoulder parking area to some sort of natural condition. Consider commenting on how this restoration might work to benefit Camp Creek, which is now heavily affected by highway runoff and the impacts of parking here.

In particular, mention the need to divert highway runoff away from Camp Creek for the entire 1-mile stretch from the old trailhead to the Ski Bowl entrance. The proposed parking area restoration is the perfect opportunity to address the larger need to improve the watershed health.

  1. Would you like to see a new vision for the larger Mirror Lake/Wind Creek backcountry?

Share some of the ideas and proposals from this article or other ideas of your own! The Forest Service recreation planners are reviewing the comments from the trailhead relocation project, so it can’t hurt to make a pitch for more trails in the future – even if the recent history has been in the opposite direction.

In particular, mention the loop trail idea described for Mirror Lake, particularly the traverse trail shown on the first concept map. This new trail has a real chance of being built in the near term of there’s public support for it.

You can comment to Seth Young at the Federal Highway Administration via e-mail or learn more about the project here:

Mirror Lake Trailhead Project Information:

Federal Highway Administration

Seth English-Young, Environmental Specialist

Western Federal Lands Highway Division

610 East Fifth Street

Vancouver, WA 98661-3801

Phone: 360-619-7803

Email: seth.english-young@dot.gov

 Subscribe to Project Newsletters

To be added to their mailing list, please send an email to seth.english-young@dot.gov.

 For U.S. Forest Service specific questions contact:

Laura Pramuk

Phone: 503-668-1791

Email: lbpramuk@fs.fed.us

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!

It’s Time to Fix the Eliot Crossing!

October 28, 2014
Eliot Branch and Mount Hood before the 2006 washout

Eliot Branch and Mount Hood before the 2006 washout

Another hiking season has passed, marking eight long, inexcusable years since an intense November storm washed out the Timberline National Historic Trail near Cloud Cap in 2006.

Since then, countless hikers from around the world have arrived at this world-class destination only to find cryptic temporary notices stapled to trailhead signs announcing that the segment of the trail crossing the Eliot Branch has been closed indefinitely by the U.S. Forest Service.

Hikers on the seasonal bridge over the Eliot Branch that was in place from the mid-1990s until 2006

Hikers on the seasonal bridge over the Eliot Branch that was in place from the mid-1990s until 2006

Most round-the-mountain hikers start at Timberline Lodge and hike clockwise, and therefore often learn of the Eliot Branch closure halfway through their 40-mile trek. Understandably, many of these hikers began working their way across the deeply eroded canyon in the years following the closure. Today hundreds of hikers each hear ignore the Forest Service notices and follow sketchy boot paths across the Eliot Branch to complete the Timberline Trail circuit.

Why the delay in repairing the trail at the Eliot Branch? The Forest Service claims lack of funding, suggesting in 2010 that “studies were underway” for a million dollar suspension bridge at the current crossing location. Such a project would “require an appropriation by Congress” to fund, according to a Forest Service district ranger at the time.

A second, more practical option under consideration was a significant reroute of the Timberline Trail at the Eliot Branch, which according to the Forest Service at the time, would require “constructing 1.5 miles of new trail to a lower crossing of the creek, then 1.5 miles back up to the existing trail”.

Eight years have passed since the 2006 washout, and four since the Forest Service last gave any indication of working toward a solution for the Timberline Trail. Since then, neither option proposed in 2010 for restoring the crossing has materialized. Instead, Oregon’s premier hiking trail remains an embarrassment, and a testament to the frustrating inability of the Forest Service to set agency priorities that match those of the public they serve.

These seasonable bridge footings were bolted to a pair of huge boulders that were swept away in the 2006 washout

These seasonable bridge footings were bolted to a pair of huge boulders that were swept away in the 2006 washout

The 2006 flood event wasn’t the first time the Eliot Crossing had washed out in recent years. In the mid-1990s, a similar washout erased an earlier crossing that had been in place since the Timberline Trail was constructed in the 1930s. The Forest Service responded to the first washout by appropriating sections of a pair of climber’s trails that ascend moraines on both sides of the Eliot Canyon, and constructing a new crossing between the two trails, above the original crossing.

This new crossing (pictured above) lasted only a few years, until the 2006 storm further deepened the Eliot Branch canyon, this time much more substantially. The new crossing featured a pair of bridge anchors bolted to boulders that straddled the Eliot Branch, and a seasonal bridge that could be placed on the anchors with a helicopter, similar to the Sandy River bridge near Ramona Falls.

The sorry state of the "closed" Eliot Branch crossing today: a sketchy scramble up a crumbling 300 foot slope, aided by a rope left by hikers

The sorry state of the “closed” Eliot Branch crossing today: a sketchy scramble up a crumbling 300 foot slope, aided by a rope left by hikers

Removable, seasonal bridges are an excellent solution to the dilemma of keeping the Timberline Trail open in an era when retreating glaciers and increasingly erratic weather promises to continue deepening all of Mount Hood’s newly exposed glacial valleys.

This point was underscored earlier this year when an unusually strong summer storm washed out the seasonal Sandy River crossing. While one hiker was tragically killed in the incident, dozens were able to cross to safety because of the seasonal bridge.

For this reason, studying elaborate permanent solutions, such as the “million dollar” suspension bridge, are an exercise in futility. Whole sections of the Eliot Branch canyon have collapsed into the stream over the past two decades during heavy flooding, and there is no reason to assume that this pattern won’t continue to rearrange the landscape for decades to come.

This article proposes a more modest and immediate fix that mirrors the re-route option once considered by the Forest Service. This is a project that could have been constructed shortly after the 2006 floods with minimal cost and an excellent ability to adapt to future flood events.

Lessons from Up North

Wonderland Trail bridge across the Nisqually River in Mount Rainier National Park (Wikimedia)

Wonderland Trail bridge across the Nisqually River in Mount Rainier National Park (Wikimedia)

The Eliot Branch crossing is a perfect example of how the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service differ in their budget priorities and working relationships with volunteers. It’s instructive to look at how the Park Service responded to the same 2006 storms and flooding that impacted Mount Rainier National Park.

The damage to the 92-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier was exponentially worse than anything on Mount Hood. This is largely because several of Mount Rainier’s 26 glaciers dwarf even the Eliot Glacier, Mount Hood’s largest, and the Wonderland Trail has three times the glacial stream crossings of the Timberline Trail.

The Wonderland Trail not only crosses many more glacial streams in its circuit around Mount Rainier, it also has bridges across most of them, where most of Mount Hood’s glacial streams have no bridges (requiring hikers to ford most of the glacial streams). So, not only did the Park Service have a trail more than twice as long to restore, but also many times the number of bridges to repair along the Wonderland Trail.

Despite the much greater challenge, the Park Service managed very little disruption for hikers. The Wonderland Trail uses a reservation system, and the Park Service took the precautionary step of not accepting reservations for the 2007 hiking season, in light of the scope of damage to many trail sections and crossings. Yet, the Wonderland Trail was reopened to hikers on August 3, 2007, less than a year after the 2006 floods!

The National Park Service continually maintains dozens of wilderness bridges on the 92-mile long Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, despite much worse washouts and much more difficult crossings than anything found on Mount Hood (Wikimedia)

The National Park Service continually maintains dozens of wilderness bridges on the 92-mile long Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, despite much worse washouts and much more difficult crossings than anything found on Mount Hood (Wikimedia)

The rapid repairs to the Wonderland Trail happened because re-opening the trail was a top priority for the Mount Rainier National Park. To manage this feat, the staff enlisted some 1,700 volunteers in the effort, with tens of thousands of volunteer labor from organizations like the he Washington Conservation Corps and Student Conservation Association.

The proposal described in this article for the Eliot Branch could easily have been completed in 2007, too, had restoring the trail been a priority for the Forest Service, and especially if volunteer labor had been tapped from any number of organizations involved in trail work in Oregon. Instead, the repairs have waited eight years, with no end in sight.

It’s time to finally fix the Timberline Trail to ensure the safety of hikers determined to make the crossing, and to end the embarrassment of visitors to our region from around the world experiencing this national treasure in such a shameful state of disrepair.

A Simple and Affordable Solution!

EliotCrossing07

[click to see a large version]

The simplest solution to finally restoring the Eliot Branch crossing is to go lower and low-tech. Instead of waiting for a dubious “million dollar” suspension bridge to be funded, a better option would be a new crossing downstream with a simple, seasonal plank bridge.

Why go low? Mostly because the durable bedrock layers that form Stranahan Falls (located about a mile downstream from the current crossing) have also checked down-cutting of the canyon in that stretch by the Eliot Branch. Where the upper canyon has been carved some 150 feet deeper since the 1990s, the lower canyon section, just above Stranahan falls, shows much less erosion during this period.

As shown on the proposal map (above), this new section of the Timberline Trail would depart from Cloud Cap Saddle trailhead, initially following a shallow ravine to the rim of the Eliot Branch canyon. The new trail would then switchback down the east wall of the canyon, reaching the new crossing (shown below) about 0.5 miles from the start of the new trail.

EliotCrossing08

[click to see a large version]

The new, lower stream crossing would be similar to most other glacial fords on the Timberline Trail, except that a bridge is proposed here (as they should be at all glacial crossings on Mount Hood – watch for a future article on that topic!).

This is in part because a bridge has traditionally been provided at this crossing, but also because the crossing location is very close to the Cloud Cap Saddle trailhead, and located at the wilderness boundary, so it would present fewer obstacles to build and maintain. Until the Eliot Branch settles down, however (and that could decades from now – or never), it makes sense to install a season bridge similar to that used on the Sandy River.

From the proposed lower crossing of the Eliot Branch, the new trail would traverse along a side stream that enters the main canyon from the west, climbing approximately 0.8 miles to the resumption of the existing Timberline Trail.

EliotCrossing09

[click to see a large version]

The 600-foot elevation loss (and subsequent gain) for this proposed new alignment of the Timberline Trail would be comparable to what was already required for the old, upper crossing, though the overall mileage of the new route would be slightly longer (by about 0.3 miles). However, the length of the proposed new trail would be less than half of what the Forest Service was considering for a lower crossing option in 2010.

The key to the new crossing location is its proximity to Stranahan Falls, and the massive band of andesite bedrock that not only forms the falls, but also prevents further down-cutting in the area above the falls. As shown the illustrations (above and below), this location is the one spot in the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch canyon that has a reasonable chance of stabilizing in the near term.

EliotCrossing10

[click to see a large version]

As an aside, the area near the brink of Stranahan Falls is arguably the most stable in terms of down cutting, with the streambed now scoured to bedrock for some distance above the falls. But a crossing here would not only add to the elevation loss/gain and distance for the new trail, it would also require some challenging trail construction in the very steep and complex terrain that surrounds the top of the falls.

There are also additional waterfalls to negotiate in the area immediately above Stranahan Falls, including a 25-foot waterslide just above the main falls and a 35″ upper falls just upstream from the waterslide. While it would surely be a spectacular location for a trail crossing, it would also very difficult to build and maintain over time.

A crossing at Stranahan Falls would also encourage more off-trail exploring of the falls area than is desirable, both for public safety and environmental concerns. So, based on these considerations, the crossing location proposed in this article seems to be the best spot for ensuring long-term stability and reasonably straightforward design and construction.

What will it Take?

Sadly, this fine bridge over Clark Creek is among the few surviving on Mount Hood, and the only surviving permanent crossing on a glacial stream.

Sadly, this fine bridge over Clark Creek is among the few surviving on Mount Hood, and the only surviving permanent crossing on a glacial stream.

What would it take to actually build this simple solution for reconnecting the Timberline Trail? Not as much as we’ve been led to believe by the Forest Service. Here’s how the proposal described in this article could be built right away, in 2015:

The total length of the proposed new Timberline Trail section is approximately 1.3 miles, with the first (and most rugged) half mile occurring outside the Mount Hood Wilderness boundary. This would allow for mechanized equipment to be used on that section of new trail, while only hand tools could be used to construct the sections west of the Eliot Branch, inside the wilderness.

These young hikers are experiencing a tainted rite of passage with the long and often treacherous detour required to complete the Timberline Trail (Photo courtesy Christopher Alley)

These young hikers are experiencing a tainted rite of passage with the long and often treacherous detour required to complete the Timberline Trail (Photo courtesy Christopher Alley)

One Forest Service source (the USFS Trails Unlimited enterprise program) estimates the cost of building new trails to be between $2,500 to $12,000 per mile. That’s a big range, to be sure. So for the purpose of this article, I used the top of that range to put the cost of actually constructing the proposed trail at just over $15,000, given that the trail would involve both wilderness construction and steep terrain.

Other costs would include environmental analysis (if needed – this proposal may qualify as a categorical exception), design and surveying. But even if these administrative and technical costs were to triple the cost of the overall project, restoring the Timberline Trail along this alignment might still be possible for well under $100,000, using Forest Service cost estimates. That is a relatively manageable amount that could reasonably be funded from an annual Mount Hood National Forest operating budget of more than $20 million.

So, what’s the delay? First, it’s hard to believe the Forest Service hasn’t considered an inexpensive option like the one proposed here. Yet, no such project has been formally proposed by the agency.

It’s also possible that the Forest Service is still fixated on the more dramatic, elaborate fix described by forest officials in 2010. Such projects are known to bring political favor back at the USFS headquarters in Washington D.C. for their “wow factor” over more mundane projects, after all. Unfortunately, such a project does not appear in the Forest Service schedule of proposed actions (SOPA) where a proposal of that scale would almost surely have to be listed.

This is the frustrating map that still greets Timberline Trail hikers on the Mount Hood National Forest website after eight years

This is the frustrating map that still greets Timberline Trail hikers on the Mount Hood National Forest website after eight years

[click here for a large version]

A third possibility is that the Forest Service is holding the trail hostage in protest to budget cuts that have affected most federal agencies over the past several years. While this might seem far-fetched, consider that Oregon Congressmen Earl Blumenauer and Greg Walden made a much-publicized 4-day trek around the Timberline Trail in July 2005 to highlight issues facing the mountain, just one year before the Eliot Crossing washed out.

Whatever the reason, fixing the Timberline Trail doesn’t seem to be a real priority for the Forest Service. Why else would the most important trail in the Mount Hood National Forest have languished for the past eight years? In that time, the agency has spent tens of millions on other forest projects.

The sad saga of the Timberline Trail closer at the Eliot Branch is also another reminder of just how different the situation at Mount Hood might be if it were under National Park management… which is the much better solution in the long term.
________________

Special thanks to Tim Burke and Melinda Muckenthaler for use of your photos – and for some of the most amazing waterfall exploring anyone has ever done on Mount Hood!

The “Other” Shellrock Mountain

July 31, 2014
Mount Hood rises above Shellrock Mountain and Badlands Basin

Mount Hood rises above Shellrock Mountain and Badlands Basin

Hidden in plain sight above the Hood River Valley, Shellrock Mountain is a little-known peak with a familiar name. Though it shares a name with its better-known cousin in the Columbia River Gorge, the “other” Shellrock Mountain has much more to offer, and is easier to explore.

The “other” Shellrock Mountain is located along the Surveyors Ridge trail, a route popular with mountain bikers who ride from one glorious viewpoint to another along this well-traveled route. At one point on the trail, an obscure wooden sign points to Shellrock Mountain, but really just marks a short spur trail with a view of the south face of Shellrock. Beyond this modest view, few visitors take the time to explore the mountain or the rugged Badlands Basin, located nearby.

Hidden in plain sight: Shellrock Mountain is from Cooper Spur Road

Hidden in plain sight: Shellrock Mountain is from Cooper Spur Road

[click here for a larger view]

Reaching the summit of Shellrock Mountain involves a short, stiff off-trail scramble up the northeast slope of the peak (more about that later), where a stunning view stretches from the nearby glaciers of Mount Hood to the big peaks of the southern Washington Cascades and arid desert country of the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

Shellrock Mountain sits astride the Hood River Fault, a 20-mile long scarp that forms the east wall of the Hood River Valley. The scarp also forms the last high ridge of the Cascade Range in the Mount Hood area, with evergreen forests giving way to the arid deserts of Eastern Oregon just a few miles east of Shellrock Mountain. This proximity to the desert ecosystem brings together a blend of mountain and desert flora and fauna that make Shellrock Mountain and its surrounding area unique.

While most of the uplifted ridge along the Hood River Fault is composed of ancient layers of basalt, andesite and dacite, the Badlands Basin reveals the more recent debris of a pyroclastic flow, the same roiling mixture of steam, volcanic ash and rock that roared from Mount St. Helens in the May 1980 eruption. This flow originated from Mount Hood during its early formation.

Badlands Basin sprawls against the northern foot of Shellrock Mountain

Badlands Basin sprawls against the northern foot of Shellrock Mountain

Badlands Basin is located at the headwaters of Cat Creek, on the north flank of Shellrock Mountain. Here, the ancient pyroclastic flow has been carved into a fantastic landscape of pinnacles, ridges and goblins that is unmatched elsewhere in the region. The Badland Basin formation spreads across about 100 acres, rising nearly 1,000 above Cat Creek.

The maze of formations in Badlands Basin as viewed from Shellrock Mountain

The maze of formations in Badlands Basin as viewed from Shellrock Mountain

Exploring the Badlands Basin is a rugged and surreal experience for the rare visitors who make their way through the jagged formations. No trails go here, and the terrain is both steep and exposed. But once inside the formation, individual spires and ridges take on a new life, as their bizarre shapes come into focus on a human scale. The Badlands are surprisingly alive, too, with a unique ecosystem of desert and sun-loving alpine flora thriving in dry meadows among the rock outcrops.

Badlands Basin: “The Grizzly Bear”

Badlands Basin: “The Grizzly Bear”

Badlands Basin: “The Hippo”

Badlands Basin: “The Hippo”

Badlands Basin: “The Iguana”

Badlands Basin: “The Iguana”

Together, Shellrock Mountain and the adjacent Badlands Basin are special places that beg to be explored. While the Surveyors Ridge Trail provides a good view into the area, new trails that explore the strange formations of the Badlands up-close and reach the airy summit of Shellrock Mountain could make these places much more accessible for hikers and cyclists. What would these new trails look like?

Proposal: Shellrock Mountain Loop Trail

This proposal calls for a new trail to Shellrock Mountain and Badland Basin from the Loop Highway. Why start at the highway? It makes sense for several reasons: first, the new trailhead at Cat Creek would be only about one-third mile from the popular Dog River Trailhead, making a long and spectacular loop possible for mountain bikers, as the Dog River Trail also connects to the Surveyors Ridge Trail.

Second, a highway trailhead would make the area much more accessible and secure for all visitors, as highway trailheads are easier for law enforcement to patrol, and highway traffic, alone, acts as significant deterrent against car clouters.

ShellrockMountain08

[click here for a large version]

Finally, a trailhead along the Loop Highway could be open most of the year, allowing for winter snowshoe access to the high country around Shellrock Mountain when the Surveyors Ridge Road is buried under snowdrifts.

The proposed Shellrock Mountain Loop would have two legs: a 2.5 mile northern leg would follow Cat Creek to the base of Badlands Basin, then wind through the rock formations to a junction with the Surveyors Ridge Trail. A southern leg would climb the long ridge west of Shellrock Mountain to a separate junction with the Surveyors Ridge Trail, about a mile south of the northern leg. The Surveyors Ridge trail would connect these new trails, creating the loop.

A short summit spur trail would lead from the existing Surveyors Ridge Trail to the rocky top of Shellrock Mountain, providing a side-trip option for cyclists on the ridge and the main destination for hikers on the new Shellrock loop trail.

The following oblique views show the proposed trails from both west and east perspectives:

ShellrockMountain09

[click here for a large version]

ShellrockMountain10

[click here for a large version]

What Would it Take?

In 2009, President Obama signed a bill into law creating the Mount Hood National Recreation Area (MHNRA), a small but significant new form of protection for the Mount Hood area. The MHNRA concept has mountain bikes in mind, as it provides a way to protect recreation areas in a wild state, but without bicycle restrictions (under federal law, bicycles are not allowed in designated wilderness areas).

Shellrock Mountain and Mt. Hood from the Surveyors Ridge Trail

Shellrock Mountain and Mt. Hood from the Surveyors Ridge Trail

The entirety of Shellrock Mountain and the Badlands Basin fall within the MHNRA designation, and as such, deserve to be considered for proposals like this one. The Forest Service has shown an encouraging willingness to work with mountain biking advocates to build new bike trails in the Surveyors Ridge area, too. So while the agency has generally opposed building new trails anywhere else, there is a good chance that the Shellrock Mountain Loop could be build if mountain bike advocates were to embrace the idea.

The first mile of both legs of the new trail would also fall on Hood River County land. The county currently focuses most of its energy on logging its forest holdings, but has worked with mountain bikers in the Post Canyon area to diversify the kinds of uses that county land can be dedicated to.

Nope, this sign doesn’t lead to Shellrock Mountain… yet…

Nope, this sign doesn’t lead to Shellrock Mountain… yet…

In the Shellrock Mountain area, Hood River County has already logged off the big trees, so hopefully the County would see the wisdom of shifting the focus in this area to recreation, as well – and possibly consider funding for trail construction, as well.

Most importantly, mountain biking advocates like the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) have a terrific record of trail building, and with help from other trail advocates like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), could be the catalyst in bringing together a collaborative effort of volunteers, the Forest Service and Hood River County in creating this new trail system.

How to Visit Shellrock Mountain

Sturdy hikers can visit Shellrock Mountain today with a bit of wayfinding expertise and some bushwhacking skills. The best starting point is an unofficial trailhead located along the Surveyors Ridge Road.

A brave bushwhacker heads for Shellrock’s summit

A brave bushwhacker heads for Shellrock’s summit

To reach the trailhead from Hood River, drive the Loop Highway (OR 35) ten miles south of I-84 to a crest just beyond the Mount Hood Mill, where you turn left onto Pinemont Drive. This road eventually becomes Surveyors Ridge Road, alternating between paved and gravel surfaces, but is always easily passable for any car.

At almost exactly 11 miles from where you turned off the main highway, watch for an unmarked trail heading to the right at an obvious bend in the road. Park here, and follow the short path to the Surveyors Ridge Trail, just a few feet off the gravel road. Shellrock Mountain is visible directly ahead of you!

The open summit ridge of Shellrock Mountain

The open summit ridge of Shellrock Mountain

From here, turn left (south) and follow the Surveyors Ridge trail for about one-third mile to a gentle crest along the forested east shoulder of Shellrock Mountain. If you pass the trail sign pointing to Shellrock Mountain, you’ve gone too far.

At the crest, head directly uphill on whatever path you can find through the forest, then abruptly leave the trees and reach the open east slopes of Shellrock Mountain, where you will wind among patches of manzanita and ocean spray as you work your way toward the summit. Don’t forget to look back periodically to help you retrace your steps upon your return!

Mount Hood fills the horizon from the top of Shellrock Mountain

Mount Hood fills the horizon from the top of Shellrock Mountain

Soon, you will reach the summit ridge with a series of viewpoints of the Badlands Basin (and your starting point) spreading out to the north and Mount Hood towering to the southwest.

From this vantage point, you can also see the full extent of the 2008 Gnarl Fire that burned the eastern slopes of Mount Hood, sweeping from near Gnarl Ridge on the far left horizon toward Cloud Cap, located right of center. The historic Cloud Cap Inn was barely spared by this blaze. In 2011, the Dollar Fire was started by a lightning strike west of Cloud Cap, sweeping over the right shoulder of the mountain for several miles toward Lolo Pass. For more on the Dollar Fire, click here.

Early stages of the 2008 Gnarl Fire from near Shellrock Mountain

Early stages of the 2008 Gnarl Fire from near Shellrock Mountain

You’ll want to linger on the summit, and be sure to bring along a good map to help you identify the many features near and far that can be seen from this lonely summit. For photographer, the best time to visit in in the morning, which the light on Mount Hood is at its best.

Enjoy!

U.S. 26 Construction Begins

June 30, 2014
Vestige of better days: ferns and moss are gradually erasing the long-abandoned original loop highway on Laurel Hill

Vestige of better days: ferns and most are gradually erasing the long-abandoned original loop highway on Laurel Hill

Over the past few years, I’ve posted a series of articles in this blog challenging the Oregon Department of Transportation “safety” projects for U.S. 26 in the Mount Hood area. Most of the projects to date have been highway widening cloaked as “safety”, and ODOT has been incrementally widening the highway to five lanes from west of Wemme through Rhododendron over the past decade.

Today, they’ve set their sights on the Laurel Hill section of the highway, where extensive sections of the mountainside will soon be blasted away, ostensibly to prevent rocks from falling on the highway. But as always, the highway “will be widened for safety”.

The big road cut in the center of this Google Earth view will get even bigger with the latest ODOT project

The big road cut in the center of this Google Earth view will get even bigger with the latest ODOT project

The current batch of projects aren’t as bad as they might have been: working from a solid “F” grade as originally rolled out, they’ve moved somewhere into the “D-” range. The project is still a costly dud to taxpayers, approaching $40 million and counting. But the extent of new lanes has been scaled back somewhat and the center median has also been shortened on the west end from what was originally conceived.

Sadly, ODOT can do better — and has, especially in the Columbia River Gorge, where their excellent I-84 Strategy guides design. But on Mount Hood the focus has been on moving traffic, with impacts on the scenic character of Oregon’s tallest peak as an afterthought.

This slope across from the Mirror Lake trailhead will be blasted away to allow for road widening

This slope across from the Mirror Lake trailhead will be blasted away to allow for road widening

For Mount Hood travelers, it’s going to be a radical change. Not only will the physical highway scars on Laurel Hill grow substantially, the road itself will be more freeway-like, thanks to a concrete center median that will stretch four miles from the Kiwanis Camp junction at the bottom of the hill to Government Camp.

While the new median will physically prevent the relatively rare head-on crashes that can occur in winter conditions (when heavy ski traffic is present), ODOT has no shown plans to actually lower the speed limit in this stretch of highly. This would be the most cost-effective way to prevent crashes, and was recommended as a priority by their own safety consultants, but couldn’t compete with the road widening agenda.

You Can’t Get There from Here

The most obvious impact of the new median will be visual. ODOT has been vague about just how ugly the median will be. There are many examples across the country where state highway departments have constructed reasonably attractive median barriers in scenic corridors. Yet, while early ODOT materials on the project suggested a similar approach at Mount Hood, the agency seems to be retreating to a standard Jersey barricade, like you might find on the Banfield Freeway.

The Laurel Hill Chute historic site will be a lot harder to reach for westbound tourists

The Laurel Hill Chute historic site will be a lot harder to reach for westbound tourists

The "improved" highway will allow fewer visitors to take in this mind-boggling view of the "chute" used by Oregon Trail pioneers to descend Laurel Hill

The “improved” highway will allow fewer visitors to take in this mind-boggling view of the “chute” used by Oregon Trail pioneers to descend Laurel Hill


 

Another impact from the medians that will affect hikers is access to the popular Mirror Lake trailhead and Laurel Hill Chute trail. Once the median is in place, hikers will have to approach from the west to reach these trails, which means that if you are approaching from Government Camp, you would need to drive four miles down Laurel Hill to the Kiwanis junction, turn around and retrace your route to Laurel Hill or Mirror Lake.

Likewise, the hordes of Portlander who fill the Mirror Lake trailhead, in particular, will need to drive to Government Camp or Ski Bowl to make their return trip, as turning west from the trailhead will no longer be possible.

This is Going to Take Awhile

This latest phase of the U.S. 26 widening project begins this summer, and, according to ODOT, will continue through 2016 in the months of April-October each year! ODOT warns travelers that intermittent traffic closures during these construction windows will last 20 minutes and can occur at any time when construction is underway — longer when blasting occurring.

Here’s a rundown of the details from ODOT:

• Around-the-clock closure to one lane in each direction until October 31, 2015
• Blasting will require up to 1-hour closures of U.S. 26 three days a week Monday through Thursday between 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
• Intermittent traffic stops lasting 20-minutes anytime
• Increased truck traffic on U.S. 26
• Intermittent single lane closures and flagging for other work
• No construction on holidays and Sundays
• No construction from November to March of each year. During this time all existing lanes will re-open

If that last point leaves no doubt, this project continues spend a lot of general fund dollars on ski traffic — and the reckless driving associated with ski traffic — during winter weekends.

Finding a New Vision for US 26

The “good” news (ironically) is that ODOT is rapidly running out of highway funding. This reality is statewide, thanks to the declining value of a cents-per-gallon gas tax losing ground to inflation and the Oregon Legislature increasingly bonding away future gas taxes to pay today’s bills. It’s a sad state of affairs for transportation in Oregon, but it might also provide a needed opportunity for ODOT to develop a more holistic vision for the Mount Hood corridor.

The agency knows how to do this: ODOT’s I-84 Strategy for the Columbia Gorge guides project design in the National Scenic Area and is a perfect approach for coming up with a more enlightened, sustainable vision for the Mount Hood corridor, as well.

ODOT's excellent I-84 Strategy is a perfect blueprint for a new U.S. 26 vision on Mount Hood

ODOT’s excellent I-84 Strategy is a perfect blueprint for a new U.S. 26 vision on Mount Hood

One very encouraging development is the Mount Hood Multimodal Plan, reported on here in an earlier article. While past efforts to actually manage the ski traffic that drives so many bad highway design decisions in the corridor haven’t gone anywhere, the new plan seems to have legs. That’s good news for Mount Hood at a time when good news is in short supply.
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For more information about the U.S. 26 project and ODOT:

U.S. 26 Website

I-84 Strategy(PDF)

Previous WyEast Blog articles on the U.S. 26 project:

Highway 26 Widening – Part One

Highway 26 Widening – Part Two

Highway 26: Last Chance to Weigh in!

Highway 26 Postscript… and Requium?

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 1

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 2


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