Fire in WyEast Country

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Scorched Mirror Lake just beginning to recover from the Sherar Burn in early 1900s

Oh, if only our lives spanned 800 years instead of 80! No doubt we would see (and zealously protect) our world differently with the benefit of that long perspective. And it turns out that Bowhead whales, Greenland sharks and even pond Koi can live well beyond two centuries. Heck, the lowly Icelandic clam can live up to 500 years! The advantage these creatures have over humanity is the ability to see the cycles of life as a perpetual rhythm, not simply discrete events.

Which brings us to the deep sadness that so many of us are experiencing with Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 in the Columbia River Gorge. To so many of us, losing the lush green forests that framed the waterfalls and cliff-top vistas in the Gorge is like losing an old friend.

Yet, with a bit more longevity, we’d be able to see the cycles of fire and recovery repeat in succession, and we could even look forward to walking again among 200 year old forest giants along today’s scorched trails in the Gorge. Oh, to be an Icelandic clam…

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Yocum Falls and Tom Dick and Harry Mountain as they appeared after the Sherar Burn in the early 1900s

[click here for a larger view]

For many of us, the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 feels like a redux of 2008 and 2011, when the Gnarl Ridge and Dollar Lake fires burned off forests on the east and north sides of Mount Hood, respectively. Just as fire crews worked this month to protect Multnomah Falls Lodge and the Vista House at Crown Point from fire in the Gorge, crews in 2008 and 2011 scrambled to protect iconic Cloud Cap Inn, the nearby Snowshoe Lodge and the many historic CCC structures at Tilly Jane from the fires.

For those of a certain age, the hike to Mirror Lake on Mount Hood once involved walking beneath hundreds of bleached snags reaching to the sky. These were the remnants of the Sherar Burn that scorched the entirety of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain, along with the upper Still Creek valley and points south in the early 1900s. The visible traces of this fire lasted prominently well into the 1980s, though the forest has largely recovered today.

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The prominent gravel bar at the base of Punch Bowl Falls on Eagle Creek in the early 1900s resulted from erosion from a nineteenth century fire.

The Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 in the Columbia Gorge will also follow this timeless sequence of destruction and renewal. There’s also some comfort to be gained from knowing that we’ve had a steady stream of fires in the Gorge, even in the very short timeframe of white settlement:

1902 – Yacolt Fire (238,000 acres)

1910 – Carson Fire (2,716 acres)

1917 – Stevenson Fire (7,606 acres)

1927 – Rock Creek Fire (52,500 acres)

1929 – Dole Valley Fire (202,500 acres)

1936 – Born Fire (7,897 acres)

1949 – Beacon Rock Fire (3,658 acres)

1952 – Skamania Fire (1,057 acres)

1991 – Wauna Point (375 acres)

1991 – Multnomah Falls Fire (1,200 acres)

1997 – Eagle Creek Fire (7 acres)

2000 – Oneonta Fire (5 acres)

2003 – Herman Creek Fire (375 acres)

2017 – Eagle Creek Fire (33,000+ acres)

The Forest Service reports that nearly all of the reported Gorge fires in recent decades (98%) have been human caused, but that certainly doesn’t mean the Gorge wouldn’t have burned without human behavior. The Forest Service describes the uniquely explosive fire conditions in the Gorge as follows:

“From early September through mid-October the west end of the gorge offers the best of all worlds from a fire’s perspective. The tremendous fuel loading of a west side forest coupled with hot and dry wind and incredibly steep terrain make for some of the most spectacular burning conditions the Pacific Northwest has to offer.”

Early white settlers to the Gorge called this “the Devil Wind” after the inferno that was the Yacolt Fire burned a quarter million acres on the north side of the river in less than 36 hours.

1991 Gorge Fires

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Wauna Fire burning above Eagle Creek in 1991

Few remember it today, but in 1991 a pair of fires burned a sizeable stretch of the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. The Multnomah Falls fire was a spectacular event, burning 1,200 acres along the Gorge wall from Multnomah Falls to Angels Rest, and nearly burning the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge. Sound familiar?

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Multnomah Falls fire in 1991

The Multnomah Falls burn of 1991 has recovered quickly, and few hikers realize that the young forests along the popular Angels Rest trail were the direct result of the burn, though bleached snags still stand to tell the story. Visitors to Multnomah Falls still walk along the jumbo-size debris nets installed below the Benson Bridge to catch debris from the burned slopes of the 1991 fire, above. A major casualty of the 1991 fire was the beloved Perdition Trail that once connected Multnomah Falls to Wahkeena Falls on a route etched into the Gorge cliffs.

In 1991, the smaller Wauna Fire also burned 375 acres on the slopes directly above the west bank of Eagle Creek, below Wauna Point. This area has also largely recovered in the years since.

Early Fires in the Gorge

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This unusual photo of Triple Falls from the 1890s shows snags from an earlier fire in Oneonta canyon in the background.

Early photos show that fire has been a routine part of the Columbia River Gorge ecology. That pattern changed with fire suppression efforts in the 20th century, which in turn, set the conditions for the catastrophic Eagle Creek Fire of 2017. Photos from Oneonta canyon (above) in the 1890s show slopes covered in bleached snags, suggesting a major fire sometime in the 1800s.

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Shellrock Mountain’s east and south slopes were still recovering from fire in this 1940s view from the old Columbia River Highway.

Further east, places like the east slopes of Shellrock Mountain (above) were much less forested than today, thanks to repeated fires in the Gorge.

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Snow covers the burned east slopes of Wauneka Point, the ridge that divides McCord and Moffett Creeks, in this 1930s view from Bridge of the Gods. This ridge burned again in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire.

[click here for a larger view]

The above photo of the (then) new Bridge of the Gods in the early 1930s also shows large open slopes on Wauneka Point in the background, marked by winter snow. These slopes had largely reforested in subsequent years, but burned again in the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, repeating a timeless cycle.

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Burned over Aldrich Mountain and Hamilton Mountain in 1936.

[click here for a larger view]

Construction-era photos of Bonneville Dam in the late 1930s also provide detail on the state of the forests in Gorge at that time. The view north (above) shows burned-over Aldrich and Hamilton Mountains, both completely burned in the catastrophic Yacolt Burn.

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Burned over Ruckel Ridge and Benson Plateau in 1937.

[click here for a larger view]

Looking to the southwest from the dam site, Ruckel Ridge and Benson Plateau (above) were also largely burned over in the late 1930s. These areas burned again in the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017.

1931-34 Lookout Survey: A History of Fires

Given that we’re stuck with relatively short stints on this planet, we humans do have the unique ability to record history for the benefit of our descendants. And it turns out that in the 1930s and early 1940s, early forest rangers in WyEast country did just that with a series of lookout tower panoramas.

This rich photographic resource was mostly forgotten until just a few years ago, when caches of these images archived in university photo collections were scanned and uploaded to the web in high resolution. They provide an astonishing, invaluable amount of detail, most from the years 1930-36.

Ironically, these panoramic images were captured as part of the massive U.S. Forest Service effort to prevent fires, with each set providing a 360-degree survey from the hundreds of lookout sites that were developed on public lands across the country.

In the Pacific Northwest, the panoramic photos provide an excellent glimpse into the way our forests had evolved for millennia, and before fire suppression took hold. The following are a few clips from this archive for places through the Mount Hood country and in the Columbia River Gorge.

Basin Point (1933)

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Mount Hood from obscure Basin Point, now overgrown with trees.

[click here for a larger view]

Basin Point is largely forgotten today, but at one time this high spot north of today’s Timothy Lake provided a lookout location for the upper Oak Grove Fork basin. This lookout site probably wouldn’t have been used had it not been for a fire that had fairly recently swept over the butte, burning away a young forest that was still getting established here. The view is from the south edge of the Sherar Burn, a fire that swept across a large area south of Government Camp sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

Buck Peak (1933)

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This view is from Buck Peak toward the burned-over Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek Valleys.

[click here for a larger view]

Today, Buck Peak is known for its sweeping views of Mount Hood and Lost Lake, but view (above) to the north from the former lookout site also shows the burned over Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek Valleys, with burned Tanner Butte as the prominent peak left of center. The upper slopes of the mostly unburned Lake Branch valley, to the right, also show signs of fire.

Bull of the Woods (1934)

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The view looking southeast to Mount Jefferson from Bull of the Woods lookout shows a healthy mosaic of recent burns and recovering forest in the 1930s.

[click here for a larger view]

Fires have returned in recent years to Bull of the Woods, thanks in part to its wilderness protection that puts the land off-limits to timber harvesting (and thus “okay to burn” from a fire suppression perspective). This view looking toward Mount Jefferson shows a mosaic of recent burns and recovering forest, a healthy pattern that is returning with new fires in recent years.

Chinidere Mountain – North (1934)

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This view looking north from Chinidere Mountain into the Herman Creek valley shows much of the drainage burned in the 1930s.

[click here for a larger view]

Today, the view to the north from popular Chinidere Mountain is gradually being obscured by recovering forests. This 1934 view shows the large burn that extended across the Herman Creek drainage at the time, from Benson Plateau (left of center) over Tomlike Mountain (right of center) toward Green Point Mountain (left edge of this photo). Though the forest here had almost completely recovered, much of the area in this view was burned again in the Eagle Creek fire of 2017.

Chinidere Mountain – West (1934)

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This view west from Chinidere Mountain shows recovering forests in the Eagle Creek drainage.

[click here for a larger view]

This view looking west from Chinidere Mountain into the Eagle Creek drainage shows a recovering forest in the upper valley and on the adjacent slopes of Indian Mountain (to the left) and Tanner Butte (right of center).

This area was at the heart of the Eagle Creek and Indian fires in 2017, and much of the area shown in this view burned.

Devils Peak (1933)

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This 1930s view from Devils Peak shows an extensive burn on Zigzag Mountain and lower slopes of Devils Peak.

[click here for a larger view]

The old lookout tower still survives on Devils Peak, located within the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, but the view of Mount Hood has nearly disappeared behind the recovering forest. This 1930s view shows the extensive burn that encompassed the long ridge of Zigzag Mountain (center, in the distance) and lower slopes of Devils peak, in the foreground. Both areas have since mostly reforested in the era of fire suppression.

The west end of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain is the burned-over ridge extending below Mount Hood in this photo, part of the late 1800s Sherar Burn. The burned lower slopes of Devils Peak and upper Still Creek valley were also burned in this historic fire.

Green Point Mountain (1934)

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This view from Green Point Mountain shows an extensive pattern of fires in the upper Herman Creek Valley.

[click here for a larger view]

In this view from Green Point Mountain, evidence of a mosaic burn stands out, with completely burned forest near the summit and surviving forest just below. The heavily burned slopes of Tomlike Mountain (center) and Chinidere Mountain (left of center) are in the distance are part of a wide mosaic of burns in the upper Herman Creek valley.

Old growth trees along Herman Creek today are proof that even large fires here didn’t completely burn the drainage. The Eagle Creek fire of 2017 burned a significant part of the Herman Creek drainage, and it is unknown how the old growth stands fared in the face of this recent fire.

High Rock (1933)

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The Abbott Burn encompassed the area surrounding High Rock, including the upper Roaring River drainage.

[click here for a larger view]

The view from High Rock looking north to Mount Hood was once surrounded by the extensive Abbott Burn, which engulfed much of the Roaring River watershed and part of the Salmon River backcountry sometime in the 1800s or early 20th century.

In the 1930s, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp was established on the shoulder of High Rock, and a small army of CCC workers planted thousands of trees across the Abbott Burn. Many survived, and much of the reforestation in the Roaring River valley resulted from this forest intervention effort. But the rocky high country of Signal Buttes and other nearby ridges are still largely open and covered in fields of huckleberries, with the forest recovery advancing much more slowly.

This pattern of open, regularly burned peaks and ridge alternating with lush canyon floors is the natural state of our forests. Lightning-caused fires regularly burn away forests surviving on the thin, dry soils found higher slopes and ridges, and larger trees in moist soils on lower slopes and canyon bottoms are better able to survive natural fires.

Lost Lake Butte (1933)

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The burned upper slopes of Lost Lake Butte as they appeared in the 1930s, with Lost Lake in shimmering the distance.

[click here for a larger view]

Though the old-growth giants on the shores of Lost Lake have dodged or resisted fire for centuries, the forests on the dry, upper slopes of Lost Lake Butte were burned sometime in the late 1800s in a classic mosaic pattern that can be seen in the 1930s panoramic photos.

In the photo above, strips of larger, surviving trees can be seen within the burn, and a distinct line between the young,recovering forest in the burn area and larger trees that survived the fire is clearly visible along the near shore of Lost Lake. Raker Point (featured in the next photo) is visible as the open spur at the far right edge of the Lost Lake Butte panorama.

Raker Point (1933)

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Hundreds of snags along the crest of Sawtooth Ridge and Raker Point (in the distance) show the extent of fire on the north side of Lost Lake, sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

[click here for a larger view]

Raker Point is a little known peak located just north of Lost Lake, on the west end of Sawtooth Ridge (Raker Point is the distant open spur right of center in this photo). The ridge and Raker Point were burned sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s, possibly in the same fire that scorched Lost Lake Butte. The recovery on Raker Point was well under way in the 1930s photos, with 10-20 year old seedlings rising up among the hundreds of bleached snags left from the fire.

Lost Lake was one of the earliest recreation destinations in WyEast country, with hardy visitors from the Hood River Valley making their way to campsites along the lake shore as early as the 1890s. In the 1920s, a “modern” dirt road was finally completed to Lost Lake, roughly along the same route as today’s paved highway.

Signal Buttes (1933)

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Located west of High Rock, the Signal Buttes were completely burned in the Abbott fire of the early 1900s, and are still recovering today.

[click here for a larger view]

Today, the Signal Buttes are at the heart of the Roaring River Wilderness, and as described above, are still slowly recovering from the Abbott Burn fire that swept the area, despite efforts by the CCC in the 1930s to replant the forest here. The patch of unburned forest on the floor of the Roaring River valley (in the low area of the photo, below Mount Hood) are old growth Douglas fir and Western red cedar that survived the Abbot Burn — and likely many fires before that, as trees more than 1,000 years old are found here.

It’s also likely that the Signal Buttes will continue to be an open expanse of Beargrass meadows and Huckleberry fields if fires are allowed to burn here, once again. In this way, the Roaring River Wilderness is well on its way to a more natural condition of open ridges and a mosaic of old and recovering forests on the canyon floor and walls. Because the area was permanently protected as wilderness in 2009, future generations will have an opportunity to watch the forest here continue to evolve with fire, once again.

The rugged ridges and peaks just beyond Signal Buttes in this panorama are the high country of today’s Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness. In contrast to the Signal Buttes, this northern extent of the Abbott Burn has largely recovered, with just a few peaks and ridgetops remaining as open Beargrass and Huckleberry fields.

Tumala Mountain (1933)

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This view looking east from Tumala Mountain shows the burned ridges of the Salmon River and Roaring River high country in the 1930s. Mount Hood is on the extreme left.

[click here for a larger view]

This remarkable panorama from Tumala Mountain shows a burned-over landscape in much of what are today’s Salmon-Huckleberry (areas to the left) and Roaring River (areas to the right) wilderness areas. Most of this landscape is now heavily forested, with the exception of a few ridge tops and the crest of the Signal Buttes, described earlier and visible as the completely burned ridges in the upper right of this photo.

This photo also shows a healthy mosaic burn pattern on the nearby mountains immediate slopes, with bands of trees surviving between burned strips. This more natural fire pattern creates a rich habitat that, in combination with the series of lakes in the glacial valley at the foot of the peak, makes for an ideal landscape for wildlife.

You may notice that the photo markings on the left identify this as “Squaw Mountain”. In 2007, the Oregon Geographic Names Board renamed this peak out of respect for indigenous peoples, as the term “squaw” is considered derogatory. This change is part of a larger effort to rename other landmarks using “squaw” across the state. The word Tumala means “tomorrow” or “afterlife” in Chinook jargon, and is an apt name for this idyllic spot in WyEast country.

Summit Meadows (1930)

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This 1930 view of Summit Meadows shows signs of an extensive fire along the south slopes of Mount Hood in the vicinity of Government Camp.

[click here for a larger view]

Early photos of Government Camp and Summit Meadows on Mount Hood’s south side show thousands of bleached snags marking a fairly recent fire in the area. These could mark a series of discrete fires or could be related to the larger Sherar Burn or the fires that swept Zigzag Mountain in roughly the late 1800s.

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Extensive burns on Mount Hood above Government Camp in 1915 (Courtesy: History Museum of Hood River County)

The extent of the historic fires on Mount Hood’s south side is especially interesting given the degree of resort development here in the century since fire suppression began. The volcanic soils on Mount Hood’s south shoulder are among the youngest on the mountain, as much of the area was buried in fresh volcanic debris from eruptions that occurred in the late 1700s.

This makes the forests here especially vulnerable to fire because of the poorly developed soils, southern exposure and late summer stress from seasonal drought. Yet, the degree of development on this side of Mount Hood also makes it unlikely that forest fires will ever be allowed to burn naturally. Instead, these forests are good candidates for prescribed, controlled burns that could restore the forests to a more natural state while also protecting the hundreds of structures located here.

Tanner Butte (1930)

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This 1930 view from massive Tanner Butte looks west through charred forests toward Tanner Creek canyon, the Bull Run Watershed (on the left) and Larch Mountain (on the right horizon).

[click here for a larger view]

Tanner Butte and its long northern ridge is a prominent landmark in the backcountry of the Columbia River Gorge, dividing the Eagle Creek and Tanner Creek drainages. The panoramic photos from 1930 show a heavily burned landscape in this area, and longtime hikers can still remember when the ridges around Tanner Butte were still covered with open meadows, as recently as the 1970s.

More recently, the forests had recovered across almost all of the burned areas shown in this panorama, but the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 appears to have hit the Tanner Creek basin especially hard. This could be a result of the relatively young, even-aged forest here, but fire suppression almost certainly played a role in this fire becoming catastrophic.

Much of the area visible here is within the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness, and will provide yet another laboratory for future generations to watch and learn from as the forest recovers.

Wildcat Mountain (1933)

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The view from Wildcat Mountain toward McIntyre Ridge and Portland in the far distance.

[click here for a larger view]

Wildcat Mountain lies at the western edge of the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, and Portland’s downtown high-rises are visible from its summit. Or, at least they were a couple of decades ago, before the recovering forests here enveloped the summit with a stand of Noble fir and Mountain hemlock.

Broad McIntyre Ridge (pictured in the distance in this photo) still has a few open Beargrass meadows with sweeping views of Mount Hood, but even here the forest is advancing rapidly.

The 1930s panoramic view shows a completely different landscape, with mixed stands of forests in the valleys below the Wildcat Mountain and its ridges that suggest a long history of mosaic burns. Without fire suppression, McIntyre Ridge and Wildcat Mountain would likely have burned again since the 1930s.

Since 1984, this area has been protected as wilderness, so future fires will likely be allowed to burn. If the recent Eagle Creek fire in the Gorge is any indication, the young forests that have grown since this panorama was taken are likely to be the first to burn, as we saw in the Tanner Creek and Eagle Creek areas.

Wolf Camp Butte (1933)

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This view doesn’t exist anymore, thanks to a completely recovered forest on Wolf Camp Butte.

[click here for a larger view]

Wolf Camp Butte is another lookout site made obscure by the recovering forest that has completely covered the summit. More of a high spot than a peak, this 1933 view from the former lookout site provides us with an excellent look at the extent of the Sherar Burn. The canyon in on the right holds the Salmon River, descending from the Palmer Glacier on Mount Hood (just out of view to the left).

This fire burned north to present-day Government Camp and south to at least the Salmon River, encompassing a very large area. Parts of the Sherar Burn may have been replanted by the CCC in the 1930s, and the area is almost completely reforested today.

Wauna Point (1936)

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This view is from Wauna Point on the Oregon side of the Gorge, looking toward Table Mountain on the Washington side.

[click here for a larger view]

This view from Wauna Point, directly above Eagle Creek, shows a long history of fire in the Gorge, with a mosaic forest pattern on the slopes of Table Mountain on the far side of the river that extends eastward toward Wind Mountain. The big trees on the Oregon side mark the Eagle Creek campground, a section of forest that also survived the recent catastrophic fire. The spot where this panorama was taken burned in the small 1991 Wauna Fire, and has since largely recovered.

1940s Gorge Lookout Surveys

In the years following completion of Bonneville Dam in 1937, a series of panoramic lookout photos were made from spots around the dam. Like the earlier 1930s panoramas, these photos provide a valuable snapshot of the state of forests in the Gorge at a time when fire suppression had just begun. They’re also nicely annotated with major landmarks identified!

Aldrich Butte – North (1941)

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[click here for a larger view]

Like the view from Wauna Point on the Oregon side, this view toward Table Mountain shows a healthy blend of big trees that have survived periodic fires and more recently burned slopes covered on meadows and recovering forest.

Aldrich Butte nearly burned again in 2017, when embers from the Eagle Creek Fire floated more than a mile across the Columbia River and ignited a small fire here.

Aldrich Butte – South (1941)

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The view south from Aldrich Butte toward Bonneville Dam and Oregon side of the Gorge.

[click here for a larger view]

This expansive view from Aldrich Butte shows the complex mosaic forest patterns created by repeated fires on Benson Plateau and “County Line Ridge”, which is now more commonly known as Wauna Ridge or Tanner Ridge.

This amazing photo not only shows how fire has shaped the forests on the upper slopes and ridges of the Gorge, but also how big trees in the canyons and at river level have often dodged or resisted fire.

Aldrich Butte – West (1941)

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The view west from Aldrich Butte shows Hamilton Mountain (in Washington) and the steep wall of the Oregon side of the Gorge in the distance.

[click here for a larger view]

Like the view of Benson Plateau on the Oregon side, this view of Hamilton Mountain from Aldrich Butte shows a complex mosaic of forest types and ages that resulted from fire. On the far side of the river, the burned slopes of Wauneka Point can also be seen on the far left. Wauneka Point and the steep face of the Oregon side of the Gorge was heavily burned in the Eagle Creek fire of 2017.

Our Next Century with Fire?

There are so many variables at work in how we move from a century of forest fire suppression to — hopefully — an era where we learn to live with and appreciate the role of fire.

Will the public accept the inevitability of forest fires, and the implicit need to rethink building vacation homes and resorts in our forests? Will a return to sustainable, beneficial fires resume quickly, or will the catastrophic fires that suppression has set the stage for continue for decades or even centuries?

An even larger question is whether climate change will significantly accelerate the number of catastrophic fires? And how will climate change affect the ability for forests to regenerate in burned areas?

These are the difficult questions that future generations will be grappling with for decades to come.

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Parts of the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire in the Mount Hood Wilderness burned in a beneficial mosaic pattern, as seen here at Eden Park. This is the goal of restoring the role of fire in our forests.

But signs of a shift in thinking are encouraging, starting with a broad consensus among forest scientists that fire suppression has been disastrous over the long term. Good public lands policy is always rooted in good science, and some of our scientists have also emerged to become influential leaders of agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, too. Let’s hope that continues.

Events like the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 are also important learning opportunities for the general public. Over the next several decades, the millions who treasure the Columbia Gorge as their own “backyard” will have an unprecedented opportunity to better understand the role of fire in the Gorge ecosystem. Gorge land managers and advocates are already telling this story, as are local media outlets. That’s encouraging.

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New mapping tools allowed land managers to document the daily progression of the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire with unprecedented detail. This information will be a gift to future generations of scientists and land managers.

New mapping tools that allow us to document fires in astonishing detail are also helping scientists better understand the dynamics of fires and forest recovery. This new level of documentation will help us move back to a sustainable relationship.

Even better, the flood of new fire mapping and data will be our gift to the future, helping future generations continue to better understand our forests, just as the lookout panoramas from the 1930s are helping us today. Hopefully, our actions now will ensure that future generations inherit forests that look more like those 1930s panoramas, as well.

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From death comes renewal: huckleberry seedling growing from the bark of a tree in the burn area of the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire.

There’s good news on that front, too. Our youngest generations who had their first outdoor experiences on Mount Hood and in the Gorge will also be the scientists and policy makers of the future, and will steer public lands policy.

Their close-up experiences with fire in their formative years will surely drive their passion to move our forests back toward a health relationship with fire, so long as we all continue to learn and appreciate the essential role of fire in WyEast country.

TKO’s 10th Anniversary at Owl Point

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Mount Hood from Owl Point

Ten years ago, on September 22, 2007, Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) was borne out of an ad-hoc effort by a group of volunteers to save what is now known as the Old Vista Ridge Trail. On September 10 of this year, TKO will be celebrating our anniversary with (naturally!) a day of trailkeeping on the Old Vista Ridge Trail.

But this day will be a first for TKO, as we will have U.S. Forest Service officials on hand to formally re-dedicate the trail, bringing it out of the shadows and officially recognized are more than half a century. Of course, there will be some celebrating at Owl Point to wrap up the festivities, too!

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(Click here for a larger map)

The Old Vista Ridge Trail is a true gem. It winds through subalpine forests past a string of dramatic views, sprawling talus slopes and tiny meadows before arriving at Owl Point, the star attraction along the old route. Owl Point offers an exquisite view of our favorite mountain, and from a unique perspective that is surprisingly uncommon, even to longtime Mount Hood lovers.

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This sign once marked the start of the Old Vista Ridge Trail

Under a new agreement with the Forest Service, TKO will maintain the Old Vista Ridge Trail in perpetuity as part of bringing it back into the official USFS trail system. The first phase of this adoption agreement extends to Alki Point, one stop beyond Owl Point, where the big Washington volcanoes spread out on the northern horizon. In the future, TKO has plans to adopt the rest of the old trail to tiny Perry Lake, and also to build a new connector trail that will eventually make Owl Point a destination that can be reached from Laurance Lake, just a few miles from Parkdale.

Here’s a look back to how the Old Vista Ridge Trail came on to TKO’s radar, or more accurately, how this old trail inspired the volunteers who would come to form TKO.

Following a Faint Path in 2006

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The author visiting with the incomparable Roberta Lowe!

The Old Vista Ridge story starts with epic field guide authors Don and Roberta Lowe. I can’t begin to describe the impact their classic books had on my life growing up in Oregon, and I was stunned when they answered a letter I wrote to them as a student way back in the 1980s, ans was working on a field guide project of my own.

Today, I’m happy to report that I meet with Roberta Lowe periodically for lunch, and I continue to embarrass her by bringing along stacks of their books for autographs every time we get together (I have dozens… sorry, Roberta!). One of their books holds the key to Old Vista Ridge. It’s this one:

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This is the most collected of the Lowe’s many books

The Lowes published the now-coveted “50 Hikes” guide in the mid-1980s, and it was unique in that it contained several “lost trails” in Mount Hood country — old routes that hadn’t been maintained in years and were on the brink of becoming forever lost to neglect.

One of these lost gems was the Old Vista Ridge Trail. Don Lowe’s photo of Mount Hood from Red Hill, the off-trail cinder cone that was the main destination in their description of Old Vista Ridge stuck in my mind for two decades before I finally made the effort to explore this old route in 2006.

Red Hill can be seen from the Timberline Trail, and as I planned the hike from this high perspective in the summer of 2006, I also noticed a series of rocky outcrops and meadows near Red Hill, along the Old Vista Ridge Trail. Where these viewpoint accessible from the old trail, too?

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Looking toward Red Hill and Owl Point from the Timberline Trail (Mt. St. Helens on the horizon)

On October 6, 2006, hiking partner and fellow photographer Greg Lief joined me for a first trip along the Old Vista Ridge Trail. At first, the faint trail was encouraging: lots of downfall, but also sections that were completely intact after more than 40 years of neglect.

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Greg Lief on the Old Vista Ridge Trail in 2006

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Hundreds of logs blocked the trail in 2006

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A few signs of maintenance, long ago – note the cut ends on the logs in the foreground

But as we pressed further from that “Trail Not Maintained” sign at the trailhead, conditions deteriorated rapidly. By the time the old trail crested the ridge top, we were wading through waist-deep thickets of huckleberries and mountain ash, and barely able to find the old tread.

We weren’t the only people visiting Old Vista Ridge, though. Plastic flagging periodically marked the route, especially where the going was most rough. Clearly, other folks cared about this old trail.

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Yikes… rough going, here!

The string of viewpoints I had seen from above on the Timberline Trail, proved illusive once we were down in the forest. Eventually, we followed a game trail through a beautiful subalpine meadow and came to what I thought might be the main viewpoint — and a stunning view of Mount Hood emerging from autumn clouds in the late afternoon sun. After capturing this beautiful scene, we declared victory, and trudged back through two miles of brush and fallen trees to the trailhead.

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Our first look at the view from The Rockpile in October 2016

Once back at home, I realized that the viewpoint we had reached was not the one we were aiming for — the prominent outcrop I had seen from up on the Timberline Trail. Instead, it was a talus dome now known as The Rockpile, just a quarter mile or so from the main viewpoint. Time to return!

So, two weeks later, on October 22, Greg and I returned to fight our way back up the Old Vista Ridge Trail, this time certain we would find that most prominent viewpoint. But first, we pressed on to find the end of the Old Vista Ridge Trail, at tiny Perry Lake. It was more of a pond, but lovely, nonetheless. We also explored the remains of the old Red Hill Guard Station and fire lookout, near the lake.

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Tiny Perry Lake in October 2016

Next, we traced our steps back up the Old Vista Ridge Trail to another viewpoint we had passed along the way, a spot we now know as Alki Point that features a view looking north toward the Columbia River Gorge and the big Washington volcanoes.

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The panoramic view from Alki Point in October 2016

As we stood admiring Alki Point and taking a few photos, we had an amazing stroke of luck: steam suddenly began billowing from Mount St. Helens! We stayed and watched the minor eruption, capturing these rare photos of the event:

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Mount St. Helens erupting on October 22, 2006

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(Click here for a larger view)

The last order of business on that memorable October 22 trip was to find the main viewpoint that had stood out so prominently from the Timberline Trail.

We soon discovered that it was just off the main trail, and could be found by skirting above a series of talus slopes adjacent to the trail. As we approached the rugged, windswept viewpoint, a Great Horned Owl floated close overhead — and now Owl Point had a name!

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Our stunning first look at Mount Hood from Owl Point in October 2006

Our first look at Owl Point was simply stunning, and far beyond what I had imagined when looking down on the area during that summer of 2006. The viewpoint was just far enough from the mountain to give remarkable perspective, but close enough that we felt we could reach out and touch it. It is simply one of the finest views of the mountain, anywhere.

Bringing Old Vista Ridge back in 2007

The beauty of Owl Point (and later, threats of a proposed dirt bike play park that would destroy the trail) stuck in my mind after those first trips in the fall of 2006, and by the summer of 2007 several folks on the fledgling Portland Hikers online forum (now OregonHikers.org) conspired to simply go and maintain this beautiful old trail. We really had no idea what we were doing, nor that we would be creating some hard feelings with the USFS that we would eventually have to reconcile in order to formally adopt the trail.

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September 22, 2007 founding trip to Old Vista Ridge

The 2007 volunteer work included several ad hoc “clipper trips” by Portland Hikers forum members to clear brush, and dozens of logs were cleared by experienced chainsaw volunteers among our web community. Our most notable of these informal events came on September 22, 2007, when a group of volunteers met to take on the most unruly sections of brush along the old trail.

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Volunteers made a big impact that day!

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Sawing logs in 2007

The impact we made on that day particular inspired everyone, and on way down the mountain that evening, we talked about creating a service arm of the old Portland Hikers community. A few weeks later, we had formed what was originally known as the “Trails Association of Oregon”, though by early 2008 we had switched to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO). Soon, we had non-profit status, and the rest if history, as the saying goes!

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Celebrating at Owl Point on September 22, 2007

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’ve been involved with TKO and its Oregon Hikers Forum and Field Guide from the beginning, so the grand re-opening of Old Vista Ridge is a pretty big thrill for me. In 2012, we posted a summit log at Owl Point, and there is nothing more rewarding than reading the inspired comments from hikers reconnecting with nature as they take in the view. Here are some samples from the past couple years:

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As we move forward under the new agreement, TKO will continue to care for this trail in partnership with the Forest Service. We have lots of work planned to improve the trail and make the experience even better, and I’ll periodically showcase that work here.

How to Join TKO at the September 10th Event

If you have never been part of a trail stewardship project, TKO’s September 10 event at Old Vista Ridge is a wonderful way to start. For the adventurous, we’ll have a couple crews using crosscut saws to clear logs — a very cool experience, if you’ve never done that before.

For the less adventurous, we’ll also have crews doing what we did way back in 2007: taking loppers to huckleberries and mountain ash along the trail. If you’ve pruned a hedge, then you can do this!

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TKO volunteers in a recent project at Punchbowl Park, near Hood River

One of the best things about being part of a TKO crew is knowing that you’ve helped keep our trails around for future generations to enjoy. It’s a VERY satisfying feeling! It’s easy to RSVP for the event, but space is limited. Just go to this link and sign up online on the TKO website:

September 10 • Old Vista Ridge 10th Anniversary Project

We’ll have other fun events as part of this special stewardship project, including the trail dedication and a 10th Anniversary celebration at the end of the day.

As always, thanks for reading the WyEast Blog, and I hope you’ll consider joining us on September 10, too!


Addendum

Over the past week, TKO has been working closely with the U.S. Forest Service to monitor the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge and the potential of the fire to move south. Based on an abundance of caution for the health and safety of the many volunteers who had registered for this event, TKO and the Forest Service have decided to postpone the September 10 Old Vista Ridge event until a later date. I’ll provide updates here on the blog, when available.

To respond to Buck’s comment (below), TKO will be also working with the Forest Service to assess the trail damage in the Gorge after the smoke clears, and will be working (likely for years) to restore the trails there. In the meantime, TKO has set up a dedicated e-mail list that you can join to receive periodic updates on that effort and opportunities to help:

TKO Response to the Eagle Creek Fire & Special E-mail List

Thanks for asking, Buck!

Owl Point Sentinel Tree

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Mount Hood from Owl Point in October 2006

Just over a decade has passed since I first visited Owl Point, a spectacular rocky viewpoint along the Old Vista Ridge Trail, on Mount Hood’s north side. At the time, the trail had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect, but it has since rebounded thanks to volunteers pitching in.

Since that first visit, I’ve been to Owl Point every year to admire and photograph the dramatic view of Mount Hood and enjoy the relative solitude, compared to many other places on the mountain. I’ve watched the landscape change, sometimes dramatically, as was the case with the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire that swept the north side of Mount Hood. But I’ve also watched more subtle changes as the details of this beautiful spot become ever more familiar.

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The author at Owl Point in 2008 (Photo: Andy Prahl)

One of those more subtle features is a craggy Noble Fir perched among the boulders on the exposed south flank of Owl Point. This old survivor can be seen in the far left of one of the first photos I shot in 2006 (at the top of the article) and in the photo, above, taken in 2008 by trail volunteer Andy Prahl.

If you’ve followed this blog over the years, you’ve seen earlier articles about “sentinel trees”. These are trees that seem to defy the odds and elements in their size, grandeur or simple tenacity in finding a way to survive. This tree certainly qualifies.

From an aesthetic perspective, the old Noble Fir at Owl Point is a gift for photographers, adding testimony to the rugged, often harsh conditions found there. The old tree also adds a nice visual balance and interest to the scene. So, in this way the Owl Point sentinel tree has become an old friend to this photographer.

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Owl Point in July 2011, with the old Noble Fir on the left – just days before the Dollar Lake Fire

In 2011, I visited Owl Point just a few days before the catastrophic Dollar Lake Fire swept across the north slopes of Mount Hood, burning 6,300 acres of subalpine wilderness. The photo above is among the last that I captured of the once-green forests on the mountain before the fire changed the landscape.

Though the fire burned for more than two months that summer, Owl Point and the Old Vista Ridge Trail were somehow spared and the craggy old Noble Fir sentinel tree at Old Point lived on.

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The Dollar Lake Fire in 2011

After the fire, Owl Point served as one of the best places to absorb the full scope of the Dollar Lake Fire, with nearly the entire extent of the burn visible from there. While the brown swath of scorched trees was jarring to look at, it was also a reminder that fire is a regular and necessary visitor to our forests.

The forests we lost to the fire have since given us a new window into how new forests emerge from the ashes, a process as old as the forests, themselves.

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Browned slopes of Mount Hood one year after the fire in 2012

The old Noble Fir sentinel tree at Owl Point had witnessed fire before the Dollar Lake Fire, and from a much closer vantage point. Sometime in the early 1900s, a similarly large fire swept across the high country north of Mount Hood, scorching Owl Point and thousands of acres in the surrounding area.

This 1952 photo (below) shows the forest recovery from this earlier fire at Owl Point just getting underway, decades after the burn. In fact, the area is still in recovery today, a century after the fire.

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Early 1900s burn that swept across Owl Point (Courtesy: Hood River History Museum)

The view from 1952 is an inverse scene from what we see today, with a scorched foreground and lush, green slopes on Mount Hood. These contrasting images over time area a reminder of the fire cycles that are as natural to the area as rain and wind.

A closer look at the 1952 photo reveals several trees that survived the older fire, thanks to their isolation in the open talus fields below Owl Point:

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These trees on the talus slopes of Owl Point survived the earlier fire

One of these fortunate survivors is the sentinel tree at Owl Point that we know today. Though only 30-40 feet tall, it could easily be a century or more old, stunted by the harsh conditions on the talus slope.

While the old Noble Fir at Owl Point appears to have dodged a couple of forest fires in its lifetime, the tree began to show signs of stress in 2012, the year after the Dollar Lake Fire. Foliage (below) from some of its lower limbs began to drop, suggesting the beginning of its decline.

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Owl Point sentinel tree in 2012, one year after the Dollar Lake Fire

By 2014 (below), the signs of stress were more ominous, and it was clear that the old sentinel tree was losing its battle to survive the elements at Owl Point.

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Owl Point sentinel tree in 2014

After the snowpack melted off in 2016, the situation for the old tree had become dire as it struggled to maintain the remaining foliage in its crown (below), a sign that the tree might not survive the season.

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Stress claims the crown of the Owl Point sentinel tree in 2016

But a closer look (below) this summer at the dying tree tells a different story. While the exposed upper portion of the tree has clearly lost its battle, a fringe of healthy new foliage is thriving around the base of the tree. It turns out that while the Owl Point Noble Fir has lost its main trunk, it is still very much alive.

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Owl Point sentinel tree finally succumbs to the elements in 2017

An even closer look at the base of the old tree (below) shows the secret of “krummholz”, the name for stunted trees that survive in harsh alpine environments. Trees like this Noble Fir adapt to their conditions by producing new leaders from their lowest branches to replace dying or broken tops.

These new leaders on Noble Fir growing as krummholz often form dense mats of foliage at the base of a tree, low enough to be protected by winter snowpack from the harshest weather conditions. This is clearly the case for the Owl Point sentinel tree.

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A new beginning for the Owl Point Noble Fir…

The classic example of a krummholz in Mount Hood country is the Whitebark Pine, a tree that thrives above 5,000 feet, often gnarled beyond imagination by the elements. The example below shows the skeleton of an ancient Whitebark Pine (on Lookout Mountain), surrounded by new leaders that have merged from limbs flattened to the ground by winter snowpack.

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Ancient Whitebark Pine krummholz on Lookout Mountain

While winter conditions regularly shear off new growth that pokes above the snowpack on a krummholz, a rapidly growing new trunk like the one emerging at the base of the Owl Point sentinel tree can eventually survive and grow to replace the older tree. This is clearly a slow process, and one that I won’t likely be around to witness!

But in the near-term, photographers like me will be able to watch the dying trunk of the Owl Point sentinel tree gradually weathering to become a dramatic sun-bleached snag that will be photogenic in its own right. And, as the new leader continues to rise from the base of the old trunk, this striking old tree will continue tell a powerful story of survival.

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You can visit Owl Point and see its sentinel Noble Fir by following the 4-mile round trip Old Vista Ridge hike from the Vista Ridge Trailhead. The hike is described here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.

 

Proposal: Raker Point Trail

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The view from Raker Point in a 1930s postcard

Each year, thousands visit beautiful Lost Lake, one of the most beautiful and iconic places in Mount Hood country. The view of Mount Hood mirrored in the lake has been photographed countless times and has graced hundreds of postcards, calendars and scenic books. Some visitors to the lake climb the old lookout trail to Lost Lake Butte, which provides a sweeping view of the mountain, but only glimpses of the lake as once-burned forests continue to recover there.

Yet, not long ago, another dramatic view was possible: Lost Lake nestled in the forests beneath Mount Hood, framed with blooming Pacific Rhododendrons. This scene was captured from the crest of Raker Point, a rocky spur due north of Lost Lake, and briefly a forest lookout site in the early 1930s.

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The view from Raker Point as captured in a Ray Atkeson postcard in the late 1940s

The view from Raker Point appeared in early postcards, and was later captured by Oregon’s famed photographer Ray Atkeson (above) in images that appeared widely in calendars, postcards and even automobile ads (below) in the 1950s.

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1951 Lincoln ad featuring the view from Raker Point

Ironically, the famous images captured by Atkeson were made possible by the industrial logging that began sweeping our national forests in the decades following World War II. By the late 1940s, a logging spur pushed over the saddle between Sawtooth Ridge and Raker Point, providing easy access to the spectacular view, even as it enabled the destruction of old growth forests that once grew there.

Today, the old logging road to Raker Point has been decommissioned by the Forest Service and the clearcut slopes are slowly recovering. Now, Raker Point has become all but forgotten.

Where is Raker Point?

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Raker Point isn’t the tallest or most impressive among the Cascade peaks that rise up around Lost Lake, but it is the best positioned for a grand view of the lake and Mount Hood. Raker Point can be seen from the Lakeshore Trail, where it rounds the south end of the lake, as shown above.

When the Forest Service first brought a road to Lost Lake and lookout towers to the Lost Lake area in the 1920s and early 1930s, Raker Point was much more prominent, thanks to wildfires in the early 1900s that had cleared both Raker Point and Lost Lake Butte. Their open summits made ideal forest lookout sites.

This early 1930s view shows Raker Point and other nearby peaks from Hiyu Mountain, another lookout site located several miles to the south, and Raker Point’s bald summit clearly stands out:

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[click here for a larger image]

A closer 1933 view from nearby Lost Lake Butte in 1933 shows the scorched summit of Raker Point much more clearly. The impressive old growth forests of the Lost Lake Basin are also on display in this view:

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Scorched Raker Point from Lost Lake Butte in the early 1930s

This rare 1933 perspective of Raker Point and Lost Lake is from Sawtooth Ridge, where a temporary (and misnamed) “Raker Point” lookout was briefly located:

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[click here for a larger panorama]

The origin of Raker Point’s name is unclear, but it’s likely that an early Forest Service ranger or surveyor named the peak — and perhaps was the namesake, too?

Today, forests have returned to all but the rocky summit and surrounding talus slopes on Raker Point. This view (below) from the Lake Branch Road shows the now green slopes, with just a small opening near the top of the butte. Does this mean the classic view of Lost Lake and Mount Hood captured by Ray Atkeson in the 1940s has been lost?

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Raker Point rises above the talus fields along the Lake Branch Road

The answer can be found on the opposite side of Raker Point. This view from Indian Mountain, located a few miles north and across the Lake Branch Valley from Raker Point, shows the still open, rocky crest framed in talus slopes and groves of Noble Fir:

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The rocky crest of Raker Point from the north, as viewed from Indian Mountain

While rhododendrons may not thrive on the summit, the views of Mount Hood and Lost Lake are clearly still intact, though probably framed in Noble fir boughs and drifts of huckleberries.

The Proposal

The Lost Lake area already has a fine network of trails, but a new route to Raker Point would bring needed opportunities to this popular recreation area.

First, the classic view from Raker Point is reason enough to warrant trail access to the summit. But a trail to Raker Point would also serve as a more attainable challenge for families visiting Lost Lake.

Today, hikers can make the 2-mile trek to the summit of Lost Lake Butte. Yet, while the view from there is excellent, it pales in comparison to Raker Point. More importantly, a trail to Raker Point would shave 400 feet of elevation gain in half the distance compared to the Lost Lake Butte hike, making it much more accessible to casual hikers and families with young children.

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[click here for a large map]

The proposed trail is simple: it would begin along a segment of the Old Skyline Trail that traverses the base of the Raker Point, and connects to the nearby campground, resort cabins and lodge at Lost Lake.

Trail building would be straightforward, as well. The area is outside protected wilderness, so would not present limitations on the use of power saws and or other heavy equipment in the construction. The modest 1-mile length of the proposed new trail also puts it within financial reach in this era of cash-strapped federal land agencies.

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[click here for a large panorama]

The new trail would also be accessible from trailheads along the Lake Branch Road, allowing hikers to visit the trail without adding to the crowds and congestion at Lost Lake, proper.

What would it take to make this happen? Interest from Forest Service officials, for sure, but support from the Lost Lake Resort operators, in particular, could put this new trail on a fast track. The resort would clearly benefit from a new family-friendly trail option near the lodge, and would be powerful advocates if they were to bring this argument to the Forest Service.

So, consider mentioning the idea if you happen to visit the resort this summer..!

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Postscript: at about the time I was writing this article, uber-adventurer Paul Turner was exploring Raker Point and nearby Sawtooth Ridge. He posted some excellent photos from his trip over here on the Oregon Hikers forum. Thanks, Paul!

Bierstadt in Oregon

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Albert Bierstadt’s magical 1869 vision of Mount Hood

Long before white settlement had reshaped the American West, artists were traveling with early explorers to capture scenes of the stunning landscape and native peoples. This was the first view most Easterners in our young country had of places like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite — places that would eventually become the crown jewels of our national park system.

And just as Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge are still believed by many to be part of the national park system, the painters and photographers of the mid-1800s captured them in their untouched state along with the other great places in the West. This article tells the story of how Albert Bierstadt and other artists of the era came to Oregon to capture the beauty of our mountain and the Columbia River, how their art helped inspire the original national parks movement and how their work still resonates with us today.

Longing for Nature

In the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the cities along America’s east coast, and the public was beginning suffer from its effects. In booming New York, massive tenements were constructed to house factory workers in apartments that were often without daylight and access to fresh air or plumbing.

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Crowded life in New York’s tenements of the mid-1800s led to a public yearning for a greener world

Coal burning was creating stagnant clouds of pollution that coated our eastern cities in soot, and there was a growing yearning for the greener, simpler world of our agrarian past. The carnage of the America Civil War in the 1860s only compounded the nostalgia. Thus, the Romantic period of the 19th Century was a movement that responded to pressures of the Industrial Revolution, glorifying a past rooted in nature.

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Simple access to light and fresh air was a luxury in New York’s mid-1800s tenements

The Romantic movement emphasized the sublimity and beauty of nature, and dominated American art during this period, especially the untamed American West that was glorified in monumental landscapes by artists of the Hudson River School.

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Thomas Cole’s 1847 “Home in the Woods” envisioned an idyllic green world in stark contrast to life in the big cities of the Industrial Revolution

The Hudson River School was a mid-19th century American art movement embodied by a group of landscape painters whose aesthetic vision came to define romanticism in this country. The paintings for which the movement is named originally depicted the Hudson River Valley and its founding is generally credited to Thomas Cole, who painted until his early death in 1848.

The Second Wave

Cole was followed by a second wave of Hudson River artists who grew to become celebrities in their time, including Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and later, Thomas Moran.

Bierstadt and Moran became best known for their epic paintings of the untamed American West in the last half of the 1800s. Their paintings were the popular equivalent of movie blockbusters today, with huge canvases dramatically unveiled in sensational public events.

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Thomas Moran’s dramatic scene of a storm over the Grand Canyon still wows viewers today

While the Hudson River School artists often glorified nature, they also brought people into their scenes in an idealized way, as part of the epic landscape. Native Americans were portrayed as nobly beautiful in these romanticized landscapes, and conversely, Bierstadt also created similarly noble scenes of white settlers migrating west in his Oregon Trail paintings, on their way to claim lands belonging to Native Americans.

The two ideas are a strange contradiction, given the de facto genocide that was unfolding upon Native Americans in the West when Cole and Bierstadt were creating these masterpieces. But the Hudson River artists were glorifying nature (and American Indians) as a divine creation of their Christian God, and so it makes sense that their paintings also fit the “manifest destiny” justification for westward migration of white settlers, however contradictory.

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Just as Bierstadt’s “Last of the Buffalo” (1889) brought the reality of the slaughter of America’s bison herds to Easterners in the 1800s, it now provides a window into the past for new generations of Americans learning about the western migration. It was the last of his monumental paintings, and directly triggered the first bison census, leading to protections for the species.

While Hudson River artists worked in dramatic realism, their romanticized scenes were often an idealized hybrid of multiple locations captured by the artists in their field studies in the West. Both Cole and Bierstadt made regular trips to what were often very remote, rugged locations for their studies, then returned to their studios to create the massive masterpieces that evoked the overall sense of wonder they had experienced in the West.

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Bierstadt’s “Oregon Trail” (1869) helped establish the enduring mythology of westward migration.

This is often a point of criticism for these painters, as the country was also experiencing the invention of photography, and realism in painting was increasingly being held up against tintype photos by early photographers to gauge their accuracy. Yet, just as photographers attempt to capture light and subject in a way that captures the drama and feeling of a place, Hudson River artists were similarly compiling scenes that captured their own memories and experiences in a West.

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The author on a recent pilgrimage to view Bierstadt’s “Among the Sierra” (1868), on permanent display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Hudson River artists also influenced the creation of our first national parks, with masterpieces of Yellowstone and Yosemite that persuaded Congress to establish the very first protections for our most spectacular wild places. Albert Bierstadt painted many scenes in Yosemite over the years, along with many other wild places across the West that would ultimately be protected from exploitation.

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Albert Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Germany, in 1832, but soon immigrated with his parents to New Bedford, Massachusetts at the age of two. He began drawing as a child, and by his early twenties was painting with oils as part of the Hudson River School movement. He would paint over 500 paintings over the course of his remarkable life.

In 1859, he traveled west with a U.S. Government survey crew, sketching scenes that he would later turn into his epic masterpieces in his studios in New York and Rome. This was one of many trips west for Bierstadt over his long painting career. One of these paintings, “Landers Peak, Rocky Mountains”, sold for $25,000 after it was completed in 1863, an astronomical figure for that time (Bierstadt later purchased this painting from the buyer to give to his brother).

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Albert Bierstadt “Landers Peak, Rocky Mountains” (1863)

 [click here for a large view]

Bierstadt’s huge, panoramic paintings were an immediate sensation with the public, and he quickly became the preeminent painter of the American West during the mid-1800s.

Bierstadt first came to Oregon beginning in the early 1860s, and painted Mount Hood at least four times — the most of any Pacific Northwest scene. He made at least three extended trips to Oregon, twice in the 1860s and later in the 1890s, as his career was winding down.

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Albert Bierstadt in the mid-1800s

This undated, possibly earliest Bierstadt work shows a scene on the Columbia River, with trio of canoes and a towering version of Mount Hood, basking in alpenglow. At first, the peak looks more like Mount Rainier, but a closer look shows a reasonably accurate rendering of the Sandy Headwall and other west face features, albeit with a healthy dose of artistic license:

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One of Albert Bierstadt early paintings of Mount Hood (date unknown)

Another early Bierstadt work from the same lower Columbia River perspective shows alpenglow lighting up the mist along the river and, notably, what appears to be Barrett Spur on the mountain’s north flank, makes this a somewhat more literal image:

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Albert Bierstadt “Morning Thirst – Mount Hood” (date unknown)

In the fall of 1863, Bierstadt made his second trip west and painted a pastoral scene on the north side of the mountain, as viewed from the Hood River Valley. This spare, relatively small portrayal (just 20 inches wide) is much more literal, with many familiar north face features captured, along with Lookout Mountain, to the east. Bierstadt also used artistic license to include Mount Jefferson peeking over the west shoulder of Mount Hood:

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Albert Bierstadt’s 1863 view of Mount Hood from the Hood River Valley

This painting is thought to have been in preparation for the much larger paintings of Mount Hood that would follow. His companion on the 1863 trip, Fritz Hugh Ludlow, recalled the visit in a published account that followed:

“After a night’s rest, Bierstadt spent nearly the entire morning making studies of Hood from an admirable post of observation at the top of one of the highest foothills — a point several miles southeast of town, which he reached under the guidance of an old Indian interpreter and trapper” (Atlantic Monthly. December 1864)

In 1865, Bierstadt completed a very large piece that pictures an idealized, but much more literal Mount Hood towering over the Columbia Gorge. Multnomah Falls and even Larch Mountain are included in the artist’s blend of iconic features. Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters float on the distant horizon:

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Albert Bierstadt’s massive 1865 painting of Mount Hood created a public sensation

[click here for a large version]

This massive painting measures ten feet wide by six feet tall, and created a sensation with the American public when it was unveiled. In 1876, it was one of six monumental paintings selected by Bierstadt for display at the Paris World’s Fair, bringing Mount Hood to international fame.

The painting was one of many portraits of Mount Hood that become part of the public’s imagination of the West, finally putting a face on the towering icon that settler accounts had described at the end of the Oregon Trail. Today, this painting can be viewed at Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This stunning work shows the mountain and Gorge in much more detail than his earlier studies. Mount Hood’s most familiar features — Barrett Spur, Yocum Ridge and Illumination Rock — are detailed, along with Multnomah Falls, Latourell Falls, Phoca Rock and Sherrard Point atop Larch Mountain.

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Detail from Bierstadt’s “Mount Hood” (1865)

The Gorge peaks are oddly deforested in this view. While logging in the Gorge cleared most of the slopes around Larch Mountain by the end of the 1800s, the forests probably would have been much more intact in 1865, when access to the Gorge was still extremely limited, so the barren slopes are more likely artistic license. Yet, Bierstadt did include trees in the foreground that are true to the Gorge, with rugged conifers typical of ancient Douglas fir that have survived the extreme Gorge elements, twisted white oaks and a billowy group of bigleaf maple in the right foreground.

In 1869, Bierstadt completed what to many is his ultimate masterpiece of Mount Hood: a smaller (five feet wide by just over four feet tall), more refined version of his 1865 work that brings all of the elements of the earlier painting with much more dramatic, evening light.

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Albert Bierstadt 1869 refinement of his more famous 1865 Mount Hood portrait

[click here for a large version]

This final piece is housed right here our very own Portland Art Museum, and worth the price of admission, alone. Bierstadt’s final take on our mountain remains the most glorious of the Romantic period paintings of Mount Hood.

While it’s easy to critique Bierstadt’s creative rearranging of geography, it’s also understandable: visitors today still seek that “perfect spot” where all of the pieces of the tableau that make up the Gorge and Mount Hood experience.

The view from Sherrard Point on Larch Mountain comes close, for example, with its 360-degree view encompassing the Gorge, Columbia Delta, Mount Hood, the string of big Cascade volcanoes in the distance and the craggy top of Larch Mountain and its magnificent stand of Noble fir filling the foreground. A mind’s eye recollection of the view of being there brings all of these pieces together as part of the memory, just as Bierstadt combined elements in his paintings that were about the experience of being there, not simply documentation of the elements.

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A closer look at Bierstadt’s 1869 masterpiece shows Multnomah Falls (left), Latourell Falls (center), Larch Mountain and Sherrard Point (center right) and Mount Jefferson in the distance

Mid-1900s Mount Hood Loop Highway visitors picked up postcard folios at souvenir stands and roadhouses along the loop looking to capture their memory in a similar way. These little booklets contained a series of cards showing off the most iconic spots in the Gorge and on the mountain that a visitor might have seen in a day spent driving the loop, but just as Bierstadt rearranged scenic elements, the folio covers of these postcard collections often blended the images to create a mosaic that pulled all of the pieces together.

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1940s Loop Highway Postcard Folio

More recently, cartographic artist Jim Niehues created a magnificent, modern-day mental map of the area with just enough cartographic license to capture the feeling of being there, while still preserving the basic geography of the Gorge and mountain.

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Like Bierstadt before him, Jim Niehues brought a mind’s eye view of Mount Hood and the Gorge together in this stunning piece of cartographic art

Bierstadt visited the region long before the south side of Mount Hood had become the focus of tourism in the 1920s, with the arrival of the loop highway. Instead, his visits took him to the north side of the mountain to points along the Columbia River and in the Hood River Valley that were accessible by rail.

It’s unknown if he actually visited the slopes of the mountain on his visits in the 1860s and 70s, when his famous works of Mount Hood were created, but Jack Grauer’s “A Complete History of Mount Hood” shows Bierstadt visiting Cloud Cap Inn in 1890. According to Grauer, Bierstadt is third from the right in this rare photo, wearing a light hat:

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Closer views suggest and older and grayer Bierstadt:

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Albert Bierstadt would have been 60 years old at the time of this visit. Clearly, this trip shows that he remained an intrepid explorer in his later years. The trip to Cloud Cap Inn, which had opened just one year prior, entailed a train ride from Portland to Hood River, where the horse-drawn Cloud Cap Stage was waiting to take visitors on a rugged, five-hour ride up the mountain to the lodge that was not for the faint-of-heart.

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Albert Bierstadt stood here!

Today, you can still see the ruts of the original stage road that led to the inn at grades in excess of 20 percent. Since the 1940s, a new road has criss-crossed the original stage route in a graded series of switchbacks, allowing modern-day visitors to marvel at the ordeal that earlier visitors like Bierstadt endured on the way to Cloud Cap!

Bierstadt’s Other Works in the Region

While Bierstadt’s epic paintings of Mount Hood were widely known and celebrated, his rendering of Multnomah Falls is less known, possibly because it came later in his career, and at just 3 by 5 feet, was relative “small” compared to his huge panoramic scenes. Bierstadt captures Multnomah Falls with much literal accuracy on a typically misty autumn day:

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Bierstadt’s “Multnomah Falls” (late 1800s)

[Click here for a large version]

Today, Bigleaf maples still frame the falls in gold in autumn, but Bierstadt did add a rocky bluff beyond the falls to add depth to the painting:

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Though this painting is undated, Bierstadt likely created it before a log bridge spanning the lower falls was built in the early 1880s:

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The stream detail in the foreground gives a sense of what it must have been like to approach our tallest waterfall in its truly wild state, before today’s developed paths and viewpoints were built:

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Bierstadt painted the Columbia River as a foreground for most of his Mount Hood scenes, but surprisingly, a view down the Columbia Gorge from near Crown Point was not one of his subjects. This undated Bierstadt painting of the Columbia captures a scene that may be on the east side of the Cascades in desert country, perhaps in the vicinity of today’s Horsethief Butte State Park, looking west:

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Albert Bierstadt’s Columbia River scene

If Bierstadt did make it to the mid-Columbia region, it’s unclear whether he visited Celilo Falls. It surely would have provided all of the elements for one of his panoramic paintings, complete with a Native American villages and fisherman working the salmon runs, yet there are no paintings of Celilo among his works.

Instead, we can only wonder what his take might have been, perhaps alogn the lines of Thomas Moran’s stunning portrayal of “Shoshone Falls” (1900) on the Snake River:

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Thomas Moran’s “Shoshone Falls” (1900)

Bierstadt painted several of the big Cascade Mountain volcanoes, including this view of Mount Adams, perhaps inspired by alpine meadows above Takhlakh Lake the mountain’s west side:

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Albert Bierstadt’s “Mount Adams” (1875)

He made a few paintings of Mount St. Helens, all from the shore of the lower Columbia River. This scene shows Mount Adams (or possibly Mount Rainier) peeking over the shoulder of St. Helens:

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Albert Bierstadt’s “Mount St. Helens” (date unknown)

Bierstadt painted mighty Mount Rainer from the tidal flats of Puget Sound, near Tacoma, in a scene that includes our native Madrona trees (on the left), a nice touch of literal accuracy:

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Albert Bierstadt’s “Mount Rainier” (date unknown)

Finally, for avid hikers this small, untitled Bierstadt piece sure looks like Mount Jefferson as viewed from northwest of Jefferson Park, above the Whitewater trail:

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Untitled Bierstadt piece — is this Mount Jefferson?

At the time Bierstadt was in Oregon, this would have been a remarkably rugged, remote area for anyone reach, so it’s probably more likely coincidence that this so closely resembles Jefferson, but who knows? Maybe we will discover another undocumented chapter in his travels in the future.

The Other Painters

There were many fine paintings of Mount Hood made by other artists during the 1800s, when Bierstadt was visiting the region. Explorer and self-taught artist Paul Kane is best known for his early portraits of native people in the West. Kane was among the earliest to arrive in Mount Hood country and paint the mountain while spending the winter of 1846 at Fort Vancouver.

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Paul Kane in the 1840s

Among Kane’s best known work is a scene depicting Chinook people living along the lower Columbia River in the early 1850s, with Mount Hood as the backdrop:

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Paul Kane’s “Chinook Indians in front of Mount Hood” (1850s)

John Mix Stanley was another prominent explorer and self-taught painter who visited the region. Stanley first came west in 1842, and was known for his portraits of Native American life captured during the first half of the 1800s.

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John Mix Stanley

His 1855 lithograph of Mount Hood shows tribal life along the Columbia, as viewed from near The Dalles:

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In 1865, a fire at the Smithsonian destroyed much of his work, and Stanley set about recreating some of the most memorable scenes from his travels in the West from sketches and memory.

His trip through the Columbia Gorge by boat in 1853 apparently made a special impact on Stanley, and his 1870 “Mountain Landscape with Indians”, captured these memories in composite. This painting was also likely inspired by the success of Bierstadt’s panoramic 1865 view of Mount Hood, as well:

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Stanley’s first rendition of Mount Hood from the Columbia River (1870)

In 1871, Stanley created a much larger (five by eight feet!) version of the same scene with a more stylized Mount Hood. This masterpiece blends the west face of Mount Hood, familiar as the view on Portland’s skyline, and elements from throughout the Gorge, including a Native American village:

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Stanley’s panoramic 1871 masterpiece of Mount Hood and the Columbia River

[click here for a large version]

Boston artist Robert Swain Gifford created a somewhat bizarre version of Mount Hood in 1874 that continues to circulate widely today as a collectable print:

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R.S. Gifford’s stylized 1874 take on Mount Hood

This exaggerated view attempts to capture the mountain from the north side, in the vicinity of Hood River, but is oddly cartoonish in comparison to other, more realistic works that were being created at that time.

In the 1880s, Gifford created this much more accurate etching of Mount Hood from the Columbia River narrows at The Dalles:

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R.S. Gifford’s 1880s engraving of Mount Hood from The Dalles

Though he was not known for his western art, Gifford’s 1880s rendering of Mount Hood has been widely published and remains popular with print collectors today.

Another painter by the name of Gifford (though unrelated) was Sanford Robinson Gifford, another Hudson River School artist. Sanford Gifford created this dreamlike view of Mount Hood and the Columbia River in 1875:

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Sanford Robinson Gifford’s “Mount Hood” (1875)

Sanford Gifford’s scene is not too far from reality, with elements that nearly exist in reality as viewed from the north side of the river near today’s Washougal.

Artist Frederick Ferdinand Schafer was a German immigrant with a studio in San Francisco. He painted scenes from throughout the West, including this view of Mount Hood described as being from The Dalles:

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Ferdinand Schafer’s “Mount Hood” (date unknown)

Schafer worked from field notes and sketches, which might explain why this scene “from The Dalles” looks nothing like the area. Instead, this perspective of the mountain could be from the upper Hood River Valley, possibly merging the canyon of the East Fork Hood River with the mountain as it appears from the valley. The trees on the right look a lot like mountain hemlock, though they might be inspired by Ponderosa pine that are found through the east Gorge.

Connecticut painter Gilbert Munger was another student of the Hudson River School, and a friend of John Mix Stanley. Munger served as an engineer in the Civil War, and traveled west after the war as part of an emerging movement of more literal, grounded landscape painting that adhered to geographic accuracy.

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Gilbert Munger in the 1870s

Munger painted at least two versions of Mount Hood in the 1870s that show his characteristic attention to accuracy, both from the Hood River area:

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Both of Munger’s pieces faithfully show the iconic, open foothills that define the east Gorge today from Hood River eastward. His paintings have enough detail to show the Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood’s northeast slope with surprising accuracy for the time.

San Francisco artist Julian Walbridge Rix created one of my favorite early paintings of Mount Hood, an 1888 scene from the Hood River area that faithfully captures both the geography of the mountain and the local geology and ecology of the east side forests:

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“Mount Hood” (1888) by Julian Rix

Rix was a member of San Francisco’s Bohemian Club and may have been encouraged by Albert Bierstadt as he began his landscape painting career in the 1870s.

A truly pioneering painter who should be more celebrated here in Mount Hood country is Grafton Tyler Brown. He painted in the late 1800s, and was notable as the first African American painter to work in the Pacific Northwest and California. Brown was born in Philadelphia, where his father was a freeman and abolitionist.

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Grafton Tyler Brown in his studio

Brown moved to San Francisco while in his twenties and working as a lithographer. He later lived in Portland and Victoria, British Columbia during his painting career. Brown painted at least two surviving paintings depicting Mount Hood. The first was completed in 1884 and shows a bright scene along the Hood River, near the town of Hood River:

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Brown’s “Mount Hood” (1884)

The detail on this piece looks almost like it was painted with modern acrylics.

A later piece completed by Brown in 1889 shows a classic Columbia River scene near The Dalles with Mount Hood reflecting in the river:

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John Englehart arrived later on the scene, painting western landscapes in the 1890s and early 1900s. In 1902, Englehart moved his studio from San Francisco to Portland, where he exhibited in the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905.

Englehart’s Mount Hood paintings follow the Hudson River School style, but the art world had moved on to European impressionism by the time he was creating these scenes, and he never attained the acclaim of earlier Hudson River artists.

This Englehart scene shows Barrett Spur on the left, suggesting a view from the west or northwest, perhaps along the Sandy River:

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Mount Hood scene by John Englehart

This Englehart painting is a different take on the mountain, with a river scene that seems too small to be the Columbia River, though there’s no reason to assume that the artist didn’t simply stylize that detail for the purpose of his composition:

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Englehart’s vision of Mount Hood… and the Columbia River?

These Englehart pieces appear to be from the 1890s.

Eliza Barchus was another pioneering artist based in Portland who made her name at the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition, where she won a gold medal for her landscapes. Barchus was widowed at the age of 35, and her artwork became the sole source of income for her family at a time when very few women were working artists. She ran a downtown studio in Portland and later expanded her business to include construction and homebuilding.

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Eliza Barchus in the 1890s

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Eliza Barchus in her Portland studio in the early 1900s

Barchus painted romantic scenes of Mount Hood, the Columbia Gorge, Multnomah Falls and many other familiar scenes here in Mount Hood country during her long life (she lived to be 102 years old).

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“Mount Hood” (early 1900s) by Eliza Barchus

William Samuel Parrott also had a studio in downtown Portland in the late 1800s, and specialized in Pacific Northwest landscapes. Like Munger, his paintings were geographically accurate, yet also captured the romantic sensibility of the Hudson River School. This Mount Hood scene by Parrott is in the Portland Art Museum collection, though not currently on public display:

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William Parrott’s rendering of Mount Hood (late 1800s)

There were other landscape artists working the Pacific Northwest during the late 1800s, but the public was moving on toward new trends in art. The popularity of the Hudson River style had faded from public favor by the turn of the 20th Century, replaced by interest in impressionism and other more modern artistic movements.

It’s not coincidental that the romantic landscape era of painting faded with end of the Western frontier, as the two were intertwined in the American imagination. But art from the era still offers a lasting sense of this remarkable period in our history in way that early photography or writing from the period don’t fully capture. Thanks to the vision and audacity of artists like Bierstadt, we can still experience what it felt like to live in that time of wonder and exploration.

Bierstadt is still inspiring our imagination…

Bierstadt died in 1902, twelve years after his last visit to Mount Hood. For many decades during the era of modern art, his work was dismissed and ignored as out of fashion, but he was rediscovered in the 1970s. His legacy has since been celebrated in popular art, including a couple of U.S. postage stamps in recent years.

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Bierstadt’s “Last of the Buffalo” celebrated by the U.S. Postal Service in 1998

Why the resurgence in interest? While Bierstadt’s work in the 1800s served to capture the pristine spectacle of the American West, today it serves as a reminder of what once what, and what might be — what should be — as we move into an new era of restoration in our country’s evolution.

There’s an ironic tragedy in the fact that Bierstadt’s career centered on celebrating the wild, unspoiled beauty of the west, yet culminated with “The Last of the Buffalo” a stark warning of what we had already lost — and what he had witnessed in the half-century he spent documenting the American West. We’ll never know if Bierstadt had misgivings about the effect his paintings had in spurring western migration, but he was clearly aware of the effects that white settlement of the West had wrought.

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One of Bierstadt’s many stunning takes on Yosemite appeared on this stamp in 2008

It’s also no accident that I’ve used Bierstadt’s Mount Hood masterpiece as the backdrop for the Mount Hood National Park Campaign website. In this magical piece, Bierstadt brought together the essential elements of what makes the Mount Hood area so unique, and so worthy of Park Service protection as a national shrine.

It’s true, much restoration is needed and a completely different management mindset is in order to bring Mount Hood and the Gorge back to their former ecological state. But Bierstadt’s dreamlike portrayal provides the perfect inspiration to aim for that lofty vision, and break away from our current, unsustainable path of incremental over-development and exploitation.

Postscript

A disclaimer from the author upon posting this article: while I’m an avid fan of the Hudson River School artists who traveled to the American West in the 1800s, I’m certainly no scholar on the subject! I welcome any corrections or additions that more knowledgeable readers might provide.

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The author on a recent visit to see the great western landscape paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

This article has been in the works for about five years, as I’ve not only had to learn the subject matter, but was also surprised to discover that the life of Albert Bierstadt is poorly covered by historians. This may be due to his art falling out of favor by the time of his death in 1902, but hopefully the future will bring a more thorough look at this remarkable American.

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Bierstadt’s “Mount Hood” (1869) is on permanent display at the Portland Art Museum (courtesy Portland Art Museum)

In the meantime, make your own pilgrimage to the Portland Art Museum to see our very own Bierstadt Mount Hood masterpiece in person. You will surely be inspired by his timeless vision of our mountain!

Proposal: Bennett Pass Historic Backroad

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Mount Hood from Historic Bennett Pass Road

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

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

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

One-Way Concept

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Titus Canyon: Yogi Bear does not drive here!

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

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One-way trip to heaven… in Death Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historic Bennett Pass Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would it be different?

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

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Leaving the Terrible Traverse en route to Bennett Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bennett Pass Historic Backroad Tour

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

Here’s a tiny map of the concept:

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

Tour Description

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

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

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The sprawling Mount Hood view from semi-secret Sunrise Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mount Hood after an early autumn snow from the Gumjuwac Overlook

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

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

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

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

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

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Mount Hood from the Gunsight Ridge Trail

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

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Peaceful Bonney Meadows with Mount Hood peeking over the ridge

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

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Lovely Boulder Lake

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

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The dramatic gates to the Terrible Traverse

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

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

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

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

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

What would it take?

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

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Wildflowers line the historic Bennett Pass Road in summer

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

How to visit?

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

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

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

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

Take it slow and enjoy the ride!

2017 Campaign Calendar!

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[click here for a large image]

Each year since the Mount Hood National Park Campaign began in 2004, I’ve published a wall calendar to celebrate the many reasons why Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge should be our next national park. You can pick up a calendar here:

 2017 Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar

The calendar sales help cover some of the costs of keeping the campaign website and WyEast blog up and running. More importantly, they ensure that I continue to explore new places in the gorge and on the mountain, as each calendar consists exclusively of photos I’ve taken in the previous year. In this article, I’ll provide some of the stories behind the photos in the new Mount Hood National Park Campaign Calendar.

 The Calendar

Beginning in 2016, I’ve published the calendar at Zazzle, where the quality of printing and binding is much better than my former printer. The excellent print quality shows in the front cover (above), a view of the northwest face of Mount Hood from Cathedral Ridge where the color accuracy does justice to the vibrant cliffs on this side of the mountain.

An added bonus with Zazzle is the ability to include a full-color spread on the back of the calendar. As with the 2016 calendar, I’ve used this space to show off some of the flora I’ve photographed over the past year – and this year, I added berries and a butterfly to the mix, too:

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The monthly layout remains the same as last year, with a classic design that serves nicely as a working calendar for kitchens or offices:

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The finished calendar hangs 14 inches wide by 22 inches tall, with a white wire binding.

 The Images

The following is a rundown of the 12 images inside the calendar by month, with a link to a large version of each image, too. This year, I’ve posted especially large versions to allow for a closer look at these scenes (in a new window), and you can see them by clicking the link beneath each preview image.

The 2017 calendar begins with a chilly Tamanawas Falls for the January image. This impressive waterfall is located on Cold Spring Creek on Mount Hood’s east slope:

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Tamanawas Falls in winter clothes

 [click here for a large image]

This popularity of this trail in winter has ballooned in recent years, from almost no visitors just a decade ago to traffic jams on winter weekends today.

The scenery explains the popularity. While the trail is lovely in the snow-free seasons, it’s downright magical after the first heavy snows in winter. The scene below is typical of the many breathtaking vistas along the hike during the snow season.

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Cold Spring Creek gets just a little bit colder

It’s still possible to have the place to yourself, however. Go on a weekday, and you’re likely to find just a few hikers and snowshoers on the trail. Thus far, no Snow Park pass is required here – though that will surely come if the weekend crowds continue!

For February, I picked an image of Mount Hood’s steep north face, featuring the icefalls of the Coe and Ladd glaciers:

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Mount Hood’s mighty north face from Owl Point

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This view is unique to the extent that it was taken from the Old Vista Ridge trail to Owl Point – a route that was reopened in 2007 by volunteers and provides a perspective of the mountain rarely seen by most visitors.

 For March, I selected an image of Upper Butte Creek Falls:

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Lovely Upper Butte Creek Falls in spring

[click here for a large image]

This is on the margins of Mount Hood country, but deserves better protections than the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) can ever provide, given their constitutional obligation to log state forests to provide state revenue.

While ODF has done a very good job with the short trails that reach the waterfalls of Butte Creek, the bulk of the watershed is still heavily managed for timber harvests. Who knows, someday maybe it will be part of a Mount Hood National Park? It’s certainly worthy.

On this particular trip last spring, I returned to the trailhead to find these notes on my windshield:

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Our future is in good hands!

Not much damage to the car, and the note more than made up for it! I did contact Jesse, and ended up speaking to his dad. I thanked him for being an excellent parent. With dads (and moms) like this, our future is in good hands!

For April, I picked this scene from Rowena Crest at the height of the Balsamroot and Lupine bloom season:

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Rowena Crest in April splendor

[click here for a large image]

Just me and a few hundred other photographers up there to enjoy the wildflowers on that busy, sunny Sunday afternoon! Look closely, and you can see a freight train heading west on the Union Pacific tracks in the distance, lending scale to the enormity of the Gorge.

For the May image, I chose the classic scene of Punch Bowl Falls along the popular Eagle Creek Trail in the Gorge:

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Punch Bowl Falls in spring

 [click here for a large image]

The spring rains faded quickly this year, resulting in much lower flows along Eagle Creek by the time spring greenery was emerging, making it less chilly to wade out to the view of the falls. To the right of the falls you can also see the latest downfall to land in front of the falls. To my eye, this adds to the scene, so I see it as a plus.

This isn’t the first big tree to drop into the Punch Bowl in recent years. In the mid-2000s, another large tree fell directly in front of the falls, much to the frustration of photographers:

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Punch Bowl Falls in 2006 with an earlier fallen tree in front of the falls

 That earlier tree was flushed out a few years ago, only to be replaced by the current, somewhat less obtrusive downfall a couple of years ago. Here’s a wider view showing this most recent addition, including the giant root ball:

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Gravity at work once again at Punch Bowl Falls

This pattern will continue as it has for millennia, as other large Douglas fir trees are leaning badly along the rim of the Punch Bowl. They eventually will drop into the bowl, too, frustrating future generations of photographers!

 The Punch Bowl, itself, changes over time. This early view from the 1920s shows a lot more debris inside the bowl compared to recent decades, possibly from erosion that followed an early 1900s forest fire in the Eagle Creek canyon:

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Punch Bowl Falls in the 1920s

Look closely and you can see flapper-era hikers on the rim of the bowl and several rock stacks left by visitors on the gravel bar – some things never change!

The June image in the new calendar is the opposite of Punch Bowl Falls. While thousands visit Eagle Creek each year, the remote spot pictured below is rarely visited by anyone, despite being less than a mile from Wahtum Lake and the headwaters of Eagle Creek. This view is from a rugged, unnamed peak along Waucoma Ridge, looking toward another unnamed butte and snowy Mount Adams, in the distance:

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A place of ancient significance, yet lost in our modern time

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For the purpose of keeping track of unnamed places, I’ve called the talus-covered butte in the photo “Pika Butte”, in honor of its numerous Pika residents. The peak from which the photo is taken is an extension of Blowdown Ridge, a much-abused, heavily logged and mostly forgotten beauty spot that deserves to be restored and placed under the care of the National Park Service.

The view of “Pika Butte” was taken while exploring several off-trail rock knobs and outcrops along Blowdown Ridge, but what made this spot really special was stumbling acxross a cluster of Indian pits (sometimes called vision quest pits). One pit is visible in the lower left corner of the wide view (above) and you can see three in this close-up view from the same spot:

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If only these stones could tell us the story behind the mystery!

Nobody really knows why ancient people in the region made these pits, but it’s always a powerful experience to find them, and imagine the lives of indigenous peoples unfolding in the shadow of Mount Hood. These pits had a clear view of the Hood River Valley, with the Columbia River and Mount Adams in the distance. Indian pits often feature a sweeping mountain or river view, adding to the theory that they were built with a spiritual purpose.

For July, another photo from Owl Point along the Old Vista Ridge trail. This wide view shows some of the beargrass in bloom on the slopes of Owl Point on a sunny afternoon in July:

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Mount Hood fills the skyline from Owl Point

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Since this historic trail was adopted by volunteers in 2007, it has become increasingly popular with hikers. Several geocaches are located along the way, as well as a summit register at Owl Point with notes from hikers from all over the world. A few recent entries among hundreds in the register show the impact that this amazing “new” view of Mount Hood has on visitors to Old Vista Ridge:

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In a few months I’ll share some exciting news about the Old Vista Ridge Trail, Owl Point and the surrounding areas on Mount Hood’s north slope. Stay tuned!

For August, I picked another scene on the north side of the mountain, this time at iconic Elk Cove along the Timberline Trail:

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Swale along Cove Creek in Elk Cove

[click here for a large image]

The hiker (and his dog) approaching me in this photo stopped to chat, and I was surprised to learn that he was a regular reader of this blog!

As we talked about the changes to the cove that came with the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire (that burned the north and west margins of the cove), he mentioned finding the foundation from the original Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) shelter in the brush near Cove Creek! We crossed the creek and in a short distance, came to the unmistakable outline of the shelter:

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The old Elk Cove shelter foundation is surprisingly intact – but hidden

This structure was once one of several along the Timberline Trail, but fell into disrepair following avalanche damage sometime in the 1950s or early 1960s. This image is apparently from the mid-1960s, showing the still somewhat intact ruins of the shelter:

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The beginning of the end for the Elk Cove shelter in the 1960s

The location of the shelter was a surprise to me, as I had long thought the building was located near a prominent clearing and campsite near the middle of Elk Cove. Now that I know the exact location, I plan to reproduce the 1960s image on my next trip to the cove, for comparison.

For September, I chose a quiet autumn scene along Gorton Creek, near the Wyeth Campground in the Columbia Gorge (below). This is a spot I’ve photographed many times, just downstream from popular Emerald Falls:

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Pretty Gorton Creek in the Wyeth area of the Gorge

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This area has a fascinating history, as today’s Wyeth Campground is located on the grounds of Civilian Public Service Camp No. 1, a World War II work camp for conscientious objectors. The men serving at this camp built roads and trails throughout the Gorge, in addition to many other public works projects. The camp operated from 1941-1946. You can learn more about the Wyeth work camp here.

The October scene is familiar to anyone who has visited the Gorge. It’s Multnomah falls, of course, dressed in autumn colors:

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A bugs-eye view of Multnomah Falls?

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If the photo looks different than your typical Multnomah Falls view, that’s because I blended a total of eight images to create a horizontal format of this very vertical falls to better fit the calendar. Here’s what the composite looked like before blending the images:

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To young photographers of the digital age, blending photos is routine. But for those of us who started out in the age of film photography and darkrooms, the ability to blend and stack images is nothing short of magical – and fun! While younger photographers are increasingly exploring film photography as a retro art, the digital age is infinitely more enjoyable than the days of dark rooms, chemicals and expensive film and print paper for this photographer.

I paused before including a winter-season photo of Wahclella Falls for the November calendar image (below). Why? Because I’ve used a photo from this area in nearly every calendar since I started assembling these more than a decade ago. It’s my favorite Gorge hike – I visited Tanner Creek and Wahclella Falls five times in 2016 – and have photographed this magnificent scene dozens of times, and yet it never gets old.

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Wahclella Falls is a winter spectacle!

[click here for a large image]

I decided to include this Wahclella Falls scene because it captured a particularly wild day on Tanner Creek last winter. The stream was running high, filling the canyon with mist and seasonal waterfalls drifted down the walls of the gorge on all sides.

The huge splash pool at the base of the falls was especially wild – more like ocean surf than a Cascade stream, and if you look closely, you can also see a hiker braving the rain and cold to take in this view:

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Roaring falls, big boulder… and tiny hiker

I also liked the turbulent stream below the falls, which also boiled more like ocean surf than a mountain stream:

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Tanner Creek comes alive in winter

 So, another calendar featuring Wahclella Falls? Yes, and it certainly won’t be the last. This is among the most magical places in the Gorge – or anywhere!

 Finally, for the December image I selected a photo from my first official attempt at capturing the Milky Way over Mount Hood. This view is across Laurance Lake, on the north side of the mountain:

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Milky Way rising over Laurance Lake and Mount Hood

[click here for a large image]

The glow on the opposite side of the lake is a campfire at the Kinnikinnick Campground, and was just a lucky addition to the scene. While we waited for the Milky Way to appear, there were several campers arriving, making for some interesting photo captures. With a 30-second exposure set for stars, this image also captures the path of a car driving along the south side of the lake to the campground:

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Headlights and campfires in a Laurance Lake time exposure

My tour guide and instructor that evening was Hood River Photographer Brian Chambers, who I profiled in this WyEast Blog article in June. Thanks for a great trip, Brian!

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The author with Brian Chambers somewhere under the Milky Way

So, if you’re looking to support the blog and Mount Hood National Park campaign or just have an ugly fridge to cover, you can order the new calendar on Zazzle.

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…and finally, given the unusual events in our recent national election, some reflections on what it might mean for Mount Hood and the Gorge…

Post-election deju vu: back to the future..?

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Viewed through the lens of protecting public lands and the environment, the presidential election results on November 8 are discouraging, at best. For those of us who have voted in a few elections, it feels a lot like the Reagan Revolution of 1980.

So, the following is a bit of speculation on what lies ahead based upon what we’ve been through before, but with the caveat that unlike that earlier populist surge against government, the environmental agenda of the coming Trump administration is somewhat less clear and appears less ideologically driven.

Ronald Reagan’s vision for government brought a very specific mission to dismantle environmental regulations and open up public lands to commercial interests. To carry out the mission, President Reagan appointed the highly controversial James Watt to head the Department of Interior, and the nearly as controversial Anne Gorsuch to run the EPA. John Block was tapped to head of the Department of Agriculture (which oversees the U.S. Forest Service). Watt and Gorsuch were attorneys, Block a farmer who had entered politics as an agriculture administrator in the State of Illinois.

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James Watt’s radical vision for our public lands threatened to derail Ronald Reagan in his first term

Watt and Gorsuch became infamous for their open disdain for conservationists and the agencies they were appointed to administer. Watt was the Reagan administration’s sympathetic gesture to the original Sagebrush Rebellion. Block focused primarily on an ideological rollback of farm subsidies and programs that dated to the Dust Bowl, and that would eventually be his downfall.

The important lesson is that all three rode in with a “revolution” mandate, and over-reached in their zeal to rewrite American policy overnight. The blowback was instant, and though they did harm our conservation legacy during their embattled tenures, they didn’t have the lasting impact many had feared. Both Watt and Gorsuch were forced to resign before the end of President Reagan’s first term, and Block resigned in the first year of Reagan’s second term.

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Even Readers Digest covered the EPA Superfund scandal that drove Anne Gorsuch out of office!

Gorsuch was eventually pushed out by Reagan for attempting to conceal EPA Superfund files from Congress as part of an unfolding scandal, becoming the first agency head to be cited for contempt of Congress. Before the scandal drove her from office, Gorsuch became Anne Gorsuch Burford when she married James Burford, Reagan’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) chief, further fueling concern about whether environmental protections could be objectively enforced on BLM lands.

John Block lasted five years, but was pushed out in early 1986 as the worst farm crisis since the Great Depression unfolded under his tenure. Watt left in more spectacular fashion after stating (apparently a joke) that an ideally balanced advisory panel would include ”a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” (and in the age of Google, he has been deservedly forgotten, with the more consequential James Watt – inventor of the steam engine – reclaiming his name in history).

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Bloom County has some fun with Oregon’s Rajneeshee saga… and Ronald Reagan’s failed cabinet appointees

Will history repeat itself? We’ll see, but there is no reason to assume that the conservation community – and, importantly, the American public – will be any less motivated to speak out if the Trump administration attempts a similar rollback on public land and environmental protections to what the Reagan Administration attempted.

Yes, there will be lost ground, but there will also be unexpected gains. That’s our system. Recall that the same President Reagan who brought James Watt to the national stage also signed the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area Act into law thirty years ago, on November 17, 1986 (famously “holding his nose”, in his words). In his first term, President Reagan signed the Oregon Wilderness Act into law on June 26, 1984, creating 22 new wilderness areas covering more than 800,000 acres.

As President Obama said in his reflection on the election, “democracy is messy”. He also reminded the president-elect that our system of governance is more cruise ship than canoe, and that turning it around is a slow and difficult process, no matter what “mandate” you might claim. That is by design, of course.

…and the WyEast Blog in 2017..?

Looking ahead toward 2017, I hope to keep up my current pace of WyEast Blog articles as I also continue my efforts as board president for Trailkeepers of Oregon, among other pursuits. And spend time on the trail, of course!

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The author somewhere in Oregon’s next national park…

As always, thanks for reading the blog, and especially for the kind and thoughtful comments many of you have posted over the years. The blog is more magazine than forum, but I do enjoy hearing different perspectives and reactions to the articles.

Despite the election shocker this year, I’ve never felt better about Mount Hood and the Gorge someday getting the recognition (and Park Service stewardship) they deserve! That’s because of a passionate new generation of conservations are becoming more involved in the direction of our nation and our public land legacy. The 2016 election seems to have accelerated the passion this new generation of stewards brings to the fight.

Our future is in very good hands, indeed.

 See you on the trail in 2017!

 Tom Kloster | Wy’East Blog

 

“Princess of the Pacific Northwest”

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The “Princess of the Pacific Northwest” in her regal summer robes (Mount Hood from Elk Cove)

A friend alerted me last week to some unexpected publicity for the Mount Hood National Park Campaign: a mention in Backpacker Magazine’s special National Parks issue! If you’ve followed the blog for awhile, this isn’t the first time the park idea for Mount Hood has made the national media – Sunset Magazine suggested included the mountain in a similar piece a few years ago, as covered in this blog article.

I should confess to not reading this magazine much, as it as always seemed a bit fluffy and gear-obsessed. But while I’ll excerpt the Mount Hood mention here, it’s definitely worth picking up a copy of the National Park issue (August 2016 issue, on newsstands now).

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Backpacker’s special National Parks issue on newsstands now (August 2016)

There are surprisingly thorough articles in this issue of Backpacker on the state of our National Parks, covering everything from the worrisome lack of diversity among parks visitors to the impacts that we are all seeing as our public lands grow increasingly popular. There’s even a piece on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, a new effort to reboot the spirit and scope of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps in our time.

The Mount Hood National Park mention comes way back on page 102 of the magazine. Four future parks are profiled as “top contenders” for joining the park system, including our own Mount Hood (and Columbia River Gorge), Driftless Rivers in the upper Midwest, Upper Bald River in Tennessee and Maine Woods, where National Monument status seems closer than ever after years of determined effort.

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Mount Hood at the top of the list! The “Princess of the Pacific Northwest”

But Mount Hood gets the lead and photo (Mirror Lake) in the piece, along with the wonderful tagline “Princess of the Pacific Northwest”. Mount Hood has sometimes been called the “Queen of the Cascades” over the years in a nod to “King” Rainier (often called the “Monarch of the Cascades”), but “princess” works well, too!

The article suggests the Eagle Creek trail as the best pick for exploring for new visitors. It’s also a good choice for underscoring the connection between Mount Hood and the Gorge, with the Mount Hood Loop the new national park together.

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Sure, you can read about Mount Hood here, but this issue of Backpacker is worth picking up, with several good articles on our National Parks

But what would the best pick for an alpine hike have been? Most likely the short, popular trail to Mirror Lake or maybe something near Timberline Lodge, as the south side does seem to be the default for national media coverage. But local hikers would also look to McNeil Point, Elk Cove, Cooper Spur or Gnarl Ridge as the finest Mount Hood trail experiences.

And as much as Mount Hood is (deceivingly) serene and lovely in the photo from Trillium Lake, I would have picked one of the more rugged sides for the article, like the towering west face from Lolo Pass…

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“Princess of the Pacific Northwest” in her elegant winter robes (Lolo Pass)

…or the rugged north face from the Eliot Glacier moraine…

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“Princess of the Pacific Northwest” showing her wild side (Eliot Glacier)

…or even something lesser-known, like Badlands Basin on the east side, in Mount Hood’s ran shadow…

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“Princess of the Pacific Northwest” from the less-traveled east side (Badland Basin)

…but those images can wait until Backpacker Magazine profiles Mount Hood as the NEWEST national park in the system, one that finally protects the Princess of the Pacific Northwest” for all time!

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In other media mentions, the Oregonian ran this “what if” piece on national parks that didn’t happen a couple weeks ago. It includes an interesting (if incomplete) history of the idea for Mount Hood, but oddly it makes no mention of the Gorge, which came very close to national park status when the Gorge Act was coming together in the 1980s.

Unfinished business, to be sure… but an idea whose time will come!

‘Tis a lesson you should heed

Try, try, try again

If at first you don’t succeed

Try, try, try again

-Thomas H. Palmer and Frederick Maryat (1847)

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A New Vision: Restoring Hiyu Mountain

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Early 1900s view of Mount Hood and Bull Run Lake, with Hiyu Mountain on the far right and Sentinel Peak on the left

Hidden in plain sight at the foot of Mount Hood and the headwaters of Portland’s Bull Run watershed, Hiyu Mountain is a little-known, much abused gem. No one knows why this graceful, crescent-shaped mountain was named with the Chinook jargon word for “much” or “many”, and sadly, only a very few know of Hiyu Mountain today.

This little mountain deserves better. The broader vision of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign is to heal and restore Mount Hood and the Gorge as a place for conservation and sustainable recreation, ending a century of increasing commercial exploitation and profiteering. As part of this vision, Hiyu Mountain could once again become a place of “hiyu” beauty, where snowcapped WyEast fills the horizon and where Bull Run Lake, indigo source of Portland’s drinking water, could finally be seen and celebrated by the public these lands belong to.

Two Worlds

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Dodge Island and Mount Hood from Bull Run Lake; Hiyu Mountain is the tall, crescent-shaped ridge rising behind the island (photo courtesy Guy Meacham)

Hiyu Mountain rises 1,500 feet directly above Bull Run Lake, the uppermost source of Portland’s water supply. Lolo Pass is on the south shoulder of the mountain, connecting the Hood River and Sandy River valleys. The two sides of Hiyu Mountain mountain couldn’t be more different.

The northern slope that forms the shoreline of the Bull Run Lake is almost untouched by man, almost as pristine as it was when the Bull Run Watershed was established in the late 1800s.

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Early 1900s map of Hiyu Mountain and Bull Run Lake

Massive old growth Noble fir forests tower along these northern slopes, where rain and snow from Pacific storm fronts is captured, emerging in the crystal mountain springs that form the headwaters of the Bull Run River.

Almost no one visits this part of Bull Run, save for an occasional Portland Water Bureau worker. This land has been strictly off-limits to the public for nearly 120 years, and remained untouched even as the Bull Run Reserve was developed as a municipal watershed.

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Early 1900s map showing Hiyu Mountain and the first trails over Lolo Pass

On the south slope of Hiyu Mountain things were surprisingly pristine until the 1950s. This area was also part of the original Bull Run Reserve, but was later ceded – in large part because the south slopes of Hiyu Mountain drain to the Clear Fork of the Sandy River, and away from the Bull Run watershed.

Since the 1950s, a conspiracy of forces has almost completely altered the south face of the mountain and its summit crest. By the mid-1950s, the Forest Service had begun what would become an extensive industrial logging zone here, mining ancient trees in dozens of sprawling, high-elevation clear cuts in the remote Clear Fork valley.

These forests will take centuries to recover, and are today mostly thickets of plantation conifers in woeful need of thinning. The maze of logging roads constructed to cut the forests are now buckling and sliding into disrepair on the steep mountain slopes.

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1927 map of Hiyu Mountain, Bull Run Lake and the south corner of Lost Lake

By the late 1950s, a logging road had finally pushed over the crest of Lolo Pass. At just 3,330 feet, Lolo is the lowest of mountain passes on Mount Hood and a route long used by Native Americans. But surprisingly, it was the last to see a road in modern times. The road over Lolo Pass coincided with the completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957, some 50 miles east on the Columbia River.

While the dam is most notorious for drowning Cello Falls, a place where native peoples had lived, fished and traded for millennia, it also sent half-mile wide power transmission corridors west to Portland and south to California. Thus, the new road over Lolo Pass enabled the most egregious insult to Hiyu Mountain, with the parade of transmission towers we see today tragically routed over the shoulder of Mount Hood.

The power corridor took advantage of the easy passage over Lolo Pass, an absence of tourists and public awareness (at the time) on this remote side of the mountain, and was built with complete disregard for the natural landscape. It remains as Mount Hood’s worst scar.

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The Bonneville Power Administration’s quarter-mile wide perpetual clearcut that follows their transmission lines over the shoulder of Hiyu Mountain

 Today, the south side of Hiyu Mountain remains a jarring landscape of ragged clearcuts, failing logging roads and the quarter-mile wide swath of power lines.

With regular clearing and herbicides, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) ensures that nothing much grows under its transmission lines except invasive weeds. It’s a perpetual, linear clearcut that serves primarily as a place for illegal dumping and a shooting range for lawless gun owners who ignore (or shoot) the hundreds of BPA “no trespassing” signs. It is truly an ugly and shameful scene that cries out for a better management vision.

The Lookout Era

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The original lookout tower on Mount Hood in the late 1920s

By 1929, the Forest Service had built a 20-foot wooden lookout tower with an open platform atop Hiyu Mountain (above). It was an ideal location, with sweeping views of both the Bull Run Reserve and the entire northwest slope of Mount Hood. A roof was soon added to the original structure, but in 1933 a more standard L-4 style lookout cabin replaced the original structure (below). The new lookout provided enclosed living quarters for lookout staff, complete with a cot, table and wood stove – and an Osborne fire finder in the center of the one-room lookout.

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The 1933 Hiyu Mountain Lookout in the 1950s

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Osborne Fire finder in the 1930s (USDA)

When the new Hiyu Mountain lookout was constructed in 1933, the Forest Service was also completing a comprehensive photographic survey from its hundreds of lookout sites throughout Oregon. These photos are now an invaluable historical record. Forest Service photographers used a special panoramic camera to capture the full sweep of the view from each lookout, creating a trio of connecting panoramas from each location.

The following photographs are taken from a panoramic survey at Hiyu Mountain in 1934, and tell us what the area looked like in those early days.

The first photo (below) looks north, toward Bull Run Lake, but also shows the fresh fire lane cut into the forest along the Bull Run Reserve boundary – visible on the right and along the ridge at the top of the photo.

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Bull Run Lake from Hiyu Mountain in 1934

(click here for a larger photo)

The fire lane is no longer maintained and has now largely reforested. The northern view also shows a simple wind gauge mounted on a pole below the lookout tower and the perfect cone of Mt. St. Helens on the horizon, as it existed before its catastrophic 1980 eruption.

The view to the northeast (below) shows Mount Adams on the distant horizon, and a completely logged West Fork Hood River valley, below. The Mount Hood Lumber Company milled the old growth trees cut from this valley at the mill town of Dee, on the Hood River. The ruins of their company town (and a few surviving structures) can still be seen along the Lost Lake Highway today. Trees cut in the West Fork valley were transported to Dee by a train, and a portion of today’s Lolo Pass road actually follows the old logging railroad bed.

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The logged-over West Fork valley from Hiyu Mountain in 1934

(click here for a larger photo)

Unfortunately, much of the West Fork valley continues to be in private ownership today. Longview Fiber owned the valley for decades, but sold their holdings in a corporate takeover in the late 2000s to a Toronto-based Canadian trust. More recently, Weyerhauser took ownership of the valley, and has embarked on a particularly ruthless (and completely unsustainable) logging campaign that rivals the complete destruction seen in these photos from the 1930s (watch for a future WyEast Blog article on this unfortunate topic).

To the southeast (below), Mount Hood fills the horizon in spectacular fashion, but there are some interesting details in the photo, too. In the foreground, the rocky spur that forms the true summit of Hiyu Mountain has been cleared to enhance the lookout views. The continued swath of logging in the West Fork valley can be seen reaching the foot of Mount Hood on the left.

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Mount Hood from Hiyu Mountain in 1934

(click here for a larger photo)

A detailed look (below) at the western panorama in the Hiyu Mountain series shows a lot of cleared forest, a necessity as the summit ridge continues in this direction for than a mile, blocking visibility for the new lookout. In this detailed scene, we can also see stacked logs and lumber that were presumably used to build a garage and other outbuilding that were added to the site in the 1930s.

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Recently cleared trees at the Hiyu Lookout site in 1934

 (click here for a larger photo)

When it was constructed, the lookout on Hiyu Mountain was remote and reached only by trail. Materials for the new structured were brought in by packhorse. The nearest forest guard station was at Bull Run Lake, where Portland Water Bureau rangers staffed log cabins while guarding the water supply.

A dense network of trails connected the Hiyu Mountain lookout to Bull Run Lake and other lookouts in the area. As the 1930s era Forest Service map (below) shows, a telephone line (the dash-dot line) also connected Hiyu Mountain to other lookouts on Hiyu Mountain and to the cabins at Bull Run Lake. The phone line north of the lookout followed the fire lane, and is likely still there, lost in the forest regrowth.

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1930s map of Hiyu Mountain showing the extensive trail network of the pre-logging area

The 1930s forest map also shows the original alignment of the (then) new Oregon Skyline Trail, now the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). According to the map, the trail crossed right through the logged-over area of the West Fork valley (between the tributaries of Elk Creek and McGee Creek on the map) in the 1934 panorama photos, so not exactly a scenic alignment. Today’s McGee Creek trail is a remnant of this earlier route from Mount Hood to Lost Lake.

Today’s PCT stays near the ridge tops, roughly following some of the old forest trails from Mount Hood to Lolo Pass, then across the east slope of Hiyu Mountain, toward Sentinel Peak. A 1946 forest map (below) shows the Oregon Skyline Trail to already have been moved to the ridges between Bald Mountain and Lost Lake, though the area was still without roads at the time.

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1946 forest map of the Hiyu Mountain area – oddly, Lolo Pass is not even marked!

By the early 1950s, there were dozens of forest lookouts in the area north of Mount Hood, with structures on nearby Buck Mountain, Indian Mountain, Lost Lake Butte, Bald Mountain, East Zigzag Mountain, West Zigzag Mountain and Hickman Butte. All were within sight of the lookout on Hiyu Mountain, and must have provided welcome — if distant – company to lookout staff.

During the 1950s, roads were finally pushed into the Clear Fork valley and over Lolo Pass as the industrial logging era began on our national forests. During this period, a logging road was constructed between Lolo Pass and Bull Run Lake, including a spur that climbs to the summit of Hiyu Mountain.

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Bull Run Lake from Hiyu Mountain in the 1950s

Though not widely known today, the logging agenda of the U.S. Forest Service from the 1950s through the 1980s did not spare the Bull Run Reserve. In the 1960s and 70s, alone, some 170 mile of logging roads were cut into the mountain slopes of Bull Run. By the 1990s, 14,500 acres of these “protected” old growth forests of 500-year old trees had been cut, or roughly 20 percent of the entire watershed had been logged. Public protests and legal challenges to stop the logging began as early as 1973, but only in 1996 did legislation finally ban the destruction of Bull Run’s remaining ancient forests.

By the early 1960s, the Forest Service had begun to phase out the forest lookouts, and Hiyu Mountain’s lookout structure was removed by 1967. Since then, the main function of the summit road has been to log the south slope and summit ridge of the mountain and to provide access to radio antennas where the old lookout building once stood. The easy road access to the summit also brought one of Mount Hood’s seismic monitors to Hiyu Mountain in more recent years.

The Ridiculous Red Zone

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Hiyu Mountain is the long, dark ridge rising above Bull Run Lake and in front of Mount Hood in this 1960s photo

As recently at the 1980s, it was still legal – and physically possible – to follow the old, unmaintained lookout trail from Lolo Pass to the summit of Hiyu Mountain. Sadly, the Forest Service has since officially closed the trail as part of their stepped-up campaign with the City of Portland Water Bureau to deny any public access to the Bull Run Reserve, even for areas outside the physical watershed.

A few have dared to follow the Hiyu Mountain trail in recent years, and report it to be overgrown, but in excellent shape. The trail climbs through magnificent old Noble fir stands before emerging at the former lookout site. The route doesn’t come remotely close to the actual water supply in Bull Run, which underscores the ridiculousness of the no-entry policy.

Meanwhile, in recent years the City of Portland has been forced to flush entire reservoirs at Mount Tabor and in Washington Park because of suspected contamination from vandals. Yet, these reservoirs continue to be completely accessible and uncovered and in the middle of the city, protected only by fences.

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Mount Hood from Bull Run Lake – Hiyu Mountain is the tall ridge immediately in front of Mount Hood in this view (Portland Water Bureau)

Why so little security in the middle of Portland, where the actual water supply is in plain sight and easily vandalized, and so much security where there is little chance of coming anywhere near the water source?

The answer seems to be a mix of dated laws, entrenched bureaucracy and a heavy dose of smokescreen marketing. Portland’s water supply has been under scrutiny by federal regulators in recent years for its vulnerability to tampering – or, perhaps more likely, natural hazards like landslides (Bull Run Lake was created by one, after all), catastrophic forest fires or even a volcanic eruption at nearby Mount Hood. This is because the water coming into city pipes is currently unfiltered.

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Portland’s Water Bureau provides day tours for a limited number of Portlanders each summer willing to pay $21 for the trip. This is the only way the public can legally visit Bull Run (Wikimedia)

Portland’s elected officials are loathe to fund the price tag for modernizing the system to make it more safe and resilient. In their effort to avoid having to fund and build a filtration system, the City has instead relied heavily on the feel-good mystique of the Bull Run Reserve as a pristine, off-limits place where such measures simply aren’t needed. So far, Portlanders seem content to buy this excuse for preserving the status quo.

That’s too bad, because it’s always shortsighted to exclude the public from access to our public lands, especially if the purpose is as important as ensuring safe drinking water in perpetuity.

A better approach for both the City and the Forest Service would be just the opposite: look for opportunities to involve Portlanders in their Bull Run watershed, including trails like the route to Hiyu Mountain that could give a rare look at the source of our drinking water. Which brings us to…

A New Vision for Hiyu Mountain?

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The popular reproduction lookout tower at the Tillamook Forest Center (Portland Tribune)

We already have a model for honoring Hiyu Mountain’s history at the Tillamook Forest Center, in Oregon’s Coast Range. This relatively new interpretive site is occasionally mocked for its prominent forest lookout tower without a view, but the purpose of the lookout is to educate visitors, not spot fires. Each year, thousands of visitors get a glimpse of how these lookouts came to be, and why they have largely disappeared from the landscape.

A similar project could work at Hiyu Mountain, though a restored lookout tower there could be for the dual purpose of educating visitors on both the history of forest lookouts and the story of the Bull Run Reserve, with birds-eye view of Bull Run Lake from the tower. A restored Hiyu Mountain tower could also provide a more aesthetic alternative for mounting Forest Service communications equipment now installed on top of the mountain.

The concept below would reopen the road to the summit of Hiyu Mountain to the public, with a restored lookout tower as the main attraction. Visitors would have stunning views of Mount Hood and into Bull Run Lake. The old lookout trail from Lolo Pass would also be reopened, providing a way for more active visitors to explore the area and visit the restored lookout tower.

Hiyu21ConceptMapSmall

(Click here for a larger map)

This concept would not put anyone in contact with Bull Run Lake or any of Portland’s Bull Run water, though it would provide a terrific view of the source of our drinking water. It would also pull back the shroud of secrecy around our watershed that allowed hundreds of acres of irreplaceable Bull Run old growth to forest be quietly logged just a few decades ago – the very sort of activity the public should know about when it’s happening on our public lands.

Another feature in this concept is an accessible trail (see map, below) to viewpoints of Bull Run Lake and a pair of scenic ponds that somehow survived the massive Forest Service clearcutting campaign on Hiyu Mountain’s crest.

The idea is to provide much-needed trail experiences for people with limited mobility or who use mobility devices, such as canes, walkers or wheelchairs. Trails with this focus are in short supply and demand for accessible trails is growing rapidly as our region grows. Why build it here? Because everyone should be able to see and learn about their water source, regardless of their mobility.

Hiyu22AllAccessTrailMapSmall

(Click here for a larger map)

These recreational and interpretive features would also allow Hiyu Mountain to begin recovering from a half-century of abuse and shift toward a recreation and interpretive focus in the future. While logged areas are gradually recovering, the area will need attention for decades to ensure that mature stands of Noble fir once again tower along Hiyu Mountain’s slopes.

What would it take..?

What would it take to achieve this vision? The Hiyu Mountain lookout trail is in fairly good shape, and could be restored by volunteers in a single season if the entry ban were lifted. The concept for an accessible loop could be funded with grants that specifically target accessible trails if the Forest Service were to pursue it. And forest lookout organizations already maintain several historic lookouts in Oregon, so they could be a resource for recreating and maintaining a lookout at Hiyu Mountain.

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Welcome to your Bull Run watershed… (Wikimedia)

Most of the infrastructure is already in place, and just waiting for a better management vision for Hiyu Mountain. I’ve described one here, and there are surely others that could provide both public access and restoration.

But only the U.S. Forest Service and City of Portland Water Bureau can move us away from the antiquated entry ban at Bull Run. Hiyu Mountain would be the perfect place to start!

 

 

 

Meet Brian Chambers!

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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.

BrianChambers08CooperSpurStars

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.

BrianChambers09EastGorgeLightning

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)

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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)

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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?

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!

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 reassembled and installed on site each year, 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.
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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

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!